Today, as I exited a tro-tro at Kaneshie station, my left leg buckled, I dropped my bag and I fell to the floor. My leg felt so numb that I couldn’t move it. I tried standing up, but instead fell back down. I thought of the cut I’d received on my foot a few days prior and realized I hadn’t dressed it or sterilized it since the initial bandage. In a split second, all of the friendly warmth and open hospitality of Africa turned sinister. Panicked, I recalled the inhospitable Africa: the land of microbes, amoebas, a complex patchwork of disease vectors. I could see myself looking back, pinpointing this exact moment where my trip went south. I envisioned a series of hospital visits, an I.V. of antibiotics affixed to my leg, a doctor shaking his head as he prepares to amputate my gangrenous foot.
Of course, my leg had just fallen asleep. Tro-tros are cramped, and in my case, I sacrificed circulation for thrift. But that’s what the myth of Africa can do. It turns a small thing into a big thing, a big thing into an even bigger thing.
There’s always been a sort of mystique about this continent. Since day one, European explorers embellished danger, invented adventures, and highlighted cultural oddities. Even contemporary travel writers often still see Africa as a place to be conquered, the last vestige of a chaotic and dangerous world elsewhere too muted by comfort and technology. I’m more content to ignore these things, downplay them almost to a degree of naivete. Still, I have some daily reminders.
Locals often laugh at my intake of malaria prophylaxis, my application of sunscreen and bug spray, my insistence on drinking at least 3 litres of water per day. They see me as a neurotic, overly cautious westerner, swayed by sensationalized stories of malarial fatality, cursed with skin so vulnerable to the sun’s unforgiving mercy. In the U.S., the mere mention of someone’s race is a risky dance through a minefield, a maneuver so inexorably linked to a complex history of coercion and oppression that without adequate cultural context, it’s almost impossible to decipher. Here, not only is it acceptable, it’s encouraged. These daily routines make it a practical element of my identity, and complement the less subtle catcalls I constantly receive.
I often receive frantic bits of advice from strangers, eager to help me navigate this supposedly dangerous terrain. Nowadays, however, their warnings are decidedly more contemporary, their concerns more metropolitan. I’m warned of upcoming potholes, not to walk near the sidewalk (ie. the street), and not to eat from certain food stalls. They groan sympathetically when I abrade my mosquito bites, and offer me directions even when I don’t ask for them. On at least five occasions, someone has warned me that the corner of a cedi was sitting visibly in my pocket.
The truth is, no matter the century, no matter the context, I’m an interloper in this place. And I always will be.