See, The Thing About Living Abroad Is…

If you’re not careful, this life will crack you wide open. While you are traveling to the latest country. While you are laughing at the latest miscommunication that resulted in your being in a completely different place than you thought you told the driver. While you are reveling at all the money that still remains in your savings account. If you don’t pay attention, your adventurous life laced with privilege will reveal ruptures. Not in your life itself. (No, that will still be pretty privileged and awesome) But in you. They will look like tiny abrasions at first. As if you got off the moto just a bit too quickly before checking to see if your leg was far enough away from the tail pipe. Those tiny abrasions. Barely noticeable burns. If you are not looking closely, carefully, you will be scooting around your new city with all your insides hanging out, leaving a trail of truths behind for these latest foreigners to assess in a language you do not understand.

I watched it happen in Kigali. So many sets of friends because…

So many relationships – from casual hook ups to married child rearing – that began and continued because…

The other person was just there.

About four months into my first international post, I realized I was friends with a woman who I did not like very much. It was not that I greatly disliked her, either. She had not done anything cruel to me nor was she a bad person at all. I just didn’t connect with her. And yet, here I was accepting invitations to go places with her. Grudgingly coming up with things for us to do so we could become even closer “friends.” Feeling bad for making up excuses for why I had to reschedule those things I did not want to do in the first place. I watched other acquaintances do this as well. Ex Pats determined to recreate the social networks they lost once they left their home countries gravitating to other English-speaking foreigners. Or paying off the locals with rounds of beer and subsidized trips to neighboring countries because “we are friends and if they could afford to return the favor, I am sure they would.”

Loneliness is not an emotion only the international globe trotter feels. It is one that every human will feel at points throughout their lives, regardless of who is or is not in that life when the emotion happens to surface. There is something that loneliness experienced abroad reveals, though. For me, I have seen it reveal how deeply delusional you can become about WHY you continue to nurture a friendship with a woman when the only common trait shared between you is you both speak English. There is a great amount of farce involved in continuing to respond to messages from a man who you only vaguely liked when you accepted a date from him and quickly decided on that date was an asshole and not a very cute one at that. There is a dogged decision to believe you are just trying to be more open. “Let me give this a chance. Isn’t that why I moved? For new experiences.”

You tell yourself that you are sitting through awkward conversations with this woman who consistently irritates you because you don’t want to rush to judgment. She is probably just as in need of friendship as you are.

In fact, she is just there. That is why you still talk to her. She is just there.

Just like the average-looking asshole. You are not still returning his messages because you are trying to figure out if the assholey things he says are just cultural idiosyncrasies that your western mind doesn’t quite understand. No, he is an asshole. An asshole who is just there. And this is why you have not told him, “Stop contacting me. I will never have time to go out with you again.” He is there. And his being there offers you comfort if you choose to take it. If offers you an out. If you choose to take it.

What Ex Pat loneliness can also reveal is that you are a damn good liar. You could easily release these people from your life. But, the lie you tell yourself is that it is nicer to lead people on, continuing to pretend you are interested in a connection, than to allow them the time to nurture a connection with someone who truly does value them in ways you do not. If Holden is a terrific liar, then you are an exceptional one. You convince yourself the lie is about the fake friend and the asshole dude. It is to spare their hurt feelings. But, see…it is really about you, Hun. You would feel kindda bad having to admit you are collecting people you don’t really want to keep anyway.

Before I left Kigali, I had strengthened my spiritual practice so Shanghai would not crack me open. If Kigali almost did, I knew this place definitely would.

I am looking around me now at the people who I encounter and observing the newbies start the delusion. Forced conversations that don’t have to become anything more than just small talk, but what if these are entry points into for real friendship? Flirtatious looks that are thought to be more significant than simply you are cute and his fiancée is still far away in London and he misses her so.

The realization that you have uprooted yourself and now have to recreate a life that had run almost by itself can cause a sense of isolation that is deeper than the loneliness one feels when she is in an unsatisfactory relationship in a country and culture that she understands. Or the loneliness felt when one has gone a long period of time without the intimacy that even a dysfunctional partnership can bring. The rebuilding of a support network can be more unclear in its design and architecture. I understand oh so well why people choose the delusion. The superficial and strained connections make them feel safe.

The unfortunate truth is, though, they are not any safer than if they just stopped lying. At some point, they will have to face the reality of what they have done. They have left their families. They have left their friends. They have left their good jobs. They have left all the distractions those families and friends and good jobs mercifully provided.

The rush to find replacements for those distractions will likely be the catalyst for their being cracked open more so than it will be the magic elixir to stop it from happening in the first place.

You’re Too Fat for Everything

Our story of obesity begins in a “medical clinic” in Shanghai’s city center. I and about 20 other teachers who are new to the faculty of this innovative international school have been bused down to get another medical check although we each had one done in whichever country we were residing when we accepted this post in order to obtain the month-long visa that would get us into China. But, we are told that the Chinese trust no medical reports but their own and so…

Off we go to this “clinic.”

It all happens quickly. The human resources manager is directing each of us quickly to the reception desk where we hand over our passport, get a number, fill out a form and then get handed a robe that we are told is “one size fits all.” I am skeptical when I go into the changing room and actually open the robe. Will the entirety of both of my breasts fit into the confines of this cotton? I share my concerns with the tiny little lady standing outside the changing room who is quite aggressively trying to quickly get me out the room and onto a scale.

“Uhm…yeah…Miss…this robe is too small.”

“No,” she quickly responds. “It is one size fit all.”

I look at the robe and then at my breasts. Look at the little lady. Then back at my breasts. I eye the robe one more time. “Mam, I am sure there is a robe that is one size fits all, but I don’t think it is this one.”

“Just put on robe.”

I do as I am told and proceed to walk out the room and flash my new colleagues.

The little lady rushes up to me saying something like, “It is all out. It is all out. I will help you.” As she tries to refashion the ties on the robe, I tell her that I have the breasts of a black woman from the American South and they cannot be forced into this handkerchief with string. The little lady is not a quitter; she is quite diligent. She works this robe around my impressive bosom and somehow manages to make me modest without a large piece of duct tape around the northern region of my body.

Once I get on the scale, two sets of eyes widen in shock. Mine and the little lady’s. I am thinking to myself, “Oh shit…look at me dropping these pounds like it’s nothing. Getting all sexy without sending folk a note of warning first.” The little lady’s widened eyes register something a bit different. They seem to be wondering why the numbers keep getting higher and then when they settle why I am doing a mini-twerk on the scale instead of crying.

Once we leave the medical clinic, where all of us were hoarded from room to room to get poked and prodded by gruff people who may or may not have been doctors, we are told we will be taken to look at electric scooters with the chance to purchase. “The nearest subway station is only a 10-minute scooter ride away from school…on a good traffic day,” one of the teachers on the welcoming committee informs us. “But, in general, it is a good idea to have a scooter if you don’t live in the city center because suburban life is suburban life no matter the country, ya know.”

I spot my scooter immediately. It is a cute little red number with a black basket and more importantly, a seat that can encompass a black girl’s booty. I plant my flag on this scooter by sitting on it and threatening the other teachers with, “Listen, if any of y’all sneak and buy this one, I know where you work and I can easily find out where you live.” I am just imagining myself scooting through Songjiang with fresh produce in my basket, honking at bad drivers and spouting out the few cuss words I plan on learning in Mandarin next week.

The owner of the scooter shop calls over the Chinese co-worker who is our translator on this trip. She turns away from me and says lots of words that I don’t understand to my co-worker. My co-worker uses much less words when she turns to me and says, “Uhm…she wants to know if you are sure you want this one?” She pauses and tries to find more words. “Like, will you be comfortable with this seat?”

I wiggle on the seat again and chuckle that my ass is not spilling off even a little bit and it is better than most seats on the bikes in most spin classes in New York City. She sees that I don’t get it. And for some reason, the owner of the shop who cannot speak a lick of English sees I don’t get it either. So, she turns away from me again and says more words to my co-worker, complete with hand gestures and pauses and attempts to find the right words.

“She thinks if you get this one, the ride will not be stable and you will just be back to get one of those bikes over there.”

Still clueless, I innocently ask, “Why wouldn’t the ride be stable?”

Finally, my co-worker cannot find anymore words and whispers, “Body size does matter.”

And then it hits me, this shop owner has been trying to say, “Get yo fat ass off this scooter that is not designed for an American body because if you buy it and then it breaks, you gon come waltzing your ass back up in here complaining like you Americans always do, wanting me to give you another bike that is better for your big ass…like this one over here I have been trying to direct you to for the last 30 minutes.”

I am tickled to death that there has been an entire lengthy conversation about how to deal with the problem of my obesity, particularly since I fail to even realize I am obese, given I honestly don’t see how this bike is too small. I am even allowed to take my scooter out for a test run, where it becomes clear to me and the other fat ass American who was eyeing a blue one of the same model that we are planning to buy a scooter that is really meant for a prepubescent girl.

When I return from my wobbly ride around the parking lot, I say to the shop keeper, “Yeah, I need a bigger one, don’t I?” She nods enthusiastically. She looks a little relieved that she did not have to tell me I was fat as she may have had to tell a non-Asian person this in the past and it did not go very well.

I am going to end with the beginning of another story that I am confident you can finish on your own.

Yesterday, I went to get a massage. I was led into a nicely decorated private room with a cup of tea and handed a spa uniform of shorts and a top.

“You put this on and then knock on door when done.”

I looked at the uniform and then at my body and then at the nice little man who had directed me into this nice little room.

Displacement in Your Own Homeland

A strange thing happens when you spend long periods of times away from your home country. One of my first conversations with an American woman who had spent many years abroad was about this very strange thing. I had been living in Rwanda for about 3 months and commenting on how surprised I was that it didn’t feel as strange and awkward as I had thought it would.

“The first time you go home, it will.” She offered. “You don’t realize how much you have changed, how much you have missed in the lives of loved ones until that first trip home.”

My first trip home was last year. I had not been back to the United States for 12 months. And it overwhelmed and frustrated me more so than it did welcome me back into its open arms. Aside from the country itself, talking to people I had known for my entire life also felt awkward and forced. Like I was trying not to make the conversation all about me, but they wanted to ask me questions about living abroad even though they did not know what to ask.

I made it through last year’s visit home without the strangeness completely discoloring my reunion with my three favorite things: family, friends and fried foods.

I thought the strangeness would lessen this time around. It actually has gotten noticeably worse.

New York City has become strange for me.

My New York City feels out of place. Not totally ill fitting, but like the waistline of my favorite dress falling a little bit lower than it should and thus actually highlighting my babyless bump rather than hiding it.

It is hard to explain what feels out of place. The best comparison I have for it is when I actually lived here and would go home to visit New Orleans every Christmas. I enjoyed being back home, but as the years passed and I got off the plane at the Louis Armstrong Airport, it felt like I was a visitor although I had spent more years in this place than I had in the place I had chosen to live. The fact that twice now I have gotten off the plane in the LaGuardia Airport and felt this very same way has created a sense of displacement and confusion that makes me reconsider coming back to the states annually.

“I might have to do it every two years,” I commented on a thread in an online travel group. The original poster had returned with her children from the UAE to visit family. She, too, felt out of place. Her children felt guilty that they didn’t interact with their cousins the same way they had before. “The long ass flight alone, the jetlag and now….this,” my comment continued. “It feels like too much all at once.”

For four weeks in New Orleans, I felt out of sorts. Confused. But, that was not as unsettling to me as this same confusion and feeling of “not just right” that has engulfed me in the two days I have been back in my beloved New York City. For the two years I was in Rwanda, folk occasionally asked me if I missed America. I remember responding, “No, not really. But, I missed New York City the moment I got in the cab and was driving to the airport to leave it.” And this is why the displacement here has been more upsetting to me.

How can I feel out of place here in this city?

The same woman who warned me about this strange feeling, also advised me to be conscious of how I moved around my international life to make the displacement when I visited home worthwhile. She was planning on moving back to the states permanently because she realized her 7 years traveling around the world was turning into the life she was trying to escape in the states.

“It was just unconscious choices with no real thought. There’s an opening for an English teacher in Turkey, so I guess I’ll just apply and see what happens. Oh, why not just move to  Argentina?” For many of us who choose the difficulties of life abroad, the benefit of the choice is the knowledge that we didn’t just settle for the road often traveled. We decided to make a conscious choice to follow our hearts and try a life that is not part of the “American adulthood contract.” If you talk to some American Ex Pats who sold houses and dropped out of PHD programs six months shy of completion, they describe “just sleeping walking through life. Not being active in creating my own happiness.”

This friend realized that her country hopping was becoming as unplugged and unfulfilled as her country staying. “Make sure you are doing this with intention. Have goals and plans and actual thought out REASONS for jobs you take and where you take them.” She confirmed what I had learned when I was offered this job in Rwanda so quickly. An American teacher with an advanced degree and certifications truly can work pretty much anywhere and demand the higher end of the pay scale without much effort. That luxury can cause a person to make life and career decisions like a toddler in a candy store filled with only his favorite chocolates during the buy-one-get-five-free sale.

I was fortunate to receive such sage advice early on in this journey. And I have remained true to the sentiment of that wisdom. I accepted my next job based on where I want to be professionally and financially in the next five years just as much as I did my need to be in a major, metropolitan city again as well as explore another region of this big, beautifully ugly earth. If I am going to sit through shows with my favorite performer in venues that were like second homes in a city that I would have married if the laws weren’t so damn restrictive and fight back the urge to yell at all of this to stop being so different, so strange, then there needs to be a pay-off for me. A big one.

Another Pathetic Attempt to Properly Explain His Profound Impact

“You like him? THAT freak? Why???”

Even though I was in college and technically an adult, I censored my response to my mother’s shock that I was obsessed with a man who seemed to be a homosexual, cross dressing nymphomaniac.

That is precisely why I like him, Ma. That was in my head.

What came out of my mouth were safe statements about his boldness, his indifference to being a black man wearing high heels and posing on album covers naked like women were expected to do no matter how well they played the piano and hit all the notes and danced all the steps in perfect sync. “Do you hear that guitar?” I chided my mother. “How come you spent your income tax sending me to youth retreat? Why didn’t you get me guitar lessons instead?”

She laughed along with me, but her face still registered confusion and a bit of concern. Was I changing into someone other than the upstanding, church going daughter who grew up so committed to the fundamentalist Christian sect our family was a part of that when every member of that family continually flouted the doctrines of the Seventh Day Adventist church she chastised them by saying, “We may as well just be Baptist, then.” Although I would not become a bad person, what did my worship of this raunchy, gender-bending musician mean I was going to become?

She had reasonable cause for concern.

I had heard the song before I saw the movie. I don’t remember how I heard it or who placed their headphones over my ears and demanded, “You have got to check this out.” I do know that somewhere in my mid to late teens, someone told me about this guy who had released this song that was in this movie a few years back. When I heard this song, it made me question further what well-meaning adults at my church and its affiliate school were trying to convince me of: There was something my gender precluded me from deeply desiring in its purest form. With no prettied up side orders. Just this delectable entrée.

Sex.

In this guy’s song a woman wanted sex. She was not nasty about it. She was not ashamed of it. She saw this guy in a hotel. She invited him to her house. She prepared him for what he was about to experience and got his consent. In writing. She had sex with him. Even thanked him for the evening.

This guy did not sing about this experience with any special message on either the shaming side or encouraging side. The same way Anita Baker nonchalantly sang about the sweetness of love this guy sang about this regular woman who took part in the pleasure of the flesh and then left.

As if this was what women did.

As if this were normal.

This guy had no idea how much that simple story blew my mind. Made me have to face the recurring desire I had for a rotating number of boys with whom I was in passionate fantasy relationships.

In my church, the message was: Sex was not necessarily a bad thing. Sexuality was perfectly normal. We just had to control it. It was best explored with a person to whom you were legally married. (Or at the very least, committed enough to that marriage was likely in the near future.) To do otherwise, left you, as a young woman, susceptible to broken heartedness, wasted child bearing years and a continued cycle of “being used up” by men who did not think enough of you to give you more than an orgasm. “But will they give you their last name?,” I remember one of those upstanding church ladies asking the group of girls who were sleeping over at her house after an A.Y. meeting.

This message often left me feeling defeated. Even though I was completely sure I liked boys, I was unsure if I wanted a grown one living up in my house 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (And I was leaning towards a won’t-you-just-stay-here-from-Saturday-til- Tuesday compromise even by 10th grade actually.) I was absolutely certain I did not care about wasted child bearing years because the mere premise of changing the diapers of, feeding and trying to rock soothingly to sleep crying, ever-present babies struck me as a ridiculously ill-fitting dress to wear just to show off my womanhood. Even without trying on that lifestyle, I knew it mismatched the adulthood I envisioned for myself.

Where did this leave me and these feelings I was having for the Lorenzos and Johns and Larrys who kept popping up in my fantasies? Was I supposed to not remotely consider exploring this thing that God supposedly made a natural part of me since I would not likely marry them or any other boy?

And here was this guy, winking at girls like me and boys like him behind curly bangs, eyes trimmed with the smoky black lining of a skilled make up artist’s mascara pencil. Saying these things about his body and all the pleasures he treated it to. Lacing the music itself with sounds that would come to mirror, for me, the type of smiling fatigue one experienced post-sex, only to prove his manhood by adding those lyrics to finish off the deal.

At one point, this guy even had the audacity to say to my face, “I know you ain’t getting none. And I know you want to.”

It would be years after I began my obsession with him that I would try to be as bold as the woman in that song. By then, I had left behind the Christian church and was able to at least identify the layers of shame and guilt it wrapped around me even if I were still too young to effectively address the unraveling of those layers.

I called a man who I had been attracted to for what felt like centuries. I was tired of wanting him and not having him. I invited him to my apartment. Much like the guy who sang that song, this man eagerly came over.

We were both in our early 20s. So, of course this man never called me back after our night together.

I distinctly remember waiting for the shame and the sadness that were supposed to follow this experience of “being used.” I do not have memories of either. I do recall feelings of regret. We would never do more of what we had done that night? Had I known, I would have been more like the woman in that guy’s song and suggested we do other things, too. Things a young, inexperienced version of that woman would not have developed the courage to initiate just yet. It would take me another decade to be that kind of bold, but I knew then. I knew that the raw desire I felt and had satiated that night was, indeed, normal. As normal as that guy kept making it out to be in each subsequent song he released. I knew that giving into that desire could be as fulfilling when you had it a la carte as when it was paired with committed partnership.

To say we lost an icon seems trite now.

It hasn’t even been a full week yet and the count of tribute pieces is up to the hundreds…or more.

They all pretty much say the same thing: This is inadequate. I don’t have the right words. The ones I offer you are not even as good as his worst album. I should stop writing now. And you should stop reading. Because it is all insufficient.

Mine is no different.

I am now 40.

He was 57.

I never knew that when I was forced to think about why he had such a profound impact on me, the words you just read would come out.

So, you can stop reading now.

I, too, now admit the 1300 words you just ingested are inadequate, possibly incoherent and not even as good as Kiss.

How to Survive West African Beef

Growing up in New Orleans cultivated unique life skills in ya girl.  My culinary sophistication is so evolved I can sense when food is improperly seasoned from just a half bite. I also hold a deep understanding of the absolute healing power of all things deep fried. The most important skill the N.O. taught me, though, is how to survive. How to not lose my precious life out here in these streets. I know how to not get myself killed by people who don’t necessarily dislike me, but can not allow my disinterest in the New Orleans Saints to go unpunished. To be fair, I do not have (nor have I ever had) anything against the football team; I just have never had any interest in the sports. None of them. However, if you are a New Orleanian, you have to at least feign some excitement when the drunken slurs of slightly insane Saints fans crescendos into unified chants of “WHO DAT!” I half ass who datted! my way through my entire childhood; I continue the faux excitement even as an adult. Every now and again, I am able to make some reference to Breezus “eating dem dirty birds” (a phrase which I am about 57% sure refers to that sportsing team in Atlanta that may be the rivals of the Saints and whose mascot is most likely some sort of fowl).

Who knew that my ability to remain, at the very least, neutral among deranged New Orleanians watching/discussing/preparing for/reading about/remembering a pivotal Saints game would prepare me for all this beef between the major nations of West Africa? And by major nations, I mean the big 3: Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria.

There are many things over which these three countries compete. It seems like jollof rice is one of these things. A very big one. I have listened with practiced neutrality to many conversations about whose jollof rice is the “real” one and whose jollof rice is more “African,” which I assume means which country put jollof on the map.

“Ghana stole it from us.” Joyce Lynn’s statement surprises me because right before she said it, I had asked this question: “Where in Dakar can I go for some good jollof rice?”

“I know you have probably had it before when you were in Accra,” she continues. “But, you should know, it was not the real thing. It was stolen.”

I sense there is more Joyce Lynn needs me to know about Ghana’s thieving ass and its inferior rice. I lean in and raise my eye brows as if to say, “Really? Those bastards stole jollof rice from you?”

“We serve it better than they do.” Joyce Lynn then describes the “special presentation” that the Senegalese do when they serve jollof rice. There are lots of details as she talks about the different colors and the placement of chicken along side the rice so it is not so plain looking. With each tedious detail, I nod and go “OOOO?” Joyce Lynn also needs me to know that, in addition to being non-creative thieves, Ghanaians also use inferior ingredients in their ill-gotten recipe. “The rice they use. It is no good. No good at all.”

I listen to Joyce Lynn explain why the grain of rice is important and am careful not to bring up a recent thread I followed in an online travel group where a psychotic gang of Nigerians challenged an aggressive mob of Ghanaians to some sort of jollof rice cook off. Many taunts were thrown back and forth. I left the room (out of fear for my virtual safety) when the leader of the Ghanaian jollof mafia mocked the Nigerians by suggesting that when their rice was inevitably deemed substandard, he would line all the Nigerians up against the wall and have his other aggressively crazy friends throw banku at them. The thread had begun with someone asking why Ghana’s jollof got such a bad rep from other West Africans. Almost 50 comments later, no one had even mentioned Senegalese jollof rice. Not one person. I knew better than to say this to Joyce Lynn.

During our dinner that exposed me to more than I really needed to know about the complexity of rice, Joyce Lynn’s father introduced me to even more things that Senegal did better than the rest of every other country on the entire continent.

“Do you like this place we have taken you to?”

I look around the nicely decorated restaurant with a lovely view of the monument he and his daughter will arrange for someone to take me to see.

“Yes,” I nod enthusiastically. “It is very nice and the food is good.”

“Well, you must not come here alone at night. Ever. At a certain time of night, this turns into a place where lots of men come. They will maul you. If you must come back, call my daughter here to come with you.”

I am touched that this papa is extending his fatherly protection to me, just some nondescript American woman who is renting his flat for a week. “Chrys, that is very sweet of you. But, how you gon’ send a 24 year old to protect me from boys who are probably only a few years older than her?” We all chuckle, but Chrys adds: “My dear, you must know the difference between Senegalese men and other African men.”

Apparently, Senegalese men are much more clever than their Nigerian counterparts. “Let’s say you are in Lagos, a man will just grab you and tell you to come sit down and then he will put lots of alcohol in front of you. Those Nigerians – they are very direct. Very bold. They sometimes tell us we use too many words. They say: ‘Why are you still talking…oooo?’ So, they grab women when they are in these bars and then make them drink alcohol.”

According to Chrys, Senegalese men are much better at wooing women than Nigerians. They have lots of sweet talk stored in their minds for “just the right moment.” And they also dance well. They will say all these sweet things, “impress you with all those clever moves and before you realize it, you will be pregnant.”

So, although they are bitter that Ghana has put their signature dish on the map, Senegal takes solace in the fact that their men’s game is so much tighter than the men of Nigeria they can not only impregnate unsuspecting women, they can plant their seed with only a “Baby, you are so beautiful” and some superior foot work.

The competition (already won by “the obviously better country” in the mind of the Nigerian, Ghanaian and Senegalese) extends far beyond the actual western side of Africa. When I met a Nigerian at a party in Rwanda, one of the first questions he asked me was: “Have you been to Nigeria yet?” When I said that I had not, but was planning to visit West Africa soon, he quickly perked up. “You will go to Nigeria?” I told him that it was not the first country on my list.

“But, where will you go then?”

“Probably Ghana…”

Then, he got that look I knew well. When I was a teenager, I saw that same look on my pastor’s face when he looped an entire sermon about salvation around a Saints metaphor, in which their victory on the following Sunday would be analogous to the celebration all we saints sitting in the pews would feel on judgment day.

“Ghana is a nice country,” The Nigerian began. “But, how can you go there first? You can not say you have been to Africa until you have been to Nigeria.”

All the visitors on that Sabbath day gave their lives to Christ by the time Pastor Francois had finished describing the joy, the ultimate testament of the power of our prayers, the depth of our faith that the Saints’ victory would show.

“Who dat!” I yelled at the confused Nigerian.

“I do not understand.”

“Neither do I, Homie.”

‘Cross That Border, Live A People Who Are Free

I remember the first time I got wind of what it meant to be “from the Congo.” I had just begun going regularly to a lively step aerobics class at the Nyarutarama Sports Club, which is roughly a 3-minute walk from my house. Because I was self-conscious about my lack of Kinyarwanda and French skills, I often occupied my time before the class checking myself out in the mirror or doing my standard nerd girl two-step when the instructor played intro music as he set up the steps for class.

One day, the instructor put on music that was definitively African. I heard a series of drum beats. So, I did what I thought every person of African descent did when they heard drums. I engaged in a twerk. For clarification, I did not do a full blast, nasty twerk…I did a very respectable, mini-twerk  of sorts. I had been in Rwanda long enough to know how dignified I, especially as a woman, was supposed to carry myself at all times. So, my mini-twerk was quite appropriate in my humble opinion. And the shimmy that I threw in at the end of my impromptu dance performance was not “too much” as far as I was concerned.

As I blew a kiss at myself in the mirror, I saw the eyes behind me look curious and slightly uncomfortable. I had found it odd that no one else had been twerking along with me. Or at least, moving their hips. In addition to the drum beats, a woman’s voice had been belting out some very passionate refrain in a language that didn’t sound like Kinyarwanda or French, so may have been Swahili. I mean, it was like she was demanding, “Twerk, dammit!”

“Congolese?” Someone threw out this word as if it were a question for which he already had the answer. His voice was a bit accusatory and amused at the same time.

The people around seemed to agree with him. A few of the women smiled and chuckled, “Yes, I think you are from the Congo.” One other man just shook his head as if he was having trouble accepting me for who I was.

By the time the Bus Incident occurred, I was developing a hypothesis about the difference between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Basically, Rwanda was your saved auntie while DRC was that young auntie who had not found Jesus and did not appear to be interested in looking for him, either.

One of my favorite things to do in Kigali on Sunday mornings is to catch the bus and run the few errands that can be run when many businesses are closed because folk are in church. These Sunday morning bus rides are normally peaceful and uneventful.

Except for one time when…

These passengers got on the silent bus. I figured out they were not from Rwanda because they were talking LOUDLY. And they continued to talk LOUDLY as the Rwandan passengers tried to drop them hints with the epic side eye they kept throwing at the undignified passengers. I looked up from the book I was reading when I heard the noise and took the time to collect more data to support my hypothesis.

There were only about four new passengers, but the way they were cutting up one would have thought at least a dozen more people had just boarded the bus. Out of no where, one of my Congolese brothers decided he wanted to sing. Out loud. His friends joined in. And they started doing this little dance in their seats. Much like my mini-twerk from aerobics class, it was a modified version of what would have likely taken place had they had a dance floor and more room than the bus allowed. But, the Rwandan passengers were not trying to have it. At some point, one of them said something to the rowdy group.

And the leader of the unsaved started laughing. It was the kind of laugh that I could tell was dismissive. Kind of like when your healthy friend informs you about all the toxins in bacon and what they do to your body and you laugh and say something like: “Does this mean I can have your bacon, too?” In addition to this dude outright laughing right in this nice man’s face, he took out a bag of chips and…

opened them.

And ate them.

On.

The.

Bus.

“Whoa,” I whispered in awe. “Is this dude actually eating on this bus? On the Lord’s day?”

By the time I made it over the border myself, I already assumed that the average Congolese citizen did not have good behavior.

But, AfricanJesusInHeaven, Congolese people in the actual Congo…

A few weeks ago, I went to Goma for the annual Amani Festival. It is a pretty big music festival that draws many people from the region to its stage every year. As soon as I crossed the border, I knew I was no longer in Rwanda.

On the way to the concert, I noticed a man walking towards the venue wearing a gigantic gold sombrero trimmed in red fringe. The hat matched his shiny gold blazer that he accessorized with bright red jeans and these over sized house slippers that one wears in winter because they are fuzzy and warm. The slippers were of some Looney Tunes character – Bugs Bunny, I think.

Not only were vendors selling food outside. On the street. People were buying the food they were selling and eating it. On. the. Street. Folk were just taking gigantic bites out of beef brochettes and corn on the cob right there on the field as they sang along and danced to the artists’ diverse sounds that represented many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A conga line broke out in the middle of Ismael Lo’s Dibi Dibi Rek. Because the initiator of the conga was drunk off his ass (he handed some random stranger one of his beers right before the line began), the impromptu burst of joy ended just as abruptly as it had begun. One or two people ended up falling to the ground, but no one was hurt.

Old ladies danced. They weren’t dropping it like it was hot. But, I saw one group of grannies laying it down like it was lukewarm at least.

I had a difficult time purchasing a plate of fried plantains because there was a full sized pool table blocking the stand where the plantain lady was selling her food. Yes, you read that right. Somebody brought a damn pool table to an outdoor concert. There was a vigorous game continuously going on each and every time I made it over to that side of the field to buy something.

What is happening here, I kept asking other Kigali dwellers. Does His Great Honorable Excellency Paul Kagame know about all this disorder, this unbridled unleashing of loud living that goes on less than 20 minutes away from his quiet, lazy Giseyni?

It was one of my unsaved brothers who finally answered my question.

“Do you ever go to Kigali?” I asked a semi-sober concert goer.

“Kigali is for…when you need to rest,” he responded. “Or when you want to get a girl.” A naughty grin took over his face. “But, that can cause problems. Because then the girl… she will want to come to here…”

I didn’t even bother to ask why these girls would want to ruin this handsome young man’s peaceful weekend in Kigali by bringing him back to this place where people live out loud.

Even your saved auntie don’t wanna go to church EVERY single Sunday.

 

 

When You Fail at Being a Good African-American

Perhaps the greatest evidence of how traumatic the experience of living as a descendant of enslaved Africans in the very land where the dehumanization of your ancestors took place is the sadistic need many African-Americans have to buy a plane ticket to a West African country and make the pivotal point of their trip a visit to a former slave castle.  I have known quite a few of these damaged descendants who speak of this pilgrimage as some sort of life-altering moment of “healing.” A way to connect with the very tangible brutality of the largest iteration of human trafficking the planet has ever known in order to fully wrap their brains around why, we, the descendants of these stolen Africans are still living with the tangible and intangible reminders that our bodies, our lives will forever remain at the mercy of white supremacy.

I have visited Ghana three times. Each time, I have chided myself for not being one of “those” African Americans. To have no longing to stand where my great-great-gran stood as her breasts were exposed and her child ripped from them right before she would be stacked into a boat as if she were merely a log among many and raped repeatedly on the plantation where she would be worked like a mule before dropping dead and being buried (if she were lucky) in a makeshift grave behind the crops that nobody cared about. “Maybe I will take the bus up to Cape Coast and give it a shot,” I said to one of “those” African-Americans on my first visit to Ghana. She was on a one-year contract teaching at a new fashion program in East Legon. She described the experience as all the others had. “Powerful. Coming out of that Gate of No Return…I was surprised when I started crying.” Why wouldn’t I want a powerful experience, I told myself. Somehow, I managed to never schedule the trip.

Last week, I avoided the pilgrimage no more. Another African-American woman who lives in Ghana had taken the pilgrimage almost immediately into her relocation. “I only felt pissed, not empowered,” Latoya laughed as she agreed to ask her Ghanaian boyfriend for advice on how to navigate the trip with as little drama as possible.

Because If I can speak plainly, Folk…I was not committed enough to this healing moment to deal with the drama that Ghana, in all its vibrancy and excitement, can put one through. “I ain’t going to the Cape Coast castle,” I told Latoya.  “Listen, somewhere in Accra, enslaved Africans had to be sold within a 30-minute tro-tro ride.” I was about 77% certain that the bus that went to Cape Coast had to be boarded at Nkrumah Circle, a large, dusty incomplete construction site that just happened to be the meeting spot for most, if not all, tro-tros in Accra. If you google this transportation hub, you will see that it looks a hot ass mess. I am here to confirm that at certain times of the day, it also smells like hot ass. Since I have also sat on tro-tros at The Circle and waited for the mate to decide there were enough passengers on it to tell the driver to begin our route, I knew that I would be sitting on this hot ass tro-tro in this hot ass smelling bus park early in the morning for a good hour before we started our FOUR – SIX HOUR ride up to Cape Coast. I also can attest to the truth of an article I saw making its rounds on Facebook citing Ghana as the second hardest country in which to find an actual toilet. I have done things of which I will never speak when in Accra and nature called and I could not put it on hold any longer.

I watched Roots and read it, too. My commitment to connecting to my history had been proven by the time I was a teenager.

“My sweetie says there is one in Jamestown and we can catch a tro-tro at the Dansamon roundabout to get there.” I had no idea where Jamestown was, but I knew the Dansoman roundabout well. I also knew there was a fried chicken place with a toilet and air conditioner within close proximity. Jamestown seemed ideal.

I am willing to accept full culpability for my lack of thoughtful planning before we made it to Jamestown. I made no effort to figure out on which tro-tro to get or where about I should be looking for my stop or even if there would be signage alerting me that I was close to my destination. Solely because of Latoya’s pre-pilgrimage planning we ended up in Jamestown, overlooking a filthy beach that seemed to be a village for the poorest of Ghana’s poor.

My failure to actually fulfill my mission to stand where my great-great gran stood now rests on the shoulders of a charismatic Ghanaian man who went by the moniker “Nice One.”

I don’t know how we met Nice One, actually. It seems like we just hopped off the tro-tro and he was magically there. “You need a guide?,” he smiled. Then, he told us how much we had to pay him. It seemed like Nice One came with the package – tro-tro ride, slave castle, Nice One.

I made it explicitly clear that we were there just to see the slave castle. No, we did not want to go to the top of the lighthouse where we could get an aerial view of the filthy beach we were now standing on. Yes, it was fine for him to take us through the town and give us some (rather thin and possibly inaccurate) history of the area. But, essentially, we wanted to see the slave market.

I did predict some tom foolery might ensue when Nice One nonchalantly announced we would tour the fishing village and neighboring town FIRST since “the man with key to slave market…not there yet.”  We were assured that he would be back by the time we had looked around Jamestown.

Nice One showed us the pub where he takes his lady friends. “I am very popular in Jamestown,” he confessed to us. “Because I am the King of Kokro Bite, people here know me.” I was unsure why we were in a bar that seemed to have a dearth of alcohol on the shelves and an owner who looked confused when he was introduced by Nice One as “my friend…he owns this place.” Having traveled fairly often around Africa, at this point, I knew not to question the course this tour was taking. We were in someone’s living room which, in addition to a worn sofa, had a worn bar table with a bottle or two of beer on it. This was just the way it was. The way it would be.

“If you ever come back to Jamestown, you should come here. It is slow now because it is early, but at night…” Nice One made a movement with his hips that could have either meant we should come here if we really wanted to do some low down dirty dancing or if we wanted to prostitute ourselves. I did not ask for clarification.

We somehow ended up at the premier guest house of Jamestown, where if we had too much to drink at the pub around the corner and did not feel like going back home, we could rent a room for 12 USD. The owner, who also happened to be Nice One’s friend, assured us that our fee would include hot water.  As if we would not believe the marketing ploy of the owner, Nice One himself verified, “Yes, there will be hot water. This is a nice place; I take my girlfriends here sometimes…when I can not go home.”

By the time we ended up in the courtyard of the palace of the king (not Nice One, obviously) where Nice One took over the soccer game of some random school children, I decided I needed to ask: “So….uhm….Nice One…the slave castle?” I point to the fort-looking structure across the street. Nice One becomes sheepish. He begins talking to one of the school children in Twi and then looks crestfallen.

“This one here…he tells me. The man with the key…he is not here.”

Latoya and I are not terribly incredulous. She has lived in Ghana for almost three years and I have lived in Rwanda for nearly two. We know there probably is no guy. No key. This fort looks conducive to selling human beings so it may have been an actual slave market many centuries ago. It may have just been a prison then as the sign says it is now. I feel like I must make the effort, though. When so many of my counterparts have invested THOUSANDS of dollars to have this moment of healing, I have to push this tour-gone-awry back on track considering I have only invested a few hundred bucks to be in our ancestral homeland.

“Well, did you ask this child when the man might be back?”

“You know, it is Christmas. He is in the North.”

Although Christmas was at least 8 full days ago, I give this man that may or may not exist the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he wanted to extend his holiday well into the new year. I continue to press Nice One, however.

“But, is he on his way back from the north? Will he be here tomorrow?”

Nice One says something to the child who looks like all children do when adults ask too many follow up questions.

“He says…he does not know.”

“So, basically the man with the key to the gate of no return will not be returning?”

Nice One perks up and looks more victorious than he should. “Yes, yes, you understand.”

And here is when I knew I had failed. I did not mourn the absence of the quintessential moment an African American with means can experience in post-colonial times. I did not think to myself, I have a few more days here before I return to the Eastside. I can suck it up, go to The Circle tomorrow and just head up the coast. What I thought was: I am hot. I have to shit. I am also slightly hungry.

I ended the day I had planned to live out my good African-American moment of healing by engaging in a time-honored African-American stereotype. The fried chicken was mediocre at best. The air conditioner was better. I did, in fact, take an absolutely life-altering shit.

 

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