My daughter was doing an internship with a non-governmental organization which had linked her up with a group “dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art within Ghana.” She had gone to Ghana in September, and so in November a year ago, I was getting ready to go spend Thanksgiving with her.
I say Back to Africa—as that is where I spent my childhood. I was born in the USA (sorry, Bruce) but grew up in then Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). Maybe it is the experience of growing up in a culture other than one’s birth culture that does it, but I have been riveted with Africa all my life. At one time, I would have said Africa insinuates itself into the veins of anyone who has lived there for a while, and that may still be true. But I think other places have that same power—it’s just that I didn’t grow up in some other place.
Anyway, I was going back. Now, truth be told, I had one brief time of being back in Africa. The summer before Thanksgiving, 2006—my husband and I went on our annual vacation trip, visiting Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. If you look at a map of the Mediterranean, you can see how really close Spain and Africa are. While our brief visit in Morocco was most interesting, it didn’t feel like Africa to me. Of course, I should say—it didn’t feel like the Africa I remembered. My perception of Morocco, the little bit that we saw, is that it is very Mediterranean. Especially around Tangier, where we were, there is that sun-washed look of clear blue skies, dry climate, sparse vegetation, flashes of color in hardy native plants. The Moroccans—who are mostly Berbers—enhance the Mediterranean feel with their white-washed houses with bright blue doors. Being in Morocco, I felt like I could have been anywhere around the Mediterranean perimeter.
Back to Africa. To get to Ghana, I had to make a connection somewhere in Europe. Very few planes fly directly from the U.S. to Africa (although I did find one flight that went from the U.S. East Coast to the Gambia!). So, I flew from Philadelphia to Heathrow in London, then on to Accra, Ghana. I had a REALLY long layover in Heathrow (dumb planning on my part); as a result, most of the flight to Ghana was at night. That was a bit disappointing because my daughter had alerted me to anticipate the beauty of flying over the Sahara at sunset. Since my plane took off a bit late, I got to see the Mediterranean at sunset, and the Sahara at night.
When we landed in Accra, it was about 9 p.m. Since Ghana sits very near the equator, daylight hours year round are a constant 12 hours—sunrise around 6 a.m. and sunset around 6 p.m. So it was fully night by the time we landed. I stepped off the plane, full on anticipation. I was going to see our daughter, who I had not seen for about 3 months, and I was BACK in Africa.
First step off the plane, the heat hit me like a steam bath—waves of humidity, heightened by the artificial chill of the airplane. It took a bit of time to clear customs, gather my luggage, and head outside. The airport in Accra is set up in such a way that people coming to meet passengers can’t go into the airport. So my daughter was waiting outside with the throngs of people—a rare white face in a sea of black.
And then the real experience of being back in Africa hit me—I took a deep breath and smelled Africa. Perhaps the most pervasive scent is of wood burning. But mingled in is the smell of soil, of flowers, of decay, of promise and of despair. Ah, Africa. I am back.