Our first night in Ghana we stayed at a hostel just across the street from the beach—not too shabby. Naturally, almost immediately after dropping our bags, we were at the beach. We split up and the first thing I did was go and stand in the surf. I have this thing about saying I touched this or that body of water—Pacific from the west, Pacific from the east, Red Sea, Dead Sea, Ganges, Loch Ness, Atlantic from the east, and, now, Atlantic from the west. I only stood there a couple of minutes before a man approached me and started a conversation with me. I don’t remember what we said, but it was pretty banal—and over after just a few back and forths. I didn’t realize it yet, but this fellow was the first of many men who would approach me at the beach that day.
I moved back from the surf and sat down to read. I hadn’t finished a page before another man approached me. He sat down next to me. Right next to me. I could feel the heat radiating from his skin. He asked me some questions. Did I live around here? What was I doing in Ghana? How long had I been in Ghana? Was I alone at the beach? This last question was the most frequent question asked of me on that beach. It came to feel threatening. Because of the sheer number of times it was asked. Because of the relative lack of women on the beach. I was one of a handful of women on the beach. I counted six, including me and Michelle, to the dozens and dozens of men I could see. It was asked with the friendliest of tones—but still felt threatening. This man asked me to join him and his friends down the beach at a house, party, or bar. It wasn’t exactly clear to me where. Not that that mattered—I wasn’t going. His friends joined him and stood around me. They did not exactly make the invitation more inviting, from my point of view.
They finally left me, but they did not leave me in peace. Soon yet another man sat in front of me. I had my knees bent and my feet flat on the ground making a triangle. This man slid one of his legs right under mine. At first his leg was just there, not actually touching mine. But through the conversation it inched closer and closer eventually resting on my ankle—for a second before I pulled away. The conversation was just like the last. Where are you from? Are you alone? Come with me.
After he left I had some time. I read a little. I watched the waves—much like flames, waves mesmerize me. I said hi a dozen times to a dozen people who greeted me as they walked past. Then two men sprinted toward me from the water. When it became clear that the two men were not going to run past me, but were running rightfor me, my flight instinct kicked in. I had a vision of these two, rather large, men lifting me up and taking me with them without even missing a stride. I had a vision of them grabbing my arms and pulling me into the water with them. The Kindle in my hand was the least of my concerns in this scenario. I had myself up on hands ready to bolt, but I didn’t. I stayed seated. They didn’t kidnap me. They sat down next to me. On either side. Both within an inch of my skin. From there the conversation mirrored the previous ones. Was I at the beach with my husband or boyfriend? Where is the exact location of your hotel? Do you want to swim with us (and our 15 male friends already in the water)? The two men eventually returned to the water, though the more talkative of the two returned—twice.
I made sure to be home before the sun set.
This was the first day of our time in Ghana and it was particularly bad, but it is not an anomaly. At a tro tro depot we frequent, we (Michelle and I) are grabbed at as we walk through the crowd. It’s worse when I am alone. A man on the street near where we live shouted to me to come home with him to have a good time. When I didn’t answer he added that he’d make me feel good. When we walk down the street we (Michelle and I) are told me are beautiful and have gotten marriage proposals from complete strangers. (Full disclosure: Conor has gotten a marriage proposal from perfect strangers too.) On one tro tro ride the man sitting next to me, after a few cursory questions, asked me to be his “one lover.” He insisted for a minute or two after I said no, but the conversation eventually ended. We were, however, stuck together in the tro tro for about ten minutes our thighs touching and his eyes never left me. Not just watching me out of the corner of his eye either. He had his whole upper body turned toward me to stare.
The second weekend we were here we went to another beach. This one was much more organized—tables and chairs, a cordoned off area to swim, a lifeguard. The four of us swam together and a handful of men still asked to help me swim. From what I can tell, because all but one of the other women in the water were doing this, helping to swim means standing in the water with a man with his arms wrapped around you so that he can sometimes grope you when the wave hits. Don’t get me wrong. If that’s what you want to do, do it. I’m just not interested in doing it myself—with any of the men who didn’t bother to ask me my name first.
I don’t want to give the impression that every Ghanian man is like this. That same day at the beach I had a wonderful conversation with a man. We talked about religion and African history. We talked about the tough balance between making money and getting an education and how reaching that balance differs in Ghana from the US. We talked about the myriad differences between the New Mexican desert and the Ghanian coast. He said he was glad we were friends. And then he left. No marriage proposals. No offers to help me swim. No invasion of my personal space. Yet the whole time I was waiting for it. When he left I was surprised it hadn’t come.
These kinds of encounters—the invasion of space/marriage proposal kind—are a large part of the experience of being a non-Ghanian woman in Ghana. Unfortunately, because so many of my interactions with men here are of this nature, it makes me distrustful of all interactions with men. So the few interactions that are not of this nature are tainted by those that are.