You cannot explain Africa. To visit is to have all senses overwhelmed in one breath. Cattle bells ring on street corners and sunset-red dust scatters from taxis hurtling past. Women swathed in rainbow-coloured cloth sway with baskets of fish atop their heads, while others in their stilettos and trouser suits prance down the street. But if for a moment, you stop and look up, in the sun-drenched sky you’ll see the swoop of a lonesome African Eagle and hear its desolate cry.
This description does not do Africa justice. No magazine, book, or Hollywood blockbuster can truly describe it. Africa is simply the essence of life, unlike anywhere else on Earth. The only way to really understand it is to live it. The next best thing would be to somehow absorb someone else’s experience.
And someone has just put hers down in words. Art gallerist Christine Xuereb Seidu realised that a woman’s most honest sanctuary is her diary, and she has been publishing her own in her blog Documenting Ghana since moving to its northern region just a few months ago. She lives there now, with her husband and five-year-old child, after leaving what she describes as a complicated web of racism and corruption in Malta – as well as another 13-year-old daughter.
“I met my Ghanaian husband in Malta in 2010,” Christine begins. “He owned a shop in Msida. We got married in 2011, but due to family issues, we had to marry in secret.”
Members of her family didn't really acknowledge their relationship, she explains cautiously. To begin with, they had a good relationship with her husband, but then everything changed. “That’s ultimately why we moved,” she says.
People listen to people too much, unfortunately, Christine points out. “It happens a lot in Malta; people are very influenced by what others are saying. Maltese families are so close that parents often try to convince their children to live how they want them to live. It's overpowering.
“After all this,” she says, sounding slightly exasperated, “I had a bit of a wake-up call. It wasn't just members of my family; I started noticing it everywhere. Eventually, we found we just couldn't take the racism in Malta anymore. We decided that we would rather live happily somewhere else than go on suffering like this.
There was racism both against him and against us as a couple. I felt it more, because when I was with him, I could see that people were treating us differently
“There was racism both against him and against us as a couple. I felt it more, because when I was with him, I could see that people were treating us differently,” she adds.
Christine pauses, her gentle tone visibly shifting as she continues. “I raised my eldest daughter [from her first husband, who is Nigerian] by myself. I have been a single mother since 2004, with no support. People judge you a lot as a single mother, but it was the racism that really bothered me. A lot of Maltese mixed-race families often break up.”
Once they decided to leave, Christine says she went through the legal channels to ask how to go about taking her eldest daughter with her, but, she claims, obstacles were created “to make it seem as though we were planning to leave without my ex-husband knowing…
“We went to court in August and I assumed we would win…,” Christine says, claiming that the spokes in the wheels were set in motion to “stop my daughter from leaving with me in the hope that I wouldn’t leave Malta myself.
“But obviously, I wasn’t going to let that happen. So now, my daughter is with my mother and I support her with the little I have. It’s not easy, but thanks to Skype, we manage to communicate very often.”
It makes for difficult reading, doesn’t it? The lies, the deceit, the warring family… leaving a child behind. The difficulty of that decision can be seen in Christine’s eyes. But is this only a short-term solution?
“I’m waiting until 2019, as my daughter’s passport is held with the police for a whole year. Then I hope to try again with the courts… Nothing made sense,” she claims, referring to the first time around.
Christine is hoping things may change, but she also knows her daughter is getting a good education in Malta. “So,” she pauses, “I suppose I don’t mind. What I don’t like is that someone else has decided my daughter’s future when I have been her sole carer all these years. With all this corruption, it was just another reason for wanting to leave.”
As for actually getting away: “We didn't tell anyone; we put our things in a container and got ready to go. We couldn’t even tell my mother… so the family only found out when my husband sold his business. He left a few months earlier, so that when I arrived with our younger daughter, we could settle in straight away.”
Christine suddenly smiles. “My youngest is really enjoying it over here,” she says. “She’s at school and has the freedom to play and get dirty; not just hang around the house and get bored. She and her friends play in our small street, with all the neighbours around.”
The conversation turns to her blog, which details a mix of the mundane that all families across the world can relate to, such as cooking, picking kids up from school and frustrations with transport.
Yet, interspersed within that normality are descriptions and photos of a culture completely foreign to ours, and her trial-and-error approach to embracing it; what should be worn at local celebrations and feasts; and translations of cooking rituals from her mother-in-law, for example, who, incidentally, and unusually for Ghana, speaks no English.
Ironically, despite the fact that the official language is English, with so many cultural differences, Christine often finds that being fully understood is still a problem. “I am learning my mother-in-law’s tribal language,” she says. “It’s also good to be able to greet people in their language; it shows that I am making an effort to fit into the community.
“We live in my husband’s family compound, and around us is a lot of farmland, mainly cattle and crops.
My husband has seven acres of land on which he farms, as well as other businesses. As for myself, I teach at an academy where they encourage entrepreneurship. Ghana is an entrepreneurial country; jobs are hard to come by so people tend to create their own.”
Christine talks also about the similarities between Ghana and Malta.
“I'm actually seeing too many similarities, including partisan politics and corruption,” she says, adding that “if someone witnesses a crime such as theft, they will take it upon themselves to give the thief a good beating, because the police here are mostly corrupt and accept bribes.”
As for her day-to-day routine: Christine gets around by catching a nahi – a three-wheeled taxi, more commonly known as a tuk-tuk. “On my way home from work, I stop at the market and buy what I need. It’s hard to find most things I’d use back in Malta, but I am slowly discovering places. Otherwise, I’m cooking and eating mostly Ghanaian dishes.
There isn’t much to do around here, but with all the activities, weddings, festivals, naming ceremonies, you’re never bored.”
A woman’s voice interrupts our FaceTime conversation. She can faintly be heard asking to be friends with Christine and numbers are swapped. I brace myself. My experience of living in Africa taught me that Christine should grab her things and run. But no, this woman takes down her number and lends Christine a phone charger before cheerily carrying on her way.
“Making friends here is way too easy,” she says. “This happens a lot, and children often call out: ‘White lady, how are you?’ I have met some inspiring people at my work too and I’m grateful to the expat community; we meet once a week. I’ve always been interested in different cultures, so even just walking around the markets every day is exciting. The way people dress, the way they sell their stuff…” She drifts off, smiling at the thought.
So, is she happy in what could be an alien world for many? Christine nods. “I’m happy. I’ve never had any problems here, although there are still some cultural differences to overcome. But I have planned long term, so I’m investing in it. What happens next, I don’t know… I’m hoping that at least my daughter will come and stay with us in summer and then perhaps go back for school.
I don’t see why not,” she says hopefully. “If she can spend three months with us here, I’m just hoping for that…”
Christine looks warmly at her surroundings, but despite her happiness, you can sense what keeps pulling her back. “I always wanted to move to Africa,” she says. “I just thought it would have been after the kids would have gone to school; once they had graduated, they could have moved here if they wanted to. It just didn’t work out. I mean, I’m happy as well; it’s just… it’s my eldest daughter. So long as I can have those three months a year with her, at least. For her education, it’s better that she’s over there anyway. And maybe when she’s 18, she can decide, as universities are good here too.”
The torment of a mother separated from her child is hard to ignore. Yet here she is, making the best of her new life and laying it all bare in her blog. Scrolling through her posts, you can see her strength, not least to brave the dreaded judgement of internet trolls.
As the conversation ends, Christine quickly spins the camera around to show the street in front of her. There it is, enigmatic and indescribable. The red dust roads and fresh, barely dried concrete buildings; a strange mix of poverty and money, nature and city, all in one focus of a camera lens. It’s pointless trying to explain its mystifying allure. Just go. Or if not, read Christine’s blog.
This story appeared in the February edition of Pink magazine.
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