Ghana’s Outstretched Hand

Recalling her first trip to Africa, a Black journalist reflects on missed opportunities—and a legacy she’s finally ready to explore.

Ghana’s Outstretched Hand

Photo by Dream Big/Shutterstock

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I’m standing in a sparsely treed courtyard in Ghana, Africa, when her voice reaches my ears. When I turn to look, my eyes lock with a slight woman dressed in a traditional West African print. She is reaching for my arm and suggesting I go with her.

The moment is etched in my memory, even though our meeting was almost 25 years ago; even though I can’t remember the name of the village we were standing in or the precise timeline of my journey there. Still, I can see her clearly and hear the English, thick with accent, she directed at me—imploring me to follow her into the potential of a lineage I know nothing about. And just as clearly, I can feel the fear that rose in me as I made the decision to decline.

At the time the decision felt responsible. I was being the professional I had come here to be. I needed to separate myself from the story. I needed to be a real journalist.

Months earlier I had convinced my editors at the Toronto Star newspaper that I—one of the youngest reporters in the newsroom—should be sent to follow a group of Black teenagers from a socioeconomically disadvantaged area of the city to Africa.

There had been an essay contest and the prize was a trip to Ghana for the lucky winners to connect with their ancestral roots. I had reported the story of the contest winners and promptly pitched myself as the best reporter to accompany the group of teens and document their experience firsthand.

It worked, and soon I was prepping and planning, taking the necessary vaccinations, filling out the paperwork, and finally boarding the plane alongside the group.

Ghana was the first country I ever visited in Africa. And I brought with me many of the colonizer’s ideas about what I’d meet there. But the wild animals and tribal dangers that peppered popular books and movies weren’t a part of the Africa I found.

From the moment I arrived, it was as if my entire body was buzzing with a new energy, a nervous excitement. That low hum continued within me throughout the trip, rising and falling with each new encounter and experience.

I fell hard for the beauty of bold clothing patterns that defied Western fashion rules with their “no stripes with polka dots” type edicts and instead, marveled at the creative combinations of shapes and patterns that emblazoned dresses and head wraps, resulting in stunning fashion statements.

I was taken aback by the intensity of competing smells: wood burning in the distance; the funk that comes from a gathering of a lot of people in a small space without the benefit of anything stronger than an electric fan to stir the air; the fragrant, smoky mix of incense rising out of windows; and saltwater blowing in from the shores.

Even the way the dust settled between the gaps in my sandals, leaving me literally coated in the country each night, felt prophetic—this was a place that would stay with me long after I’d left it.

* * *

“I can take you to your people.”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard this invitation offered.

Throughout our trip, a similar encouragement had been directed at others in the group. Most recently, it had happened to one of the chaperones—a Black man from Toronto—traveling with us. When the chaperone had explained that he didn’t have time now to go to another village, that he had to stay with the group, they had insisted he only needed to turn the corner. Expecting nothing, he agreed and our group, as well as the onlooking locals, followed him for the few steps it took. Minutes later, there was a collective catching of breath. It was like he was looking in a mirror—looking at an almost exact replica of himself in African form.


Photo by Derrick Ofosu Boateng

I was 24 on that trip to Ghana, and yet, somehow naïve enough to think that I—a Black woman—could come to the continent, to the very heart of the Atlantic slave trade, and not connect with the people here on a visceral level.

From the moment I got on the plane, I felt the conflict between my personal experience and professional responsibility. I had been entrusted with a story that many of my older, more senior colleagues would’ve killed for.

I had to prove that sending me was the right thing to do.

And so I made notes dutifully in my spiral-bound notebook. Determined to record as many of the details of my time there as possible. And I was deep in that scribbling when the touch to my arm and the offer to embrace an unknown brought me spiraling back to the present.

My voice caught in my throat. It was my turn. I, too, could take a hand and wander through a laneway and perhaps meet myself, or some reasonable facsimile, on the streets of this wondrous land. For a moment, I wondered at it. What if I went? Who would I meet? What adventure might unfold?

But it only lasted a moment. I was shaking my head no, long before the words came out of my mouth. I couldn’t risk it. I was on my first international assignment, not some personal quest. The arm retracted but the woman continued to stare at me for quite some time.

It haunts me still.

That sliding door opportunity when perhaps, had I let myself go, I might’ve uncovered many of the things about myself that took me years to figure out—including the fact that the most powerful stories I can tell are personal, that personal stories are universal stories and that we connect most when we share them.

But I knew none of that then.

When I returned home, I fulfilled my obligations. I wrote and turned in my just-the-facts article for the paper. In it, I spoke about the kids who had been transformed by their travels. How some had kissed the ground when we arrived. How others had been consumed by joy at every meeting. And how each and every one had shed tears when it was time to leave.

I was 24 on that trip to Ghana, and yet, somehow naïve enough to think that I—a Black woman—could come to the continent, to the very heart of the Atlantic slave trade, and not connect with the people here on a visceral level.

The story was praised but my managing editor noted that I hadn’t mentioned my own experience. Had it affected me to visit this place? To see the horrors of slave dungeons up close? To watch the pageantry and pride of local gatherings and celebrations?

He invited me to write that story, and I did, and the tears flowed. All of my emotions spilled on the page as I tried to express how connected I’d felt to the land. How the people had welcomed me without reservation.

But I kept some of my regrets to myself, including the fact that this incredible personal experience had been cut short by my own misguided ideas about what it meant to be professional.

* * *

Almost 25 years have gone by since that trip. In that time, I’ve grown up a little.

I’ve built a career as a travel writer. It is not lost on me that much of that career has been focused on sharing my firsthand experiences with readers and viewers around the world.

I’m a mother now and my husband and two sons joined me in 2011 on a yearlong trip around the world that was focused almost entirely on immersing ourselves in the places we visited and sharing the experience as we went. We emerged as National Geographic Travelers’ Travelers of the Year for 2012 after stopping in 29 countries on six continents.

Unlike that first trip to Africa, there was no hemming or hawing at whether the stories during my year away were important. I knew in my gut that they would resonate. That they were universal in spirit even when they were personal at the moment. The lesson of my trip to Ghana is forever entrenched in who I am as a journalist.

I’ve returned to Africa many times. I’ve had opportunities to share how it felt to be surrounded by a culture and people so familiar to my own Jamaican heritage. In Kenya, in Rwanda, in Tanzania, in South Africa, and in Namibia, I’ve been called “sister” by people who swear I must know the native language or are surprised when I haven’t tasted some local food before because I “look just like their people.” Africa has welcomed me time and time again—but I have yet to return to Ghana.

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The call to return is almost deafening. In 2019, it was literal. The country sent out an invitation to Westerners to come home, to recognize the poignant moment marking 400 years since the first slave ships had set out for North America—the bodies of their ancestors stacked, naked and vulnerable, in their cargo holds—as part of the lucrative Atlantic slave trade.

Some of those enslaved Africans had ended up in the West Indies, in my parents’ homeland of Jamaica. It’s not lost on me that there is likely a direct link from the ports of Ghana to my parents, myself, my two sons.

I didn’t answer the call last year, but when the pandemic is over I will. The moments we miss aren’t always available for us to catch again. But sometimes time and fortune collide and an opportunity circles back. I won’t be as foolish when it returns. Grasping the outstretched hand of a stranger will be even more poignant when all of this is behind us. And when it’s offered, I’ll be quick to take it.

>>Next: Want to Support Black-Owned Businesses While Traveling? Make This Book Your Bible.


Heather Greenwood Davis tells stories from places around the world primarily as a contributing writer, keynote speaker, and on-air personality for recognizable brands including National Geographic, The Globe and Mail, Good Morning America, and CTV.