by PAUL CARLUCCI
Please, for the purposes of smooth narration, allow me to lump you in with all the others: short and scruffy street brats, dirt-faced and hungry, smeared cherubs wandering around with your palms out. I know you’re all different: sex and gender; histories, national and personal; favourite colours; rows of teeth. But you’re also one seriously disconcerting issue, and so it’s easier, just for now, to make you singular.
The first time I saw you was near the airport in Accra. You were a little boy. We were in traffic, and you appeared at my window, moving your hand back and forth from your mouth. I had a banana in my bag, some hormone-exaggerated specimen from the Washington airport, and I gave it to you. You weren’t impressed. We didn’t see each other again for months.
Then I had to go work in Takoradi for a week. You were still a boy, a light skinned North African in a green shirt with loose curls all over your head. You were trying to insinuate yourself in a clutch of pedestrian traffic. You’d grab onto people’s hands, the hems of their shirts, the waists of their dresses. I knew you would come for me. I didn’t tell you last time, but I have a shaky view on giving money to you, on giving anything to you. I mean, look, there’s your mom right there, sitting on a blanket twiddling her thumbs. I might give her money if she asked me. It’s true. But you? It seems like the wrong kind of reinforcement.
It’s your rights I have in mind, not my fifty pesewa. I promise. But there’s a language barrier between us, not to mention an education barrier, and an age barrier. I didn’t think you’d understand. So when you grabbed my hand, like I knew you would, I didn’t even look down at you. I swallowed some lump of discomfort and shook myself free. We saw each other often that week, didn’t we?
Then, one time, I was taking the bus back from Abidjan, and I was in the jungle, where everything is so beautiful. I mean, wow: in rural Western Region, everything was engorged with green and throbbing like mad. Kids played soccer in a well-trod clearing of maroon sand, their red and blue jerseys contrasting with the foliage like fireworks.
Except you. The bus was moving slow along the bumpy, muddy road, and you, filthy and shirtless, ran alongside it, one hand held up imploringly, the other missing entirely. I couldn’t be sure if your mother was around, using you for alms. I couldn’t even be sure if it would matter if she was. So here’s my contrition: I was grateful the bus sped up and saved me a conflict between my intellect and my feelings.
I’ve seen you around since then. No doubt. If I look hard enough, I see you everywhere. You’re like, and I don’t mean to be rude, all the trash blowing in the dirty breeze. You’re ubiquitous, you know? So I bemoan the state of the world and carry on.
I mean, what can I do? How can I do it? What’s the right thing? The progressive thing? What’s the solution? I don’t know, so I don’t offer any momentum, neither backwards nor forwards.
But you got to me the other day, you know. I’ve seen you at this corner before, seen your parents sitting on blankets across the street, laughing and eating. They make me sick, your parents. Normally, I use my self-righteous hatred to distract myself from your needs, which, as we’ve established, make me really uncomfortable.
But the other day? You were balling your eyes out. I had my window open. I was reading a book. In the corner of my eye, I saw you float up to me. Normally, I wouldn’t look at you. But the tears; just squalling. So I looked. You had your light brown hair in braids, maybe four of them. You were missing some teeth. There was snot around your nose and tears streaming down your face and your little hand wiping over and over and over as you leaned against the taxi. And I just looked at you.
And you just looked at me.
Then the light turned green and I left without helping.
I just don’t get it.