Back in 2016, I went on a two week trip to Ghana with some of my classmates. We visited a rural district of Kpando in the Volta region. In a very different world to tourist-filled capital cities, here I got the opportunity to experience the everyday lives of young Ghanaians, many of whom had never seen a white person. I had to learn how to approach and embrace cultural differences in a way I never had before which was challenging, but ultimately so rewarding.
I’d never been the only person of my race in a room before. I’ve always taken living in a multicultural society for granted, but even then I’d always lived in countries with a white majority, and so that’s what I thought was the “normal” culture. As I followed my exchange partner through his school, I found myself to be the centre of attention. The children had no idea about my culture, or the life I lead. A mere couple of minutes into the first lesson, one of the students asked if they could touch my long, straight and blonde hair – they’d never seen anything like it. My light-blue eyes were also the subject of close inspection and since my pale skin had turned lobster-red in the African sun, I’m pretty sure they thought I had some weird skin disease. They showed me some of their culture as they sang and danced for me, with amazing talent might I add.
In the village centre, we met some younger kids who were fascinated by our mobile phones, ran up to us and asked if we could take pictures of them. We happily obliged and the results are absolutely adorable – I’ll never forget the way their faces lit up at the sight of themselves on the tiny screens.
This all began as harmless, but after a while it started to make me uncomfortable. I was constantly told I was beautiful and that people wanted to come visit me. Both staff and students did all they could to please me and my classmates. Don’t get me wrong, the questions themselves weren’t malicious. I took no issue in my hair and skin being touched. However, by praising me, they often put themselves down at the same time. It broke my heart as one student, disconnected from the wider world, told me she didn’t believe racism was an issue in the western world anymore because colonisation was over. Yet, shortly after telling me this, she said she’d bought a skin bleaching cream in order to make her face ‘pale and pretty‘ like mine.
I’m aware of my privilege, as a middle-class woman living in one of the world’s happiest countries. The idolisation I saw showed the disparity of wealth in a world of poverty. While I wish they could have the benefits I’ve been lucky to enjoy, I don’t want the Western culture they so admired for them. I hate the idea of white students going to Africa to “help” with some subconscious white saviour complex. The positivity and welcome which I received in Kpando is like nothing I’ve ever experienced anywhere else. Their culture is deeply engrained in community and features beautiful traditions. The food and prayers at first put me on the spot, and there were times I was uncomfortable, but you can learn so much by travelling, especially once you venture out of the popular tourist destinations. Travelling isn’t about living the life you live at home, because when you step outside of your comfort zone, there’s so much more to gain.