hen I was nine and living in Trinidad, my parents left my younger sister, Kemide, and me at home with the children of the couple they were about to mingle with at a nearby lounge. At about 10 p.m., the eldest kid in our group, Francine, 11, left the living room, where we were watching television, and headed for the bathroom. On her way, she glanced at the glass door opening onto our patio and, through the parted drapes, saw a hand. “Jorteh someone is out there,” she said, laughing nervously. “I see a hand!”
I drew the curtain and looked directly into the porch. There was no one there, but as I pressed my cheek to the glass to get a view of the periphery, I could see, approximately 10 feet to my right, a naked torso and an erect penis.
Terror spread rapidly amongst us: Francine, her brother Manzi, Kemi and I. The prowler disappeared briefly and then we saw his penis emerging through one of the ventilation holes on the other side of the living room. We screamed in unison, and screamed again and again as the man, saying nothing, repeatedly thrust his pelvis against the side of the house. In the midst of the chaos, the phone rang, but no one would dare answer it because the table where it sat was so close to the ventilation holes.
Then, suddenly, something happened inside me. I stopped screaming and I took a deep breath and placed one foot in front of the other. My legs felt like Jell-O and my heart pounded, but I got to the phone and picked up the receiver. It was a concerned neighbor. In a few minutes her husband arrived with the police, but the intruder was gone. The cops got my parents, and when she saw them, Kemi began to cry; I didn’t, but only out of respect for my dad. He didn’t like it when I cried, though he would have probably made an exception because of the circumstances.
My father suspected the trespasser was a neighborhood hobo, who regularly stole from our mango and orange trees. But the police couldn’t’ pursue him, they said, because none of us had gotten a good look at his face. Yet for me another mystery remained: What gave me the courage to act beyond my nine years and pick up the phone? The only answer I could conjure, for years afterward, was that I was trying to please my father and do what he would have wanted me to—what a real man would do. But that only led to another question: Why?
I had another friend when I was 12, a kid named Elliot, who had the kind of relationship with his father that was reminiscent of Cliff and Theo Huxtable, spending quality time together and sharing lots of laughs. Sometimes I would go to his house to watch Star Strek with him and his dad. Whenever Spock applied his Vulcan nerve pinch—squeeze to the collarbone area that would induce unconsciousness—Elliot would try it on his dad and vice versa, which led to a playful scuffle between the two. I felt like I was watching them on TV as they watched TV. It was unbelievable—because my relationship with my father, while it couldn’t be called bad, was nothing like that. The night the prowler appeared and for a long time afterward, I regarded my dad as an always-present but always-absent part of my life.
Emmanuel Senah, my dad, grew up in a culture where fathers loved their sons but it was the mothers that were “encouraged to do the soft things,” as he put it. The eldest of three boys and two girls, he was my grandfather’s favorite. My dad was so attached to my granddad that even at age nine, he would try to follow my grandfather to his job at a military base on Oxford Street in Accra. It drove my grandpa mad. Despite this ostensibly deep connection between father and son, my father said, as he got older, there was a line he couldn’t cross with his dad. “I would confide in my mother if anything, but not with my father,” he said. “We didn’t have the relationship that generated that type of closeness. Your children were your children, but in West Africa the father has to be a step away.”
Thus, it was one of the most challenging feats of my dad’s 40-year life when, in 1986 and ‘87, he took sole responsibility for raising my sister and me. He cooked, cleaned, gave three-year-old Kemi egregiously bad hairstyles and fulfilled whatever parental roles he had to. At the time, my mother, Allyson, was pursuing a