I’ll be getting married in a few months and I’ve chosen to do a traditional Ghanaian engagement. I haven’t yet sought the therapy I was forewarned might be a wonderful security blanket throughout this process. I’m 2 months into planning. To make matters worse we’ve chosen the express engagement route. My fiancé proposed in November of 2015. I shared this with my father shortly after and he remarked without pause, “That’s not how we do things.” To be honest, we’d like to fast forward to the honeymoon part (due to our mutual love of travel) as quickly as possible. Ever saw the movie “Our Family Wedding”? There’s a scene where the two main characters are wedding planning –an African-American man and his family and a Mexican-American woman and hers. “Our marriage, their wedding” becomes a mantra they repeat after every exasperating family planning session. We both still crack up every time we recount scenes from that movie.
It was in college that we fell in love for the first time. Amongst his many qualifying attributes, I found he was as obsessed with Africa as I was. I even remember cursing him out (in Vai, my mother’s tongue) because he had embarked on a backpacking trip throughout West Africa I had only dreamed of shortly after he graduated. Fast forward 10 years later—we’re getting married! My mom joked that he is basically a “white African man” due to his affinity for hot Liberian pepper and such things as roasted goat meat. Luckily, I’ve learned to cook to appease my husband (insert sarcasm here). He is in many ways my male counterpart when it comes to appetite. My mouth still drops when he describes devouring goat head soup. He saves me from the embarrassment of having to push aside the cow skin in my soup or forego that goat tripe on the streets of Johannesburg, he’s more of an adventurous eater than I.
From since I could remember, I’ve identified strongly with both my American & African heritage. I became an expert at weaving together pieces of my Liberian, Ghanaian, and American identities as if they were one big quilted flag. The wedding planning process has effectively worked to highlight and scrutinize those well cultivated seams.
I have somehow willingly chosen to engage in a process which Ghanaians, my family, myself, my fiancé’s family, and many think pieces, remain confused about.
Is it an engagement or a wedding, my family asks?
An hour later we have decided it is a wedding only because I have opted to not have a “white wedding” which is called so ironically because it includes a “white dress” and follows Western Christian conventions. Forget explaining all of this to my friends who for some, the idea of getting married without some type of white gown, ring bearer, etc. is confounding. Later that evening, I crack open the wedding planner (created by knot.com) my best friend purchased to help me stay focused and organized. I need not say it does not cater to this idea of blended cultures and says nothing about how to plan for the unexpected and inevitable flow of family members, lack of a stringent time schedule, amongst other things. The engagement list or “dowry”? — Please.
While excited to celebrate and share this part of my culture and identity with my friends and family, honor my father’s tradition, and mark this next step of our journey together; I am reminded it is perhaps time to go ahead and schedule a therapy session ASAP. Therapy, you say? Yes oh- therapy. You know this idea of sitting and paying for a professional stranger to listen to you and your problems. “Problems? Silly, over thinking Americans, gone crazy with their privilege” I can just hear some family members’ response to this—but I cannot bear to burden my bridal entourage with any more hour long laments about how I am not going to crack before our big day. The devil is busy oh! As Chinua Achebe reminds us— “Things Fall Apart”.
Therapy and seeking therapy are not necessarily attributes purposefully woven into my cultural fabric. Therapy (or talking through one’s problems) was for a long time, the hidden pieces of meat under a mound of vegetable stew–a hidden bonus to explain that regular school visit from a program counselor or that weekend slumber party with your Aunt. To be honest, “mental health” has only recently (in the past 10 years or less) become an all-encompassing buzzword in our own US cultural lexicon. It’s the catch-all term that now includes conditions that we can and can’t see—depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, the autism spectrum. The “invisibility” of many mental health conditions has worked to the advantage of some as one caseworker laments, “They won’t use that word, but they’re depressed.” Instead, she said, “they say they are ‘worried’ or they ‘think too much’-it’s almost impossible to get them into counseling.” The caseworker discusses challenges when encouraging her African immigrant clientele to seek therapy.
The US Census does not yet allow for a further breakdown of everyone included in the “Blacks” category; Thus the body of research on health issues specifically affecting African immigrants and their families is scarce—but growing. Mental Health needs however do exist in the African immigrant population and can be nuanced by several factors including but not limited to migrant status. One researcher stresses the importance of looking at it from the perspective of how some African cultures influence family dynamics, symptom expression & diagnosis, and from whom treatment should be sought. The same researcher also suggests intergenerational differences as a unique source of conflict. “More specifically, parental understanding of their culture of origin is conceptualized in terms of the cultural dynamics present at the time the family emigrated. However, as time passes, the cultural norms in the country of origin may change, but the immigrants’ frame of reference may not. Thus, the parents may impose cultural expectations upon their children that are outdated even in the country of origin”. I chuckle as I recall recent conversations with my father.
As African migrants, mental health and therapy should be additional cornerstones we can learn to depend on. Our unique histories, family circumstances, and cultures mean challenges are inevitable. Weathering the storm and being resilient may help one win the battle, but not the war. As I continue to plan our hybrid wedding of sorts, I remain hopeful. Hopeful knowing that therapy and seeking therapy won’t just be hidden bonuses and treats in my own family. Hopeful that I can help weave therapy, counseling and mental health tune-ups into the cultural fabric of my own proudly African and proudly American family. Hopeful that more of us will seek therapy despite how cultural norms and stigmas may twist the narrative. It’s ok to talk to someone and better yet if that person is paid to listen!