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Africa Calling: Lessons, Reflections and Portraits of A Fulbright Scholar’s Journey to Ghana

Photo caption: JOHN FOUNTAIN SPEAKS at the Black History Month celebration held in February 2022 at the W. E. B. DuBois Centre for Pan African Culture in Accra, Ghana. The photo appears on the organization’s website. (Photo: Provided) 

A 2021-22, Fulbright scholar to Ghana, the author reflects on his time in Ghana, now one year after returning to America and also shares poetic portraits and photos he captured there.

I watched from the shore of Lake Volta in Ghana, the largest man-made lake in the world—about 250 miles long and covering 3,283 square miles—as dozens of sweat-washed African men joined together as one. They heaved beneath a baking sun, fighting against crashing waves, the wind and sinking sand until finally they had pulled the mammoth fishing boat ashore.

With each pull on two taut ropes with no gloves, they chanted in unison words I could not understand. It was if their collective battle cry mixed with grunts and determination, and the cohesion of soldiers, emanated from deep within their spirits, each brother’s strength and purpose converging on cue and in euphonic rhythm for the laborious task at hand.

Most of the men were not fishers on this boat, though most were indeed fishermen, at least Voltarians, drawn together by a glaring and most pressing need. By their struggle in common, and by the unspoken understanding that today I help you and tomorrow you help me.

It was, for me, a lesson in community. An exercise in brotherhood. An example of the power of many, moving passionately and purposefully as one for one, with an understanding that individual gain within the context of community is a victory for all.

“Hey, are you just going to take pictures?” I remember one man yelling to me in his thickly buttered Ghanian accent as I marveled near trans-like at the cultural beauty that seemed almost ethereal. Some of the men chuckled heartily.

“I’m not doing nothing, bruh. I’m doing much more than that,” I thought to myself, though choosing not to utter a word and continuing instead to capture the moment. “I SEE you. And I hope to allow the world to see you as I do…”

White foam waves crashing. A mammoth blue fishing canoe being pulled ashore by Ghanaian fisherman. A portrait of true brotherhood and community.

Simply beautiful.

Lessons From Ghana:

No. 1: Find Your Tribe. For in it, we live and move and are inspired to fulfill our purpose. Ghana made me more tribal in the sense of discovering a deeper appreciation for who and whose I am: A descendant of enslaved African Americans upon whose backs, blood, sweat and tears, America was built.

In Ghana, the compound word “African-American” never held more meaning, was never for me more empowering. This became central to my restoration of cultural pride and belonging as I dwelled in Ghana, where I often felt rejected.

As I reflected on my tribe—the tribe of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Mary McCleod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Dr. King, and the endless litany of African-American artists, educators, institution builders and freedom fighters, my soul was invigorated, fortified, revived. As I thought about our travail, about our journey as human chattel from Mother Africa to the Middle Passage in the pit of hate, urine and feces-filled slave ships that sailed across the ocean, which alone proved we were the strongest among our brethren to have survived, my soul was uplifted.

As I engaged with and connected with those Americans who now live in Ghana—the African-American Association of Ghana, Mama Loo, Gayle, Telie Woods and others—I found my tribe, my people—those inalterably tied to my history, heart and soul. And I declared—to myself more than to anyone else with pride, renewed strength and sagacity: “I am undeniably African. And I am unapologetically American.”

No. 2: Move Beyond Your Comfort Zone. Beyond our own paradigm is a world filled with knowledge, diversity and opportunity to learn and also share. Therefore, seek to immerse yourself in the culture and experience of indigenous people. Eat the food, drink the drink (within reason and (preferably bottled water); and pack Imodium and a Z-Pak, just in case). Allow yourself to be enlightened, to learn.

No. 3: Expect The Unexpected. Our preconceived notions can debilitate and limit us. And our unpreparedness for unmet expectations can leave us drifting in a sea of disappointment and disability. In Ghana, the power will go out. The water will run out. Everything that works today may not work tomorrow, or even by the end of the day (Try an Airbnb by a Superhost: It can be a savior!). Not everyone will embrace you, but some will. Keeping a healthy perspective can be fuel for the journey. And remember: Everything will be all right.

No. 4: Accept Reality. Believe that it is what it is. Don’t try to change it: Someone’s way of life. How they see the world or their place in it. Don’t impose your own morality or Judeo-Christian, capitalistic western worldview. This is Ghana, not America. Our world of modern conveniences and expectations that have spoiled us to some degree isn’t necessarily the way of the rest of the world. You will survive.

No. 5: Stay connected. Keep in touch with family back home and with new friends and associates (at the university, the U.S. Embassy and beyond). All can prove to be an invaluable resource as you navigate foreign terrain and seek to remain focused and encouraged. (WhatsApp is a free and great way to stay connected to friends and family back home.)

No. 6: Share your truth. Doing so can help dismantle stereotypes. The more you share and are willing to be open and honest, to be inquisitive and also earnest in your desire to learn from others more than you are eager to “teach” them, the greater the likelihood for an invaluable exchange. Listen more than you speak. Sharing our truth is sometimes less about what we say and more about how we walk daily in life and the truth that it reveals about who we are—not only as an American but as a human being and global citizen.

No. 7: Be Grateful. Realize the opportunity we possess, which can so easily slip through our fingertips. Maximize it. See all there is to see. Plan excursions (but be safe). Smell the roses and the coffee! Take in the moments. For they are fleeting. Pen them in real time. Take plenty video and photos. Tell the story. (Creating a blog of your time abroad is a great travel diary.)

No. 8: Be Humble. Maintaining your swag is one thing. But coming off as the ugly loud American is another. Knowing that this perception exists is important to understanding and dealing with the sometimes less-than-warm reception of some local people. Courtesy and kind words can deflect or disarm. It doesn’t always work, however. And being humble doesn’t mean that you never deal firmly with issues or situations. (I was pushed on at least two occasions to the edge of displaying my Chicago Wesssssst Siiiiide roots and vernacular.) But humility, with calmness and grace, I find, are always a better way.

No. 9: Prepare for Reentry Blues. I was grossly unprepared for the mix of emotions of leaving Ghana and also of returning to the United States. In fact, I was completely unaware of the psychological, social, and emotional impact of both departure and reentry. Being aware that there will be an adjustment to returning home after several months to a year of living in another country a world away is a good first step. Being able to talk openly about my thoughts and feelings was a good second step. And allowing myself the time—however long it takes—to process the experience in its totality, I found, was critical to finding my way back to level ground.

No. 10: Just Get To It. At my worst moment, vacillating between feelings of depression and thoughts of wholesale abandoning my scholarship—amid catching COVID, and a university teachers’ strike that threatened to eliminate the teaching component of my Fulbright, someone said to me: “Just get to it.” (Thank you, Maya Parker!)

So I did. I just got to it— volunteering to conduct a series of webinars for the University of Ghana—Legon, which eventually began its semester, enabling me to teach. I hosted a series of other webinars for schools and universities back home as well as for the African-American Association of Ghana.

I conducted a host of interviews across Accra for my research, visiting churches and communities, markets and villages, and capturing hundreds of photos and countless hours of video. I built a website ( to chronicle my journey as a Fulbright scholar, writing poems, stories and commentary and sharing photos, video and podcasts.

Before leaving Ghana, I designed and led a three-day capacity-building journalism workshop for more than 40 Ghana Broadcasting Company journalists at the invitation of the GBC’s inspector general. When he contacted me, he said he had come across that first webinar and, although unable to attend, decided immediately that he should invite me to speak to his staff. All of this never would have happened had I not chosen to “just get to it.” I am eternally grateful that I did.



I still do not understand

Have yet to comprehend

Her beauty

Her hold upon

The soul

That breathes her in

With heaping inhalations

Her winds

In deep denominations

Of Heat

And Cool

Her tranquil pools

Along rock-laden, sandy ocean shores

Where waves crash and roar

But this one thing I know:

I miss Ghana

Even if I still do not fully comprehend

Something Special Called Jazz

Some call her Ghana. I call her Jazz.

Sometimes jagged and scratching the soul with dissonant chords that rise and fall.

She is the sound of cymbals that come crashing down.

Of sometimes staccato rhythms.

Of music that builds to a screeching crescendo

then suddenly disappears into silence.

Jazz. Ghana is jazz. Sister to the Blues.

Descendant of the sacred hymnal.

Born of the drum.

Beckoning African sun to her children across the Black Diaspora.

She reaches the soul like the melancholy wail of Mile Davis’ horn.

Soothing. Lifting. Kissing blissfully.

Healing the soul wearied by racial hate and shame,

and the pain of that centuries-old river

that flows with DNA Trauma of the souls of Black folk.

By sufferings that gave birth to the Negro Spiritual.

 To hymns. To Soul Music, Gospel, the Blues, and Jazz.

I call her Jazz.

And I could never rinse my soul of her sassy rhythms and sweet melodies

Of the way she moves me–grooves me–with mental and spiritual surety

of being Black like me, here in this place that exists on the other side of my world.

Ghana is home away from home, deepening her hold

 Causing me to explore more intensely the call that led me here

on this sojourn to the Motherland.

There is something in the way the aura of this land

Washes over me daily when the morning comes.

Like warm rays of golden sun.

That fills my lungs with the taste of African breath, freedom & life

that I have never known.

That says to me, “Son, you’re home.”

There is something about the way Ghana embraces me at night

When the wind arrives to cool this ancestral land of melanin-skinned folk,

Where brown and coal and shades of coffee with cream

form a chocolate rainbow of humanity.

Something about the way this coastal African city rises

With the hum and buzz of traffic and hawking street merchants

on the Spintex Road and across Accra

Amid the darting motorbikes that snake through traffic with reckless abandon.

There is something about this place. Something…

Something special.

I call her Jazz…


Madam Queen

Strong Black sister

Madam Queen

Carrying the weight

of the world

Beneath blazing African sun

Head lifted high

Back straight

Baby in tow

Wrapped in African cloth

Staring off

Into the haze

Of traffic

And this pressing crush of humanity

Without vanity

Madam Queen

Walks poised

Neck erect

Sidestepping gracefully

Sandy holes

Earthen souls

& Craters

With runway model precision

I listen

To the beat

of their hearts

To the whispering

Of their souls

That long for homes

For some place

To lay their heads

Besides the streets

At night

Upon unforgiving beds

With no pillows

For their heads

Madams Queen

Lying beneath

The stars

that honor their day-long strenuous labor & sacrifice

That does not yield

Enough for sustenance & life

And still,

They rise

When morning comes

Arising to a new African sun

That pales in comparison to the glory

Of the splendor

I see

Madam Queen

Happy People

Smoke fish at the wharf

Through the haze

Of sun-blazed Ghanaian days

As wood-burnt heat

Rises from these still

filled grills


No grass growing


Busy barren feet

Industrious tasks

to complete

Before sundown

Fishermen mend and stitch

Their nets

Amid the scent of sea & humanity

In sand and grit

Of plantain


And vast canoes

now stilled

Stretching for as far

as the eyes can see

At pause

As some here now

Rest or Sleep

Amid this market’s




Heart’s beat

Mornin’ catch

roasts golden brown

And the ground

is laden

With tiny fish

That lie


And all around

A People

Coal to Brown

With souls of gold

And humble crowns

Illuminate this corner

of West African atmosphere

With strong hands and backs

That don’t break

And unwearied eyes

And pride

You can’t take

And the sun pales in comparison

To their smiles

Upon Their Faces

Within these ancestral faces

Of horror

Of shock

Of anguish

And of pain

Lie history’s shame


Almost unspeakable

Unforgettably enshrined

upon these hallowed grounds

That paint

A clear

and searing picture

Of man’s inhumanity

to the Black body

Of hidden figures


by shackles

And by chains

by nooses

and by hate

By centuries of that bloody

and inconceivable fate

called Slavery:

A “Peculiar Institution”

In which the newborn of the enslaved

could not be

born free..

And for centuries

There existed

this great tragedy

Called, “The Maafa”

The memory of which some would now choose to have


And Black History whitewashed

As if someone other than us

Picked their cotton

As if we

did not dangle like strange fruit

From poplar trees

Or face Massa’s whip

And myriad cruelties

Created by his limitless, hateful imaginations

But here, rotten hate

And brutality


for all the world to see

Faces sculpted

In moist African clay

By inspired hands

Filled with grace

To tell the tale

Of hate

almost beyond Imagination

Of suffering

And the manifestation

Of abomination

Of degradation

That must not now


Be erased

Or denied


Or rewritten

Or else smoothed over

by White Lies

Thou shalt not

silence these cries!

…I hear

The jagged piercing wail

Of my ancestors dying

Of pregnant women

Nearing birth

And also death


The crashing

Of hearts capsizing

It is the plain truth etched upon these faces.

In this most sacred of places

That bears a story for the ages

Sealed eternally by blood

And a sculptor’s mud

instead of pages

In these, my ancestor’s faces.


Email: [email protected]

John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain
Professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University | [email protected] | Website | + posts

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”

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