by Angela Howard
From the Editor: Angela Howard has been an active Federationist since she was a child. It is no wonder, then, that she eagerly embraced the opportunity to live and study for a semester in Ghana. This is what she told the Student Seminar about her experience:
I'm used to being known as the blind girl, but in Ghana I am known as the white girl. My friend even once overheard someone refer to her as the white girl who sees. [laughter] In a way being blind helped me to adjust to being a white person in Africa. The other white students in my program had never experienced what it is like to be different, and they had a hard time adjusting always to being a spectacle. My friend used to say that we looked like light bulbs in the sea of dark faces, but I'm used to being a light bulb, and I quickly adjusted to all the attention.
Ghanaians have a reputation for being some of the friendliest people in the world. I can speak from experience: this is the truth. I never once experienced hatred or hostility on the streets. I experienced discrimination only once when a taxi driver refused to take me to town unless I brought a companion with me. Other than that, my problem was only that people tried to help me too much.
Certain ethnic groups in Ghana believe that, every time you help a blind person, you receive points in paradise. I can assure you that I helped many of them make it across that line. I will tell you that living in a developing country is quite different from living in the United States, and much of the help I would not need here, I welcomed in that environment. Other help I accepted simply because it helped me to avoid conflict.
For example, the children in Ghana have the job of leading blind people around, and naturally they tried to do the same with me. They would follow me in large crowds, grab my cane, and sort of pull me along. I would try to explain politely to them why I needed my cane to touch the ground, and sometimes they would understand, but if they did not, I didn't push the matter. I knew I was safe with them surrounding me and I did not want to scare them away by scolding them.
The people I met in town were interested in me and glad to have me around, but living with someone who is different from you is much more difficult and frightening than simply passing them in the market from time to time. My struggle to gain acceptance in my family and in my neighborhood was much more difficult. Originally the directors of my program assigned me to a home where a blind man lived, thinking that the family would be better able to understand my situation. But as we all know, making decisions about where to go based on blindness is usually a mistake. When I first got to the house, my house mother informed me that I was to come straight home from school every day and that I wasn't allowed to walk alone on the roads. They insisted that one family member be with me at all times, and this included the bathroom and the shower. I was willing to give up some of my comfort in order to fit in, but I knew that I could not live under these conditions.
I did not say anything to the family, but the next day I told my director that I could not go back. She told me to meet her at town hall at six o'clock, and she would tell me what to do. So that afternoon I sat by the ocean, more frightened than I have ever been in my life. I'm in Africa and I'm homeless, I thought. Would there be any family who would accept me as a normal person? I knew the name of a woman who had hosted a friend of mine when he was in Ghana, and she agreed to let me stay with her family until the directors of my program could find another home for me. However, as soon as I walked into that house, I knew that I wasn't going to leave. We got along so well together that everyone agreed it was best for me to remain at Auntie Jane's place.
Auntie Jane's house was always buzzing with people. I had a mother, a grandmother, a great aunt, four sisters, and five brothers. They all gave me a tremendous amount of love, and fortunately they were also good about blindness. They were perfectly willing to give me any assistance I needed, but they allowed me to decide when I needed help and when I did not.
Living with Auntie Jane helped me to gain a measure of acceptance and more than just a family. Auntie Jane is one of the most respected mothers of the neighborhood. Her mother, Auntie Victoria, had once been the queen mother, and Auntie Jane herself had turned down the opportunity to be the queen mother in her younger years. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Auntie Jane, and this came in handy as I tried to find my way home during the first few weeks. As Auntie Jane's American daughter, I automatically received a measure of respect that I would not have been given had I lived with another family.
Auntie Jane owns a bar attached to the house. Now the bars in Ghana are not like the bars we have in the United States. They are more like outdoor patios where people gather to have a few drinks and to socialize with their neighbors. When I first started sitting in the bar with my Auntie Jane, I could feel that tension--that feeling we get when we sense that people don't quite know what to do about us. I felt that tension, but I wasn't sure how to get rid of it. However, I soon found a strange solution to the problem. One afternoon, when I had been there about a week, I came into the bar and announced to my Auntie Jane that I had failed my test and that I needed a beer. The bar filled with laughter, and immediately people began talking and joking with me. Now I don't particularly like the taste of beer, but I have nothing against it, and I decided that, if it would help me to become part of the neighborhood, I could bear it. Once I started drinking beer with the neighbors, they decided I was pretty okay.
These people became my dear friends, and I have many cherished memories of sitting in the bar with them. We sang Lionel Richie songs together. They taught me some of their language and laughed at me when I didn't get it right. They taught me how to chew sugar cane, and they even tried to marry me off to one of their own.
One day a man sat down beside me and told me, "We have all taken a vote, and we have decided that we want you to marry Pappa, but he has to pay the dowry."
"How much am I worth?" I asked.
"Twenty cows," he told me. I still wonder if that was an insult or a compliment.
Now I'm not trying to give the impression that my journey towards gaining acceptance was as easy as drinking a glass of beer, far from it. Many of my Ghanaian friends struggled to understand blindness and who I was. Sometimes it was painful. It was a constant struggle for me to know when I was close enough to people to be able to tell them that I didn't like it when they did a certain thing to me. I let a lot of things go unchallenged, and that was hard for me, but in the end people treated me just about the way I liked to be treated, and I didn't scare anyone away with an overly assertive attitude.
One night towards the end of my trip, a young man told me, "You know, Auntie Jane has a lot of foreign students come here, but we want you to know that we will miss you the most." Another friend, who in the beginning told me that he was afraid no one would want to be my friend because I'm blind, confessed, "Everyone here loves you, and anyone would be proud to walk by your side." I too grew to love these people very much. I know that the neighborhood would welcome another blind student from the United States into their community, and for this reason I feel that I made some good choices.
On my last day in Ghana I ate lunch with an American friend, and we looked back together on our trip. I confided in her that I was afraid that I had not done things right as a blind person. "What if other blind people come to study abroad, and come home to tell me that I wasn't as independent as I could have been or that I could have done certain things in a better way?"
"Isn't that what you should hope for--that more blind people will do these kinds of things and that they will keep finding easier ways to do them?" she asked. I believe that she is right. I hope that all of you will go out and travel the world. I hope that you will come home to tell me that you have learned how to carry a basket on your head or strap a baby to your back. Most important, I hope that you come home to tell me that there was an easier way, that you found more independence and acceptance than I could have dreamed possible.