I took a trotro to the Medina market with Key and Zach Putnam. Zach had gone a few days earlier and said the vendors served a lot of local food, and the whole place was a great display of true local life.
On the way there, the trotro mate taking people’s money asked for the payment. Seeing others paying him GH1, I handed him a GH2-bill and waited for change. He turned around and called out the window for more passengers.
I tapped his shoulder, asking, “Mepaakye, ahe?” (Please, what’s the cost?)
He let out a hearty laugh, then reached in his pocket and handed me a cedi as change.
The market thronged with life: fruit vendors, bakers, goats and fish prepared in every way. One man specialized in selling used black leather shoes that he arranged in a cascading pile.
We meandered our way into the fray, taking a street that wove us deeper and deeper into the market where the people and stalls congested to shoulder-to-shoulder, then shoulder-entwined-in-shoulder walking.
I got my camera out to document some of what I saw. It was late afternoon, and light swelled over the narrow streets. A plate of fish folded over one another like a deck of cards shone with silver and bellies of rose. The photograph of them still amazes me.
Further on, a woman asked to have her picture taken. As I readied to camera, she grabbed a stack of boards and balanced them on her head, laughing as if to say, Isn’t this what you want to see?
The women around her laughed too, and I tried to join them in spite of my embarrassment.
As we continued on, another woman shouted from behind a stall. It took me a moment to realize she was shouting at me.
“Put the camera away!” she said. “Put it away, or I’ll report you and you’ll be sent back to your country.”
I quickened my pace, but just before I was out of ear-shot, she said, “I know what you do with your pictures. I don’t want my face on a magazine.”
I thought back to the man on the pink bike, and the feeling of rejection returned. I wanted to leave, not just the market but the country. This place obviously did not want me, had taken in enough white journalists for another century at least.
I thought back to the first article we read for our orientation class: How to Write About Africa. Always refer to the local people as “exotic,” the author, Binyavanga Wainaina, said. Always highlight the poverty, the family begging on the street and the children with malaria. If there are people helping them, make sure you focus on the white ones and get a comment about their commitment to saving the continent.
My trip to the market became a microcosm of Wainaina’s message. It was obvious the people here were far from oblivious to Western media’s biases, their stereotypes, their pity. And they’d had enough.
But I don’t have pity. I don’t look down on anyone I meet here; it’s not why I came. I came because of the promise for tomorrow, for the women who micro-finance each other’s educations, for the mothers who rise early to pull water and go to bed late to tuck in their children. For the new factories built to provide locally made shoes, bread and cars! I came because Africa is on the brink of so much, and I want to not only see it and record it, but help to make sure it flourishes.
There is a happiness here even among the most impoverished that I’ve yet to see, a purity in the simple joy of living that has renewed in me an awareness of being so wondrously alive.
There are exceptions, of course, but I assure you it glistens — in their eyes, their constant “hellos,” their plans for the day and the future, ranging from selling bananas to building new international trade centers.
I came because of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, who said, “Don’t believe our outlines, forget them and begin from your own words. As if you are the first to write poetry or the last poet.” Because I want to see what a nation does when it’s given a pen and an open page for the first time and told, with hands unshackled, “write.”