We drove past the Accra Mall and headed on the straight shot highway going east towards Tema. We hit the first barricade/toll, which was swarmed by hawkers (and decorated by dozens of “No Hawkers Past This Point” signs). (Hawkers can charge lower prices, Mr. K explained, because they operate outside the restraints of the V.A.T.). My whiteness attracted them. The spectacle, the culture shock, the heat, it all made my stomach turn as they approached the car. Dozens of women in their mid-twenties, heads, hands and waists piled with fried plantain chips (both sweet/brown and salty/yellow); a few men with plastic cellophane wrapped into packs sixteen grapes each, dark red, sweating a little white, wrapped neatly into 4×4 squares; a few kids with magazine covers showing a naked, prostrate Miley Cyrus decorated in colorful gemstones. The sweating 16-pack grapes seemed bizarre and luxurious in the heat, as though they, like me, obviously had originated in a cooler climate. “Reduce reliance on imports,” said billboards along the road, new since my last visit like the stringent visa requirements that had made it so difficult for me to come back in the first place. I guess “Reduce reliance on imports” was not just talking to the grapes, but also to me.
It made me queasy to see Miley’s gem-encrusted torso being peddled along the road by a small child in such conditions, just as I felt sick thinking of my American self eating big red juicy grapes thoughtlessly, by the handful, whereas others might economize those sixteen packs to last for days. Excess. One of the many freedoms we Americans have pioneered: the freedom to consume indefinitely, to consume enough of whatever you love to kill yourself, be it in body, mind or soul.
I was nearly falling asleep as we sped down the highway, but I was moved to see Wisdom mesmerized, looking out the windows. To consider how the journey of a lifetime could be from “here to the airport,” and to think how absurd it was how many “here to the airports” I myself have seen. Children teach you many things, one of which is an ability to express wonder at all things amazing, the corollary of which is to necessarily interpret all things as amazing. It’s a shame many adults get easily bored with the world, when it holds so much to love and to learn. What a fascinating, under-appreciated journey, that “here to the airport.”
Down a slight dip in the road we passed an area of burning rubbish (not the Accra dump, just some people disposing of waste), and the unmistakeable acrid smell was immediately recognizable and confusing. It was not a question of pity, because pity is diminutive and often more insulting than productive. And neither was it guilt, as I remarked upon that smell, knowing it was far removed from me, and that how little had changed about it was not anyone specific’s fault. I had forgotten the smell enough to be hurt as it returned to me, but had remembered it enough that it did not bother me except through its connection to previous memories.
Mostly the smell just produced a feeling of queasiness, because I have a vague idea of how hard it is to live under the sort of conditions which incline people to burn rubbish fires outside their homes, a sharper familiarity with how easily people live under socio-economically opposite conditions, and an unsettling knowledge of how readily people obfuscate the difference so they don’t have to face it.
At the entrance to Community 25 there were a few new buildings. Notably a petrol pump that had once had nothing around it now had logos for Shell Oil, and a medium-sized western-style grocery store had cropped up at the very entrance, just behind Jerry’s house. The metal Community 25 signs remain the same, but more overgrown, or perhaps slightly more rusted. Many of the houses that were being built three years ago had been completed and occupied by their original tenets, but the majority were still being looked after by migrant squatter families – most of the Manye students – who had not yet been pushed out by the gentrification.
As we approached the school, I saw that the road had been shifted due to flooding/poor pavement, and the actual structure was slightly built up but mostly the same: the outhouses and kitchen still separate, partially enclosed and wooden.
(From left to right: Clifford, Tetteh, Jerry, Desmond, George, Me, Baba)
I dropped off my bags in Mr. K’s house and then came outside, where all 300 students were waiting for me in their class lines. A very young girl with braids from Class One came up and handed me a bouquet of brightly colored flowers (can’t imagine where she got them!). I introduced myself and thanked her. Her name was Precious. Precious resumed her spot in line and everyone began singing in unison:
“Welcome. Awkaaba. We welcome you Georgia bonne arrivée!” When it hit me that the entire school had been prepared and rehearsed for my visit, I was flattered, humbled, almost brought to tears. As they sang, I caught the eye of Jerry and Derrick, Bernice, Ellen and Tetteh, Mr. K’s nephew, my former Class Two students who are now in Class Six. Jerry hadn’t believed I was actually coming, and evidently had bet against the rumors and thus lost a bunch of money to the other boys. He later confessed that although he had promised to make me fufu upon my return, he does not, in fact, know how to make fufu. I think we’ll manage with boiled plaintains and yams for now.
After the song, classes resumed and I sat down with Mr. K, discussing his ideas for using Facebook (they are all familiar with the social media giant, even if they do not use it), solar panels, and new agricultural programs to improve the school.