(This piece was performed in a version updated for performance rather than reading at the VAMP showcase put on by So Say We All, September 2014)
The taxi lurched along the uneven roads. There were no street lamps, no road signs, no pedestrians were visible. The sight of another human would have comforted me, but I knew it was for the best. The headlights of the taxi were flicking on and off, and hadn't been strong in the first place – if pedestrians were out on the dark streets, we'd probably hit them.
The driver hadn't said anything for ten minutes. I couldn't tell if he had gotten lost getting back to my neighborhood, East Legon, was angry that I had refused his earlier marriage proposal – or drunk. After living in Ghana and taking taxis regularly for three months, none of the above would have come as a shock.
I usually never came home this late, preferring to be carefully ensconced in my mosquito net by 9 pm, a bag of water next to me and a book from home to keep me company, but the artist I'd been meeting for an interview had been two hours late. “Africa time,” everyone called it.
Thus, after the hour or so of wandering through Teteh Quarshie market, it was pitch dark about halfway through the ride from Madina to East Legon. At least I thought it was halfway. There was a persistent angry voice at the back of my head that I was trying to drown out, yelling at me “you don't even where you are!”
And it was true. I didn't know my way around Accra by car even in daylight, the city's interwoven neighborhoods were made up of streets without names and landmarks that looked suspiciously similar to other landmarks across the city. There were traffic lights only on the largest main road, no stop signs, and all the houses, enclosed by giant walls, looked exactly the same.
Miraculously, I recognized something that had to be familiar out the window – it was the downtrodden shopping center where my friends and I went to eat rice, work on our independent projects, mooch off the wifi, and cry. I'd made it!
I told him to turn left at my street, paid him, thanked him for the ride, and purposefully opened the door, strode up to the gate, and fished my key out of my purse.
My hand found the keyhole from memory, the darkness preventing me from finding it by sight. I unlocked the gate – but it wouldn't budge. With a sinking heart I remembered – the inner lock that the landlady haphazardly enforced, never warning us which nights it might be in use. With the inner lock engaged, nobody could get in from the street even with a key. In Accra, this was an attractive feature to a homeowner – all the houses had tall fences, some with spikes, some with shards of glass molded into the cement to imitate spikes.
It was not an attractive feature when you were an American girl locked out of your apartment at midnight, being watched by a strange cab driver who you'd just refused to give your phone number to.
I visibly shook walking myself home from middle school as a pre-teen because I was so afraid of random men on the street. My friends made fun of me relentlessly after once, in 8th grade, a GAP worker posed the question “What flavor of Jamba Juice did you get me?” and I paused for a good two minutes only to reply “Uhhhh...the nothing flavor??” Part of this was social anxiety, another part altogether was an early onset fear of rape that stretched from lying in bed at night worrying someone would break into my house, to plane rides next to strangers, to carefully dissecting the motives of my male teachers.
My fears did not stop at being afraid of half the population. I also convinced myself at age 9 that I had breast cancer. This was following the incident in third grade where I faked sick for a week when we read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes because I was panicking so much from reading about leukemia. I was sure that when I got back to school, we'd be done with the book and I could stop watching the sky for atom bombs as I walked home from school. Unfortunately, the other third graders did not read as quickly as I'd assumed and we'd progressed about a chapter. I was doomed to suffer for the rest of the book, culminating in a haiku that prompted my teacher to write “This is....a sad poem.”
Sadako sleeps still
she will probably die soon
And be underground
As I grew older, my intense fears of men turned to a general uneasiness and inability to be normal and my fears of diseases turned into going to the doctor anytime there was so much as a pain in my thigh. I figured out somewhere along the way that the amount of time I spent fretting about obscure things over which I had no control was higher than normal, and had no problem believing that I did indeed probably have some kind of anxiety disorder.
When I got to college, I figured out how to manage the fears relatively effectively: I didn't worry when I was hanging out with my friends, so I made enough friends that I could have them around me at all times. I filled my life to the brim with my sorority, eating out, partying, going hiking, study groups – anything that kept me distracted from worrying about rape and disease.
These fears fell far enough to the back of my mind that I didn't think of them in conjunction with my decision to live in Ghana, a small country in West Africa until I'd already bought my plane ticket.
My overly anxious mind started to kick back into gear around May; I was set to leave in September. Boys at parties started telling me story after story of their female friends going to unnamed cities in unnamed countries in Africa and getting constantly harassed. My friends worried I'd come back with AIDS. Everyone spoke of how dirty it would be, how nobody would hear from me for months because I wouldn't have a cell phone or reliable mail.
Practically, I knew these warnings were offensive, based in false assumptions. I had been taking classes in African studies for two years, and as a hypochondriac I'd obviously read up enough on AIDS to know it was more likely that I'd contract it in New York than Ghana.
But I was afraid that my anxiety would reappear abroad, and I was afraid of how I would function without my friends. Alas, I was more afraid of having to take out two years of extra loans to start over a new cross cultural concentration – so board the plane I did.
Twenty one American students displaying various degrees of idiocy departed the Accra airport into the suffocating humidity to be shepherded to a waiting 'tro-tro,' or large van with all the interior fixings stripped out, then bus seats put back in. In the Amsterdam airport, we'd been chatty and excitable, but once we actually set foot in Africa we were silent.
That is, until we got to our guest house, where our program director, Papa Atta, was waiting.
“Hellooooo! Ohhhh this is an exciting moment for all of us! We've been waiting weeks for all of you, and I'm sure you've been waiting to meet us! Welcome! Welcome!”
One by one, Papa Atta enveloped each of us in a hug that instantly made all the strange faces in the guest house feel familiar. He bought us all beers from the guest house bar, and just as we were getting excited to hang out with him and hear some stories, he said
“Okay, I must go to bed now! But you all have fun, not too much fun, you hear! I want you to all be alive in the morning!”
The next morning, I learned that I hadn't been the only one terrified of infectious diseases prior to Ghana. Our faces were analogous to portraits of the scream when Papa Atta told us in our first information session,
“Oh yes, many of you will get malaria! Maybe five, maybe ten, maybe all of you! If we are lucky! You want to be able to go home and tell your friends you survived malaria, yes?”
Our slackened jaws implied that no, this was not on our Ghana bucket list.
Papa Atta just laughed a garrulous belly laugh. “Oh, don't be so afraid! I have had malaria seven times! The last time, I almost died!” He was literally beaming as he said the phrase almost died. At this I think one of us may have cracked a smile, still too afraid of malaria to actually laugh.
Post malaria chat, we moved into a dance class. Papa Atta and the rest of our educational team were of course the first up, dragging us out of our chairs and making fun of us for our lack of rhythm and we spun around the circle.
As it turned out, Papa Atta wasn't the only not-terrifying man in Ghana. Almost every man I met was just as friendly, fatherly, and joyous as the first one we'd found after disembarking the plane. Our youthful chaperon and I bonded over discussing one of my friends from school who'd been on the trip a few years prior, he took me on tipsy turvy motorcycle rides to the same spots my friend had told me about in trying to tell me why Ghana would be fun and not terrifying. One artist I worked with invited me into his studio to paint twice a week, giving me countless art supplies and a bottomless amount of guava juice. Another took my best friend and I to a beautiful set of sea cliffs and didn't pressure us to talk as we looked out on the crashing waves as night fell. In my old life, I would have been considering throwing myself off the cliffs out of fear, death a better alternative than the possibility of an unwanted advance from an older man, but now I felt comfortable, even relaxed, trusting of the strangers who had shown me so much respect since my arrival in Ghana.
I turned around from the gate and called to the cab driver, “Hey, can you help me?”
He got out of the cab. “Sure!”
“Yeah, the gate's locked from the inside. I know there are these spikes, but I don't want to like, sleep on the street. Can we try vaulting me over while I call my housemates?”
I started the phone calls as he moved his cab up to the gate so we could stand on it. As expected, none of them answered. Meanwhile, the kind man was getting into a strong standing position on the hood of his car.
“I don't know about this, those spikes!” He said.
“I'll be careful. I'll yell if I need you to put me down.”
There were foot sized spaces between the spikes, and with height of the car plus the driver we could get me up there, but I'm short. I kept yelping and forcing him to catch me as I sprung backwards and down. I'd be almost over, and then freak out imagining the spikes penetrating my vagina.
We paused after a few more tries so I could call my housemates again. Finally, one blearily answered.
“Hey girl, I know I'm the worst, but the gate is locked from the inside. Can you please come and let me in?”
She staggered outside in shorts and a t shirt, mumbling a greeting at the cab driver whose car was still pushed up against the gate as he checked his phone, as if this happened every day. I thanked him profusely, handing over an extra tip, and went to pass out on the foam mattress that was my bed for the remainder of my time in Ghana.
I never did get malaria. My roommate in Kumasi did, and I spent a good three days attempting to nurse her back to health before we convinced everyone that her symptoms were indeed bad enough to get taken to the hospital. I did get sick so frequently from the unfamiliar diet that my stomach seems to have never recovered, but it was a small price to pay for learning from the kindest people who have been ravaged by stereotypes that it's not a requirement of living to be afraid.