Although Jeanne Franks ’71 had not attended Knox for decades, when the Dance Program organized a trip to Ghana, she wanted to go.
Franks said that she had always been intensely invested in her African-American heritage and had been looking for a trip for Africa but she did not expect to find one when searching for Barack Obama’s speech location. When she happened across an itinerary for Knox’s Cultural Immersion: Drumming and Dance in Ghana program, her interest was piqued.
“I’m not interested in tourist type things,” she said, but this was a trip with a purpose. The group would be learning Gahu, a traditional West African style of drumming and dance.
This appealed to Franks, who loves dance and has been learning about music since she was five years old. She has even had a jazz show on the College of DuPage’s radio station for the last 18 years.
Franks was not deterred by the fact that the trip was a group tour – she usually travels alone – or that the group would be completely filled with students in their early twenties. She was determined to go.
“I wanted to go to Africa, that was a goal of mine, to go to the place my ancestors came from,” Franks said.
Although Frank’s heritage was not strictly Ghanian, the country was stable and friends who had visited said the the people were friendly, which settled the matter. As soon as she stepped off the plane, she knew she had made the right choice.
“The minute I landed there, it felt like I was at home,” she said. “Looking at Ghanaians, it was like looking at family. You look like my aunt, you look like my uncle. It was like something linked up inside me.”
Even in the states, Franks felt very connected to her African-American roots. She describes herself as “Afrocentric” but she said this trip “made me recognize where I came from, more than anything that’s ever happened to me. I didn’t read it in the book. I’m on the ground in Africa.”
The age gap
She also connected well to the students on the trip. Despite their age difference, they bonded well.
“They enjoyed me and I enjoyed them,” Franks said. “I didn’t know if that would be an issue for me, being in a different peer group [but] it was never an issue. … It was as new to them as it was to me. We were all doing something we hadn’t done before.”
The group enjoyed trading stories about Knox. The students told Franks how it is now, while she told them stories about the campus during Vietnam, the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement.
“People are really just people. We put a lot more emphasis on age difference and where you come from, but when you really get know people, they have the same worries and dreams,” Franks said.
Bumps in the road
Emotional connections did not mean the trip was entirely without its bumps, however. Although the students had been able to prepare for the trip by going to meetings and reading messages on the trip’s Facebook page, Franks had not gotten a chance to read the messages and therefore was not entirely ready when she got to Ghana and started to “rough it.”
“It wasn’t like going to a spa,” Franks said. “I’ve never been camping but it was more like camping.”
There were not many amenities from a western perspective. The group had an indoor shower, which was a luxury by the village’s standards, but they also shared sparse rooms and used an outdoors toilet. She noticed that, as an emerging country, certain places in Ghana lacked many of the things people in the United States take for granted, like education, access to healthcare or safe drinking water.
A new beat
The group’s days were spent learning to dance and drum the Gahu. The group practiced for two hours a day for two days straight. Franks said the heat and humidity made practice “a physical struggle just to have enough energy to do it.”
She said it was interesting to learn about an African style of drumming. Although she had been studying music since she was young, the drumming she learned was completely different. There was not any sort of melody or harmony as westerners think of it. Instead, there were drums keeping multiple beats.
“It was completely different than my understanding of rhythm,” she said.
She found it difficult to keep track of her own rhythm while she heard all the others. As someone who had been “locked into western ideas” of music, Franks said she gained a “new respect for drumming.”
At the end of the week, the group performed the dance in front of the villagers including the village leader.
Strength from darkness
The group visited a darker side of the country’s heritage at the end of the trip when they journeyed to Cape Coast, one of the “slave castles” that housed slaves before they were shipped across the Atlantic.
The trip’s guide had warned them for days how emotional the trip would be and Franks called it the most unforgettable part of the trip.
The tour guide led the group through the dungeons where slaves were kept, then through the door that had led to the ship, that was called the “door of no return.”
Franks said it was sobering to realize how many slaves went across the Atlantic, and how many of them were given up by other Africans. However, she said that seeing the conditions that slaves survived coming to the United States reminded her how resilient they were. In a way, it made her even more proud of her heritage than when had she left.
“We made it through that and we’re still here,” Franks said.