Africa is not a place for the weak. It is dangerous and unruly and poverty- stricken. The people make an average of $1.50 a day. It is a place where instinct defies logic. It must. It is survival. A tall white blonde woman from California has no business trying to fit into this way of life. But I was going to try to do just that.
I should have trusted my gut feeling immediately. The State Department, with all its rules, and protocol, was especially adept at making its diplomats feel a sense of loyalty toward its cause: by removing the individual from its environment and into a foreign place to serve as a liaison for information.
We looked rich compared to the native people. We were rich compared to native people. How was it that we lived in a compound larger than a village? The precedent that was set drooled of power. But, to me, it felt like it placed us in harm’s way. When I asked about the danger, the others scoffed. We were safe, they said. We were American.
However, I became apprehensive as I stepped into my new home. No one told me that there would be a panic room in my bedroom. I did not realize we would have a guard, glass shears pointing up from a barb-wired electric fence above our compound wall or three locks on the door. I felt I could trust no one; not the doctor at the embassy, not the other diplomatic wives and especially not the villagers working in my home. Trapped and powerless, I grew angry quickly. As always, anger turned into depression as depression usually does.
Diplomacy knows nothing about holding grudges. Yet, I was angry with my country for placing my family in a volatile environment. I felt a million miles away from those I loved and the truthfully, I was just that: a million miles away both physically and mentally.
It would have gone better if the neighborhood pharmacy did not sell valium over the counter. I honestly thought that I needed them to cope. After the shell shock of living abroad subsided, I became apprehensive that my husband would be traveling the majority of the time and that I would have to take random broken-down taxis to go everywhere with my two-year-old in tow. This was not going to work for me. But I did not know how to get out.
The most exciting upcoming event happened to be that my husband was turning fifty. However, he was scheduled to be in Nigeria. I insisted that we come because I did not want him to be alone on his birthday. While still living in the honeymoon phase of diplomacy, I was still a wee-bit trusting of the State Department to protect me.
When we landed in Nigeria, I learned quickly that the rule of thumb was to “duck and cover” inside the bullet proof Marine vehicle because Nigerians shoot white people. And we were rushed into the American hotel and being told clearly not to leave. I questioned why I came. But I was there and that was that.
After a nice meal for my husband’s birthday and several nights of good sleep we traveled with another doctor to Lagos. My family and I were to return to Accra. I did not feel relieved. I felt homesick. The Valium stopped working immediately and I was left to fend with myself against my anxiety. When I do not feel safe, my thinking changes. Everyone around me acted as if there was not a worry in the world. But I could sense trouble. Inwardly, I panicked and then it happened.
Boko Haram tried to blow up the UN in Nigeria. Eighteen people were dead. My husband was assigned to the situation as a crisis manager. We were escorted to the safety of the other doctor’s home while they both evaluated the destruction and if the other diplomatic families could go home.
My son and I were placed safely in a diplomat’s home where all the doors were barred shut and two large dogs could protect us. I slept mostly. Corey played with two boys that lived in the home. Finally, Steve arrived and we were going to be allowed to leave that night.
When I returned to Accra, I could not get the terrorist attack to leave my mind. I kept feeling the government did not have our backs. They would let us die. I did not care what anyone told me. I needed to get out of Africa and I needed to take my son with me.
My panic turned into a full-blown attack of anxiety that left me paralyzed. I continued to take the Valium but my anxiety did not lessen. When faced with the truth, the brain will go into fight or flight. I could no longer function. There was so much at stake. We had moved everything we owned to Africa. We had given up our cars and our friends and our life to serve this nation. But would this nation serve us? I knew it would not.
I convinced the State Department to send me home. By doing so, I had relinquished my medical clearance which would cause my husband to resign. I did not care. My safety and the safety of my child was all I could think about. I could tell that other diplomats felt I was weak as if a Scarlett “A” of sorts were tattooed on my soul. It hurt. But I could not stay. I lost control of my sanity and I needed to bear down into a cocoon of protection and security.
A year later Benghazi happened. And now more and more attacks occurred. My hunch was correct. The “War on Terror” was not over and they could not hide it forever. But in my opinion, they certainly tried.
In the end, I knew my gut feeling had been right all along. I was not safe in my travels abroad. But this mattered not, now. I was home. I was safe and I would always trust my sense of knowing where I was safe and where I was not, for the rest of my life. It was a valuable lesson to learn. My dignity was sacrificed to ensure my sense of well-being. My life was saved in return. I believe it was a fair trade. However, my world view darkened through that experience and it is only through my appreciation of the beautiful human spirit that I am persuaded to find pleasure on this earth.
Some may believe I was weak, but my character rescued me. Sometimes instinct is not pretty but such is life. And I am here to tell the tale so others may awaken their sense of self and know the world is not what it seems.