Karen specializes in international law and has a deep passion for travel and sustainability. Thus her alias, The Black Voyager, is quite a fitting name. Read on as she shares what she recently discovered about her ancestral country, Ghana.
Hello you! So, you have taken that first step to read an article about my adventures? Yay!
Well I am Karen Safo, the founder of The Black Voyager. I work for an International NGO as a Legal and Compliance assistant whilst also training to become a Lawyer in England and Wales. I studied a Masters specialising in Law, Natural Resources and International Development. I have always had an immense passion for international development and the law.
This all started at the age of 15 when I went to visit my ancestral village Kokofu Asaman, Ghana. The abundance of cocoa shook me. I did not understand why the citizens of Ghana were left in destitute when we have so much cocoa! I soon learned that this was due to a lack of fair trade which perpetuates the marginalisation of development in Ghana. At the age of 16, I set up Youth Development Ghana to support children who were working on the cocoa farms for hours and did not have the financial freedom to have an education.
The Black Voyager embodies all of this, plus sustainable travel and trade whilst in the visiting country. I am also passionate about eradicating the fear and marginalisation that is imposed by ourselves, by others and society.
What sparked your interest to travel to Ghana? Which region(s) did you visit?
Well firstly, I am Ghanaian and so that is easy. But I had other reasons for travelling to different regions within Ghana. The question for me was: What does it really mean to be Ghanaian? After all, Ghana is a very new country. Do I really know Ghana?
My family are predominantly from the Ashanti Region and the common perceptions of Ashanti’s is that they are known to dominate the Ghanaian narrative, a bit like Yoruba’s in Nigeria. With that being said it is common that many Ghanaians do not feel the need to travel to other regions in Ghana. When I told my family that I wanted to travel to the Eastern region and the Northern region they tried every means to stop me.
Some people even told me that if I embarked on this journey they will chop my head off and use it for rituals, but I was determined to go, nothing would stop me! I wanted to get to know the other parts of Ghana, the people, the language. And wow Ghana is so beautiful!
I visited Tamale, Wa, some parts of Bolgatanga, Hohoe, Takoradi, Cape Coast and Tema.
What are you passionate about? Also, tell us a bit about your site The Black Voyager.
The Black Voyager is a platform that promotes travelling as a solo black female into spaces that many of our parents, and parent's parents were not permitted to be in. It is a hub to inform, empower and inspire people to explore beyond their boundaries by suppressing fear and inspiring the next generation to do it too!
I am passionate about liberating oneself from all fear and marginalisation in any form and I actively believe that happiness is on the other side of fear. This then means that many are not living to their fullest potential and are working in the man-made parameters that have been set for them.
Let us live our best life in the most sustainable and empowering way possible.
How did you plan for your trip to Ghana? How Did you navigate between each city?
First things first, I am not a planner. On the occasions that I had planned things on trips I found that I was constrained by other things that I would have preferred to participated in upon arrival. So with that in mind I played it by ear in Ghana especially since I needed to fit my adventures with my families schedules in order to spend time with them.
Also, it is important to note that in Ghana you will have your plan and the local Ghanaians have theirs. So you have to give room for flexibility or else you will always be disappointed with delays and with the possibility that your plans may have fallen through. Things are slow paced in Ghana, in a very organised mess sort of way.
I travelled with the VIP coaches from Kumasi to Accra, Kumasi to Tamale and rented a car to go to the Volta regions. As I was on a tight budget it was important for me to keep the costs down. Whilst I was in Accra I used Uber everywhere, it is the most cost effective way to travel around. Whereas when I was in Tamale and Kumasi I took the Tro Tro (local buses).
One tip I would give to you is if you want to use the local taxis, get a local Ghanaian to call the taxi for you, as they will get you a local price. During this process make sure you stay out of sight!! Once the local has negotiated the price for you, you can then approach the taxi driver. HA! They always hate it once they realise that they have been played! As a foreigner they will always charge you more, always always haggle.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
A photograph is a memory, an experience, a snapshot that can in itself express a story in ways in which our language cannot give room to fully articulate. Do you ever have that feeling when you’re travelling and your eye glances at something or someone, and you feel that spiritual connectedness in your gut?
Take the picture.
Those moments are almost always the best pictures. I know, sometimes the feeling that you get is inexplainable, but those structures, ornaments, people, just as they are, in that very moment can tell stories that we simply cannot articulate.This is where my love for photography comes from. The ability to convey experiences and memories to people that were not present at that very moment. It is so powerful. I want you to feel that you were there with me, I want you to come on this journey of exploring unknown spaces with me.
What has been your favorite approach to photography while travelling? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly capture the moment?
I love this question because I feel that the perspectives and the rationale for taking different approaches really depends on the person. I think it is important to develop a rapport with people before attempting to take any pictures with a citizen of a country. First, it is more respectful. Second, the picture will just look a thousand times less staged and more natural. A big mistake that people make is that they hunt for the “instagramable worthy scenery” and fail to focus on that spiritual journeying and experience whilst they travel. So first things first, enjoy the journey, the pictures will come organically.
How did people react to being photographed? Share your tips.
Well some people love it! And some people hate it. I was walking in Asafo Market in Kumasi, Ghana and all the traders were shouting at me for having my camera on, vocalising their need to have some of my “profits too”. Whilst on other occasions I have had some children run up to me and beg me to “snap them” a picture.
I would say you must build the rapport first as this will change everything. What I have noticed is that respect is a very common theme in all the countries that I have travelled to. So please do respect peoples' space and ask permission, they will really appreciate it and on most occasions you will get more pictures by doing this.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions about the culture you would be exposed to? How did they differ from the way the culture actually was? What would you like people to know about your experience within Ghana that is little known?
Well yes, regarding the Northern region of Ghana, Tamale, I was told as a child that they carried out a lot of rituals and herbal medicines which is true but that was always followed with; “And they will use your organs and kidnap you.”
Tamale just is so indescribable, there is a harmony that exists there, where people of different religions respectfully co-exist with each other. Women riding around on motorbikes with hijabs on seeming empowered and liberated, it was nothing like I have ever experienced in Ghana. The people were so friendly and warm, probably one of the friendliest regions I have ever been to in Ghana. So my expectations of the culture was very very different from the misconceptions that I had been told by many in the southern regions of Ghana. Their culture resembles that of the citizens on the bordering country, Burkina Faso and that was so exhilarating to see.
The citizens in Tamale are the kindest warmest people you will ever meet in Ghana, and I have been to Ghana countless times and I have lived there too.
I see you’re interested in travel and sustainability. What Does this mean to you? How can traveler contribute to Ghana while visiting the country? Do You have any tips for traveler who wish to travel responsibly?
Travel and sustainability is extremely important in countries in South East Asia, the Caribbean and the African continent. Some of these countries get their sole income from travel and tourism and so it is important that the money we spend go straight to the right people. It means helping a independent family run local restaurant by choosing to eat from them. It means buying ornaments, souvenirs, garments from the local markets and not the tourist chain stores. It means buying from the local farmers and using their goods to make foods or choosing a home stay where that local directly benefits from providing you a service.
Do you know what you will get out of it? Satisfaction that you have played your part and done your bit to ensure money is going directly to those that need it. In fact it will enrich your experience of the country as you will be communicating directly with them and experiencing their day to day lives. Whilst in Ghana buy from the local markets, eat from family run restaurants, please please do not spend all your money in the Accra Mall and ANC Mall. Try Air Bnb in Ghana, I used it in Tamale and wow I had an amazing experience. There will be more updates on this on my blog in the coming weeks.
Please pick and note your favorite pictures you have captured during your trip.
The picture with the elephants in Mole National Park, Tamale was before a stampede of elephants decided to come and pose for the camera. I had to run back into the jeep for safety. At first I thought our guide was joking when he said the elephant is running towards you get in the jeep, but the floor started to vibrate as they were rushing towards me.
Phew, I made it safe, I just got those long extensions done that took 9 hours to do, there would be no way that my life would have ended the day after this.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamorous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges have you had during your past trips and how did you overcome them?
Being transparent is a constant battle. In a world where people see if best to fit into the norm in order to thrive and be noticed in the travel industry is a very real thing. I have to sit every day and ask myself - Why am I doing this? Who am I doing it for? It is only then that I know that the content that I produce will come directly from me, not from the whispers of others or from the voices in my head telling me I need to do it a certain way in order to be noticed.
This approach has led to a great community of followers who I can give all my knowledge and experiences to and be completely myself in the process. And so although being authentic against a world that thrives on the alignment of socially constructed norms, it is so beautiful to see those who are on the journey of going against the wind and social norms.
There are many in the minority group who have not yet had the chance to endeavor in travel and other spaces where we were once not permitted to explore. With my experiences I want to empower, encourage and inform others on a Black Voyager experience. There are so many questions that need to be answered in order to empower other people in the BAME community to really explore without hesitation and fear. And so although it is difficult to get the message out there at times, when I get messages from people who thank me for remaining true and authentic it pushes me to carry on.
Please describe your travel experiences in a country of your choice. What foods did you eat? Did You have any favorite/unfavorable culinary experiences? What Kinds of people did you encounter?
When I travelled to Egypt solo. That was an experience. It was actually never my intention to travel to Egypt, it was just supposed to be a stop over for my two month trip to Thailand where I was due to teach english.
Our plane from London to Egypt was delayed which meant that I was due to miss my connecting flight to Thailand. It was my first time travelling solo and this happened…..I was a bit anxious. They told us that the next flight to Thailand was in two days from Egypt but they would put us on business class Emirates and they would pay for our hotel in Egypt including a tour around Cairo. I was ecstatic! I was 19 years old and on a camel riding around the Giza pyramids with other stranded travellers. Amazing! What may have been seen as a disaster was actually the best turnaround!
Aish Baladi bread is delicious with olives and chicken! The people were very friendly, too friendly actually. I received many marriage proposals. I would advise that when you travel to Egypt you wear a wedding ring (well although it will mitigate from the harassment, some still will try their luck)!
What is your favorite memory from a trip you’ve taken in the past? Is there a particular moment you would relive given the opportunity?
This would have to be when I was walking around La Habana Vieja, Cuba alone one blistering sunny morning. There is a warmness about this city that is simply indescribable. The vibrant colours, the beaming smiles, the warmth coupled with that morning trade rush. But actually in Cuba that is not the morning trade rush like we know it to be, their pace was almost like a well timed dance where everyone had their part to play and each individual part could not be completed without the other. It was as though I was in the middle of a play that was being filmed all around me. I was not being stared at, I was welcomed into their pace, their dance. In a way that was so inviting but yet not in an excessive fake way. It was at that moment, the first time ever whilst travelling solo that I felt very interconnected within a country. I was a part of this play without even learning the dance routine.
That spiritual connectedness with a country and its people that you have no prior connection to is simply exhilarating. It is essentially that spiritual pursuit that people long to search for whilst they travel. After a very long time I was accepted for being me, no politics, no race issues, no gender issues, I was a part of a play that I did not have to learn extra routines for to be safe or to fit in. I was just simply being entirely myself.
I would relish to relive that moment again a thousand times. Nonetheless, some people never experience this and I am extremely thankful for that moment.
What’s next for you? Where can we find you?
I have a few trips planned in the next 6 weeks till the end of the year! I am going to be going to the South of France, South America, and a few more African countries actually. I am really excited to share with you guys how I am going to be travelling to these countries and the importance ofsustainability there.
Catch me on Instagram @theblackvoyager and read more in-depth stories on my site— theblackvoyager.com. If you have any further questions, or you just want to say hey, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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