Gladys Akom Akobrey: 

“As a kid, I was a

Curious at an early age
"Ever since I was a kid, I have been aware of and interested in my cultural background; my mother is Surinamese and Dutch and my father is of Ghanaian descent. Already at the age of three, I was eager to learn the language my father spoke with relatives in Ghana, which is called Lelemi, and begged him to take me to his country of origin. As a teenager I started reading about colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean. Out of this grew my interest in researching my mother’s family tree, like a mini-anthropologist! Considering all this, it seems only logical that this is where I am today, a PhD student in the MO-TRAYL project. 

When I asked my father about his motivations to migrate to Europe in my role as a researcher, he rather chose to express his annoyance with this question. As he complained, he reminded me of the loadedness of the question and gave me more food for thought than I could wish for. Would I, as an (early career) migration scholar, be interested in his story if he wasn’t a ‘migrant’ from the Global South? And, when does one stop being a migrant? When my father left Ghana in his twenties, he did not envision having to deal with the label of ‘migrant’ after having spent decades in Europe. 
At that time, he was simply a young man in the prime of his life, looking for adventure. 

Growing up in Utrecht
My parents met in the city of Utrecht in the eighties, my father had been living in the Netherlands for some time. They separated soon after I was born and my father moved to Amsterdam. For the first thirteen years of my life, I lived with my mom in a ten-floor apartment building in a suburb in Utrecht, together with my two sisters. It was a lively place, full of social interaction between people from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, I sometimes felt stuck, as if I was living in a box. What I did like was the view; when I could not sleep, I would look out of the window and see cars driving the highway in the distance, which looked like little lights passing by. This always had a calming effect on me. It was the same road we took when visiting my father in Amsterdam.

Learning about Ghana and Suriname
Every two weeks, I would spend the weekend at his place. Through my father I discovered what it means to be connected to Ghana in everyday life, by tasting different flavours - he ate fufu almost daily, a very hot soup with mashed cassava - and hearing a different language, as my father’s Ghanaian friends often dropped by and interacted in Twi. I was very interested in Ghana and fantasized about my father’s life there prior to his move to Europe. My mother helped me to be in touch with several uncles and my grandmother in Ghana, as she translated my letters to them into English. Through my grandmother on my mother’s side, on the other hand, I learned about Suriname. My mother and I have never been there, so everything I know about it comes from reading and stories from my grandmother and others.

Transnational family life
When I was thirteen, my mother, my sisters, and I moved to a house in Utrecht, which was a positive change; somehow home became a more relaxed place for me. At around the same time, my father moved to England, to a place near London where he lives with his new family. Since sixth grade in primary school, I became directly involved in transnational family life.

First time in Ghana
In 2014, I travelled to Ghana for the first time. I was in the third year of my bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and was looking for a research internship. I figured that Ghana would be perfect - now I could also finally meet my family. It was a very special experience that is difficult to put into words. The town where my father grew up was exactly like I had imagined it to be; surrounded by mountains and lush green forest. I realized how difficult it must have been for my dad to settle abroad, coming from such a tight-knit community. Everyone I encountered during my tour of the town emphasized how we were all part of the same family. The fact that my uncles organized a ceremony for me and my father upon our arrival made me even feel more special.

Formative experience
Both on a personal and an academic level, this trip has been formative. I came to better understand how it feels to long for a place, and to have several ‘homes’ in the world. After returning to the Netherlands, it took me a while to readjust to my ‘normal life’ and kept feeling the burning desire to go back as soon as possible. Additionally, I recognized that I can view my Ghanaian heritage in its own right, not only in relation to the history of slavery, as I had often done before in my desire to connect the African continent and the ‘diaspora’.

My next move was to London, where I pursued a master’s degree in Migration and Diaspora studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Soon after my graduation, I applied for a PhD position in the MO-TRAYL project; had I not gone to Ghana, this would not have happened, I think. Mobility thus always has been a central force in my life. Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by my family’s history, and my own movements have enabled me to grow. Nonetheless, I am aware of the fact that my positive experiences with mobility also are a result of the privileges that I have as a Dutch and EU citizen. I do not want to glorify mobility in itself; instead we should be aware of the power differences in mobility experiences."

Copyright Maastricht University | Design: