Accra, Akwaaba, Azonto: The three most pre-dominant words of my time in Western Africa.
A city we called home for three months. Accra is a fast-moving, bustling city with quite the personality. We lived on the University of Accra’s campus and commuted to work via “tro tro” – a people-packed, hop-off/hop-on type of transportation. Three grad school colleagues and I interned at two psychiatric hospitals and a refugee camp during our time there. Every day was unlike the next, yet more humbling than the last. Buduburam, the refugee camp we worked on, was going through a massive shift in dynamic when we worked there. We partnered with a local organization – WISE (Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment) – and conducted psychosocial workshops to assist women in the closing of the camp.
The refugees there had three options: to resettle in their home country (some had been deemed safe for civilian return), repatriate to a third country (not Ghana or their home country) or locally integrate in Ghana (though most Ghanaians were not very fond of that option). We learned about the history, dynamic & layout of the camp, made life-long friends who opened up to us about their tragic pasts, and recognized our own ability to be challenged and grow from such a raw experience.
Just about every weekend, we traveled to a different district or state within Ghana. Of the ten regions, we made it to nine. Almost completely exploring the variety of Ghana’s lands. The #1 theme we consistently recognized everywhere was the welcoming nature of the people. Akwaaba translates to “welcome.” There were signs at the entrance of almost every building and Ghanaians would regularly recite their token phrase, “you are welcome” any time we would express our gratitude.
A funny “full circle” story starts with our first weekend and and ends with our last weekend in Accra. As per usual, we found the main market in the city, Makola Market, and explored the nooks, crannies, and passageways connecting the haggling circuit. The first time we were there, we found bizarre fish and crazy looking foods being made by locals. With no intention of insulting anyone, I took a photo of one of the grills hoping to capture the exotic nature of the local cuisine. Without hesitation, a woman from a stall nearby immediately came over to me started yelling in my face and hitting me everywhere. A group swarmed around me with people shouting, “WHY YOU TAKE A PICTURE OF MY BROTHA?” Terrified, I saw my friends on the outside of the pack looking back at me in fear for the outcome of my predicament.
Close to tears, I continuously shouted apologies and promised I would delete the photo immediately. I pushed my way out of the crowd and reunited with my friends. A slight essence of PTSD carried with me when I visited other West African markets.
Here’s where it comes full circle…
Remember the Macarena from the 90’s? Well, the Azonto is essentially the African version -- a mass-learned dance with a catchy, unforgettable tune (see the video section for our amateur dance production). Proving our lack of knowledge of Ghanaian culture upon arrival (aka me being beaten at the Accra Market), we took it upon ourselves to learn as much as possible about the traditions, sayings, and beliefs so as not to get into any other dilemmas.
We learned the Azonto from people all over Ghana and filmed ourselves dancing with them in a variety of settings. I thought it would be hilarious to piece the clips together and commit to making a cheesy music video. Fortunately my colleagues went with it and now we have a timeless, albeit corny, time capsule of our Ghanaian adventure.
To round out the Makola market story…three months after my photo assault, we returned to the same bazaar to get souvenirs for our return home. After exploring nine regions, working in three different local settings, visiting several churches/places of healing, and making multiple friends along the way, we had such a different experience even though we were at the same market. Liyam, one of my colleagues, was looking for a new suitcase when the “Azonto” came on the nearby sound system. All four of us broke out in dance (I mean, it was a regular occurrence anyways), people crowded around us, cheered for us and even joined in to what was one of the most epic dance parties I’ve ever been a part of.
Moral of the story: learn the Azonto; it gets you out of a pickle.