2018 Summer Bisi Oyelola CIEE External Programs Ghana

The Missing Piece to My Identity: Reflections on Studying Abroad in Ghana

It has been some time since I left Ghana to return home to the States, and while I have readjusted back to American life, I have discovered some things about myself from my study abroad experience.  I always thought about Ghana and Africa as a faraway place—untouchable. As if to be “Ghanaian,” you must live, breathe, and embody the culture. I expected that I would struggle with this aspect of adjusting within the country because I only had bits and pieces of what I knew of African and West African culture. However, the innate thoughts of anxiety eased as I settled in the country, and I found more similarities between local Ghanaians and myself than I did differences. Differences did occur, but while they shouldn’t be overlooked, one will find differences in any cultural comparison. No person is exactly like one another–a lesson I realized more deeply through my experience abroad.

Some of these cultural and societal differences make for a sound and engaging connection, but can also create divides that are hard to articulate or address. Personally, the more frustrating parts of Ghana for me were the more traditional gender roles and the disconnect between the African experience and African-American experience. In class while abroad, we spoke about reproductive health and its progression from colonial law to Ghanaian law. The 1985 abortion amendment allowed legal abortions in the case of incest or rape, endangerment to the health of the mother, and if the child is at risk for a serious abnormality or disease, therefore shifting “blame” from the woman and placing it on the circumstantial aspects that may lead an expecting mother to abort her child. However, even though the law changed, the everyday interactions enforce the role of women as mothers in Ghanaian society, a similar role projected upon American women as well.  It was interesting to visit a country where I have heritage in and see the traces that link me to my Ghanaian culture, but to also see how this culture simultaneously engages/disengages with me.

Similarly, Ghanaian culture is welcoming, but also very cunning. One of our directors at orientation warned us about this dynamic–that you may feel at ease while navigating Accra, but not to relax on safety precautions. In other words, although Ghanaians are very warm and friendly, the “foreigner” status is still stamped on your forehead, and thus you are labeled as such and treated like one. While being a foreigner is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s something that I was aware of during my time there. But overall, the experience changed how I see the world, particularly Western Africa and its advancement. The person-to-person interaction personalized the experience for me and though there were amenities that lacked compared to the U.S., I did not feel their absence as much I as would I didn’t have them back home. Above all, what I’ve learned the most from studying abroad is that the experience is what you make it out to be. I always thought that the culture you grow up defines you most, but after studying abroad, I believe the purpose and drive involved in studying abroad defines you morePersonally, I feel believe the purpose and drive involved in studying abroad in the country that you’ve chosen defines you in ways that even growing up and living there wouldn’t. All experiences–whether good or bad–are learning experiences.

Moreover, choosing to study in a country that you are ethnically from is not as easy as it appears to be. There are certain anxieties and expectations from local people, as well as culture differences that can be alienating. However, choosing to study abroad in a place where you’ve never been before but see and hear through your mom is liberating. It’s a truly incredible experience. The warmth and accepting nature of my family, program, and advisers made Ghana feel like home, filling the missing piece to my identity.

This bracelet was given to me by a family friend. She hand made it for me to represent my ties to Ghana.


  1. Beautifully written post.
    It’s such a different perspective- native country yet alien in so many ways. 🙂
    It’s great that you had the opportunity to study abroad- that too in the country your mom is from.

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