Brandon Perkins (‘16) and Micah Dowling (’16) both went to Africa for summer internships. Brandon was in Accara, Ghana. Micah was in Durbanville, South Africa. Today, they are sharing their stories as part of an on campus Forum. Vantage magazine approached them earlier this month to share some of these experiences.
Vantage: How easy or difficult was it for you to fit in?
Brandon: Before I traveled to Ghana, a fellow African American colleague and friend from Yale Divinity School informed me that I should not expect Ghanaians to embrace me as their brother just because I have Black skin. I carried that advice with me and learned very quickly that to the average Ghanaian I was simply American. There was no distinguishing clarifier needed because for most Ghanaians the fact that one is born in the United States means that you are blessed with all the stereotypical privileges that are shown through American media outlets. The perception, which I gleaned from my host family, is that Americans are all well-to-do, arrogant know-it-alls. Americans think they know what life is really like in Africa, and furthermore, know how to make the entire African continent better. After hearing this, it is no surprise that there was no proverbial welcome mat laid out for me in the communities where I worked and visited.
Furthermore, there was distance created between myself and the parishioners I encountered on a daily basis because of language. Although the official stated language of Ghana is English, the vast majority of Ghanaians hold on vigorously to their native regional languages such as Ga, Twi, or Fanti. Thus, in our church an overarching majority of the worship life was done in the regional language of Ga. Throughout my time in the church and in the community, I tried to pick up some simple words and phrases. But with no one to teach me the components of the language, I was never able to be conversational in this tongue. Therefore, my “Americaness” and linguistic inabilities distanced me from being able to fully live life with my sisters and brothers in Ghana.
Micah: My time in South Africa was enveloped in a hospitality that was both familiar and unfamiliar. Coming from a tradition of what is called “Southern hospitality,” it was interesting to note the differences and similarities in the ways hospitality is expressed and embodied. From the warm greeting at the airport, the many homemade meals, and the way I was welcomed into so many homes, I quickly realized that the American South has no monopoly on hospitality.
But something in the way of South African hospitality was expressed that wasn’t as familiar to me. There was an intimacy, a personal connection, a warmth in the way I was received and welcomed. There was a humility that is difficult to articulate, but felt deeply on those grounds. I thought hospitality just meant being offered a meal and a comfortable place to stay, but the South Africans offered themselves. They shared themselves in their stories. I found that many of my most profound ministry moments were in listening to the sacred history, the haunted histories, and the complex life decisions made in lived past and present experience. These journeys and stories were so graciously shared with a stranger, and the humility in the way they were offered will stay with me forever.
Vantage: Would each of you share a short story from the trip and discuss how it impacted you?
Brandon: The best way I can describe my eleven weeks in Ghana this summer is in the language of it being a scared journey. The summer before my sophomore year at Fisk University, the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled to Ghana to carry our sacred Negro Spirituals back home to Mother Africa. In the same vein of my fellow “Fiskites,” the mother continent called me home to glean wisdom from her teat.
From an inter-disciplinary scope, I spent the summer doing much more than working in Peniel Presbyterian Church, although that was a key part of my time there. I spent countless hours learning and then reflecting on the colonial legacy left by the multitude of European powers that exerted dominance and influence on the Ghanaian soil. One of the key case studies of this history proved to be that of the Presbyterian legacy left by the Basel Missionaries who first brought Presbyterianism to Ghana in 1828. On the one hand, it was disheartening to worship with some persons who had been so enculturated with Presbyterianism that they forsook some of the practices in Traditional African Religions. On the other hand, it was fascinating to see how many congregants fused the two paradigms into a union that was not disingenuous to either worldview.
Outside of my daily church duties I tried to explore Ghana to the fullest. As many on the Columbia campus will attest, I invested in a new Ghanaian wardrobe while in the country, as means to honor my own African heritage and to support the informal economy of the women and men who support their families on the sale of beautiful fabrics and the tailoring of garments. I also explored two “pilgrimage” sites in the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture and the Slave “Castles” at Elmina and Cape Coast. Unlike any other experiences I had in Ghana, these two historic sites will forever remind me of how Black bodies are continually striving to arise from the depths of despair to ascend to the heights of unlimited possibilities.
Micah: One such moment was having the opportunity to meet Franklin Sonn, who worked with President Mandela in the 90’s as South African ambassador to the United States. Sonn spoke about racial reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa at a conference entitled “Hope for Africa: The Next 20 Years.” I experienced a prophetic moment with Sonn as he told a roomful of mostly white South African ministers that “we haven’t even begun reconciliation.” This reconciliation, Sonn explained, can only happen “in my circle” or “krall” (a traditional tribal meeting place for a community). For Franklin Sonn, reconciliation is conversation, faith that the other person can be trusted, and the ability “to recognize each other.” He went on to explain that what was upheld at the moment was a “peace-settlement” instead. Sonn explained we must say the truth in the confessions, yes, but this truth is in the heart and eyes.
There was something in the transparency of the way ministers and ministries in South Africa are dealing with the complexity of problems on a racial, social, cultural, and economic level that spoke to my own context. Although there is much to be done in post-apartheid South Africa, there is a sense that they are dealing with the many issues in honest and authentic ways as communities and Churches. It seems in my own context in the southern United States, we have become quite skilled at pretending these problems don’t exist. We’re just nice to each other. The “peace-settlement” is in full form, but the cracks of lack of true intimacy in our “kralls” are starting to reveal themselves, and the need for a different kind of hospitality and reconciliation is clear.
That moment with Franklin Sonn was a message for me to my own context. I felt a disconnect between the place of pain and raw honesty in which South Africans are deeply invested, and the conformability within the “post-racial” America myth found here. My cultural experience there was one of people attempting to deconstruct and detangle histories and traditions of oppression, although in imperfect ways. I feel the people in South Africa have spoken truth to our context here, about what it means to embrace the tension of genuine efforts of reconciliation with the disciplines of hospitality and humility.
Vantage: In what ways did you experience culture shock (going there or coming back)?
Brandon: Having been back in the States for a couple of months at this point, I honestly equate culture shock and reverse culture shock with continual jet lag. There were days in Ghana where my host father and I would be driving to the church, and I would see young girls and boys urinating outside in public view of everyone. I would have to catch myself before I said, “Why don’t they go use the bathroom in their house?” On the other side of the equation, it was shocking to see my host mother cook dinner in the evenings, and know in the back of my mind that the tilapia on my plate was not bought in a grocery store, but from a vendor on the street who most likely caught this fish earlier that day. It was also a difficult culture change for this full-time student who regularly eats dinner after 8 p.m. and then normally eats again in the wee hours of the morning to eat dinner at 5:30 p.m. knowing that this was his last meal for the day.
When I came back on this side of the Atlantic, I remember telling my mother on the ride back from the airport that it was shocking seeing all paved roads as this was not the norm by any stretch of the word in Ghana. Furthermore, using an electric stove again was strange because we had a gas one in Ghana due to the instability of the electrical grid in the country. In many ways, I’m still adjusting daily to being back in this country. I am no longer able to take for granted the resources and privileges I might have taken for granted before my time in Ghana, and for that I say thanks be to God.
Micah: I would say that my major adjustments took place in my first two weeks there. It was slow, and there was enough familiarity in my location to never really feel its full effect. After a month there, I was much more comfortable. I began to look back on that first week and realize that it was harder than I let myself believe. You could say I experienced “culture-shock denial.”
Vantage: Some great stories and insights here! Thank you both for taking time to share them.