I’m afraid my triweekly strolls through the pages of National Geographic are no longer the charming forays they once were. The color, patterns, street traffic, headpans, cook fires and livestock have become less of a novelty. The experience has become threadbare, if you will, allowing the grit and stench to show through.
The rustle of the breeze in the palms and cheerful greetings get drowned out by roaring preachers, begging children and honking taxis. The occasional whiff of sweet mock orange fumigated by the stench of open sewers and three day old sweat. Lush foliage and brightly colored fabrics dulled by blowing garbage. The innocent smiles of children ruined by spraying penises and fornicating goats.
I take my own life in my hands every time I step out into the street. Sidewalk or no, cars often jump the curbs to avoid potholes or flat out lose control. We’ve seen it happen and come across cars slammed up against or through concrete walls.
The other day I was buying produce, the vendor and I watching with half an eye as a man pulled up to the stand and began backing up to get his car out of traffic. We both screamed at the same time when we saw the rear tire begin slipping over the edge of the deep straight-sided concrete ditch. He heard us, slammed on his brakes and abashedly pulled forward. My heart was still beating wildly as I left the stand. “This,” I thought, “is way too much excitement.”
What I once found fascinating and endearing has turned into a gauntlet. If I’m out too long, it feels like an endurance trial. I carry a handkerchief to dry my sweating face. I press it against my nostrils navigating malodorous ditches or crossing paths with odiferous day-laborers.
I’ve begun wearing sunglasses and travel barely trodden paths to escape attention. And still, people I’ve never seen before call out, “Akos!” … “Adwoa!” … “Efia!” hoping they’ll get me to turn my head and stop. But I’m wise to this trick. I no longer turn my head. Nine times out of ten, if I stop they will tell me “I’m hungry” and give me a hollow-eyed look, cupping the back of one hand in the empty palm of the other.
The children are the worst. They call after me until I am out of sight, like a pack of yapping dogs, “‘Broni!” “Ete Sen!” “Hello!” “Ni hao!” “Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” If I stop and face them, the bold one in the group invariably looks me in the eye and says, “Give me money.”
It occurred to me the last time I went out (yesterday) that this kind of harassment is very much like the cat calls a younger woman might receive when walking past a construction site. No one expects the woman to call back. Their calls are a form of self expression. If the woman responds, it becomes street theater. And that’s all anyone is looking for here, some kind of outlet and perhaps a bit of street theater to break up the monotony of their day. I’m not obligated to engage.
When Bob and I walk together the older kids will push their terrified and screaming younger sibling towards us as we pass, their mother laughing from a nearby perch. Ghanaians tell their children that if they misbehave, they will give them to the Obronis, those cadaverous beings with no color to their skin. Bob shouts for them to stop and tells them it isn’t funny, but they are all laughing even harder now. “Why?” he asks, “Why do you teach them to fear us white people?”
The next time we went shopping together we found a different way. “I’m avoiding National Geographic Highway,” Bob explained. We want to be nice. We want to enjoy. But it has gotten the better of us.
Lately I catch myself wanting to flip off the blaring cab drivers, hands stretched out their windows in question. The trucks are especially deafening, but nothing is worse than the one cedi preachers with their rabid delivery, thumping loud speakers. I’m hard pressed to ignore cars speeding into my path. Tired of continually jumping out of the way. Hands flying up to my ears with each new blast. Exhausted by the effort.
When I tell my fellow expatriate friends they understand. They can’t believe we still walk down the street to buy our food. “You need to get out,” Katharina says, reminding me that I have not left Ghana in 14 months.
Yes, it’s safe to say that the novelty has worn off. But I love to walk and am hanging on as long as possible. It’s only three more months and I doubt I’ll be back. The monochrome streets of the civilized world will seem very dull by comparison. Best I soak up as much local color as I can while it lasts.