I travelled with two bags – a backpack and knapsack – containing some clothing, toiletries and my laptop computer from Accra. I arrived at the Amsterdam Airport Schipol and made a relatively smooth transition through Customs and Immigration to the baggage claim and exit area. On my way out of the airport – burdened with anxieties of finding a currency exchange shop and following detailed directions to my destination in a place I had only set foot in for the first time – I encountered a security guard at the exit who stopped and asked what seemed to be routine questions about where I was coming from and where I was heading to. He noticed that I was not carrying any more luggage than the ones slung on my left shoulder and another I carried on my back so he requested to know the purpose of my visit to Holland. After I responded he quizzed how long I was staying in Amsterdam to which I responded “five days”. I could sense he had more questions but reluctantly asked me to go after this.
I exchanged some foreign currency, found the vending stations for train tickets and purchased a one-way ride to the Central Station. On boarding the train I met Patrick in the lower cabin. He was from Burundi. He has lived in Amsterdam for 14 years. Our conversation began with me asking him if this (the train we were on) was the right one to the Amsterdam Central Station to which he affirmed. In the course of our conversation, he asked which country I was coming from and why my host did not arrange an airport pick up. I narrated my 12-hour flight issues and expressed that the institution hosting me was confident that I could not do bad by the specificity of directions they had sent me.
He reminisced with me about his last visit three weeks ago to Africa; of his rough slum/ghetto background. Right then he – as like the security guard at the airport – also seemed curious about my luggage and asked how long I would be staying. I told him. He scuffed and told me that it was okay and that he understood the drill. I did not have to worry about him judging me, he said. He knew about Africans who come in with the same narrative and so on that end up caught up in the system. At this point I conjectured that the basis of his certainty could only be emanating from his biological relationship to the Africa he spoke of coupled with other examples he might have experienced (his own story in Amsterdam perhaps inclusive). I tried to make him see that my reasons for travelling to where he now makes his home is very different but he was set in his preconception of who I am (or ought to be) and in that moment I realized there was nothing I could say which could break through the traps of his stoicism.
I had wanted to ask Patrick if by Africa he meant Burundi in the many times he used the epithet when speaking of his experiences back in his country – he spoke of his experiences as if I ought to have shared them. He spoke of his reasons for leaving home and settling in a foreign land as if it were unequivocally true for all who fit in the bracket of his conception of Africa[n] to espouse.
I had wanted to express these thoughts to Patrick: that even though I shared the geographical section of the world he is from, I was equally quite skeptical to affirm the assumptions he was making in his mindless cascade of rhetoric; that after living in my own distinct region on the continent I could, at least, discuss the nuances peculiar to our cultural dispositions or ideas and that, yes, there was a commonality that could only be made meaningful through recognizing our uniqueness and articulating ourselves from those positions; that he spoke of a half-truth of our shared postcolonial realities of migration and history serves as a good reference point for the age-old relationship between the settler and the native; that in some instances a co-relation has been possible and in others horrible stories were documented. I had wanted to reproach him for accepting and internalizing a story – one that has been systemically composed into a worldview that excludes him and which produces, shapes and dictates the terms on which he forms an interpretation and understanding first of himself and then of the world around him.
I wondered what Patrick’s ontic referent for the identity he so carelessly invoked was since he spoke of it so objectively but I did not ask him any of the questions riddling my mind. When the subject of history came up in my head I found my reason retorting immediately with the questions “What History?” “Whose History?” “Whose/Which version?” Instead I found myself paying attention to his every word and firmly but quietly disagreeing with him. He seemed a good man. We walked to find Tram 9 after our train ride. Thereafter we bade each other goodbye and I was by myself in my seat with many things on my mind. I arrived in my room exhausted and slumped into bed.
On waking up the following morning, while sitting at the table to do some work, I heard a voice that sounded familiar. I immediately checked myself because I was unaware of anybody I would know prior to staying at this place. And so I listened again. Then I realized that it was not a familiar voice but rather a familiar language; one that I know not to be from here. I heard this man speaking from outside of my door to another person about their dog and something that had happened to it. Alarmed, I raced to the door and opened it. I saw a man wearing a pair of gloves and holding a plastic bag full of things that looked like had been thrown away. He was wearing a hands-free device and had been talking on the phone. He approached and asked me in English if one of the items he had intended to collect into the plastic bag was mine. Knowing he was the man I’d heard from my room I responded to his question in Twi. An intimacy descended from nowhere between us and we conversed briefly for I had only a short time after which I needed to return to my desk to finish off some writing.
These thread of events, seemingly unrelated, work together for me to produce potent thoughts on myriad questions on the self and its fluxed modes of construction. A friend of mine, on the question of healing and/or repairing a broken past talks of acquiring the necessary spiritual tools from which one can begin the journey of learning and applying the knowledge learned of their cultural past. I encountered a cynic whose view of others only made sense when it conformed to his own ideas. I met another who through language offered me a warm and intimate moment of interaction. I take it all in with luggage and the train as the overarching metaphors.