The Dilemma of Ghosts: Floating between Britain and Ghana

Kobby

There is something strange about sitting under an African skyline writing to commemorate the mere month that Britain dedicates to blackness. As someone born in Kentish Town to struggling Ghanaian educational migrants before immigration became the brutal, strangling thing it is today, I am a Londoner. I would not consider myself English but one of my two passports suggests that I am at the very least British. I do not need my other passport to remind me of my Ghanaianness.

Struggling so hard that it would end in their separation between continents, my parents both felt it important that my brother and I spend a part of our childhood ‘back home’. I am thankful they acted on that feeling; for the seven years I subsequently spent living with my grandmother in Cape Coast while she sold cloth in Kotokraba Market just outside Mfantsipim: the school where I would write my O-Levels.

Ghana, Cape Coast
Beach at Cape Coast, Ghana. Photograph: Dave Stanley/Flickr

Half of what makes me feel Ghanaian is language. Besides speaking the pidgin that is the lingua franca of Ghanaian secondary students, I negotiate taxi fares in a Fante so rich that drivers successfully pinpoint that I was Cape Coast-raised. They are always surprised when I tell them I was not born here. My other half of feeling Ghanaian is time, really. I have memories soundtracked by at least four eras of ever-evolving highlife music: from its flirtation with ‘80s electronic pop (burger highlife) and ‘90s hip-hop (hiplife) through to its union with 120-beats-per-minute dance music (azonto) in the early 2000s right up to the trap sound that so heavily influences it today. I have seen Ghana change in all these little ways too.

Preachers have gone from calmly persuading their flock to shouting at them with American-inspired exuberance. A single government-owned TV channel that broadcast from 6pm to a little after midnight now shares airwaves with innumerable channels broadcasting African movies, telenovelas, news, soccer and sermons to us 24 hours a day. Nothing says Ghanaian more than fanatically supporting an English soccer team, being addicted to Latin American soap operas (dubbed into Twi), following religious practices steeped in Western or Arabic tradition, and gorging on African movies that bizarrely depict local tradition as evil. To be Ghanaian is to be a global citizen. I am privileged to be global in ways my grandmother never was.

Despite that privilege, there is an othering that happens to people born between worlds. My Ghanaianness is questioned with the same kind of regularity that my Britishness was before it. The British in my accent, for example, makes me an oddity here and yet my British friends say the same accent sounds African. I was once chased at night through Greenwich by white nationalist skinheads threatening me with harm if I did not follow their instruction to “go back to your country”.

In that country, I am often asked what keeps me from leaving if Ghana falls into crisis. I am asked this by Ghanaians who tell me they would leave the moment they get the chance. Ghanaians apply for more American green cards than citizens from war-torn countries. I remember a breakfast show host here who was horrified by a Twitter poll in which his listeners told him that they would gladly trade their Ghanaian passports for American ones. I completely understand: life here is not easy. Fifteen years later however, I am still here.

I have always wanted a label to describe the pain of having both your homes questioned through no fault of your own. Awhile back, I happily called myself ‘afropolitan.’ It seemed a good fit: I was literally DJing alongside my friend Izekor at the bar that Taiye Selasi describes at the start of Bye Bye Babar. I have since watched that label crushed under the weight of scorn. Most of the criticisms I heard seemed less about afropolitanism than about African elitism.

Writer, SOAS alumnus (and my awesomesauce acquaintance), Emma Dabiri once wrote that the term fails to challenge the compartmentalised society that the likes of Fanon railed against, adding that “our value is not determined by our ability to produce African flavoured versions of Western convention and form.” She was right: afropolitanism did come to be associated with all manner of such products and people. Much about those associations made me cringe.

While better off than many, I am no member of Ghana’s elite. My surname does not open any doors here. The only weight it carries is by the work of my mind, my mouth, my heart and my hands. A friend of mine once asked me why African is not enough. I told him that African describes neither the specifics of my pain nor my privilege. I am not special but I am different, much in the same way that Africans are different from each other town to town, group to group and nation to nation. 

Kwame Nkrumah once wrote that a Ghanaian is someone born to Ghanaians anywhere in the world. While there are intersections, I am not the same as the Ghanaian who leaves Ghana to the UK and attempts to recreate home there, eating Ghanaian food, watching Ghanaian shows on cable, going to Ghanaian barbershops, listening to Ghanaian radio and meeting friends in Ghanaian churches. Though they too might be chased through British streets by nationalist thugs, that Ghanaian does not have their Ghanaianness questioned when they go home. This has real life implications for me: my ways of thinking about marriage for example lean closer to that of my British friends than my Ghanaian ones with real consequences for who I date and why I remained single for such a long time.

Identity is a delicate thing. All my labels come with problems. African but Africa is not a country. Akan but what place does that mean (particularly with Asante’s history of aggressions) in this new Ghana? Describing myself as either of these things may be admirable, but all fail to tell enough of my story. While problematic too, afropolitan was laden with meaning and emotion for me. For a while, I settled on calling myself a ghost; floating between worlds in which I am present but don’t belong. But this too is incomplete. I am many things and none of my many forms is mutually exclusive from the other. 

I am still here.

Kobina Ankomah-Graham is an academic, writer and DJ in Ghana’s creative arts scene with an endless fascination with African counterculture and creativity. He holds degrees in Law (LLB) and International Studies & Diplomacy (MA) from SOAS and is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in contemporary creative industries at the Department of Sociology, University of Ghana. Before full-time immersion in his doctoral studies, he was a faculty member at Ashesi University where he taught classes including African Philosophical Thought, Social Theory, and Text and Meaning. He currently teaches at Webster University Ghana.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students. If you enjoyed the piece, take a look at pieces from other SOAS alum:

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