“How was it?”
It’s been over a year since I got back from my Bridge Year in Ghana, and I still don’t know how to answer that question. How do I condense an entire year’s worth of experiences into one or two sentences? My frustration is with the question itself—it doesn’t lend itself to complex or thoughtful answers. I am not surprised that this is what most people ask when they learn I lived in Ghana for nine months. I don’t expect them to know what else to ask or to be interested enough to have a three-hour conversation about my experience. But I was hurt that this was the same question even my closest friends asked. For most of them, the fact that I was back home was enough. We could move on with our lives now that we were back on the same continent. For them, we had simply paused our lives together. Now that I was back, it was time to press play. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t even answer the most basic question: “How was it?”
For the first several months, I would always hesitate, trying to think of the right answer. I’m not sure why I never got better at this. People would take my hesitation as a sign that it was bad or that I didn’t like it. But the truth is much more complicated than that.
More than a year after coming home, I’m better at pretending I have an answer. If I’m talking to someone I just met and don’t feel like investing much in the conversation, I’ll give a standard answer: “It was a great year. I learned a lot, and I’m glad I did it.” This is also the answer I give if I’m tired or lazy and don’t feel like having a whole conversation about Ghana. It really gives them no information about what I did, what I liked, what I miss, what I hated—but for the vast majority of people, the answer is surprisingly satisfying.
If someone asks follow-up questions or I really want them to understand my year, I give a much more nuanced answer. There is no way for me to convey all the emotions I felt and all the experiences I had in that year into one conversation, so I give a similarly vague, but at least more accurate answer: “It’s complicated. There are things about Ghana that I love and also things that frustrate me about it. The same is true with America. There were times I wanted nothing more than to be back at home, but there were also times that I was really immersed in the culture and was really happy.” Again, this doesn’t convey much information, but it is at least more truthful.
Then there are the people that ask, “How was Africa?” I try to respond to those people with “Ghana was…”, and not call attention to the fact that they just asked me how an entire continent was. I think it bothers me that people only do this with Africa—people don’t say, “How was Asia?” or, “How was Europe?” unless you’ve been to more than one country there.
On days when I am not tired or lazy and like the person I am talking to; when I really want them to understand; when I feel like being honest—this is what I would say:
For me, Ghana is walking down the street as people yell at me and try and grab me simply because I am an oburoni, a foreigner. It is the loss of my anonymity. It is the feeling of superiority when I meet Americans who do not know the language. It is coming to hate tourists. It is sitting in traffic in a hot, overcrowded van dripping with sweat. It is getting out of that same van and walking because it is faster than waiting. It is calling home and not knowing what to say. It is walking home from work and stopping to talk to the plantain seller who always makes sure she has three plantains waiting for me, roasted just the way I like them. It is being so ready to come home at the end, not thinking I would ever wish I were back. It is teaching kids math and at the end of every day wondering if I am teaching them anything. It is being stress free. It is the laughter and shock on the taxi driver’s face when I speak to him in Twi. It is the feeling of true sadness when my students tell me they are hungry and I know the money I give them will not solve their problems. It is learning to take things one day at a time. It is trying to convince myself that I am making even the smallest impact. It is the resounding yes madam I hear when I ask my students wa te ase (do you understand) even though I know they’re lying in order to please me. It is trying to be friends with people not as the “cool oburoni” but as me, Yoni, and never fully finding the balance between the two. It is learning how to be alone. It is wishing I were less skeptical and wary of strangers. It is going to the movie theatre and forgetting I am in Ghana. It is experiencing boredom at entirely new levels. It is the feeling of never fully belonging. It is the fresh guava Kwame brings me every morning, just because he knows I like it. It is Skyping with friends from home and hanging up feeling even more disconnected. It is viewing time not as something to be filled but as something to enjoy. It is relishing the three minutes after my bucket-shower when I haven’t started sweating yet. It is being freer than I have ever been. It is being annoyed that everyone asks me for money and then feeling guilty for not giving it. It is not knowing what to feel. It is getting a call at 9 p.m. from my host dad because he is nervous and wants to know where I am. It is the feeling of finally belonging. It is eating so many mangos that my stomach aches. It is learning to embrace boredom. It is watching American TV shows at night as a way to pass the time, but also as a way of pretending I’m back home. It is working to recognize even the smallest successes out of fear of becoming cynical. It is feeling like I am never fully living up to the expectations I set for myself. It is learning how to readjust my expectations.
That’s the best I can do. It’s still not an answer to the question, but it’s the closest I can get, and probably more than you want to know. Maybe the simple answer is enough. Maybe I should just press play and continue from where we left off. Or at least pretend to.