the corners of the mouth of the white woman sitting next to me on the bleachers, the ends of her bob and side-swept fringe, the angles at which her legs are crossed one over the other, the vertical lines on her blue and white dress bordered with small flowers, the slant of her body as she turns as far away as possible from my direction, the edges of my friends’ graduation caps, the sour vinegar tears threatening to escape my eyes to mourn my shame, the rough bench with the obvious space left between us that makes me wonder if I’m reading too much into her apparent disgust. She is probably just allowing herself, and me, some personal space.
There is a general attack being launched on my senses. I am seeing and feeling things that can’t possibly be there. Hot water from the shower drums my skin and bores its way inside myself, dissolving the hyperawareness my body produces, tilting but not breaking down the walls I constructed for my own protection. The voices in this meeting are too high-pitched, straining against the tension, attempting to disguise the contempt swirling in the mugs on the table in front of us. If I splash this hot tea over all your documents and agendas and over the fronts of your blouses, will you admit that you cannot, and will not, take orders from someone who should really be cleaning up after you?
Everything hurts much more than it should. What I have been taught to dismiss as over-sensitivity is actually an internal alarm, a natural self-preservation device with its fundamental flaw being that its user could still be doomed to untimely death on concrete just for continuing to exist. It reminds me to avoid eye contact with the beat cop who always tries to greet me in the morning, to beware of the brother–with an ‘a’– who hides my altar under his bed and only worships when the master is away, to run fast and far from anyone who encourages me to use my sister’s arm as a lever to pump up my own self esteem because somehow I am not like the others; don’t worry, that’s a good thing. It means I could survive.
(Image: View from my window. Dulles International Airport, May 2015)
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.