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Hallways and Body Armor

“Mesdames will see you now.”

I sit on a hard wooden chair in a long narrow hallway waiting for this moment. The walls are painted institutional gray and lit by harshly flickering fluorescent bulbs. At least a dozen others sit in similar chairs along both sides of the wall waiting their turn to disappear behind one of the office doors. It’s taken me four days to get here, to the top floor of Ghana Police Headquarters, waiting for a meeting with the Director of the Domestic Violence Victim Support Unit. My time is up.

Four days earlier…

The bus came to such an abrupt halt that everyone lurched forward. “We’re going to DOVVSU. I have a letter,” our driver told the gate guard.

“Go around to the SWAT gate,” the guard replied. He then pointed out the direction we should take.

Eric reversed the bus and turned left, following the outer perimeter of the compound. I exchanged a surprised look with our program director. The SWAT gate sounded so ominous.

We passed several entrances, but were directed to keep going until we came to an entrance that led to a small parking lot within the compound. A guard with an automatic rifle told the driver to stop while another guard approached the bus with a round flat mirror attached to a long pole. He inserted the mirror under the bus and slowly moved down one side, scanning for explosives.

My heart kicked up a beat. The guard with the weapon moved in close to the windows and began visually inspecting the inside of the bus. At once I felt the thrill of fear and excitement at the novelty of the situation. It was absurd to think that a bus of college students would be harboring explosives, but then I realized the implication of the search. We might not be a threat to police headquarters, but someone was.

When I learned of my internship with the Ghana police I assumed I would feel safe at a police station, as I would in the U.S. I quickly realized that I had to throw out all my preconceived notions, and stop using my knowledge of American institutions and cultures to construct ideas about my Ghanaian experience. The man with the machine gun moved down the bus window by window. When he got to mine I briefly made eye contact as he assessed me. He held the gun across his body with his arms at chest level so the barrel was visible through the top of the window. As I lost eye contact with him I focused in the rifle barrel. This is the closest I have ever been to an automatic weapon.

We finally cleared inspection, parked, and four of us got out of the bus. As we neared a small building marked RECEPTION, two female guards met us outside with hand-held metal detectors and told us to raise our arms. We were scanned, patted down, and our bags were searched. My adrenaline was pumping and I had developed a nervous tremor. These searches were getting progressively more invasive. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we kept going, but eventually we did make it through reception to a small hallway outside the DOVVSU offices, with our dignity intact. Here I hit the first wall, and her name was Helena.

Soon I learned that the DOVVSU director had not officially approved my internship. Helena kept trying to get rid of me by saying there was nothing I could do and no one would talk to me until I was approved. Our fearless leader Leslie wouldn’t back down and talked her into letting me wait until I was approved. I sat in an old leather desk chair in the narrow hallway for the next two hours before I was officially approved. I would come to think of them as my chair in my hallway. We spent a lot of time together.

Helena told me that the director, a shadowy figure referred to only as Mesdames by the staff, wanted to meet me on Friday at 10:00 am.

“Go now. Come back on Friday. 10 o’clock. Bye-bye.”

I quickly escaped the police station, or as quickly as you can escape a guarded and armed compound, and stopped trembling. My anxiety was just beginning though. I left feeling defeated, and now I had four days to contemplate my meeting with the mysterious Mesdames.

Today…

I’m sitting in another narrow hallway. This one is definitely not my hallway because it has air conditioning and is well lit. Aside from a small incident at the RECEPTION building this morning I made it into the compound. My bag set off the hand-held metal detector because I forgot to take out my pocketknife before leaving the house this morning. As the guard took it from me I said, “It’s my fruit knife,” as if my intentions somehow blunted the blade’s potential. Not my finest intellectual argument, but I’m terrified of going to jail abroad and it was all I had at the time.

I’m nervously shaking and fidgeting. I began this week full of confidence. I wanted to learn ‘about gender violence in Ghana and offer my knowledge about public relations and research. I was going to dazzle them with my insight and sparkly press releases. I was cloaked in the armor of my education, and what felt like bravery was revealed as mere bravado in the face of an AK-47. With each search and hurdle I was stripped of another layer of arrogance, until I had no preconceived notions, no grandiose plans, and no ideas about what this internship is supposed to be. I am ready to learn from whatever it is.

“Mesdames will see you now.”

I have come to this new hallway with only the basic tools I need: humility, curiosity, and stubbornness. I stand and take a deep breath.

I am going to meet Mesdames.