Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The final destination of my plane was Monrovia, Liberia, with a layover in Accra, one of those rare direct flights from the US to Africa. I’m not sure, therefore, if my presence on it was surprising or predictable (direct flights are more expensive than the 30 hour layover in Lagos/Cairo/London/Istanbul alternatives). There were a two other obrunis on the flight, one American Archaeological Society polo-wearing chap, and a white woman from Montana living with her husband in Northern Ghana at a gold mine. Other than that, the plane was all Ghanaian and Liberian Americans. This did not phase me, although I remarked upon it, primarily because I think I would have reacted to it quite differently three years ago.
At the gate, I chatted with a Liberian women and seated near me, and we shared M&Ms. I (deliberately?) made a small, but significant gesture of trust by asking her if she wouldn’t mind watching my purse (holding my wallet and passport) while I went up to the counter to get my boarding pass stamped. We both knew nothing would happen to the bag; the exchange was more to acknowledge our mutual respect, I think. And we both seemed a little surprised to feel neither suspicion nor embarrassment towards one another. She could have doubted my motivations as a young white woman traveling alone to Africa. I, perhaps, would have felt separate, uncomfortable, on that plane four years ago.
For example, the trash bag in the airplane bathroom broke about halfway through the 11-hour flight, causing garbage to be strewn around the toilet cabin. I fear that on some subconscious level, three years ago I may have (illogically, racistly) blamed that filth on the destination of the plane, rather than on the obvious source, an overfilled garbage bag. So I think it is important to remember that however blunted we may think our former bigotries, our personal evils, our outgrown prejudices, they still reside in us and can be awakened in moments of weakness or narcissism. Real humanism, I suppose, is a full-time job.
Or how, after landing, it took over an hour for our bags to surface on the carousel, because they had to first unload the luggage that had not made it from yesterday’s flight. This delay caused some people to worry that their bags had been lost, and one Ghanaian lady sarcastically exclaimed, “welcome to Africa.” However as it turns out, Accra airport has one of the lowest rates of lost baggage of any international airport. And since our flight was direct, if our bags had in fact been lost, it would have been the fault of the JFK airport staff (or our own, if we checked in late), not the Accra staff. In fact, this rapid unloading and sorting of bags on the terminal floor – between those of yesterday’s passengers, today’s Accra passengers, and those of transit passengers headed to Monrovia – this was not inefficiency; rather it was exemplary efficiency under non-ideal circumstances. I don’t know when that crucial distinction became clear to me, but I know it took years.
As I descended from the plane, you could have blindfolded me and I would have known, without a doubt, where I was. The primary sensory organ in use was, of course, smell. It was a little bit like the smell of Burundi but sweeter and woodier, with hints of sudzy lye slipping out from inside the airport building.
Of course, then there are also the things that work perfectly and impeccably which often get ignored because they don’t fit neatly into the Western pop narrative of African corruption. For instance, the Customs desk at Accra airport scans all ten fingers of every single person that enters the country. That’s a fearsome database to have, and I would argue more thorough than almost any other airport with which I am familiar. Customs was also strikingly different from the GCC countries because there was no separate line for immigrant laborers, just for Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians. Everyone was just people, not the first impression you get in the Gulf.
Perhaps I realized how much I’d changed as I left the airport with my bags (they check at the door to make sure you took yours). Neither the baggage claim nor the arrivals terminal had changed at all in four years, and surprisingly it felt smaller than the Buja one. I wasn’t even the slightest bit phased by the mild harassment of the proverbial Godwin (taxi driver) outside the airport, who read my future based on the wood carvings of my necklace. Within minutes, Mr. Kabutey appeared and Godwin dissipated. Mr. K had brought a very young student, named Wisdom, with him to the airport as part of a program to show the capital and the big buildings to kids who had never left Community 25.
I guess I can’t say it astounded me when Mr. Kabutey tried to sit in the back seat with me and Wisdom, a deferential gesture I’d kind of anticipated (and gotten in the back seat on the other side of the car deliberately to insist that he, not me, sit up front). I repeated my body language verbally and he obliged, jumping into the front seat. Then I doubted myself sharply, realizing that maybe in Ghana – unlike in the US but very much like in the Gulf – sitting in the backseat was itself the gesture of respect. Perhaps I had thus been accidentally rude by insisting he take the front seat. I had no idea.
We pulled away from the airport, and he asked me if I could help him design solar panels to capture Ghana’s excess heat energy and use it to power the school, since oil reserves are limited. A good idea, but Mr. Kabutey – like me – tends to have lots of disparate ideas, and it is hard to know where to commit.