“Do you really want to go to Africa?”
This is a question I get asked surprisingly often, as I’m going to be spending the rest of 2015 studying abroad in Ghana and Morocco. This inquiry usually comes up after I’ve informed someone that instead of studying in a quaint European town, I’m traveling to what is still considered the “third world.” But I couldn’t be more excited to go.
From a young age, I’ve always loved to travel, but my parents and I never went on conventional vacations. When I was 11, I took a few weeks off of school and traveled around New Zealand in a camper caravan with my family. And we always dreaded the family reunions on Caribbean cruises, not only because we had to spend time with our relatives, but be with a bunch of Americans on a gas-guzzling monster boat.
Inspired by our love of travel, my family hosted a variety of foreign exchange students, including a girl from Ghana named Michelle. She gave us kente cloth, a silk and cotton fabric known for its vibrant colors, and made us jollof rice, a traditional Ghanaian dish. Before she left, she invited my whole family to visit her in Ghana, and I knew I would eventually take her up on that offer.
Fast-forward through years of French, international studies and journalism classes in which I learned about African history, media and culture, and I knew it was finally time to visit the continent I’d spent so much time studying about.
As an African studies minor, I feel obligated to visit as many places as possible on the continent. Of course, it sounds silly to even say “Africa” as a singular space,” as there are significant cultural differences not only across borders, but also within countries. Even in Ghana, there are over 100 different ethnic groups. I decided to study in Morocco and Ghana partially because both countries are so different from each other.
There are also many personal reasons why I want to study in Africa instead of some city that would make my grandmother feel more at ease. I’ve traveled to Europe before, and while I enjoyed it, it’s hard to justify traveling to a place I have already visited when there are so many more countries left unexplored.
In addition, while there are cultural differences between Western Europe and the United States (dinner at 9 p.m. is always an adjustment), I usually feel surprisingly comfortable in European cities. In simple travel clothes and speaking respectable French, I eerily feel like I fit in.
I know that traveling to Ghana and Morocco will be more of a cultural shift. I have never lived in very religious or conservative places, but in both countries, dominant religions play an important role in everyday life. Around 71 percent of Ghanaians are Christian and a striking 99 percent of Moroccans are Muslim and both still do not provide equal rights to women and queer people.
Consequently, this is also where some of the criticism I get for traveling to Africa comes from, as many Americans still view it as dangerous. I can’t count the number of times that someone has questioned my decision to travel to countries that are “unsafe.”
Most of the time, these comments catch me off guard, and I’m often stuck scrambling to figure out what I want to say. This is especially frustrating when I’m forced to justify myself to people who have never even traveled to Ghana or Morocco.
Additionally, many of these remarks have come from men telling me that as a woman, it is “risky” for me to travel to Africa. There is a persisting stereotype that woman have to worry more about their safety abroad. This sexist opinion, besides being mostly false, also raises the question of whether women should still be policed about where they can and can’t go.
Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think that there are not certain places in the world where it is unsafe for women to be in the public sphere, but these are the minority. While I try to silence the comments of these sexist naysays, it’s hard not to take them personally.
From speaking with women who have visited Morocco and Ghana, I have heard stories of intense street harassment that could rival what I hear walking past herds of frat bros on a Friday night. But the point is not to see this harassment as a determent.
Instead, there are valid critiques of white people going to Africa, especially when it comes to being conscious of your impact on local communities. Often, I struggle to not sound like a privileged white person traveling to Africa, even though I am. I know that I have grown frustrated by friends who travel to a developing country, be it in Africa or another part of the Global South, and come back “changed.”
I believe much more productive discussion can occur when discussing the role I play as an American journalist and student traveling to Africa than whether it is “unsafe” for me to go there. But I’ve also found a good way to get around that question.
Now, when someone asks me, “Do you really want to go to Africa,” I say, “Yes.”