To each his own ignorance

Night has fallen on the banks of the Gambia River. After a 6am start, a 4-hour road trip, and a 10-hour shoot, I am finally getting ready for bed on the second floor of a compact motel-like guesthouse along the riverside. It’s surrounded by the darkness of a huge dirt lot, which is in turn enclosed by a concrete wall. A few minutes’ walk beyond that is the small town where we have been filming all day.

I hear a knock at the door and a male voice asks, “Hello, how are you?” Thinking it might be the manager, I answer, “I’m fine. Can I help you?” The response is, to an almost comical degree, exactly what a woman alone in the middle of nowhere never wants to hear: “I’m a stranger. I want to talk to you. Are you busy?” He then jiggles the door handle. Thankfully, I’ve remembered to lock it.

While I anxiously anticipate the worst in nearly every situation, when faced with actual danger I become cool as a cucumber. Apparently in addition to fight or flight there is a freeze mode, and it’s the stress response I default to. For example, years ago in Austin, I walked into my house just as a robber was walking out, and I convinced myself that he was my roommate’s gardener. If he hadn’t threatened me with a knife – which I had earlier mistaken for pruning sheers – I would have offered him a glass of water. It was only later, after the police showed up, that I started shaking.

So when a creepy guy tries to barge his way into my room in rural Gambia, I don’t really react except to say, “Yes, I’m busy, please go away.” And he does. When my Gambian colleague stops by my room later, I tell her to keep an eye out for weirdos, and she reports my story to the watchman, who assures us that he will patrol the grounds all night and we have nothing to worry about.

And yet, as I’m about to get into bed, something starts rustling by my front window. I open the curtains and nothing’s there, except for a few iron bars running lengthwise across the window. It comforts me to know that no strange man will be climbing into my room that night.

I turn off the light and crawl under my ill-fitting mosquito net into the bed, only to hear the rustling again, now at both the front and side windows. It sounds like a very loud roosting bird, and I try to ignore it… until there’s a huge thump at the front window, which shakes the walls and startles me into a sitting position that tangles me up with the mosquito net. It’s like being caught in a spider web but I finally make my way out of bed and to the window, just in time to see the hulking butt of some nefarious-seeming creature receding slowly into the darkness beyond the security light. It could be a dog, or a monkey, or something else entirely. I wonder if and how and why it could possibly have bashed itself against my second-floor window.

“Well,” I think, “it’s gone now, and the night watchman is on guard.” I go to sleep. Six hours later, around 4:00am, I wake with a start. The rustling is back. This time it’s accompanied by extremely loud, extremely deep guttural grunts and snorts that make the thing seem much bulkier and scarier than I had previously envisioned. At one point I hear the sounds at both windows and realize there is more than one of them. I’m now sitting straight up in bed with that stupid net in my face, when I hear a particularly strong series of grunts followed by what I am sure are the death throes of a pathetically bleating donkey. Oh god, I think, these things have killed something right outside my window.

Are they hyenas? Warthogs? Are there baboons in The Gambia?

Then the rustling gets nearer and I am sure that one of them is climbing up a tree to get to my window. I don’t remember seeing a tree outside the building but I can’t be sure.

I convince myself that it has somehow smelled the tightly wrapped food near the open window, and that it is coming for it. Then I convince myself that it has somehow smelled my female self, and that it is coming for me, King Kong style. Then I convince myself that it is a creature from the river, the Gambian version of the Loch Ness or that thing on the plane’s wing in The Twilight Zone movie.

I’m not sure how many grunts and groans I hear before sheer exhausted terror overwhelms me and I thrash around with the mosquito net until it’s off and I can leap out of bed to go hide in the bathroom (whose light is not working, incidentally). Every time I hear another rustle my mind wanders further and further from sanity until I am sure that the creature possesses the ability and cunning to become invisible to the night watchman, because where is that guy when I need him?

Finally the rustling stops, and after waiting twenty minutes I crawl back in to bed… only to be awoken by the same thing an hour later, and an hour after that. Its effect weakens each time I hear it, not only because I realize that if this thing possessed the ability to get to my room it would have done so already, but also because sleep brings me back to my senses and leaves me incredulous that I could have behaved so absurdly.

At first light, I wake up to the rustling again, and this time I run to the window so that I can scope out whatever has been terrorizing me all night. Instead I see the night watchman holding a rock and lying in wait. Well, that would explain the huge thump on my window the night before. It seems the watchman just has bad aim, or maybe he purposefully threw high in order to avoid hurting the intruder. The intruder, it turns out, is a little black goat.

A little black goat.

When I leave the hotel later I see it up close, rooting around in the bushes by the side wall. (There are no trees anywhere near this wall; you’d need a ladder to get up to either of my windows from there.) I hear the goat grunt and in the light of day it sounds adorable and harmless, albeit like a mini-lion. On the way past the neighboring property I hear the donkey that I thought was being massacred in the front yard the night before, and I realize that donkeys bray like they’re dying simply as a matter of course.

I am both mortified and intrigued by my hysterical idiocy. It was timed just right to teach me a valuable lesson about ignorance and empathy.

I was in The Gambia to do a video about female genital mutilation, or FGM. It’s not hard for me to understand why local people might support this traditional practice. They believe it keeps women clean, pure, well-behaved, non-promiscuous. My own culture emphasizes the same values; it just enforces them differently. So, I can grasp that line of reasoning, but what I have always had trouble understanding – and what I had been struggling with that day – is how people fail to connect the dots between circumcision and complications like bleeding to death, infections, painful sex, and obstructed labor. Rather than putting two and two together when these things happen, people often blame sorcery or witchcraft. I’ve tried to imagine myself having little formal education, no knowledge of germ theory or human anatomy, and similarly unschooled religious and cultural leaders as my most trusted guides. In those circumstances, might I believe that getting lockjaw after being cut with a rusty razor was the result of a curse and not tetanus? Might I believe that Ebola was a government conspiracy instead of a real virus? Might I be scared of albino children if I didn’t have a clue about how genetics (let along genetic mutation) works? Until the night of the Gambian bogeyman that was actually goats, I suffered from a failure of imagination. I could never get beyond the conviction that no amount of ignorance would make me that, well, ignorant.

It turns out I was very wrong. Though I may be well-educated and in possession of finely tuned reasoning and critical thinking skills, I’ve got a whole mess of my own kind of ignorance just beneath the surface. It’s the ignorance of someone who has spent very little time in the non-urban, non-industrialized world. It’s an ignorance that the local people would laugh riotously at, because they could never be spooked by the easily recognizable sounds of their animals.

When my particular ignorance combined with fear, threat, and exhaustion, I was just as prone to magical thinking as anyone else. It’s no wonder, really, that when bad things happen and their cause is unclear, distress and panic leads humans – including the very human me – to believe in all sorts of nonsensical things.

Lesson learned. I’ve been checking myself with the memory of the Gambian bogeyman every time I feel a tug of condescension at other people’s fear-instilled beliefs. Though the beliefs may not make sense, I now viscerally know that the belief in them does.

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