I made a new friend today on my way to the immigration office. Her name is Candy. We had shared a taxi to Atomic Junction, and she happened to sit next to me on the trotro to Accra. She was determined to make sure that the mate gave me the correct change, and then struck up a conversation with me. She makes things – beads, bracelets, keychains, tie-dye, and dresses. She reached into her purse and pulled out a darling keychain made of beads strung in the shape of a little man. I told her it was really cute.
“Do you like it? You can have it,” she said, and handed it to me.
She told me she wants to go to school, but she doesn’t have enough money yet. She lives with some people who are not her real parents, but who don’t let her go out (even though she’s 24). She lives with them and makes little crafts and sells them or gives them away. I asked her what she wants to learn at school. I expected her to say “nursing” or “teaching” or “computers” or some other major one can study at a university. I was shocked by her answer.
“I want to learn how to read and write,” she said, and explained: “My mother left me when I was two months old, so my grandmother raised me. She didn’t have enough money to send me to school, so I never learned how to read or write. I never knew my father.”
This just kind of blew me away. Literacy is something I completely take for granted. I told her I’d teach her how to read and write, and she smiled and nodded.
I went to the immigration office to renew my visa. The last time I went, in December, they charged me GH¢100, which seems like a lot. When I picked up my passport a couple weeks later, they had stapled on a receipt. On the receipt, it said that each month costs Gh¢20, and that the total they charged me was Gh¢60... 40 less than I had actually paid.
“That is the price it says,” Evelyn, the immigration officer, explained, “but the extra Gh¢40 is to make sure the work gets done. You understand, don’t you?”
“We’re in Africa. It’s not like the white man, where there is a certain price and you pay it. In Ghana, you have to pay a little extra to motivate and to get the work done. If you don’t pay it, they won’t do the work.”
“Oh. You mean like a bribe? I think I understand.”
But I left the office feeling very, very down, so down, in fact, that I cried when I sat on the trotro. I’m the kind of person who prefers to believe the best in everyone. I believe that humankind is good, that the world is beautiful place populated with beautiful people. I’m aware that corruption exists all over the world, but to experience it first hand like this just put me down. It’s not even about the money as much as the fact that people working at the immigration office only do their job if they can sneak extra money into their pockets.
I thought about the corruption. I thought about my new friend, Candy, who is 24 and can’t even read or write because her parents abandoned her when she was just a baby. I thought about the notes that two of my students slipped into my bag at school just as I was rushing out the door to go to the immigration office. One said, “Do you know that it is true that everyone hates me. I am just an animal called cow. Beacuse Brian alway tell my brother lies so that my mother will beat me. Everyone hates me. What a poor girl. I will kill myself.” My sweet, sweet student wants to kill herself because her friends tease her and her mother beats her! I couldn’t believe it. The other note said, “Miss Kate, I feel like you been my elder sister because any time I am at home I do not feel comfortable. They say I am foolish, mad, sack, stupid girl and that I am a thief. Please, I beg you in secret please be my elder sister. Yes/No.” My other student lives with her “wicked stepmother,” as she has written of her in the very angry poems she wrote for composition class, in a family life where everyone puts her down. What kind of world do I live in? Where is the love?
I stopped by Accra’s only shopping mall, a place that reminds me of the U.S. It’s the most American thing I’ve seen here. It has a big grocery store with all types of imported food, different clothing boutiques selling either African or Western-style clothing, electronics stores, a store selling eyeglasses displaying an amazing picture of Patrick Dempsey wearing sexy Armani glasses, a perfume/cologne shop, a wine and spirits store, and my favorite, a real-life bookstore!
I browsed the bookstore for a while, which took my mind off of the sad state of the world, and as I lost myself in the pages of the books I picked up, I became very happy again. The books were marked up ridiculously, some paperback books being sold for about $30, but I didn’t need to buy anything to be happy. I just love picking up books that catch my eye and reading them.
I also love drinking coffee. I went to the mall’s food court where I found a real coffee shop! I sat at a table and drank a café mocha, frothily delicious and just what I needed. I imagined my future living in a big, developed city somewhere like San Francisco or Paris, drinking coffee every day as I people watch and lose myself in the crowd. Suddenly, the world seemed like a marvelous place again, and I felt quite happy to be alive. I guess all I need is coffee and books to get that joie de vivre again.