Asylum Confusion

I am not sure how to approach this post, partly because I can easily come across as very insensitive but please indulge me. My idea of refugees in a country stems from my experience growing up near refugee camps in Ghana. I don’t remember when Liberians started coming into Ghana but I have always known of areas that are occupied mainly by Liberians, who spoke a different kind of English from the Ghanaian English I was used to, and had expressions interlaced with their local dialect. I knew Liberians as people trying to escape a raging war in their country and was raised to be nice to them and also buy stuff I needed from Liberians to help them even if a Ghanaian sold a similar item at a cheaper price. I was raised to feel sorry for Liberians living in Ghana because they had had to go through the painful experience of being uprooted from their home country into a foreign land because of certain corrupt leaders. My own father, had been a refugee once in Nigeria when Ghana was going through a military coup d’etat and therefore taught me to be overly sensitive about the plight of refugees, and in this case, Liberians living in Ghana.

Although I was raised to feel sorry for them, I also envied them slightly. I don’t know how Liberians do it, but even a 2 year old Liberian in Ghana could stylishly braid hair effortlessly. They always seemed like a happy group, bustling with lots of energy and always ready to share make -up stories with me whenever I found myself, nestled in between their legs with them tugging at my very thick hair and trying hard to run a comb through the thick mass. Growing up, I would easily describe Liberians, or the refugees, simply as very happy talented and energetic people. I did not need to force myself to feel sorry for them because they weren’t sorry for themselves and actually felt privileged that they were alive and healthy. I love Liberians!

My confusion at asylum seeking in America stems from the fact that back home in Ghana, refugees did not find the need to remind you that they were refugees. Their kids attended the same schools as everyone did and they worked hard to survive, just like the average Ghanaian did. They did not go to government institutions trying to get more flexible deals or advocate for better living areas. They were people who had been flown in war crafts and military aeroplanes to Ghana, some of them walking miles to get there, and were full of hope for the future. They didn’t need to become Ghanaians or seek asylum residency in Ghana, they were just welcomed and went about their normal businesses. They did not have to apply to be refugees in Ghana, the Ghanaian military went to Liberia to help war victims and either brought them here or they walked through very long secret paths to get to Ghana where they knew they will be safer. They didn’t have to explain themselves, everyone knew of their plight and a single minute with them will highlight their need to escape from their home country.

This is where my confusion lies. I feel like America has created a route for people to become citizens of America and coined the term asylum seeking for this purpose, and therefore all kinds of people feel the need to use it or abuse it. I feel like the real people under threat, hardly make use of this route because they are too busy trying to survive or do not even know about this. Hence, people privileged to come to America and do not want to go back or people who have heard about this American citizenship route while in their own countries, apply for them. I think that real beneficiaries of the asylum pathway, will hardly actually exploit it. They are just too busy trying to survive!

What the American refugee immigration institution should be doing is working with people on the grounds in foreign countries who keep their ears on the ground, work with local people and fish out people who really need help. I really have my doubts about the credibility of someone who will self-seek American asylum. The government should scrub off the system that allows people to self-seek asylum and rather work closely with social workers on the ground. By so doing, they are not forced to rigorously scrutinize asylum applications and make it difficult for the people who genuinely need it.

Claiming my accent

I have to start off this blog post by reminding readers that I am a Ghanaian who  has lived all of her life in Ghana and only came to America some five years ago. Being a Ghanaian makes the English language my native language since English is the only accepted language serving as the medium for teaching in Ghanaian schools. There are several languages in Ghana and I speak about five of them but English is the official language of expression in schools in Ghana and among school children. Growing up, it was punishable to be heard speaking vernacular, which is a term used to describe all other languages in Ghana with the exception of English, while still wearing your school uniform. Hence, from infancy, I learned to think and write only in English. While there is of course, a subject in our school curriculum that encourages a student to choose a single Ghanaian language to learn how to read and write in, and then another subject to speak and read French because Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries, English has always been the mode of expression among the educated folks in Ghana.

Growing up, I always excelled in subjects such as Spelling and Dictation, English Comprehension and Essay writing. In fact, I don’t remember when I had ever come second in any of these subjects growing up, I always came up first. My parents knew this and it gave them a lot of pride when our neighbors visited and they showed them some of my essays and writings in the English language. I loved to read American books and followed the logic in these books easily, although some of the concepts  and settings were new to me. I thought it will be a walk in the park for me, when I finally arrived on American soil and will not suffer from the infamous culture shock.

Unfortunately for me, this was not the case! I found myself having to repeat almost everything I said to an American. I found myself being talked to slowly and very loudly whenever I was in a conversation with an American. It was confusing for me that I spoke perfect English but somehow, Americans kept asking each other what I had just said. I found it strange that although I had never spoken to an American prior to my coming to America, I tried to and actually understood whatever an American said to me but they on the other hand, could not or refused to understand me.

Hence, I found myself trying to pronounce certain words like Americans would. For some reason, Americans would not pronounce the letter ‘t’ in the middle of a sentence. Hence, words like water, matter, fighter, excited and the likes, were difficult for me to pronounce here in America. I had to intentionally, remind myself to either transform those ‘t’s into ‘d’s or remember to just silence them. This was a very difficult challenge for me! I found it extremely exasperating when I had to carefully scrutinize every sentence in a conversation in my head, before I uttered them. I found that I felt very obligated to speak like an American in order to be understood! But how can I change an accent that I have known for more than two decades of my life?

As I struggled with this in my first year of my arrival in America, I began to question whether an American will do this for me. I asked myself if it was worth it, to pretend for the rest of my stay here, to be an American? Was it worth trying to sound excited by everything because to me, Americans sound really excited when they speak! Is it not enough that my spellings had to change because my computer in America will keep underlining my words like ‘colour’ and ‘favour’ because it didn’t like my ‘u’?

Now more than ever, I have learned to accept the very intricate details that make me a Ghanaian, those little subtle pronunciations and mannerisms that make me Iris. I have learned to wear my Ghanaian accent with pride and not try to sound American. What America has taught me though is to be more confident when I am communicating. I have realized that my confidence makes it easier for Americans to accept my Ghanaian English and my accent. I have accepted the fact that I will never have an American accent but I don’t have a normal Ghanaian accent either. I now have a more confident Iris accent that I totally embrace!

My Africa and Homosexuality

I find the arguments against the passing of the homosexuality law in Africa, very shallow. Usually, most critics of homosexuality in Africa argue that it is not our culture and that the white man eroded our traditional religion with his Christianity and again, wants us to embrace what is not our culture. But as I argue time and time again, I feel like culture is really what we make it. Culture does not make a people. In every hair salon that I have visited in Ghana, Liberia and in Nigeria, I have seen at least, one gay man. Why would we therefore say that it is not our culture?

It is right in front of our very eyes. I have seen men who do not behave as manly or macho as the African culture will want that man to behave. I have seen men who find extreme joy in making women feel beautiful in their salons although within our cultural context, hairdressing and makeup, is actually a woman’s trade. I have seen men who enjoy the company of ladies and actually behave like girls when it comes to conversations involving crushes on cute boys. I have had friends who from infancy, even without knowing what it means to be gay or homosexual and actually know that they are supposed to like people of the opposite sex, find themselves talking like me and gushing over boys that I find cute too. These are people who have no exposure to the white man or do not even have televisions and therefore, have no way of being ‘lured’ by Westerners like we claim in Africa. My point is that there are so many events and behaviors that are not typically, the African culture, but somehow, we make excuses for those and accept them, but find it difficult to accept homosexuality.

I find it really sickening that Africans should be afraid to love who they love and stand the risk of being judged or worse, loosing their lives and most typically,  family support. I find it embarrassing that in this day and age, people are still shunned because of their sexual preferences and have to hide their true identity in order to be accepted by the community that they have known all their lives.

This week, I came across a post that started with a sentence to the effect that despite the fact that many African girls waste time in prayer camps, praying for marriage, some two fine boys thought it wise to marry each other. I was disappointed but not shocked when I scrolled down to read the many comments in support of that very ridiculous post. I feel that when it comes to sexual preferences, many Africans are hypocrites. Homosexuality is really all around us, we are just failing to see it and forcing people to kowtow to a culture that they do not particularly enjoy.

In class, I was so embarrassed to state that homosexuality is still frowned upon in my society and that homosexuals risk their lives by coming forward and behaving in the subtle of ways that suggest that they prefer people that they share the same gender with. In my opinion, homosexuality is being fought against largely in Africa because we believe it is not our culture, which is where my problem with protesters of the homosexuality law, lies. How do we tell a person who has been exposed to the ‘typical African culture’ all of his or her life, and does not know any other culture, but still prefers people of the same gender as him or herself, that he or she cannot be happy because what he or she likes, is not a part of the culture?

What I claim to be my culture makes me very proud and extremely happy. I find it sad that that same culture, that belongs to another member of my community, will be the source of sorrow in that person’s life. What we call our African culture should make room for every body; every African should find joy and pride in their culture. And this starts from allowing our culture to be flexible enough to embrace everyone’s preferences.

Thoughts on mental health

Only this week, I shared with my class my thoughts on how mental health is viewed in my country. I told the class that to me, mental illness is not seen as an illness as perceived here in America. Mental illness usually has a religious connotation to it, with mental health victims being rushed to religious homes to be prayed for, rather than sent to the hospitals. There are only two mental health facilities in the whole of Ghana and even these two are visited more by pastors, Imams and other religious leaders, rather than by doctors. The idea of psychologists and counselors to this day, still remains a mystery and only something we see in Western movies.

In the unfortunate event that a family member is mentally unstable, the first step usually is to question what evil either the person or his or her immediate family, has done to warrant the condition. It is typical to find family members rush to religious houses seeking for answers for why this is occurring. In the unlikely event that the victim’s condition deteriorates, the last cause of action is for the family to abandon him or her in religious homes where the person is subjected to all manner of prayers and very bitter concoctions till they sadly, pass away.

Another aspect of mental health such as depression, is overlooked completely in Ghana and even, across the continent. Depression is not even talked about and the first time I heard about depression was actually in the United States. If a person is depressed or now that I know what depression is, is exhibiting signs and symptoms of depression, the person is only encouraged to get over him or herself.

In Ghana and Africa as a whole, depression is only a sign of weakness or more commonly, an exaggeration of one’s emotions. Emotions really are not encouraged in Ghana or in the continent. You can either be happy and then dance and make noise, or be sad, only for a short time, in the case of a family member’s death, and in this case, cry or wail loudly. There is really no time and space for emotions in between this very wide spectrum. Even when one is mourning, one can only mourn for a very short period of time after which, you are being overly dramatic if you cry again. We have a culture where emotions are just not encouraged.

This post is actually triggered by the death of a young man in Ghana only this week. This young man in question wrote a Facebook post saying goodbye to family members and his friends and expressing why he didn’t find life worth living any more. His Facebook friends passed very smirk remarks and comments advising him to literally get over himself and ‘be a man’, whatever that expression means. Unfortunately, this guy proceeded to commit suicide a few days after his post. I keep asking myself if he would still be alive had he had the support of his friends and family. I wonder whether he would still be alive had the concept of counselling not been so foreign to us, as a nation. I imagine a time in Ghana and Africa where mental health will be taken as seriously as it is here in America. I feel like such a time is very far off in the future, unfortunately.

The Horror Hidden in PhD Preliminary Exams

I have never known as much terror and horror as I am experiencing currently, trying to prepare for my preliminary exams! I can’t sleep without getting awakened every 30 minutes by the nightmare of a particular man in a tight suit chasing me with a cutlass. And no, this cannot be attributed to eating too much before I sleep because I can’t eat either! How can I eat when I am reminded every hour that I could rather chew on a piece of article written by a scientist with no hint of my existence whatsoever?!

Whoever brought up the idea of preliminary examinations for PhD students must be very terrible! Why would anyone try to test already stressed out students on knowledge that they have been trying to acquire over more than a decade of their lives? How can anyone really get prepared for this? Why would they even add salt to injury by allowing professors to get away with the very popular saying that they don’t know the questions they are going to ask until about a week prior to the examination date? Why would you subject students to this highly anxiety-filled, stress-prone, highly susceptible to heart attack and nervous breakdown ordeal?

I never seem to see the face of the tight wearing suit man chasing me in my dreams these days! Probably because at the back of my mind, I know which member of my committee this man is, and I don’t want to be sure. What really have I done to deserve a chase? Everybody I know seems to think I am stressed out and looking sickly. I want to retort that I look sickly because I get to run a race for my dear life every time I am brave enough to attempt to close my eyes in the name of sleep!

In the very near future, if I survive this ordeal and become a lecturer, I am going to work tirelessly to ensure that no student goes through this. I see PhD students fighting for racism, gay rights and gender imbalances with no one fighting on our behalf! This is very unfair! Someone should be speaking on our behalf!

The Black Girl and Her White Family

Totally crushed and helpless, holding on to the hope of surviving in a foreign land

Nightmares painting images of failure and disappointment, I reached out

With fears tugging at my heart, I met her in person

She, a mother hen cautious of her nest and eggs, in need of trust and reliability

And then me, the one whose accent scribbled ‘Doubt’ boldly on her forehead

Every step towards her heavy with the weight of my skin color, I approached her

 

Sitting at the back of the restaurant alone, with books and food scattered on the table facing her

She looked up at me with the kindest of eyes and no hint of disapproval of my dark skin

I could swear I saw a smile threaten to escape her lips as I introduced myself

Feigning toughness, she enquired about my life, hoping to find truth

Genuinely interested, she kept her eyes trained on me, as if daring to look into my soul

I could imagine her devouring my words, attempting to pry me naked with her questions

 

The sun loses her fight to the clouds, rains come down and freeze to white sand

All these changes whirling around us, and yet, her love for the stranger is unwavering

An unlikely pair, yet, we are intertwined by emotions indescribable

Connected by our differences, friendship dissolves, making way for deeper bonds

No need to find reasons for, and answers to why

Black and white, the native and the immigrant, become family

Finding my Identity in America

Growing up in Ghana, I have always identified myself only as a Ghanaian, without any added adjectives. I was surrounded by people who looked just like me. Occasionally, I will see white visitors but only thought of them as either Americans or Europeans and nothing more. I don’t think I had the privilege of ever thinking of them as white people, I don’t recall a moment like that.
The most distinguishing attribute for individuals I met were more along ethnic lines. I belong to the Fante tribe and therefore speak the Fante language. Other people who lived in the country’s capital like me, belonged to different tribes like Ga, Ewe, Ashanti and the likes. Depending on how they pronounced certain English words, one could easily tell which tribe one belonged to. Having grown up around only black people, I have never really had to identify myself as a black woman.
But that reality changed for me when I got into the United States in 2012. Everyone who looked at me, reminded me that I was different, no one even had to speak, the stares and glances, spoke volumes. Unfortunately or fortunately for me, I came straight to Blacksburg as my final destination. I was in a predominantly white environment with a black skin and a different accent (which is actually a topic for another day). I found it odd that I was no longer a Fante from Ghana, or even a Ghanaian from Africa, but a black person, sometimes, I was referred to as an African.
I felt myself consistently obliged to introduce myself to everyone as a Ghanaian but somehow, those words fell on deaf ears or were simply swept under the carpet. I was constantly referred to as ‘the black friend’ from Africa by my colleagues who thought I was out of earshot. Even to my face, colleagues felt it necessary to introduce me as Iris from Africa, never Ghana. I remember getting very angry by this most of the time and asking why I just couldn’t be Iris because I referred to them only with their names and never with the American tag.
But I learned quickly that these colleagues of mine felt the need to qualify me as African because of my skin tone, not even because of my accent. I am sure it was not because of my accent because in that same year when I got to Blacksburg, there was another student who came from France that had an even more pronounced accent than mine. She was never introduced as Jeannie from France, just Jeannie. I reckoned that indeed she needed no other tag or qualification, because of her skin color.
Unconsciously, I began to refer to and see myself more as a black woman from Africa, than simply Iris from Ghana. These days, I think of myself as a black educated woman. I am looking forward to how I will identify myself after I have moved back to Ghana and I am surrounded again by people whose skin color is identical to mine…

My first encounter with an American police….

I have been in and out of America for 5 years now, started driving about 3 years ago and have never had an encounter with a policeman. I will describe myself as a very law abiding person and now with the recent trends in black men and policemen tragedies, I try to go at least 10miles below the speed limit….yes, I am one of those grandmothers on the road!

My vehicle registration expired last month and I was very oblivious to it and so, I found myself being followed by a policeman. I stopped while he parked very closely to my behind. What I was shocked at, was my reaction! I was terrified! I couldn’t talk without crying!! Because, I thought I was going to die!

I held on to the steering wheel so tightly. When the policeman asked for my license, I completely forgot where it was because I kept on looking at his hand movements to ensure that he was not reaching for his gun. Eventually, I remembered that my license was hanging on my key holder which was still in my ignition… After I had handed that over to him, he asked for my vehicle registration document and that is when I burst into tears.

I knew I was going to die for sure! My registration document was in my glove compartment and I took it as a ploy to get me killed. At that moment, I felt that this white policeman just needed an excuse to shoot me. I told him in between tears that my document was in there and so, he can just go ahead and shoot me, only after I have called my family in Ghana to come for my body because I preferred to be buried on African soil.

It is so easy for black people who are thriving in America to sweep issues of stereotyping and race under the carpet. It is very easy for white people to think that only a few white people are actually racists but the majority of them are not. It is so easy for Americans to think they are the epitome of the free world. Until, they spend a day in the shoes of the oppressed or under privileged…

THE AFRICAN MALE CHAUVINIST EQUALS THE KKK

For 3 weeks now, a Facebook pressure group that calls itself the PepperDemMinistries, founded by 7 young women in Ghana, has managed to get the whole of the country talking. The aim of this group is to use satire to flip the script and change toxic narratives that cage African women. All they do is use their individual timelines to post stories that highlight the slavery of African women by the society and culture. They put men in the place of women to provoke society and readers to see the absurdity in some of the expectations that our culture sets for women. Some of their posts include:

  • Never give room for your wife to look for love elsewhere. A wise husband works hard to make his wife fall in love with him daily.
  • Women are like babies, they need to be shown love & attention constantly. If you fail to do so, you’ll lose her to another man.
  • My friend called me now to tell me she dumped a guy she slept with on their first official date. She said she hates cheap guys.

What is interesting about this Facebook trend in Ghana, is the lethal reaction of people who find it difficult to accept that women in the country are oppressed by the society and that gender imbalances, occur every day. Some of these people have also formed their own groups where they have blatantly insulted these women and cyber bullied them with diverse attacks on their persons.

As I considered the trend from my room in Virginia, my thought process immediately veers off towards what happened in Charlottesville. A group of people choose a seemingly harmless approach to let their views known, then another group that opposes their views set out on a counter demonstration that ends violently.

This social media group did not choose as radical a method as walking on the streets and pulling down statutes of the many African leaders whose policies ensured that women are seen only as help mates to men and are therefore inferior. However, there have been instances where some have had rotten tomatoes hurled at them because someone identified them on the streets. Just like the white supremacists attacked people that expressed divergent views from theirs, these women are being attacked.

The ultimate take away from this incident and the Charlottesville incident is that the approach never matters. No matter how peaceful you demonstrate your views, if the other party insists on finding faults and behaving violently, human lives will be in danger. For me, the lines between passive aggression and active aggression are blurred, when it comes to sensitive issues like racism and gender inequalities. No matter how peaceful demonstrations against any of these highly sensitive subjects may set out to be, counter demonstrations are bound to end up violently.

My frustration with Microagressions…..

About microagressions, without a doubt my least personal favorite will be the question I get asked by my friends whenever they hear me speak on the phone with my family back home. Excitedly, they ask if African is what I just spoke. I often wonder what language is called African, given that in Ghana alone, there are about 75 different ethnic groups that speak more than 50 different languages. To the credit of my inquirers, there is certainly a language called Afrikaans, the ‘s’ is however not silent, making it different from the word African, which describes people originating from the continent called Africa.

I don’t know why I don’t like this innocent inquiry and would prefer it if I get asked what language I just spoke rather than the inquirer presuming that it is ‘the’ African language. I think it is because back home in Ghana, one gets asked which tribe he or she belongs to, only after their pronunciation of words in another language sounds off. I think getting asked that question makes me feel incapable of speaking my own language after I get asked all the time where I am from, because I have an accent when I speak English. If I can’t speak English very well, by American standards, and I am unable to speak my own language too, where exactly do I belong?

Talking about microaggressions in class took my mind to the consequent impact on the persons who are ‘microagressed’. In my opinion, I think what microagressions do to its victims is, put a lot of fear in them and make them lose their self-confidence.

I visited Pittsfield, Massachussettes two weeks ago and decided to take a walk. I had my ear piece on and strolled confidently along the pedestrian walkway towards oncoming traffic. I came to a complete standstill when I saw a driver show me her middle finger as she drove past me. My initial response was to jump into the bush because automatically, I thought I deserved the middle finger because I was in the streets. After jumping into the bush and getting scratched by thorns, I realized that I was perfectly right where I was and that I got that treatment because of no apparent reason.

Imagine what I did immediately. I walked back home cutting my walk short because I felt unsafe and insecure. I think of myself as a very strong minded person and however, I walked back, retreating from my intended course. I wonder how many black women shut themselves in their homes, unable to go out because they are afraid that they might get hurt by some random racist….