Akwaaba to New Columbia

It’s tourist season once again in the District and which means many Washingtonians are already irritated with tourists as they stop walking on the left side of the escalator, or stand in front of metro doors so you can’t get off in order for them to get on, or walk the streets wearing cool FBI t-shirts. We do, however, need to look at them differently and yes, treat them differently. We need to start treating tourists as our friends and neighbors and help them understand that we’re just like them with a couple glaring exceptions. Each year we have millions of tourists come to our city and yet we don’t engage them and educate them on our plight and what they can do to help us. We allow millions of opportunities to pass us by each year and yet we wonder why we’re not a state.

At our core as people no matter where we live we should be nice and helpful to tourists and strangers simply because it is the neighborly thing to do and it is the right thing to do. It behooves us to have millions of people leave here each year thinking, ‘wow, they are really nice folk in DC.’ This might seem hokey but if you ever travel to Ghana (where I’ve lived for almost 4 years of my life, including a service in the Peace Corps) the one thing people who visit there universally say is how nice people in Ghana are. And yes, they are! If you know Ghana then you know the word “akwaaba” which means welcome in the Akan languages. In Ghana, “awkaaba” is more than a word it’s a spirit and an ethos that the entire country lives by where friends and strangers are treated with the same warm welcome no matter where or who they are visiting.

For most tourists the District consists of the Mall, the White House, the Capitol, and a few other places (and yes, the statehood bill wants to make that a fact). But most tourists don’t make it out into the residential neighborhoods so when we interact with tourists in the federal or commercial areas we should help them understand that the District is not just a city of museums and federal buildings but also a city of faces and people with a warm, welcoming, and yes, feisty spirit. We need people to leave the District understanding that it’s not just the capital of the United States but that it’s a place where people live and work, drink and play, raise families and love each other just like in the places where they visit us from. We need people to leave here with a sense that they learned about the capital but also that they learned about the people and neighborhoods that make it so wonderful. We need to have an “akwaaba” spirit here in the District so that strangers feel both welcome here and develop a bond with us.

Since this is a blog dedicated to the statehood movement while being nice because it’s the right thing to do is most important there is a secondary and yes, statehood focused reason to be nice. We need their support. We need them to go home and tell their friends, family, and members of Congress that they system we live under is wrong and should be changed. Too often people from the 50 states don’t know or understand the District. They think the city is a drain on the federal budget and is filled with lobbyists who foster a system of corruption. Most people don’t know we’re a city of 632,000 federal taxpaying citizens who have no representation in Congress.

A few years ago, my wife’s aunt was visiting the District for the first time. In the evening after work we were sitting on our front porch in Brookland and as neighbors came home we waved hello and had brief conversations. At one point my wife’s aunt just shook her head and said “I can’t believe this is Washington, DC. I just never imagined it would look like this and be so friendly.” As we discussed how the District really does have a small town and a bit southern feel too it she then asked about why we had ‘taxation without representation’ on our license plates. When I explained to her the system of government we live under she blurted out what her gut told her to: “Well, that’s just wrong.” And this was coming from someone who held Tea Party beliefs before the Tea Party existed. If we can reach her and get that gut reaction from her, we can also reach millions of other Americans who won’t see this as a partisan issue but as an issue of right vs. wrong.

We need to have more discussions with the millions of people like my wife’s aunt who come here completely naïve to our plight but who can have a gut reaction to it and develop an allegiance to use. So as tourist season descends upon us let’s not get too pissed off at folks who don’t understand that there are four quadrants in the city or who do not quite know how to use a farecard machine. Let’s help them, let’s talk with them, and let’s treat them like who they are: our neighbors. We in the District, me included, need to reach down deep and find our inner Ghanaian spirit and we need to embrace an “Akwaaba” spirit both because it is the right thing to do but also because it will help us build bonds of support across the country and the world. And someday, when friends and relatives come to visit us in Brookland we’ll be saying “Akwaaba to New Columbia.”

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