I did not want to move from Accra to London. My intention was to go to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. There, I would study Publishing (I have only ever imagined a career that involved the written word). I would also join one of the amazing, vibrant choirs the university is well known for and become a music director. This was the great ambition of my post-High School self, and the prospect of being yanked out of this dream was not something I had considered. As if by fate, I could not secure admission into any universities in Ghana. Strangely, I applied to universities in the UK with the same West African Senior Secondary School Examinations Certificate and gained admission. I applied for a scholarship and secured that as well. All of this was done under the watchful eyes and ironfist insistence of my parents so that my protestations on leaving Ghana were silenced. The decision was made and I was shipped off at the earliest convenience.
The UK was always the obvious international choice because my mother spent some of her childhood with her family who still live there. My father attended the Sandhurst Military Academy when he was around my age and he pursued his Master’s degree at the Royal Military College at Cranfield later in life. I only looked at universities in London because most of my extended family in the UK was based in the city. I realise now that, perhaps in order to preserve the sense of comfort I was about to lose so unwillingly, I was making sure that I would have a soft landing and a sense of familiarity to fall back on.
Growing up, I had a very singular view of the world: a narrow sense of ambition and my only concept of real movement involved a four hour bus ride to boarding school for three years. So it was a big deal to be uprooted and placed into the wider world. In fact, the major first step in the discovery of my global self was the realisation that I did not merely “go” to London, I moved there. For someone who was shifting his entire life to a new location, I travelled very light. My suitcase did not weigh any more than 12 kg. I was leaving my place of origin by shedding any hindering psychological and physical fixtures. I left room for a “refilling” and it really hit home that I was now in a position to discover new facets of myself and the world around me.
There were inevitable changes that occurred as I slowly discovered my global self. At first, they were cosmetic. There were new inflections, sighs and expressions which had not been there before. However, the changes became more pronounced and more internal as time went on. The way I perceived the world changed; I made room for blurred lines and grey areas in place of the hard lines that had governed my outlook on life up until that point.
During my initial time as an international student, my “hard lines” mostly consisted of hitting back against things which I regarded as an affront to my moral and religious views.
I remember defending Israel with such insistence during a debate in class, while admittedly lacking adequate information that would have allowed for a more balanced perspective. While I was careful to not seem like I was bashing Palestine, I was not going to sit around and not speak up for the “promised land of the chosen ones”. So, while it ended up being a healthy healthy debate, I look back now on it with the awareness that I did not entirely know what I was talking about.
I remember turning my nose up at a girl in one of my classes who would come in with heavy Gothic makeup and clothes. While a part of me thought she looked pretty cool, I could hear the voices of my people from back home saying, “Hmm, that is demonic, oh!”, and I secretly agreed. I could not see and appreciate differences early on in my life as an international student. The progressive blurring of these lines was significant and good for me as a young African whose identity was too defined by religion and a sense of Christian morality that left little room and understanding for the way the rest of the world thinks and functions. I was experiencing humanity and learning that the grey areas that I was discovering really did not impinge on my already established sense of morality and values.
The discoveries I made were exciting and becoming more relevant to the way I lived my everyday life. At Middlesex University, I was in an international students programme and I interacted with other students from all over the world include the UAE, Tanzania, Japan, Latvia, Romania and from many other countries that I had never thought to meet people from. I quickly learned that calling people from Asia “oriental” was not okay just because it was something I had heard on TV (this is something I actually said in class and I am still embarrassed by my cringeworthiness).
I also learned that I did not represent the entirety of the African experience just because I was the only African in the room.
This last point came clear when I was involved in a discussion on family dynamics. I was asked what my family was like and if I was close to my parents. My immediate thought was not to think about my own family but to think about “African families” and the stereotype that African parents and their children are not close because the parents are usually strict disciplinarians. I was also comparing this stereotype to the representation of “Western families” I had seen on television. You know, kids sometimes calling their parents by their first names and saying anything that comes to mind, even if it was entirely rude without fear of a slap across the face or a knock on the head.
I ended up answering, “I am as close to my parents as any African kid is to their parents; not very close.” This was not a clear answer, especially because it was not true. I am very close with my mother and, ironically, I now call her by her first name and she does not bat an eyelid. In retrospect, I realized I felt an unfounded pressure to represent Africa and I quickly learned that while well-intentioned, that in itself demeans what Africanness means. No single individual can ever represent the complexity of such a diverse continent.
It was these lessons that opened my eyes to the truths I needed to know. Through these lessons, the internal displacement I felt as a result of my move was refilled with a perfect blend of the right outlook and attitude I needed to survive my relocation. They helped me discover my global self with curiosity, reflection, respect, and acceptance.
I never experienced a dilution of my sense of self. Instead I experienced the power and opportunity that global movement provides for discovering the different facets of who we inherently are and who we can grow to become.