We watch as the investigator circles the room and stops at the tall window behind the couch. The gate that is usually locked across the glass is ajar. The screen and glass are pushed aside creating a wide opening into our backyard. I can see the receipts from my wallet lying on the pavement that lead a trail to the back corner of the wall that encloses our house. It’s in that back corner of the yard, behind the visual protection of a tree, where part of the barbed wire fence is now missing. I think I can see my headphones tangled on a bush. She asks a few questions and then moves on down the hall. I go to the kitchen to make tea. The adrenaline from the morning is fading and has left me shaky. I can hear her down the hall asking why we didn’t sleep with our bedrooms doors locked.
“We have a barbed wire fence. We have a 24-hour security guard. We have bars over our windows and locks on the doors. We should be able to leave our stuff around. This is our home.”
She pauses in the middle of the room and turns sharply to stare at him.
“This is not your home. This is not your country. This is Ghana. You come here with your white skin… What did you expect?”
Not this. Not a cut barbed-wire fence, or an open window that was locked the night before. Not our laptops, cameras, phones and cash stolen from our bedrooms while we slept.
And definitely not to be told it was our fault.
The investigator’s accusations stripped us of the developing confidence and sense of acceptance that had been slowly building since we arrived. We very suddenly felt the weight of a reality we perhaps had been too optimistic and naïve to acknowledge. The reality simply being that because we stand out as the seemingly affluent foreigner, we are a potentially easy and obvious target.
After we woke up the morning of the robbery our fear, driven by intense vulnerability, began to sink in. As we walked through the dark rooms of our house to take inventory of our belongings, we began to feel the weight of what happened, and worse, the sickening relief that what our minds imagined could have happened, didn’t. We began to believe in the unarguable, unavoidable dangers of the developing world. We questioned the country that until 3:00 a.m. this morning has welcomed us. We blamed the neighbors, the cab drivers, the exterminator, the security guards and the teenagers down the road.
The day dragged on and our fear and anger was soon numbed by thankfulness. Everything stolen was replaceable. We were all safe. Our coworkers began calling to express their condolences. They treated the incident as if mourning the loss of a family member. My boss, Mr. Hanson, versed Bible passages to me over the phone and asked if he could stop by to pay his respects. A coworker today at work shook his head and told me he was personally embarrassed as a Ghanaian, both about the burglary and the way we were treated by police. Another told me his heart had been aching for us all weekend. “This is not Ghana,” he told me. “I hope you can forgive us.”
Us. The inclusiveness of his statement furthered my amazement at the collectiveness of Ghanaian culture. The genuine sympathy paired with the embarrassment for the actions of a few members of their country mended the sense of betrayal we felt from the robbery. It emphasized the exclusiveness of the robbers’ actions apart from the Ghana we’ve grown to love.
So as the days passed we began having conversations about how we, as overly analytical journalism students, would write about what happened. We sat together and dissected every possible angle to take on the story. We scrutinized over every detail, and we debated every implication our story will have. To put it simply, we were robbed. It could happen anywhere. But it didn’t. It happened in Africa and that statement holds more weight, allegation and assumption than it would perhaps anywhere else.
Because of this, the robbery exposed the biggest questions our group of young emerging journalists has asked since we arrived in Ghana. How do we portray this country in a way that does not reinforce Western stereotypes of Africa? How do we go beyond perpetuating the single story? How do we use our words and our photos to honestly and objectively tell the stories of a nation whose both struggles and progress are clearly visible to us?
Our home was broken into. Our safety was compromised. Our belongings were stolen. All the words of caution our family and friends spoke of before we left crept into our minds in powerful waves of uncertainty and disbelief that despite the warnings of a dangerous “Africa” our new home was anything but safe. How do we tell this story?
We have no idea.
Can we say we felt targeted without suggesting that white foreigners are unsafe in an African country? Can we write about the slow, unconcerned attitudes of the police without accusing the entirety of Africa of being corrupt? Can we say desperate criminals robbed us without implicating that these desperate acts are standard expectations of traveling in a third world country?
I’ve sat down to write about this story several times. Our group has had many conversations that are as enlightening as they are inconclusive, but I still don’t know what to say. We want to be fair. We want to be objective. We don’t want what happened to us to perpetuate beliefs that all countries in Africa are unsafe. I’ve never felt unsafe here. I’ve never felt unwelcomed. But we do stand out, and we are easy targets. And we were targeted for that reason: our security guard fell asleep, a lock was weak, and someone knew there were valuable electronics in our house. Surely there are lessons we’ve learned and perspectives we’ve broadened ourselves to because of what happened, but it seems impossible for me to draw up any concise or enlightening conclusions that will provide comfort or reason to what happened to our group.
So, I guess I’ll leave it at that.