Classes at the Ghana International School started at 8 AM and ended at 1. When the final bell rang we pupils would stream out to the parking lot, where my mother's faded green Volkswagen was easy to spot in the sea of chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz come to pick up the privileged offspring of diplomats and executives. My younger brother and I would pile into the car - "I get the front seat!" "No way! You had it last time!" - and my mother would roar out of the parking lot.
At home we'd have lunch prepared by our "boy", Sebastian. Every morning he appeared at the back door, having commuted by bus from across town where he lived with his family in an enclave favoured by Nigerian expatriates like himself. He cooked our breakfast and lunch, cleaned our tiny bungalow, washed our clothes, and then headed back home. Sebastian himself was wiry and circumspect, bandy-legged and hardworking, and though we never met any members of his family, I always imagined his wife as one of those magnificently fat women I saw in the market, wrapped in colourful local cloth and yelling prices imperiously as they presided over a mini kingdom of peanuts and chiles, pineapples and papayas. I figure she and her elder children must have worked, for Sebastian's salary was modest and his family large: eight children when he first came to work for us, ten by the time we left two years later, he standing in the driveway waving with tears in his eyes.
The lunches Sebastian served up consisted of an unvarying set of dishes - lamb stew, chicken curry, shepherd's pie - that he had learned after years of serving colonials. Though these meals were more suited to damp British evenings than hot West African middays, we gobbled them down before gathering up our swimsuits and towels and heading off to the Riviera Beach Club.
Perched on the red cliffs overlooking the ocean, the club featured an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a snack bar which sold Fanta and hamburgers, and a few hotel rooms upstairs. Like many edifices in post-independence Ghana, it had an air of incompleteness; a few random pillars sprouting rebar stood on the veranda overlooking the pool, testament to some grandiose architectural plan now abandoned. But to us this was a second home, familiar and friendly and fun.
During the week the club was quiet, and we'd have the run of the place. My mother would swim dogged laps, up and down and up and down, while my brother and I splashed around in the pool or clambered down the cliffs to surf the polluted waves below. On weekends we shared the poolside with Accra's expatriate second tier: Lebanese import-exporters, American travelling salesmen, British old hands stayed on after Nkrumah took power. Most of my schoolmates had private pools at their palatial residences, but a few of the less wealthy kids from my school might be at the club too.
Our family was far richer than the majority of Ghanaians around us in Accra, but my brother and I were among the poorest children at the school: the Canadian University Service Overseas, with whom my mother was a volunteer, paid our tuition, for my mother could never have afforded it on her local-level salary. The Ghanaian children who were my classmates were among the elite of the country; their fathers had been educated at Oxford and Cambridge and were now ministers of government or ex-ministers languishing in jail after the latest coup. We never saw these kids at the Riviera Beach Club.
One overcast afternoon the pool was deserted except for a fat man whose name I have wiped from my memory. We knew him from the crowd of Arab businessmen who claimed a corner of the pool each Saturday and Sunday. Among his cronies was Aziz, an outgoing Algerian who regularly informed my mother that when I turned 16 he was going to come to Canada and marry me. I was 11, gawky and awkward, seemingly not an ideal candidate for a wife. When he made his declaration I would giggle and blush: I wasn't quite sure what he was talking about and didn't want to marry him, but I didn't really mind his teasing because he was our friend and we liked him. The fat man was one of the quieter ones; perhaps his English wasn't as good as Aziz's, or maybe he was just shy.
On this day he hung around the pool while my mother swam her laps and then, when she went up to shower, he was suddenly there beside me.
My brother was fooling around in the shallow end of the pool and I was hanging onto the side at the deep end when he swam over beside me and grabbed my foot and rubbed it on his crotch. I could feel something stiff beneath my foot and I squirmed; I didn't want to be doing this. He reached over and pushed my bathing suit bottoms aside and felt my labia; I was a little girl, pre-pubescent, with no pubic hair or breasts as yet. He rubbed his fingers across my labia and I felt strange and bad and scared. My brother had a ball; he called to get my attention and threw it for me to return. Somehow it was important to me that my brother not know what was going on, and I was proud that I could pick up the ball and return it to him just as if everything was normal. I reached down and pulled my bikini bottoms back in place, but the man still had my foot and I couldn't get away; he moved them aside again and touched me some more.
Even writing this I feel a bit nauseated, and it happened over 30 years ago.
I grabbed my chance as soon as it came: he let go of my foot and I shot up the ladder and out of the pool. I called to my brother, "I'm going to the change-rooms!" and ran up the stairs and away. My mother was there but I didn't say anything; I just had my shower and put on my clothes, and we drove home.
I put the whole incident out of my conscious mind.
Two days later my mother said, "Are you all right? You seem a little upset about something." At first I said that everything was fine, but when she pressed me a bit I dissolved into tears and said that that man had touched me in the swimming pool. I imagine her heart must have frozen with fear, but she asked me questions in a calm voice: where did he touch me? "Down there." Did he put his fingers in me? I didn't know quite what she meant (where would fingers go?) but I said no. Was I sure? Yes. Did he take his bathing suit off? No; but he rubbed my foot on "it" through the cloth.
She also assured me, again and again, that I had done nothing wrong. That I was a good girl, and he was the one who was bad. That he should never have done what he did. That it wasn't my fault. That she was sorry she had left me alone at the pool. That she wouldn't leave me alone there again, and she would never let him or anyone do anything like that to me again. That I was right to tell her. That if anything like this should ever happen again, I should tell her right away. I shouldn't keep it to myself. It wasn't my fault, he was the bad one, I was a good girl. She comforted me while I cried some more. I hadn't realized I'd been so disturbed by what happened, but recognized that I felt a lot better after our talk.
The next weekend she took me aside and told me that she had marched up to him at the pool, in front of all his friends, and told him that if she ever caught him near her daughter again, she would kill him. That made me feel a whole lot safer.
Sexual abuse of children, especially girl children, is not uncommon. What happened to me was mild in comparison to what happens to many girls and women, but it was traumatic nonetheless. An experience like this can scar a person and negatively affect with their intimate relations for life. But I was lucky. I see now that my mother dealt with this in the best way possible: first, by noticing that I was behaving oddly and asking about it, then by believing what I told her, checking all the facts, reassuring me, making me feel safe, and blaming him. And this in 1972, before molestation of children was even much talked about in public.
My mother had gone to Ghana a divorced mother fed up with working as a secretary in a small town and meeting her ex-husband and his new wife every time she went to the movies; she - and we - returned forever changed.
Within six months she was going under anaesthetic while doctors performed a biopsy on a lump in her breast; she woke up several hours later minus that breast and the lymph nodes under that arm. She had metastatic breast cancer. After a seven year battle with the disease, my mother died. I was 20 when I lost her.
I had not loved Ghana, and I had not loved my mother for taking me there. For years I resented her for causing what I saw as the loss of that time. It took me a long time to realize that the loss I had suffered was not the one I had imagined. Only after she was dead did I finally understand what a brave and wonderful woman she was, and how pivotal she was in making me who I am today. I'm sorry I never got the chance to tell her so in person.