Heidi Graves is 22, living in San Francisco, working at a tech startup called Causes.com, and wishing she was traveling the world. She graduated from UCSB with a degree in History and a minor in Education and Applied Psychology. From 2011-2012 she was studying abroad in Legon, Ghana.
On Choosing Ghana: I felt that studying abroad in Ghana was a unique opportunity to gain a new perspective on my life and push myself outside of my comfort zone. I knew that Europe was something that I could always do later in life but Africa might not always be in the cards. As a History major, I was fascinated by colonialism and slavery, and West Africa was the perfect location to witness the effects of these historical processes firsthand.
On Standing Out: Without a doubt, the biggest culture shock had to be how I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had no ability to blend in. In most of my lectures at the University of Ghana, I was the only obroni (foreigner) surrounded by hundreds of Ghanaians. I could not walk to class or go to the market without multiple people shouting “obroni.” In the beginning it felt great to receive so much acknowledgement but I think every student studying abroad in Ghana reached a point where you just wanted to be left alone.
On Religion: One element that caught me off guard was religion. Whether they are Christian, Muslim, or are followers of a local religion, Ghanaians are devout in their faith. I would wake up at 5AM every Sunday to the sound of a bellowing preacher outside of my window. When I walked to the local market at night, around fifty prayer circles would be formed in the middle of the University soccer field. All of my friends at the University were religious and many made attempts to awaken my faith. I tried to explain to one of my Ghanaian friends that I simply did not believe in any one religion and he could not wrap his mind around it.
On Relationships: One of the things that I miss the most about studying abroad in Ghana was the importance of developing real, deep personal relationships. In the United States our pace of life is so fast, task-oriented, and distracting with our tech gadgets. In Ghana, the pace of life is much slower and the majority of the population doesn’t own such luxuries, placing a greater emphasis on real conversation. I developed friendships with the boy who cooked my egg sandwiches every night, the dressmakers at the market, and the security guards who looked after our dorm . . . something I cannot relate to in the U.S. Ghanaians are also so hospitable and generous. If I asked a Ghanaian for directions, they would not only take the time to explain the right way to walk, but they would personally escort me to my final destination. Even if it was their only meal for the day, Ghanaians would offer to share their food with you.
“Only in Ghana” moment: …when a girl from my program had to get her face stitched up after a crocodile smacked her in the face.
On Meeting Ghanaians: I feel extremely fortunate because I was able to develop strong relationships while in Ghana. I was lucky because I was one of 10 girls who were selected to live in the traditional Ghanaian women’s dorm, so I was living solely amongst Ghanaian women instead of with the other study abroad students in the international hostel. Ghanaian women are very shy and do not open up quickly so it took some time but since we were next-door neighbors, they warmed up to me halfway through and I developed some lifelong friendships. I also really pushed myself to find Ghanaians that had similar interests to me. I joined study groups with my History classmates, played in the University volleyball and tennis tournaments, and took cooking lessons from my Ghanaian neighbors. What most helped me develop friendships with Ghanaians was working for the radio station at the University of Ghana; I reached a level of comfort with the friends I met there that made me understand that we are all the same. It didn’t matter that they were from Ghana; we were all at a similar stage in life so we could relate on “life questions” but we also had similar senses of humor and due to globalization, we could also connect on pop culture references! These are the friends that I have stayed in touch with the most today.
On Getting Sick: Prior to studying abroad in Ghana I had to get a number of vaccinations, namely for yellow fever and typhoid. While I was in Ghana, I took a daily anti-malarial pill. Despite these preventative methods, I did get sick a couple times. I went to the hospital on my third day in Ghana after I developed a pretty crazy rash. The University hospital was a public clinic so we had to get there early in the morning and wait in really long lines before receiving treatment, but the doctors were excellent and we recovered within days. Midway through the year I got malaria. It was definitely not fun. The symptoms developed incredibly fast. I went from participating in dance class to walking home and laying completely immobile in my bed. Our program took health and safety very seriously and they sent a personal car and took me directly to a private clinic in the morning where I received instant treatment. I stayed in the hospital one day on an IV to get fluids back in my system and then I came back for three days to receive injections. It took me around two weeks to feel “normal” again. In my final month I had a mild bout of typhoid. I was really lucky to receive instant health treatment while in Ghana but many locals do not have the means to pay for such treatments or they must go to a public hospital and wait hours to receive treatment. These experiences made me extremely grateful for the healthcare system that exists in the United States.
On Stereotypes: People often mistakenly associate Africa with a scene straight out of The Lion King. The number one question people asked me upon my return was “did you see any cool animals?” I was fortunate enough to travel to see some wild elephants and monkeys, but every day in Ghana was not a safari. One of the stories that really hit home was when my Ghanaian friend, Kojo, told us about an experience he had when he was in elementary school. His class had pen-pals from the U.S. and when they received their letters from the American students all of them had drawn animals and asked questions like “do you have a lion for a pet?” Kojo expressed that this was very upsetting because he felt that these students viewed them as “wild,” “primitive” beings. Of course, it is not the American children’s fault, but there is definitely a false perception of Africa being taught in schools.
People commonly make generalizations about Africa. Some even think it’s a country! The reality is that the continent is unbelievably diverse. Even within the one West African country I got to know in depth, there was immense diversity in ethnicities, language, religion, and geographic language. My point is, Africa is much more complex than how the news paints it. And this my sound controversial but I just have to say it—we (Westerners) don’t need to “save” Africa.
On Gender Roles: The University of Ghana has a gender affirmative action policy to promote women’s enrollment. However, there was still an expectation amongst my Ghanaian women friends that they would be getting married and having children soon after college. My friends commonly asked me whether I had “been grabbed” (was dating someone). Many joked that women came to the university so that they could meet a smart man to marry. Some of my male Ghanaian friends would say that they wanted a wife who would listen and be obedient. It just isn’t that black and white though, because at the University I was also exposed to a growing class of women who would break these gender norms, have careers, and maybe even forego marriage.
On Internal Change: Coming back to UCSB was really tough. In the first place, it was difficult leaving a place that had become home and not knowing when I would ever be able to afford to go back to see my friends and the country I had grown to love. My first few days back in the U.S. were great because it was exciting to see all my friends and family, hand out gifts, and eat In-N-Out again. But once things settled down, I really got slapped in the face by the abrupt lifestyle change. I felt like nobody could really understand what I had been through. I came home feeling like I had completely changed and yet I had to reenter a life that was no different from when I had left. I found myself getting irritated by people’s stereotypical Africa questions about animals, wars, and poverty. I was overwhelmed by the wealth and consumption in the United States. Grocery stores became my enemy—I couldn’t get over the fact that there were 50 options of cereal to choose from. I became increasingly judgmental of Americans wasteful lifestyles, and the 45-minute showers that my roommates took drove me nuts. In general, it was hard being back at UCSB and being surrounded by people who came from such privileged backgrounds (myself included in that demographic). The party lifestyle at UCSB seemed so privileged and I couldn’t help but think that our youthful energy could be better channeled to solve the bigger issues in the world. It definitely took a lot of time to readjust to my life in the United States but after awhile I came to understand how unfair I was being. I also realized how privileged I was to have had the opportunity to develop a new perspective on my country.
On Conflicting Feelings of Tourism: Some people are really nervous to travel to Africa and I wish I could dispel that fear by simply saying it is completely safe to be in Ghana. At the same time, I do not want Ghana to become a destination for people. It is a treasure and I hate to think of the negative impact certain aspects of tourism could have on the country. That being said, I think that people should visit Ghana to engage with the lively, genuine people and explore the rich history and beautiful landscapes, and most importantly, to educate themselves about the misrepresentation of Africa in general.
Thanks so much, Heidi! Your experience sounds life-changing, and I know it was hard for you to put into words.