On my first Fourth of July in the United States, I woke up in the morning, stretched and realized that my wife was still in bed.
I asked if she was going to work. She said, "Oh, don't you know today is July Fourth?"
I looked through our window. Just about everybody in Fernley, Nevada, the town where we lived, was on their way to Main Street with chairs, umbrellas, drinks and snacks.
I was confused. What were they going to celebrate? I was curious, too, so I got our camp chairs and headed out to join our neighbors. That's when my wife told me what was going on: "July Fourth is America's Independence Day."
I jumped out of my seat! This couldn't be true. Who could have colonized a great country like America?
I thought colonization only occurred in Africa, where I grew up. I didn't believe her.
That was in 2014 — the year I found out that America was once a British colony, just like my native Ghana.
I have had the privilege of seeing two ways of celebrating independence — and along the way have given a lot of thought to what independence really means.
The Beauty Of America's July Fourth
In Nevada, during my first Independence Day, we sat on the sidewalk, listened to drummers set the beat and watched the parade of ordinary citizens, veterans, Native Americans in traditional garb, students. They marched and waved the American flag. Some were on horses, others in slow-moving cars and others on foot.
Later that evening I watched the fireworks broadcast on TV from Washington D.C. It was mind-blowing. I had never seen anything like this!
As I looked at the crowd gathered in the nation's capital, I saw not only America but also the world. Every race, every ethnicity was present. Indeed, America is home to the world, and to me, its greatest beauty lies in its diversity.
Marching (And Getting Yelled At) In Ghana
In Ghana, independence was, at least for us kids, a stressful time but also a time for fun. Our independence came not that long ago – on March 6, 1957. The three weeks prior to the celebration, students at my school — and at schools across the country — would practice our marching. A drummer played the drums loudly to set the marching rhythm, and we kids would line up to start marching, repeating the words "left," "right," "benkum," "nifa," [in the local Twi language].
Teachers made sure we all raised our left and right legs at the same time so we marched in unison – and yelled at us and sometimes caned us if we didn't. This training would go on for about 3 weeks; the best student marchers were selected to represent the school in the Independence Day marching competition in the district capital, Kwame Danso.
In 2002, when I was 14, I was selected to represent my school in the march but only if I could get a school uniform. My family couldn't afford to buy me one. Thankfully, a friend lent me his. With excitement, I washed the uniform, and the evening before the march, joined my other friends on the marching team. Sharing one iron, we pressed our school uniforms. I could not sleep for the anticipation I felt.
By 6 a.m. students from all the area schools had gathered at the big soccer field at Kwame Danso, the district capital. Under scorching sun and humid weather, we sweated and waited. After several hours, the district chief executive (DCE) and his entourage arrived. One by one, teams from each school marched. As we approach the DCE, our student leader shouts, "saaaaaalute!"
Each school group had five to ten minutes to show their skills. Government officials judged us on how well we marched (and dressed). I hoped we would be among the winners. We won second place and received a new wall clock for our school.
And then came the best part of the day for my friends and me: We each were given a bottle of Coca-Cola.
For some of us this was one of the few times in the year that we got to taste soda other than Christmas and Easter.
In the evening, we gathered at the pastor's house to watch the only TV in the village — a small black and white set powered by a car battery. We'd watch the marching competition in the capital city of Accra and see the recorded speech by our "osagyefo" – our savior — Kwame Nkrumah, who had helped lead Ghana to independence in 1957.
In his Independence Day speech Nkrumah stated that the independence of Ghana is meaningless "unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa."
Is Ghana Really Independent?
Nkrumah was criticized for his authoritarian style and economic misfires; he was eventually ousted as president. But I think back to his words and wonder whether Ghana — and Africa — are really independent. Many projects in Ghana, ranging from the construction of roads and schools to the provision of vaccines and fertilizer, depend on foreign aid. Where is our independence when we depend on foreign aid for our basic necessities? We need to start thinking of independence as a continual struggle. In some ways, we are not yet truly independent.
And when I think about that statement from Nkrumah, I think about the country where I now live. This past year, I've been struck by the angry words and physical attacks aimed at people because of their race, their gender, their religious affiliation. I wonder if all Americans today share the ideology in the Declaration of Independence: "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
But on July 4, I prefer to be an optimist. Even though independence takes a lot of work – and is a work in progress for nations both old and new — it is a moment to savor. So as I watch the spectacular fireworks and marvel at the diversity of America's crowds, I also remember how independence can be found in small pleasures — like marching for my country as a boy and drinking that cherished bottle of soda.
George Mwinnyaa grew up in Ghana and now lives in Baltimore with his wife and 2-year-old son. He plans to start a master's program at the Bloomberg School of Public Health this fall.