The Robbery

We all have these strange, dark fantasies of how we’d act during a moment of crisis. Some of you may know already, and maybe it’s your job to know. And some of you just may have happened along a man lying on the tracks, with a train rumbling towards him, and you ran over to pull that man to safety (Hi, 2!). Maybe you’ve been mugged or got into a terrible accident. Maybe you grew up in a neighborhood that required staying clear of the windows not knowing what might puncture them and then you. And if that’s the case, you’ve had so many of these moments they’ve become a way of life. Gosh, some of you have gone through quite a bit. And, if you’ve seen some shit, have been through some shit or are still in the shit, well then, I hope you keep going. I’m not necessarily happy to have one of these moments, and it might not be comparable in any way to yours, but it happened. And I’m happy to know myself a bit better than before.

So enough of that; let’s get to it. There was a robbery. It was an armed robbery that put myself and others in a danger I had personally and thankfully never known prior to that night. I can’t give too many specifics because there is an ongoing investigation. As much as you might be interested in reading riveting details, I also need to respect others’ privacy and of course not say anything to undermine the investigation. There were some moments of sheer comedy through it all and others of terror. Mostly, I want to tell you that I’m all right.

Now, a lot of people whom I’ve had the pleasure of seeing during my sojourn on the Island, asked me why I’m going back.

Why am I going back?

Why am I going back?

Why am I going back?

Well, I learned that in a gun-to-your-head moment, I’m calm, focused, compassionate, and if you don’t mind me humble-bragging for a moment—quite clever. This has been an invaluable lesson, and I feel more confident in myself than ever before.

I also believe in the work that I’m doing and the Ghanaian colleagues I work alongside. They’re leading (no exaggeration) life-saving projects on early-childhood immunizations, maternal health and wellness, ending corporal punishment and child marriage, and protecting natural resources. It might be an inflated sense of self talking, but, dammit, I want to be there for that. I came here to do a job, and I intend to see it through. That’s how Julez raised me.

The robbers didn’t take too much from me, and the last thing I want them to take is this experience filled with wonderful friends, adventures, and lessons—and it’s just the beginning.

So I’m back in Ghana. Try not to worry, and if I have one last request, while I still have your attention, please please do not let this incident negatively distort your view of Ghana, especially not of the people that live here. I still love Ghana. I still have faith in the kindness of strangers, and I hope you do, too.

Take care of yourselves.

10 Short Short Short Stories from Ghana

1. In Ghana, a dinner guest told me, history begins with colonization. I asked him to explain and he said, “In our history textbooks, when we start learning, we begin with the arrival of the Portuguese and the British. We begin with slavery.”

2. One evening, I spent a few hours with filmmakers, proudly identifying as Pan-Africanists and they told me it wasn’t until recently that they stopped thinking of Jesus as a white man. “That’s what’s wrong with your people,” one said, meaning Christians in South America. “They still believe in white Jesus. A lot of Africans still believe in him too and that means the colonialism mentality—whiteness as godliness, it’s here and it’s there.”

3. Victoria asked me if British people were “pure whites” because they only speak English.  “I don’t know what you mean by ‘pure white.’”

“Like, are there any American languages?”

“Well, the United States is a nation of immigrants so there’s no official language. People speak English but many also speak languages from around the world. But if you’re asking about native languages then yeah, there are many still spoken by indigenous—Native American tribes.”

“So real Americans aren’t white?”

“No.”

“They look like you and me?”

“Umm . . . kind of. Let me show you a picture.” I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of the Shinnecock on Long Island.

“Wow!”

4. I’ve gotten a few shades darker since being here and one day Grace told me, “Eh! You are becoming African.”

“Really? Thank you.” Maybe it was weird to say thank you but that’s what I said, and Victoria picked up on it and asked, “You want to be black?”

I don’t want to be anything, I thought. I’m me but there’s nothing wrong with being black or having dark skin. We should love our skin. You should love your skin. But I understand there’s been centuries of teaching you not to love your skin so who am I to stand here and tell you anything and maybe I’m thinking too deeply about this question; and now I haven’t answered so there’s an awkward silence and I should have really answered her question by now. And maybe my inability to answer quickly says more about me.

“Um. . . I don’t mind getting darker. I think it’s amazing what our bodies can do and how they adapt.”

Was that a dodge? Should I have gotten into all the rest? Should I have told her that everyone in the U.S. wants to get tan but no one who isn’t black would trade places with a black man or woman?

5. There’s a music teacher that I sometimes run into as I walk to the tro-tro stop that runs uptown and downtown. As we walked he said, “You know you remind me of my ex-wife.”

“Oh, was she Latina?”

“No. Belgian. White like you.”

Another time a taxi driver asked me, “You are from Japan?”

Another taxi driver another time, “You are Chinese?”

A colleague, “You look like you could be half-caste.”

I tell a South African friend who is of Indian descent about the “half-caste” comment and she almost spits out the curry her husband cooked that night.

6. There are two New Zealanders in Ghana (so they say) and I’ve happened to run into both of them. One was less circumstantial because it was a twitter-friendship before it became an in-real-life friendship, and the other one I met when we took a taxi together in Tamale and decided to dine together that same evening.

She said to me, “I never felt as white as I have in New York.”

Before Ghana, she’d lived for years in northern Nigeria and then Lagos but she felt the whitest she’s ever felt in New York City? As a documentary photographer it’s not like she even spends her time in penthouses with international bankers or with ex-pats at swanky bars. She’s following herdsmen across the Sahara and she felt the whitest in New. York. City.

“I had rented a spot in a largely black neighborhood and for me I didn’t really think twice about it since I was coming from Lagos. So you know, I’d walk down to the Jamaican spot and everyone would just turn and stare like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I realized that as soon as they heard my accent they immediately lightened up. I wanted to wear a t-shirt that said: Not a White American but short of that I just made sure that people heard my accent. It was amazing how their demeanor completely changed after that. And then when I’d mention I live in Nigeria they were like, ‘Oh! Welcome!’”

7.  There’s a young woman here on a research fellowship which lets her travel for a year to multiple countries. When we met at a women’s film festival she’d only been in Accra a week after arriving from the Netherlands. We had just watched a film about domestic violence in rural communities and how as spectators we become complicit in the abuse of women and children. It was heavy but there were moments of levity and laughter and the debate at the moment was to whether that detracted from the film’s serious message.

A woman in the back row raised her hand.

“I think we need to consider how Africans and black people across the diaspora use comedy as a way to cope with generational trauma. Let’s be real. Black people are the funniest people on the planet. They just are. But that’s rooted in slavery, colonialism, racism and the trauma of those experiences and how we’ve used art, be it dance or song and especially comedy to deal with that pain.”

After the session we ended exchanged numbers and went out later that week.

“Akwaaba. What do you think so far?”

“Oh my God, I’m so happy to be here. I love it.”

“Probably such a huge difference from Holland. Like even for me coming straight from New York when I landed I was like, ‘Whoa. Everyone is black. Cool.’”

“Yeah! I felt the same way. I text my sister and was like, ‘You’re going to love it here.’ It was difficult in Holland so it’s so nice here to just be and exist. Especially coming from a Jamaican family I just feel so at home.”

The next week I invited her to dinner at my place and she brought along a young and handsome Ghanaian man who would soon be leaving for work in London.

I asked him, “I’m not about to speak for black Americans but from what I’ve seen, like with our mutual friend, there’s a sense of solidarity with Africa. Generally, they care much more about Africa and its people than anyone else in America. I’m wondering if Africans feel the same sense of solidarity with members of the African diaspora, specifically black Americans?”

He didn’t speak right away, and I could tell he was considering so much in those moments of silence.

“I think — no. In my opinion we only really consider it if we are planning on visiting the U.S. We might think ‘Oh but there is violence to black people’ but we only think about it when it might affect us. I don’t think it should be this way. We should consider them more but maybe we are just happy to have what we have here and you know a Ghanaian will be happy to sell at the side of the road and make small-small and be safe than to go to America and struggle and be in danger. We don’t want to deal with all of that so we don’t think about it.”

When he was done, she turned to me and said, “You just opened up a whole can of worms.”

8. Ghana is incredibly religious. Almost every tro-tro has a sticker of “white Jesus” or of a message from Yahweh or a quote from the Bible, and shops have names like “His Holiness Fashion Shoppe” or “God’s Strength Grocery Market.” I’ve heard there’s only one strip club in Accra. Several taxi drivers have asked me if I’m a Christian or if I love God. Depending on my mood I’ll answer truthfully or not. At the same time, walk down Oxford street at night and you’ll see dozens of prostitutes, and if you go into a bar or by the beach you’ll see a usually white man with two thin Ghanaian women in skin-tight dresses on each of his arms. On Sunday mornings the city stops. Everyone goes to church and I even went one Sunday. I walked in and a woman was writhing on the ground with church members trying to pin her down. She had caught the Holy Spirit.

9. “They don’t believe that I’m gay,” she said and I was seriously confused.

“Wait. So you came out to your friends and they didn’t believe you?”

“Yes.”

I want to be especially careful here not to give too much detail about this person’s identity. A quick Google search and you’ll see that homosexuality is illegal in Ghana—well, homosexual acts are illegal. The law mostly applies to men but vigilante justice exists in varying degrees around the country. Some Ghanaian men will pretend to be gay to lure other men and then beat them. Two women were “amorous” at the beach and were surrounded and beaten by a mob.

She works in a creative industry and I ask if maybe that makes it a more accepting space, and she said she came out to her friends but they don’t believe her since they haven’t seen her with a woman. She calls herself a “tomboy” and says the men treat her like one of the guys and she takes full advantage of that. They offer her more training opportunities and more work and give her more responsibilities than they’d give other women. The women even tell her, “You’re a man. Go be with them.”

I told her of the Pride Parade in the city and of drag shows and Stonewall Inn and the Cubbyhole. “There’s nothing like that here. And I don’t think there will be for hmm . . . maybe 500 years. I’ll be dead and gone.” She laughed.

10. “M’nuabaa!” Grace calls me her sister and it’s the sweetest thing. “You are my sister. If you need anything there will always be enough for you,” she told me one night and I think my heart exploded. I was showing her my SnapChat story the morning after I met with the woman from the story above, and you catch a glimpse of her standing in a room talking to some other friends.

“Oh! That is a woman or a man?” Grace asked pointing at her.

“She’s a woman.”

“Really? She is lesbian?”

“I don’t know. What if she was? What would you think?”

“This is not right. The Bible says it.”

“What if she was your sister?”

“I would not talk to her.”

“What if she was your child?”

“I would disown it.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Grace and I continue with our morning routine and a few minutes later she asks me what I think.

“For me, I mean—I come from a different culture. I was raised Catholic but I wouldn’t call myself religious and where I come from it’s legal to be gay and to get married and to adopt children. I see it that if we are all children of God and if God makes no mistakes then he created gay people. And we are in no position to question God. All we can do is follow Jesus’ example—turn the other cheek and treat each other with kindness.”

“Yes.”

“I’m not trying to convince you or tell you you have to agree with me; I’m just telling you where I stand.”

“Yes. I understand.”

I feel like a fraud for deploying religion and God, ideas I’m skeptical of, in a discussion like this with Grace. Maybe it was manipulative of me and dishonest but at that moment I felt I should meet her in her corner with ideas she’s comfortable with.

Grace leaves the kitchen. “I’ll be right back m’nuabaa!”

My sister.

The Explosion

A swath of the sky behind our house was flickering orange, and we didn’t know it at the time, but a gas station was burning and a mushroom cloud of fiery gas had shot into the sky only a few minutes earlier. The burning sky looked as if the source lied just beyond the trees.

There’s a narrow, dirt road next to the house that brings you behind the block, and Victoria, Joseph and I ran down it in the dark—me, stumbling and them, expertly navigating the rocky terrain. Running the other way was a woman, a baby wrapped tightly to her back, shouting in twi.

“She said she’s running for her life,” Victoria told me as we came to the end of the path.

She had a broad grin on her face and giggled as we ran down the road. I think Victoria was giddy with the excitement of the chaos. She’s 17, but seems much younger to me, and as we slowed down by corrugated metal homes I thought—I should’ve told her to stay home.

Fortunately, the fire was much farther than it appeared. Unfortunately, at least seven people have died because of the explosion. Since 2007, at least 250 people have died from fuel explosions in Ghana, according to reporting from CitiFM.

The cause of the explosion is under investigation but, one news outlet pointed at a kebab seller for trying to light his grill amid a nearby gas leak. This theory was rejected by Ghanaian investigators. Instead, outcry on social media has placed blame on various public institutions responsible for safety, maintenance and licensing of these stations and on the private companies that refuse to conform to the adequate standards. There also seems to be an expectation that not much will change. No one will resign, and no one will be fired. The National Petroleum Authority did say, however, that it will hire 200 more safety auditors at fueling stations across Ghana.

On top of the failure of oversight, firefighters lacked the proper equipment to handle the intensity of the fire. “We have about 160 working fire tenders that serve the whole country,” wrote Citi reporter Kojo Akoto Boateng. “We need 2,155 fire hydrants in Ghana but we have 956 with over 500 not working,” he added. Boateng appears to be citing a 2013 audit from the Ghana National Fire Service.

On the other end, most intensive care units in Ghana, according to Dr. Opoku Ware Ampomah, have less than 10 beds. In an interview with Citi, Ampomah calculated that serious burns costs about 30,000 GHS and the national insurance covers up to 1,000 GHS for burn victims.

It’s a heartbreaking failure at almost every level, and I felt rage that I felt—and still feel— I have very little right to. Admittedly, I probably would have never known about this tragedy or any of the others without living here.

Nana Ama Agyemang Asante is an editor of CitiFM online, host of its popular morning show and the host of her own podcast, Unfiltered. Only a few days before the Atomic Junction explosion, Asante published “Everything in Ghana is going to kill you.”

In the article, Asante goes off.

“By the nature of the Show, I’m required to know more about everything we discuss, which means I know that only 2 out of 10 pupils in Primary 2 can read and write. I know that 36 percent of Ghanaians with salvageable injuries die because of the lack of emergency care services. I know the doctor-patient ratio stands at one doctor to 10,450 patients . . .

I get angry that some live fabulously on taxpayers’ money while babies die in hospitals because of the lack of incubators. It terrifies me that able-bodied young men are spending the best years of their lives, wiping windscreens for lunch while politicians spend millions on needless things like embossing John Mahama’s face on a bus. I fear what will happen to all these young men and women hawking China in traffic in their old age of no-pension-no-health-insurance. Overall the state of the nation infuriates me – the filth, the lawlessness, the public and private corruption, and the broken systems.”

I landed in Accra three weeks ago. I knew broadly of Ghana’s troubles but most of what I read was about how Ghana is a bright spot in Africa with a stable democracy and isolated from civil unrest and terrorist organizations. I mentioned this to a friend and she told me of a speech she once heard from a Ghanaian writer. He said most of these comparisons place Ghana next to an other African country with an autocratic ruler refusing to leave power and various ethnic factions warring or regular military coups. He didn’t want to be a bright spot among the barely lit, he wanted Ghana to shine in its own right.

I can’t fully understand the frustrations of Ghanaians who have lived here their whole lives. Although, some of them seem resigned to the Ghana they’ve always known, one of inefficiency and corruption. There’s even a saying, “That’s Ghana for ya!” to express the low expectations here and the general acceptance of it all.

You’ve seen me posting pictures of beaches and sun-filled days. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea. I’m not here to vacation, and it’s not easy. Ghana is frustrating as hell. I’m here to conduct research that will hopefully help get women more involved in journalism at community radio stations throughout Ghana. I’m here to learn from the women and men who have already succeeded in a place where the odds seem insurmountable—where everything can kill you.
 

Week 1: A Condensed Version

So I'm living in Ghana now...

This week has been full of firsts, like first taste of Jollof rice (delicious!) and first attempt to take a tro tro (bus/van; I failed) and first time being called an "oburoni" (foreigner in Twi—more to come on this later). There's a lot to say, but before I do that I want to share some of what I've seen so far. 

Let’s talk about Africa

That map you have hanging on the wall in your dorm room or office or apartment is lying to you, and it’s lying to you in a multitude of ways but I’m only going to talk about the ones that relate to my upcoming trip.

Take a look at Greenland on a flat map and it looks huge. It appears to be equal in size to Africa when in fact Africa is 14 times larger. Here’s a pretty handy puzzle from Scientific American that shows the United States, China, Eastern Europe, some other European countries, Japan and India all fitting neatly inside of Africa.

The name ‘Africa’ is derived from the Roman Empire’s reference to a Berber tribe in present-day Tunisia known as the “Afri,” and Arab invaders would later call that same northern territory “Ifriqiya.” But it wasn’t until Europeans began exploring the continent’s coastline in the fifteenth century that ‘Africa’ came to mean the entire continent. It’s a landmass with more than 50 sovereign states and more than a billion people speaking thousands of different languages. It’s the world’s second-most populous continent but also the world’s youngest. Half of the population is under the age of 20. And by 2050, a quarter of the world’s people are projected to live there.

I’m not traveling to Ghana as an African Studies PhD or even as an African Studies major. So if you already knew everything I mentioned above then great! I’m glad, and you’re off to a head start. If you learned a bit then I’m also glad. I did too, and I expect to learn a lot more. I’m heading to Ghana as a journalist and researcher, and in that capacity I hope to not fall into the traps that others have when writing about Africa.

There’s a brilliant satirical essay in Granta by Binyavanga Wainaina called “How to Write About Africa.” In it Wainaina deploys every cringeworthy trope, every demeaning and reductive description and every sensational anecdote and metaphor that so often accompanies onanistic musings of visitors to Africa. I’m going to try my best to avoid all of this despite my Western education.

It’s my hope that as I learn and share my experiences that you join me and learn and grow too.

Travel has the tremendous ability to help us see ourselves in others despite race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. If you’ve never been to Ghana or to any country in Africa, I hope you see people represented here in the same way you see yourself—as someone complicated, with a story that’s been crafted by your own choices and that’s also a product of generations of decisions before your own. I hope you see people affected by the wills of governments near and far, but also vivified by personal hopes for future comforts. Africa is as rich and as complicated as the billions of people who’ve lived and died there and the billions of others that are part of the African diaspora.

I hope this is the longest you hear me blather on because mostly you’ll be hearing from the people I meet, especially the women and men I work with at the Ghana Community Radio Network.

A final note: I want to thank you for visiting and I hope you continue to do so. I want to thank my parents, family and friends, everyone at WSHU Public Radio, the Fulbright Program and my professors and advisors from Stony Brook University and those at the Ghana Community Radio Station and the Ghana Institute of Journalism who helped me through this process. I never imagined myself, a girl born in the middle of South America and raised on the northeast coast of United States, living and working in sub-Saharan West Africa.