Safe House

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.

And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am???”

Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigger nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.

But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “Thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.

You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to burn an armed robber with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public­–

Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege– you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves black people, until she has a black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe–

And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.

And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.

In Transit

Her hips were too wide for the bus seat, and the weight of embarrassment that hovered above her head pressed downwards, its weight growing unbearable as she shifted in the inadequate space. She mumbled apologies each time her fleshy thigh rubbed against that of the sinewy one of the slim girl next to her, and flinched every time the arm rest dug into her side. Her humiliation expanded to fill the air around her, as she sensed her neighbor’s looks of disgust flashing in her direction. The bus eventually paused somewhere between Maryland and Philadelphia, and she watched as two young women climbed onboard with bright wax print tied around their heads in a style she had never seen before. Their oversized beaded bracelets rattled loudly, competing with the peals of their self-conscious laughter. She noticed their eyes slide past hers immediately after they made eye contact, almost as though they were guilty of an offense they were convinced they had left behind in a flurry of college acceptances and green cards. She was a reminder of their hidden pasts and unwanted futures; the slow-moving, wide-hipped mothers they had abandoned to tend the weak fires of rusty coal pots. She was a symbol of their most profound fears, the kind of unsophisticated African womanhood they were attempting to fight off every time they preached the danger of stereotypes in their classes, the sing-song tones they erased from their clipped, flat English, the kinks they stretched and elongated or twisted out and pressed in an effort to show that glamour also had an African name, and it was Ngozi, not Blessing. For them she represented a counter-ideal, a monument which may have been a foundation for their very existence but one which they only now grudgingly claimed. She was the smell of onions and wood smoke lingering in a faded wrapper, a stench they chased away every day with shower gels and body butters infused with a hint of shea. Her stare was an accusation, a death sentence, a piercing ululation in the middle of the night. Their glossy coating of pride and #carefreeblackgirl concealed a more sinister layer of self-hatred, one that had also fallen victim to the same Western gaze it tried (and failed) to reject.

Not all African women live in villages and carry pots of water on their head from riverside to hut all day long.

 Not all African women are mutilated and oppressed, not all of them are somebody’s third wife.

 But my mother did, and she was, and still is.

 What is this woman staring at? Do we owe her money? Mtchew. She’s one of those bush women that can’t mind her business. Probably with no papers. Don’t mind her. We don’t owe her anything at all.

Welcome to Dysfunction

Something is out of joint. This is more than a fog settling on the horizon, something more disturbing than a bad omen. More than the twisted ankle you got that day you tried to grasp the branch just fingertips out of reach. The darkest storm clouds are swirling in the middle of harmattan. Something unnatural has occurred, like a hand reaching beyond the chest and squeezing the heart ever so slightly. The once-eager cadets in their shiny uniforms are offbeat and out of step, gold buttons hanging by a thread on the front of their jackets. Our mothers would say the gods have been angered. Welcome to dysfunction, where the owners of the house are long past the point of keeping up appearances. They have inherited a homestead in ruins, a place haunted by the phantoms of its torrid past. A relic, a shrine to fallen greatness long forgotten, stands in the place where the Atlantic once kissed shores littered with gold dust and “undiscovered” treasures. A view of the past filtered through the longing of sepia-toned lenses is necessary, to demonstrate just how weak the foundations have become.

Welcome to a place where the owners of the house stopped trying generations ago to cover the cracks with lashings of whitewash, whitewash spilled everywhere, whitewash smothered on the curb to demonstrate prosperity and booming bank balances for the visitors. And yet the real heirs to this relic are the ones who suffer. They have become tenants, squatters even, as they watch their protectors sell away what’s left of their inheritance, brick by crumbling brick. Where food once burst forth from the ground, now only weeds and parasites deign to sprout. The owners have carried the juiciest fruit away to foreign lands, only to bring back a glossy product encased with slogans and false hope, promising to transform lives. That new car means an automatic promotion, a house in a gated community, and water that flows all the time and not when it so chooses, (almost as though a petulant child is tampering with the source just to annoy those dreadful people who think they are important because they happen to be taller.) That bar of chocolate and bottle of purified water mean that your hair (also imported) will flow behind you, driven by an invisible fan, as you step into the world of your dreams.

Dreams sold at exorbitant prices, after all…(“Abeg you know petrol has gone higher ooh”). Dreams built on the backs of a few people’s hard work, only for an even smaller select few to enjoy. But what haven’t you already heard? Worry is welded to the faces of everyone you know. Anxiety is a permanent and unwanted houseguest, that relative that promises to leave once they’re back on their feet, but is still there after years of “weighing the best options”. Furrowed foreheads are the latest accessories and a chorus of deep sighs is sweeping across language barriers, and ages, and degrees, and classes. Actually, maybe not classes. Trust is an antiquated abstraction that has been filed away in case a use is found for it somewhere in the distant future. And the house owners pretend to sympathize, but they hide behind inappropriate jokes and poorly timed pep talks, relying on that staple sense of humor to make it through.

You are now entering dysfunction, where the tenants can see the reflection of their distended bellies in the tinted windows of the new toy the owner brought home today. Even the neighbors who used to peek disdainfully through the hedge at those “other people” are now beginning to feel the outrage. Can we break off this shiny metal and turn it into something useful? Burn it to ignite a fire in the deactivated consciences of those who have sat idly while the house continued to crash  around our heads, or those who actively dismantled it, a piece of gravel here, a louver blade there. Now the neighbors and distant relatives are clamoring to be heard. But the landlord’s primary interest is keeping the title deeds clutched tightly to his chest, or balled up in the same fist he uses to shower blows on a populace on their knees. But you see, now, outrage has become a legitimate emotion to express. It has been signed in triplicate and has sat on a civil servant’s desk for six months. It has even been rubber-stamped, notarized, sealed with wax and has obtained all the relevant permits. It has been brought before committees and tribunals and found worthy. It has also been discussed in  ministry offices, barbershops, chop bars, and over brunch at the latest hotspot. It’s official; dysfunction may be here to stay?

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

-Animal Farm, George Orwell

Air Conditioned Denial

He rolled up the sleek, tinted windows of his brand new, elegantly understated car, his status symbol, the signal that he had finally “arrived” in Accra.  Ivy league degree firmly tucked in his back pocket; he was poised on the edge of success much like a nervous bird teetering on the tip of a frayed tree branch.  He had very lofty but very vague ideas about “urban development” and “corruption in the Third World” and he was convinced that his senior seminars with titles such as these had equipped him with enough knowledge to turn the whole rotten system around. “Just give me 5 years, I have this all figured out!”

He was bolstered by the support of his doting parents who never missed an opportunity to slip him into the monotonous conversations held with cold acquaintances during fundraisers at the African Regent. “He has foresight, vision, you know. And he actually cares about Ghana! Our boy is going places!” Their boastful encouragement buoyed his ego like indulgent ocean waves lovingly propelling a little tugboat along. He was the little canoe that could.  Energized, he donned his white button-down shirt ironed and starched into submission by the house help.  He sped off through the tree-lined streets of East Legon, optimism bubbling forth as he looked around at all the “progress” and “potential” ready and waiting for him to tap into. Somehow he missed the droves of homeless and mentally ill knocking pitifully on his tinted windows asking for some money for the day’s lone meal. After all, if they worked hard like he did they would be where he was. As far as he was concerned, the American dream came wrapped in a fresh green plantain leaf.

Interview after interview, in buildings that all began to look alike with their stuffy rooms and dust-coated fans ticking away until lunchtime, and he still had no job offers. Irritable public servants, and non-profit workers, and bank HR managers scoffed at the affected American drawl and the gleaming cufflinks. “Look at this small boy too. He thinks his father is a big man and so what. Mtchew. NEXT!” His broad shoulders began to lose the confidence and strength they exuded, four years of varsity rowing gone to waste. He began to moan bitterly about the heat, the mosquitoes, the eternity spent waiting in line to pay phone bills. His parents grew more and more agitated, watching their wunderkind turn into just another failed returnee. He spent many more nights slumped over the bar at Republic, guzzling stylized locally-inspired cocktails and reminiscing with college classmates about the subway, and that one Moroccan restaurant in the Meatpacking District. His tank of enthusiasm was running below empty, his high school girlfriend no longer picked up his calls. What did she need him for? She’d started seeing a minister, yes that notorious minister with gold teeth flashing in his lascivious smile and a shiny European car. She had no time for dreamers.

The dusty streets of Accra lost their luster, and our dear boy began making plans to return to the States. Sorry young man, you don’t have all the answers.  Perhaps you should’ve rolled down the windows years ago and let the scent of fried yam and clogged drains waft into your nostrils.  You were never as in touch as you thought you were. The African kid on the rowing team, yeah he’s mad chill. The returnee waiting for Mother Ghana to embrace him with open arms? No, not so much.