By Helen Frazier
Less than one month ago, my sister and I traveled to the continent of Africa and visited the nations of Liberia and Ghana. Since this was my first trip visiting the “motherland”, I had no idea that it would take my sister’s knowledge after visiting twice per year for 15 years to keep me safe. Upon our arrival at what I didn’t recognize as an airport, I was met with bribes by security personnel. If it had not been for my sister’s knowledge on how to navigate traveling to another country, I might have missed the opportunity to realize the full benefit of experiencing a culture so different from that of my own. My sister – Deloris Frazier, an avid traveling adventurer had been visiting the continent as a tourist and volunteer teaching at various schools for the past 15 years. Oftentimes, she would bring back stories of her travels, pictures, artifacts, jewelry, and clothing. Friends and families had no appreciation for her devotion to her new found family of Africans as she always had one in tow upon her return to the States. She always made sure they had lodging, food and the opportunity for an education. In fact, the majority of the students she took under her tutelage are now well established with a good education and excellent jobs. She understood that “to whom much is given–much is required”. She has expanded her international travels to include London, Paris, Germany, Vietnam and China.
The first week of our visit was spent in Liberia at a hotel owned by a local businessman who also helped his poor community by sponsoring an after school program where students learned and were exposed to the arts. The students all took turns at 10 minute intervals playing the few drums and other instruments available. On Saturdays, parents were invited to participate in the overall learning programs and to share ideas about what their child was learning. Also on Saturdays, a local artist and his wife were invited to share their love for painting with the children. According to this elderly couple, one who was blind, they looked forward to their trip to the school as much as the children anticipated their visit. Even though the children lacked the luxuries our children in the U.S. take for granted, they were eager to learn and did not miss a moment to engage themselves in all of the activities. There were no behavior problems as the African children seem to really appreciate being educated as it is a rare opportunity not afforded by all children. Clothing was scarce and shoes were repurposed flip flops (everyone wears flip flops). After engaging with the children and their seemingly makeshift environment, I often wondered why our children in the United States find it difficult to be mentally prepared at all times for serious study and engagement.
My next memorable event included visiting the markets and engaging with the women who are the breadwinners of that society. Rarely does one see men selling food or clothing items in the market area. Even though African men are excellent seamsters, they measure and sew with perfection many of the elaborate garments worn by women in the U.S. Items bought in Liberia with American dollars are treasured as the purchase power is so much greater in that country. We were able to bring back many items to share with family and friends.
The many amenities Americans take for granted like clean drinking water, lights, easily accessible bathrooms and gas stations are a rarity in a country filled with so many natural resources. I was saddened that the many rubber trees, diamonds and other natural resources are not controlled by the indigenous people who are relegated to providing cheap labor to other countries who exploit them. I witnessed so much poverty and malnourished children in a country that has not been able to harness the riches of the land to make it available to its own people. Due to tribal and civil wars, greed, bribery and gluttoness, there is a great disparity between the “have and the have nots”. In Liberia, the idea of being “thy brother’s keeper” is a misnomer. The lack of education, birth control options and ignorance has kept this country from the realization of being a land of plenty.
After a week of water rationing, impassable roads and limited infrastructure, I was delighted to know that I was eventually going to a place where electricity was not doled out on a limited basis. At the hotel, we knew there would not be any electricity between certain hours during the day. Therefore, Liberians spend most of their time outside in the dark. In fact, one could travel for miles and just see pure darkness. Africans see well in the dark and travel as much and as well in the night. Sometimes, one could infrequently see a person with a “torch”, the word they refer to as a flashlight, remotely in a village. Due to a lack of clean water, our meals outside of the compound were limited to what we could recognize or non-existent. The hotel did not provide five star accommodations, but we felt safe within the compound guarded by an armed guard 24 hours daily. No one could enter the gates without being acknowledged by the guard. The staff at the hotel made sure our rooms was cleaned daily, food was prepared and we were provided laundry service. We were given a driver daily and a person to travel with us who knew the various dialects within the country. Even though Liberians speak English, dialects often identified the area in which you lived.
Liberia is the country with direct ties to Blacks in America. During and after slavery, Blacks sought a land where they could return to claim as their own. Many Blacks returned to Liberia as a way of denouncing the ills of slavery and involuntary servitude.
The next journey took us to Ghana. According to my sister, up until recently, the airport was torched and remained in ruins until recently. We were surprised to land at a modern facility with modern technology, clean bathrooms, escalators and well trained professional staff. We were greeted by the son of a family who had familiar ties with my sister. I was surprised to enter a neighborhood with huge homes encased in high cemented walls strung at the top with razor wire and electronic sensors. All windows were barred and iron gates cladded the entrance. The roads were almost impassable with huge mud holes and no vegetation or sidewalks. Behind iron clad walls was a mansion-like home with many bedrooms, each with a private bath. Even though the accommodations were exquisite, the mindset of the family who accommodated us was still village-like serving meals we could not eat. I spent time editing the book of the homeowner and our visit was likened to being in a prison. We were afforded the opportunity to sight see, but only places they deemed appropriate. We visited the market, and the home of W. E.B. Du Bois and El Mina Castle. My sister utilized the time with the driver to reminisce and revisit the areas she once stayed while visiting the country. We were invited to the couple’s church where my sister blasted churchgoers for worshipping and building a three story worship facility while persons nearby lived in poverty with meager existence. Ghana as well as Liberia is heavily committed to Christianity. Even though poverty is so widespread and prevalent, one could view huge billboards of ministers preaching and inviting members to join them at some church event. Economic stability is somewhat better in Ghana with no middle class. You are either extremely poor or extremely rich. The county’s infrastructure is much to be desired with poor roads, unclean water supply and limited electricity. Ghana has no government sponsored sanitation of water or sewage. Gas is expensive and we did get to visit a mall.
The highlight of the trip to Ghana was almost surreal as First Lady Trump took center stage with her visit to El Mina Castle. The history of this country is tied directly to Ghana as Charleston being a port of entry for many of the over 20 million slaves forced into ships headed to America. The Portuguese arrived in 1471 followed by the Dutch, British, Germans French, Dutch and the Swedes. They found so much gold they called it “La Mina” (the mine). When the British arrived, they changed the name to the Gold Coast. In 1482, the Portuguese built the El Mina Castle. I was able to tour the castle and listened intently as the tour guide told horror stories of how women, men and children were herded into small unventilated rooms for up to 45 days waiting for ships to take them into a land where they were sold as animals. We witnessed original documents depicting this horrible time in the life of many Africans. One of the persons we met during our trip shared the real story of how so many Africans were duped into believing there would be a better life if they followed their captors. Additionally, tribal wars contributed to the slave trade by the dominate conqueror. After burning the village of his rival, the dominant conqueror would capture the women and surviving men and sell them to the slave traders.
Today, Ghana is still experiencing many of the vestibules that prevent “Nation Building”. Civil wars, unstable government, greed, substandard infrastructure, unemployment and exploitation by other nationalities continue to plague this unstable country. One has to wonder why a country with 20 public and 60 private universities would have 271, 000 unemployed university graduates. Our host family’s book suggested that because Ghana does not have a utilitarian educational system where students are equipped with the knowledge and skills relevant to the development and needs of the country, it will continue to produce persons unable to contribute to “Nation Building”. Even though Ghana produces the same crops as (The Asian Tigers) Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and South Korea who export finished goods, Ghana continues to export raw goods. Ghana’s economics has fallen behind these countries by six years.
West Africa comprises 16 countries with each having their distinct individual historical beginnings, language (dialect), currency and economics. My sister and I have begun the journey of learning about the “motherland” and have only witnessed a minute area of the continent. I often heard stories about Africa, but did not realize the vast difference of each area. As one person asked me upon my return, “How many elephants did you see?” I did not see any wild animals, not even a monkey. From henceforth, when someone states or talks about visiting Africa, he/she must justify by stating what country. While sharing experiences with others who have visited other countries abroad, one would hope that others would follow suit and visit foreign countries to be able to appreciate how wonderful it is to live in the United States.