Our theme for the month of March is “cities.”

What places have formed you into who you are today? Our hometowns are among our first teachers, instilling in us a rhythm of life, music, social customs, a sense of identity, and security. Yet I have been formed in many ways by a city I don’t know—Accra, the capital city of Ghana. This sprawling metropolitan area of four million was my parents’ and grandparents’ birthplace, the city that shaped their worldview, dreams, and relationships. It would have also been the place I called home, if not for my parents’ immigration to the United States. 

Because I only visited Accra once when I was five years old, I know little about this city on the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, stories from relatives sometimes feel disembodied, set on a plane I can’t visually access. But I keep asking questions because I want to understand where they came from.

I have an archivist spirit, but like many children of immigrants, I have found it difficult to source stories about the past. At a recent event with Ethiopian-American writer Saaret E. Yoseph, I was inspired to try again. Yoseph, who collected oral histories from Ethiopian women immigrants to Washington, D.C., shared candidly of the pain that prevented some from revisiting their past, but also of the beauty she found steeping herself in memory.

So, I turned to the internet to augment my visual gaps. I watched drone footage and walking tours of Accra, searched newspapers’ online archives, and wandered through Google Maps Street View in Teshie Nunguna, the Accra neighborhood where my mom grew up. On this virtual journey, even the smallest repeating details felt like a meaningful glimpse into culture: the snacks street sellers carried, stickers on buses with existential expressions like “Me please you, why you do me so,” the colorful fishing boats that resembled seed pods. I thought, “If I search hard enough, I can better visualize what my mom’s childhood or my own might have looked like in Accra.”

Along the way, several places were added to my visual map of Accra:

  • British Council Library Liberia Road

This institution established by British colonizers in the 1940s was the first library my mom ever visited. Maybe this was one of the experiences that sparked her high appreciation for education and motivated her to get me a library card, which in turn fueled my love of reading and writing.

  • Homowo Festival Main streets of Teshie and Nunguna

This harvest festival based in Accra means “to hoot at hunger” and commemorates the Ga ethnic group’s survival of a historic famine. During the planting season, a ban is placed on drumming and loud noises. But during harvest around August, parades, dancing, and ceremonies erupt to celebrate the abundance of food. To my knowledge, my extended family has only celebrated Christian holidays, so learning about this festival sparked new questions about faith and cultural traditions for me.

  • Makola Market Kojo Thompson Road and beyond

When my mom was about my age, she sold her handmade baby clothes in this expansive week-long open-air market. Vendors shaded by wide brimmed hats or colorful umbrellas line the streets, selling everything from produce to car parts to home goods. My mom remembers sinking into a trotro (bus) for a ride home after a long day of selling. Makola has also been a site of political activity, like in the 1970s when military leaders destroyed parts of it, blaming women traders for the country’s economic struggles. Witnessing the bustle of crowds from a distance, I marvel at the skill to maintain a business amidst thousands of sellers.  

To be honest, this attempt to find places connected with my family’s past in Accra was often frustrating and did not generate all that I hoped for. I can’t know the spot where an elderly lady always sold them fresh sugar bread or the field where they played ampe (a children’s game). I’m not sure if a beach that was once the site of Easter morning services is now-polluted or inaccessible. 

There are memory gaps I simply cannot fill because I don’t physically know Ghanathe reality of dumsor (unpredictable power outages) or the dryness of harmattan season. I used to romanticize an attachment to Ghana, writing eagerly about Black Americans or first and second-generation descendants like me returning to Ghana. But my opinions have shifted as I’ve listened to people in Ghana share the weariness of being in a country that makes living a job, and where corruption and institutionalized homophobia challenge dreams. I know now that I can’t expect Accra to be a stage to affirm my belonging, or to fulfill desires for postcolonial healing. I hope my attachment will rather grow to be with the family and friends who call it their first home.

There’s so much I still hope to learn about Accra, but that hope is not tinged with as much angst now that I know I don’t need to fully belong there, just the same way I don’t fully belong in the United States. During Yoseph’s presentation, she shared how she embraced storytelling to reclaim the disadvantage of possessing fragments of her past. Her statement, “You don’t have to have it all mapped out to know your story” has deeply resonated with me. My dualness doesn’t negate who I am or prevent me from passing down heritage. Ironically, maybe the fractures in my idea of Accra will help me hold a true relationship with that city one day. Already I sense that I will both love being surrounded by Blackness and groan at the absurdist car-centric construction. Isn’t both affection and indignation part of calling a place home?

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