Accra, South Coast, Ghana
The travel guidebook had informed me, “Most Ghanaians get around in taxis, tro-tros (minibuses) and mammy wagons (generally some sort of converted pickup truck).” With the guidebook tucked in my purse, I walked along the yellow dirt highway that led to Ghana’s capital, Accra. I followed directions to the closest tro-tro station. The instructions brought me to a shallow shoulder in the dusty highway, unmarked by any kind of sign. Streams of vehicles kicked up clouds of dust on the road to central Accra. Rickety old Volkswagen Eurovans bursting with passengers and worn Mercedes sedans constructed out of patchwork metal rumbled down the gravel highway. How could these dilapidated Eurovans be the tro-tros I was supposed to take to the city?
Nevertheless, my money belt stuffed with pastel-colored currency buoyed my confidence. I felt like a millionaire; each of my dollars had been exchanged for 10,000 cedis. I fancied myself as a brave, heroic American with a heart of gold wandering into the uncharted wilderness. No one else I knew had ever done anything as exotic as study abroad to Ghana. I took a good look around as I absorbed the heat of the equatorial sun on the sun-exposed dirt roadside.
Like a survivor of a shipwreck searching for rescue boats, I shaded my eyes and peered across the broad river of vehicles. On the far shore of the highway, a small market sprawled out from under the shade of a giant, broad-leafed tree. Wooden tables covered with mangoes, bananas and papayas and iron barbeques offering grilled maize comprised the vendors’ wares. Half-assembled heaps of auto parts formed a semi-circle around the food tables. A radio perched on a carburetor in the junk pile, blaring a talk show conversation in Twi, the local language. Goats with rotund bellies and chickens with patchy feathers raced each other for falling table scraps. Bony beige dogs lounged in the gravel as flies descended on their open sores.
A vendor noticed me. The deep boom of his voice cut through the roar of the traffic. “Oh, Obroni, what you want?” the stocky black man challenged.
Suddenly, all of the faces turned in my direction; the women selling fruit, the men working on cars, the schoolchildren playing in the dirt, all of them stared at me like I had been staring at them. The rational corner of my brain recalled what obroni meant — white girl. A white girl with a pocket full of money, alone in West Africa.
Stung, I scanned my periphery for a bush to hide under. When I couldn’t find a big enough scrub-tree, I resorted to shielding myself by clutching my dry elbows. My face reflected in the window of passing cars, I saw an obroni, a stranger, as raw and pink in this place as a wriggling newborn.
I wished for protection like that of a Ghanaian, a skin so black and deep and dark that I could withstand storm or fire. But people have to earn that. People spend lifetimes and generations in the heat, vitality, and wildness of Africa to grow a skin like that. Only real time, real surrender, real exposure would warm my pinkness to a bronze. I could buy a ticket for an “authentic” African experience, with savages and poverty and elephants and everything, but I couldn’t buy a thicker skin.
The Ghanaians did not notice my reaction. The vendors and children went back to their business, talking, laughing and enjoying the routine of their day. Somehow, lost in my imagined fantasies and fears about Africa, I had ignored the realities of the people who lived in Africa every day of their lives.
Later in my trip, I would have responded differently to the vendor; perhaps I would have shouted back, “Wahun ta sane, bebene!” which translates from Twi as, “What’s up, black man?”
On that day, though, I waved down the next clunky red Eurovan. As a stream of passengers spilled out of the tro-tro, I plunged into the melee, fording through the outgoing sea of people toward the open side door. When I stepped up into the crowded cabin of the tro-tro, the woman closest to me picked up the child next to her and put him on her lap, leaving room for me to sit beside her. I glanced out the window as we pulled away from the station. I saw my face in its dusty, distorted reflection, and I hoped someday I would see someone new.