"Sista, are you sure you're strong enough for Africa?"
WELL launches on November 7th! Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing scenes and quotes and stories from the book to give you a sneak peak. My trip didn't get off to a good start -- my driver got my flight details mixed up and ended up being three hours late. I had a tearful meltdown at the airport, which led to a woman sitting next to me asking, "Sista, are you sure you're strong enough for Africa?"
When I got to customs, I looked for a man fitting the description of the driver the missions agency told me would be picking me up: tall, broad shoulders, early forties, holding a Hospital of Hope sign. But he wasn’t there.
Once I had made it through all the checkpoints, I found myself in the airport’s “lobby,” which was a large open-air area with a roof, but no windows or doors. There was no air-conditioning, and the temperature was well over one hundred degrees.
I searched for the driver inside the lobby and, when I didn’t see him there, I went outside and looked for him at the passenger pickup area, and in the parking lot. There was no sign of him. With panic beginning to well up in me, I went back inside to figure out what to do next.
I didn’t know the name of the guesthouse where I was staying or how to get there. My cell phone didn't work in Togo, and the airport's WiFi was password protected. All I could do was wait. And pray.
I was the only white person at the airport, and the only woman traveling alone. I realized that the other travelers and the employees who ran the airport’s snack shop and currency exchange stand were all watching me.
A tall Togolese man tried again to carry my bag in exchange for a tip. I swatted him away, and then I began to perform evasive maneuvers, hiding behind concrete pillars, the ATM and the shoeshine stand to try to escape his notice. But he found me huddling behind a pillar, and grabbed my bag again.
This time I stood up, got in his face, and yelled, “No!”
He let go of my bag, and then held out his hand for a tip.
I shook my head. “No. I told you no at least ten times.”
He started yelling at me in French. His words were so loud and so fast, I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I knew he was angry.
Struggling with my heavy bag, I made my way outside where I sat on a bench and cried. The guy found me on the bench and continued yelling at me, holding his empty hand in front of my face, still demanding a tip for his services.
“No!” I jumped to my feet. By now I wasn’t just raising my voice at him; I was screaming and shaking my finger in his face. My heart sank at the realization that I had come to show compassion to the Togolese people and instead, here I was, screaming at a Togolese person in frustration and anger.
“Sista, can I help you?” I heard a woman ask in accented English.
I turned to see a stout fifty-something woman sitting two benches down, watching what was happening. I guessed she was from Ghana or Nigeria, nearby countries whose citizens spoke English instead of French.
“Yes!” I said, thankful for her offer. “Get this man to leave me alone.”
She leaped up, got in his face, and yelled at him in a dialect I didn’t understand. Whatever she said to him worked because moments later, he spit at my feet, stomped away, and didn’t come near me again.
“Thank you,” I said to the woman, grateful for her willingness to intervene.
She nodded. Then she said, “Sista, may I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said.
She surveyed me from head to toe, taking notice of my white skin, thin frame, and tear-and-sweat-stained face.
“Sista, if you don’t mind, are you sure you’re strong enough for Africa?”
I silently shrugged as I sank back down onto the bench and wiped the tears away.
I had been in Togo for less than an hour, and already I was having serious doubts.
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