First Steps in Africa

Twenty years ago this month, I first stepped foot on the continent of Africa.

I was 10 years into my job as an investment exec at JPMorgan. 

Two years into a relationship with a man who I’d later marry.

It was one year after 9/11—the day that forever changed the skyline of Manhattan and life as we know it.

Eight months earlier, I had woken up on a Sunday morning knowing I needed to take a sabbatical to Africa. 

When people asked why I replied that no one was going to recognize my decade work anniversary if I didn’t myself. That a romantic partner wasn’t going to plan the trip that I needed. That 9/11 reminded us that we needed to live for today. 

The heads nodded in agreement. These were all very logical responses.

The truth was I knew in my soul that I needed to journey to Africa.

That wasn’t an explanation that would fly in the New York investment world. So I collected the logical reasons to explain to my boss, my boyfriend, and the rest of the world why this multi-week journey to Africa made perfect sense. 


By the turn of the millennium, I had spent three decades of life climbing the achiever mountain. Excel in high school. Excel at college and internships. Excel in your job towards getting raises and promotions. Acquire certifications. Run marathons.

You get the drill.

My soul’s restlessness was more a realization—I had achieved. I’d climbed a mountain. My mountain.

Were there other ones? Higher ones? Did I know where they were, what it took to climb them, and who I wanted to climb with? Did I want to climb at all?

Ah, the questions of mid-life.

Wait, mid-life? I was 31 years old! 

Twenty years later, I still ponder the questions. 

Now I know it’s completely normal. There are entire works of research and communities around this mid-life period. My friend Barbara Waxman coined the term “Middlescence.” Chip Conley has launched a whole midlife wisdom school (Modern Elder Academy) to help people think through this 40+ year middle-of-life marathon.

What I was seeking to soothe my restlessness in my early-30’s didn’t exist yet.

Woe, Ghana (2002)

So I built my own journey.

My multi-faceted seven-week Africa sabbatical would encompass volunteering, safaris, outdoor adventure, and friendship. My must-haves were safaris in the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti and a climb of the continent’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. I would reconnect with European-based friends and meet my boyfriend in Cape Town, South Africa around New Year’s. And I somehow wanted to put my business skills to use.

This last wish was tricky. I didn’t exactly know what I was seeking in volunteering. 

I found an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) offering volunteer opportunities (3 weeks to 6 months) across 10 different countries. I filled out the application.

In 2002, I landed in Ghana and took my first steps on the African continent.

“Another day, another meeting to orient us. You just need to sit back and appreciate the slow pace. What is covered could have been completed in 15 American minutes. They keep reviewing greetings and casual sayings. This is good as I still don’t remember any Ewe (the local dialect). Our host is very careful as to where we sit and what we say. Then there’s the “letter of introduction” which seems to accompany me everywhere. For such an otherwise casual place, the formalities are striking.”

–Except from Africa travel journal (2002)

Jodi and fellow CCS volunteer Michelle, Ghana (2002)

My Ghanaian host Kujo has seen the likes of me before—the Type-A American anxious to accomplish. The heat, humidity, and jet lag work in his favor. For several days, I join two other new volunteers exploring the CCS compound and local village and markets. At night, he and I engage in cultural discussions. I fall into a slower rhythm of observing and listening.

Days later, I meet Emmanuel, head of the newly formed cooperatives division in Ghana’s Volta region. I know to wait for the letter of introduction to be presented by Kujo and other formalities. Emmanuel explains they have four cooperatives in the program, and I’ll be helping with the business plans of six future ones—farmers, fishermen, and fish processors. Emmanuel hands me handwritten plans for me to type into a Microsoft Word document on the computer at the CCS compound. The business plans will be shared with banks and other financing sources.

That I’m a glorified typist is a bit disappointing.

I work on the business plans for a few hours each evening after dinner. Emmanuel and I discuss them the next day in his office or en route to site visits. 

“There was no rationale behind the business plan numbers. I suggest to Emmanuel that he put quantity and price assumptions in footnotes to support the stated numbers. For example, when it says with additional funding a tomato producer can acquire 5X the acreage, the sales increase 10X. I don’t understand the rationale and wonder if the bank would similarly question. Emmanuel considers my idea for a moment and then gives me a concise response. “In Ghana, we do not need footnotes.” You know that rule of thumb to never give more than is needed? The rule seems to apply here.”

–Except from Africa travel journal (2002)

Departing the Farmer’s Day celebration (Ghana 2002)

 

My daytime chats with Emmanuel are rich—whether we’re traveling to meetings in local villages or working in a stuffy office. 

One day, we head out to the field to meet a community of leaders to discuss their region’s upcoming Farmer’s Day celebration. I can’t understand what is being said. What I most remember is their generosity in offering us ice-cold bottles of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta as we meet under the shade of a baobab tree.

The next week, Emmanuel and I attend the Farmer’s Day celebration. While I intend to be a silent observer, I’m surprised to be considered an honored guest. I’m introduced and invited to dance in front of several hundred people. During the long ceremony, I discreetly snap photos of the crowd. When I view the photos later, I find in every single photo more than one person staring at me.

Farmer’s Day celebration (Ghana 2002)

It’s my first time being the sole white-skinned person in a crowd.

Over three weeks, I also see Emmanuel uncomfortable. At one meeting, he confronts individual members of a cooperative five quarters behind on their loan repayment. At another, we meet with a cooperative of female fish processors prepping for their first-ever bank visit. Beyond reinforcing the mechanics of a bank loan, Emmanuel is stumped in answering a very real and universal female concern—“what do we wear?”

Cultural nuances constantly trip us up. When I share that my parents are divorced, his focus is understanding who was at fault (divorce is uncommon in Ghana). One day, Emmanuel shows me his paycheck—with a bachelor’s and master’s degree and a good job, he earns $82/month. I can’t figure out what makes me more uncomfortable—seeing another person’s paycheck or my calculation of his annual salary.

On my last day in Ghana, Emmanuel hosts a farewell lunch. It was sweet and unexpected.

It’s how I describe all the experiences over those several weeks in Ghana.

“When will you return to Ghana?” each person asks.

I play around with polite answers. But in my heart, I know this is likely the last time I’ll see these people.


“This is less about the work you are doing while here. It is all about bringing back and sharing what you learn for many years to come.”

–Except from Africa travel journal (2002)

As I read this first-day advice from Kujo in my Africa journal 20 years later, I get goosebumps.

Neighborhood kids in Woe, Ghana (2002)

I’ve been unknowingly carrying his message ever since.

I continue to travel with an eye toward learning and personal connection.

I exchange emails to keep in touch with those I meet on treks and mountain climbs.

I weave site visits with my favorite girls’ education non-profits like Room to Read into my adventure travels.

I’m quiet—constantly watching and listening for cultural nuances and similarities.

Facebook lessens my heartbreak upon leaving a place and the generosity of new friends. I know we’ll be forever connected. It increases the chances that we will see each other again.

My Ghana travels were pre-cell phone and Facebook. I’ve unfortunately lost my connections to Kujo and Emmanuel. I was saddened to see that the non-profit Cross Cultural Solutions (CSS) didn’t make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But their influence lives on.

I could have never dreamed that I would curate and lead people-connected Venture Travel in countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, Cambodia and Guatemala years later.

My advice is that it’s less about where we go. And what we do.

It’s about the learning, connection and occasional cultural trip-ups found in multi-faceted travel experiences. And what those experiences will lead you to do next.

Your first step?

Say YES to the invitation.


Here’s an invitation to say YES to: Join me in small-group (max 8) curated Venture Travel


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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!