Growing up, there were enough horror stories about trusting children who had wound up in bad hands and suffered unspeakable things to put the requisite fear in me. So I do not know the spectacular brand of stupidity that gripped me, when aged ten, and new to the capital city, Accra (having moved from Kumasi), I sneaked out of the school gates at closing time and decided to walk home to Labadi from my school in North Ridge, without waiting to be collected as was the norm. The reason? I wanted my mother ('Mi' as we like to call her) to bask in my pride that I knew Accra really well, and look, I could even come home by myself! What I failed to take into account was the parallel scene in which she would turn up at the school to collect me, search high and low, and not finding me, be seized with a blinding fear that her daughter was lost.
(So that explained why Mi* didn't exactly bask with pride at my geographical knowledge of Accra when I finally turned up at the house...)
Oh, but the innocence of childhood.
By the time I walked through the front door, flushed with success and blissfully oblivious to the chaos I'd caused, and unaware of the various search parties combing the city for me, I'd endured quite a journey. You see, reader, I got lost. It took trotro drivers** and passers-by, hitherto known as 'strangers' to get me to my destination: home.
These days, my experiences with strangers are not of the lost-little-girl kind, oh no. I thrive on the random conversations I have with people whom I don't know the first thing about. And I have realised that try as I might I cannot pinpoint the moments when they stopped being strangers, and became faces. They are the glory of the mornings when I take my younger brother to school and deliberately take the longer way back home so I can be consistent with the only exercise I enjoy: walking. On such walks, I am likely to meet:
Jim - the rich old Irish charmer and thrill seeker who I first got to know one day as I walked across the street from his house. He yelled 'ciao bella!' so aggressively that I was momentarily startled into thinking he was flinging an insult my way. (Now I know my Italian is non-existent, but months of buying panini from an Italian deli and being greeted in the same way by the handsome owner, albeit in softer tones, finally translated that line to, 'hello beautiful', so forgive my initial confusion with Jim) That said, I crossed the road indignantly and surprised the poor man by retorting, 'you need to NOT say it like that!'*** On discovering that I was from Ghana, he enthusiastically proclaimed his love for Ghanaian women, because, 'the bum..oh my God, they have such good bums,' and has since been trying to invite me to his villa in Sardinia. Did I mention that Jim is not so old as positively prehistoric? But he is a witty man with the gift of the gab, and I can see how he might have left a trail of heartbroken ladies in his wake in his heyday.
A world traveller, I'd imperiously informed him once that though he'd been to practically every corner of the globe, I'd never take him seriously as a traveller if he didn't visit MY country. ('You say you love Ghanaian women, yet you've never even been to Ghana?') But bless his heart, recently he informed me that from our short conversations and such like, I'd made him very curious about Ghana, and come next March, he was going to make his first ever trip to West Africa.
'Jim, how could you?!' I cried in dismay, 'I said I was from GHANA!'
And he'd twinkled with such mischief before announcing grandly that he was just pulling my leg. He was going to Accra for the sheer adventure of it, before excitedly informing me that his friend Kwame had found an apartment for him in Legon. I, of course, am thrilled by this! A part of me is slightly worried about Jim being let loose in a place like Legon, which is filled to bursting with pretty young things studying at the University of Ghana. I feel I must warn all Ghanaian women with 'good bums...'
Ahmed - the pound-a-bowl fruit and veg seller down the road who gave me attitude for days because he was mortally offended that, rather than buy from him, I'd gone and done fruit shopping in Sainsbury's. I would walk past his stand, greet him nicely and be met with a curt nod. I was baffled for ages until he asked pointedly one morning in his broken English, 'the bananas you buy the other day in Sainsbury bag..finished?'
|Ahmed arranges his goods for the day|
In this life I have been variously described as Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, South African, Kenyan, Ghana obroni (which amuses my friends and I some)...but none involved such theatrical jumps.
I had to spend several precious seconds of the school run defending my 'Ghanaian-ness' (while my brother cracked up helplessly by my side at the melodrama unfolding) because Sam was convinced that I was truly a defecting Jamaican. ('But why are you denying that you're from Ja..?' 'I'm not denying it!' 'Oh so you admit that you ARE Jamaican?'..and so on) I like to think I'm Jamaican by proxy - my lovely Jamaican hairdresser makes me feel so special when I go to her for some TLC for my hair ('Come baby, let me wash your hair for you..'), and my beautiful Jamaican sister from another mama, Han, has such a pleasing lilt to her voice that sometimes I pretend not to understand what she says, just so I can get her to tickle my ears some more. But now I'm resigned to being addressed by Sam as 'my Jamaican sister', something he always accompanies with a hopeful look as though to check that I have finally come out of 'denial.' I'm thinking a trip 'home' to Jamaica is called for in 2012.
Our world has become so blase to the point that we look without seeing and hear without listening. But I have learnt that one doesn't necessarily need a safari trip or a freaky hot air balloon experience to be adventurous. Adventure exists in leaps and bounds in people. In conversations and interactions.
So take a walk on the wild side.
Talk to people. Talk to strangers.
* Mi is still unamused when I tease her about how worried she got. She rolls her eyes good-naturedly and says something along the lines of, 'hwɛ, wo nim dieɛ me faa mu a anka..' (To wit: if you knew what I went through in those moments..)
** I have since traced my enduring love of trotro to this experience.
*** Some well-meaning friends have already let me in on how impulsive I am sometimes.