The first night I slept in Ghana — actually, it was my second — I had a nightmare. I had fallen asleep in my clothes on the damp hotel bed, on top of the indigo Adinkra-stamped bedspread. I was in a French-Vietnamese-run hotel near the airport, the only hotel that had vacancies when I arrived. (A Pan-African conference had engulfed the town, I had no idea of it when I booked my ticket. You couldn’t say I had planned well.)
My money belt was still buckled around my waist, bulging with hundreds of thousands in pastel cedis—Ghanaian paper money that looked like scratch paper daubed with paint water. I’d been afraid to stow the belt in my suitcase or in the hotel safe, feeling as if it would disintegrate if it lost contact with my body. A litter of notepads, tapes and newspapers slid under me as I slept, my hips hooped awkwardly over the bag.
Le Mekong* was a small hotel, rooms were scarce because of the conference, and mine was on the ground floor, near the lobby. Hands would accidentally jostle my doorknob then let go, and I’d jolt awake, then fall uneasily back to sleep, exhaustion overcoming anxiety. It got dark early that night, which confused me. Before I left New York, I’d imagined that, in Africa, the sun wouldn’t stop shining until very late, midnight maybe. This idea, like so many others I had, was completely wrong.
As I tried to sleep, two men sat outside my window in aluminum lawn chairs, carrying on an easygoing conversation in the hotel entry, drinking Club beer. I could see their heavy shapes sunk in the light chairs, the braided plastic seats stretching to hold them. Their deep voices echoed between the smooth cement of the patio and the overhanging roof of the walkway by the hotel door. Loud bugs chirred gently in the trees nearby. The men’s shirts were cotton, brightly colored, with patterns on them like on kids’ pajamas. I pulled down the blinds.
I had noticed the two men in the bar of the Mekong earlier that night, after dinner. They were heavy-set, balmed in regional privilege, with carefully-trimmed close beards that lapped at rounded cheeks. Their faces looked like many women had loved them, had taken care of them, and would continue to. Mothers, grandmothers, wives, mistresses. They moved slowly, laughed lingeringly; and although they wore shorts and flip-flops, they had the bearing of kings.
Because the night was so pleasant, they had taken their drinks to the patio, and for a while, I had gone outside and sat near them, taking a seat at a small table a few feet away, eavesdropping on their French. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes, set my notepad on the spindly table, and opened it, trying to look busy.
When a man travels abroad alone, he’s just a traveler; but a solitary woman unnerves people; she’s a provocation. What’s she here for? people think, staring unguardedly, suspiciously. Does she want something? Is she in trouble? Is she all right? Is she really traveling on business, or is she looking for a man—maybe me? I carried a notepad wherever I went, both as an explanation of my presence and as a shield. The cigarettes were for company, in case nobody spoke to me.
Why had I come here, I wondered that night on the patio, as I half-listened to the men. What was the point? And why had I come here alone? Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a seasoned foreign correspondent: I was a fact checker at a magazine and a sporadic book reviewer. On a whim, I had flown 5,000 miles from America with no itinerary, and no idea of what to do once I landed in Accra. My only Ghanaian contact was the mother of a woman I had met in line at the consulate in New York, who wore silver lipstick and aquamarine eyeliner. Her mother, she told me, was a “fish queen” (a successful fish merchant) at the market in Takoradi, hundreds of miles west of Accra, on Ghana’s Gold Coast.
I had no idea how one got from Accra to Takoradi. All I had with me, apart from the lone fish queen’s phone number, was a suitcase full of inane clothing (knee-high hiking boots and flowery dresses), and a backpack weighed down with thirty cans of SpaghettiOs. I had packed the boots for fear of bugs and nettles that might lurk in the notional Ghanaian underbrush; the dresses because I thought (on the basis of no information), that Ghanaians would consider jeans unladylike. The SpaghettiOs I had packed as a precaution in case, upon arrival, I discovered that I could not stomach the cuisine of this mysterious, distant land.
What business could I have on this continent? I knew nothing about Africa, apart from a mental newsreel of famines, wars and dictators from the 70s and 80s; Idi Amin and a refrigerator of limbs; Mubutu in his leopard-skin pillbox. I also possessed a reservoir of stories that my college boyfriend, Neil, used to tell me, about his childhood in Kenya — warthogs, baboons, safaris, tennis. But I hadn’t come to Kenya, I had come to Ghana.
There’s no A Handful of Dust you can skim to prepare for Ghana, no obvious literary backlog. At the age of 7, I had read a brightly colored children’s book about a Ghanaian mother who pinched her baby’s nose to make it eat clotted milk, which I assumed was a popular foodstuff there. That image reassured me, though it also led me to add several boxes of granola bars to my backpack, along with the SpaghettiOs. But I hadn’t come to Ghana to eat; I had come on impulse, chasing a story I wasn’t sure existed.
The story — the glimmer of an idea, really — was that the women of Ghana were unusually contented and self-empowered, and, more important still, that the men of Ghana admired and loved them for these qualities. Ghana had been a matriarchal society for centuries. Might it be a kind of woman’s kingdom, I wondered? And if so, could assertive, under-loved fin-de-20th-century American women benefit from the example of Ghanaian women?
It was Ghanaian taxi drivers in New York City who first led me to ponder these questions. In the early 90s, I had lived in Moscow for a few months, and had grown used to taking taxis everyplace I went, because they were so cheap. Taking taxis gives you a different feel for a city than taking subways does; it’s more topographically embracing, more revealing of a city’s character and energy, more companionable. Returning to New York, I took cabs everywhere, even though — like my KLM tickets to Ghana — they were entirely beyond my budget.
In New York in the mid-90s, I seemed to find Ghanaian drivers installed behind the wheel of every other yellow cab I took. There were Haitians and Nigerians, Russians, and the stray American driver, too; but as my rides, and my conversations with drivers, accumulated, I began to spot “tells” in the Ghanaians; an ineffable “well-brought-up” demeanor, a joyous expression, an aura of confidence and serenity. The men were strikingly distinct in their bearing and manner from drivers of other nations.
I began to ask the drivers why they were, as it seemed to me, so happy. In their replies, they inevitably spoke warmly of Ghana, and said how excellent Ghanaian women were — how beautiful and how strong—and how lucky they felt, living among them. Most of them said they were driving taxis in order to earn money to send home to their mothers in Ghana, to help them build concrete houses for their extended families.
I was fascinated. I called a few scholars in America and England to test my impression of the singularity of Ghanaian womanhood. Yes, they told me, the Ashanti were matrilineal, and Ghanaian women had been independent-minded for centuries, traveling alone along the Volta River, selling fish, controlling their own finances. When I asked the experts if Ghanaian women were especially adept at finding husbands, they said …yes, maybe. Yes, they supposed, there was certainly a strong and flourishing marriage tradition there…
Deciding that was back-up enough, I pitched a story about the Fish Queens of the Gold Coast to Harper’s magazine, and charged a plane ticket. There would be nobody awaiting me in Accra at all, except for a U.S. government officer I’d called in a panic from New York on the morning of my voyage out. I’d actually dialed a switchboard in Washington, D.C., as a last-minute forethought, to make sure there would be no known civil war or plague afoot at the time of my disembarkation. A solicitous operator had patched me through to an attaché in Ghana, who’d offered to come get me at the airport. No thanks, I’d said, I’d be all right.
What had I been I trying to prove? I was terrified. And totally unprepared. In Amsterdam, where I sat in the lofty, airy First World precincts of the Schiphol airport, awaiting my connecting flight, sipping a six-dollar coffee, idly watching well-groomed Europeans buy Delft porcelain and rounds of Edam cheese, I felt sick. I wanted to flee and abandon the whole project. But my luggage was checked through. It was too late, and it hadn’t even begun.
The man I was dating that summer in Manhattan, a young Swiss banker who aspired to be a filmmaker and looked like Alain Delon, had traveled to Africa many times. Louis seemed to think that I was going there chiefly for sex, as I suspect had been true in his own case. He pressed a box of condoms into my suitcase as I packed, back in my East Village apartment.
“Be careful,” he said. “Don’t take any chances.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, insulted, plucking the box out of my luggage, embarrassed. “I’m writing about fisherwomen! I’m not looking for action!”
Besides, I thought, this was my boyfriend. He couldn’t mean for me to use them. Was he taunting me? Was this because he didn’t want me to go? He eyed me suavely, skeptically. When Louis rode me on the handlebars of his bike through the East Village, he reminded me of the bicycle facteur Jules in Diva. He put the condoms back in my bag, then pulled out my hiking boots and snorted. “What are you going to do with these? It’s not the jungle!” Petulantly I repacked the boots, and again ditched the condoms.
It is easy for a traveler visiting a strange country for the first time to form entirely wrong conclusions about that country’s customs and beliefs. For instance, on the morning of my bad dream — my first full day in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the country of Ghana, in the capital city of Accra — I had been seated in a blue and yellow patchwork taxi, slowly rolling past the red-tiled villas of Accra’s prosperous airport-residential neighborhood, heading toward an interview with a fish queen in the center of town.
The government officer I had phoned from New York had surprised me by meeting me at the airport after all, and had driven me (well, his driver drove us) to the residential compound he shared with his wife and staff, fed me dinner, and lined up interviews with emblematic fish queens. I did not deserve this windfall, but it came, nonetheless.
Trapped in this taxi, en route to the interview arranged by my serendipitous fixer, moving at a crawl down the congested red dirt road that would soon be paved, as part of the aggressive new roads campaign of Ghana’s president, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings (Flight Lieutenant?) I saw hawkers strolling alongside the highway, selling mints, newspapers, toilet paper, hangers, and velvety pants to be worn to funerals. They held out the goods on staffs that looked like rakes strung with ornaments. The highway hawkers were mostly boys and men. “Madam!” they called out, “Madam!” — as they rushed my window, shaking their wares and smiling or grimacing. I bought a handful of newspapers from one of them, a young one, for 250 cedis each, and the taxi rolled on.
Some yards back from the highway, along the dusty road shoulders and under the shade of the yellow-blossomed neem trees (their leaves provide a cure for malaria, I was later told), I saw women walking or sitting, heavy boxes filled with leaf-wrapped corn paste balanced on their heads — or loads of plantains, or pans full of groundnuts — and, nearly always, a baby strapped to their back with a length of colored cloth.
As I watched the hawkers and the goods, the men, the women and the babies, a man emerged through a tangle of people, striding angrily and quickly with long steps. He was maybe six feet tall, skinny and wiry. He was also entirely naked. It was a hot and sunny day. With each heavy footfall, his penis swung out, an emphatic vector, then slapped back against his thigh.
As I considered this sight, the driver passed the man, and we saw him no more. After a couple of minutes, I said to the driver casually, in a tone calculated to betray no surprise, “So. Sometimes in Ghana…people do not wear clothes? It is not necessary always to wear clothes?” The driver turned and looked at me in indignation. “No madam,” he said, outraged. “That man is mad. He is raving mad.” And yet, as it turned out, I did go on to see several other naked men wandering Ghanaian streets during my journey, one of them napping in the middle of a dusty village road like a drowsy hound.
A few minutes later, I turned to one of the papers I had bought from the hawker, the Ghanaian Times, and began to read. My eyes fell on the front page headline, “Predatory Beast Forces Curfew on Penkwasi.” “For the last two weeks,” the article read, “the people of Penkwasi, a suburb of Sunyani, have been compelled to stay indoors from dusk to dawn in fear of a predatory beast which has been terrorising them at night.” The beast had devoured 30 animals, it continued, and Sunyani and Penkwasi officials had not yet decided “how best to handle the situation.” Where was Sunyani, I wondered? Was it far from Accra?
Newly aware of the peril of coming too quickly to wrong conclusions, I picked up another paper, The Daily Graphic — and found more in-depth discussion of the same story, under the headline, “Wild Animal on Rampage: Kills 40 sheep, 30 fowls.” The animal, it emerged, came out only at night. Its practice was to slit the abdomen of its victims, devour their intestines, and then discard the gutted carcass. “The activities of the animal have created so much panic among residents of the area,” the Daily Graphic noted with concern.
The consternation of the people of Penkwasi seemed logical to me — if a beast in Manhattan were known to be roving about after dark disemboweling animals, I would probably stay in myself — but then, reading on, I learned that there was more to the story than the headline let on. Many of the citizens of Penkwasi, it seemed, had decided that the night marauder was not an animal at all, but an angered river spirit. “They claim residents have offended a stream in the area by defecating into it,” the Graphic explained, “and that is why the god of the stream has sent the animal to terrorise the people. They said unless the god is pacified, the animal would attack human beings.”
By the time the taxi had reached the beige-brick government building where I was to conduct my first interview, all my interest in fish queens had evaporated. I had come to Africa to write a story for Harper’s Magazine about Fish Queens; at least, that was my alibi. And I did care about the fish queens. And matriarchy. And the improvement of harmony and respect between men and women everywhere.
But, it belatedly occurred to me, my subject was larger than I had anticipated, and lay beyond my areas of expertise. For one thing, I hated fish. And what did I know of Ghana? In the course of one taxi-ride, I had seen Ghanaian women, burdened with infants and heavily laden, sitting by the roadside; and had absorbed images of an economy that had nothing to do with any I’d ever seen. How could I have thought that, in 15 days, I could draw the portrait of a nation — one that would benefit and instruct American womanhood. What arrogance…what stupidity! But how to backtrack?
Harper’s had given me $500 toward my travels. I had to produce an article. The government officer had arranged a raft of appointments for me in good faith, not only with fishmongers but with female journalists and politicians. He had given me more credit than I deserved — not suspecting that the lure of a supernatural fiend might distract me from my journalistic quest before it had even began.
But the instant I read of the Predatory Beast, it was as if I were hypnotized. It seemed to exert a superior, anterior claim. With fish, I had no history; but some predatory beast or other had haunted me for as long as I could remember; from the fox who chased the Gingerbread Man, to the men who chased me and a friend down the Arbat one night in Moscow in the 90s, trying to pull us into their van (we got away).
At this hinge in my life — I was 28 years old, with one great love gone, one marriage wrecked, and no next step in view — I felt vulnerable and undefended. I had come to Africa, really, to prove to myself that I could be brave, could go forward, on my own. But I didn’t want to go forward on my own. The Predatory Beast reminded me of that larger, unadmitted fear, which I now wanted to confront.
But how would my editors react if, instead of turning in a meta-social consideration of the role of independent women in a matriarchal society, I went on a wild beast chase? Not well, I suspected. As the car pulled up to the curb, around 10 a.m., I noticed that I was extremely hungry. Where did you go to get lunch, in Ghana? And what, in Accra, was lunch?
At 11, when the interview with the first fish queen was over, I set off on foot, looking for a restaurant. Not seeing one, I took a taxi to the National Museum of Ghana, guessing there might be a café or snack bar nearby. I had two hours to kill before I was to meet the government official’s night watchman, Ezekiel, who had offered the night before to show me around Accra’s outdoor markets, Makola, Mamobi, Salaga and James Town, and to translate for me.
As I’d hoped, there was an outdoor café across the street from the museum, but it wasn’t open yet. Waitresses were getting ready for the lunch crowd, sweeping, lighting braziers, stirring great vats of “soup” — stews of fish or meat and tomato sauce, served with snowballs of fufu (like a king-sized matzoh ball, but made of pulverized cassava or manioc root). But they wouldn’t seat me, it was too early, so I entered the museum, hoping its holdings would osmote their grasp of my surroundings onto me.
In an hour’s time, I did feel better grounded. Adinkra hangings in one exhibition hall explained that symbols like the ones on my bedspread at the Mekong had specific meanings. A fern pattern meant: “I am not afraid of you.” A hairy circle with two nails through it meant, “No one offends another person without cause.” In a glass case filled with glossy speckled shells, a label explained that Ghanaians had used cowrie shells instead of cedis for money well into the twentieth century.
A few yards away from that display, a cluster of a low, carved wooden stools crouched on the floor. A placard explained that such stools were called “thrones,” and were the favored seats of Ashanti rulers. The coronation of an Ashanti king (“Asantehene”) was known as an “enstoolment” or “enthronement.” This explained the headline I’d seen in the Daily Ghanaian, announcing the 25th anniversary of the Asantehene’s “enstoolment”, which, coincidentally, was to be celebrated in Kumasi, the Ashanti capital, during my visit. I resolved to travel there for the jubilee.
Moving along to a wall display, I came upon a colored engraving by an English artist named Edward Bowditch, which showed the “Akwesidae festival at Kumasi, Sept. 5, 1817 — the First Day of the Yam Custom.” The artist depicted a festal procession: officers shooting guns; men throwing drums in the air; linguists (holy men who communicate with the gods) with staves; and a bevy of eunuchs, all proclaiming the triumph of the yam harvest. My hunger whetted, I stepped out into the sunshine and crossed the road.
The café looked like a fairground or the stands of a grand prix racetrack, its boundaries marked off with strings of plastic pennants and gumball–bright ads for Club Beer and Star Beer (“Live the Brighter Life, in Style”) Corralled within were formica-topped tables shaded by blue-and-white Rothmans umbrellas. I sat down, took my silver cigarette case and notebook out of my bag, and shook open my newspapers. Feeling eyes upon me, I looked up.
A waitress stood beside me, watching, smiling shyly. She kept her hands behind her back, I could see her twisting her fingers. Her face was as round as a doll’s, her eyes as big as baby plums. I was afraid she might tell me I couldn’t sit down yet, or that I had to order food to hold a table, but I mistrusted the fish soups on offer, and had decided to resort to my granola bars until dinner. I looked up at her.
“What’s your name?” she said suddenly, smiling and staring. “Mine’s Eunice.” Taken aback, I gave her mine. “Where do you come from?” she said, and I told her. “You want a Coca-Cola?” I said yes. She stood a while longer, staring, smiling, then walked away, her plastic scuffs rustling on the ground. She looked back at me once, and then vanished into the kitchen area. Reappearing, she stood above me once more, beaming sunnily, holding the Coke, playing with the paper on its straw. I watched her uncertainly. She finally released the straw and put the Coke on the table. And then she saw my cigarette case. Her face changed. “What’s that?” she said abruptly.
“That’s my cigarette case,” I said.
“You could dash it to me,” she said.
“But I thought women in Ghana did not smoke,” I said. Ezekiel had told me this in the diplomat’s garden.
“My mother smokes. I can dash it to her. Dash it to me!” she said.
“Well,” I said. “No. I need it.”
“What can you dash to me then?” she said.
I stared up at her, wondering if this would happen every time I got a Coke in Ghana.
“I don’t know…” I said.
“You could dash me a lipstick,” she guessed. “I only brought one lipstick to Ghana,” I said.
“You come all the way from America, and you didn’t bring nothing to dash?” she said, getting angry.
“Look, I just want this Coke,” I said. “I’ll give you a tip when I’m done, but I have nothing to dash you.” She looked at me sourly, pursed her lips and stomped off. I quickly drank down the bottle, packed my bag, left Eunice a large handful of cedis, and took a taxi to meet Ezekiel at the military hospital.
“Oh no, that’s not normal,” Ezekiel told me, when I found him, standing in the shade on the grounds of the hospital, where chickens strutted and bobbed across the lawns and in the gutters. “She doesn’t know how to behave, that’s all.” Ezekiel was tall, skinny and serious. He came from up north, and was Muslim. He had worked all night long and into the morning, and had only grabbed a couple of hours of sleep before coming to meet me. His brother was a soldier, and Ezekiel lived with his brother and his sister-in-law in a military barracks settlement on a hill. He said we should start with the biggest market, Makola, and then flagged down a tro-tro for us.
A tro-tro is a small passenger van that follows regular routes and is filled chock-a block with fold-down seats. Claiming your spot is like shuffling into position on a Rubik’s Cube. There must have been sixteen of us rattling around in there as the van bumped its way along the road. We soon reached Makola, a swarming city-within-a-city, with tall, blunt chalky-pastel buildings that reminded me of a geometric Klee painting. On the sidewalk outside the market’s entrance, we saw three women, squatting by big baskets of fish, wearing broad hats to shield their faces from the sun. I stopped to talk to them, but they would not speak to me. Instead, Ezekiel spoke to them, and for a price, they let me take a picture.
It was a squinting-bright afternoon. The air smelled of burning coconut husks from cooking fires. We strolled through the labyrinth of stalls for a while, and I succeeded in interviewing a few fish merchants, but before long, Ezekiel suggested we go to a smaller market called Mamobi, instead, because he knew some fishmongers there, and people who knew him would be more likely to talk to me. I liked the way he said “Mamobi:” mom-ma-BEE, with a nasal tone to the BEE. It sounded incantatory, like a magic word. I pictured a place perpetually humming on the verge of transformation. In my cab from the museum to the military hospital, the driver had warned me against going to dance clubs at night, explaining that it was risky to meet strangers in ill-lit places. Once, he said, a friend-of-a-friend of his had taken a woman home who had turned out to be a cow; she had assumed (mostly) human form, and had been able to hide her tail and hooves in the dark and crowded bar.
And so, thoughts of enchantment crowding my mind, I followed Ezekiel onto the tro-tro to Mamobi. I liked Mamobi better than Makola. It was smaller, and felt more familial, and the fish merchants were more talkative. Baby goats skittered among the shoppers, making me laugh. Ezekiel taught me how to say a sentence in Twi: “I hate sheep, I love goats.” “Mem peh obwan. Mi peh apoanchin.” Or something like that. This turned out to be a great ice-breaker throughout the rest of my trip.
After stopping at every smoked-fish counter at Mamobi, Ezekiel and I went to the barracks where his brother and sister-in-law lived, a cluster of pre-fab concrete huts lined up on a rise along a red-dirt hillside. His sister-in-law was ironing and watching a Middle Eastern soap opera when we arrived, and though she greeted us warmly, Ezekiel knew she was busy, so we left her and went to see some of their friends — off-duty soldiers and their wives — who were brewing pito beer from “guinea corn” (sorghum) in a shed a few-minutes walk away, on the edge of the barracks. It was late afternoon, and everyone was winding down from the day. I could sense their fondness for Ezekiel as we joined them around the cauldron. “Please, have some” he invited, scooping up some of the brown fizzing liquid with a gourd, but I was afraid to taste it. I said I didn’t drink alcohol, which was not true, but seemed more polite, in the circumstances, than saying, “I fear your home brew.” Instead, I took a swig from my bottle of Evian.
It was the tapes and notebooks from all of these encounters that slithered under me as I tried to sleep that night at the Mekong.
Late on that full first day, when I had returned to my hotel room, exhausted from hours of reporting and exploring, I rued the fact that I had no computer on which to transcribe my notes. I’d been afraid to bring my computer to Africa, I had thought it would get stolen, or somehow become infested with mites, or giardia. This had not been a good decision, I recognized, as I stared at my filled-up notebooks (three) and my tapes (two, from my conversation with the first fish queen, which I would never transcribe) and wondered how I would ever manage to process the interviews that would ensue in the weeks to come. The pride of place in my backpack that ought to have gone to my laptop had gone instead to Franco-American pasta and mini-franks. But it was too late to rethink.
I tried to nap before dinner, but was interrupted by Mekong’s proprietress. Just outside of the flimsy door of my room, I heard her clicky shoes staccato down the corridor. She was screaming at an employee, whose footfalls padded, fleet but heavy, in front of her, just barely. “Voleur,” she shrieked at him: “Thief!” “Vous m’avez volé quarante mille cédis!” You have stolen 40,000 cedis from me!” I had no idea how much money that was, but the contretemps ruined my nap. Luridly imagining vengeance to come from the humiliated bellboy, I sat bolt upright, then got up, reassembled myself, and went to the hotel bar to calm down.
It was a few hours later that I found myself on the patio. The men were government officials from Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. They had come to Accra for an economics meeting for West African states, called ECOWAS. “We meet, we make decisions, we go home, and nothing changes,” one of them told me. “Rien ne change.” He laughed, the unhurried laugh of a longtime diplomat. “We’ve done it for years. A solid record.”
So few of his fellow diplomats had turned up in Accra this time that the summit had been postponed, this was his third day of waiting to be called to assembly. I smiled, and showed him my notebook, where I had been jotting down notes from the day’s papers — an article on the front page announced that the summit was “delayed.. due to lack of a quorum,” and offered no further explanation, or any guess as to when the situation would change. “N’importe,” the man said, and laughed again.
I left the men soon, feeling awkward despite my journo-props, and intending to transcribe the tapes longhand, and to reflect on my impressions of the day. But too much had happened to write any of it down. Notes are most useful when so little happens that everything can be recorded. When too much has happened, they just taunt you. Besides, jet lag, gin and tonics, and maybe the Lariam I had been taking (as a malaria preventative) had fogged my concentration.
I wrote a letter to my old college boyfriend (he was still single), trying to sound assured about Africa, showing him I could have African adventures too. It was embarrassing, transparent, a love letter. I tore it up in a fit of self-loathing, then sat on the foreign bed, feeling sorry for myself. I put a Louis Armstrong tape into my cassette player. “I’m Confessing that I Love You” began to play, unspooling its scratchy, molten heartbreak. I sat cross-legged on the bed and cried because I was alone in Africa.
Sitting in the cider light of the bedside lamp, sifting through papers, trying to write, I heard alien noise everywhere, jumping at me from the cement floors and walls; the drip from the cold-water tap in the bath; Mekong’s help quarreling in the hallway about towels; and through the window, the bugs in the trees, and the talking, talking of the men, their basso line resounding like footfalls on a basketball court, broken only by laughter, and the rat-a-tat-TAT of French emphasis.
I longed for Neil. He had grown up in Kenya and South Africa, he was the son of an American journalist. He was now an elusive foreign journalist himself, in a war-torn foreign land. I had been in love with him for ten years; we were a couple for four years of that decade. When we broke up, I married somebody quickly, it didn’t work out. This was the first trip I’d taken since my divorce papers were signed. For me, being in Africa was like being in Neil’s head. Or in my heart, in the chambers where thoughts of him resided.
I remembered every story he had ever told me. How warthogs like to have their snouts scratched with a stick. How his older brother once had returned to the family’s cabin in a game park, and disturbed a hyena drinking from the toilet. How their parents had fled a picnic when baboons attacked, locking themselves inside their car, as their sons pounded on the windows outside. I was not in Africa alone; I was in Africa accompanied by my nostalgia for Neil. I felt his absence everywhere I went. There would be no warthogs in Ghana. I turned the music louder to drown out the men, but it lulled me to sleep. The nightmare came quickly.
It was not a very frightening nightmare, but it was very specific, which made sense, because my fears of Africa were not dramatic; they were precise. I was not afraid of being mugged, kidnapped or attacked — at least, no more afraid of that than I was in New York, my home; or in Moscow, where I’d gone to live in 1993, ducking out on my marriage.
In Ghana, I was not afraid of the unknown; I was afraid of what I knew was there. I was afraid that five-inch long cockroaches would shoot straight up at me like helicopters—chitter-clicking, their brown plasticky wings flapping—if I shook the coverlet of the bed; or that waspy things with stingers and pincers would dart into my ear or mouth as I slept; or that scorpions would lash me with their poison tails if I slipped my foot into a shoe. Or that I would eat tiny bugs by mistake. Neil had told me about the insects of Africa when we first met, when I was 18. In Kenya when he was small, his mother had to sieve his cornflakes to shake out the weevils.
I was afraid of bugs, and I was afraid of sewers. The sewers in Ghana ran along the edges of the streets right where a curb should be, and crisscrossed the open-air marketplaces like cording. They were pale grey, not very deep, and had no gratings. If you weren’t attentive, you could stumble into one. I had lunch with a Dutch aid worker later in my trip, another meeting arranged by the very nice government man. I had met the aid worker at the Novotel in downtown Accra (far from the Mekong, which was on the outskirts of town, between the airport and Tema harbor). We had diet Cokes and grilled cheese sandwiches, as if we’d been in Denver, and she told me about how she had stumbled into a sewer the week before, and her cut had gone septic, but she had gotten antibiotics and was OK now. Leaving aside bugs and sewers, then, I was still afraid of plants, bacteria, and sharp dirty things that might need a tetanus shot. And malaria.
But all of these fears were manageable, I thought, as tiredness overcame me, and as I went to sleep, I felt reasonably confident that I would be OK. I had women to interview. A door that locked. Abundant snack food. A number to call if I got in trouble. A boyfriend, sort of, who would come, with condoms, to Africa to save me if I got in trouble (maybe). I would be OK.
But then the dream came. In the dream, I saw myself, as I was, lying in my clothes, on the damp, indigo bedspread, atop my notebooks. In my sleep, I became aware that my money belt was not strapped on after all. On my back, peeking through my eyelashes through the corner of my eyes, I saw a slender boy crouching beside my bed—perhaps the angry bellboy. He was riffling through my bag of cedis. I woke with a start, flipped on the bedside lamp, and the boy leaped up, knocking over the lamp, ran around the bed and ran out the door. I looked in my money bag. To my confusion, all the money was still there, the watery rainbow hues of lavender, peach, green and grey, the stamped illustrations of fishermen, nets, cocoa, trees, jewels, cargo ships. I righted the lamp and looked again, and that was when I saw: all of the corners of the bills had been cut off, the corners that held the numbers that told their worth. The boy had taken them, and glued in dummy paper. The money, in all its crackling, multi-hued thickness, was still there, but its value was gone.
I woke in alarm, my pulse racing. I felt under me. My money bag was still attached to my waist. The cedis had not been tampered with after all. Nobody had been in my room, except me. The terrace was now quiet. The tape had long since ended, the recorder had shut off. I sat alone in the dark, breathing more regularly. I turned on the light, fumbled for a bottle of water from my bag and slowly sipped it, collecting myself. My eyes fell on a newspaper headline on the bedspread: “Predatory Beast Forces Curfew on Penkwasi.”
I’m going to go there, I thought. I was pursued by my own Predatory Beast anyway, wherever I was: fear of danger, of solitude, of loss in love. Maybe there would be catharsis in pursuing this tangible demon. I decided I understood the dream’s meaning: I would not write the article I’d been assigned, and I certainly would never be paid for it. But the stories would remain, in all their color, texture and heft. I would not lose the impressions I would gain on this adventure; it would be up to me, one day, to restore their value. At any rate, the dream showed me, I would not lose them.
With that troubling but strangely consoling conviction, I at last fell asleep.
♛ END of PART ONE
*Names of private individuals and small businesses have been changed.
Illustrations by Robert Frank Hunter
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