How my failed attempt to get to the motherland helped me find my way home.
Original published on Medium.com.
Thoughts and feelings about my identity as an “African American” really came into focus after moving out of the United States. The Black people that I met abroad had very detailed family histories.
Both of my parents are from Ghana.
My dad’s German and my mom’s from Senegal.
I go back to my grandmother’s house in Gabon every summer.
Not only were they blessed with a clear family history, they were also handed down generations of traditions from those countries.
As an African American, the only cultural traditions I could cling to were adapted from what our collective ancestry created during slavery. The soul food we enjoy today adapted from the dishes of discarded food slaves used for dinner. The hymns sung in Black churches today once uplifting chants recited by slaves working in the fields.
While grits may be a staple in my kitchen, there’s no record of exactly where my origins come from. When Black bodies were being traded, there wasn’t much consideration given to preserving the family history of those human beings for the future generations they were sometimes forced to bear.
I can’t definitively say that my great-great-great grandparents came from Cameroon. Or that I’m half Nigerian. I can only go based on the DNA test that I took many years ago — which continues to change as more samples are collected. But I don’t have the privilege of learning how to cook recipes passed down for generations or beam with pride as I dance around in traditional garb. Instead I’m just…a Black person born in America.
Where we “come from” can be a loaded question that stirs up many different feelings for people.
Do you identify where you come from based on where you’re born?
Where your ancestors came from?
Or do you choose to identify with the home you’ve chosen?
In an effort to feel connected with the continent that I undoubtedly originate from - even if I didn’t know the specifics - I booked my first trip to Africa.
My first stop was going to be Accra, Ghana: I planned to spend a week exploring the land, embracing the people, and learning a bit about the culture. The second half of my trip was set to be in Windhoek, Namibia. From there I would join a safari from Etosha National Park to finally see animals in their natural habitat instead of in cages at the zoo. The final stop of the safari was in Swapokmund, also known as the Skeleton Coast for the centuries old abandoned ships docked there.
This trip was a dream of mine and I couldn’t wait to step foot on African ground.
But as my departure approached, my dream slowly turned into a nightmare. In order to fly to Ghana I needed a visa, so I checked the US Department of State website along of the country’s bare bones tourist visa website. Since I was unable to apply in person, I was directed to mail my passport in along with the other required documents — including a return envelope — to the Embassy of Ghana in Washington DC. Sounds easy enough, right?
The turnaround time was a maximum of 14 days and I had twice as many days before my flight so I sent everything off, with tracking, and awaited the return of my passport and visa. Ten days after receiving confirmation that my package had been delivered, I decided to send an email to check on the status of my visa. Four days went by with no response.
Since I live abroad and phone calls to the US aren’t cheap, I solicited the assistance of my grandmother to call the Embassy of Ghana on my behalf. After two days she called me completely frustrated, “They give you the option to press a number to speak with someone, but every time I try it hangs up!” We were on day 14.
Panicking, I sent two more emails while my grandmother continue to hit redial with no luck. Finally, less than two weeks before my trip, my grandmother was able to get someone on the phone. “They said they mailed your passport back the day after they received it but it was returned to them.”
So my passport had been sitting at the Embassy of Ghana in Washington DC for two weeks and no one made an effort to contact me, let alone respond to my emails.
All of my contact information, along with my dates of travel, were included in my application so I couldn’t make sense of how my official document could just be tossed aside and left to collect dust in their office.
Knowing that my travel date was fast approaching my grandmother struggled to find a shipping company that would give her an empty prepaid envelope.
FedEx told her she needed to fill out a customs form *detailing* the content before handing one over.
The US Postal Service told her they needed to *weigh* the exact contents in order to calculate the postage.
Add to this a Sunday — when all of these offices are closed — and an ill-timed public holiday where everything was closed on Monday.
It took an extra 3 days for my sweet grammy to send an envelop to the Embassy of Ghana. At that point I had one week left until my trip. I was cutting it close, but my bright-eyed friends and family encouraged me to stay optimistic.
While all of this was happening, I looked at whether it made sense to cancel the Ghana portion of my trip and travel somewhere else that would give me a visa at landing, like they do in Namibia. But I would still need a passport to travel.
I contacted the closest US Consulate to me in Berlin for options and they told me I could get an emergency passport. Yay! But I’d have to cancel the one my poor grammy went through so much trouble to get back to me. Sad face.
After looking at flights for other countries, the cost to get to Namibia (on the date I needed to arrive for my safari) would’ve cost me another couple of thousand of dollars. Still the optimist, I decided to wait it out for my passport and pushed my flight to Ghana back. Even if it was just for a couple of days, I was determined to join in on the year of return.
That extra time, and flight change fee, went to waste. My passport still wasn’t in my mailbox. The day before my rescheduled flight I knew it was time for me to throw in the towel. I had spent the last two days looking at every single flight site trying to find ways to make my dream of going to the continent of Africa a reality. But without a passport it just wasn’t. going. to. happen.
Laying on my couch in a lethargic state of defeat, with another entire week off of work, I decided not to let my time go to waste. I scoured the interwebs for a location that would get me as a close as possible to the motherland without needing to go through passport control. That’s when I stumbled on the island of Tenerife.
The largest island in the Canaries, it’s located off the coast of the Morocco — whose original inhabitants share genetic similarities with those from Northern Africa before the islands’ Spanish colonization. Flights were cheap and there were plenty of budget friendly places to choose from last minute so I didn’t hesitate. I booked the trip.
I had never heard of the place before and had no idea what there was to do there. But after the stressful and disappointing week I had, I was just grateful to go somewhere warm, surrounded by water.
Maybe it was a really costly divine intervention or a blessing disguised as the mishandling of my passport by the Embassy of Ghana, but as soon as I landed I felt a sense of peace wash over me. Peace that I hadn’t felt for years.
For seven days I marveled at the black sand beaches, natural pools, and panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean on the volcanic island.
The weather was always warm, much warmer than Berlin, but more importantly so were the people. Unlike my chosen home for the last three years, people actually made eye contact with me, smiled, and started conversations. Being there had such an impact on me, I knew it was time for a change.
For the past year I felt a desire to leave Berlin, but I couldn’t decide on where. The longer you live in a city where the collective attitude is “I don’t care”, inevitably it rubs off on you. I wanted to get out before the damage was irreversible.
I knew I wanted to be in a Spanish speaking country but Latin or South America would take too much money and time to explore. Plus I had become used to life in Europe. Which left me with Spain, but after traveling to several cities none of them felt like the right fit.
However, in just one week, the island of Tenerife already felt like home.
The island was breathtakingly beautiful and offered so much to its visitors. I went out on a boat while whales and dolphins swam alongside us. I took a picture with a bald eagle at Loro Parque. If I actually liked the outdoors, I could hike up Mount Teide. If I could actually swim, I could dive in the natural pools all over the coast. Everywhere I looked I saw endless possibilities and every time I closed my eyes I could hear the sounds of the water soothing my hardened from Berlin soul.
Other than visiting Africa, my other dream was to live by the water. At least I could make one of those dreams come true. After a few months and a few visits, I made the decision to move to Tenerife. It may not be the homeland of my ancestors, but it feels like home to me.