I went for a walk this evening just before the sun began to set. The air is still warm and dusty, but the heat of the day is fading, and people are returning home, or sitting outside their houses watching the world go by.
A team of boys play football every afternoon on the dusty football pitch down the road from the office, shouts and cheers rising in the dusty evening air.
A man gets his hair cut on the side of the road, wrapped in a floral sheet to stop the hair messing up his clothes.
A small girl peeks out from behind a doorway and watches me walk past.
And then a man stops me on the main road as I head back to the office. ‘You should never walk alone’ he says. ‘Two, even three, but never alone’. He continues his tirade as I continue walking. ‘There are good and bad. You never know’. I begin to wonder if he is the latter as he follows me down the road swerving dangerously on his bicycle. Eventually he tells me not to do it again and wobbles off down a side road.
I feel humiliated. I have been told off by a man on the street with two of his front teeth missing. Some men nearby ask me what he said, but I just give them a brief ‘bonsoir’ and return home. I feel angry and upset. I feel as if I have been grounded for having misbehaved.
There is a difficult balance between staying safe and staying sane. My desk is all of 17 steps away from my bed. If I don’t leave the office for a meeting during the day I find I don’t leave the compound at all. Except for my afternoon walk. With fewer visitors and a small staff team there is not always someone to accompany me. I never walk the same route, and never walk further than two blocks away from the office. Of course, I stick out like a sore thumb, and as a woman of course, I get more than a few cursory looks.
I don’t want to put myself in danger. I don’t want to do something stupid. But neither do I want to be shut up in a compound like a caged animal. Some of safety and security is knowing the area you are in, a lot of it is common sense. Some of it is down to who you are. I am sometimes very jealous of my male African colleagues.