Problems of Place: Reflections on Belonging in African Environmental History

I was twenty-two years old, soaked in sweat, slogging up a steep, muddy slope. Atop my shoulder, I was balancing a metal bucket filled with coagulated hunks of reeking raw rubber called cuplumps. I knew this hill well, having climbed it dozens of times while working at that particular rubber farm. That day, my coworkers—four men also assigned to the task—and I would collectively amass over 1,800 pounds of cuplumps at the top of the hill, which we would load into a pickup truck for delivery to the factory in Apimenim, a nearby town in western Ghana.

It was September 2013, six months after I learned I had won a Watson Fellowship, and five weeks after I arrived in Ghana for my first time. The fellowship is a unique one. Essentially, the Watson Foundation writes generous checks to forty graduating seniors each spring with the stipulation that they leave the United States, avoid any familiar countries, and not return for twelve months while pursuing a self-designed project.

My project was to work. As a student at Amherst College, I had taken classes with brilliant professors across seventeen different departments, yet nearly all the scholarship I read abstracted the voices I wanted to hear and the experiences I wanted to understand—like those of my coworkers on days we climbed that slick hill over and over. Like those of my carpenter father whose calloused hands bear a craft knowledge I’ll never fathom. Like those of my nurse mother who juggled multiple jobs while raising four kids. So, “By stepping out of my familiar rubber-soled running shoes,” I wrote in my Watson application, “and into the boots of rubber farmers in rural Ghana,” I hoped to experience the labor at the distant end of global commodity chains from which I benefited every day. Working together, especially with one’s hands, I believed, could help break down barriers between people, including linguistic, racial, or class ones, and could allow a person to somehow belong where they couldn’t otherwise.

Indeed, I stuck out like a sore, white thumb in most places I visited over the course of my fellowship, when I also traveled to the overfished shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, picked coffee in western Uganda, worked in a textile factory in Ethiopia, and toured Malaysia with the International Rubber Research and Development Board. Yet in each place, while filling burlap sacks full of coffee berries or passing overnight factory shifts, I managed to find common ground with my co-workers.

My sense of what I wanted to discover abroad was not clear-cut. Admitting this to the Watson Foundation, I wrote simply: “I have a distinct, capable voice, and when I figure out what must be said, I will be heard.” I gestured to a future in education: “I have always felt a sense of belonging in the classroom, where a teacher can shift a worldview, inject doubt into an established conviction, and equip students with the tools necessary to change the world.” For this reason, after returning from farms each day, I drafted graduate school applications until Ruth, the matriarch of the family I was living with, returned home, at which point I worked in her wholesale bread bakery for hours until her husband, Frederick, insisted I instead tutor their three kids. The pandemonium of their family life reminded me of my own upbringing.

I left Ghana four months after I arrived. My work there had raised questions that I craved to answer, and my hosts had claimed a place in my heart. I suspected I would be back.


I’ve been thinking about my younger self often these days. Up to now, I have adhered to the exact path that my college-self imagined I would take, made possible by a good dose of luck, a streak of stubborn fortitude, and some extremely generous mentors. I have returned to Ghana several times to conduct research, always staying with the same hosts. Ruth and Frederick became my confidantes, their children my allies and mentees.

I think especially about the ways they made me belong over the course of my time in Ghana, by putting me to work, telling personal stories and listening to my own, laughing at me and with me, encouraging my studies, asking endless questions and answering mine. Elsewhere in Ghana, I was an obroni, a white person, an outsider, but with them, I was dubbed “Sister Keri.”

After returning to the US following my fieldwork in 2017, I worked with their son to help him apply for a summer program at a private school in Massachusetts. He was accepted and offered a full scholarship, but his visa application was denied by the US Embassy in Accra. Ruth, too, applied months later to visit my family over Thanksgiving and was also denied. They had made their home mine, but my home was rejecting them without a second thought. They did not belong here, their rejection wrongly told them.

I was helpless, heartsick.

In the twelve months since I returned from Ghana, I’ve wondered often whether I belong here, in academia, working on African and environmental history. After the release of the 2019 ASEH conference program, I counted a total of 13 Africanists out of the 421 participants, reflecting the marginal historiographical space that scholarship on Africa occupies in the field of environmental history. The field of African history, meanwhile, is interrogating its past of fraught racial dynamics and its white-washed processes of knowledge production about the continent by outsiders. Academia at large, furthermore, desperately needs to diversify its ranks. Sure, I bring an uncommon perspective to the table: I have not met many academics who recall the childhood strain on their family of living paycheck to paycheck, or who helped raise a younger sibling, or who were varsity athletes in college while working a couple jobs, or who once needed to defend her physical and emotional strength during an interview for a fellowship. This sense of difference has fueled my hard work during graduate school, and it has motivated me to keep an eye out for others who may not feel that they belong, either.

Yet, ultimately, I still feel like a relative misfit each way I turn, whether to environmental humanities or to African Studies: the former under-occupied by Africanists, the latter needing to recruit into its ranks more people of color and African scholars in particular. Where doubt is kindled, moreover, it spreads like wildfire: Will academia really allow me to “equip students with the tools necessary to change the world,” as my younger self dreamed? Will this career enable my “distinct, capable voice” to “be heard”?

I have great faith in the power of education and academic research; it is my place within it all that I’m still figuring out. For now, I have a chapter to finish, revisions to make, and a course to prepare to teach. My unbelonging is a question I will tackle another day.

*Featured image credit: Rubber plantation. Photo by author.

This piece is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace.