ArchiveBlogBlog 16

The Shadow

After my first story, Mr. Alimi said I was ready to go out in the field with one of the journalists and shadow him in the reporting process.

That’s how I met Melvin.

He has a thin layer of hair that he razors smooth every week. He wears black dress shoes that narrow to an Italian point. When he sits down, the ankle socks tucked underneath the leather show, along with the bottom of his calves. He’s got a small, round face, chiseled at the bottom by a fine chin and strong cheeks.

And he’s very quiet — in everything. The first time we met was when he edited my premier article for the Guide. He read through my story, made some corrections and said, “It’s good. I’ll send it in.”

When he does speak, it’s a pitter patter; I walk very close to him and crane my ears toward his mouth so I can make out his words.

But these are not defections of character — I admire his insistency on an inner world, on having some space all his own, untouched and perfect. I like to think we’ve connected through these silences.

He asked me one day, “What makes you most angry?” and I could tell he wanted a good answer.

I told him, “Seeing something I love get destroyed,” and hoped that would suffice.

He nodded but was silent. I finally said, “And what about you?”

He said, “When people lie.”

I told him I understood. He looked at me, nodded again, and we boarded the trotro.

On the way back to the office, I asked him what made him the happiest.

“When people pay for my ride.”

I laughed and handed the mate money for two.

He’s silent, but sometimes he tells me things.

Il parle le français. (We speak it together on occasion — he talks louder and it’s easier to understand him.) He was born in Liberia. He told me about his childhood, how he would go to school from 7:30 to 1:00, then make the 40-minute walk to the family farm to work until dinner.  At the age of seven, he moved to a refugee camp with his aunt in Ghana in order to escape the civil war. I wonder when he saw his mother last. I wonder, too, why he limps on his left foot — just so slightly, fighting against his own body to stay steady.

He scrunches his face at the flow of Ghanaian life. I can see him scrutinizing the clock, an hour past a conference’s start time and still waiting, or showing up only to find they’ve postponed till the next day.

“Oh, we were certain we’d called to notify you,” they always say, to which Melvin pinches up again to keep from exploding.

Out of earshot, he turns back, points his chin down, face still scrunched, showing the whites of his eyes below tight pupils wanting to tear the whole fiasco to pieces.

“They never call,” he says. “I don’t understand why they can’t just tell the truth.”

Still, he finds a way to laugh, though I can barely hear it, only peek the edges of his mouth curling as he points his head down, not wanting to show too much.

I think his favorite part about covering events is the food. It’s mine, at least. We are always some of the first to spot the waiters lifting lids from ham bagels, muffins, chicken kebabs — the list goes wonderfully on. We leave interview sessions early to make sure we beat the food crowd, and we don’t move on to more work until our plates have been piled and demolished several times. If dessert buffets and gala dinners are an everyday part of reporting here, I think I’ve found my calling.

Still, I’m convinced he likes me — I probably wouldn’t be able to hear him if he told me otherwise. Last Thursday, we worked late to cover an event running two hours behind schedule. We rode the same trotro on the way back to our homes. He got out the day’s paper, unfolded it and placed it over his head. I could hear him snoring in seconds. The mate called to collect our toll, and I started to get enough money for the two of us.

“I have this one,” Melvin said through the newspaper. He handed me the money, and I thanked him.

“You’re welcome, Derek,” he said, then turned over and went back to sleep.

He hates the rain. Can’t stand it for a minute. Most days, we walk to events, even if it’s two miles down the road. “It is not far,” he says. I’ve come to learn “not far” can mean anything from the next block to the next city. Okay, I exaggerate, but Google maps doesn’t and I know for certain we’ve logged more than three miles to certain events, sometimes only to find it’s been postponed.

But come an afternoon shower, and the cabs can’t come fast enough. He doesn’t even ask the price. It’s a matter of basic survival.

One morning, we waited out a storm under a food shack, eating rice and plantains as the aluminum over us clanked with rain.

“How do you feel about taking revenge?” he asked me.

Again, I could tell he didn’t want a string cheese answer, no mush either, or flowers. Raw and simple. I told him I try always to forgive, but I’m not very good at it. I hold grudges, long ones. And I admitted to smiling at the pain of someone who’d cheated me. He just did his usual nod, looking at me for a while before dropping his face to the rice. His cheek muscle tensed, as if he was fighting back words, and I asked him the same question.

He was silent for a while before saying, “I prefer to ask questions.”

And so it’s been. In the trotro or on the long walks, he asks me what I think of democracy, liars in churches or pretty women. While I answer, he listens, completely silent.

He has no interest in giving an answer himself. He knows his world, has traced its paths over and over in his silence. When he ventures out of himself, it’s to see how the others get by, how their own worlds overlap just slightly with his or not at all. I’ve honored his silence, but still I always listen. Sometimes, he tells me things — it’s slow, but piece by piece I’m learning.

The pastor at his refugee camp was also from Liberia — Mr. Ewu was his name. He’d worked hard in his hometown, had built a business for himself and was well-respected. He had connections in the U.S., good ones. He came to Ghana a man of God, fleeing the war and wanting peace for his wife and sons.

There, he met an American missionary who liked Mr. Ewu enough to give him his own church and 1,000 cedis a month to keep up a congregation at the refugee camp — about $250, good money in Ghana. He did quite well. He had three sons, and was able to send one of them to university, then to the U.S. for a masters degree. His eldest son, however, was different. His name was Richard. He had a drinking problem at 25, followed by drugs and run-ins with authorities.

“You can give your children all the right principles, it doesn’t matter,” Melvin said. “You can’t save some people.”

I didn’t answer, just nodded my head and kept walking.