Finding Acceptance in Ghana

-Anthony Cotton, RPCV

I am sobbing in the Banana Lady’s arms. It is July 2008 – almost two years since I last found myself here in the rural village in central Ghana where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2004 to 2006 – and I am mourning the loss of my dreams.

Me and Maame

When I first arrived in the village I was lost. I couldn’t speak very much Twi, didn’t know anyone, and wasn’t sure how to start my projects. None of that mattered to the Banana Lady. She invited me to her house for meals, checked on me when I was sick, insisted on giving me free bananas everyday, and sat patiently as I tried to communicate in her language. Once my Twi skills improved, we spent many nights talking, playing with her grandchildren, and enjoying each other’s company. Even though I was always an outsider in the village, I was at home with the Banana Lady. After a few months, I began to call her Maame (Mom). It just felt right.

No matter how tight our bond grew, I never shared one of my personal struggles with Maame. I joined the Peace Corps suspecting that I was gay, and with every intention of using my time in Ghana to come to terms with and accept my sexuality. After a year I came out to my fellow PCVs, who were supportive, and the Peace Corps Medical Officer, who advised me not to come out to any Ghanaians. She informed me that several LGBT PCVs who chose to come out to Ghanaians in the past had been molested or abused. That was enough to convince me to come out only to Americans.

I spent the remainder of my service living the typical LGBT PCV double life, being open with Americans and closeted with Ghanaians. As time went on, I started having conversations with Ghanaians about LGBT rights, painted murals throughout the village featuring pink triangles and the Human Rights Campaign logo, and even flirted with a Ghanaian man who I thought, under a different set of cultural norms, might be openly gay. Even though I never came out to any Ghanaians in my village, I was pushing the envelope and life was good.

Thwart Reality

When I completed my service I was sad but ready to move on. I said goodbye to the village and to Maame, but promised that I would return after completing graduate school in New York City. By that point, I had determined my long-term goals included living in West Africa and working for an NGO with an economic development mission. In my vision of my future, I would be back in Ghana frequently, perhaps permanently.

Living and studying in New York City was everything I had hoped for. I fed my professional aspirations by diving head first into my studies of economic development, sustainable agriculture, and humanitarian interventions in West Africa. Meanwhile, I became the poster-boy for LGBT equality on campus; I led large-scale efforts to increase the university’s support of LGBT students and became involved in local and national advocacy campaigns. I loved being out, and displayed the rainbow flags and pins to prove it.

When my graduate program offered me the chance to return to work and study in West Africa during the summer of 2008, I jumped at the opportunity. After two months in Burkina Faso, I traveled to Ghana to visit my Peace Corps village, where a large homecoming awaited me. Memories flooded back as villagers lined up to say hello, exchange hugs, and give me presents. Maame treated me like royalty, of course. At first, it felt like nothing had changed. Over the next week, though, the euphoria began to subside, and reality began to sink in. I had grown accustomed to living openly and honestly in New York City, and was now extremely uncomfortable being even the slightest bit closeted.

Things that didn’t bother me during my Peace Corps service now hit me hard. Every time someone asked me, “Why don’t you have a wife?” I shuttered as I offered an incomplete and insincere response. I felt like I betrayed my dignity each time I wanted to mention my boyfriend, but didn’t. Suddenly, the idea of leading a double life again seemed completely impossible. My dream of living and working in West Africa was in conflict with my need to live a fully open life, and there was no chance to reconcile them.

The night before I left the village for the second time, Maame and I shared one last conversation. Every part of me wanted to come out to her, but for my safety and for her peace of mind, I did not. Instead we talked about our dreams. She told me she dreams of setting up a fruit stand in the center of the village, and making enough money to send all of her grandchildren to high school. Then she asked me if I still had the same dream – to come back to live in West Africa and help create opportunities for people like her. I looked at her, and then at the Human Rights Campaign mural I had painted on her wall, and I broke down.

I cried for everything I wanted to tell her but couldn’t. I cried for knowing, at that very moment, that I would never be happy living in West Africa. I cried because I thought there was no way she could understand what I was going through, and that there was no way I could explain it. She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed tightly. I struggled through my tears to tell her that something had changed in my life – something I couldn’t tell her about – and that I didn’t think I would be able to be happy living in West Africa again. I started to apologize, but she stopped me.

“Tony, it’s OK. You are my son. All a mother needs from her son is for him to be happy. If you promise me you’ll do what you need to do to be happy, then I can take great joy in that. I will be proud of you no matter what decision you make.”

I looked up and smiled a little, knowing that she had just released me from my struggle.

The writer can be contacted at anthony.cotton@gmail.com

She’s Finally Gone Over the Edge

-Rose Rosely, RPCV Ghana

Why would somebody quit a perfectly fabulous career working in the animation business in Los Angeles, making enough money to fly up to San Francisco every other weekend if she felt like it, to take a job where she earned about a hundred dollars a month? Or why give up a spacious rent controlled apartment at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, which all her friends couldn’t believe she got in the first place, for a two-room mud hut? Why sell her brand new car for half of what it was worth, give away or sell almost every possession she owned, and kiss a lover of thirteen on-and-off again years goodbye promising to write? It sounds crazy ridiculous, downright stupid. If my grandmother were still living she would have asked, “Honey, are you okay?”

In retrospect, it all makes sense. I have found that I love living life one adventure after another. At the time, though, I’ll admit it did seem a little absurd. Here I was about to turn 40 in a couple of years and all I had was 70 lbs. of material possessions that the airline would allow me to take along to Ghana, West Africa where I was to be an environment volunteer in the far north of the country. My qualifications for being an environmental candidate? Well, I’d had a few ornamental gardens at houses that I’d owned along the way and living in LA I could certainly vouch for the ugliness of a smoggy sky.

This article is a result of my response to an inquiry on the LGB RPCV listserv from someone who is considering joining Peace Corps. He was asking our collective community of RPCVs what we thought about his leaving his stable job because in his words, “at my age it may be professional suicide.” True, but in this day and age, some of the things that seem most stable seem to crumble and fall at our feet. Like me, he’s older than the majority of volunteers who are in their twenties, he’s afraid of what’s going to happen to his life after the two years overseas, and he’s gay. He’s having the last minute jitters before sending in his application. When I responded to him, I’d simply hit reply and so everybody else on the listserv got my two cents too. Michael, the editor of this newsletter, saw it and asked me to elaborate. So, let’s go.

Being a volunteer was the most amazing time of my life. I left Ghana thinking that if I died tomorrow, then it would be okay. Seriously, because I’d lived enough in the last three years to consider it a wonderful life. Nothing I have done has compared to my experience living in a rural community in a developing country. My brain and all my senses were summoned every morning when the roosters crowed and they were working until I fell asleep at the end of the day out under the stars. I actually looked forward to the sun coming up, knowing that it would get hot enough to brew tea on my front porch. Then there was the long ride to town 15km down a bush path on a bicycle, the soup made from baobab leaves that we ate from one bowl, the small market that happened every three days where I could buy tomatoes and onions, and the women who came to the literacy class I started. Some days you’d reel because you were bombarded with too much reality: a kid convulsing from malarial fever, a thief being beaten under the mango tree or a crippled man dragging himself down the road. You learn to let go, to let the day unravel, to exhale, to be blown by the winds from the Saharan desert during harmattan, to just be.

To feel full up, spilling over with the everyday of life, is something that we all chase but rarely have the opportunity to catch. I ran after it and grabbed and didn’t let go. Right before leaving Ghana, I wrote home to friends and family that it was a good thing that stories didn’t weigh anything or else I’d have to leave too much behind. My head and heart were overflowing with memories and feelings. In the three years living and working with another culture (the Ghanaian people who are the friendliest people on the planet) was a heart expanding, mind blowing, soul rejuvenating, self challenging experience that will always make me feel full up.

It seems that I’m living life backwards. When I was twenty-something I bought my first house, planted a garden, dug into my career. It seemed that I was settled and successful. Now, that I’m forty-something I’m courting wanderlust and adventure and feeling like a rolling stone.

Even so, in the beginning, being around all the volunteers who had just finished college was not what I was expecting. You’d think, from the marketing that Peace Corps does, that the volunteers are just one big happy Benetton ad. Or? Most of the volunteers are young, white and straight. Or? I’d left gay Hollywood, where the queens from South America that lived in my building use to meringue around the pool on Sundays in heels, and ended up in the middle of West Africa feeling alone and out of place with one foot back in the closet. Horrified that I’d just ruined my life, thrown away everything that I’d worked so hard to get, I wanted to go home before training was finished. It took some time to find my feet, but when I did there was no more falling down.

The community of volunteers is like marrying into a big crazy family. You hate ‘em, you love ‘em but no matter what, you’re stuck with ‘em. So, figure it out. It’s actually one of the coolest things about Peace Corps. You end up getting to know people that you’d never give a second chance to in the States. I’d say that there are definitely some difficult diversity issues but most of them are complicated by how we ourselves deal with it. For me, once the shock wore off, I found myself relaxing and finding my place. I’ve made friends for life and am instantly connected to a myriad of interesting folks because of this experience.

Now, that I’m back, I’m having to figure out what to immerse myself in next. It’s not a piece of cake. In fact all the possibilities make my head spin. My mom says that I’m like a cat, always landing with my feet on the ground. Ground please? And another returned friend’s words, “yeah, some of us dream about living but then there’s those of us that live like we’re in a dream.” I’m just accepting that the beginning and the ending of things are a bit of a struggle like the butterfly emerging from its cocoon just before taking flight. I’m a little stuck at the moment, but not for long.

Rose Rosely returned home last November. You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers