A group of Jackson State University students spent 10 days studying in Ghana, West Africa, this summer to “go back and get it.”
Headed by Dr. Byron D’Andra Orey, professor of political science, the June 3-14 trip was offered in his political science 596 course – “Sankofa: Challenging Racial Mythologies Here and Abroad” – designed for graduate and undergraduate students interested in conducting qualitative and quantitative research.
Sankofa, in the Twi language of Ghana, loosely translates to “go back and get it.”
Orey, who has previously traveled to Ghana, said he chose the country for a study abroad experience because of its history in the transatlantic slave trade and struggles against European colonialism, post-colonial state formation, globalization and current international policies.
“I have been trying to put this trip together for years, and it would always fall through. Last year, I again made a concerted effort to put it together. With the help of Shameka Reed, international marketing and recruitment specialist for JSU Global, and others, we were able to pull it off.”
In preparation of the trip, participating students Raymond Adams, Toni T. Holloway, Makaiya Smith, Shana Green and Erin Shirley Orey, Orey’s wife, were required to read pre-selected works by authors like W.E.B. DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah and Charles V. Hamilton. Among other requirements, they also visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Then, on June 3, the group traveled 14-15 hours via plane before landing in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, where they were housed at the University of Ghana. Nafis Quaye, a local Ghanaian whom Orey befriended on prior visits, and his team, served as hosts and impromptu tour guides that helped immerse the students in African culture.
Holloway, a senior psychology major, shared that she never imagined traveling to Africa because of joint problems that require her to, at times, use a wheelchair. Her interest in the motherland, she said, stemmed from learning that her great-grandfather, who lived to be 110, was a slave in the U.S. until the age of 10.
“It intrigued me that I had some connection to Africa. Once I saw the advertisements (for the trip), and talked with other students, I knew I needed to go. I always felt like I couldn’t, but I thought, ‘Why can’t you?’ So I just applied one day,” she said.
Black like me
And Holloway was filled with stories from her excursion, which she described as beautiful including the “remote” and “impoverished” areas. “They were just living their lives and making a way,” she said of the Ghanaians. “There is no government aid. There is no Section 8. I passed through places that had mud huts, and I was amazed that people in this day and time were still living like this.”
Despite economic disparities, Holloway emphasized that the Ghanaians were very rich in culture, traditions and spirit.
“There are so many talented people. We met lyrical dancers and contortionists. You should see the wood-carving village,” she exclaimed. “They can take a piece of wood and create masks, giraffes, elephants; you name it. They are so creative. We come from this.”
It was more than just the people and the landscape that Holloway said made her feel more proud of her blackness. The billboards she witnessed also moved her. Yes, something that could be considered as simple as an advertisement resonated with the psych student.
“Every person on the billboard is black. What was so striking about them is that they’re not like our billboards (in the U.S.), which are spaced out on the highway and different areas,” she explained. “Their billboards were in a row, one after another. I don’t care if they were selling paint, water, a Rolex watch or clothing; whatever it was, it was a black person advertising it. To see myself reflected on those boards, it caught my attention.”
According to Orey, challenging existing stereotypes or biases that exist about African-Americans and the continent of Africa was one of several trip goals. An encounter that Holloway described appeared to do just that. She touched on the U.S. perception that Africans don’t consider black Americans as African. However, she said the Ghanaians often greeted her with ‘Hey, my sister, my sister.’
Erin Shirley Orey, a doctoral student, also shared that their warm reception upon arrival stirred her. “I was impressed by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. As soon as we got off of the plane, people were saying ‘Akwaaba,’ which means welcome in their native Twi language.”
During one particular encounter with a Ghanaian man, Holloway said, he held his arm to her arm (comparing their skin tone) and said: ‘You African. You like me. You’re black like me. We’re the same black.’
The group also met a village chief who gave them permission to witness and video a customary naming ceremony for a baby girl. “I will never forget experiencing such rich Ghanaian tradition,” said Erin Shirley Orey.
Amid the many thrills, the group also hooked up with Jackson State University alum Charles Rush, a regional agricultural counselor in the Office of Agricultural Affairs for the U.S. Embassy.
Rush, who is approaching the last leg of a three-year stint in Ghana, organized an embassy briefing, a meeting with the African American Association of Ghana, a fireside chat with the United States Agency International Development’s director and a reception hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) – Ghana.
“I wanted to provide an understanding of the role the U.S. Embassy and its various offices play in building and maintaining diplomatic relations with Ghana while supporting the United States’ strategic interests in Ghana,” he said.
Rush shared that he also viewed the role AMCHAM Ghana plays in advocating for U.S. companies with offices in Ghana as informative for any student interested in working overseas.
“My goal was to provide a comprehensive and robust informational session for the students,” he said.
The stench of a dark past
What also seemed to be a comprehensive but emotional time for the group was a tour of Ghana’s Elmina Slave Castle or “dungeons,” as Orey described them.
Situated on Ghana’s southern coast, the dungeons housed enslaved Africans who waited to be transported across the Atlantic. It is estimated that 6 million slaves were shipped from West Africa alone.
“My emotions were the same as when I visited before, and that was of anger,” said Orey. “When we were down in the dungeons, one thing that stuck with me was when they talked about women being raped.”
He described the process of enslaved women, housed in a cramped concrete space, being selected by the King for sexual exploitation. The chosen woman would be given more food than the others to increase her energy, and she would also be allowed to bathe.
“She was taken care of in terms of nourishment and hygiene, but on the other hand, she was raped. It gave me mixed emotions,” he said.
Another horror that Orey detailed was the treatment of enslaved Africans who were considered aggressive or troublemakers.
“They were potential problems, so they were placed in a cell and left to die. You could still see scratch marks on the walls. They closed the door, so we could feel the heat. It was clear that space was not adequate. You can only imagine the bodies jammed in there,” he said.
And the stench remained Orey continued, as if reliving the moment. “Imagine the urination, vomiting, menstrual cycles, and they were given food on top of all this. This is what created that stench. All these years, and it is still there. That kind of experience can create anger.”
Holloway and Orey both remembered that in the middle of the slave dungeons was a church.
“You are enslaving people. They are bound and packed up. It is unsanitary. They’re not fed well, and you’re going to go out and have church,” she said in disbelief.
The tears began for Holloway when the tour guide stated that for some of them, it was more than just a trip to Ghana. “It’s a pilgrimage. For some of you, you’re the first in your family to step foot on these grounds since your ancestors left here,” Holloway said recalling the guide’s words.
And within his words appeared to lie the meaning of Sankofa to ‘go back and get it.’
“To think that there is a strong possibility that I could’ve had someone come through there. All that they endured; the pain, suffering and humiliation began to weigh on me, and the tears came,” said Holloway.
While sadness and anger may have been very palpable for the group, joy and a sense of self was also apparent.
“I’m the first to do this. It was emotionally draining but empowering as well,” Holloway said. “One of the profound things that I learned from the Ghana trip is that our history has been diluted and told from a perspective that does not resemble me. We have endured the passage, slavery and all of that, but I found that we are resilient people, and if we don’t define who we are, it’s left up to someone else to define who we are.”