Three Stories

Quick note: Not too long ago, at the end of Pride Month, an annual three-day fasting was held by the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values in Ghana. It was a marathon of prayer and fasting against homosexuality along with a show of support for a bill entitled, "Comprehensive Solution Based Legislative Framework for Dealing with the Lesbianism Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Phenomenon," which would categorize LGBT people and then, based on the determination made by a--physician? Pastor? Imam? Judge? Sorting hat?--the person would receive an "appropriate" treatment or punishment. In the time since, the coalition's spokesperson, Mr. Foh Amoaning has been invited to speak on a number of popular radio programs, using the platform provided to air his theories on the Gay Agenda, which would be more entertaining if they weren't so dangerous. Mr. Amoaning and various religious leaders are consistently given largely undisturbed space to target and vilify the LGBT community in their goal of criminalizing homosexuality, which is sort-of-kind-of already illegal. (It's defined in the constitution as "unnatural carnal knowledge.") And it's definitely broadly, socially unacceptable in the country, with violence against the accused not uncommon. 

But the queer community, as I've come to know it, is certainly capable of rising above the hateful rhetoric of institutions and even state-sanctioned indifference. (It was President Akufo-Addo, former head of Ghana's human rights commission, who in an interview with Al Jazeera last year stated that the rights of the LGBT community were not a concern for Ghanaians and he'd take up the issue if he were to see a groundswell of support for it. Instead, he's set his sights and political fortunes on the construction of a national cathedral.)

People are consistently surprised by how "out" I am here. But it's a product of my privilege as an "obroni." At first, I wasn't. I thought I'd be kicked out of the shared living space where I stayed, I was concerned about professional relationships and access to sources. But then I found a community, and I was reminded that representation matters after reading a piece in Hazlitt by Bryan Washington. I might not be Ghanaian but I can be a bit of an example of someone living in an unapolagetic fashion, with pride and purpose. And if that helps even one person then I'll feel it was worth it. 

So in the vein of representation, here are two stories, one from a Ghanaian woman who has chosen to remain anonymous, and one from a well-respected feminist and LGBTQIA+ advocate. The third, is from me. Enjoy.

Grace

By A

 

I never knew I’d get there but this was how it started:

you have been prayed for so you don’t turn out queer

thanks to the person who caught you kissing

a female in the church bathroom.

It was and is considered a sin by the liars,

fornicators and adulterers.

After all the prayers said on top of your head,

well you turned straight.

Fast forward to 2009 when you have been told

female footballers are lesbians so stay away from

them. Far and away.

It was an airy-sunny day as I lay on a mat,

outside, after training at sports camp.

I felt some steam on my face.

I opened my eyes and a face was so close our lips

brushed. I felt queasy. I got up.

She has been ogling at me for days on

training grounds.

In the bathroom she stared so much it was

discomforting.

She lived few doors away and as much as I tried to

escape her stares, they followed everywhere.

This night with hopes of escaping her,

I went to a solitary place, a borehole site with

few grown pines rendering it a minor bush and

gnats gathering, to bath.

I was bathing when she came there.

“Shit!” I let out. That blatant stare. I wanted to vanish. I guzzled the discomfort that grew in my throat because I couldn’t speak. I begged her with my eyes to stop but she would not. When she realized with her, I had no mercy she smiled and I felt a warm substance trickle down my thigh. I closed my eyes for a second and opened them. I saw fulfillment in her eyes. Fuck! I wanted her.

It was match day. They lost.

I was in my room when I heard a clamour outside.

I ignored it.

“She is partly to blame. She is” said a familiar voice.

This time I could not ignore it because it was close.

Damn! Eyes! Not hers, her best friend’s, and there

where sullen. I sat up, looked at her, looking for

answers in them.

“She didn’t put her foot in like always and it’s

because of you. You didn’t want her.

She needed you. She was slow with everything.”

Best friend said. My eyes shot a blatant stare at her.

“Yes. I know her, I can confidently say it is you”

she replied and walked out.

Fuck! Now everyone think I do girls.

This is Ghana 9 years before now.

I lay back down and cowered.

I drew my knees into my chest.

I replayed the event in my head, many times

and imaged the eyes that stripped me with shame.

I blacked out.

I felt a soft rub on my forehead. It was my friend,

the tennis player. She smiled. “Let’s go to mines.

I already packed”

Looking into my eyes for assurance. I nodded.

I got up. I tried to avoid the stare from the other athletes.

My eyes where focused on the floor.

I made steady steps trying to look confident

with all the outcry in the silence.

“Why don’t you want her?”

“I like her. Just not in the same way she does”

I said to one of athletes with a clear voice

but a wry smile. I didn’t turn.

“I do, but she chose you and warned us to stay

off her because she loves you. and you don’t

even love her.” Now I stopped. Turned.

I saw agreement in their eyes: one of the athletes

and the other athletes. I laughed. I said sorry

and laughed again. My friend, the tennis player

laughed too. It was weak at first but it became

strong, then shrill. And by now they understood

why I laughed.

In the tennis players room I threw myself on her bed and had a stupid grin. I couldn’t believe I thought the athletes judged me. I mean this is Ghana with all its senseless homophobia.

Two days for camp to end,

I was still at the tennis players room. She came.

Sat at the edge of my bed. I did not budge.

Stared at me as if I were a coveted oeuvre.

This time I stared back. She looked like she was

at a murky place.

She tried to avoid me albeit I had locked eyes

on her. We remained like that for a while.

“I understand you don’t love me”

“You never told me you did”

I said with a smile. I don’t know why I smiled.

I wasn’t being callous.

I guess I felt giddy that we spoke for the first time.

I wanted to know her. Her voice.

What she felt like. Her insides.

I wanted to know all of her. I wanted her.

She knew I liked her. That night at the borehole,

she saw beyond the shyness. She saw warmth

in my eyes. She knew it.

She smiled back, now I let out a sound in my throat

accompanied by a short laugh. She touched my feet.

Caressed it. I sat up and leaned in for a hug.

I stayed in her arms with my eyes closed.

I pulled back after a while.

“I really like you. I do”

Last day at camp, I left with my friend

the tennis player. Her phone rang, she looked at

the caller ID and passed it to me.

“why is your phone off?” She said when I answered.

I hanged up

DIVULGENCE

“I love you. I know you do too.

Can we stop this and be together?”

My boyfriend woke me up. “Are you a lesbian?”

“No. Why?” I said with sleep in my eyes.

“I love you. I know you do too.

Can we stop this and be together”

he read the message out loud.

My face birthed a grin. My bearing made him toggle

ideas in his mind. He touched me. I felt him clammy.

“It’s this girl I met at camp.

Don’t beat yourself up about it please.

It’s still dawn and I need sleep.

Don’t forget I am travelling” I responded

and flashed a smirk. It wasn’t for him, it was for her.

“I love you. I know you do too.

Can we stop this and be together?”

My mind played the message countless times.

At some point I mouthed the words and at

every instance, I remember everything that

happened while on the bus home.

I kept grinning like a fool. I was cocksure

my boyfriend and I were done. He knew that too.

I didn’t become her girlfriend but

I knew in my heart, she was my Grace.

Me’shell Ndegeocello-Grace was playing when

I finished this piece. You should listen to it.


 

Moonlit

By Fatima Derby

 

The moon was empty when I died. It was quick and sharp, cutting through the darkness like newly forged blade. One minute you were there, sitting a step above me on the wooden staircase of an old warehouse in the silence of the night. We looked up at the sky and you tried to find and name your favourite constellations, but you couldn’t remember anything. You were curious a lot about astronomy in your childhood and in the next moment, all memory of that fascination was washed with the rain. Like I was. One minute I was there with you, the next I wasn’t.

 

I was dead to you.

 

I held your hands in mine that night. They were soft, and they smelled very nice. Boys’ hands shouldn’t feel so soft or smell so good, we were told. I could feel my own rough and calloused hands against the tenderness of yours and I slowly and carefully withdrew them. I didn’t want to cause you any discomfort. When you ripped my heart out from my chest, you weren’t slow and careful.

 

That was why I died.

 

We were exhausted. We had gone to an art exhibition, stopped by a diner to grab supper and in a crazy flash of inspiration, decided to walk the forty-minute bus ride distance to your house. We talked and walked till your feet started to hurt so we took a break on the steps of that old warehouse. We bared our souls to each other. You told me how much you hated high school. The boys bullied you a lot. They laughed at your softness, your cleanliness and your non-aggressive mannerisms, they hid your stuff, poured water on your bed after classes so you were unable to sleep during siesta and they constantly made fun of you for moisturizing your elbows each night before bed. Sometimes they were agonizingly mean. They mistakenly whispered “batty boy” out loud on purpose when you walked by. They threatened your friends to stay away from you and you ended up going for days without speaking to anyone or being spoken to because your friends were scared too. The other day you went to class and someone had scrawled on the board, “ALL HOMOS  WILL PERISH IN HELL”. That morning during the class devotion, your class chaplain talked about the sin of gayism and how it was better for the homos to kill themselves rather than let the demon of gayism possess their bodies. Forty-nine pairs of eyes turned to stare at you and you bowed your head in shame.

 

The only sounds of the night were the crickets playing hide and seek with one another as the moon smiled lovingly down at them. And then there were the quiet sobs as your shoulders shook violently from the grief and trauma from a time in your life when you were only just coming into yourself. Boy crushes were confusing, but even louder than the pounding in your chest when your cute best friend smiled at you was the label they had slapped on you that said you were different and for that, abominable.

 

I manage to navigate life without being seen. I’m a stereotype. With my massive hairy arms, broad chest and deep voice, I’m able to get by on the outside. I was a mess on the inside. Born to devout pastors, I grew up in the church and all I knew about myself was that I was a boy condemned to death and fire for all eternity. Until the day I walked into church, knelt before the altar, said “Dear God, I am a boy who likes other boys. Forgive me” and walked out never to return again.

 

I held your hands in mine as we comforted each other. We were home.

 

The following day I woke up to a blunt text from you. You had said too much. Revealed too much. Something about vulnerability and fear. I called your phone, but I had been disconnected. I sent you messages, emails, letters by post. No response. You were a ghost.

 

But I was the one who died.

 

For the next eight months, I saw you everywhere. I saw your eyes looking back at me through the pedicurist’s glass window. I saw your hands hand me change at the bakery. I cried so hard the neighbour asked me if I’d lost someone. I told them I lost myself and they shook their head sadly at my madness. The pain heavier than a million bricks started to drag me down, I sunk to rock bottom and there I discovered a treasure. Words. I started writing. I wrote love songs about you. I cursed your name in my poetry. I could not stop writing.

 

The moon was full last night when I received a message from you;

“Hi, I miss you. Can we talk sometime?”.

My heart missed a beat.

 

I will live.

 


The Process

By Jessica Opatich

 

I don’t know how it ends but here’s how it starts: Early on, you’re raised by your mom and her best friend and when you’re all together checking out groceries you loudly ask, “When will dad be home?” because you don’t want the cashier, or the raggedy-haired woman next in line to think these women are lesbians. And you’re not sure when or why this started to concern you but it does. It starts with internalized homophobia and that shit doesn’t leave for a long time; it settles comfortably like dust behind something heavy that you never bother to move.

Many days later, enough days to become years, you find yourself in the snow, wind sailing between the academic buildings and slapping you square on the cheeks. You read in a campus-wide email that someone was stabbed, or robbed, or robbed and stabbed while crossing the footbridge and you tell her that because of this she shouldn’t walk back to her dorm room alone. So you throw on some boots and take that walk with her. You used to be cold when the temperature dipped below 70, like Frank said, but now you can wear basketball shorts in a blizzard and not feel a thing. But this night, this night it’s truly brick.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“There’s some hash-slinging slasher on the loose and you want to go back at this time, alone?”

She laughs and calls you a “derp.”

The walk is quiet. The boys and girls have found each other for the night. And you derp along, where the snow is light and new, next to a pretty girl.

The first time you met her, the first snow hadn’t fallen yet and that heavy something still sat firm and unmoved. It was a house party off-campus and you danced up against the rainbow-strobe-splattered wall with the goalie on the boys soccer team. He was alright. But this was how it always went: you go, you drink, you dance on some boys, you dance with some girls, you wake up somewhere else. But that night, a girl walks across the room to you, turns you around, and kisses you. Just like that--like it’s nothing. The record scratches. Everyone turns. The boys hoot and holler. (It’s the American way.) And you wonder what the hell is going on. What’s this girl’s name again? Isn’t she the one with the boyfriend of like three years? Is this for show or...? Wow. We’re still going, huh? I should stop watching everyone watch me and just close my eyes. I look like a noob. Yeah, eyes closed is the way to go. Natural. Smooth. Oh shit--and then it’s over. You’re pulled into the kitchen.

You don’t see her again. The semester, ends, you travel home for holidays and travel back after the new year for new classes. In one, you know a guy from the baseball team but that’s it. He’s alright, decent actually. And just as the professor clears his throat, she walks in. And of course, of-fuckin-course, the only spot left is right next to you.

“Hey.”

Relax your eyebrows, relax your eyebrows. Blink.

“Hi!” No. Shit. Way too much enthusiasm. Kill me.

A few weeks later, an email. “Hey, I gave the Logic textbook to a friend and now she’s not answering, and I still haven’t done the assignment. Can I borrow yours?”

You bring it to her dorm room. You study for the quiz. You study for the next exam. Somewhere along the way you end up walking her home in the dead of winter in upstate New York. The heaters are on full blast in the stairwell and so you unzip your coat and let the warmth bounce off you until you feel it break through and thaw out your bones.

“Thanks for the escort.”

“Sure. Yeah. No big deal . . .uhh . . .  Goodnight.”

She walks up the steps and you sit on the edge of heater, looking into the night and dreading the walk back. She stops at the first landing, turns around, and starts walking back down the steps. You stay seated, wondering how you can be both melting and completely frozen. She gets closer and closer and finally she grabs your face, kisses you, and this time there are no frat boys high-fiving and no alcohol in your systems, but you’re more scared than you ever were before. You think you hear a crackling outside and you jerk your head back and push her shoulders back the other way. She says it’s nothing, just the snow. And so you return to the moment but now you think someone might come down the steps, or through the hall, and you can’t.

Weeks go by, months go by, you sneak away at parties with her, text her when she’s not around, keep kissing boys that are alright. Some are not alright. You sit down with her in a boy’s room during a party and ask her why she’s doing this to you. You’re not like that. She holds back a broad smile and shows you a smirk instead.

“Okay. If you say so,” she says as she lies down, wrapping her legs around your waist, causing that concupiscent electricity to race up and down your body.

You leave and she texts you an excerpt from Rilke:

“Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

A year later, you transfer, start somewhere new, introduce yourself as someone who is that way. No one cares, in the best way. You walk into the Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar in the West Village, for the first time during Pride. You go to the gay bar and see beautiful men dancing, singing, bravely and boldly and it looks like freedom more than “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” You watch Paris is Burning, you watch The L Word (spoiler alert: even after Dana dies and spoiler alert: even after Shane leaves Carmen at the altar), you take the train into the city and sit quietly with strangers in Angelika theatre and watch Blue is the Warmest Color, you watch Angels in America, Frieda, But I’m a Cheerleader, Imagine Me and You. You watch other people live the questions and then you try to live them on your own.

You fall in love.

Do You Get Me? MTCHEEEW

TRANSCRIPT:

JESS:  I remember the first time I hissed at someone. I was in Vida e Cafe and my waiter had run back and forth several times and I was a tad "hangry" so out of desperation-- I hissed.

ASEYE: How long did it take him to attend to you after you hissed?

JESS: The waiter whipped his head all the way around- so fast- like he was on some exorcist business and he stared right into my soul. So...real fast.

ASEYE: Okay so the hissing sent a message that you are really hungry and he should attend to you because you’ve been there for long.

JESS: Exactly. And for me it was cool because suddenly I was doing this thing that I’d only seen Ghanaians do--and it worked! But the hiss was not the only sound that was new to me when I arrived. There are a lot of these sounds that linguists would call non-lexical conversational sounds. So Aseye (ASEYE:hello!) and I decided to go out and find as many as we could and see in what context these sounds are used and even who gets to use these sounds.

ASEYE: Well I am so glad that worked for you but you should know not all conversational sounds express frustration. Some express agreement, surprise etc. you will find out more as we do this..

JESS: So first we met up with your friend Noella who is a student at the University of Ghana.

ASEYE: Yes, tiny Noella

[Noella introducing herself in Dagaari, this info is included in Aseye's description below]

ASEYE: Noella is my friend. We met at YALI. So YALI means Young African Leaders Initiative, an initiative started by President Obama. She is this tiny girl I was avoiding when I first saw her because she kept looking my way. But after I found out she will live opposite me, I warmed up to her.(so much info) Anyways, she is a fourth year student reading Agriculture Science. She speaks English and Dagaari but not very fluent in Twi. She comes from the Upper West and is 22 years old.

JESS: There was a lot of giggling because Noella didn’t notice these sounds until we mentioned them and then she’d catch herself.

ASEYE:  So the first one we asked about was "mtcheeww."

NOELLA: M-T-C-H- depending on how you stress it then it gets more E’s and W’s so if it’s short it’s just mtcheew but if it’s very long like mtcheeewwww you add more E’s and W’s.

ASEYE: we do use ‘mtchew’ a lot. It’s like the slightest thing that frustrates you just mtchew

JESS: Yeah that is one I still need to practice. I’m honestly not sure if I’ll ever get it. But I can do hmh! I think...

NOELLA: hmh. Mtchew. *Laughter* Hmh. When do we use hmh? When do you use hmh?

ASEYE: I use hmh when um maybe you are talking about something and you reveal something I know you could do something mean I be like hmh or I also use when when we are talking and the next comment I am about to say is something that will really hurt you or our parents use it when you are ready to receive spanking...they will call you like Noella,what did you do. Or they will call you and be like hmh. Which means you are going to be spanked or lambasted or something like that.

NOELLA: Or when someone does something to you and you don’t really have anything to say to that person you just say hmh *laughter*

JESS: Okay so we’ve got mtchew and hmh added to our repertoire--well *my* repertoire because you been having this knowledge. So, what’s next?

NOELLA: Okay let’s say for instance. I want to say something and then she starts talking and says something in relation to what I was about to say . . ah haaaa, that’s what I was coming to talk about. Laughs. That’s when I use ah haaaa

ASEYE:  You remember that thing I was telling you the other time

JESS: AHH HHAAAA- How’d I do?

ASEYE: . . . fine. . . you tried.

JESS: Thanks..

ASEYE: But you still need for practice for the mtcheeww.

JESS:Okay so then we went to chat with some guys getting ready to play basketball.

(Hi sorry to interrupt. How are you? These are my friends Aseye and Noella)

ASEYE: Ugh these guys.

“I dey get the sounds dey pleeeenty . . .  ”

ASEYE: He’s saying he knows a lot of these sound in Pidgin.

GERALD: Right now basketball . . . a lot of sounds. I don’t know which one you want..like if I go talk say Arkes go come . . . that is like disbelief. I think all the sounds should be given to the girls. Cause boys, we hardly talk or we hardly make sounds. We’re all about exercise and play games. Girls are like 80 percent of the sounds . . . please don't insult me in your head I am begging you o

JESS: Wow. He called you out.  Were you insulting him in your mind???

ASEYE: No oo I guess my face could not hide my surprise.

JESS: What about what he said surprised you?

ASEYE: That sounds should be given to girls and even had stats to support it.  I am wondering where he got that from.

JESS: Okay so speaking of surprise--once we left the guys we spoke to two first year students Rita and Jennifer who gave us O and Ei...

RITA: “O like when I’m surprised at something and Ei like when I am shocked.”

ASEYE: They shocked me when they said they agree with the boys that sounds are for girls.

JENNIFER: “We like complaining”

ASEYE: I'm glad Haraja agreed with me. She is Noella’s roomate.

HARAJA: The boys do those sounds too. Mostly when they are trying to call you, some advances or maybe laugh at you.

JESS: There’s another sound that’s used like a hiss, to get someones attention, but it’s also like a kissy face. For me it reminds me of the sound you might  make if there's a stray dog or cat and you want it to come closer to you.

ASEYE: Yeah you’re no good at that one either.

NOELLA: Those in the market that want to draw your attention. The ones selling jeans or cellphones.

JESS: Ok so, mtchew, kissy noises. Hiss. Those are some of the sounds of Accra and even outside of Accra. If you’re Ghanaian I hope you enjoyed listening to the unique conversational sounds that were so new to me when I first arrived.

ASEYE: And if you’re not Ghanaian,and you have plans on visiting you should learn from this podcast before you arrive or else become a Jessica. And I also think that let's rewind to the begining when she asks who get to makes those sounds. Everyone does it, right from the child to the teenager, the young adult, the old man, the old woman. It's just a Ghanaian thing. We use it all the time. So, yea, that's it.

JESS: Thanks for joining me, Aseye. Byeeeee

ASEYE: Buh-Byeee

A Podcast

 

TRANSCRIPT: 

Teju Cole is known for his ability to write about cities. His novel, Open City, considered one of the best city novels-- is just a dude wandering the streets of New York. Here’s a quote:

“Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.”

The psychic weight. That’s what I want to explore here. And I want to explore it--somewhat ambitiously--in the tradition of some of my favorite city writers like Cole, Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf and this guy, James Joyce.

After the robbery, which you can read about on my blog, I thought of a line from Joyce’s Ulysses. One of my favorite and it encapsulates, for me, what makes cities so fantastic:

“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”

In that spirit--I want to introduce you to Accra, to its sights, smells, people, and of course sounds, and in that swirling city stew--I hope you meet yourself too.

This podcast is produced with the help of my friends, Lawrence and Asantewaa and Daaf. I am Jessica Opatich, a Fulbright researcher living in Accra. This is "Do You Get Me?" a podcast on the Accra city life and the people who make it what it is.

* * *

A special thanks to Lawrence, Asantewaa and Daaf who are more than just friends but are talented, professional storytellers. Law is a Ghanaian filmmaker currently on a prestigious documentary film fellowship in Munich; Asantewaa is a filmmaker, scriptwriter, photographer, director among other roles I'm probably forgetting; Daaf is a Dutch journalist and founder of The Bright Continent, telling positive stories from the African continent about its diverse cultures, ethnicities and paths towards prosperity without sugarcoating the challenges along the way. 

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 to me, 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.