Out of Africa: When you're traveling on 9/11

"Is a good time not to be in America, yes?" said the taxi driver.

We were speeding through the streets of Cape Coast, Ghana, where the residents' command of English is often as potholed as the highways. I was used to getting questions about America, but this one had me perplexed.

"Is a good time not to be in America, yes?" he asked again, glancing over to see the uninflected blankness of my face. He suddenly looked away and lowered his eyes as he realized that he'd drastically miscalculated in his attempt at conversation.

I hadn't understood the question because I hadn't heard the news. It was September 11.

***

Being a white man in West Africa makes you something of a celebrity. People always want to stop to chat, and you can't walk anywhere without a sizable escort of local kids with little better to do than win your affection. But as I walked to my lodgings that day from the taxi stop, everyone kept a distance. Soccer games stalled, laughter ceased, pitying gazes were long and frequent. I'd see dozens of people clustered around a single outdoor television– the lone television station was feeding CNN– but I couldn't stand the thought of watching it.

It was clear to me that this was the single most important moment in our societal evolution of my lifetime thus far, and that, blessedly or not, I was missing it. I felt like I was cheating. Such sadness and misery were going on at home, and I was safely tucked away from it all. Engulfed in a tide of guilt and impotence, I went to my room and threw up.

I started making daily pilgrimages to the only store in town with internet access. Through moist but relieved eyes, I learned by trickles and spurts that my family was fine, my friends were fine, and that people were getting by as best they could. America the Resilient. I started taking long walks and often found myself at the Atlantic, facing north-northwest and feeling very far from home.

I didn't know it at the time, but I wouldn't see an American for another six weeks.

During that time, I traveled through Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali, the latter two of which are heavily Muslim. Most of the time, I was treated with generosity and respect, although there were notable exceptions. It seems like a dream from a David Lynch film now, but I was stuck at one point on a bus full of Malians chanting at me, "Osama! Osama!" Shortly after that, the immigration officer at the Burkina Faso border (Burkina Faso means, ironically, "Land of the Incorruptible") held my passport for a steep ransom solely on the grounds that I was an American.

I was browsing in the central market in Ouagadougou, hoping to find an herbal remedy for my lingering malaria side effects when I heard a commotion. I didn't speak a lick of French or Mossi, but when an enraged local came charging at me with his fist raised, shouting something about George Bush, I didn't need a translator to tell me I was in for it. As I dove behind a cluster of mopeds, a crocodile skin salesman came to my rescue and took my assailant to the ground.

"Why don't you just say you're Canadian?" some one suggested.

It made a lot of sense and certainly would have spared me an uncomfortable situation or two. But at that moment, I felt something strange– something I'd never felt before. Looking back, I think it was a Grinch-like epiphany. Maybe my capacity for appreciating the ol' U.S. of A. had been indeed three sizes too small, and it had just ballooned.

I was born in the U.S. My grandparents' grandparents were born here, too. But it took being away for me to realize just what it feels like to be American.

***

My parents both remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned of President Kennedy's assassination– I think everyone sentient at the time remembers.

Ever since I was old enough to understand the idea of collective consciousness, I'd wondered what the common-denominator experience would be for my generation. I can recall where I was for a lot of things– the Challenger explosion, the O.J. verdict, and, in particular, Tupac's untimely demise. But none of them come close to September 11. Nothing does, nothing can.

Which is why I can so lucidly relive that singular taxi ride where I first heard the details of the attacks from a fellow passenger who filled me in as best she could. After I'd had a minute to try and absorb it all, the taxi driver, whose voice had now assumed an empathetic hush, repeated his cautiously assembled question for a third time: "Is a good time not to be in America, yes?"

"No," I thought, choking down what was to become a semi-permanent knot in a nation's throat. "It's the worst time to be away."

James Graham studies architecture at UVA.