Caligula and the missionary’s daughterpublished: 2009-08-31
The first official friend I made in Ghana was called Erika Smith. Her father was a missionary from the US. That’s all I really remember of him. At the age of 11, you never fully register parents. I remember her sisters though: the oldest one spent summers volunteering for the peace corps. I was shocked to discover hair sticking out the sides of her bathing suit. On asking my own sister what that was about, she explained the importance of shaving. And so it was that I learned about pubic hair, thanks to Erika Smith’s sister.
I never noticed anything specifically religious about Erika. We were interested in all the same things. For example boys. I once joined her family on a trip somewhere in the Volta region. Erika and I stuck to the outer boundaries of the hospital territory (put there by Christians) and stealing first kisses from the local boys. In my case Sam. I vividly remember 12-year-old Sam. He taught me what “making rough in the bush” meant. Perhaps he meant “love”, I’m still not sure. Sam once wrote me a letter. It was in a scratchy pidgin English. He said that he loved me and he wanted to live with us when we move back to Holland. Life seemed perfectly innocent then. What did I know?
A few weeks later, my sister discovered the book Caligula next to my dad’s bed. She read various pieces out to me. They didn’t excite me the way they seemingly excited my sister – it was all about snakes in strange places. My dad asked whether we happened to have seen his copy of Caligula? I sensed there was something secret about all this snake business in wet places and kept my mouth firmly shut. Then one day, Erika’s sister came by to hang out with mine. She talked politely to my parents. I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly Caligula fell out of her pocket, smack unto the tiled floor. My dad pretended not to see, but for years after that he loved recounting the anecdote of that missionary’s daughter who dropped his copy of Caligula. It was only when I saw the film, years later, that I realized why that was so funny.
I wondered about Erika Smith this evening. She and her family disappeared one day. Had she followed her family’s path or rebelled? I googled her name, not expecting to find anything. “Erika Smith peace corps.” The first hit google leads me to is one of Rev. Erica Smith. Maybe her name was spelled with a c, I’m not entirely sure. Rev. Erica Smith, “volunteer in the Urban Youth Development Program in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Associate Minister of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church. And there’s an envelop I can click on, that says, “contact this person.” Somehow, I can’t.