A Year in Africa Peeling Oranges

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When I didn’t know how to help, I peeled an orange. The thick white pulp stuck beneath my fingernails as I peeled the skin away from the soft orange body. Beside me, two hands waited empty on their lap. Liquid dribbled down my arms and grew sticky. I leaned my back against a wall of cinder block, one of the only reliable things in this refugee camp of 42,000. Beside me, on a bench above the red, red dirt was Glory. She lived in the camp. What we did together was eat oranges.

“Now I know your people are listening,” Glory told me, patting my leg. She was 16. She had lived in Liberia until the war forced her into this refugee camp in Ghana three years before. We sat together during breaks from the after-hours reading class that she took and I occasionally taught.

“I know your people are listening because you are here,” Glory said. I littered the orange peel onto the dirt. “And you are from California. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said, flexing her bicep.

“Yes,” I said, flexing my bicep, “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” He had just been elected governor. I split the globe of orange in two, offered half to Glory. “They’re listening,” I said, feeling good about that idea, about what might happen if that idea were true.

I was 19 and living in Ghana and still believed that enough of my love could save anything. That saving was required.

I moved to Africa to take classes at the University of Ghana and to help make people’s lives better in some yet-to-be-determined way through art. I went to some classes, but they were cancelled more than half the time, and then I decided they weren’t important. I spent a few days a week at the Liberian refugee camp, mostly staring and pacing and eating oranges. I was a writer. I was an actor. I was in Africa to help, you know, really help, and make change, and I rode from place to place constantly on the lookout for my opening to enact some transformation. By day, I slipped on a backpack and jumped into buses, boats, cars, canoes, vans, wagons, camels, donkeys, bicycles, motorcycles and carts all over the city and then Ghana and then all of West Africa. I was on the move. Most nights, I got drunk. Ten months later I left.

Star Beer arrived in big green bottles that sweat against the equatorial heat. Gin came in plastic satchels the size of ketchup packets that I bought in bags of 100. I would drink the gin with tonic water—for the quinine, I said, to fight malaria!—and fumble into a taxi, the only time I ever allowed myself nonpublic transportation. The taxi would leave me at a nightclub where I’d have had just enough liquid courage to step over the legless beggars, weave through the prostitutes and fit myself into a bar full of rich Ghanaians and white expats, close my eyes, and dance. I was coming up with great plans to help while I danced. I was looking for transport.

***

The Liberian refugee camp, Buduburam, sat back from the main road that connected it to Accra, Ghana’s capital city, about 30 miles away. Liberia has been in various stages of civil war since a coup in 1980. Problems largely arose from the Americo-Liberians, freed slaves from the United States who moved to Liberia beginning in 1820 and instituted a system of oppression upon the tribes already living there that they had learned from living in the U.S. That is, of course, massively over-simplified.

To get to Buduburam from the University of Ghana, I hopped tro tros. Tro tros are vans or minibuses crammed with bench seats and fifteen or twenty people, goats tied to the top, chickens, bags of rice, burlap sacks of cassava root to be pounded in a huge wooden bowl with high sides by a massive wooden stick into fu-fu and eaten with lye soup, stacks of plastic chairs, plaid plastic bags stuffed with hats or negligees headed to the market to be sold on a blanket on the ground. As I rode, I’d stare out the window and imagine project after project I could invent that would surely be helpful to those around me. I’d been there months, I understood what was going on.

Some of the tro tros had soft seats, a large Jesus hanging from the rearview mirror and Ghanaian highlife music on the radio, and riding in these cost a little more. I never knew what kind I was going to get, though, until I hurled myself into the open sliding door as it slowed at the station, never actually stilling its motion. The mate sat out the window and yelled, “Circ, circ, circ, circ,” and I learned, through error, that this van would head to Nkrumah Circle, where I could transfer to another tro tro to take me to a station outside the city, then one more transfer to Buduburam. And if it wasn’t one of the plush-seated tro tros, it might be one whose floor had rusted away and been replaced with a few wooden boards bolted to the metal sides to support the seats. Often, the boards didn’t quite snuggle up to one another but instead left gaps between them like a punched-out mouth. I watched the road pass beneath my feet.

That’s where I liked to be: in transit. It was so full of possibility. Wherever I was going, there was always the chance that I’d do something there, and until I got there, I was off the hook.

Once I arrived at Buduburam, I’d pass the front gate and begin the walk through the camp toward the school where I sometimes taught. Each day, women came to the school after the children were dismissed. They were learning to read. Fun with Dick and Jane. I didn’t know how to teach reading, but I sat beside them and pretended I did.

I found a high school church choir who agreed to perform a play we would create together about HIV/AIDS stigmatization. Art for change! One thousand condoms were donated for the big community performance. “Wait!” I called to groups of children blowing the condoms into balloons, tying them at the base and attaching them to poles as decorations. The high school students rolled their eyes at me. “You silly American, nobody here will use these condoms,” they told me. “Putting one on means you’re already infected.”

I watched the condom balloons bounce from hand to hand. What I didn’t understand was everything, because how could I, because why should I. What I did instead was nod, and keep watching.

 ***

Where is this essay headed? Toward nothing, really. I think that’s the point. Living in Africa, one is always supposed to be doing something, enacting some change, making meaningful art. But this experience for me was about action’s antithesis. I was watching. I was moving through space in the back seat of a tro tro. I was peeling an orange.

It took over two hours to travel each way to Buduburam. I came to the camp a few times a week for months, skipping University classes, not using the few public phone centers to call home and check on my mother or father, both of whom were sick. My father had a heart attack, was to undergo a triple bypass. My mother’s spleen was failing. What I did instead was slosh through the latrines that divided one red dirt side of a pathway from the other, sing with high school students, buy oranges, anything in order to just be there, pacing, sitting, looking. I’d walk up and down the narrow dirt paths covered with overlapping tin roofs, step over the chickens, skip alongside the little packs of children clapping and smiling as I passed. Hello, how are you, I am fine, thank you. Sometimes, I’d only stay for an hour. Glory and I sat on a bench outside the classroom or walked past a board that listed missing. She checked for the names of her family. We never found one.

Men sat in the shade of a baobab tree while a barber shaved their hair. A little girl carried a baby on her hip while she gathered sticks. Wash was hung, wooden boards were replaced on roofs, and voices drifted out a cement window: “See Jane run.”The cinderblock and mud houses were packed in tightly together, a whole city set on top of itself inside a fence, surrounded by miles of low brush.

“Why is Buduburam so far outside Accra?” I’d asked Reverend Panton, who found me each time I came to the camp.

“Ghanaians think we’ll take their jobs. Or that our women will take their men.” He often brought me a bag of cold water to drink. I think, with my bright pink cheeks, he worried I was always about to die. “Do you know how many of us have jobs outside the camp?” he asked. I shook my head. “One hundred. Maybe less.” I wanted to offer some advice, but I had none. We were both quiet, looking over the enclosed city of 42,000 people.

 ***

Glory thought it was funny that I peeled oranges. I think it’s why she let me sit beside her each day, even though I didn’t say or do much. She did not eat oranges by peeling them. I had to ask the fruit vendors not to slice a section off the orange with their machetes, a flap cut away like a severed piece of skin. When she had her own orange, Glory put her mouth to the chopped-off hole and sucked. She worked the fruit between her hands, massaging the pulp to squeeze it free of the juice so the sweet liquid might run into her mouth. When I handed her the peeled half, she pulled off a slice, put it in her mouth and pulled the section between her teeth, sucking the juice out so that what remained between her fingers was the clear case of the carcass. She tossed it into the dirt. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t just buy two oranges and let Glory drink her fruit the way she liked. I think it had something to do with wanting to feel needed. What was I doing at this refugee camp? Peeling oranges.

I went back to my dorm room at night. Tore open packets of gin. Watched the night clouds move in.

Sometimes in the tro tro, girls in the row behind me would touch my hair. Once, a woman handed me her baby through the window while we stopped to load sacks of rice. She turned and walked away. Seeing my panicked eyes, a man next to me translated what the woman had said as she’d placed the baby on my lap—that she wanted him to have a better life. That I should take him to America. I didn’t say anything but shook my head and held him back out the window, trying to hide how my arms were shaking.

But the moment I keep coming back to is the peel pulling away from the yellowish flesh of the orange, and the juice that squirted into my eyes as I split the fruit in two, a half-moon of slices for the girl beside me, a half-moon for me. I wanted so much to help, but every day I found myself doing this simple, dumb thing. “Do you believe in Jesus?” she asked me one day early on, and I told her I didn’t think I did.

Celine Dion and Bob Marley blasted from speakers all over the camp. I went for a walk with the son of a village chief and he asked me if I loved him. I said maybe. My mother and father, in states far from one another, almost died and instead of getting on the airplane home in December like I’d first planned, I threw away my ticket home. There were so many people I needed to help. Everywhere I turned, people. How could I be so selfish and leave just because of two back home? I watched the rainbow agama slither across my balcony, bobbing its head like it heard drums. Edem, a girl in my dorm, invited me singing on Wednesdays and Sundays, but I was usually too busy going to and from places to be anywhere.

“Do you believe in Jesus?” Glory asked me again months later. “Ok,” I told her, though what I meant was, yes, if she wanted me to. If that was something I could do to help.

I rode on the back of motorbikes and slept on the roofs of oversized canoes. Certainly, the next place I’d arrive would be needy and clear about what I could do to help, and by the time I got there, I’d be focused and skilled and very brave. Ready for action. What we need in the world are people who take action. Many of our great leaders and heroes are forced into that action. For years, I felt hollow when I’d consider my year in West Africa, how little I did. But the thing is, the question that persists as this experience stays so deeply inside the way I see the world at all times, even now, ten years later, is that sometimes, as a writer or an artist or a human being in the world, is it necessary to be the person who is not doing, but the person, instead, who is simply observing? And not just for an hour or a day, because I think we can all agree that’s good, but for a long time. To not be a person who decides for others what kinds of jobs they should have or play they should put on. This is the power, I think, of inaction. Could I have done more there? Yes, probably. But I can’t stop wondering if sometimes our jobs as people are to live inside the questions of the experience and not offer answers or antidotes. Not to seek stillness necessarily, but to watch as carefully as possible the whole wild beautiful painful world and then to keep watching and watching and moving through space and living within the transportation and peeling oranges.

 

Photo By: José Luis Sánchez Mesa

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About Author

Tessa Fontaine ran away with the last American circus sideshow. Essays about that adventure can be found at The Rumpus, and other recent work appears in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, New Orleans Review, [pank], and more. She's currently a PhD student in prose at the University of Utah, where she's learning to like snow.

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