Family and History Mix during a Fulbright Year
A Personal and Intellectual Journey in Ghana
To mark the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright Program in 2021, Perspectives Daily offers a miniseries of personal narratives from historians about their Fulbright experiences.
The news left me feeling humbled and ecstatic at the same time. I had been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to conduct one year of field research in Accra, Ghana, in 2005–6. The opportunity arrived at a pivotal point in my personal and intellectual journey as both a woman of Ghanaian and African American heritage and as an emerging scholar of African and Ghanaian history. My Fulbright year was a transformative experience intellectually and culturally, but it also allowed me to explore personal and family histories that required extended time in a different country.
Despite brief visits in my teenage and college years, Ghana, my father’s home country, and Accra, his home city, were somewhat foreign to me. My parents’ separation in New York City and my mother’s move to another country when I was young led to years of estrangement from my father and the country that would later become the site of my research and scholarship. I grew up in northern Nigeria, and my African American mother was committed to imparting a strong sense of pride and connection to our Ghanaian and African heritage to my sister and me. Years later, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I was on the cusp of exploring that background through living in a country and researching a topic that would bring me closer to my Ghanaian heritage. It also promised to bring me closer to my father and his extended family.
My Fulbright year began as they all do—at the airport. A friend and colleague picked me up and drove me to her parents’ home, where I would reside for the first half of my time in Accra. I heard several languages, including Ga and Twi, as we left the terminal. With my quintessentially Ga name and basic Hausa phrases learned in Nigeria, I blended neatly into any group of people walking by. But I did not speak any of the local languages, even my father’s Ga.
Nevertheless, I was embarking on dissertation research on the history of Ga communities in Accra and how they reconfigured local practices while contesting British colonial rule during the first half of the 20th century. With the encouragement of my host family and support from faculty at the University of Ghana, Legon, it took just a few months to feel confident in my new home. I soon traversed the city, gained familiarity with the Public Records and Archives Department, where I spent months perusing colonial archival material, and engaged local people in their knowledge about and experience of the land and chieftaincy politics of past and present. I took Ga lessons and interviewed, with the help of a translator, Ga chiefs, elders, priestly authorities, and local citizens with intimate knowledge of the colonial and contemporary arenas. All my interviewees were kind and accepted me, despite my American accent and limited knowledge of the language.
As my research evolved, so did I. I visited my father—who had retired and returned to live in Ghana after three decades in the United States—and extended family in suburbs across Accra. In jest, they often wondered how someone with a name like mine didn’t speak Ga! But I didn’t mind at all, as it was motivated by affection. I learned many basic phrases, including idioms and slang that my family members seemed to enjoy teaching me. Participating in Ga festivals, eating homemade Ga dishes with family, attending weddings, and celebrating birthdays were deeply meaningful as I got to know my father’s extended family, history, and a part of myself that I had never known. The Fulbright year enabled me to balance my research life with my family life while I traveled across the country, living and learning about the country that was my subject and my homeland.
During my year in Ghana, I benefited from the resources and networks that a Fulbright fellowship opens for its fellows. I connected with a diverse group of people from all walks of life living and working in Ghana, learned from them, and grew as a person. I developed lasting friendships with members of the African American community living in Ghana, which offered new models for embracing multiple identities and my African diaspora background. New connections to African diasporic peoples reminded me of my mother’s experiences in Nigeria and her desire to live and work in Africa—a mark of her generation’s desires to live the pan-African dream by returning to the continent.
My Fulbright fellowship allowed me to solidify professional and personal friendships and build new, long-term relationships with professionals at various institutions in Ghana, all of which would cement my ability to conduct historical research and collaboration with local scholars long after my Fulbright year ended. The fellowship opened multiple doors for success that range from the joys of sending my published book to universities and libraries in Ghana, creating and eventually leading a Ghana foreign study program in Accra—the first of its kind at my university—to participating in African studies workshops, conferences, and triennial Ghana studies meetings. Further, my Fulbright experience offered me ample professional development and provided me with the opportunity for regular trips to the country of my father’s family and my research. Perhaps most importantly, it fueled a personal, professional, and intellectual journey that continues to unfold.
Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch is associate professor of history at Dartmouth College.
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