So, how was Ghana?
That was the question everyone was asking when I’d returned from Toronto. We’d had a session at debrief which aimed to generate answers of varying levels of engagement to The Question and it helped for sure. I found myself easily sizing up the true interest of askers to determine which of my predetermined conversation-generating answers I’d use. Some obviously cared a lot and wanted to hear the whole story, while others were alright with my disengaged “it was great! Really life-changing!” I certainly had the tools to deal with The Question itself.
I did not have the tools, however, to deal with the fact that it would be asked of me nearly every time I reunited with anyone. It became exhausting almost immediately. I’m so thankful for my close friends and family who know me well enough to know that the answer to the question was one which would take a long time–years, maybe–to unravel. They didn’t ask; no, they waited.
Beyond the exasperation of hearing the same question over and over again, I was tired of being asked because I really didn’t know the answer. In fact, I had no fucking clue how Ghana was. I was still processing and, I realize now, beginning to deny the whole experience. In the weeks that immediately followed my return, I steadily withdrew, burying myself in my schoolwork and relationships and ignoring any idea of the red dust country I’d brought back to Canada with me. I focused on the new me and understanding the skills and perspectives I’d acquired through my experience instead of on the experience itself.
And the sense of denial stretched out from there. To this day, I haven’t called any of the people I met in Ghana. At first I had the excuse of having lost contact information due to a virus on my computer. But, as time passed, I realized that I didn’t want to call Yaku, or Emmanuel, or Illy. I didn’t want to be reminded of Ghana. Of course, I wanted to see how Yaku’s new job was and how Emmanuel did on his WASSCEs, but something was–and still is–stopping me from reaching out to them. It’s a complicated head space about which I’ll probably write in a later post.
I finally understood the underlying cause of my deep-seated denial when I was forced to talk about my experience at a chapter meeting. I went in relatively unprepared, with only a vague idea of what I’d be discussing (this is how I typically approach presentations) and I fumbled. I said the wrong things. I gave the wrong impressions. I stood in front of some very impressionable and naive first-year students and, in my mind, completely botched the idea of “Africa” I wanted to convey to their plastic minds.
That experience (and many others to come) made me realize the power that my narrative holds. I mean this in no self-aggrandizing way; it’s not like I have some incredibly powerful story to tell that will revolutionize the world. In fact, I have a very small story that is relatively short. However, I came to understand that even something so little could become something very dangerous, or something very good, depending on how I wielded it. I’ve learned since then that all narratives involving more vulnerable individuals or groups hold this power, especially when delivered from a privileged individual. In the end, It all depended on how I was able to connect with others around me and how well I was able to articulate some incredibly complex ideas.
The revelation was, like my story, very powerful. All of a sudden, I was forced to really think about my experience, to piece it all together into something which exposed nuances, was self-critical and-above all-was viscerally honest all at once.
I’d opened a Pandora’s Box.