Me: Hey, y’all! I’ll be going to the North this month! I’ll be taking a bus and I…
Person A: Wouldn’t you rather fly there instead?
Me: Of course I would.
Person: A.1: So you are going alone? Aren’t you afraid?
Me: Well…Of course I am. I’m terrified.
Person A.2 & beyond: Hmmm. Let’s pray nothing happens. Me, I don’t trust these Ghana roads. So many people DIE on these our roads. And the armed robbers! Ah well; let’s pray that they don’t target your bus.
Me: Yeah…That’s not comforting. Like at all. But thanks!
I know it’s impossible to tell from my social media posts, but I’m actually in Ghana to do real work. I’m here to do research for a novel I’ve had on my heart and in my brain for five years. The protagonist – a woman I met in my dreams – just won’t cut me loose so I’ve decided to yield and go on the journey required to get the full details of her (fictional?) life. A portion of that journey requires me to go to Sabuli, a village in the northernmost part of Ghana.
Sabuli? Where the heck is that? I’ve become accustomed to the quizzical looks and furrowed brows at the mention of this small town’s name. To be honest, I’m not even certain how I found it myself, save to attribute its discovery to a phantom’s guidance. Beyond the coordinates for the town and a few sad images of a tree or three, a Google search for Sabuli will turn up virtually nothing. As you can imagine, this was incredibly frustrating for me. For my previous novels, I’ve gotten by with solid armchair research to flesh out the details needed to bring my characters and the plot alive. This was not to be the case for the story of a kola nut trader’s daughter, the character central to this next tome to be. Hers is not a happy story, and it has taken me this long to commit to tackling it because of fear. The things I have to write to bring her story to life are appalling, as I have to take her, myself and the eventual readers through a series of soul crushing heartbreaks before the stories conclusion. I’ve put this off for five years citing financial obligations, the tender ages of my children and any other excuse I could conjure. But the Universe – as it always does – has conspired to demolish all of those obstacles and others I hadn’t yet considered.
Though Ghana is a relatively small country (you can traverse its length in 16 hours or less, if we had better roads) people from either end are shockingly ignorant about one another. I count myself among that number. The north of Ghana is just as foreign to the typical southerner as is the dark side of the moon, and vice versa. However because economic opportunities are more plentiful in the south, northerners are more inclined to travel in that direction than the other way round. This has led to a profusion of misconceptions and stereotypes of the typical sort that tag themselves to economic migrants. Accusations of resorting to violence to solve disputes, a propensity for loving filth, ignorance and general un-refinement are often lobbed at northerners. In fact, so pervasive were these stereotypes that when I made a fast acquaintance with two northern women (whom I now consider friends), I was shocked when they revealed their ethnicities to me. These were university educated, entrepreneurial women who shone in every way one might deem important. My surprise would’ve been muted had we grown up with a more fair and comprehensive representation in the media and social conversations at large about our northern neighbors.
Still, years of conditioning and negative messaging affected my confidence. I was going to a place where the language – Dagari – is vastly different from Akan (which I’m not proficient in, but can navigate), where the people have a reputation for unprovoked unruliness and barbarity, and is hundreds of miles away from anything familiar to me. If I got into a jam or needed help, none of my family would be able to assist me. This is exactly the situation that my character finds herself in on her journey southward.
I needed to feel each of those emotions as she might have felt them. Experience her apprehension and terror. Put myself in a position to be vulnerable and rely on the kindness of strangers, though my instincts screamed not to. In short, I needed to provoke empathy to inform my writing.
As I prepare to get on this bus and take the estimated 12 – 15 hour ride to reach my destination, I know that this is a test of my courage and tenacity. It is a test to discover which voices I will give power to and have persuasion over me. Whether I fail in my mission is completely up to me.