by
on November 14, 2017 on 11/14/17

Holding Space in a New Place

Briana Powell and I take a selfie at Umbrella Rock in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

The best part about studying abroad has been the people I have met and grown close to on my CIEE program, on other international programs, and at the University of Ghana. In my program, I immediately and naturally gravitated toward the familiarity I saw in others based on racial and ethnic backgrounds during orientation. As the trip progressed, those similarities mattered more and more in addition to those surrounding socioeconomic class, sexuality, family life, and mental health.

The particular kind of support I receive from and give to these friends can be described as holding space, a phrase defined by deeply personal dialogue between people that allow them to be vulnerable in cathartic ways. We all brought so much more with us to Ghana that needed to be unpacked and claimed than our baggage. Furthermore, the new and different environment of Ghana has compounded existing conflicts revolving around our racial identities and experiences. Therefore, speaking to one another has become a practice directly tied to truly understanding our respective and collective study abroad experiences.

Two notable conversations I have had have been about mental health and differences between how black people in the United States and Africa perceive it. In one conversation, I joined a group of black students on my program who were taking with two Nigerian students one night. We argued against their beliefs that conditions like depression are Western or mainly white things by explaining the many problems the black community faces that the media fails to accurately show. In another conversation, I discussed the mental health of Ghanaians as well as the effects of living in the U.S. on the black psyche with a Ghanaian classmate and a teacher’s assistant. I shared my motivations for studying abroad in a predominantly black country to relieve myself of the draining reality of living in a predominantly white country. They shared the challenges their Ghanaian friends have had after moving to the U.S as well as locally in Ghana that have impacted their mental health. It is in these moments that I not only realized the trauma affecting black people across borders, but our capacity to restore one another’s dignity by holding space for these talks to happen in a world committed to stripping us of it.

On this trip, I have given thought to my own mental health, specifically my feelings of anxiety. I have done this mostly due to the fact that I have met other people who have been open with their mental health. I have also shared my personal, romantic, academic, and professional goals while listening to those of others. Receiving and giving blessings for these goals resisted the often overwhelming thoughts of how systems of oppression threatened these goals. Consequently, the friendships I have made here serve as crucial determinants of my successes not only in Ghana as a student, but after this semester as a person.

At night in the International Students Hostel, on the lengthy walks to and from buildings around campus, and during pockets of time in between classes, I have discussed the intensity of black people’s lives throughout the diaspora, expressing our stories of happiness along with those of hardship. My chosen family here has a genuine concern for the well-being of ourselves as oppressed people who are also committed to one another’s prosperity. That concern has manifested in many ways. Hugs. Sharing or buying meals. Head nods that affirmed anyone talking during the hours we reflected on and analyzed our lives. Daily check-ins on how our spirits are doing. My friends convincing me to go on a weekend getaway to refresh myself despite my hesitations due to financial constraints and my workload. Through it all, holding space has indeed been a saving grace.

(From left to right) Kwame C., me, Enuma Okafor, Liz Williams, Ayaana Sabb, and Rayyon Robinson during our weekend getaway trip to the Volta Region.