Rejection Somewhere in Africa…

Hi guys, I still have to edit this and punch it up, but at least I have most of the story down.  I promised I’d post this Monday, regardless of condition, and I did.  The only thing is I can’t seem to format it for cell phone, unless your cell phone is the same size as a computer:( Thanks for reading!

Rejection in West Africa…or…Nobody Loves me

By Mary Mack

Part I:  What and Why

I never truly wanted to go to Africa in the first place.  I only went there for a boy.  Joey and I had already been long distance dating for a year or more anyway, so it really didn’t seem like a deal breaker when he decided to join the Peace Corps and move to Africa.  In fact, I encouraged him to do it.  God, does this sound stupid now.

“You’ve got to do it, or you’ll regret it,” I said. (Insert your own quiet crying here.)

Joey and I traveled and camped in so many off the beaten path places together, I knew he would do great in Ghana living in modest shelters and meeting the African people and teaching their children.  He did well.  He learned the language; he organized soccer teams; he ate with the hand your supposed to eat with; all that.  On his time off, he even organized and took part in a bike ride across Africa through hostile territories to raise awareness and prevent Guinea worms from hatching in the bowels of humans and starving the human from the inside.  A Guinea worm can be ingested as larvae when drinking from unclean water sources in parts of Africa.  The CDC describes the worms as being about 3 feet long when they decide to slowly exit the body from a burning blister on the surface of the skin, but they can grow much longer.  Joey had stories of Guinea Worms around 15 feet long that had grown in people for years.  The only way to get rid of them—and this is stated on cdc.gov—is to encourage them to come out.  You encourage them to come out on their own by putting some fresh water on the blister, and by letting the worm wrap itself around a stick or pencil as they exit the body.  Exiting the body can take days or weeks depending on how long the worm is, and how encouraged he is feeling.

Joey showed the locals how to filter their water.  He slept as a guest in the mud huts of the people, some of whom had had guinea worms and survived the bacterial infection that can happen as they exit the wound.

That’s something you’d never get the opportunity to do in America!  I was proud of him, and was thankful he raised my own awareness of Guinea worms, even back here in the U.S. where most people will never get one.  I had never heard of them, in fact, and now as I tried to figure out how to get to Africa for a visit, I had nightmares of contracting a twenty-foot guinea worm most nights, though I was never known for worrying at the time.  Even now fourteen years after my trip to Africa, I wonder if there’s a long worm that’s been cohabitating with me, causing me to make bad choices, sleep poorly, and sometimes hoard up chewed food in my cheeks forgetting to swallow.  I do all these things way more than someone without a worm should.

 

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In 2002, despite the Guinea worm nightmares, I was, in general, a care-free, politically clueless, medication-free, and sound-sleeping young woman.  I had just gotten my first full-time band and music teaching gig out of college near Nashville, Tennessee, where all my music major buddies from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh had moved.  I moved down to see what was so good about it.  Nashville used to be a great place.  Joey, also a friend from UW-Oshkosh though we wouldn’t start dating till after school, would come to visit me in Nashville often.

He left for Africa mid-summer 2001 to teach science in a remote village sometimes using a remote language called Twi, a language he asked me several times to teach myself, but I didn’t do it.  I had three jobs, two on top of my teaching gig.  His village was in the northern part of Ghana, but I do not remember the name of it.  I didn’t do any of the work I was supposed to.  I do know his village was smaller than the Northern Wisconsin town I grew up in, and my town only had a population of 500.

When I would go to the post offices around Nashville to mail him a letter or one of very few packages I would send while he was away, every southern postal worker I’d encounter assumed I was mailing packages to my beau in the military, especially since it was after the 9/11 U.S. soldier deployments.

“Bless you both.  Tell him thank you so much for his service,” they’d say in a buttery, proper Tennessee accent that makes you feel like you are supporting a worthy and necessary cause even if you aren’t.  The Tennessee patriotism makes you feel like you matter.  I didn’t want to ruin their romantic assumptions by telling them he was probably exactly opposite of what their yellow-ribbon beliefs caused them to imagine.  Honestly, it was really dangerous to organize a bike ride through remote Africa, especially through Guinea worm infested mud puddles should some accidentally splash up into your mouth, but they wouldn’t understand.  Not with that accent they wouldn’t.

Between the postal workers believing I was dating the bravest of men, and Joey’s mom sending me copies of the photos Joey had sent her to develop, accompanied by greeting cards with messages like “only two years left,” I figured I had better go visit Joey before there was no more space left on my credit cards.   That would be soon, and then I wouldn’t be able to travel anymore.  I was already in debt from college loans, and from drinking.  I had put more than two years of steady drinking on a few credit cards, and was at least $20,000 in the hole just for that.  There was some eating, but it was mostly drinking.  I was a musician, and a teacher after all.

It was I that had to do the flying.  We were both poor, but Joey was getting paid in Ghanaian currency: Cedi.  So he was really poor.  One dollar Ghanaian was only ten cents, if that, in the United States at the time.  Ghanaian teachers did not get paid well to start with, and Joey got paid even less, because it was considered a stipend to his volunteer program.  I never even considered I could have tried to buy him a flight home, instead of going there myself, but I had more time off than he did to do the actual flying, so this is how it had to be.  I owed it to him.  Joey had always been so kind to me, and I had only made one mix tape for him so far using the CD collection he allowed me to keep at my apartment to my great enjoyment.  He must be really lonely in Africa, I lamented.  If I had to put more debt on a credit card, then that’s what I had to do.  It was my patriotic duty.

PART II:  Priceline and Smuggling

I thought bidding on Priceline.com was the only way, I’d get to visit Joey, because the standard cost of a ticket over the phone with the one or two airlines that flew to Ghana, was $2000, $1500 more expensive than any car I’d ever owned.  Priceline was a newish thing back then.  So was the internet for that matter.  Priceline was the only thing I really made use of online, because it’s how Joey and I would visit each other in our respective cities even before he changed continents.  You could bid on flights at ridiculously low prices and get accepted for those flights most times.  It’s way tougher to put in a low, winning bid now in 2016.  Priceline’s business model was similar to the cheap salsa at Trader Joe’s.  You’d buy the cheap salsa once, and then you gradually experiment with more and more expensive groceries each trip.

At my teaching job, I spent most of my prep period, the daily hour you are supposed to use to  prepare lessons for your sweet, sweet students because you are so Goddamn into teaching—using the school’s big, beige, boxy computer looking up places you could go on Priceline.  I didn’t own my own computer, or have the internet yet.  I couldn’t afford it.

The internet wasn’t exactly instantaneous, so it took some patience and commitment to do this.  Looking up flights myself made me feel liberated.  Before internet was invented, I’d have to call back home to Wanda and her daughter Tammy, the travel agency ladies at Sun, Travel, & Tan, who had a desk and a tanning booth in the back of Wayne’s IGA, our town’s only grocery store back home.

I typed in a bid for $400, and it froze up the computer.  I turned the computer off and on, and entered $450 in the bid box and provided my initials below, claiming responsibility for the bid.  I pushed “enter,” and the computer shut off by itself.  I turned the computer on and off and on several more times after more attempts at slightly higher bids.  My bids were jamming up the school’s phone and internet lines.  I called Priceline.  It turned out Africa wasn’t a Priceline destination yet in 2002, but I was still able to type in ACCRA, GHANA in the airport space for some reason.  I guess they were looking ahead to when Accra, Ghana might be a hot spring break destination, even though no airlines were currently on board with that idea, and neither was Ghana.  I decided I could at least try to get to Europe.  Europe was so close to Africa, people were probably zooming in and out of the jungle at affordable prices all the time.  Maybe there was even a bus you could take.  On a whim, I entered in a 300 dollar bid for a roundtrip flight to Amsterdam, and I accidentally got it.

“I guess I’m going to Africa, I thought,” even though I still didn’t have a real method to get there, and suddenly remembered I hadn’t discussed it with Joey ever.  Things were always left pretty vague when he left, but my matchmaker roommate, Jennie, started training as a frame maker and was constantly matting and framing images of Joey and me, and hanging them around our apartment, her crowning achievement being a hot pink, heart shaped matte around a blown up, awkward snap shot of Joey and me.  Jennie did not have a boyfriend of her own at the time. She even convinced me to buy a used, pit-stained wedding dress from one of the garage sales in our Nashville neighborhood, because it was only $20.  We had been day drinking, so when I tried the cream-colored dress on over my clothes in the yard of the garage sale and it only drooped in a few spots, I thought, “Yeah, it’s stupid not to buy this. I can grow into it.”  With all this behavioral reinforcement— in my mind—I would end up marrying Joey, although Joey was unaware of the photo’s and the wedding dress.  I’m really creeped out thinking about it myself, years later.

At any rate, I now had in my possession a United Airlines flight to Amsterdam.  I just needed the next leg of the trip going south.  Amsterdam was a KLM hub, and KLM was the airline that Joey had used to get over to the peace corps in the first place.  I called KLM’s partner, Northwest Airlines to book the flight from Amsterdam to Ghana, and I ended up paying about $1400 dollars round trip, not too much of a savings if you figured in the chance that one of the flights from two different airlines on two separate, non-refundable, roundtrip tickets could be late, causing me to miss the next flight on a different airline, voiding my ticket.

I wrote Joey a letter and attempted a phone call to let him know I would be coming.  I had a calling card I could use to leave a message at a phone that sometimes worked at his school, if there were anyone there to answer it.  It was a community phone, and very unreliable.  This would be the first time I’d try calling.  I gave it a shot once a day for a few days, and finally a boy answered.  I was fortunate the kid knew pretty good English, so I described Joey to him.  He called him Mr. Joey, because Joey turned out to be one of his teachers.  I asked if he could tell Mr. Joey to call me, because I would be visiting. Nothing came out very clear, and the connection was very staticky.  I didn’t expect Joey to ever get the message.  I’d have to rely on the letter, even though all mail was read and sometimes lost once it got to Ghana’s post offices.  I still wasn’t worried.

The next day, I got a phone call with Joey on the other end.  The student had given him the wrong name, but he figured it was either me or his parents.  “You’re visiting?”   He sounded extremely surprised.

“Yeah, I just did it,” I continued.  “You wrote you had a little school vacation coming,”  and then I heard my words a few seconds after I said them, echoing back through the land line telephone on this inter-continental phone call.  He had that echo on his end, too.  It was extremely annoying and confusing, and difficult to communicate.  Letters were better.  Plus the African phone was really for emergencies.  My visit to Africa wasn’t an emergency.  It would be more like a party.  I gave him my dates, and we would settle everything by letter.  Before he hung up, he remembered to add, “Oh and make sure to study the tribal language on those sheets I sent you, and pack really modest clothing so your ankles don’t show.”

“Isn’t it like 110 degrees with 100% humidity,”  I asked.

“Yeah, but they already don’t trust us because we’re white, so you have to try to fit in.”

A few weeks later, close to when I would be departing, I received a letter from Joey, imploring me to bring certain items, including more mix tapes since I promised I’d make them and hadn’t.  The second thing he asked for was to see if I could have anyone donate about a dozen athletic shorts for the school’s new soccer team.  The students had to play in hot weather in their only pairs of starched school uniform pants.  The third thing he asked me to bring across the ocean and through customs were fireworks.  It would be okay to leave out some of the shorts if that was the only way I could fit the fireworks.  He wrote about how he had tried to describe what fireworks were to his Ghanaian students, but they just couldn’t imagine it.  There was  no T.V. and no internet to show examples.

Joey hadn’t been in the country for 9/11, and wasn’t aware of the new rules for flying, although I don’t remember a time prior to 9/11 when they ever encouraged bringing fireworks aboard the plane.  Obviously, this would be a checked luggage situation, and I’d have to plan a trip up to Nervous Charlie’s, a real fireworks superstore north of Nashville. (It’s also a gas station.)  There, I’d use my professional knowledge as someone who’d previously worked at fireworks stands in Wisconsin, to invest in the best pyrotechnics my credit card would allow, with which I would fly post 9/11 even though security had recently confiscated a plastic butter knife from my bag.  If you hadn’t flown immediately after 9/11, you should know the TSA wasn’t formed the next day, so some airports made their own rules guesstimating government advisories.  Some were so strict, not only did they take away plastic knives, but the airport vendors switched to sporks, so no one could kill you with what would take at least 3,000 consecutive stabs from a sturdy, plastic fork.  Despite this, I remembered how much I loved fireworks as a kid, and thought, “Okay, if I do one good thing in my life, if I just fight for one good thing, it will be for these hungry African children to witness a real American (made in China or Mexico) fireworks display.  That sounds like something I’m willing to fight for.”

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PART III:  Blast Off

The school year had just ended on May 31st.  My flight was scheduled for June 7th.  I worked on final grades, attempting to enter them into a brand new online report card program, which crashed the giant computer almost as many times as my laughably low Priceline bids had.  I didn’t care.  I was just biding my time until five business days after the school-year ended, when the lost and found would become fair game to scavengers like me.

Exactly five days after school ended, at 3:30 p.m., the official end of a school business day, I gleaned at least twelve pairs of baggy, junior high, gangster style basketball shorts from the lost and found, plenty for a start up kids’ soccer team in Africa.  I even took all the Gap t-shirts with the headmaster’s permission.  Mr. Hovenden, the headmaster at the school I worked for, had been in the very first Peace Corps started by President Kennedy in 1960, so although he didn’t appreciate my messy desk or my tardiness, he did approve of the Peace Corps and of friendship with other countries and of my donating these clothes to underprivileged children.  Once, I had tried to make conversation with him in his office, and asked about a gorgeous hand-carved wooden stool next to his desk.

“That’s from my time in Kenya,” Mr. Hovenden replied, and he went somewhere with half his brain.

“Oh, Kenya’s in West Africa, right?”  I had no idea.  I hadn’t looked at a map of Africa, since I was in sixth grade, for Africa flashcards week in Mr. Helland’s class.

“No,” I summoned Mr. Hovenden back from a magic memory by guessing the exact wrong side of the continent for Kenya’s location.  He could not form words, and stared at me.  I backed casually out of his office.

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Just because I didn’t know where West Africa was, didn’t mean I hadn’t been enjoying the West African rhythms CD from the music room’s World Mix collection.  I had dreams of becoming an ethnomusicologist someday when I was done teaching, so I    was aware of the rich musical traditions of West Africa.  Therefore, on the sixth day after the school-year ended, still on a donation high from the athletic shorts harvest, I grabbed a bunch of formerly student-owned, abandoned, plastic, and high pitched recorders and their manuals from my classroom’s official “abandoned recorders pile.”   These student model, almost in-pitch, transverse flutes could only add to the rich musical heritage of Ghana.  Not to mention, it would save a young person months of having to carve their own flute from one of the time-honored, African hard wood trees.  These recorders were plastic and basically maintenance free:  Someone could even toot on one right in the ocean or in a heavy tropical storm!  Sure, they sounded like shit, but I was bringing the quality and convenience of American life to the starving African children!

Into my giant, trail backpack, I packed a large and disrespectful number of molded-plastic instruments, which Joey hadn’t even asked for.  (He would be so surprised!) Then, I used the lost and found athletic wear shorts and T’s to wrap and pack the only fireworks I could afford to buy at Nervous Charlie’s, a disappointing, fireworks display even by first-timer, African standards.  I stuffed in some gluten-free instant oatmeal packets, and some lightweight clothes for myself including a swimsuit in addition to one more mix tape, some bug spray, sun screen, contact solution, fake Oakley knock-offs, and extra rubber-bands and wax for my adult braces.  Like I said before, my visit to Africa was going to be a real party.  I packed all these things and had no room for anything else, especially not any suitcase-hogging, modest Amish-style clothing.  The 7th of June came and at 4 a.m., my sweet roommate Jennie brought me to the Nashville airport.  I bought a king size bag of M&M’s to tie me over on my long and confusing, twenty-plus hours of assorted flights into Africa.

In his letter, Joey said he would meet me at the gate at the airport.  That means something different than at the major U.S. airports.  What he meant, and what I learned deplaning, was that he would meet me at the actual gate of an actual chain link fence that surrounded Accra’s airport.  All the people funneled out through that gate, but you could get out faster if you gave someone posing as an official escort some money.  You basically were skipping customs with a bribe, but I didn’t know that at the time.  I thought I was tipping a nice airport employee.  I didn’t have any luggage for customs anyway, because the airline lost it.  They told me to come back tomorrow.

“Just tell someone at the gate, you need your luggage.”  That was how security worked there, but that would be tomorrow.   My escort took me to the gate, and I milled around just outside it, until Joey appeared,  a couple moments later.  He looked exhausted and sweaty.  It was a difficult trip to get to the airport four hours south of his village by random cars and buses on mud roads with so many ruts in them, that sometimes travel could only creep and vehicles would get stuck and clog up the road, making it a 10 hour trip.  Many times, because of the huge, dried mud ruts, long long detours had to be taken.  Joey was lucky.  He set out that morning and arrived by the night.  (I hope people are realizing this was before anyone had a cell phone, and there was no land line in this situation to use.  We just had the plans we made in a letter, and it worked weeks later.  People were so much more reliable before cell phones.)

We only greeted each other we a small hug, as we were both exhausted, and also confused by airport operations.  The plan was to get a cheap hotel close to the airport, so I could make as many walking trips back to the airport as necessary to check for my luggage.  In Africa, a cheap hotel was different than a cheap hotel in the states, but no big deal for an adventurer like me—no big deal until after we got into the hotel room and I watched Joey remove one of his shoes to smash a giant, half-man, half-cockroach looking insect that was crawling on the wall.

“I think those are the one that bite,” he said.

We both crawled onto the only bed in the room.  No bug could keep me awake.  “It’s too bad I can only be here a week what with how expensive it was and how long it took to get here,” I uttered.

Joey, who had been unusually quiet, replied, “I think we should just be friends.”

I didn’t explode, because I didn’t believe him.  How would anyone ever have the nerve to break up with someone who just flew to Africa to see him?  I decided to let him sleep on that decision.

“We still get to go see stuff, though, right?”   If he was serious, I could not let the time and money allotted for this trip to go to waste, and there was no way, I could have survived alone in Africa then.  I hadn’t studied any of the sheets.  I didn’t have any maps, or money, and I was allergic to wheat, the thing from which most everything there was made.

“I guess.  I mean if you still want to,” he said, in the limpest tone of voice he’d ever used.

Christ.  What a party this turned out to be.  Now I had to pretend I went to Africa, just because I wanted to go to Africa.  To reiterate, I never wanted to go to Africa.

I dug in my purse, ate a few peanut m&m’s left over from the Nashville airport, and went to sleep.

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Part IV:  Morning and luggage come.

When morning came, there was not much for me to do to get ready for the day, besides just stand up.  I didn’t have any of my belongings with me yet, to primp for my ex-boyfriend who laid on the bed beside me.  Trying to be positive, I told myself Joey and I were just friends in college in Wisconsin, and so we could just be friends and still get along here in West Africa.  What a load of shit, more like a constant I.V. drip of shit, I had to feed myself in order to make it through this trip. It’s not like I could have afforded a new ticket back home that day.  I had to stick it out.  I hadn’t slept well enough to be able to ask why he wanted to break up with me, and I kind of thought that maybe if I didn’t say anything, maybe he’d just forget he broke up with me.  Even if it were true, he could not be so cruel as to make me fend for myself in a foreign country I didn’t understand with no real communication outlets for eight days.  Neither of us said anything about it, and we set out on foot for the airport.

“You think they’re going to search my bag, especially since it seems kind of suspicious coming in all on it’s own now,” I asked Joey.

“Yeah, they search all the bags and they sometimes keep stuff for themselves.  You don’t have fruit do you?  That’s illegal.”

“Maybe like a couple bananas, but mostly it’s just all those kids’ clothes for your soccer team, and the fireworks, is all.”

“You actually brought that stuff?  Even the fireworks?”

“You asked me to.”

“Fuck.  I heard you’re not supposed to pack fireworks now.  I hope they don’t arrest you or take you for questioning.  They make up their own rules.  We could not claim it and go.”

“All my other stuff I need is in there,” I said.  You can’t go to Africa without sunscreen, right?  I was extremely nervous, but I was always good at getting out of bad situations before this.  I have innocent and confused-looking eyes.

After several stomach-acid-inducing trips back to the airport to check for my bag, I spotted it on a shelf behind men who were rifling through many other bags.  This must be customs, I thought.  I sighed, considering I might not be coming out of here.  I was broken up with anyway.   If they held me indefinitely at airport jail, at least I wouldn’t have to pretend I was having fun the whole time.

I stepped into the short rifling-through-the-luggage line.  My palms were already sweaty, because it was so hot outside, but now the perspiration turned cold when I thought about the armed man finding the fireworks and my banana.  I pointed at my big green bag on the shelf, and the guard laid it out on the table.  He unzipped it and fluffed it up a little.  To my good luck, my guard was more of a social butterfly than a guard.  He noticed all the shorts in my huge hiking pack, and didn’t look any farther, except to question what was in the Quaker instant oatmeal pouches I had brought.  I told him it was food for me, since I had allergies.  He explained they had excellent food in Africa and made recommendations of what to try while I was there.  He then asked me why I looked so fat in my passport and why was I now skinnier.  I pointed to and explained my adult braces, and that it was hard to snack because food got stuck in there.  He looked very closely in my mouth.

“Why you have deese,” he asked assertively.

“Oh, God.  This is it.  This is how it happens,”  I panicked.  I was so close.  I made it through the bag search, but now I’d be thrown in African jail for having braces, which means you live the rest of your life in African jail, and you never get your braces off.  They can do whatever they want in Africa.  Everything is corrupt.  I learned that almost immediately.  Every mistake you make in Africa always ends with you living in Africa the rest of your life, definitely contracting at least one Guinea worm.

I didn’t know how to explain cosmetic orthodontics to the simply clad, armed guard.  How was I to explain that my teeth needed to be prettier to a person so culturally removed from myself?  And so I just told him the doctor made me wear them.  It was required.  The guard made a clicking sound with his tongue and shook his head, feeling sorry for me that I had a medical condition so bad that electrical looking, metal gadgets had to be surgically implanted into my teeth.  He had never seen a medical situation this bad, and he lived in Africa.

Joey met me outside the fence again, surprised it hadn’t taken that long and that they didn’t find the fireworks.  We were about to start a new, slightly less happy adventure in Africa, as friends.  He paid a man with a fake taxi license and a car that sometimes works to take us to our initial tourist destination on Joey’s list of things we’d have time to do.

Part V:  Party Time

The first super fun thing we did together in Africa to make use of our time off and maybe at least enjoy our friendship was to travel to the beautiful West African Atlantic Coast and visit one of the remaining Slave Trade Castles, renowned for it’s extreme cruelty throughout the centuries, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Accra, Ghana airport.  I held back vomit as we looked into dungeons where men and women had once suffered, packed in body to body in suffocating temperatures.  I was going to be sick envisioning the torture in this huge, stone structure, and couldn’t believe it was now a tourism site you could visit and even combine into a travel package alongside a canopy zip line tour of the jungle in order to save a little money.  If you don’t feel truly broken up with yet after you’ve been dumped, ask your ex to take you on a post break up, celebration of friendship date to a historical site of one of the most horrific examples of man’s inhumanity to man.  That’s really when you’ll start to think, “Hey maybe we aren’t getting back together.”

I still had seven days left here, so in my head I would repeat the words, “Just try to enjoy Africa,” over and over.

“At least I can help the African children.  I’m good with children.”  I had those music recorders to give out still, and the soccer kids would appreciate the lost and found shorts.  Maybe Joey will give me some credit when school starts up again and he sets off the fireworks display I brought.  I’d be a magic, fireworks fairy.  That was good at least.

After the slave castle, we would ride a real African bus with chickens on top to drop the goods I had brought off at Joey’s room in his village.  The bus would be crowded.  There were even seats that flip out into the aisles, so as not to waste the precious aisle space. We bought and drank plastic bags of water, hard boiled eggs, and Fan-yogo drinks from the baskets on ladies heads level to the bus windows when they stood just outside the bus.  We traveled like the real people who lived there, not like fancy tourists.  He was making Cedi and I was on credit.  Credit didn’t work anywhere.   So we relied on little bits of cash.

I was happy to see a lot of small children boarding the bus with their robed mothers.  These kids would love me just like American kids did.  Once the bus filled up and we departed, the children peeked back curiously at me and Joey, the only white people on the bus.  Since I hadn’t gotten any sun over the winter, my skin was extra white, with more of it showing than should be.  I was wearing a muscle shirt, modest by American standards.  It was miserably hot.

When I waved at some of the children, and didn’t get that response back from them, I figured I had to be happier.  I smiled a big happy smile several times, and the different children I smiled at all had the same response:  immediate and loud bawling accompanied by stronger clinging to their mothers.  The mothers faced the front of the bus with the petrified children clinging to their necks, forced to gaze back on me everytime they opened their eyes through the sobbing.  I’m familiar with this natural childhood position of fear, because it’s how I went through a haunted house once when I was five clinging to my dad.   When the mothers glanced back to see what was the matter, they only saw a confused and strangely pale, young boy-woman. (I had short hair.)  They’d give me dirty looks and utter the B word.  The B word is bruni.  It’s like the N word for white people.  I didn’t mind the B word, because in Ghana, white people did bad, bad things.  Really, white people did bad things everywhere.  There’s tons of people who should be calling the whites bruni’s.

Some of these screaming children had never seen a bruni before (I can say it, because I’m white.), but they had especially never seen a bruni who had the teeth of a metal, devil monster.  I didn’t realize it was my adult braces scaring them, so I kept smiling even more aggressively.  I needed to be extra friendly to win them over, and I really needed these children to like me, because they were all I looked forward to after I got dumped following a twenty-hour plane trip, but Africa seemed to rally against me.

If only I had had unnoticeable Invisalign braces, everything would have been fine, but I had the large, protruding, metallic, silver ones with red stretchy, saliva-dripping, rubber bands holding the jaws of their possessor together.  Getting the cheaper, metal orthodontia was one of the only sensible financial choices I had made in the last few years, but a decision that proved to be disastrous for African children relations.  The children grabbed impossibly tighter to their mothers’ necks as my red, rubber braces bands stretched and glistened with the spit of satan, whenever I talked or smiled in attempt to make things less scary for them.   Finally, one child gestured to her teeth as tears streamed down her face, and I realized it was my braces that were setting off all the kids.  I was so sad, and I felt like a criminal.  We still had four hours left on this bus ride—the poor kids, and the poor, sad criminal.

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Everything else was tough too.  Nothing ran on time.  Sometimes there were no cars or buses to catch.  Lizards crawled around us when we slept.  Simple things you took for granted at home were not available.  There were no napkins.  You’d wipe your hand with any other type of paper if there was any, but there often was no paper around.  Sometimes you could find a plastic bag, or just let your hand be dirty and crust up.  Very rarely there would be a cloth to wipe with.  There was no toilet paper besides what you remembered to bring yourself, and not too much for water.  At that time, people purchased shady drinking water in plastic bags rather than bottles, and you sucked on a hole you’d stab in the plastic bag to get the water into your mouth.  You don’t think about these things in the U.S. and you don’t realize how good it feels to wipe your hands after finger feeding yourself.  I still only let myself  buy a couple rolls of paper towels every year, because I became extremely aware of our waste after that trip.  I try to use cloth or reusable everything since then.

I did convince Joey to go to a hotel on a cliff overlooking the ocean with an amazing beach.  I never could have afforded a hotel like this in the States.  I swam in the warm ocean water with huge, but gentle waves while the sun went down.  The ocean there was all sand bottom and massaged my feet.  The air tasted like salt, just like people say.  No one else swam down there. There must have been sharks, but I hadn’t thought about it till now.  I had the beach, and what felt like the entire ocean to myself and enjoyed it.   A curious group of teenage school girls approached me out of nowhere, and asked me questions about the United States.  They were too polite to mention the medical condition in my mouth.  I gave them a little bottle of perfume I had in my bag, and they loved it.  They sprayed it on each other, giggling up and down the beach.  Then I had a wonderful meal of fried fish and salad with Joey for dinner on the hotel’s porch.  The salad turned out to be rinsed in dirty water, but it was so good I didn’t even think about the new worm that could be growing inside of me.  The waiter gave us his address, and asked if we could write him from America.

“Just try to enjoy Africa,” I kept saying, and sometimes it worked.

Part VI:  One Last Bit of Rejection and some Revenge

I wanted to be able to redeem myself for buying this trip when I reported back to my friends and co workers.   If I could just go hear some of the music or experience an actual African drumming ritual, I thought people would think, “Oh, you’re not dumb for going to see a boy who just ended up breaking up with you, because you had many other professional and career-related reasons to go to Africa!”  Not to mention, I really wanted to go hear some live music just because I love live music.  I knew Joey loved music and that he would cave in.  I pleaded to go see and hear some real African music and drumming—not drum circle, Prospect Park, Brooklyn crap, but real traditional, tribal drums, like an ethnomusicologist would study.  Joey knew of a little inn known for it’s small outdoor stage and live music.  I was redeeming myself already.

We found another car posing as a taxi which took us into very remote country.  The roads were awful and we spent more Cedi than we really could afford.  While asking directions of people on the side of the road in the Twi language, Joey also mentioned the drums and inquired if there were somewhere we could learn about drums.  The answers given were confusing.  No one is drumming right now, was what seemed to be the answer, but Joey’s Twi was not perfect.

After the taxi let us out, we still had to walk quite far down a jungle road, but miraculously found the inn Joey had heard of.  Though we were the only people staying there, a full-time bartender was present out at what seemed like a Jamaica-style wooden deck with bar and stage.  Trees and vines grew in and around the outdoor bar.  A traditional hand-made drum sat atop a service table behind the bar.

“Is that your drum,” we asked the bartender.

He nodded.

“Are you going to play in a band later,” we asked.

He shook his head no. The young man grabbed his drum, held it, and caressed it, but did not percuss it.  He spoke English in bits, and explained to us there would be no music for another few weeks.  We had arrived during the month of silence.  He was not allowed to play his drum.

“Oh my God.  Here we go with the rejection again,” I thought.  Not just for me, but for this poor young man.  I could tell he was really happy when he played his drum.  Drumming and music were his life’s joy.  He looked antsy.  Had I been there three weeks or so from that moment, I’d have witnessed the happiest person in the world as he’d strike his drum for the first time in a month. This really was a doomed trip.  Of all the months I could have picked to visit Ghana, a place bubbling with music normally, I picked the Goddam month of silence?  I thought about it, and realized there had been no music anywhere else either.  It had been extremely quiet.

The Ga people, one of the ethnic groups in Ghana were enforcing a mandatory month of rest from drumming and loud music.  The Twi people and other ethnic groups of Ghana also were respecting the month-long Ga tradition of silent prayer called Homowo.  If they did not respect it, they would be attacked, so they kind of just said “Hey, let’s respect it.  Silence is good sometimes, right?”   And so, I did not get to hear any traditional music, played on beautiful, hand-crafted, traditional drums.  My boyfriend was still broken up with me, the children still hated me, and I would have no professional growth as a musician, gaining coveted, hands-on insight into the Ghanaian drumming rituals.  Africa, as a whole, rejected me.

****

After a long trip at 4 a.m. to the Accra airport the last day, I checked in to get my boarding pass.  I was told the plane had already left.  Then someone said it hadn’t.  Then someone said it had.  I burst into tears.  I had no one here, and no money.  The plane wasn’t supposed to take off for another two hours, but I forgot Africa can do whatever it wants to you.

“It does end up with me living here forever, doesn’t it, “ I thought, and cried more.  The lady gate agent didn’t know what to do with me.  She wasn’t used to someone who assumed things should go as planned.  A man ran back down towards me and the gate agent again—the gate agent was not even anywhere close to where the plane was, by the way—and yelled at her to have me run with him.  He could have yelled at me directly to run with him, but apparently telling people to run was the gate agent’s job.

The plane was still there.  They needed to leave early, though, so they could fly to Liberia and stop for fuel.  The airport in Accra had run out.

I heard from Joey in a few letters after my visit.  I had given his roommate and co-teacher Boat, a recorder and lesson book. It seemed Boat really took to the recorder and would play it into the wee hours of the night, keeping Joey awake sometimes.  Boy, did that ever make me smile.  What sweet passive aggressive revenge it was to encourage your ex’s roommate to play one of the most annoying instruments of all time.  I recommend it to everyone who gets broken up with.

Eventually, I moved out of Nashville back up north toward home and landed in Minneapolis to live in my brother’s basement and start paying off some of my debt, including the trip to Africa.  When Joey came back from the Peace Corps, he first went to his parents’ in Wisconsin.  On a weekend trip over to Minnesota to visit his brother who also lived there, Joey stopped by and got his CD collection back from me.  That was really the end of things—that and the slave castle, but the CD’s sealed the deal.  I don’t know how you end a relationship now.  How do you take mp3’s back?  There aren’t even any land line phones left to truly hang up on some one.

The memory of the warm ocean and the happy teenage girls with innocent dreams of the U.S. hangs with me the most from that trip.  They say humans don’t remember pain, so maybe that’s why my brain’s held onto that evening more than the rest of the visit, like an old and foggy, good dream.  There was one other positive thing that I hold on to.  One of the only other things that didn’t reject my presence in Africa was the beer.  I remember the beer so well.  It was pennies to buy, and tasted amazing.  Star beer was a big and delicious brand, and it did not contain parasites like the water.  Drinking beer on a muggy, 100 plus degree day, in a country with no air conditioning, is a spiritual event.  Drinking beer anywhere else will never live up to your expectations.*

On the whole, if you are doing any traveling, though, I still would not recommend Africa.  I never wanted to go there in the first place.

By Mary Mack, 5/9/16 , http://www.marymackcomedy.com

*According to this chart on www.ratebeer.com Star beer is the lowest rated Ghanaian beer, so I must have just been hot. 

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Published in: on May 9, 2016 at 5:24 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Wow! What a great–and sad, yet filled with hope and tenacity–story you tell here. Amazing at every turn, hilarious at times, and somewhat terrifying….great writing! –JR


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