Most Africans have black skin. Mine is white. It’s a simple fact. I was taught that it was like how some have brown eyes and others blue or green, it doesn’t matter and you shouldn’t care. But here, they know better.
Muzungu! Muzungu! Bonjour Monsieur Munzungu! Kids run after us. They yell, they scream. White person! White person! Hello Mr. White Person! You hear it from cars, from passing trucks, young, old but especially the rural poor. Though they’re truly uneducated, maybe an eighth grade education, they know that the average white person has more money than the average black person. It’s a simple fact. You want to believe it doesn’t matter, but it does.
This once, I got a flat tire right outside a roadside village and everyone came out to watch, from little kids to the village drunks. These two, maybe 13 and 14, they wanted to help. And no doubt, they were better at patching inner tubes than me. Cool. He asked me where I was from. America. Ah! America, where everything is good. I didn’t know how to respond. We started inflating the patched tube but the valve blew out and the tire shriveled. Their faces dropped. They couldn’t help me and I wasn’t going to help them. One of the kids asked, in America, there are jobs? In America, you just go to school? And that, that just breaks your heart.
As we were leaving, the Chibuku truck, basically a tank of pulpy beer mounted to a pickup, pulled off the road. An orderly line, maybe twenty long, materialized holding all sorts of receptacles, jugs, cartons, plastic basins. The truck driver, who was drunk, turned the spigot, sloshing the Chibuku into the makeshift containers. America. Not where everything is good, just where there are some good schools, some good jobs and most people on the street aren’t drunk.
I’ve had people tell me they’re honored to meet me. They know nothing about me, just where I’m from and that’s enough. They ask for specifics. I should say Wisconsin, no one knows Wisconsin, but sometimes I speak with my heart and I tell them I’m from New York, that soaring city, epicenter of global ambition.
Jay Z and his Yankee cap. Puff Daddy, East Coast, pirated Hollywood flicks –everyone knows New York. The self proclaimed greatest city on the globe, the city that doesn’t sleep, an empire of and for hustling bustling dreamers. But it’s more than just a state of mind – it’s sewers and courts and a police department and welfare, unemployment, social services and on and on and on. Or is it?
I give an address, a phone number and an email. I say I will let them sleep in my home as they have let me sleep in theirs. But we both know the emptiness of those words. They don’t have an email address or a passport or even reliable access to electricity.
And yet, they give so freely.
Fifty years ago, Ghana was richer than Singapore. Fifty years ago, Africa had more industry than today, despite that the population has quadrupled. On a bicycle, in rural Africa, it’s impossible to escape the wealth divide. Even my phone is an object of fascination. The screen is so large, so bright. It can take photos? Yeah it takes photos. But I have a camera too. Two, actually. A Peace Corp volunteer told me that when she first did her laundry her young host sister came up and counted her drying socks. One, two, three, four, five, six. You have six socks but you are one person. Why so many?
We’ve met a few many village crackheads. Swap the glue for dope, and they would be at home in The Wire’s Baltimore. As with poor America, their clothes come from Salvation Army, they look and act the part. And yet, despite the poverty, they’ve all been fed, they’ve all had shelter. It’s amazing, how they manage to take care of each other.
We’re all the same. And we’re also so very different.
To get across Lake Tanganyika, we took a ship, the MV Liemba. On board was a TV crew for an upcoming reality show, the History Channel’s Around the World in 80 Ways. They were perfectly normal nice people. One of the hosts gave us chicken; the other bought us a round of beers. Behind them was all the wealth of corporate America. They paid to delay the ship’s departure. For two days, hundreds were left waylaid. There would be no forward notice, no apology. They had power like that.
After the ship turned fetid and claustrophobic, we asked the producer if we could sleep outside on the top deck. We would move at any time, sleep anywhere. No. We paid thousands of dollars for this. That’s all he said. There was no apology, no other rationale. We paid thousands of dollars – i.e. this is mine, not yours, get out. They wouldn’t let us or the indigent masses affect their course. They were professionals. They were there to make a TV show. And they did. But I would not accept his answer. Indignant, I ducked into a shadow and climbed up above them to the roof where no one would see me.
I made my bed there. Below me were twelve Americans, each to their own cabin, cabins made for two or four. Below them were 1600 Africans. They were sleeping on benches, on cargo, in hallways, in muddy puddles, babies on top of mothers, whole families peppered between the bags of maize. They got drinking water from a broken pipe covered in a dirty rag. Around the toilets it smelled putrid, water sloshed where people were sleeping and they said down-lake there was cholera.
We were in the right. I thought his refusal to be absurd. But my demand to access was also absurd. There were hundreds mashed together on that insufferable boat. That didn’t even occur to me. I too was self-centered. I presumed we had special access because unconsciously I knew who I was, a white upper middle class American. Ultimately, only one thing made me special – I was the only person who was willing to break the rules. I stole away on the roof of the MV Liemba. And yeah, it was nice.
I fell asleep to stars overhead and a cool breeze over my face. The MV Liemba would continue north, heaving full of fish, maize, concrete and people as it had for a decade and the decade before that and the decade before that and the five decades before that.