Friday, 18 December 2009, Accra:
Something I saw today on the tro-tro ride from work gave me pause. Many things do, multiple times a day, but there are always some things that, in their own distinctive way, throw a heavier punch to the mind.
From the window of the tro-tro, I saw a man cross in front of our bus. I immediately thought him odd. His hair was thickly caked with mud and he was walking with a bizarre, disobedient determination. As he made his way through the rush hour crowd of people and automobiles, people averted him with their eyes and their bodies. I watched him swing his broad shoulders through the market to make a path. When I finally got a glance at his face, I saw it was etched with madness, both emotional and mental, and the whites of his eyes were syrupy-red. It was then I changed my mind from him being odd, to him being ME.
I came down with a 101-degree fever earlier this week, the first fever I’ve had since I can’t remember when. It’s rare that I get so sick I admit I have a problem and that I need to see a doctor. Usually, it’s just “I don’t feel good.”
But this time, I was most definitely sick. My body was processing something violently foreign. My head throbbed. My all of the muscles in back and neck ached. I was shitting watery waste uncontrollably, unable to keep anything in my system for more than 10 minutes, no matter how bland or simple. My vision and thoughts were blurry; I couldn’t answer or do or focus on anything. The worst of it all, though, was the fever, which gave me alternating symptoms of chills and slimy sweats, and made my face so damned hot I wanted to somehow wrap Pure Water cachets on my cheeks and forehead. Where the hell is a frozen bag of peas when you need one…
Sounds great, doesn’t it. I cried. I’ll admit to that. I felt like such crud that I cried. I whimpered, even, whenever I changed position on my bed, and I hate the word whimper. Brings feebleness to mind. But that is in fact what I did—whimper. It actually hurt to sleep and I moaned every time I moved. To be sure, this fever was one of my weaker, er, feebler moments.
I thought about all this and how my condition had significantly improved after being put on medication and getting plenty of rest and lots of water when I saw the man with the syrupy-red eyes. It is common to see physical signs of malnourishment among many people in Africa, so this was not the first time I’d seen anyone with reddened eyes. It was, however, my first real dose of disparity I’ve had since arriving in Ghana this time around. It was clear from his sickly eyes that he has known bad health and suffering his entire life and unlike anything I’ve ever known or could imagine.
In Africa, I have seen people bathing in putrid, blue-gray run-off waters in trash-filled gutters because they have no money or access to clean water. I have seen pregnant women begging on the streets. I’ve heard stories from refugees that would make you understand the true meaning of “horror.” In the United States, I’ve seen homeless, disregarded veterans crunched and sleeping in the tiny, fenced squares of earth protecting trees that line the streets of our nation’s capital. Being from the South, I’ve seen plenty of poor white trash and disenfranchised blacks. Want one more example of social imbalance I’ve witnessed: Hurricane Katrina. Bam.
My point is that I’m no tenderfoot when it comes to inequality or injustice. What I am not used to, and what I was not prepared for when I saw the man with the syrupy eyes—and what is absolutely shocking to me, because what I dawned on me at that moment in particular is The Central Pillar upon which I have chosen to build my life—the sameness of everything under the sun of mankind, despite all the disparities and differences.
That man made me think of so many things. His scarlet eyes could be mine. His pain could be my pain. My health could be his to enjoy. As human beings, we are all connected because we share the exact same things: joy, pain, embarrassment, excitement, love, anguish, success, greed, humility, hunger, thirst, intelligence, endless etc. I felt foolish for being so full of self-pity when I was with fever, even though my discomfort was legitimate. If I know what it feels like to be ill, he knows what it is like to be ill. It never ceases to shake me to the core when I realize that I have sometimes forgotten the sameness of humanity.