My first journey in West Africa remains a pivotal experience of my life and is still a source of inspiration and resonance for me.  In Africa I was relieved to find, as I had suspected, that there are many ways to organize life.

What was I doing in West Africa in 1973, at the age of 20?  You could say that I had nothing better to do. Really, I went on a whim.  Dissatisfied with the limitations of academia, I was looking for a faraway place to study weaving. A woman from the Experiment in International Living told me on the phone that she could send me to Italy, Greece, Ireland, or Ghana for weaving. Although I had never been to any of those countries, I decided on the spot that Ghana was the place. I’m the kind of person who orders the unknown item on a menu. I knew that I could always get to Europe. I had been there once, in 1970, when I first found weaving in Denmark. But Africa had never occurred to me.  I got off the phone excited and walked across the campus of Antioch College to the library to look up where this place was. 

I grew up in suburban Washington, DC.  I never really had a chance of being in the mainstream. I was born at the height of the McCarthy era to two socialist parents. The religion that was practiced in my family was socialism—a bedrock belief in basic human dignity and human rights, firmly anti-capitalist, pro-worker, and anti-boss.  I always knew that my ethnicity was Jewish, but my religion was socialism.

At 20 I was trying to find out what I really needed or wanted in my life. I made a distinction between luxury and necessity. I was trying to strip down the rules of my suburban middle-class upbringing, trying to decide what, if anything, to keep and what to discard. There was so much that I had grown up with that was meaningless to me.

And so I spent 1973 studying and traveling in West Africa. My research took me to Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), Mali, Niger, Benin (then Dahomey), Nigeria, and across the Sahara to Algiers.

The first three months were spent in Ghana with the Experiment in International Living.  The program provided for a slow release into Ghanian culture. With my small group of six American college students and our leader, I studied the Twi language and Ghanaian culture at the University of Ghana/Legon in Accra.  After a month in the protected confines of the university in Accra and field trips into downtown Accra, our group participated in the construction of a community center in Mampong Akuapem, a village north of Accra in the cocoa-growing region. Each day we worked hard mixing and pouring concrete by hand for the center. We all lived in the same town, but with different families.  My hostess was a single woman with a small son (pictured at left). In Mampong, I took my first bucket bath. And began to get used to the constant attention that being a white person in Africa brings. 

Next we all went to live with families in different parts of Ghana for three weeks.  Most of the homestays were with government workers and middle-class urban dwellers. My homestay was in Kyekyewere, a farming village of 300 people north of Kumasi. I lived as a guest of the son of the chief.  This was my first experience with village life. The first several days were spent greeting all the people in that village.  In the beginning, every time I went out to do something, there was a huge meal waiting for me.  I had to figure out how to tell my hosts that I liked their food but I couldn’t eat five huge meals a day.

We made day trips to Kumasi to visit relatives there and tour local sites.  My closest friends were the palm wine tapper, who was also the traditional priest of the village, and his wife.  Although Ghana was a British colony and English is widely spoken, it is not spoken much in villages, and my several weeks of Twi language training left me with a limited ability to communicate.  But the wife of the palm wine tapper and I could communicate without language.  I have met many African women over the years with whom I can communicate without language.

My homestay family in Kyekyewere, Ghana. Seated are the chief and his wife. The man standing in the back with sunglasses was my host.

A Ghanaian man weaving a strip of Kente. Many strips are then sewn together to make the Kente cloth. In Ghana and most of West Africa, weavers are men.

In my independent study portion, I spent two weeks at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi learning the art of weaving Kente cloth. After that I traveled in West Africa on my own for seven months.  Since I was a weaver and fiber artist at the time, my travels were organized around craft villages and artisans.  Refreshingly, ideas about “high” and “low” art, which were always a burden to me in the United States, were not an issue here.  I traveled mainly alone, on trucks and buses.  I stayed in hotels and government rest houses, with missionaries and American and European volunteers, and with hospitable African people.

My first journey in West Africa remains a pivotal experience of my life and is still a source of inspiration and resonance for me.  In Africa, I was relieved to find, as I had suspected, that there are many ways to organize life on earth.  That everyone gets born, dies, eats after getting up in the morning.

But how can I describe the joy and freedom and release I found in finding new ways of doing things, of having to learn a whole new way of looking at the world? I enjoyed examining my own American cultural assumptions and becoming familiar with the alternative cultural codes I encountered on my journey. My experiences in that year of traveling over so much territory revealed social codes and lifestyles very different from the Western/American norms that I had assumed were universal. The spirit and generosity of the people that I met all over West Africa left a powerful imprint.  I was struck by the deep sense of community, the humanity, the respect for the land, the self-sufficiency, that I encountered.

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  • Fable Short Story February 15, 2013 at 8:25 am

    You describe how beautiful West Africa is. Home is always sweet.

  • Leslie in Portland October 25, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you for this essay, Janet. You describe so beautifully what living in West Africa meant to you. It reminds me of what I noticed, and learned, by spending just 5 weeks in East Africa in late 1970–and spending much of the next eight years living and/or working around the world. Your photographs and your words powerfully evoke what I will never forget about my time in Africa: “[t]he spirit and generosity of the people.” All reflected in the beauty of their faces…