Is there Water in your Jail?
a story by Ronke Luke
What a Day!
A cold shower in Africa never felt so good. Geena stood, eyes closed, face upturned, towards the rush of water that swept the red dust off her body. What a day, she thought.
Air-conditioned Jeep is better
Geena and James had arrived in Monrovia just before 5 pm. The receptionist had swept a disapproving look over them as they walked across the lobby.
Hhmm! Poor white people.
“Welcome to the Crystal Hotel” she said. “I hope you had a good trip?”
There are two types of white travelers in Africa; those who travel in air-conditioned comfort, wearing brand-name outdoor fashion, and the others. Geena and James belonged to the others. Geena had noticed the receptionist’s disapproving look. We must be a sight.
They were. Geena was a cheerful plump brunette. Dismissive about fashion, comfort was her thing. The large-floral-patterned, cotton, sleeveless dress she wore was an ill choice. It added phantom pounds she didn’t need. Geena carried herself easily, her legs and heart didn’t labor under her weight. She and James wore sandals. He wore his with socks. His yellow, green and orange African print shirt clashed with Geena’s dress. The pockets on his cargo shorts bulged with all the essential stuff he thought best carried on his person rather than in luggage. At five feet ten James was taller than Geena, but her width erased his height advantage when they stood side-by-side. He had shed pounds in Africa from the heat and walking. Geena’s pounds seemed resistant, but she wasn’t gaining weight so she didn’t fret about it.
“Exhausting trip,” Geena said smiling at the receptionist. “We’re glad our taxi made it here. Seven hours over land from Sierra Leone in that thing deserves some type of medal. Can’t wait to take a shower.”
“Oh! You’ve come from Sierra Leone.” The receptionist looked past them as she said “Welcome to Liberia.”
James followed the receptionist’s gaze to the beat-up taxi still parked at the front entrance. “Amazing thing,” he said. “Remarkable we didn’t breakdown! Hats off to the mechanics.”
“Air-conditioned jeep is better you know,” the receptionist offered.
“Well we’re here,” Geena said. “Looking forward to my first visit to Monrovia.”
There was no highway connecting the two countries. Instead the trip was along narrow unpaved laterite roads. The terrain changed often from patches of smooth surface to bumpy, stone-riddled roads that couldn’t be traversed with great speed. By western standards, their taxi wasn’t road worthy. But African mechanics kept jalopies running. Only essential parts - breaks, gears, clutch and the likes - needed. Manual hand signals substituted for indicators once they stopped working. Expensive items, think shock absorbers, weren’t replaced. So, every bump or hard turn in the road rattled their bones. There was no air-conditioning either. Geena and James faced the full blast of tropical heat and red laterite dust the tires kicked up. By the time they walked into the Crystal Hotel lobby, their dust-covered bodies ached and glistened with red-tinged sweat.
A Room with a View
Check-in wasn’t quick. The receptionist busied herself with nothing.
Why hurry for people who wouldn’t tip.
She shifted through a stack of papers searching for Geena and James’s reservation. James was patient. Geena cleared her throat and suggested the receptionist look again.
“Ah! Here’s your reservation. Hhmm.”
“What?” James asked.
“Your room is street facing.” The receptionist shuffled through more papers. “Let me check our availability. Ah! I can get you a beach-facing room facing for $15 fee. I really suggest it” she said smiling at James.
“Sure,” he replied.
“Fee?” Geena asked.
The receptionist ignored the question. James didn’t suspect the ruse.
“Great! I’ll make the upgrade.” The receptionist avoided eye contact with Geena as she took the $15 and handed the room keys to James. “Room 315. Enjoy your stay.”
James was happy to get the beach-side room. Geena was happier the elevator worked so they didn’t have to lug their luggage up three floors.
The room was clean with all the basic amenities expected at a mid-tier African hotel. Geena and James had decided to travel as much as they could during their time in Africa. Like any twenty-something year olds their budget was tight, but hotels were their little luxury on these trips. They couldn’t afford air-conditioned travel, but rented taxis because they were quicker than buses. Sinking into a comfortable hotel bed after a bone-rattling trip was reward for the soul. It was also part of James’ personal security strategy as a westerner in Africa. He figured mid-market hotels would be safer than budget accommodations.
Geena was a white African; third generation South African. She didn’t always agree with James’s cautions about safety in Africa. Although she was about 13 when her family left in protest of apartheid, she had remained deeply connected to the continent that first shaped her childhood. Finally, giving in to her yearning, she dropped out of her PhD in Canada and returned to Africa to find herself. She had met James during an impromptu visit to Sierra Leone and stayed.
James loved being in Africa but he didn’t agree with Geena’s blanket views that they were safe everywhere simply because they were good human beings. As much as they’d try to get the most local experience, he wouldn’t compromise on where they stayed. Crystal Hotel fit the bill.
James crossed the room to the window. “Great view of the beach! Upgrade was worth it”
“Upgrade seemed dodgy.” Geena commented as she joined James taking in the view of the beach. “I can’t wait to take a dip tomorrow.”
“Sleep in. Mark won’t be pick us up until afternoon,” James said. “Looking forward to seeing him again.”
Geena headed for the bathroom. “Shower time.”
James thoughts drifted to Mark. They had gone to college together. After graduation, James had gone to Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps; Mark to Monrovia.
Oh! You did not ask
“What! Damn!” came a shout from the bathroom. James turned. Geena stood, still fully-clothed, in the bathroom door.
“I can’t believe this!”
James looked at her with a quizzical expression.
She stormed out of the room, took the stairs in twos to the lobby. It was faster than by lift.
“There’s no water in our room!” he heard Geena shout as he arrived in the lobby.
The receptionist arranged a neutral look on her face: “Oh! Yes. The city shut off the water to this area.”
“You didn’t tell us this when we checked in.”
“You did not ask madam.”
“What? I expect a hotel to have water. Why would I ask?”
“I don’t know,” the receptionist replied. “Maybe you want to wash?”
Geena shut her eyes and took a deep breath. James now stood at her side.
“When. Will. The water. Come. Back. On?” she asked struggling to remain calm as she re-opened her eyes.
“I don’t know, Madam. Sometime today. That, I can say for certain.”
Geena turned to James “Oh come on! Let’s go to the beach.”
The receptionist shrugged. White people.
You can’t do that!
Annoyance propelled Geena’s stocky legs, sweeping her over the sand. “Moron,” she muttered. Her heart did double time to her legs as her head thundered with murderous thoughts of the receptionist. Stupid woman. I could have slapped her. Should have slapped her.
“Wait! Wait Geena. What are you doing?”
She finally turned and waited for James, head cocked to the right. Her generous bosom rose and fell to her still rapid breathing. She patted her left chest with her fleshy right hand urging her heart to return to its resting beat. Her brain, conditioned to keeping up with Geena, rushed blood to her head to keep her from keeling over. She had no spells of lightheadedness.
“What are you doing?” James repeated once he caught up.
“I’m going to wash this red dust off me in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s what I’m going to do,” she replied matter-of-factly as though he’d asked a silly question
“You can’t do that! Salt water and dust? You’ll have a sticky mess on your skin. Let’s call Mark. I’m sure we can shower at his place.”
I could arrest you!
“Hey! Hey!” came a shout from Geena’s left. “Hey!” They ignored it while they argued about the merits of rinsing off in the sea.
“You! Hey you!” the voice got sharper. Suddenly the shouting burst into their awareness. Geena and James turned immediately to see whence the shouting originated.
Two men stomped through sand towards them. Police or a para-military Geena concluded as she took in their uniforms. Not green fatigues so she dismissed army or military. They look ridiculous the way they are walking Geena thought. Who marches through sand? James stiffened. Geena turned to squarely face the men who were now within six feet. Her cotton dress fluttered in the evening breeze.
“What are you doing here?” bellowed the first security men waving his automatic rifle in a sweeping movement taking in the sand and sea. AK-47, Geena thought as she followed the gun’s arc.
“What is your name?” demanded the second security officer as he glared at James.
“James Crawley.” James’ steady voice did not belie his nervousness. A run in with African security was not on his bucket list. How could he prove who they were? Their passports were in Room 315. Geena had not replied, he noticed.
“Why are you breaking curfew?” the first security officer barked at them.
“Curfew?” James replied.
“Yes. Curfew!” the first security officer shouted. “Starting at 6 pm! Now it is 6:17 pm!” he said waving his watch.
“I can arrest you now, now!” the second officer interjected, pointing his left index figure at them in rhythm with the words “now.”
“The jail is not far,” the first security officer added waving his AK-47 in a direction ahead of him, somewhere behind Geena. “Right behind here is the jail.”
James stood, conscious to avoid sudden moves, paying keen attention as befits any encounter with men carrying automatic rifles. Geena shifted her weight to her left leg, and planted her dust-coated hand on plump left hip. James cringed. “Don’t move,” he hissed under his breath. Geena twisted her thick waist to the right as she followed the rifle over her right shoulder in the general direction the officer pointed.
“Is there water in your jail?” Geena asked looking back at the officer, while she waved her right thumb over her shoulder.
“What?” replied the first security man.
“Is there water in your jail?”
James' jaw tightened, his mouth dried. We’re done. Who asks such a question?
“Of course, there is water in the jail!” came the reply.
“Right!” replied Geena. “Arrest me! Right now. Let’s go!” She wheeled around on her chunky right leg and started off in search of the jail.
Stupefied, the three men stood rooted where she left them.
No one spoke. They watched Geena as she powered away. Her pace belied her plumpness.
The second security man recovered first. “What kind of woman is this?” he shouted at James, waving his semi-automatic rifle at Geena.
James shrugged. Without replying he turned to follow Geena. “Wait! “Geena wait!”
The two security men ran behind “Hey! You! Hey! Hey! Wait! Hey You!! Wait!”
Geena stopped and turned. Her chest heaved as she caught her breath waiting for them to catch up. She lit into the security men. “Look, I’ve just travelled seven hours by road from Sierra Leone. I’m tired and dirty. All I want is a shower. The hotel has no water. So, I was going to rinse in the sea. You come and interrupt. You want to arrest me? Fine. Let’s go! I can shower in your jail.”
Not interested in any reply, Geena started to turn.
The security man lunged and grabbed her left arm, his fingers digging into the fleshy triceps. “Madam! You cannot go to jail to have a shower. I am taking you back to your hotel. Let’s go!”
“Which is your hotel?”
“Crystal” James offered.
Still holding her arm, the security man steered Geena her towards the Crystal Hotel.
Yes Sir! Of course!
The receptionist stiffened as Geena and James returned escorted by police.
Poor white people now with police problems. More hassle tonight.
“Good evening officer, Sir! How can I help you?” the receptionist said feigning nonchalance.
“Do you have water in this hotel?” The security man’s tone suggested trouble depending on the nature of her reply.
“Oh, yes Sir! Of course, we have water in this hotel!” She did not add that the water had come back on less than 10 minutes before.
“See madam, of course there is water at the hotel. Why would you want to shower in the jail?”
Geena glared at the receptionist.
Now in full civic-duty mode, the security men offered cheerily “Madam, you should have a shower at the hotel tonight. Rest. Tomorrow you can fully enjoy the beach!”
Geena turned her glare on the two security men. “What?”
“Thank you, officers!” James replied as he hurried Geena towards the elevator.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.