Wednesday afternoon, June 29, 2016.
After touring W.E.B Dubois’ Ghanaian home, I travelled with Keya and Adam to the A&C Mall, a grocery store south of our complex. It was a rather small store, but pristine. Swarms of workers paced in and out of two swinging doors in the back with mops, brooms and paper towels. I was followed when I got in, not out of suspicion but because I’d tracked in dirt that they attacked with vengeance in a kind of reverse red-carpeting.
I perused the aisles, hoping to see the local bounties of fruits and grains — mangoes, maybe, or millet from the north. Everything, right down to the palm oil, was imported — from Europe if you wanted a ‘good’ deal, or from the U.S. if you wanted to treat yourself.
I’d hoped to stock up on things for dinners — save some money for the craft markets or trotro rides. Ha! Not when a single box of microwaveable Uncle Ben’s cost the equivalent of $10.
Ramadan ended up saving my soul — and more importantly, my wallet. With a small bag of beans, some long-grain jasmine rice and a coconut masala simmer sauce, the total came to GH75 (about $20).
Across the street, a woman sold mangoes and peeled bananas. I bought three of each to a total of approximately $2. I thanked her in Twi, and she gave me two extra bananas as a gift with a smile as bright as the mangos (and twice as sweet).
I had some time to spare before the bus we’d taken would return to the complex, so I decided to walk down a side-street across from the grocery. The path was made of crushed red rock, like the sandstone in Moab that I remember travelling to and climbing on year after year growing up. The left wall was a light green — lime, but mixed in aquamarine, opposed on the other side by dark brown brick.
A burly security officer rode by me on a pink bike, complete with handlebar frills and flowers painted along a long white fender. I couldn’t stop from staring as he parked at a fruit stand to buy chunks of pineapple.
Behind the stand stood a dilapidated building, two sides of its walls in scattered rubble. Chickens and the occasional goat trekked over large piles of gravel, as if the home would one day be repaired. I kept walking along. The afternoon light warmed and crisped the streets’ colors, especially the bumper of a taxi that seemed to dazzle. I took several pictures, but always my eyes returned to the security officer, still talking with the fruit vendors.
Finally, I gathered the courage to greet him, asking his name (I fumbled with the pronunciation of it and by now it’s altogether disappeared). I asked if I could take his picture.
“Why?” he replied.
I took a moment to think of just the right thing to say, not wanting to seem as if the reason were superficial or carried beneath it the words, “exotic” or “spectacle.”
I landed at last on, “I’m a journalist, and I want to understand and show true Ghanaian life.”
He also paused for a moment before shaking his head: “I don’t want journalists taking my picture. I know what they do with it.”
I’d prepared myself for rejection, but I still wasn’t prepared for its blow — worse, almost, than when rejected for love or a dream job.
Still, I wanted to be polite, and I thanked him anyway for his time and the brief talk. Walking back to the bus though, despite the red road, the sultry light, even the taxi, I crumpled in my seat on the way home. Let’s face it, I pouted. His rejection carried over and seemed to be on a national scale, as if I’d have a note waiting for me upon my return from President Mahama himself saying I was to pack my bags that night and be on the next flight to the U.S.
I went on a run to clear my head and remind myself of the beauty I’d seen just an hour before. Still, I couldn’t shake his words, nor the grocery store prices.
I was saved by a young man, about my age, walking on the opposite side of the street. As I ran by, he shouted,
“Obruni, you get first place!”
I smiled and ran a bit faster, my legs feeling somehow lighter. Thinking again to the man and his pink bike, I asked myself why I’d wanted his picture.
A serious man on a pink bike. Was it no more than that? A comedy, a worn-out juxtaposition of brute and flower?
It was more, I insisted. It was a man who favored utility rather than gender assignment. It was a city stripped of the superfluous, of people who bought to live better rather than feel better.
But there was still the problem of me, standing stark in the middle of it all with a camera and a naïve dream that I could convince them I wasn’t so different than the other obrunis who took pictures just to share a laugh with their friends back home: “See what I saw; I felt so sorry for him!” Pity him? I recoiled at the thought of it.
Or like the journalists before me, hell-bent on the jungle and the savannah sunset, was I here to gawk? I wasn’t, I insisted. But how could I keep from their company?
I stopped here to turn around and begin the return run. I was covered in sweat like never before and still just as confused of my raison d’être as when I’d started, though much less wounded.
The last bars of sunlight drifted down into a plume of smoke rising behind stone walls. I’d forgotten how near the equator I was, with no idea of how to get back. My stomach lurched upward —“how stupid, how stupid” on repeat.
I asked a woman selling mangoes if she knew the way to the East Legon Palm Institute. She leapt to her feet to give me the step-by-step route, suggesting I stop at her sister’s shop on the way to get some cold fruit juice.
“Tell her I sent you and she’ll give you a good, good price,” she said.
“Medaase,” I replied, and she smiled, smiled, smiled.
I ran on into the dwindling light in search of the complex — no — in search of home.