The sun beat down on a humid June Friday afternoon over Sana Alhassan’s turbaned head, as she carefully poured boiling shea oil from a simmering pot, amid billowing smoke diffusing into air that smelled like chocolate.
“Now that we’re in the fasting season, it’s very trying for me,” Alhassan said through a translator. “But it’s very necessary.”
Alhassan is one of the 60 women employed at the Tiehisuma Shea Butter Processing Centre in Tamale, located in northern Ghana. For 10 years, she has woken up early to buy shea nuts, and proceeded to crush, grind, roast, dry, mix and knead shea kernels to pay for her children’s school fees.
Alhassan is one of the entrepreneurial village women who inspired me during my six-week-stint in Ghana as a student journalist from New York University. I took pictures, I asked countless questions and I heard fascinating stories so I could understand the women’s tribulations and how they overcame them every single day. It was an absolute joy.
But it was nothing new. To be sure, I had sat at my grandmother’s lap during story-time before I was ushered to bed every night, back in a small town in India. She had told me about how poor they used to be and how the elders in the family worked in the fields till you couldn’t distinguish the skin of your palm from burning blisters. Let me just say, that was a great image to put into a 5-year-old’s head.
In retrospect, there are many things that I should have wondered about. Our vegetable lady came to our door with a big basket of vegetables perfectly balanced on her head that I had to run to help her dismount every morning. I never took pictures of her. I never asked her about her life. I never wondered because it was familiar. It was mundane and I was too busy peering over my grandmother’s shoulder into the basket, silently urging her to not buy the okra.
A decade later, there I was in northern Ghana, constantly on the verge of tears, hungry for more stories that with every step reminded me of those I missed growing up.
People say that it is essential to travel to various places to understand the world. I would say that my travels proved essential to help me understand my home.
Back in India, my mother is a gynecologist. She has a maternity home and most of her patients travel an hour or two by rickety public transport to get to the hospital from nearby villages. A generous soul at heart, she often gives free services and medicine to the poor who need treatment but cannot pay for it. I grew up in that hospital, observing surgeries and sitting in on consultations on idle days.
But it wasn’t until I visited Dr. David Abdulai’s free clinic, Shekhina in Tamale that I understood the essentiality of my mother’s actions. I wandered amidst open compounds consisting of small huts that housed lepers, HIV/AIDS patients, mentally and physically disabled persons and some destitute people who found a safe haven with Dr. Abdulai. He sees 30 patients per day, totally free of cost, and hasn’t ever asked anybody for money or any other donations.
Of course, I am not comparing my mother’s generosity to Dr. Abdulai’s altruism. But that hour I spent observing and listening to him speak about his work brought me to a realization: all those times my mother spent worrying about not having enough money was probably worth the care she distributed through free family planning services and surgical procedures. Why else would she have kept doing that in light of truly tight corners to cut?
Soon I was back in Accra, walking on the busy Makola market streets under the hot Ghanaian sun. Instances, people and conversations that my mind had previously skimmed over manifested themselves in front of me, as real as the brightly printed Dutch Wax cloth hanging outside a fabric store.
It had taken more than 10,000 miles of travel, more than 10 years of non-analytical observation for me to finally understand where I was, and where I had come from.
At the end of the program, I returned to New York City with a better understanding of what immersive travel can do for a person. My time engaging with Ghanaians, understanding their customs, trying to master the Ghanaian handshake, learning greeting words in more than 4 languages- it not only helped me understand Ghana better, it also instilled a sense of responsibility and guilt. A responsibility to never skim over a place ever again and a sense of guilt for the times I never really immersed in my native country, let alone my travel destinations.
I felt an obligation to myself coming on, to make up for lost time. I joined Visit.org, an online travel platform that empowers travelers to engage with and immerse in the communities they are going to visit through tours offered by nonprofits based in those regions. To take it one step further, tour revenue is channeled back into the community to solve social issues. I had found the epitome of what I wanted all my travel experiences to be.
For me, it was imperative to get away from home so that I could understand it. In a foreign land is when you miss home the most and for me, it was in a foreign land that I realized never to take our wonderfully rich and mysterious world for granted.