Many Americans go to 3rd world countries with a singular mission, service. For many, this includes building schools, providing drinking water, medical support or even spreading the gospel… While service is always in season, I was not one of those with that mindset. My mission was very specific and I wouldn’t even need my cape for it. Two weeks ago, I was headed to Africa to meet my family.
With financial backing of donors from around the globe, I embarked on a trip that would be full of triumphant success and tragic heartbreak. 10 days in Africa’s most populous city was an unbelievable experience for a person who wondered if he would ever experience life outside of public housing.
I stepped off the plane into a hectic airport that was crawling with what America would call “minorities”. Almost everyone in the whole place was black. The flight attendants rushing to catch outbound flights were black. The concession stands were black-owned and operated. Black pilots strolled past pulling small small black bags. I was anticipating seeing alot of black, and that’s what I got…all except the line I was in- passing through customs. This line was filled with all the world’s nationalities that weren’t black. If there were “US” and “Them” surveys to complete, I would have clearly had to complete the “Them” survey. to I seemed to to be part of the small group of people entering Nigeria that day that was black, but wasn’t African.
While trying to make this a Kodak moment, I quickly learned a lesson. Taking pictures at the wrong time could get me into some big trouble. Immediately after snapping a shot of my first sight in Nigeria, I was approached by two angry guards that wore a look that spoke very clearly. Their facial expression said, “Don’t you know we have back rooms we can take you to and practice interrogation techniques! Keep taking pictures if you want to disappear!” I don’t really know what was coming out of their mouth; but angry is universal, and they were angry!
I began to wonder what lied beyond the airport doors. What would happen once I officially set foot on African dirt? Would I stand out? Would I blend in? Could I shed the “minority” title that strangled my psyche for 30 years? Or, would everyone just snicker and make jokes about the American who was wearing three hats? I pretty much made sure that the depth of Africa’s first impression of me would be “Is wearing three hats a style that is celebrated in America?” Seeing that I am a hat man, I had to give Africa the same first impression that people in cities across the US have of me… I have no problem looking silly to keep my hats from getting smashed.
Once in the car, I began snapping photos again. The only problem, I forgot to ask if it was a good time to resume. One could begin to think that I was intent on ‘not’ being welcomed into Africa. In just a half an hour I had managed to piss off airport security, stick out like a sore thumb wearing several ‘funny looking’ hats at once, and now…Now, I clearly offended a gentleman who was minding his own business until… I began shooting pictures of his airport business.
After this picture, he came and tapped on the car window demanding to be paid for the pictures I took. That’s when I began to wonder if it was safer to take photos of the scenery instead of the people. I’m glad I had a good driver, and he got us out of there with the quickness. That was my first episode of “when being a dumb tourist gets real.”
As we made our way from the airport to where I would be staying, I began to think, “I hope it doesn’t get any worse than this”. Would it get worse? Would I make a better impression on the people related to me? And most importantly, where will I be staying for the next week and a half?