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For the first time, I was an outcast. The minority. The one who didn’t fit in. I was a speck of white in a sea of black, and everyone around me made sure that I realized that. I was in an unfamiliar country, across the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by people speaking a different language, and above all, physically, I stuck out like a sore thumb. “So, this is culture shock,” I thought, as I lay down for the first time on my bed in my host family’s house. My excitement had worn off and I began to feel isolated and disoriented. I didn’t want to go outside, see anyone, or do anything that night. I just wanted to listen to Michelle Branch on my iPod, the only connection that I currently had with the “world” that I came from. I was awakened the next morning at 5:30 A.M. by the loud singing and clapping coming from the Anglican Church service taking place literally outside of my host family’s house. I tried to cover my ears with a pillow, but to my disappointment, it had no effect whatsoever. I stayed in bed and my mind began to wander; I thought about where I was and what I was experiencing.
Going to Africa had only been a dream, and seemed to be a silly one at that, considering all of the violence occurring in Africa. My parents had promised me, with slightly devious smirks on their faces, that if I could find a safe program in a safe African country, they would let me go. They honestly didn’t believe that, being a 15-year-old girl, I would be able to find a reliable program. But to their dismay, after spending hours researching, I came upon a summer mission program in Ghana, led by the American Field Service.
My dream of going to Africa was realized, but here I was, in bed, completely secluded from the community. So I made a deal with myself, that from then on, I would take advantage of every opportunity that I was given to learn about and experience Ghanaian culture. I started with the church service outside my house that morning. I felt awkward at first; being Agnostic, I didn’t know any hymns nor prayers, and as I awkwardly attempted to copy the dance movements, my neighbors burst out into hysterical laughter. However, they encouraged me to keep dancing and congratulated me for putting forth so much effort to become a part of the community. After a while, the movements almost seemed instinctive.
For the next few weeks, I soaked up every experience that I had. My skin color began to matter less as I started to immerse myself in the culture: From circulating through all of the invasive vendors in Makola Market, to planning my day around when the electricity would be on, to realizing my tan lines were just dirt lines, being asked if my friend’s freckles were a skin disease, to becoming an instant millionaire (as I realized when I counted my $200 which had been converted to 2 million cedis), and making sure not to fall into the sewers (which weren’t covered at all). I rode everyday in trotros (comparable to minivan taxis full of strangers) ate fufu, kinke, and banku regularly, ran through Abeka in the rain with no umbrella, played soccer with and taught English and Arithmetic to the children from the orphanage, and became close with a woman who owned a small mango stand from which I bought a mango every morning.
A month later, as I boarded the plane to Heathrow in Accra, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t just let this experience be in my past; I would make it live on in my present and in my future. I have since kept that promise, and started a branch of Keep a Child Alive at my school to help provide medication to and build clinics for those infected by AIDS. I’m also currently enrolled in a course on Africa which discusses prejudice, current events, and general history.
I learned more from my one-month-trip to Ghana than I could have ever learned spending 5 years at home or in Europe. Living in a country where I had to adapt and force myself to integrate into the community and where I found myself separated not only because of my culture but also because of the color of my skin, truly enabled me to discover myself, my values, and my abilities. I was able to test my limits and handle situations that I’m sure not many people have had to handle; after all, how many people can say that they had to take bucket showers and reject 52 marriage proposals in a month from men they didn’t know?
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