Commencement 2022: Ghanaian American poet, Ph.D. candidate to discuss travels, identity and origin stories at Graduate School Commencement

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 16, 2022 – Afua (Rachel) Ansong’s first poems were about her grandmother and her garden in Accra, Ghana – and the snakes, chickens, and bats she found there. In the garden, the young girl learned about mangoes, yams and corn and how to grow them.

“Having a garden really teaches you to write poetry,” says Ansong, who graduates from the University of Rhode Island this week with a Ph.D. in English literature and creative writing, and will wrap up an MBA this summer. “The process of gardening, the intimacies, I think, really refined my language.”

In school essays and in letters to her mother in the U.S., writing came easy to Ansong. And when she joined her mother in the Bronx, the gift of a notebook fostered her journey as a writer. That path led her to a bachelor’s degree in English from The City College of New York, a Master of Fine Arts degree in English and creative writing from Stony Brook University, and onto URI.

When she addresses the 2022 Graduate School Commencement on May 21, the idea of journey and origins will be central to her theme – the path she has taken in becoming a Ghanaian American writer, that of her grandmother in Ghana, the travels of Adinkra symbols that were indigenous to the Akan people of Ghana, and the journey she and her fellow graduates are embarking on. 

“I really want to talk about origins and places we come from, how we travel and where we end up, how I’ve met so many people with stories that will travel with me,” she says. “It’s been such a beautiful and difficult and worthy journey.”

When she emigrated to the U.S. at age 12, Ansong missed home so much she wanted to tell someone about it. So, an aunt gave her a notebook. Ansong used it to write down all the differences she found in her new home – the spring with its rebirth as opposed to Ghana’s two seasons (rainy and dry), the food that didn’t taste like home, the students who would openly disagree with teachers.

“I began to journal every day and what evolved from that became poetry of my experiences as I began to think of myself as a Ghanaian American, and what it meant for me to form this identity,” she says.

As she pursued her MFA at Stony Brook, she began researching Adinkra symbols, which were created by the Akan peoples of Ghana. Brought to the U.S. by enslaved Africans, the symbols were incorporated in architectural features as a way of carrying home and identity with them. The symbols, which represent philosophical concepts and Akan proverbs, have become popular with people of the African diaspora who believe in the cultural values the symbols represent, she says.  

Ansong brought her interest in the symbols with her to URI, attracted by the University’s Ph.D. program’s unique opportunity to write a creative dissertation. Her dissertation, “The Text(tiles) of Adinkra Symbols: West African Art, Gender, & Poetic Translations,” combines scholarly research on the origins and travels of Adinkra symbols and a collection of 109 poems that provide her creative response to what she uncovered. 

“URI is one of the few East Coast universities that offers a creative writing Ph.D.,” says Ansong. “You do a hybrid of critical and creative work. Because I’m a poet, that’s important to me. I needed a place like URI to be able to complete this kind of work. The faculty have been amazing and so supportive from the very first day I got here.” 

Ansong, the author of three chapbooks and founder of URI’s Caged Bird Sings Poetry Festival, is revising the poems from her dissertation for her first full-length poetry collection, “I’ve Made a Country out of this Home.”

While she didn’t know it when she was accepted into the Ph.D. program, her new home of Kingston is rich in Adinkra symbols. “Many of these symbols are prominent because enslaved Akans were brought to Rhode Island. It just reminds me of how my people, my ancestors, have traveled and have made spaces for themselves and have recreated identities,” she says. “Using art as a way of expression and identity formation, that’s what my work really seeks to do.”

About two years into her dissertation, Ansong struck on another mission. She decided to pursue an MBA as a way of promoting poetry and writing in Ghana. Her hope is to create a business that would offer such programs as arts festivals, poetry workshops and maybe even her own MFA program, raising the value of poetry as a career choice in the West African country.

“Creative writing is really healing to the body,” she says. “When I first came to the U.S. and I felt alone, writing allowed me to really cope. So, it’s not just to make money, but actually to better your mind, to better your thought process and to know your voice.”

The combination of her Ph.D. and MBA requirements has been a juggling act that she still calls crazy. She doesn’t regret the choice. While adding the MBA has been hard work, it has allowed her to think in new ways.

“I’ve grown so much. I’ve learned so much. There’s so many ways I want to give back,” she says. “Besides the academic module, I’m hoping to create a consulting business for women of color, especially of the African diaspora, who love to start businesses but don’t have the knowledge or direction that they need.”

As she prepares to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in Africana studies at Mount Holyoke College in the fall, Ansong is thankful for the support she’s received from the URI faculty and others.

“My faith has been extremely important throughout this journey because there were times when I really did ask myself what am I doing?’’ she says. “The support of my family and the faculty, having that backbone, was important because it really takes a village to do an MBA and a Ph.D.”