When I hear of violence in Abidjan, I think of Ghana's Cape Coast and Accra, just a few hours down the coast. When I hear of a damaged mosque, I think of the mosque just down the street from my home of two months, where little boys paused in their game of "football" to stare in curiosity at the "obroni" (that'd be me) walking by with a smile on her face and curious look in her eyes. When I see photos of youth in the streets - some wounded or killed, some actively taking part, some seeking refuge - I remember the Ghanaian youths I so often saw this past summer, selling plantain chips or groundnuts along the street or wearily manning phone credit stands, ranging in age from some 6 or 7 years to 20 and older.
I think of Simon, David, and Solomon, the young men who'd come to Accra in search of work and found themselves striving to sell their carvings and paintings in the local craftsmarket, telling me about how they came to the city and explaining the details of their trades before slyly asking for my number and inviting me out for drinks. I think of my friends and coworkers, or the young men who elected themselves my guides through the village of Aburi or on a hike through the canopy walk of Kakum National Park, young high school graduates or college students who grilled me about what the U.S. is "really" like or teased me about the World Cup, congratulated me when I was able to respond in the few rough phrases of Twi I'd picked up thus far.
I see all of these places and people and more. I can almost smell the spiced plantain frying along the side of the street at night, almost hear the incessant honking of tro-tros or the bustling of the market or Accra bus station. As I read and watch about the Ivory Coast, Ghana's next-door neighbor, I can't seem to get these faces and voices out of my head - and it makes the photos and clips that much more real, the numbers of those killed or wounded that much more poignant. That much closer to home.
When you visit a place, meet its people, speak with them, explore the country, it can no longer be a distant idea, just as those people can no longer be defined by numbers and statistics. You learn quickly that it isn't just "Africa," this distant and vast place you've only read about. The same goes for every place, but perhaps all the more so for the continuously generalized and misunderstood continent of Africa. Nearly every day, I'm that much more convinced that one must set foot in a place, listen to its citizens, before we can truly consider ourselves familiar with it. Not surprisingly, our perspective on the world tends to shift as we see more of it.