I wasn’t searching for anything, but I found it in Ghana
By Marvin Hokstam
There’s a cure for people who are tired of being met with racism, discrimination, distrust, marginalization, nepotism and so on, simply because of their skin color. It’s a simple two-step remedy that should work like a charm and will leave you enlightened like one of those born-again Christians who claim they have seen the light and know better.
Ready for it?
The cure is: go to Africa.
The thing about having to live with racism in the western world, is that it subtly gnaws away bits of your safety and your sanity that you are entitled to as a human being.
If you’re like me, you’re constantly on guard for those sudden moments that it will jump out and try to take your peace of mind and your safety from you. That lady who will clutch her handbag when she notices you on the other side of the street. That dude who constantly has to prove to you that he is better, even while the only thing that sets him apart from you is that he was born with skin that's a few tints lighter than yours; some people really believe that makes them better! People who refuse to sit next to you on the train, even on those days that you know you look extra fly. Not getting paid what you’re worth. Not getting the job you’re overqualified for.
We have been conditioned to live with the knowledge that these things happen; some of us are constantly fighting them, while others don’t know better and accept the world as is. Like those parts of the world where things are worse were made for us and everybody else whose skin tone is lighter, is automatically entitled to everything better. People have recommended that I shrug this off.
I’m here to tell you there’s a different feeling too. I felt it from the moment I arrived in Ghana a few weeks ago. My first visit to the continent had multiple layers of “special” stacked on top of each other; the main mission was to go mount a photograph of my slavery hero great-great-great grandfather Broos at a museum, which was extra special … read up on that here.
But there was more. Much more.
As turbulence was gently rocking the descending aircraft and we were being told to stow away our tray tables and turn off all electrical apparatus, I peeked out of the window and soaked in a bird’s eyes view of the continent of my forefathers before they were stolen. Western media had told me lies on top of lies about this place; lies about dominating poverty and tearslurping flies in the corners of hungry airbellied children’s eyes, lies that this place was in perpetual darkness, stuck in the dark ages and the destructive warfare that was supposed to be akin to Black people.
I have always known better than to believe the biased image western media have constructed about Africa, but even then, when I was asked to go on this trip, I found that making the decision was like ripping a bandage off a gaping wound. Was I ready?
My GF Marjan knew just what to say to massacre that insecurity.
You have always said that the first time you would go to Africa would have to be special; it doesn’t get any more special than honoring your ancestor by mounting his photograph in a museum. This is it!”
So now, as I peeked out of the aircraft, all I could see from way up in the dark of the 8.00pm night were lights for as far as my eyes could stretch. Lights and life. And I knew I was ready.
Then we touched down and the warmth of the continent was enveloping me; welcoming me like a cozy blanket into the home I had never before been to. It’s an indescribable feeling. Like getting first impressions about a place that's new to you but that you know so well. It’s as hard to explain as it is to comprehend.
“Welcome home,” said the customs supervisor who had sauntered by to check if her subordinates were doing their job well. She was short and stout and her face was hidden behind a facemask, but I could see her eyes glistening naughtily as she surveyed the tall visitor that towered over her. Then her eyes smiled at me and she told me I was good to go. As I walked off with my suitcase she said “I like your hair.” Approvingly.
And that hit me.
I grew up in Suriname in a time when colonialism made it rule in my country that my kind of hair had to either be shaved off or straightened. I have that hair that grows in miniscule curls that coil like tiny springs. It didn’t grow into that big round halo afro crown that was popular in the seventies, and I couldn’t even dream of the jerry curls of the eighties. I vividly remember schoolmates making fun of me, my Black skin and my hair, telling me that if I ever go to China I would become a millionaire by selling the springs in my hair to people who make watches. I've been to China and I nobody offered to buy my hair. Dumbasses!
I grew up insecure about my hair and maybe it came instinctively that I shaved it off weekly for more than 20 years to look like Michael Jordan. Then last year during the first wave of COVID, I left it to grow, thick and bushy and curly like black lambswool with distinguished specks of gray, and that surprised many people who really thought stupidly that I had been bald all the while. And clean shaven is still preferred, it seemed, not my natural hair that automatically grows out of my body.
“Are you a bush man?” someone asked brazenly, a few moments before I told her to kiss the entire center of my behind. But I must also admit that it even took me some getting used to, because I hadn’t had it like this for so long.
And here I was, arriving in the continent where my people were actually from and someone who runs the border, gives meaning to those four words “I like your hair” without consciously intending to. If that isn’t homecoming I don’t know what is.
It was that kind of week yes. Everybody looked like me. I saw a dude who looked like my big nephew Sergio, complete with the massive biceps. Another one looked like Urwin. From the side, the taxi driver who couldn’t believe that there were racist people in the Netherlands, looked like my dad. When I told a beautiful woman that she reminded me of an ex-GF from many years ago, she gave me the once over and asked "but are you seeing someone now?"
Nobody gave me the side-eye because of my skin color.
As a matter of fact, they tried to claim me! “You’re Gã. Like me,” the conga player at the National Theater said. He had those tribal tattoos in his face, called Akam, tiny cuts that his mom sliced in his face and filled with stuff to ward him from the spirits that had taken his brothers from her.
Nana, the prolific media entrepreneur who insisted that like him I am from the tall, forceful Denkyra people from the north -which of course I believed. He also had Akam, on both of his cheeks, and I wanted them too.
Korku Limor, the brilliant TV interviewer who smiled proudly as I was telling him the story of how my ancestor withstood the colonial powers and carved out a Kingdom in the forest of Suriname.
“So actually, I am a little bit of a prince,” I joked, thinking he would skid past it, but he latched on. “But you are! Not to discriminate against those of us who don’t have height, but you see, look at you! Because of your height, anyone could tell that probably you were from a certain descendance of warriors”.
I really liked Korku. He got it.
So now I insist that my friends address me as Prince. Prince Kofi, to be exact, in honor of my born day, Friday. Some of them refuse. Yeah well. They don’t know any better. Korku does.
Warts and all
There’s safety in being only with people who look like you. Ignorant people turn it into a reason to be racist against people who don’t look like them, but the non-ignorant know how to make it into a beautiful homecoming for people who experience it for the first time.
I have always said that I am an “African who was born in Suriname” and I always thought that I had a full comprehension of what that meant. I didn’t. I didn’t know I was looking for something, but when I found it I immediately recognized it.
Like that feeling I got every time we drove by Makola market in Accra. The main road slices through that bustle of thousands of people trying to earn a living. Nobody’s gonna do it for you, so everybody’s busy, nobody’s got time. Cars, trucks, buses all honking their way amongst this beautifully organized chaos.
I always loved a market. They are all the same. That same smell that’s a blend of fruits and vegetables, fish and all types of other merchandise that people sell, with a subtle hint of raw sewage. In Western movies these spots are always portrayed as dangerous, messy, like powder kegs in a fire factory. You're supposed to feel unsafe. I didn't.
I hadn’t seen it, felt it, smelled it for years, but it immediately drew me in; so when our Uber got strangled in a traffic bottleneck again, I jumped out to go walk around in it for a while. That atmosphere that I knew from the markets in Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad, Curacao and other Caribbean islands that I have bummed in, took me in. I reminisced. I felt like I belonged. I didn’t need anything from there, but I didn’t want to leave there.
“Could you please take my picture,” I asked a woman behind a stall. She looked at me, but got distracted by a customer. When he left she was surprised that I was still there. “What was that?” she asked. “If you could please take my picture,” and I held out my phone for her, camera at the ready. She looked at me and I could hear her suck her teeth inaudibly inside her head. Then she said wryly:
Can’t you take a selfie?”
Then she had another customer and she turned away to go make a living. Because nobody’s gonna do it for you, so everybody’s busy, nobody’s got time.
I did not feel insulted. This trip was intended to be special, so I had readied myself for the country and the differences in attitudes between my western condition and the way of the people that I am really from. And my intention had been to take as much of it in as possible. Warts and all. The waitress was rude at the restaurant in Cape Coast that served the best grilled tilapia and food often took too long to get to your plate, but when every other experience is next-level, warts glide off you like oil on water.
Traffic had me on the edge of my seat.
You know those moments in traffic when someone cuts you off and you have to jump on your brake and the person behind you jumps on his and everything gets gridlocked and road rage takes over? This place proves that those moments are exaggerations. Bumper to bumper is science here and our Ubers only seemed to stop just mere milliseconds before they would gravely violate the car in front of us. I have paid close attention, but I still don’t know how they do it.
There was this one time our driver almost hit a car in front of us, so he stopped abruptly and then I heard a motorbike crash into us from behind. “Èh èh”, I heard someone say outside. We drove to the side of the road and the tire was scraping against our bumper that the motorbike had busted. Our driver got out, I heard the motorbiker say “sorry”, then our driver walked to the back of his car, slapped his bumper straight and got back in. He didn’t say a word to us, didn’t convey any emotion about what had just happened. He just pushed on, making his living. bumper to bumper. Nobody else was gonna do it for him and he wouldn’t waste time on frivolities.
The motorbike that hit us was an Okada, a motorbike taxi. For a small fee, you may hop on for a short ride.
Past experiences have left me chicken-hearted and horrified of motorbikes, but from when I saw this I knew I would ride an Okada before I left. So when I walked out of the craft market in Accra on my last day in the country, and a guy yelled “yo! need a ride bro?”, I took a breath and a chance. Live a little, right?
Off we went, zigzagging between the cars and trucks and pedestrians, him honking, me careful that my knees that stuck out wide, wouldn’t hit anything.
The skinny lady from the reception at the hotel happened to be outside when we arrived and she burst out laughing when she saw me. “You’re a Ghanaian, man!”
The guy said I owed him seven CEDI (1,02 euro) for the ride, but the extra gray hairs I had accumulated and the adrenaline I had used up, made it priceless! So, I gave him 20.
A two-step remedy
Being in Ghana was an escape from something that bothers me above everything else: that people that look like me just have to learn to accept the world the way it is, even if it meant accepting the worst conditions possible. Being expected to shrug it off.
I was talking to someone there and I kept mentioning "us Black people" like we do in my part of the world, and he kept being surprised by that; and then it dawned on me that I was in a country where everyone is Black, so we are "people".
It was enriching and liberating to realize that there are people who don’t have to understand the distinction of Blackness, because it’s all they know.
Yes, I know, my training as a travel writer conditions me to write in sheer superlatives about countries that I visit for short trips like this. Yes, I saw poverty. Yes, my heart was bleeding every time little children would storm our car in droves, and their begging faces would flank the windows from all sides. Yes, it hurt to look away because you knew you can’t help them all. Sure, I know that it’s even worse in other countries on the continent. Yes, I am aware that the insistent picture the western media holds up about Africa is correct on some counts.
But yes! It felt good to escape to this safety of the home I had never before been to. I saw where my people had been stolen from and my respect for what they endured and survived for me to thrive, has found new depths.
I cried as I washed myself in the Slave River at Assin Manso, where they were allowed to take their last bath before they were sold like cattle. At this sacred place, I bathed my head to think, my shoulders to carry weight, my legs to carry me. And as my tears mixed with tears of my ancestors that still flow there, I realized even more that I belonged here as much as in the place where they were kidnapped to, but where they conquered and withstood. I understood that their survival is why I have to continue to conquer and withstand.
Yes, I know that a lot was taken from us and a lot is left to be restored, but the pride I felt walking amongst people whose prime objective every day is to make it the best day possible, no matter the circumstances they were left with … that pride is unsurpassable. It gave me hope, strengthened me to do what I do where I have to be now, until I can return.
Ghana is my Mecca.
Africa should be the Mecca of all people whose ancestors were once stolen and enslaved.
Remember what Bunny Wailer said?
Don't care where you come from. As long as you're a Black man, you're an African. No mind your nationality. You've got the identity of an African”
He knew what he was talking about.
The Pan Africanist W.E.B. Dubois whose house we visited, knew it too.
Like I said at the beginning: there’s a simple remedy to many things that we are expected to endure in the west. That will leave you enlightened.
Being among people who don't consider themselves Black, but People, because their dignity is all they know, was an experience that made me realize even more than before that I should not, do not have to restrain myself to make anyone feel comfortable around me.
I remember that in the past, if I would be in a dark street and I would see a woman approaching, I would cross the street to make them feel safe. The chivalrous thing to do, but I was unconsciously telling the world that I was aware that I could be considered dangerous.
Africa fully cured me of that.
It may cure you too.
It’s a two-step remedy.
Step 1. Decide to go to Africa.
Step 2. Go to Africa.
Thank me later