We were used to kids following us around, so enthralled by the actions of the “white guy,” (a word synonymous with foreigner, even with my somewhat browned complexion all I ever heard in Burkina was ‘le blanc’ [aka in local language = Tubabu]). I had joked often during my service that the greatest show for kids in Africa would’ve been of the reality variety, displaying in 30 minutes segments, white guys sitting outside their house reading. No matter how often I did that in my village over the course of two years, kids were always captivated enough to come watch for endless periods of time. So actually walking around and looking at things was all the more fascinating and tended to attract the youngins. However this girl was older than that average age, she looked about 15-16 instead of 6-8. Also most of the kids followed for a while, but eventually grew bored when they realized our lives were no less mundane than their own. This girl had been with us since the East End Market until now – we had crossed the entire city of Freetown basically in the past few hours, this wasn’t just ambling around some little village. She must’ve been quite interested, but the most odd thing of all was that she made no attempt whatsoever at interaction. In fact she had no reactions to speak of at all, she was barely even looking at us most of the time, just walking alongside. Usually kids were running around saying “hey white people, give me a present,” or “tubabu, the Russians beat you to the moon,” and giggling away in the background. That, or slowing down then speeding up when we weren’t looking. It was always clear they were enthralled by us, and part of their rush was getting us to recognize the fact and maybe even interact with them. This girl didn’t play that game, her facial expression remained the stoic emotionless stone glare it had been the entire time.
We began to discuss amongst ourselves, what did ‘Black Shark’ want and how we were going to get rid of her? She had followed us into a couple shops by this point, not even waiting outside for us to emerge like most little kids tended to do. I speculated she just wanted to be seen with a bunch of white folks, which sadly enough can sometimes be considered an accomplishment in itself. The girls (Megan and Jaime) thought she was interested in one of us (typical jealous girl reaction with the introduction of a new female shark member). Bobby thought she was the only other Redskins fan in Africa and came to commiserate, while Diego wanted to know if her tailor also made men’s shirts (in a similar, back-revealing style). None of our answers seemed appropriate enough to explain her persistence, but more important was how would we get rid of her? It was prolly going to be a tough sell, she had followed us quite a bit by this point. Little kids you could always yell at and scare away; I doubted that time-tested strategy would bear fruit in this instance. We walked along for a while longer, not so discreetly discussing the situation and our possible courses of action right in front of her. I think one of the girls tried to talk to her, but didn’t get much further than exchanging a ‘hello.’
She had been around long enough at this point, I figured we might as hold an official ceremony and sacrifice an anti-semitic giraffe to officially initiate her as our 6th group member (aka Black Shark). That was one possible reaction, but due to a global shortage of anti-semitic giraffes in 2007 (there were tons of semitic ones however), it did not pass group majority vote. We kept on walking, unsure of what to really do, and she kept on following, ostensibly unsure of what she wanted. Eventually Diego, perhaps as fed up by her stalking as by own our inertia on the bold action taking front, turned to her, asked what she wanted, and told her to leave us alone. She paused, but didn’t say anything, or even react much at all. It was probably that she only spoke a local language and not much English. She slowed down for a bit as I’m sure Diego’s gestures were telling enough, but continued stalking and soon enough was right back where she started, smack dab in the middle of our group.
By now we kind of just figured, like all the little kids, she’ll eventually get bored and go off on her own – though nothing in the recent history of this situation would indicate such an outcome. We were hoping I guess, because there wasn’t much else to do besides occasionally telling her to go away. We had been walking for a while and were starting to get hungry. If we sat down at a restaurant she wouldn’t follow us in we figured. She might wait outside for us, but the line of thinking went that she’d get bored or fed up that we weren’t treating her as well, and leave on her own accord (perfect way to avoid actually doing something). We were in the downtown harbor area of Freetown, near good ol’ Mama Joyce’s House of Curry. Might as well stop in and say hi to our old friend. As we entered the restaurant Black Shark followed us up the stairs. Diego again turned around and said “No, no.” She stopped, we continued, and sat down without. She had kind of left, maybe she was waiting for us outside, but at least she had listened and not come into the restaurant. We considered the matter to be essentially done and starting discussing the peculiarities of it amongst ourselves.
Mama Joyce came in and greeted us. We ordered some food, sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the harbor view from the second floor of Mama Joyce’s prime waterfront location. Less than 10 minutes later Mama Joyce came in and asked if we wanted anything for our friend. Confused, we asked her what she was talking about. She wanted to know if we were going to order any food for the young girl waiting for us in the other room. She was still there! She hadn’t even left the restaurant but was waiting for us next door! This was beginning to reach a creepy, stalker level; something had to be done right now. As is typical in difficult situations in West Africa, it was fairly easy to outsource our response, using a third party as they would say, to avoid direct confrontation. We explained the whole situation to Mama Joyce, who had a look of astonishment in her eyes. “I thought you fine young gentlemen wouldn’t be parading down the street with a 14 year old girl dressed like this,” implying that her following us in the manner she was dressed gave the appearance that we were up to various uncouth activities with the young local Leonean women. That thought hadn’t even crossed our minds (though I can’t really speak for everyone), but I guess that is what it could’ve looked like from the outside. Mama Joyce, with the distinct style of an older mother subscribing to the tough love approach, told us she’d deal with the little one, to our relieved expressions. I relaxed a bit, sensing the beginning of the end of Black Shark’s short tenure with us. But it was about to get weirder before it got any normaler.
We heard a lot yelling emanating from the room next door, along with what sounded like occasional slap. We collectively started to wonder if Mama Joyce’s house of tough love was perhaps a wee bit too tough. Better than to get involved though when it looked like a punishment was too harsh, a lesson we had learned quickly during our time in village. If a kid gets in trouble, he suffers for it around here. They are well whipped into shape, using a variety of methods ranging from large sticks to direct head slaps to old fashioned spankings. While the methods may seem harsh from a Western perspective, Africans have their own ways of punishing children (as most cultures in the world do I would imagine), and who be it for me to stick my nose in their business (even though as a ‘business’ volunteer that was technically my job). It is a bit hypocritical telling a mother on her 7th child that’s she doing it all wrong, given all my experience in child rearing (I have grown sea monkeys before though and they did need to be whipped in line on occasion). By the end of my service very few punishments seemed overly harsh to me, in fact I had fallen more into the camp of ‘kids get what they deserve.’ Punish them hard now and later on you can punish them hard again, so the saying goes I believe. Hell, I even chased after kids with sticks to attempt beating them every now and again when they pissed me off, and I didn’t own 11 of them (I’m glad they could outrun me, my minatory poses were purely bluffs in nature). At any rate, we had all gotten used to the usually severe penalties on misbehavior around these parts. However this was one of the first times in two year that I felt a twinge of compassion (literally). This young girl really didn’t do anything outright naughty. It was more a bit odd that she had followed us for so long. But she never said anything, never once bothered us. To get beat for that, and knowing that we led her directly into that beating, was a bit uncomforting on the conscious. I felt for you Black Shark, I truly did.
to be continued . . .