Since I’ve been here, I have repeatedly made the major mistake of holding out for one adventure to stand out from all of my other experiences to write a blog post about. Now, sitting among my fellow students in our mansion in the outskirts of Accra and looking back on the last couple of weeks, I’m realizing that it’s incredibly hard to pick out the single most fantastic moment of this trip so far. So much has happened, so there are a lot of things I could write about for my first blog post. But I’m going to rewind a little and talk about something that happened fairly early on that I have continued to think about for the duration of this trip.
The day after we arrived, the majority of us (excluding two who were unexpectedly stranded in Amsterdam for an extra night) piled onto our designated bus for a tour of Accra. We saw several of Accra’s most important political buildings and historical landmarks, but the most notable part of the tour – and the origin of this blog post’s topic – was when we drove through several of the city’s slum neighborhoods.
I don’t think I ever had a single overwhelming moment of “Holy crap, I’m in Africa,” but our drive through those slums might have been the next closest thing. I didn’t just have the displaced feeling of being somewhere I’ve never been before. It was the specific feeling of being an outsider in all respects – someone who didn’t belong, didn’t understand and who was in an undeniable and incomprehensible position of privilege compared to literally everyone around me.
The bus weaved precariously through the narrow and unpaved street. Cars and other large vehicles squeezed by us, leaving just a couple inches in between at times. The residents of the neighborhood milled along either side of the road, selling their wares or residing in their one-room shanties to escape the hottest hours of the especially sunny day.
Just minutes ago, I had been snapping picture after picture of Accra’s Black Star Square. Then, as I sat in the bus, peering loftily down from my window seat and clutching my $700 dollar camera in my lap, I couldn’t bring myself raise it up to my eye again. Some other students on the bus seemed fine taking pictures, but I couldn’t shake the awkward feeling that we were being ruthlessly intrusive. After all, these were people living their regular daily lives. Who were we to drive by and snap pictures of them like we were on a safari? It was at this point I realized what exactly it is we are here for.
We weren’t just learning about Ghana like it was some far away place anymore, though I’m not naive enough to say that we were fully experiencing it either. In the months previous, we had taken a class in preparation for our trip. During the class we read multiple articles talking about the skewed perceptions of African nations that are perpetuated by western media. As a group of journalism students who are lucky enough to come from the United States, it isn’t our job to be able to say we “experienced” Ghana, but rather to find away to relate to those who have.
Before I left for this trip, my mom kept telling me how proud she was of me for going to Africa in a context other than straight tourism or to help build orphanages and dig wells. Not that building orphanages and digging wells aren’t commendable acts of humanitarianism, and it’s not that they don’t immerse you in some aspect of the local culture either. However, experiences such as these tend to underline the images perpetuated by western media: sickness, instability, poverty, and other third-worldly hardships. But through this program, my classmates and I have been experiencing a cultural integration I’m not sure you could find under many other circumstances.
As you may have gathered from reading the blog posts of my classmates, for the last two weeks of our trip, each of us has been working with a different media house here in Accra. This means we’ve been following around native Ghanaian journalists and watching them report on their people, country and culture through their own eyes. As a result, we’ve been asked to consider and explain Ghana from an angle one wouldn’t usually find in western media’s depictions of Ghana or Africa in general – that of someone who understands the intricacies this place and calls it home and who is optimistic in their hopes for the future of their country.
There is no way we will ever be able to completely understand the lives of the people who live in this country, especially in the mere six weeks we have the privilege of being here. But we can do our best to do our jobs as journalists and learn how to navigate the middle ground that is so lacking in much of western media, in hopes that we can learn to represent other places and cultures as accurately as possible. It’s been a blast so far, Ghana. I hope in the remaining weeks of our stay, we get to do you some justice.