The ship sailed from New York to Casablanca and then southward around the West African coast. Warm winds pushed us closer to the equator, where the air seemed thicker, and the sun burned hotter. Standing on the deck, my hair stuck to my neck, and beads of sweat formed on my nose.
We pulled up to the port in Guinea for a scheduled stop. If passengers wanted to tour the sights on shore, we were informed that we could disembark for the afternoon. The gangplank would not be lowered. Instead, we would have to take a rowboat to shore. I felt relieved and excited at the same time. The long metal ramp stretching like a bridge appeared insurmountable when we boarded in New York. My limbs trembled as I walked up the creaky metallic surface. Getting off the ship by way of a rowboat sounded like fun.
My four-year-old mind imagined it would be like eating cake, going merrily, gently down a stream—until I looked over the edge of the railing. A long ladder made of rope descended from the towering deck into a smaller vessel below. I glanced at Bertie only to see the same panic on her face.
Clinging to the arms that cradled me, we descended the ladder. My fingernails dug into his flesh, and my legs squeezed his midsection with the strength of a python. Bertie started to cry. Then I cried too. I’m not sure why we were separated from Daddy and Mommy—a Liberian couple accompanied us ashore. The rowboat chugged slowly through the waters until we reached the dock. From there, we took a taxi into the town.
Bertie and I walked alongside the friendly couple, our feet kicking up dust clouds on a road stretching endlessly ahead. The African soil looked nothing like the white snow I had held three weeks earlier, the day we left New York City. I squatted and patted my hands on the strange, orange soil. A powdery fog clung to me like a friendly ghost, covering the front of my dress, knees, socks, and shoes. The dust turned to mud as I touched my face. I couldn't stop playing in the warm dirt. I reached down again and again and grabbed fistfuls of the crimson clay.
Even after all these years, I can still hear the lady's voice when she jerked my arm to pull me off the ground.
"Get up. What ting happen to you? Your Ma will get vexed with me, oh."
I glanced over at Bertie. She was clean as a whistle. How did she escape the temptation? From the moment I caught a whiff of the chalky dirt, I couldn't help myself. Africa and I had embraced, and I knew we'd get along just fine.
Shy and ashamed, I walked in tearful silence until we returned to the vessel.
This first image of West Africa lodged in my mind would often repeat itself—me, covered in red clay, and some grown-up fussing about it.
Thanks for reading a draft excerpt from my WIP. See more excerpts HERE