I didn’t notice the inside-out jersey or the sand lodged inside his ears. I heard English. JJ is fifteen and lives on the border between Togo and Ghana.
He spoke from afar, but the words “How are you” punctured through the French murmurs of the crowding children. We spoke for only a few minutes, but he managed to translate all the queries of surrounding friends. How old was I? Where was I from? Where do I live? After discovering we both lived in Ghana, he guided my hand into the crashing waves of the blue Gulf. He didn’t speak much, but he watched closely and latched onto my hip. He would steer me away from the ruder boys and grab my feet, mid-leap, while I body surfed the waves—burying us both into the sand like dead weights. I tried to explain that he needed to jump on his own for the trick to work, but my knees took multiple scratches before he willingly let go.
When an older, bearded man in his thirties tossed the children aside and suddenly grabbed me from behind, whispering that I was a “belle fille,” JJ pulled me away and walked me out of the water. A little distressed, I asked him why the man refused to listen. He shook his head and stammered apologetically. “He’s too serious. He’s too serious. That’s bad.” I wondered if he’d seen anything worse on those shores—a notion confirmed by a Ghanaian’s comment on local assaults.
I returned to my hotel shortly after, packed my belongings, checked out and sat down for my final lunch in Togo. Midway through my bread, I noticed JJ poking his head through the hotel gates. Mildly confused on how he found me, I walked outside. Standing next to a French-speaking man he claimed was his uncle, he shuffled his feet nervously. “I’m hungry.” He explained that his house was miles over the boarder in Lac Ouest and that he had no money. I gave him the extra bread, and the older man silently watched him eat. “Can I come with you to Accra?”
I told JJ that he obviously couldn’t and asked if his uncle knew his plans. He nodded. I then asked his uncle in French if he knew his nephew was trying to leave the country with me, and he nodded, as well. My eyes squinted in physical disbelief. JJ perceived my reaction to his uncle’s nonchalance and shrugged, his eyes drooping as his runaway scheme unraveled. He asked if I could take a picture of him before I left, and I happily obliged, jumping at the opportunity to lessen the budding pit of guilt in my gut.
I said my goodbyes, but he re-joined me alone as I began my hike to the border. He told me he spoke Arabic, English, French and the local dialect, and that his father died years before. We continued to speak and take pictures all the way into Ghana (though he didn’t carry a passport) and to the Tro Tro station, sipping on Fan Ice I bought from a street vendor. When we said goodbye, he hugged me tightly. My heart dropped as the van doors closed, and I rode away.
I have pictures of JJ on my Facebook, but I will never see him again. I will never know if his uncle pawns him off on another traveler or if his mother keeps food in their home. Some of my friends think JJ and his uncle were trying to play me, but I cannot forget the honest plea in his eyes or the lack of superfluous rhetoric. He wanted out and loved me for just wishing I could take him, for just being nice.