In 2008, I lived in Accra, Ghana in West Africa for just over a year. I was sent there by the International Center for Journalists as a Knight International Journalism Fellow. My job was to train journalists in advance of the country’s presidential election.
It was an amazing year filled with new experiences and new friends whom I remain close to today.
While there, I kept a journal. Recently I came across one of the entries and it reminded me of a conversation I had last week about being childless. In fact, that’s a topic that comes up regularly when I am in my second home – The Bahamas. I would like to share that Ghana column – called “Notes from Africa #2 – with you.
I must have looked absolutely ridiculous with my mouth wide open. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. At that moment I wished I had a Q-tip to clean my ears. Really, I did. I wished I had a Q-tip.
The man with the frosty left eye had the nerve to say that he thought I had some sort of problem — psychological or otherwise — to not have had children or to not want to have children. What could possibly be wrong with me? Maybe I was on drugs, or maybe I was depressed or an alcoholic. Or maybe, even worse, I was not a woman, really. And to add insult to injury, “Is your boyfriend impotent?”
“Well,” said his colleague, after a long pause, and leaning across the desk for full effect, “we’ve heard of white women talking about not having children. They want to spend more time with their spouse. But we’ve never heard of a black woman not wanting a child. It is quite strange.”
My mouth was open. At least it felt like it was WIDE open.
They sat there waiting for a response.
“Well, I’m American. It’s quite common there.”
That was the only response I could think of. I know, I know, but what do you say to that?
It’s like the time last week when my driver was passing Fort Amsterdam, the first fort built by the British on the Gold Coast (circa 1631), located in Saltpond, a little more than an hour outside of Accra, and I pointed it out. “You know, most of the slaves who were in that fort were sent to the Caribbean, including The Bahamas.
“In fact, Louis Armstrong traced his family back to that fort,” I offered.
“Loo-ee Alm Strong?” he said, nodding.
“Yes. He was a famous singer and musician, with big …,”I puffed my cheeks out to emphasize Louis Armstrong’s signature expression … “like this.”
“Ah, Lou Is Arm Strong. He’s out West,” he said, pointing somewhere toward the back seat.
“Uh-huh,” I replied.
Maybe some other topic would work.
“So, are you Catholic?”
“Catholic? Yes. I am.”
“So, the Pope is in America. I wonder how he does it with all those clothes on. It’s so hot,” I said.
“Yes, the Pope. He’s in Accra.”
“Oh, the Pope came to Ghana?”
“Yes, with the other imitation popes.”
I’m a glutton for punishment, so I continued.
“There are imitation popes? … No, the Pope from Rome,” I said, turning in the passenger seat to look at him.
“Ohhhh!! Roma! Yes.”
“So you think he wears underwear under those robes?” I asked.
Then, surprisingly, laughter. The universal language.
Again, I indulged.
“This is a nice neighborhood.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, nodding frantically, “that is the police taxi car.”
I have never lived in a country where English is so widely spoken and I can’t understand what is going on. I think I have bigger problems than not having had a baby. But if you talk to one high-ranking brother in the local government, he’d beg to differ. When he discovered I didn’t have any children his response was decisive and quick, “It’s somewhat pathetic,” he said, and then offered me another beer.
Like in many parts of the world, the Caribbean included, women are considered less than women if they do not have children, and as I have discovered in my travels, the question of whether there is a husband is rather irrelevant. And it’s not limited to women. Men are also ostracized if they don’t have a child by a certain age.
Now I better understand the term, “I had a baby for him.” I always wondered why black women, especially, never said, “I had a baby with him,” or “He and I had a baby.”
So, I am kind of left in the lurch here in Ghana. I’m going to have to invent a baby somewhere, or maybe I can find one of the imitation popes and ask for his advice. Either way, I seem to be half the women I started off as only two months ago. What will I do?
While I figure it out, I’m headed to the gym in Accra and to my African dance class in Accra and then to schedule my next workshop from my apartment in Accra — things made possible by the pathetic, depressed, drugged up woman without child.
Alison Bethel McKenzie email@example.com is a veteran newspaper editor and former executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria.