In Ghana, for the first time I wasn’t a black person – I was just a person

No longer black

There is a type of unsettling, never ending unconscious anxiety and unease that comes with being black in the US.

I didn’t know that until I was in an environment where black wasn’t other, but was the default. In the classroom, as long as I can remember, I was often the only female, African, black female or an extreme minority which was characterized by the aforementioned descriptions. Having an accent was bad, so I hid it. Having kinky hair was a distraction, so I straightened or braided it. Having a different opinion from the norm was a crime, so I conformed. It was something I was taught to do, did consciously and then unconsciously; it became a survival tactic. It was as normal as knowing that my hair had to be “done,” my manner of speech was to be “American”, and my lotion contained hydroquinone, a skin lightener.

In Ghana, the smell of sand slapped me and I felt the familiar smell of petrol that I remembered being, “home.” People spoke Twi easily, even in the airport, Ankara and kente was everywhere and I saw, “Akwabaa,” and when I spoke English, my Nigerian accent easily came out. The feeling was a strange warm sense of ease, I didn’t have to act any type of way to avoid questions or assumptions about what type of person I am, I was just a person. I was not a black person anymore, I was just a regular girl.

In Yamoransa, Cape Coast, Ghana the people were readily friendly and I didn’t feel the need to watch my back, the ideology of the village being a family was clear. When I worked in the clinic and held a class on female sexuality, I was blown away by how easily the girls melted, became comfortable and tried to teach me Fante, asked me for advice, and told me about the boys they fancied. In Ghana I wore my natural hair, I danced on a bus, I made friends with a four-year-old and gave him a coconut with pineapples for his birthday. In Ghana I came face to face with the reason why I want to be a pediatrician and why I study STEM. The four-year-old to whom I gifted the coconut had an eye infection which progressively got worse and I later found out his “siblings” had the same infection. I was able to treat them and see their infected areas get better and better.

That four-year-old’s name is Kwame/Steven, and every time he smiled I was inspired even more and more. All of those children and teenager girls in Yamoransa reminded me of myself and my siblings. Each passing day I realized that my lot in life is not a summation of my work, but a luck. To be born where, how and to who I was born was pure luck and the highest blessing. Their smiles impressed in me that whatever I do, I must do well, because I need to be able to be a blessing and baseline to someone like those in Yamoransa and people like myself abroad. When there are eyes so bright, smiles so big, and dreams so vast, I have no right not to be my best and say that dreams are able to come true, irrespective of background, race, color, and gender.

I came back to Yale with renewed vigor, sense of humanity, self-respect, ease and friends four hours ahead. The expectation to conform is pervasive, but not compulsory. I don’t have shame in mixing my Nigerian and American identity and allowing it to bubble to the forefront, uniquely, even if I am questioned or made the butt of the joke for it. I have pride in the blood that runs through my veins and for the country I live in. For all this reflection and realization that I am not black, but human, I have the Yale Alumni Association and the people of Yamoransa to thank, as I was taught, “mèdasè”. Upon coming back to the U.S. I left a particular kind of baggage behind in Accra and my smiles are now 97 percent as bright as the girls who taught me how to say, “mèdasè.”

Kwame, far right, wearing my hat

“When black was the default, you were no longer pretty for a dark skin girl; you were pretty, period. Dare I say beautiful. and that made you smile so brightly, you glowed.

“The gift of West Africa, joy.”

– Osariemen Ogbemudia

Follow me on Instagram: @Naylia3

Yale University