On the day we moved into our sprawling, barbed-wire fenced East Legon home, Kelly Vigil unpacked his Canon 60D camera and wandered from room to room, filming and interviewing a handful of students.
“It’s like Real World: Ghana!” someone said. The moniker stuck. And why wouldn’t it? Not only was our living situation reminiscent of the reality television series – sixteen young people, many of whom having established little to no personal relationships with others in the house, living under one roof in an unfamiliar place – but as American college students having grown to expect a Starbucks on every block and orchards of Apple products in every room, a journey to Ghana represented an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a country more representative of the world as a whole: where few live beyond basic means, where community remains essential and where football actually involves feet.
As weeks passed, I began to notice two Real Worlds. There was the one I stepped into on tro-tros on my daily trip to work, in conference rooms where businessmen and dignitaries proposed solutions to issues like water shortage, agricultural inefficiency, and aviation safety, and in the marketplace where the simple act of buying and selling determined the comfort of one’s entire life. This Real World revealed a complex nation, full of disarmingly kind and trustworthy Ghanaians speckled by the occasional questionable character. By and large, however, I felt safe – even arrogantly so.
Then, there was the one more directly mimicking the reality television show. Many of us would come home from work, pass a group of schoolchildren waiting outside our gate in hopes of collecting stickers and notebooks, plop down on a couch and flip open a MacBook. Then, we stayed inside, fighting a slow Wi-Fi connection to feed our digital addictions, sharing our Ghana narratives through social media and this blog. When not buried in our various devices, we passed the time growing closer as a group. Many of these nights were memorable. All of these nights were important. None of these nights resembled the days preceding them. Such is life in a bubble.
On Wednesday morning, July 17, our bubble burst. The real world invaded our home.
I lost my laptop. Others lost much more. We all lost our peace of mind. Somebody cut through barbed wire, scaled the fence, sneaked into our home past the (not-so) watchful eye of our security guard, and collected anything of value they could find. They opened closed bedroom doors, creeping within inches of our sleeping bodies, snatching cash, backpacks and many electronics. Not one of us woke up to notice the theft, and thankfully so: there’s no telling if these burglars were armed.
At 5 AM, I awoke to a curious alert: “You guys. We got robbed.”
First, confusion. Then, anger. Then, the feeling that has settled and stuck with me throughout the week: complete and utter helplessness. If I’m not safe asleep in my own bed, am I safe anywhere at all? If the police here don’t care – and by and large, it’s clear that they don’t – what’s to stop this from happening again? The feeling of helplessness transcended personal safety, too: after spending weeks indulging in a culture to the extent that I felt incredibly empowered and excited to return home and dispel the laundry list of stereotypes that mar the American view of Africa, we just suffered at the hand of a stereotype most prominent. This will be the story that spreads throughout the University of Oregon, no matter how much we boast of crocodiles touched, bargains made, Banku devoured and canopies walked.
Still, I refuse to tell the story of our burglary without telling two others. To me, they are inextricably linked.
Two weeks earlier, most of our group spent a Saturday night in Osu, known as the “Manhattan” of Accra. Upon returning to our bubble, a portion of a group fell into our first and most heated argument. Because our group has nearly twice as many young women as men, the responsibility of watching out for the safety of our female roommates felt especially cumbersome for us men in a club full of particularly aggressive strangers. As obrunis in a sea of Ghanaians, confrontation with these strangers was risky and ideally avoided. The tension lied within who needed to do what to help avoid said confrontation so that none of us got hurt.
For hours back at home, we bickered and screamed the same rationales over and over again until exhaustion set in and most of the group went to bed. Then, Dana turned to me.
“Do you realize that we just argued for hours over how much we care about each other?”
Until July 17, that was our closest brush with danger. In many ways, it doesn’t even compare. But where the two events cross paths is in its unintended consequence: bringing the sixteen of us closer than ever before. The relationships that we have built here are unlike any others we’ve built before or any we’ll build in the future. In the immediate wake of the burglary, I worried that coping would be difficult given that our families were thousands of miles away. But I overlooked one fact: there was a large, crazy, eternally bonded family right in front of me. There was real love in our broken-bubble real world estate.
The other story steps outside the house, a block away. At 8 PM or so, fifteen hours after some of our worst fears became reality, a wealthy Ghanaian woman drives her car into a gutter. Just yards from a field of burning trash filling the air with rancid smoke, a few dozen neighbors – us Obrunis included – push with all our might to lift the left-hand wheels onto the road. Multiple strategies fail. We grow tired. Finally, with the help of a shoddy wooden ramp, her luxury vehicle emerges from the rotten water.
Exhausted, we go back inside. Not much later, however, we notice that the police – yes, those same police who treated us as little more than a nuisance as we filed reports that morning – had arrived on scene to defuse an argument. Apparently, the woman had begun handing out exorbitant sums of money to those who helped. Some accepted the gift. Others wanted to give it back. Somehow, such a disagreement nearly turned into a brawl. The other “real world” began to feel even more absurd than the TV show we compared it to.
That’s because it is. The moment that these two worlds clashed, clipper to barbed wire fence, every separation of our lives and Ghanaians fell apart. In wandering the neighborhood asking for insight then coming back to work to spread the news, I was struck by the horror and sorrow each Ghanaian expressed. So is humanity: we love each other, most of the time. Other times, we hurt each other. We can’t live without each other – or, we can’t live because of each other.
Laptops, phones, cameras, backpacks and cash become extensions of our selves. But it is absolutely essential to note that they are not our selves. The love for our fellow people both in and out of the bubbles we create is something nobody else can steal. The fire to become the best that we can be is ours. The hunger to understand is a hell of a gift and in the days following the burglary, I’ve found its one all sixteen of us have. There is anger. There is hurt. But more than anything else, there is a desire to grow. Being the best we can be instead of shrinking to the level of those who fail to – that’s how we make the world a better place. That’s what love is all about.
So before you tell your friends about a burglary or a fight or some horrible event, stop and think for a moment – does the story I tell serve to unite? Or does it divide? This is exactly the challenge we have been faced with in the aftermath of being robbed, and one that’s not easy to confront. But if being robbed can bring a group of sixteen Obrunis closer, why can’t it do the same for the world around us? The real world, that is: the one full of living, breathing, mistake-making, loving, hurting people. It is in these shared characteristics – not in our possessions – that we can find commonality. This is where we learn. This is where we find forgiveness. This is where we move on.