“I always used to pray that tourists come buy from us. Not me alone. Pray for tourists to come down.” Abdul Rashid from Accra is referring to coverage by Western media outlets like the BBC that “Ebola is in West Africa.” Ghana may be in West Africa, but Ebola was never in Ghana. “BBC is announcing, ‘West Africa. West Africa. West Africa.’ We are also West Africa,” Rashid explained using excited hand gestures how of the sixteen countries that constitute West Africa, Ebola had only been found in two “During the Ebola crisis, Ghana was the Ebola crisis,” he said; his eyes flicked up, dark and warm. “Because they say that, an American will never come to Ghana,” Rashid said, growing weary eyed at the memory. He paused for a moment, then added, “It’s like they are dumping us into a well that we cannot come out.”
I looked at his eyes, they were yellow and swollen—the look of a child who has not had enough to eat, both of desperation and of actual physical sickness. It was stifling hot too, the air quivering with the heat. Big-shoulder, bearish, funny Bernard (25) hunched over the back of his chair, squinting into the sun glare above the ocean ahead, and reminiscing. I could imagine him in a dashiki, the traditional loose, brightly colored shirt from West Africa, hawking his traditional African wear with zeal to international trade students at the bottom of the Financial District in New York City. The dashikis are a symbol of pride in mother Africa.
Bernard has four dashikis. I asked him, “Do you consider this part of your heritage, part of being a Ghanaian?” “Yes, yes,” he said, “I wear (dashikis) to promote my culture,” to his customers, foreign tourists from Nigeria, America, England, Spain . . . .
Bernard whose father taught him the business six years ago, said “He was trying to help me to make a living,” and Eric (32) who took over the business fifteen years ago from his father who died, repeated, “’Ask, and it shall be given to you. Knock, and it will open.’” The average income for both of these men in Accra is 900 cedi. That’s just 230 USD. But during years like this one, when cruise ships such as the floating university program Semester at Sea from the U.S. (of which I was a part of), decide to dock in Accra, that figure more than doubles. The economic tide is turning.
“I like the country (the U.S.). Why?” Bernard laughed and said, “Because I like them, the way they sound.” His face quickly darkened, as he said, “We have met them (the Semester at Sea ship) several times, but due to Ebola, they stopped coming to Ghana two years ago.” Many others told me the same story of the isolating years following the Ebola outbreak. Not many of them seemed to resent Americans, instead eager to engage in any trade between the two countries. “If God permits, my dream is to travel. So, maybe one day for travel to the U.S. Americans if you see them, they are always smiling.” Jerry Amoaka, (29) and in business for over six years now, told me.
I asked him, “Why?” though I suspected what the answer might be. I had met countless others like him who shared in this. But I had heard from others who had been denied American visas after suffering difficult interviews and paying high visa fees, or lost relationships with their customers at the American embassy in Accra all because of the Ebola crisis. The wonder was that these men’s Americanism had survived, and that they had created a romantic voyeurism out of the experience.
My last visit to the row of self-made shops across from my ship’s gangway, I stepped in one of the tents, and Bernard in an exhausting fit of excitement, yelled at me to visit the markets in Accra. So in the midday, under a gunmetal sky, I stood in the high sun, sweating. After the usual quarrel with a taxi driver—half negotiation, half relenting—and a slow trip along down streets, I stumbled out into the central market of the city.
But it wasn’t really a market. It was a traveler’s exhibition, a display of red silk kimonos, worn Adidas sneakers, and wool coats from China. In my notes from that day, I had called it, “a complete and total curiosity,” or better yet, a collection of many innumerable fabrics and counterfeit brands, where your well-meaning donations to “fight Ebola in West Africa” ended up, sold for more than the same clothing items would be purchased for here, and so providing an economic stimulus instead of a covering from the weary heat.
Up to their eyelids in rising heat, children stood outside the market looking hopeful—most of them skinny but round shouldered adolescents who were very endearing. “Very poor children,” the taxi driver had warned. But nothing like the trope of Africa’s child “with hands out, begging as flies landed on their cracked lips . . . their mouths open as though calling out to us,” the favored image of the media’s version of Africa—those in Africa just surviving.
Boys and girls wandered in the road, dangerously close to the taxis, peering at us from above the rims of tires they rolled, pushed into a dangerous, rickety movement with long sticks. Their faces were red and burnt, snot glistening under their noses because of their playful exertion.
I remember the graceful way in which they endured like an athlete of the Black Stars, Ghana’s national football team, in the last minutes of a match. This was around noon. To celebrate the Easter weekend, we ate fufu, a rolled dough torn apart with eager fingers and pressed with the palm, and red tomato stew in bowls. I sat across from Felix who I met at the Takoradi Bible Church, discussing the opinions of Ghanaians to foreign tourists. I told him, “I’m writing an article about the effects of media claiming Ebola is in West Africa, when Ghana is in West Africa. What kind of prayer would you offer to them?” You can ask anyone in Ghana for a prayer, and they’ll surely bless you.
Felix chipped in with the prayer: “My prayers will focus on the world realizing that not even a single person have been affected with Ebola in Ghana and anyone including the folks in the country who has any form of business with any firm in Ghana should continue whiles I also pray that if there is any country in the western part of Africa suffering with the virus an immediate solution should be found to get rid of it from our continent so that Ghanaian businesses will grow.”
We toasted one another (me with Club premium lager), saying we would stay in touch, “and made more extravagant promises, as travelers do just before they move on,” to quote Paul Theroux. The fufu, sticky, stuck to my fingers like the last of this promise, as any ties to this country. It was still hot but the sun going down across Accra relented a little of its heat. I walked for several hours, enjoying the energy of the city, the confusion of its streets as they ran into the center like bee tunnels towards a hive. As usual, I thought about the leaders of the traditional African villages in the evening darkness and lamp-lit iridescence of the Accra outskirts, the “Queen Mothers” like drone bees tunneling towards the hive mother, their queen. She is so different from portrayals of her sons and daughters, different from the portraits of this part of her country.
In the lowering darkness of late afternoon, my ship set out for my next port of Casablanca. I lie awake on the oceanic night, hearing the Atlantic on the verge of rain, listening to the rain sputter down on a hot zinc roof, remembering the rustle of leaves in the Kusia tree and the flap of peeling bark on the trees.
My disgust with my own sympathy fatigue as a Westerner and hopeful traveler had not abated. The landscape of Ghana seemed much the same and unchanged for my having seen the true representations of its people hidden beneath the media’s coverage. Instead of a romantic voyeurism, I felt nothing but belonging, a shared sense of something as my new friends, Abdul, Bernard, Eric, and Jerry, waved at me some hundred feet below from amid their stalls. One flapped his arms frantically in the air, holding up a smile that said, “I see you.” And I see you, too.
With the view of the loading dock with its crates headed for international ports, the sun was just beginning to set. Once my ship pulled out of Ghana’s shores, it was sunny and brilliant, deep blue-green dotted with yellow, gold, and red sparkling the surface of the water in every direction. As I peered at the horizon, I imagined another media landscape, one where we had never met. In Ghana, this ideas is represented by a single word, “Semanhyiya,” meaning “What if I’d never met you?”
Long afterwards, too, with everyone that I saw—not just in Ghana but in India, down the Jew Street of Kochi, and high on the hill outside the medina of Fes—I asked this same question. Some of these people, I would have never met, if I had been too afraid to travel to Ghana, Africa.
I went back to my photographs of that day to look at Abdul Rashid’s tormented, martyr looking face. He traced his deeply lined fingers on the carved woodwork of the animals of the African plain, as I stood averting my face from the offensive odor of the salty ocean air. The remnants of anger in him were so strong, that they tipped his body. He had trouble standing upright.
Shaking his head, he said, “I never felt any negativity for you,” but how could he not? Where the whites in his eyes were gleaming, I saw the compassion of a father who had spent those years of isolation agonizing: “My brain is hot because I need to feed this boy,” alluding to a sixteen-day-old son, as well as a little girl. Rashid has said, “The more I sell, the more (I) take care of my family, too.” These men each stood for a family that depended not only on the market but on the international pulse of the media and on tourists’ inclinations, their misgivings that are sometimes as a rainstorm in Ghana; they both can offer up some relief, and relent upon some of the heat of suffering, but also can muddy the waters.
Where Western media cast an indifferent glance while holding out the hand of relief to West Africa, it at the same time had brought to Ghana, the hand of disease. I was clear-sighted about how “of blighted Africa,” I chose instead to remember the dignified resilience of men like these and the women who inevitably lead them.
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