Sacharja Cunningham ’19 is studying this fall semester with CIEE Ghana Arts and Sciences program in Legon where he is taking courses at the University of Ghana. Pascal Dafinis ’19 is also participating in the program. Cunningham will blog from Ghana throughout the semester. Following is his first post.
Knowing Where and with Whom I Stand
One of the most rewarding parts of my study abroad trip in Ghana so far was a workshop my program (CIEE) held about a week after we arrived in Ghana. The workshop consisted of activities that raised cultural awareness of ourselves as Americans, developed our cultural literacy of Ghana, and set the foundation for us to build cultural bridges.
The activity that proved most helpful for me was a small group discussion in which we used three concentric circles to map our comfort zones, stretching zones, and panic zones. The zones required me to be introspective about what environments I feel most content in, the ones I grow in as a result of challenges, and those that would jeopardize my wellbeing in some way.
I am learning, or confirming rather, that I feel like I belong the most in strong interpersonal relationships instead of in larger contexts such as a school, city, country, or continent even, which is the same feeling I have in the United States. I have had and still have trouble identifying with groups because of the many marginalized identities I have and my lived experiences. I constantly wonder what it means to think of “home” and “comfort zones” not in terms of physical places, but actual people. What does it mean that I think of “home” and “comfort zones” this way by necessity and by force, but not by choice? What are the limits and benefits to this?
As this activity encouraged me to think of these questions, it also captured the essence of my study abroad goals. I wanted to study abroad to not only explore concepts including belonging and identity, but to understand how these two concepts in particular affect each other in different spaces across the world.
When thinking about themes such as solidarity and unity in my major, Africana Studies, it has felt disheartening to have built up a naive expectation to immediately feel like I belong in Ghana, at least in a racial sense. Recently, it has been liberating to accept that I do not and, perhaps, I was not meant to belong in Ghana. My racial identity that's defined by me not belonging in America also caused my lack of belonging in Ghana. So where and with whom do I stand to feel comfort in what is often an overwhelming feeling of displacement?
After the workshop, we were treated to our program’s welcome dinner and I experienced the answer to the question above. After enjoying a buffet-style meal and a live band at a restaurant, two other students and I made our way to the dance floor to join some Ghanaians. Eventually, one of the other students suggested we do the electric slide to the beat of the music and we did, capturing the attention of everyone in the restaurant.
Soon, a program staff member joined in and we all did the dance moves in unison with smiles on our faces and joyful confidence in our synchronized steps. The shared freedom we achieved through music and dance memorialized that night as one of the best ones so far. That proved to me that I can carry my comfort zone with me, no matter where I go, as long as I have other people of similar backgrounds with me.
These spaces where I feel I belong the most do not naturally exist. I realize that I actively create them with other people. Comfort becomes collaboration. I have come to realize that belonging is a matter of claiming kinship and emotional spaces both in the United States and in Ghana so far. Therefore, standing with someone becomes more validating, freeing, and comforting than standing somewhere in particular. So, rather than trying to find my place in the world, perhaps a much better mission while studying abroad is to find my people. At least for now.