It’s another way of life.

Monday, August 1.

It takes 12 minutes for the Gautrain high-speed rail line to connect arrivals at OR Tambo International Airport with Johannesburg’s high-rise business hub, Sandton, and about half that time for my carefully laid plans of recent months to get entirely upended.

I’m not exactly caught off-guard by any of this. I had spent the past week in Accra thinking about the future, wondering if the story line I’d plotted for myself just a few weeks ago was a convincing one. There would be my dramatic return to Joburg – a few frenzied weeks of boozed-up reunions and binge shopping – followed by a quick tour of Cape Town and the vineyards of the Western Cape. A few days later I’d be boarding a one-way flight to Tanzania, primed to indulge my tropical-island fantasy of book-writing and tourist-screwing in Zanzibar. All things considered, you couldn’t ask for a better script.

But I wasn’t entirely sure it was my script. I still remember my arrival in Joburg one night last April, the plane coming through a bank of clouds to reveal the city lit up and glittering like gold ore far below us. It was a beautiful sight for anyone who, like me, had grown up with city blood in his veins. Even before the plane landed, before I came to know and love this African El Dorado, I had a sense that moving to Joburg after three itinerant years in Africa was sort of like a homecoming.

More than a year later, the tropical tumult of Ghana vanishing like the vapor trails left in our wake, my Zanzibar plans already seem hazy. The crisp, dry air of the highveld winter burns my nostrils – a nostalgic smell, memories of late autumn in New York, the leaves like gold and copper coins. Joburg isn’t just a place on a map for me any more, a section of a guidebook to quickly leaf through, a collection of horror stories throwing lurid shadows against the walls of my subconscious. It’s a place where, however tentatively, I began to build a home. Last year, in fits and starts, despite some of the most difficult months of my life, felt like the start of something here. And just as I had the sense, when I boarded the plane to Accra in February, that I was leaving some unfinished business behind in South Africa – personal failures, emotional reckonings – I realize now that what I want more than anything is to pick up where I left off.

Like a sailor stumbling onshore after months at sea, though, it might take some time for me to find my legs. Already the acute sensory thrill of being back is blurred around the edges by a certain wariness – the Joburger’s hyper-vigilance which, while tempered after my first few months in the city last year, has returned as I fuss with the Gold Card that will grant me passage on the Gautrain. The lurid tales of carjackings and armored-car robberies and brazen burglaries are part of this city’s nervous tapestry. I feel it again, already. When I’m approached by a flak-jacketed security guard looking warily over my shoulder, I’m so on-edge after his first words – “I have to advise you, sir” – that I’m completely unprepared for what follows: “that there is no drinking of beverages on the train or the platform.”

No beverages on the platform! Gautrain, bless your heart! As with the gaudy shopping malls and garish residential complexes of the far northern suburbs – places so remote from the rest of city life that they should have their own consulates – the Gautrain is secured by the CCTV cameras and armed-response teams that keep the city’s frightful chimeras at bay. Oh, Jozi! Too stingy with your wealth, too full of your open-armed promises of a better life – these muted dreams which, like the morse-code tappings of your skyline, are like a thing on the verge, but still incomplete. This, too, will take some getting used to again. The city, so unlovely in so many ways, stretches out like a sleeper unhurried by the dawn. The sun hangs like a pendant over the mine dumps, the power stanchions, the six- and eight-lane highways. I suppose a love that’s easily explained is hardly worth the effort. When we get off in Sandton the morning air bites me to the bone. Goodbye, goodbye, tropics! I’m back in my mile-high city, my sun-scoured palace on the veld.

The taxis are lined up at the station. During the week there is a shuttle bus running between Sandton and Rosebank, but on this Saturday morning, I am shit out of luck. The driver handles my bags daintily, accustomed, perhaps, to high-strung Sandton types. He is of a familiar sort, found at taxi ranks the world over, reading a much-handled morning edition, pontificating with his peers. I do not have to pick up the day’s Times to know the score. Strike season has returned, he says, as sure as spring training in Port St. Lucie. “Monday it is the coal,” he says. “Tuesday is going to be another one.” Maybe it will be the teachers, or the nurses. Already some strike or other has crippled the delivery of petrol to the gas stations; there are shortages across the country. Fuel trucks are being escorted by armed teams under the cover of night. “Eish,” he says, that simple South African syllable which contains worlds of grief, resignation, gallows humor. And has he heard any news about the Gautrain station in Rosebank, I ask? “They keep telling us ‘month end, month end,’” he says, “but we don’t know which month. Maybe it is November, December.”

Had the Rosebank station opened according to schedule, I would’ve saved myself about 15 bucks. Still, I have no grief in my heart for this lovely, leafy suburb. Since meeting my friend Cihan last year, her two-bedroom flat on Tyrwhitt Avenue has been the lode star of my aspirations in Joburg. It is a beautiful apartment – hardwood floors, a garden, huge bay windows full of sunlight – and just a few minutes’ walk from The Zone mall, an open-air complex peopled by the city’s loveliest sorts in every color the Rainbow Nation has to offer. On dreary nights in Auckland Park, eating leftover stir-fry and simmering with quiet rage at the housemates who refused to do their dishes, I would dream of a time when, through some improbable career twists and turns, I could afford to live a Rosebank life.

And now, suddenly, I am. Had I been crashing anywhere but Rosebank on my first night back in Joburg, perhaps the city – big, sprawling, ungainly, in spite of its charms – might have lost some of its luster. Perhaps I would’ve stuck to my original plan and been booking a flight to Dar es Salaam as I type these words. But the neighborhood appeases my inner New Yorker; there are tree-lined sidewalks with actual people walking on them, neighbors stopping for a chat. Jan Smuts Avenue – a straight shot by taxi into the heart of the city – is just down the street. Everything I need in my day-to-day life is a short walk from my front door. In five minutes I can be shopping at Pick ‘n’ Pay, eating pizza at Doppio Zero, working out at Planet Fitness, or boarding a taxi to Newtown. For a non-driving New York transplant, the place reeks of a convenience you’re not likely to find elsewhere in Joburg, unless you’re squatting in Sandton City or Montecasino.

By late morning, I’ve mentioned to Cihan that I might stick around longer than planned. What’s the big hurry to get to Zanzibar, anyway? I can pass a busy month in Joburg, head down to the Cape in early September; surely there’s nothing stopping me from getting to Stone Town in October – to catch the tail-end of the dry season, the last straggles of Indian-summer tourists. Cihan, accustomed to my whims, still fruitless in her search for a roommate, offers me the guest room for as long as I need it. In the afternoon, cruising the shops at the Zone, plotting the week ahead – drinks in Greenside; dinner in Parkhurst; a show in Newtown; a panel discussion at Wits – I’m reminded of the fullness of life here. I’ve missed the social and cultural life of this city: the Tuesday-night gallery openings, getting shit-faced over Cape wines; the readings and exhibitions and high-brow ephemera of urban life. Since I arrived my gray matter has been overloaded, synapses firing like a 21-gun salute to the life I’ve always wanted. Why not Joburg redux, then? I’ve returned on something resembling sound financial footing – the first time I can say that in the better part of a decade. Renting Cihan’s spare room – so unthinkable a year ago, when I dreaded the first of the month in my Auckland Park commune – would strain, but not altogether break, my budget. I could be really happy here.

The more time I spend mentally trying on my new life in Rosebank, the more I like the fit. Zanzibar suddenly seems a long way off. Kwaheri, kwaheri, island fantasy! Just three days after debarking at OR Tambo International, I’m signing up for a one-month membership at Planet Fitness, a swank health club on the top floor of the Rosebank Mall. (Motto: “It’s not just another gym, it’s another way of life.”) More than a month removed from Ouagadougou’s Super Gym Club, shaken daily by the fear that my body will fall into some irreparable state of decline, I hit the floor on my first day with the passion of a religious convert. To squat! To crunch! To live! Surely there are some Latin phrases that would come in handy. The marvels of this high-tech masochist’s workshop, the machinery scientifically engineered to brutalize the body into some higher Platonic ideal, are alone worth the price of admission. What wonders have descended on the modern world of physical fitness as I was curling and pressing through my poor-man’s reps in Ouaga! Everything looks so finely calibrated, so lustrous, so goddamn efficient. The tribe that inhabits this rarefied space seems likewise disposed to make the most of each workout, to say nothing of our allotted time on earth. They are muscled and toned within an inch of their coiffured existence, primed for weekends of mutual admiration in Johannesburg’s finer precincts.

Have I mentioned the girls? They are a lovely species of gym bunnies. Spandex-besuited, fashionably flustered on their treadmills and yoga mats, they seem like an extension of the aspirational lifestyle I’m committing myself to here in Rosebank. After a single afternoon I find it hard to recall that I’d ever worked out any other way. You can imagine the shock and dismay of these South Africans – accustomed, as they are, to all the accoutrements of a Northern Hemisphere lifestyle – as I describe the rigors of my Super Gym Club routine: the windows rattling with harmattan winds, the unbearable heat of an April afternoon sans climatisée, the machines like the relics of some Soviet-era Olympic training complex in Podolsk. The things I have braved and seen would no doubt make for some interesting banter around the water fountain. But I am too focused for socializing. Time’s terrible passage might continue with each agonizing, irrevocable moment that slips away, but fuck if I’m going to stand around with my hands on my love handles.

The nights are cold; I pad around the house in my thick Pick ‘n’ Pay slippers, puffing into my fists. Still, the mornings start full of joy, promise. Sunlight fills the living room. A mug of Cameroonian coffee steams on the table. In my first week back I’ve launched full-tilt into a routine that would appease even the severest Puritan. Chapter three of my work-in-progress is coming along, slowly, surely. I am excited by just about everything. Just days after checking into Chez Cihan, I make plans to visit Cape Town the first weekend in August – to reconnect with my old friend Andrea, from Kigali, who’s getting a Master’s Degree at UCT. The days are long and fruitful – at night I’m happily spent, I heap onto the bed like a sack of coal. This bed is, in fairness, just a mattress on the floor, but I tell myself it’s a concession to my conscience: still unaccustomed to an upscale Rosebank lifestyle, that solitary mattress makes me feel like some exiled Marxist poet. With time I might add a boxspring, some bookshelves to add to the Spartan furnishings of desk and chair. This will be a project for another day. It feels like I have all the time in the world.

We thank you. A lot.

Sunday, July 17.

The Takoradi road is busy with traffic: crowded tro tros, transport lorries, station wagons packed with the large ripe watermelons that are in season along the coast. Leaving Ko-Sa, feeling fortuitous, the sun trying to force its way through a scrim of clouds, I have high hopes for what’s left of my time in Ghana. My backpack is stuffed with cheap thrillers; some of the country’s finest beaches lie ahead, on the western coasts. Mindful of the story I’ve been commissioned to write that’s slowly taking shape in my head, I’m hoping to have enough time on the coast to do some good writing, sit some good beach, and have one last – by which I mean first – holiday fling with one of the frisky volunteers who descend on the coast from their upcountry villages, bottles of sunscreen held aloft like some sort of tribal fetishes.

It is a slow slog into the city, just a single lane of traffic crawling in each direction. It was off the coast near Takoradi that Ghana’s recent oil discoveries were made, and the city has grown, mushroomed, erupted in the past few years. On the outskirts of town there are billboards advertising luxury condos, and imploring us to “Invest in Tullow Oil” – the British company which made the offshore finds. No doubt it is Tullow engineers and Texan wildcatters who are snatching up the luxury condos; for the growing masses of Takoradi’s urban poor, there are the rows of wooden clapboard homes on the city’s fringes, painted in bright primary colors, forests of aerial antennas above them. It was perhaps expected that a small oil enclave would emerge here, that prices for even basic foodstuffs would start to rise, that the gaudy entertainment complexes like Vienna City would roll in to deprive those foreign oil-workers of their hard-earned petro-bucks. It would be a small price to pay for the remarkable boon that the oil find could be for this country, as it tries to push its way into middle-income status. (President Mills has promised that nine out of ten jobs in the oil sector will belong to Ghanaians by 2020.) But already there were concerns last year that the government of former president John Kufuour had engineered a deal to give political insiders large stakes in the oil industry; in May, a controversy began to brew over defective flow meters – the gauges which measure how much oil is being pumped. In effect, the broken meters made it impossible to say how much crude oil was being produced at the Jubilee Field. It doesn’t take a cynic to see how easily this system can be gamed. Perhaps it’s not without reason that a graphic billboard in Takoradi, a bloody Savior grimacing beneath a crown of thorns, warns: “Breaking News!!! Jesus is Coming Right On Schedule… Are You Ready For Him?”

Arriving in Busua, I’m greeted by a more welcome arrival: the overcast morning has given way to an afternoon of brilliant sunlight. It is a pretty beach town, a popular surf spot that allegedly staked its small claim to immortality in the ‘60s surf epic The Endless Summer. Late in the day, with the beach soaked in golden sunshine and the surfers paddling out to catch a modest break, Busua is living up to the glowing reports I had heard in Accra and Cape Coast. I’m checked into an $8 room at the family-run Dadson’s lodge, about a three-minute walk from the beach; over an overstuffed burrito at Okorye Tree, I watch the waves come and go, a pack of butt-naked young boys chasing around a soccer ball and doing wild karate kicks in the air. Further along the beach is the French-run guest house at which I’ll be gorging on lobster later in the evening. It is, all things considered, turning out to be a fine day.

The next morning is gray, drizzly – Ghana’s schizophrenic rainy season continues. Something in the air has conspired to knock the shit out of me, and I spend the bulk of the afternoon putting back coffees and ripping through John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. It is a pleasant day, mellow, self-indulgent. Late in the day I fall in with a few backpackers, and we pass the time drinking Star beers and talking about absolutely nothing, as is the custom among strangers in foreign lands. At night there’s a bonfire on the beach in front of Okorye Tree; the moon is full; the sea is like quicksilver. The buff surf dudes have circled a pack of young Danes like sharks to a bucket of chum, while Bob Marley wails soulfully against some injustice or other. I’ve already made plans to pack up in the morning and head to my last stop on the coast – the legendary Green Turtle Lodge, near Akwidaa – but for this night, at least, I wonder what my life could be in a place like this – a succession of bonfires and beach football games, of amorous advances toward boozed-up Danes, an old fisherman telling me tales of the sea.

Having spent the past two days in a state of relative catatonia, I decide to make the most of my last morning in Busua. I’d met a man in town on my first day here, a local tour guide named Ghali Tanko Nuhu, who’d offered to take me to Butre, a neighboring village a few miles down the coast. He meets me in the morning, a short, stocky 29-year-old in a pair of rolled-up blue jeans and a t-shirt clinging to his plump belly. He has an easy comportment about him, a manner that’s matched by his melodious voice. It is a pleasure to listen to Ghali speak – and speak he does: about his complicated family life (his father has sired 34 children by five different wives), about the ambiguous place contemporary Ghana occupies between tradition and modernity, about the long-haul process of transforming the mindset of Ghana’s poor. I have stumbled upon a visionary here in little Busua beach. In his small souvenir shack off the road to Agona junction, a cheerful, hand-painted sign (“Voluntours Ghana-Ghali Enterprise”) welcoming passersby, Ghali Tanko Nuhu organizes tours and dreams about changing the world.

“The mind is not open yet,” he says, as we walk along the beach. “They need to be cultivated.” He is speaking of the villagers who live in the small, impoverished settlements scattered along the coast – the Butres and Ampenyis and Akwidaas. Entrepreneurialism, he argues, isn’t bred into Ghanaians at an early age. The sons of fishermen will become fishermen; the daughters will become wives. The choices are few, and life is simple. “But if you go to the villages, people are happy there,” he says. “They are.” From the tone of his voice, I can see that happiness, contentment, is not a good and noble thing for a striver like Ghali. He gestures to the sprawling Busua Beach Resort as an example of how people can learn to do things differently here. The owner got his modest start selling fruit juice to tourists on the beach. He built a few small rooms; then a few more. Today he is partnered with the government; the resort occupies a prime chunk of seaside real estate – 60-some-odd upmarket rooms at more than 100 U.S. bucks a night.

We turn from the beach and follow a narrow, sandy path; on either side of us are women stooped over their vegetable plots, cultivating the young shoots. Further on the path begins to climb. Though the day is overcast I can feel the coastal humidity on my skin; I’m already sweating through my Black Stars jersey. The path is choked by vegetation, riotous growths. As we reach the top of the hill, the sound of the sea faintly below us, Ghali gestures to a few large plots of land that were bought by Europeans not long ago. “All those people coming here, they were first traveling, then they pick a place,” he says. “They go, they see, they buy.” He says it as if it were some marvelous fact – a testament to European ingenuity. Everything seems to bring him back to how much is being squandered by his countrymen – all the wasted opportunities that surround him.

“You know, that’s how life is,” he says. “People suffer a lot. White people, when they suffer, then you get a good mentality.” (I decide not to disabuse him of this notion.) “But here it is quite different. I see you here, you are American, but you are simple. Here in Ghana, they get some small money, they want to buy nice things, big big phones.” He takes out his own phone – a derelict old Nokia about the size of a cinderblock, the numbers worn and faded, bits of sand crusted to the face. It has served him well: with that phone Ghali Tanko Nuhu, high school drop-out, has managed to start his own business. Always his mind is moving ahead to the next step. In his small shop in Busua he has hooked up an Internet line, to help update his company’s Facebook page and attract more business. Already he is thinking of setting up shop in Takoradi; after that, Accra. “Future, it is not 10 years, two years, three years,” he says. “Future is like up to your death. So you need to plan for it.”

Cresting the hill we see Butre spread out below us, the crooked lanes of cement-block houses and shops, the tin roofs catching the sunlight. The bay is crowded with fishing boats; across from us, the ruins of Fort Batenstein – a 17th-century relic – crown the adjacent hilltop. The view is spectacular. Coming down the hill, entering the village, Ghali is greeted like a hero, like a prodigal son. The children cry out to him: “El Hajji! El Hajji!” “It is because I am Muslim,” he says, laughing. We stop at the small tourist information booth in town to pay our entrance fees for the fort, but the booth is empty. Ghali bitterly shakes his head. Climbing the steep steps toward the fort, weeds choking our path, he waves a dismissive hand toward the village below us. “People have something here, to help you with the community, and you aren’t taking care of it,” he says. The preservation of the fort and the site’s maintenance, he says, have been funded by foreign NGOs. “Villages like this, they need to be aware that this is a huge thing that people they do it for them.” We stop; the steps have abruptly ended. “I don’t think there’s a path,” he says. We pick out a small trail to the side, the ground sloping sharply and falling away from us. Ghali has more bitter words for the tourist development committee in town. When we return to pay our fees and sign the guidebook, he wants me to say some harsh things to the site’s overseers. “You can tell him something, even to do the weeding,” he says. “It’s very shit, you know.”

The fort is like an excavation site, some pre-Colombian ruin. Weeds poke from between the flagstones; vines strangle the walls. For two centuries, until the arrival of USAID or the European Union, Fort Batenstein had been slowly returning to its natural state. Now we climb the ramparts, Ghali pointing to the river and the lagoon, to the monkeys leaping from the branches of a nearby tree. The beauty of this place seems to catch in his throat; he is almost choked with emotion. Descending back down the poorly maintained steps, though, his mind is fixated on all the things the people of Butre could be doing differently to make this a bigger tourist attraction. “I really want to travel in Europe and see how the villages look like,” he says. “I’m always tired of the villages in West Africa. It’s always shit.”

By now it’s close to noon; I’ve made plans with a few Danish backpackers to head to Green Turtle around midday. Ghali, mindful of the time, picking up a soldier’s pace, doesn’t want me to leave Butre until I’ve seen his proudest accomplishment: a school he’s built for orphans and needy children in the village. We move briskly through the town, but there’s always some distraction: a matronly woman, some neighbor or auntie, wagging to him with her heavy arms; the village chief’s son – a tough-looking man in his 30s, a crude tattoo of a handgun and a dagger-pierced heart on his upper arm – stopping us to say a few words. The sun is out now; the day is blazing. We cross a rickety bridge and pass through the leafy grounds of a small resort. Everywhere we go there is someone calling out to Ghali, shaking his hand, stopping to share the day’s news. The kids we meet are in hysterics. “El Hajji! El Hajji!” they cry out. Ghali grabs them by the ears, shakes their hands, smacks their bottoms. “Everywhere I like to take in kids and be friends with them,” he says. “I want to teach them something that will help the future.”

When we arrive at his school the scene is joyous, delirious, unhinged. Half-naked girls and boys in skimpy briefs come barreling across the playground, arms raised, voices squealing. They grab our legs and fling themselves into our arms. I’m reminded of a Dutch volunteer I met in Cape Coast, who spent three months at an orphanage in Kumasi, “playing with kids.” No doubt it was a gratifying assignment. Ghali says that as many as 34 children might be attending his school at any given time, though on this day, there are hardly more than a dozen. He introduces me to a pretty young woman, the schoolteacher, who takes my hand and smiles shyly and averts her eyes. Across the yard are some tables and benches; in the corner are piles of cinder blocks – Ghali is hoping to build a shop where Butre’s underprivileged youths can sell arts and crafts as a way to generate some small income for the school. Right now, the money is all coming out of Ghali’s pocket: donations from tourists, the leftover earnings he has after taking out tour groups. He sighs. The children rush up to him, butt their heads into his stomach, twist his hand and pepper it with kisses. I ask to take a picture of the group before we go, not realizing the chaos that will reign once a dozen naked children have to wrestle into their uniforms. Dresses are pulled over bony shoulders, collars straightened, buttons secured. Before leaving I notice that their homemade uniforms each have a patch stitched to the breast. It reads “Ghali School of Orphans-Butre,” with a small crest encircling two crossed ploughshares, a book, and a heart with the word “Love” written across it. When I ask to take a picture of this, too, each of the kids rushes forward, grinning, breast thrust forward. I take a picture of the school crest; then a pair of crossed rackets with the word “Tennis” stitched above them; then a frayed white tank-top with the Chanel name and logo barely legible. It is almost impossible to pull ourselves away from them. But by the time we’ve started back down the path they’ve already disrobed, leaping and racing and tumbling across the yard, waving their tiny hands in farewell.

Back in town, representatives of the local tourism council have finally returned to their post. An old, beaming man takes my hand with a generous gesture, pumping it frantically. “Every nice man comes from America,” he says. He pushes forward a guestbook for me to sign. Despite Ghali’s earlier entreaties, I can’t bring myself to lodge a complaint against this genial man. After I’ve signed and scrawled my cheerful platitudes he takes out an earlier, heavier tome: the first guestbook of Butre. You can imagine some ancient librarian displaying a Gutenberg Bible with much the same gravity. He turns to the first page and shows me the first entry: Chad Kofi Hamilton, a Peace Corps volunteer who arrived in Butre in 2005 and initiated the development project that led to the fort’s restoration. The man spins a fine yarn about Chad’s dedication and generosity, the vision that led to Fort Batenstein’s recognition by foreign NGOs and certain preservation bodies. In Paleolithic times, tribes of hunter-gatherers no doubt sat around the fire and shared their creation myths thusly. It is easy to see why the people of Butre would feel that every nice man comes from America. We part on fine terms, exchanging earnest wishes for healthy families and productive days, before me and Ghali begin triple-timing it back over the hill.

By the time we get back to Butre the others have already gathered at Dadson’s. After a quick lunch we charter a taxi to Green Turtle, a bumpy 12 kilometers down the coast. It is a beautiful drive, past the busy little bay at Dixcove, the fishing boats with their colorful pennants snapping in the wind. Thinking about this past week, running through my mental checklist of things to do before writing my story, I can feel the piece starting to take shape. Historical factoids? Check. Local color? Check. Pithy yet revealing quotes? (“Every nice man comes from America.”) Check! By the time we reach Green Turtle, the sand gold and endless, the sun sitting fatly over the coconut palms, the gin and tonics dirt-cheap, I’m ready to get down to the serious business of earning back some of the money I’ve blown since arriving in Accra two weeks ago.

It is a lovely lodge, the sort of tidy, well-executed concept that has restored my sanity on countless stops across this continent. The hammocks in the trees, the bar fashioned from an old fishing boat, the irrepressible, three-legged dog galloping across the premises: yes, friends, this place has character, enough to preserve the self-perpetuating myths that have made Green Turtle a name whispered with quiet reverence up and down the coast, like the ghost of a departed ancestor. Over booze and board games, engaged in some mild flirtations with girls whose names I’ll soon forget, I get the sense that I’ve picked the perfect place to thank Ghana and say my goodbyes.

One morning, enjoying my last days before returning to the stressful shit-smelling sprawl of Accra, I walk along the beach toward Akwidaa, a small neighboring village. The waves are crashing roughly; the air smells like salt, like long voyages. Soon my own one-man ship will be setting sail again. In the village I am accosted by a group of schoolchildren – a smiling, gap-toothed, unkempt, aggressively welcoming lot of seven- and eight- and nine-year-olds. They have wrapped around my legs and twisted about my arms, as if trying to climb the limbs of a tall tree. Soon I’m being pushed and prodded and tugged, pulled along by their relentless goodwill toward a small, weathered blue building – a schoolhouse, maybe, or a church. Inside it’s impossible to tell the difference: there are two aisles of wooden pews, and a giant poster of a gently beaming Jesus Christ at the front of the room; beneath it is a single school desk, and to the side, a chalkboard with some rather elementary English lessons written on it. (“This is an eye,” beside a crude drawing of an eye. “This is a foot,” beside a small cartoon foot.) A woman artlessly draped across a pew toward the front suddenly snaps to attention. She is the schoolteacher; this is her realm; each of the children rushes forward, hoping to be the first to describe the circumstances of my improbable arrival.

The teacher is middle-aged and square-shouldered and almost reaches my height; her arms are large, her face practical. She has the look of someone permanently forced to make do. She is wearing a simple blue dress that hangs from her shapeless body like a tablecloth. Taking my hand warmly, she introduces herself as Mercy Wood. The children surround her, press forward with all the shameless idolatry of the young. Clapping her hands together with a swift, thunderous gesture, Mercy Wood brings her class to attention.

“Who was the first president of Ghana?” she cries out.

A garbled response from three dozen slender throats; something resembling “Kwame Nkrumah” rises above the din.

“How many regions does Ghana have?”

“There are ten regions in Ghana!” Their faces shine, their eyes are lit with the fervor of zealots.

The interrogation continues. Where does flour come from? Takoradi and Tema. Where does cocoa come from? Something riotous commences – the children, it seems, enjoy their chocolate. Mercy Wood, schoolmistress of Akwidaa, looks approvingly at their upturned faces and sighs. “They are trying,” she says. Another clap of the hands and she brings the lesson to a close.

Outside, in their soiled yellow dresses and buttonless shirts, the children treat me like a conquering hero. Their teacher’s remonstrations have hardly stemmed the tide of their zeal; I could’ve arrived in Akwidaa astride a thunderbolt. Mercy Wood is leading us down the road, explaining the difficulties the school faces, wondering if I can even spare five cedis – about $3 and change – to buy the children a football. She stops and gestures to a woman, her face drawn and resentful, sitting with weak, spindly legs folded beneath her in a doorway. “This is my eldest daughter,” says Mercy. “She is handicapped.” The woman doesn’t greet us, shows no signs of recognition toward her mother. Then Mercy turns and sees a disheveled young man lurching, as if he were drowning, through a sea of schoolchildren. “That is my son,” she says. “He is a drunkard.”

The man approaching us grins proudly, as if the word he heard from his mother’s mouth wasn’t “drunkard” but “great man” or “nuclear physicist.” He’s wearing denim shorts and a black polo short with the word “Speedy” stitched across the breast. “I am Benjamin,” he says gravely, like some cave prophet. “I am intoxicate. I have drunk too much.”

Mercy turns her face from him in disgust. I am afraid to ask about her other children, so luckless is the hand she’s been dealt in Akwidaa. “You should try to drink less,” I tell Benjamin lamely. He smiles, his eyes wobbling. This seems to remind Mercy of past battles fought at home, in the church, in the sacred chambers of her heart. “That is right,” she says. “It is a shame.” And then, turning, as if the whole village should bear witness: “He has finished school and has a good education!”

Quiet murmurs of assent, embarrassed eyes averted. Mercy stands there like a disgraced woman, the son’s failures worn like a scarlet letter across her chest. No doubt the imperious schoolteacher has won the prayers and sympathies of these villagers. Who among them hasn’t known a drunken husband or son?

Moved by Mercy’s story of Dickensian struggles, by the shambling schoolhouse-church, by Benjamin’s heavy, boozed-up eyes, I ask where a casual shopper might find himself a football. It is on July 15, readers, that the Rapture arrives in Akwidaa. Had their pencil arms and pigeon breasts matched the ardor of their rapidly beating hearts, no doubt these young scholars would be carrying me through the streets on their shoulders. The current of their gratitude is still powerful, like the rip tides which are known to drag unfortunate swimmers in these parts out to sea. I am brought to a small shop which seems to specialize in soccer balls, cigarettes, and hard liquor. Perhaps Benjamin, too, once came here to buy a ball with the words “Jesus Is Coming” written across the side. Now the boys are bumrushing me toward the schoolhouse, Mercy Wood is throwing her arms up in a gesture of rejoice. The students are shushed and gathered around her. “I have nothing to say,” she begins formally, “but that I bless you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that He leads you wherever you go.”

She brings her hands together forcefully. “We thank you!” she cries. Two dozen high, off-key voices repeat, almost in unison. “A lot!” she cries. They follow, as one.

“We thank you!”

“We thank you!!!”

“A lot!”

“A lot!!!”

They clasp their hands and sing my praises, tripping over each other, their joy reckless and bare. Mercy Wood writes her name and address in my notebook, her hand as steady and rigid as her morals. She touches me warmly on the shoulder, asking me not to forget her.

I hope you can continue coming here.

July 9.

My elaborate attempt to replace my stolen phone lasts the better part of a day and a half. In my haste to buy something – anything – bearing the familiar stamp of the Nokia corporation, I pick up the cheapest model on the Ghanaian market: a little clunker with big Fisher Price buttons that barely respond to my frenetic Morse-style tappings. This seems like a peculiar breed of masochism on my part. It’s worth noting that for the first time in years, my post-Harper’s bank account is able to sustain a little splurge now and then; there are plenty of more ostentatious – or, at least, functional – phones that would fit into my spiffy new budget. Still, it’s not easy to undo five years’ worth of thrift – the minute calculations and sub-calculations on the back of a notebook, the soul’s contortions each time I take a taxi when a simple tro-tro will do.

By the evening, though, I’m full of remorse; the phone is a grade-A shit-job. Not for the last time do I regret not making my purchase at the God Gives Electronics shop, or God Love Phone & Accessories. The next morning I return to the same sidewalk kiosk, brandishing my receipt like it’s the 95 Theses. The seller looks small and wounded. He has – alas! – already deposited the previous day’s sales in his boss’ bank account; the best he can offer me is credit toward another phone. I look quickly through his inventory, a selection of low-grade L7 and Tecno brand phones that have no doubt been hastily assembled in Guangzhou Mobile Phone Factory No. 7. I have seen these models on countless buses and tro-tros in Ghana: the image of a pouty girlfriend (“my baby-girl”) splashed across the screen, Akon hits playing over the tinny speaker. Seeing my displeasure with the rest of his stock, the vendor’s face clouds with untold sorrows. Where can a man today expect to find such heartfelt commiseration from the guy who sold him his phone? His grief is palpable, so that suddenly I – the victim of a crime most foul – am the one who has to stand there, saying consoling words. Soon we become fast friends. “I would not like you to leave here unhappy with what you have bought from me,” he says, with great feeling. His name is Eben – short for Ebenezer – but everyone calls him Cocoa. “Because I am so dark,” he says, touching the skin on his forearm. He is, in his spare time, the presenter of a popular daily show on a local TV station. Sure enough, everyone seems to know his name. “Cocoa! Cocoa!” calls a gang of schoolchildren, laughing hysterically as they march arm-in-arm down the street.

The days pass breezily in Cape Coast. I have quickly managed to settle into a daily routine: a morning Nescafe with my writing at Oasis; lunch of fried chicken and jollof rice from a street stall near the Methodist Church; afternoons with a book on the beach; a gin-and-tonic sundowner, repeated as necessary. Peace of mind is by no means easy to come by after dark. The vultures at the bar circle and swoop, jangling bracelets and saying rasta things. They are intent on selling me some token keepsake with which “to remember Africa” (as if I could forget!). Still, these are happy days. Mostly I am content to keep to myself, having built around me a fortress of solitude as impressive and imposing as the one squatting a few hundred meters down the beach. My companions are Elmore Leonard and John Le Carré; my conversations are grudging.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my fondest encounters are with a young deaf man who patrols the beach, collecting money for some dubious secondary school. He writes his name in the sand – Julius Kofi Ahorsu – initiating a conversation that we have at the end of a stick. Julius is pleasant, eager. He writes the word OBAMA in bold letters and looks at it with a certain pride of ownership. As if to underscore his point, he unfolds a page torn from a German magazine, a picture of the American president himself – Africa’s favorite son – standing square-shouldered behind a dais. Julius was there for the president’s 2009 visit to Cape Coast. He pantomimes the highlights: the passing of the motorcade, the solemn speech at the castle, Julius going bat-shit crazy and giving the president a big thumbs-up. It was, no doubt, a glorious day. Much taken by Julius’ gentle, enthusiastic spirit, I fork over a few cedis and sign my name on his pledge sheet beneath the names of other foreigners. Julius pumps my hand vigorously, his eyes big and emotional, his head bobbing. Then he scurries off down the beach, jogging in ungainly strides and dodging the edges of the waves.

The next morning – the sky low, the rain misting – I decide to break the monotony of the past few days and visit Kakum National Park, a rainforest less than an hour’s drive from the coast. The bus station is full of the usual market bedlam, the hawking of meat pies, cough syrup, toothbrushes, insecticide, hard-boiled eggs, detergent, Lasex and Lord brand razors, lusterless apples, and a dizzying array of cheap, nutritionless biscuits. An old man approaches selling packets of onion seeds and a single green pepper. Another carries a stack of slender books titled Golden Ghana History. I buy one for a cedi – about 65 cents. The author is one Bobby Acquah, “a.k.a ‘Blessed Bobby’…a renowned musician who have worked with most of the country’s top bands, namely Senior Eddie Donkor’s band, Nkomode’s Band, Bishop Bob Okalla’s Band, Kaakyire Kwame Appiah’s Band and many more.” On the title page is an “appreciation”: “I’m most grateful to God the Almighty for making what seems to be impossible, possible for me today. God, I say you are wonderful.” The historical tidbits are random and of dubious grammatical provenance, the photos grainy reproductions from other textbooks. It is impossible to imagine what fate awaits those who take their history lessons from Blessed Bobby – the young Ghanaian students sent forth into the world, armed with their knowledge that the Bank of Ghana was established in 1963 and the Second World War ended on “11th May 2945.”

The sky has opened by the time I reach the park, the rain coming in at hard angles. At the entrance I make an offhand comment about the crappiness of the weather, to which the guard, looking blankly at the sky, responds, “This is rainforest.” His deadpan logic is irrefutable. An army of school buses has already filled the parking lot, the students pouring out in their matching uniforms, gangly and high-spirited and intent on quelling any designs I had on a contemplative nature walk. The line for the toilets is out the door. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, I dutifully join the ticket queue for Kakum’s canopy walk – a series of rope bridges suspended some 100 feet above the forest floor. It is the next in a series of disappointments. The Ghanaian parks department seems to have realized that this is the park’s main draw: the ticket price, just 9 cedis when my guidebook was published two years ago, has jumped to 30 (around $20). It seems like a steep price to pay to share a bunch of narrow walkways with excitable high-schoolers. The day is all but wasted. I buy a plate of red red and fried plantains at the park restaurant and sulk in my misfortune. I’ve spent 40 minutes in a tro-tro to browse in the Kakum gift shop and eat lunch. Leaving the park, there’s a small commotion at the entrance: a luxury coach with the initials V.I.P. splashed across the side has managed to wedge itself beneath the main gate. The whole structure – a rickety frame of timber crossbeams with a corrugated awning – rocks dangerously with each surge of the bus. Behind the wheel a nervous rasta is working the pedal, trying to extricate the bus without bringing down the proverbial house. I have never before seen a rasta bus driver in Africa, and perhaps that is with good reason. On my way out the guard I’d encountered earlier looks at me and shakes his head. “You said it. Today is a bad day,” he says. “You said it.”

It has been, though, in spite of everything, a good week. Having gotten the most out of my beachfront bungalow at Oasis, having felt myself 10 years too old for the backpackers at the bar on Friday night, I leave Cape Coast Saturday morning for Ko-Sa, a Dutch-owned beach resort some 20 miles west along the Axim road. It is a cozy spot, with a dozen bungalows hidden among the tropical growth and an airy, thatched-roof restaurant facing the sea. After Friday’s clouds, the day is hot and clear; when I arrive there are a few young Dutchmen playing beach volleyball with some Ghanaians, and a couple of young boys offering to scamper into the trees and bring down coconuts for 50 pesewas – around 30 American cents – a pop. Everything seems friendly and low-key, after the relentless touts of Cape Coast. There is a wide beach where a few young volunteers are lying on towels, and a small swimming area protected from the ocean’s rough surf by a narrow reef. I have absolutely nothing planned for the next few days, which suits me just fine. In the afternoon the sun casts its golden rays on Ampenyi, a small fishing village about a 10-minute walk down the beach, lighting the tops of the coconut palms and the stone church supposedly built by the Dutch who landed here more than 300 years ago.

It is a beautiful, tranquil place to pass a few days, knee-deep in the thrillers I picked up at the Black Star Bookshop in Cape Coast. Sitting on the beach, alone with the ocean and the seabirds doing their dizzying pirouettes in the sky above me, I have a pleasing vision of myself in much the same state of repose in Zanzibar a few months down the line. Whatever doubts I might have had are at bay here; I can imagine happily living out my tropical-island fantasy, fortified by a few simple pleasures as I devote myself to my book. As a general rule, I try to avoid too much planning in my life; but as plans go, I could certainly do worse.

Sunday morning breaks gray and cool, the ground still wet from last night’s rains. It is a slow start to the day, a procession of coffees as I wait for the sky to gradually clear. After breakfast I go for a walk along the beach. A small armada floats in the bay, the hulls colorful and weather-beaten and bearing slogans about God’s greatness or imminent arrival. Some of the boats are moored and bobbing gently in the shallow water; others have been hauled up to safety on the sand. A dozen fishermen are sitting nearby, young and old, their arms bulging with muscles, working the knots out of their nets. It is slow, conscientious work, and they go about it with great diligence, though engrossed in a half-dozen conversations at the same time. Further along the beach a group of men are drawing a boat onshore, pulling on thick lengths of rope. “Come!” a young man calls out to me – not a patronizing entreaty to give a few half-hearted tourist tugs, but an earnest call for some extra muscle. I oblige him, getting a few encouraging cheers from the others. The rope is thick and damp and coarse with sand. We heave once, twice, crying out rhythmically in unison, our feet digging in. It is strenuous work, and our modest gains seem to be undone each time the ropes go slack and the boat drifts back into the water. A woman chewing a stalk of sugar cane gives me a withering look. “Obruni, hurry up!” she says.

The beach is crowded with villagers: the men in their ratty shorts and sports jerseys, the women in their bright tropical dresses. The mothers and wives of Ampenyi are carrying plastic basins full of tuna and sugar cane, or balancing trays of watermelon slices on their heads. Most have babies bundled tightly to their backs, and other small children near at hand. There is something joyous and communal here: the women laughing, crouching, scaling fish, haggling over whatever scandalous price someone has offered for their tuna; the men working at their nets, teasing the women, going at everything with an easy, convivial rhythm that suggests that life is short but the days are long. The boat we’ve been laboring to bring to shore has slowly pushed itself back into the water, but no one seems too perturbed by this: there will be some joking and horseplay, a boy getting wrapped up and wrangled into the water, and then everyone will return to their positions in the sand to try again.

Behind me two scrawny teenagers are rough-housing in the sand, taunting each other in Fante, laughing hysterically. One wears a Boston Celtics jersey and the other the colors of Chelsea FC, and they are pleased to make my acquaintance. They introduce themselves, giving first their Christian names and then their Fante equivalents. Much good-natured joshing commences at my lack of a Fante moniker. I flex some imaginary muscles and tell them to give me a name that denotes great strength. A passing girl, a friend of theirs, suggests “Anhodin,” typing it out for me on her cell phone. For all I know this means “fat bastard with a farmer’s tan,” but for now, “Anhodin” it is. The boys laugh wildly.

They are 16 or 17, classmates, and, as it turns out, teammates for a village football club, Freedom Stars. After the preliminary inquisition about my country of birth and football allegiances, they say they’d like me to meet their coach. We walk toward the village, our flip-flops making wet, sucking noises in the sand, a few cold raindrops falling. If the people of Amenyi had spent their morning in church, singing the Lord’s praises, they have by now returned to their domestic duties. Cooking fires crackle in the doorways, little fish heads getting burned to a crisp, vats of maize meal being stirred by fat, matronly arms. Children, naked, deliriously unsupervised, are running everywhere, splashing through puddles, their belly buttons protruding like doorknobs. Sunday, Ampenyi. The village is like an excavation site, the ruined remains of an ancient city. It is impossible to say if the dilapidated villas are being built up or crumbling down. Laundry hanging from broken pillars. A sense of mortality, fleetingness. The terrible patience of Time. Vincent, the elder of the group, leads me to the house of their coach, a polite man in his early 30s called Peter. The place is poured cement floors and concrete blocks and a draft through what’s left of the windows. The team, says Peter, hasn’t managed to raise the funds for the coming season. They go through their practices and daily drills and then sit out while the other village teams compete. The faces around me are young, forlorn – an early schooling in life’s disappointments. They have their football and their friendships and then what? If I can contribute anything at all, says Peter, it will take just 120 cedis – about 80 U.S. bucks – for the Freedom Stars to join the league. I promise to see what I can do. The team gathers outside for a photo op, arranging themselves in practiced positions – a striker here, the goalkeeper there – and pose, as if they’re about to hoist the trophy.

Afterward Vincent takes me to his house to meet his father. An old, congenial man wobbles from the living room; he is eating his lunch, grains of rice still clinging to his lips. He takes my hand and pumps it warmly.

“I hope you can continue coming here,” he says.

Full of rubbish. And a few fish.

Tuesday, July 5.

From a distance the castle in Elmina, some 10 miles west of Cape Coast, looks moored off the shore like a cruise ship. It is Ghana’s oldest fort, built by the Portuguese in 1482, and is, according to some, the oldest European-built structure remaining in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a bit disingenuous: the castle has shape-shifted and expanded so often through the centuries that what remains – a great white-washed fortress, perched at the tip of a narrow peninsula – owes its lineage to many bloodlines.

The Portuguese, arriving in 1471, found a flourishing trade in the small port town wedged between the Gulf of Guinea and the Benya Lagoon. Salt produced from the lagoon’s brackish waters was hustled for gold mined in the north; the gold trade was so lively here that the Portuguese dubbed the town, and the region around it, “Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro” – “the Coast of Gold Mines” – from which the modern town likely derives its name. A decade after their arrival, the Portuguese set up to fortify the place that would become their administrative center in West Africa for the next 150 years. The original fort – a fraction of the current one’s size – was sturdy enough to repel three Dutch attacks by sea. But in 1637, with their influence growing in the region, the Dutch succeeded in capturing nearby St. Jago Hill, bombarding the castle with cannon fire, and forcing the Portuguese to surrender. St. George became the African headquarters for the Dutch West Indies Company; in 1666, the Dutch completed Fort St. Jago atop the eponymous hill, ensuring that no other foreign power could capture the castle as they themselves had. They held the castle for nearly a century and a half, until it was sold to the British in 1872. During that time the Dutch expanded the fort, as slaves replaced gold as the region’s most profitable commodity. All that remains of the first Portuguese settlement is a small chapel in the main courtyard, which the Dutch used as an auction hall for slaves and is today a museum for tourists.

The castle tour is brisk, professional and perfunctory. If yesterday it was difficult to conjure the slave trade’s horrors because of the brimming, bustling, high-decibel clamor of the Cape Coast port, today it’s owed to the size of my tour group, which includes three American co-eds whose off-color asides – “Sorry, picture whore!” after a chirpy snapshot of the Door of No Return; “Sounds like college,” after a look at the windowless room where unruly slaves were left to die – are probably better left to the dorm room than the slave fort. The rest of the group – a middle-class Ghanaian family, two sons in matching blue jeans and checkered shirts; a family of ambiguous European provenance; a few young American hangers-on with the malnourished pallor of the Peace Corps; and a Ghanaian high school student, Bright, who I picked up in Cape Coast and brought along for the day – shows the guide polite, if not rapt, attention. We are led into the male dungeons, where a wreath of silk flowers, papery red and white petals, was respectfully laid “From All Onboard Prince Albert II.” We are shown the sea-facing cannons, and the room where the Ashanti King, Prempeh I, was held by the British for four years. We are walked through the governor’s expansive quarters, and across the balcony from which the priapic administrator dreamily mused over the assembled slave women in the courtyard, perhaps briefly, regretfully pined for the wife left behind in Europe to spare her the horrors of climate and disease, and then chose the woman who would perform the rites of the conjugal bed in her stead. (These women – and the daughters they inevitably bore – were deemed the “lucky ones” by the other captives: they were spared the terrors of the Middle Passage. Those who resisted were chained as punishment to a cannonball in the yard, the heavy weight of which we’re invited to test for ourselves.)

Gradually the group begins to drift, lag; there are defections. Bright has stood beside me throughout, solemn and dutiful, venturing nothing (Q: “This is pretty interesting, isn’t it?”; A: “It is.”), disappearing only briefly to field a call from his mother. (“She would like to speak to you,” he says, prompting me to hazard that it’s maybe not the most appropriate time.) After the tour ends, I snap a few pictures in the sunlit courtyard. A bearded man is hunched over the rampart high above, TV camera propped on his shoulder and trained on a striking blonde who walks slowly, gravely across the courtyard. She’s wearing a pretty summer dress and expensive-looking sunglasses and an air of gravitas that vanishes as she reaches the end of the courtyard, flashing a brilliant smile toward her colleague up above. A few brief, professional words are exchanged. Then she moves briskly across the yard, fixes her face into a somber mask, and performs her solemn walk once more.

Moving from the gray sober courtyard, the ghosts of five hundred years, out into the color and noise of Elmina town. The raucous energy of the fishing port, the carnival streets, the thunder of a thousand competing sound systems: today is not a typical day in Elmina, but the start of the annual Edina Bakatue festival. It is the day that Elmina’s paramount chief announces the end of the six-week moratorium on fishing in the Benya Lagoon. By early afternoon, all of the town seems to have crowded into the narrow gauntlet of Lagoon Street. The shops stocked with their cheap imported wares and stamped with their improbable names. Clap For Jesus. Toasted Bread Ent. Nothing Late When Life Is Long. God Is My Provider. Still Blessing Boutique. Peace & Love Spot. Darling Boy Ent. (“Dealing in Phones & Accessories”). Mama Africa, Why Must I Cry.

Bright walks a half-pace in front of me, just off to the side, as if to drive a wedge into the crowd. His presence today has been something of an enigma, and a growing part of me regrets bringing him along. We had met in Cape Coast, near the Methodist Church; he was walking with a classmate, also Bright, and accosted me with his smiling goodwill. School was on its mid-term recess, he said; they had the day to themselves. He asked if he could join me for the day in Elmina, his face frank and unapologetic and altogether free of ulterior motives, though I knew he was implicitly asking me to pay his way. It seemed like a good enough trade-off: he was earnest and friendly, the first youth I’d met in Cape Coast who hadn’t tried to force a conch or batik upon me, and I figured that a bright young high school student who had grown up in Cape Coast would be full of interesting cultural tidbits about a town just 15 kilometers down the road.

He was not. He was sullen in the taxi, sullen in the castle, and sullen as we pushed our way through the assembled throngs of festival-goers who, to a man, looked so chirpy and lit with glee by comparison that I considered shaking Bright’s hand, wishing him all the best, and putting him in a taxi back to Cape Coast. Instead we walk the length of Lagoon Street, stopping to rest in the shade of a canopy where dozens of plastic lawn chairs have been arranged in unruly rows facing the lagoon. Already men and women in their Sunday best are sitting, staring, their faces washed of emotion, waiting with that particular African patience that seems to draw little distinction between a couple of seconds and a couple of centuries. It is past noon, but despite Bright’s assurances, there is no sign that the festivities are set to commence anytime soon. (The most telling indication is that the VIP tent, arranged with heavy, brocaded chairs that would not look at all out of place in Versailles, is, alas, still empty.) Hordes of children have amassed along the waterfront, watching pirogues painted with the festival’s corporate sponsors – MTN, First National (“The People’s Bank”), Protector Condoms – punting back and forth along the narrow, murky channel. The sun is high and unrelenting. I can feel the color deepening on my forehead and the back of my neck.

Bright’s presence has come to feel like a blight, an affliction. He sulks his way through lunch at the Sea View Spot, a cavernous concrete hall pulsing with carnal hip-hop beats which offers, it should be noted, not even a distant glimpse of the sea. Afterward we visit some of the traditional posubans which line the town’s main streets. These concrete shrines, found in Fante settlements across the region, were built by Elmina’s asafo companies – military units in Akan societies which were traditionally tasked with defending the town. The shrines are weird and wonderful and so curiously out of place, sandwiched between the cellphone shops and hair salons, with their obscure mystic symbolism. Here a building is crowned by a painted cement naval ship; another by life-sized figures of Adam and Eve; a third is flanked by two jet planes. I ask Bright, my Native Guide, to help unravel the shrines’ mysterious provenance. Outside one he squints at the sign that reads Asafo Company Five and says, “This was built by Asafo Company Five.” I cannot argue with this tidy morsel of intelligence, though I decide to puzzle through the rest of the posubans on my own.

On the waterfront the crowd has grown, multiplied: the little girls in twos and threes wearing their dusty tulle dresses; the bare-assed boys; the women in their church get-up; the old men as weathered and sea-worn as the ancient mariner. Amid all the color and commotion and low-rent pageantry, beyond the far shores where boats bedecked with the MTN logo jostle with their First National Bank competitors, something archaic is being renewed. Something modern, too: a wail of sirens and a flurry of beefy men jogging beside a caravan of SUVs announce the arrival of the VIPs. The bodyguards have cleared them a broad pathway, this delegation of low-ranking parliamentarians from Central Region. Through the window tint I can see their fat, placid faces cooled by the A/C. Not a single one will leave his automobile until the ceremony has begun.

Finally an emcee in a black Guinness t-shirt and wrap-around shades grabs a mic and begins working the crowd. Beside him a tartlet in tall heels and a short skirt shimmies around, engaging him in no-frills comic banter. The audience is unamused. Having gathered for the boat races, for the triumphant parade of the village chiefs, they only grudgingly indulge this corporate-sponsored tomfoolery. The emcee, moving briskly between Fante and English, recalls for us the celebrated history of the Edina Bakatue festival, turning to his co-host and eliciting the marvelous response: “Wow.” The six-week moratorium on fishing, he explains, was initiated many generations ago to allow the fish of Benya Lagoon to replenish. Is six weeks enough time for said replenishment? asks his partner with a toss of her hair. “That is left to the Creator,” he says. Somewhere a recording of a drum troupe is cued up over the PA system, obscuring the music of an actual drum troupe in attendance. Then a spokesman for First National Bank, the festival’s principal sponsor, takes to the stage, asking the crowd, “Why First National Bank?” before proceeding to answer his own question.

The speeches and canned corporate drudgery, the sponsors’ logos and tinny recordings, do little to prepare me for the actual longed-for moment that suddenly arrives: the procession of the chiefs. Long before the first one arrives, trailing his retinue like an ancient king, there is a palpable sense of import in the air. Something great this way comes, seems to be the prevailing mood. The beating of drums and ringing of cow bells, the waving of branches and fronds, the grinning sycophants, as if some champion prize fighter is making his way toward the ring. First comes the arrival of some sub-chiefs or standard bearers – no one can explain their purpose to me, these grave men carrying walking sticks crowned by the traditional totems – a bronze hand, a fishing boat, a taxi, a scorpion – of some distant villages. And then the chiefs: tall and short, young and old, bald-headed and bespectacled and bearing themselves with unflinching dignity through the full-throated throngs. They are dressed handsomely, regally, in colorful robes and toga-style dresses, their necks hung with gold chains and pendants, their fingers ringed, their heads crowned with gold headdresses. How little has changed since the Portuguese captain Diogo de Azambuja, in the 15th century, met with King Caramansa of the Edina state. The king, according to a written account which survives, “was seated on a high chair dressed in a jacket of brocade, with a golden collar of precious stones…his legs and arms covered with golden bracelets and rings…and in his plaited beard golden bars….[H]is chiefs were all dressed in silk [and] wore rings and golden jewels on their heads and beards.” True, I suspect the gold sequins on a certain chief’s dress were less likely mined than bedazzled; but the effect of all this spectacle is the same. The Rapture has arrived in Elmina; the crowds are singing, cheering, crying out, you can imagine some have walked a full day from their villages to see their chieftains in the flesh. A man beside me lifts his head with pride to tell me the name of his village, buried somewhere in the hinterlands of Central Region. When I ask if he saw his chief arrive for the festivities, he pauses and says with great significance, “There was eye contact.” At last the paramount chief of Elmina arrives on the throng’s adoring shoulders, steadied by some beneficent and invisible guiding hand, shielded by a magnificent umbrella as white and multi-tiered as a wedding cake, and performing what I believe in some American zip codes is referred to as the “Bankhead bounce.” His smile suggests that the ardors of paramount chieftaincy are but a small price to pay for the pleasures of this idolatry. It is, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, good to be the chief.

Somewhere in the commotion, the jostling of sweaty Fanta-selling women, the muscled teens with their affected hip-hop swagger, the brick-shithouse security detail swinging their batons at six-year-old shins, I’ve managed to lose Bright. This is perhaps not the end of the world. The crowd’s peristaltic movement has swallowed me up and deposited me just a few feet from the dais, where another corporate mouthpiece is talking about how happy he is on behalf of so-and-so to be a part of all this. Yet again I’ve managed, with cunning whiteness, to find myself in the middle of the action. I dutifully take out my notebook and dangle my camera from my wrist, as if to ostentatiously assure all and sundry in attendance that I am hard at work for some periodical of note. In a sense, I am – the Washington Post has agreed to pick up whatever story I come up with during my travels on the coast – though in a more immediate sense, as it portends to the speeches and photo-ops and etc., I am not. This sets up a rather curious series of events in which I am an actual journalist masquerading as a pretend journalist playing himself off as an actual journalist. Much fake scribbling in my notebook commences. The chiefs are fidgeting and adjusting their clunky gold wristwatches. Somewhere over my shoulders a boat race starts and finishes. Then the paramount chief rises, lifts the hem of his robe, and slowly, solemnly, wades into the lagoon.

Much has been written about the grave pilgrims and mourners who perform their funereal rites in the shit-filled waters of the Ganges, so perhaps there is nothing surprising about this mixture of the sacred and the profane. Still, I do not envy the chief as he pantomimes the offering of some gift to his ancestral spirits, then drags an imaginary net in from the water, to the rapturous cheers of the crowd. Minutes later, when an actual net is hauled in to mark the symbolic start of the new season, what is dredged up looks unlikely to be gracing many dinner tables anytime soon.

“Full of rubbish and a few fish,” laughs the man beside me.

It is the day’s dramatic climax, and just about everyone in attendance loses their shit. Much cheering and ululating, etc. For most in Elmina, the festivities are only about to begin: Edina Bakatue is a week-long festival, no doubt punctuated by the drinking of copious libations and the catching of the occasional fish. Having had to swim my way out of my fair share of African watering holes in the past, I realize I’ve hit my festival threshold. I’m ready to retreat to Oasis. I fight my way through the crowd, which has put such a press on the waterfront that I’m afraid the dignitaries might start toppling in. Finally, clear of the crush, walking down to Lagoon Street, I manage to catch my breath. Only then do I stick my hand in my pocket and realize someone’s made off with my phone. It is a terrible, sinking feeling to have one’s pocket picked – shame seems to be my prevailing sentiment, followed quickly by inchoate rage. I look around, wondering if there’s someone I can accost, or ask for help, or grab by the collar and shake vigorously. It’s useless; whoever did the deed no doubt did it four or five minutes ago, when I was wedged between the crowds. By now they’re long gone, as is my phone. Anger, then grief, and then the mood passes. I tell myself it was my own offering to the ancestors, or to wealth redistribution on this troubled continent, or whatever. Tomorrow I’ll be out thirty or forty bucks, which is probably the worst part of it. I tell the story to my taxi driver on the way to Cape Coast, and he just laughs and shakes his head.

May God For Give Us.

Monday, July 4.

Leaving Accra on Sunday morning, almost as soon as I’d arrived. After countless hours spent in traffic here, I’ve learned the comparable pleasure of navigating Accra on the weekend. Cars moving briskly, manic tro-tros slightly less manic. A blessing that most Ghanaians are no doubt packed into their houses of worship, singing and genuflecting, allowing harried travel writers to spirit through town unmolested.

The taxi drops me at the tro-tro rank beside Kaneshie Market; here, at least, is the usual big-city bedlam. Hawkers, hustlers, husky women selling flavorless biscuits, piles of transistor radios and LCD lights and other low-grade wares. All that color and chaos is like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych: The Garden of Cheap Chinese Imports. A tinny recording plays on loop, calling out the names of destinations. Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Cape Coast. Takoradi, Takoradi, Takoradi. Before long I am comfortably installed in the frontseat of a 10-person minivan. Tro-tros pull to the side of the road, some slender boy calling out to passengers, collecting fares. Decals on the rear windows: Trust Me. My Lord is Able. Big Daddy. Skinpain. I Am Very Sorry. Be Ware of Bad Friend. Be Ware Jesus Is Coming. May God For Give Us. If Not God…

It takes some time to flee the sprawl of greater Accra – an endless strip mall of shopping plazas and chop bars, auto parts shops and furniture stores. Much of the city’s surroundings seem to be under construction. New shopping centers and the garish villas of the nouveau riche testify to the emergence of Ghana’s growing middle class – the same urban professionals whose imported cars have created, in just the past five years, Accra’s notorious traffic jams. Work crews smoothing tarmac and pouring cement. They’re building an overpass to span the coast road, unfinished off-ramps and pylons like a forest of baobabs. A new four-lane highway points into the interior, optimistic and unfinished. I wonder how many new cars will be on the road before it’s completed.

Finally the city melts away, the road is flanked by the riotous greenery of the tropics – the starburst stalks of banana plants, the domino rows of coconut palms. Above them the power lines strung like the bars of a musical score. The air-conditioning is on full-blast; it feels gratuitous on this gray, drizzly afternoon. The mood is somber, middle-aged men resting their heads on briefcases, a young woman staring dreamily out the window. Cycling through the contacts on my cellphone, puzzling over half-remembered names and the inscrutable shorthand – PALM? COCO? – I used to fix them in time and space. I remember Deen, a garrulous young rasta: I had met him at Kokrobite, a Friday night, when we stood under the coconut palms and appraised the German girls dancing in their tight formations, repelling all advances. He had spent two years in Cairo, spoke fluent Arabic. He told me the pick-up lines he used to impress the Egyptian girls. (It seems they took a particular interest in their sub-Saharan cousins.) Then a procession of Kofis and Kwames. Then Leslie, an American girl in Paris, in town for a conference at La Palm hotel.

Then Mawuli. Of course, I remember Mawuli. A Sunday afternoon, Labadi Beach. Beers outside the Party Palace, heads bobbing to ‘70s disco standards and heavily synthesized ‘80s dance tracks. Young, raggedy rastas approached the tables, selling wood carvings and conches, giant prawns, beaded necklaces, Bob Marley posters. The false familiarity and charms, mouths frozen into pleasureless smiles. Four women sauntered past, heavily made-up, in mesh tops and tight pants, wigs askew.

“You don’t look so bad,” said one. And then, as if that weren’t clear: “You look good.”

We made some small talk: about America, and the weather, and the weather in America. She gave me a frank look. “You have a good dick,” she said. “I can see it popping up in your pants.”

“Um,” I said.

“My pussy is juicy, by the way,” she added.

By the way, you never really get used to that sort of thing. Two men at a nearby table – at first glance, as decent and church-going a pair of Christians as you’d find on Labadi Beach – smiled and laughed as the woman swayed her hips in search of other prey. “I need to change my skin color,” said one, “so I can get the girls.”

“Not the ones you want,” I said, hoping to reassure him.

Their names were Mawuli and Senyo, and they were, as I suspected, not your typical pair of Labadi hedonists. Neatly dressed, somewhere in their late 30s, they told me it was their first time to visit the beach. I teased Mawuli and asked if his wife knew he was there. “You told her you were going to a church meeting, didn’t you?” I said. He laughed heartily, his whole body rocking back and forth. “It is true,” he said, shaking his head. “I told her exactly that.” He appraised the assembled throngs – the leering beach boys, the women in wet t-shirts and bikini bottoms – and took on the grave air of a Sunday preacher. “What I have seen today, it is no good,” he said, those his face suggested otherwise.

Mawuli spoke to me freely, with the easy, generous spirit for which Ghanaians are known. He worked in pharmaceuticals; his company produced some sort of supplement for farm animals I didn’t fully understand. It was a slow, painstaking business, he said. At every turn the banks tried to bleed him dry. Every three months he had to repay 8,400 cedis on a 7,000 cedi loan. The extortionate interest rates charged by the banks – up to 40 percent, according to some estimates – was legalized theft, fully sanctioned by the government. “I think what we need for Ghana to develop is a leader who is a capitalist,” said Mawuli. Under the current system, it was impossible to take an idea, start a small business, grow it into a thriving operation that could employ dozens, support their extended families. The entrepreneurial spirit that was so strong – especially in the poorest Ghanaians – was being strangled by short-sighted policies. The banks were in it to make a fast buck, no matter how much the country suffered in the long term. (“For Africans to handle money, I do not advise it,” said Mawuli.) He had hopes to expand his business in the future, to provide security for his family, but wondered about the policy-makers who worked so hard to entrench the status quo. “What will you leave for future generations behind?” he asked rhetorically, as if an answer might be waiting on the winds.

These thoughts help the hours pass. It is a shorter ride to Cape Coast than I’d expected – we make it in two hours, flat – and suddenly we are climbing the hills, turning through narrow streets of one-lane traffic, everything manic and congested, the city falling away below us toward the choppy Atlantic coast. It is beautiful, like some medieval hill town, the stout ramparts of Fort Victoria resting atop it like a crown. I take a taxi to the waterfront, the Oasis Beach Resort, and find the place swarming with young white volunteers in different states of holiday disrepair. (A sign above the reception desk reassures us that the “Bar operates till the last one drops out.”) Quickly I am sizing the place up – the English girls in their bright cotton wraps, like pasty Fante princesses; the rastas at the bar, saying rasta things – and feel like I’ve been here before. On the beach I’m accosted by guys selling paintings of tall, slender African women with jugs on their heads. Original. Beyond them the fishing boats bobbing dangerously on the gray tumbling waves. The whitewashed walls of Cape Coast Castle, scarred by the wind and sea, atop a promontory jutting into the ocean.

The trafficking of human souls that began in the interior would, for many, reach its end point on these shores. The coast was a motley bazaar of forts and trading posts manned, at different points, by most of Europe’s great maritime powers: the Swedes and Danes and Dutch, the British and French, the Portuguese. Cape Coast was the most prominent of the thirty-odd castles that lined the shores of today’s Ghana. The first trading post was built atop the site in 1555 by the Portuguese, who named the place Cabo Corso – “short cape” – which was later corrupted into Cape Coast. A century later ownership passed to the Swedes, who built a permanent fort atop the remains of the Portuguese settlement and named it Carolusburg, after King Charles X. A turbulent decade followed, with the fort passing between the Swedes, the Danes, and the forces of the local Efutu king. (“The castle was built by foreigners,” a bookseller in town told me, “so the history of it is…a bit strange.”) The land on which it was built, noted Kwame Anthony Appiah in The New York Review of Books, belonged to the king, who “behaved like a shrewd landlord, playing European competitors off against one another to squeeze out better deals.” In 1665, an English fleet took the fort by sea; it was expanded by the English Chartered Company of Royal Adventurers to facilitate its use as a warehouse for the human cargo that made up Africa’s contribution to the epoch’s “triangular trade.” Ships sailed from European ports freighted with guns, rum, textiles and other Old World commodities; exchanged them for slaves along the African coast; sailed across the Atlantic, during which half of their luckless passengers perished; then traded them for coffee and sugar grown on New World plantations. Estimates vary on how many slaves were brutally taken from the continent: 10 million, 20 million – the numbers swell, begin to lose their meaning. Untold numbers passed through Cape Coast Castle’s notorious “Door of No Return.” After capturing it in the 17th century, the British made the building the administrative center for their sprawling Gold Coast colony. It would remain the colony’s de facto capital for the next 200 years.

On Monday morning, having paid my requisite dues to the seaviews and enjoyed a rastaless coffee, I visit the castle for an hour-long tour. I am late – a group has just departed – and am forced to play catch-up. Already the group has descended the long, dank, dimly lit passageway toward the male slave dungeons. Dull fluorescent bulbs hang from the ceiling; it is terrible to imagine this walk in darkness, the bodies pressed together, the fear and unknowingness hanging over everything. The tour group is standing in a small room, a few funeral wreaths propped against the wall. Each of the five chambers in the male dungeons could hold up to 200 slaves, says the guide. They were held for months, crowded together, poorly fed, standing and sighing and sleeping in their own shit. Force-marched from the interior, from their working fields and the moonlit villages they would never see again. A steel collar around the throat; a chain that bound them neck to neck. There were shackles around their ankles and shackles around their wrists, and what a sad shambling sight they were, leaving a trail of tears from the place where they were taken to the windy promontory where they were herded and pushed, as if off a cliff, into their terrible journey to the New World.

Ascending, now, into daylight, into the fresh sea air. Above the dungeons the British had built a chapel for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Ministering to the good white souls who had come to Africa to cart off its native sons. For many, the castle was a stain on their consciences, on their souls. Buried beneath the flagstones in the courtyard is the body of Philip Quaque, the black chaplain to Cape Coast’s white officers for much of the 18th century. Quaque wrote that in the four decades he had spent in Cape Coast, he had not received a single officer for Communion. “The only plea they offer is that while they are here acting against Light and Conscience they dare not come to that holy Table,” he wrote.

Waves pound and churn against the seawall below; the rocks are moss-covered, the ocean blue-gray, fishing boats bobbing and pitching as they set out beneath somber skies. We scatter across the ramparts with our cameras poised. Far below I see a man dropping his trousers and squatting in the shadow of the castle walls – lodging his historical grievance, no doubt, against the injustices of the slave trade. The imposing ramparts, the seaward cannons: it was all a bold bluff by the British. The castle was poorly fortified and undermanned; rarely were there more than 50 expatriates stationed along the entire coast, tasked with the duty of flying the flag for the Crown. Most were the scions of prominent slave-trading families, more schooled in vice and waywardness than in colonial administration. They were “[t]he misfits, the ne’er-do-wells, the alcoholics, the cheats and the bounders,” wrote William St. Clair, in The Door of No Return, “[who were] either never heard of again or…[came] home rich and triumphant, their mistakes atoned for and their honor redeemed.” The latter rarely proved true; the devastating toll of tropical diseases claimed the lives of most Europeans who set foot on the colony’s shores. Life at Cape Coast Castle was precarious, and the place was dangerously vulnerable to attack (it was almost taken twice: by the French in 1756, and by an Asante army in 1825). For all the military bluster, wrote St. Clair, the castle was little more than a “defended warehouse,” its storage rooms packed with rifles and gunpowder, its dungeons with the human chattel that, like the rest of the cargo, had been insured by thoughtful agents in London or Liverpool.

Descending again, we are led to the two female dungeons, each built to hold up to 300 women. For two months they waited until they were brought out in chains to join the others; perhaps one in three, says the guide, survived the long, brutal months of imprisonment. You can imagine them now, during those final moments, the men and women brought together again, a woman searching those dark, somber faces, transfigured by hunger and sorrow, for the familiar light of her husband’s eyes. One by one they bowed their heads and passed through the Door of No Return. The sunlight reflecting off the sea must have appalled after the darkness of captivity. Small boats pitched against the shore: the water here was too shallow for the slave ships, and so the passengers had to be transported by smaller vessels, the shoreline receding, the great ship like a fortress, until they were carried away from the land of their ancestors’ departed spirits.

Taking those same steps ourselves – the Door of No Return now thoughtfully widened, more accommodating – we have reached the emotional climax of the tour. But the scene outside is jarring; there is no time or space for somber reflection, everything is color and clamor and all the riotous facts of African life. Beside the castle is Cape Coast’s port, and the place is unhinged, cacophonous – the cries and curses of fishermen, the roughhousing of boys in the waves, the women selling meat pies and small metal bowls of spaghetti and water sachets, crying out “Yeah, water!” in a nasally sing-song. A forest of masts fly the flags of Ghana and Germany and Israel and Spain – allegiances to foreign football clubs, perhaps, to a girl once met on the beach. A gang of fisherman are working at their nets, pulling them apart with corded arms. Buckets and plastic wash basins full of fish sit in the sand, wet and silver and gleaming in the sunlight. The guide is trying to say something, but it’s impossible to hear him over the din of the port.

Turning back, our attention is brought to a sign posted over the entranceway – “Door of Return.” It was put there by the government, says the guide, as a symbolic welcome to the millions of Africans descended from slaves who are living in the diaspora. Many, the government hopes, will “return” to Ghana – whether for a visit to discover their roots, or to plant those roots anew and call the country home. This courting of the African diaspora continues in the bookshop, where some thoughtful entrepreneur has put together a useful tome entitled Points to Ponder: A Travel Guide When Considering Repatriating Home To Mother Africa/Ghana To Live or To Visit. (Of considerably less practical interest, I suspect, is the volume Ghana Over the Years: The Reflections of a Senior Citizen, by Charles K.B. Tachie-Mason, author of such popular titles as Basic Principles in Rearing Pigs and Steps in Rearing Chickens.) Elsewhere in Cape Coast Castle, the courting is of a less ambiguous commercial bent. In an ironic nod to its erstwhile inhabitants, the stockrooms once used to store guns, textiles, and other European commodities for exchange with slave traders are now souvenir shops; Palaver Hall, where red-faced officials once bartered over the prices of slaves, is the gallery of one Bernard Acheampong, whose nostalgic seascapes and village paintings hang beside stern notices to not take pictures, please.

By the time I’ve cleared the ramparts and run the gauntlet of souvenir stalls along the coast road, the clouds – literal, metaphorical – have parted. It is an afternoon of brilliant sunlight, one I am happy to pass on the beach beside Oasis, staring at the waves. Some token thought is given to the country of my birth on this, its 235th anniversary; still more to the continent I call home. It was on this day four years ago that my plane landed in Nairobi, that my African odyssey began: a long, meandering journey, still a work-in-progress. Not one given to religious sentiment, I offer a few pagan prayers of thanksgiving as the ocean drapes its skirt of seafoam across my feet. At my back, the place that has occupied these past four years with its friendships and follies and misfortunes and misgivings; before me, the open sea.

The people like Ghana because it is free.

Saturday, July 2.

Returning to Accra these four months later, doing in reverse the day-long journey by bus, it’s like seeing this city for the first time. Did everything seem so prosperous the last time around? The very high high-rises, the luxury sedans, the sprawling suburbs, like an endless strip mall. Suddenly, dear, dirty Ouaga feels like even more of a provincial backwater – some ancient city, perhaps, unearthed by the harmattan winds, its maquis and boulangeries the relics of some lost Mandingo tribe.

Already that city is obscured behind a curtain of dust. Accra, its traffic jams and bowel smells, is a reality that is quickly forced upon you. We arrive at half-past four in the morning, the city already lively, the commuters packing into tro-tros, hoping to beat the traffic. The long drive to East Legon is a smooth one: at the start of the workday, it is toward Accra Central that all roads lead. At Kofi’s house Regina, the housekeeper, is there to greet me with her lyric sing-song. Kofi is away in Lagos; he won’t be back till next week; once again, I’ll have his place to myself.

These next few days in Accra will be brief, busy. I’m preparing to spend the next three weeks on the coast, researching a story about Ghana’s slave forts that I’m hoping to sell to some major American and British dailies. It is, on the surface, not the easiest of travel stories to pitch: following in the footsteps of the slave trade makes for a somber holiday. But foreign tourist arrivals have risen by almost 150 percent since President Obama’s visit in 2009 – something local tourism officials have dubbed the “Obama effect.” Many are black Americans, hoping to rediscover their roots (a complicated process: an excellent piece I found in The New York Times’ archives described the shock felt by black Americans upon being called obruni – a term typically used for whites). Following in the footsteps of W.E.B. Dubois, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, and other prominent black Americans who visited Ghana during the feverish post-independence years. It was a reciprocal relationship: Kwame Nkrumah himself studied in the States. Today, the number of Ghanaians living in America is second only to Nigeria as the largest diaspora population from the continent.

There will be time for all that later: on my first day back in Accra, I sleep till noon. It is a gray day, cool, threatening rain; not without some relief do I discover that the terrible humidity of February has passed. The weather is almost pleasant. Packing into a crowded tro-tro in Adjiringanor isn’t half as soul-wearying as it was four months ago. Nowhere do you see the overdressed men and husky women dabbing at their foreheads and waving their handkerchiefs, as if in surrender. I’ve set aside the afternoon for practical considerations – the changing of flights, the purchasing of toiletries – and decide, after a long, exhausting bus ride, that a visit to the Accra Mall is as much as I’m willing to dare on my first day back.

A bad move. It is July 1, Republic Day. Only after arriving at the mall do I realize the schools and government offices are closed, the country is celebrating. The mall is packed. Every spoiled teenager and overfed toddler in the greater Accra area has chosen this day to cram the food court and bumrush the arcade and slouch against the walls, affecting hip-hop postures. Conspicuous wealth abounds. If the Accra Mall were an independent republic, its flag would be printed on crisp 100 cedi notes. I elbow my way into the Internet café, fight my way through the line at Creamy’s Inn for a cup of soft-serve ice cream. It is one of those rare days when Makola or Kaneshie market would have been stress-free by comparison.

Little is accomplished by the evening: the Air Namibia offices are closed for the holiday, and the one book I’m hoping to find for my slave-trade story is nowhere to be found in the mall’s single low-rent bookshop. Often I wonder how my temperament would change in Africa if I weren’t a freelance writer – if I had to accomplish actual tasks on a daily basis. Defeated by a fruitless day, still with an hour to kill before my dinner plans with Lucia – my housemate from Ouaga, in town for an undoubtedly thrilling water and sanitation conference – I escape the mania of the food court for a cup of coffee at Tante Marie.

The tables inside are full; outside, the terrace affords fine views of the parking lot. On a day like this, you take what you can get. I’m on my way to an empty table when a man sitting by himself sees me and does a double-take, thinking he recognizes me from somewhere. You grow a lot less self-conscious about confusing a black man for another black man in Africa when you realize how often such confusion is reciprocated toward whites. I am not, alas, the obruni he was looking for. Small talk commences, and I gesture toward his table, asking to join him. Such a relief, after those long months in Burkina, to fall so easily into conversation here in Accra. The man’s name is Kwame; he is plump, serious, well-dressed – the sort of man you would find in an advertisement for The Africa Report, forehead thoughtfully furrowed over a copy of The Africa Report. He has just finished a smoothie and is preparing to order another smoothie. Boys are catcalling in the parking lot. An SUV passes, and another. Two men in shiny shoes and open-collared shirts, smiling like money.

(Here I remember Collins, a waiter at one of the Labadi beach bars who I met back in February. An aspiring rapper, he performed a song for me with the memorable hook, “How can I buy the Gucci?” It was, he explained, about a young man struggling to find love in Accra. The rapper wanted to take his girl to a fried rice joint, but she would only go if he could take her to Frankie’s – a favorite of local scenesters in Osu. The girls wanted to hear “Gucci,” said Collins, even if you couldn’t afford it. In effect, whether or not you could buy the Gucci mattered less than whether or not you could promise it.)

Kwame sitting there, his shirt unbuttoned partly down his chest, a wristwatch on his arm the size of an Aztec sundial. He looks out across the parking lot with an air of beneficence, as if he were Mammon himself, bestowing his blessings on the assembled shoppers. “The great thing about Ghana is that people are ready to buy anything you want to sell them,” he says. “It is very easy to make money if you keep your head straight.”

Kwame, it seems, has kept his head straight. He was born in Ahuri, a lush hill town an hour’s drive from Accra, and educated in the U.K. He lives now in Tema, where he runs a thriving import-export business and engages in various side rackets. Part-time he’s studying broadcast journalism; he has a time slot on Choice FM where he presents the news. “They are thinking of moving me to traffic,” he says. I point out that this is like the gift that keeps on giving. Life in Ghana has been good to Kwame. I ask if he ever thinks about going back to the U.K. and he laughs and shakes his head. “I have a business, I own a football team, I am starting to go into politics,” he says. “Why would I mess with that?”

Twenty minutes later a friend turns up, Shirley, all tits and teased hair and an air about her that could best be described as “willing.” Kwame gives her an affectionate little half-hug, less dirty old man than paterfamilias. Shirley can’t be a day over 19; Kwame is four days shy of his 31st birthday. There is some unspoken history, I suspect, between them. The two of them withdraw into their own conversation, something to do with an older man – a much older man – who is offering to pay for Shirley’s books. That’s how he put it: “I want to buy you books.” Shirley, batting her big false eyelashes, making him sound like St. Thomas Aquinas. Kwame does up his face in an expression of profound disbelief. “He is going to take you to the hotel,” he says, “and show you the special room with books.” My warmth for him growing. Shirley shakes her head, shakes the little ringlets of hair over her shoulders, her eyelashes like windshield wipers. The man is a fat cat, a former minister. His interest in the education of the nation’s youth is admirable. Leaving the restaurant, Kwame with his fat graceful hand on the small of Shirley’s back, things seem to have reached a foregone conclusion. Shirley has defended the man’s high intentions, his honor. What could be more innocent than a noble patron buying a young girl books?

Kwame, sighing, making little anguished faces, steers her into the parking lot. He has done his best; the fallout will come later, after mistakes have been made. (Earlier, speaking of the government’s failures to curb the growing traffic crisis, he observed, “We wait until there is a problem, and then we solve it. But for the future? We are not imaginative.”) Shirley departs into the night with two styrofoam containers of takeaway chicken, Lucia arriving with a big smile and big appetite. We get into Kwame’s car for the drive to Osu, whirling around Tetteh Quashie circle, Kwame pointing out new shopping complexes and housing developments, almost all of them tied to family members of the ruling clique. “They say this is a democracy, but I call it a monarchy,” he says. “If you get into that place” – meaning State House – “you share it with everyone around you.” The whole city seems to be a fiefdom, tied to the fortunes of presidents present and past. Kwame laughs it off with grudging admiration. If there is some statesman, he says, maybe “he did some good things, but he also stole a lot of money. As surely as you are criticizing him, there is someone who is defending him passionately.”

Looming high above the traffic, a monstrous new luxury apartment complex is being built, Villaggio Primavera – it sounded like a bad dish you ordered at the Olive Garden. It was bankrolled by a man called Tressaco, an Italian real estate mogul who had also built the upscale gated community where Lucia’s aunt lived in East Legon. According to Kwame, the man traverses the country in his private helicopter. Kwame himself has had dealings with the Italian: a new Tressaco complex is being built in Tema, adjacent to where Kwame owns land. He had bought the parcels five years ago, at $5,000 a piece; now Tressaco is hoping to push Kwame out – he offered $35,000 a parcel just a few months ago. Kwame laughs; he is holding out; he knows the land is worth much more. “In five years, I will be set up,” he says with assurance.

Osu, High Street, the neon scrawl, the lit-up shop windows. We join the long queue of gently braking cars, taillights flaring. Outside the window young men selling cheap belts, soccer jerseys, women with bags of fried plantains. It was here that I met Fatao, a young Burkinabé artist, four months ago. “I am Mr. Quality,” he said, by way of introduction, “because I make quality things.” A skinny boy in a soiled Carolina Panthers jersey and ragged flip-flops, his browning teeth, colorful cloth bags slung over both shoulders. I’d like to meet him again, to talk about Ouagadougou, to show off my threadbare French. He had spent three years in Accra, sleeping in the empty markets at night with other Burkinabés. They had taught him to stitch together the bags he sold to tourists. (Or tried to. “They do now want quality things,” he said sadly of three British girls, their faces tight with rejection, as we eyed their long, tanned legs.) In Côte d’Ivoire, the police harassed him for his working papers. In Burkina, they were constantly demanding his carte d’identité. But in Accra he had found some sort of home. “The people like Ghana because it is free,” he said to me.

No sign of Fatao now, his bags, his immigrant woes. On Lucia’s last night we splurge on dinner at Monsoon, the tables crowded with well-dressed whites, the accents American and English, Italian and German. Hearing the flat, brassy notes of some prairie state, I realize with longing how much I miss the white noise of French. Lucia, consigned to another ten months in Burkina, seems to be soaking it all up, storing it away in some pocket of memory. She has planned her escapes: a conference in Kigali in July, a few weeks in London in August. Soon it will be the holidays, Christmas in Cape Town. The pages of the calendar start to fall away.

After dinner we’re haggling with the taxi drivers on High Street, asking 25, 30 cedis for the drive to East Legon. A young driver plants himself in front of me. “How much you pay?” he asks.

“How much do you pay?”

He makes a face of deep concentration. The burning of mental energy, like some fossil fuel. What price can he squeeze out of us?

“Fifteen cedi,” he says.

“My friend,” I say, taking him warmly by the shoulder, “you’re getting ripped off.”

The traffic is thin by now, close to midnight. The bars are filling, roadside spots with sound systems turned toward the street. Skinny, shuffling bodies on outdoor dancefloors. The police shine a flashlight into our car at a checkpoint and wave us through. We drop off Lucia at her aunt’s estate, tall walls and Buckingham Palace gates hardly obscuring the garish villas behind them. Yes, there is money to be made in Ghana. By the time I reach Kofi’s house – much progress has been made; the place is almost finished – it seems positively quaint by comparison.

Just minutes after locking the gate my phone chirps. It is Regina; she’s out on the street. She’s just getting back from church – ! – and I’ve locked her out. I let her in and her face is rapturous, still damp with Christian sweat. She says she’ll see me in the morning and walks shuffle-stepped toward the house, nephew bundled to her back, humming church hymns to herself.

It is too beautiful to me.

One Saturday afternoon last month, I was invited to a going-away party for a young Frenchwoman who had been working as an assistant to my friend Lasso at Napam Beogo. It was Fanny’s fourth visit to Burkina Faso, and she was staying, as she had on previous trips, with a Burkinabé family in a small compound of cement-block rooms in a crowded quartier nearby. The day was characteristically hot; when I arrived, family and neighbors had already arranged themselves on rickety wooden benches in the shade of two tall mango trees in the yard. Fanny, who was bringing back to Paris three bulging bags of locally produced dresses and handbags – one of the many fair-trade businesses Lasso ran out of Napam – was still busy arranging and rearranging her things. Her forehead was knit with cares. Earlier that morning, an Air France saleswoman had told her she could only check 25 kg. worth of baggage for the flight to Paris – 5 kg. less than she’d been promised on her email confirmation the week before. Now she had to find an Internet café so she could print out her e-ticket, in case there were problems at the airport. She still hadn’t finished packing. And then all those goodbyes!

While she bustled about the yard, I sat with two young neighbors, Francois and Benoit, quiet, slender youths who spoke to me in the halting English they were learning in secondary school. Francois told me had dreams to visit America: to see Miami and Las Vegas, places he had known from American movies and TV shows. Las Vegas had a special attraction for him. “I see it on TV, and it is too beautiful to me,” he said. Sitting in the drowsy afternoon heat, with the flies buzzing in our ears and a string of listless days stretched out before him, it was easy to see why the neon-lit Strip, the carnival bustle of Sin City, might seem like a beautiful thing to Francois.

The women of the house came and went, carrying pots, gathering children, emptying bottles of ginger juice into big plastic washbasins filled with chunks of ice. On the table were an assortment of oversized pots that looked like they would have been perfectly suitable in an army canteen or police mess hall. The men sat and fidgeted. Soon plates were handed out; two pots – one of spaghetti, the other with a sort of vegetable ghoulash – were placed on the ground in front of a well-dressed man, a schoolteacher. He heaped a great pile of food onto his plate, then passed the pots to the man beside him. In that way, moving clockwise, the spaghetti and sauce made their way around the circle. We sat hunched forward, elbows out, eating quickly. The women were still inside. Someone told a lewd joke which I didn’t entirely follow (punchline: “Do you want to speak French, or do you want to eat meat?”). I had brought a bottle of wine, which posed certain problems since there were more drums at the party (1) than corkscrews (0). A succession of sharp instruments were brought out and used with varying degrees of success, until the cork was finally pried from the neck of the bottle. The wine was already lukewarm. We drank it from enamel bowls and plastic cups. Gradually, a rasta began tapping a beat onto his djembe. The rhythm gathered pace, until the children started dancing, flinging their bare, dirty limbs every which way, stomping up clouds of dust. When the rasta finished, a few of us applauded. Then he passed the drum to his left, and another man – less practiced, but no less confident in the rhythm he began beating out – took up the tune where the rasta had left off.

Watching Fanny as she moved between members of her surrogate family, laughing, choking up, wrapping her arms around them with an easy grace, I thought about how much was missing from my life in Ouagadougou. Fanny seemed entirely at home here, in a way that I – that most expats, here and elsewhere in Africa – never would. During the crisis in April, when bullets were flying all around us in Gounghin, she told me that she just wanted to be back at the house with her family; her voice strained with emotion. Her love was generous, genuine, and entirely reciprocated: the whole damn place was full of devotion. I could never really bring myself, despite my best efforts, to give so wholly of my heart in foreign lands. Finishing my spaghetti and room-temperature wine, walking along the road in search of a taxi, I wondered if it was my stingy temperament more than my whiteness that would always make me a foreigner in Africa.

This irreconcilable contradiction – the need to love and be loved, pulling against an equally strong need to be my own cranky self – has brought both many anxious nights and many opportunities for redemption. Often I’ve thought, as I doled out small acts of goodwill, here and elsewhere, whether my charity had less to do with its subjects than with a need to stir up some long-buried, almost-lost emotion – to remind myself that I am capable of goodness and compassion, too. (Often I’ve thought, too, that the act of giving itself should be morally neutral: that for the recipients who have paid their hospital bills or their child’s school fees or simply felt their faith in mankind redeemed, whether or not I felt ethically squared with the whole transaction was beside the point.) Last week, on my way home from the gym, walking along Ave. Charles de Gaulle at dusk, I was approached by two young men, English speakers, raggedly dressed, talking with the lilt and inflections of West African pidgin. They were Gambians; they had been here two days and needed help. They spoke no French – they smiled sheepishly at this admission, as if it were a terrible secret. The older and bolder of the two, Emmanuel, explained that they had left Banjul on a bus bound for Libya; they were trying to make it to Europe; they got side-tracked in Niamey, and somehow ended up in Ouagadougou instead. It was a story so improbable, so implausible, that all the false notes seemed to ring with authenticity. Surely it was too tall a tale to be made up! Why would two Gambian conmen be working their hustle in Ouagadougou, of all places? And besides, what African migrant didn’t have an incredible story to tell? (My friend Denis Mvogo, a Cameroonian, had been living in Morocco for more than two years when he suddenly felt compelled to leave in search of better fortunes. He was a writer; he had heard that Ouagadougou was a supportive place for budding artists. He left for Algeria but was twice detained at the border. In Algiers, he spent months hustling for cash to pay his way to Burkina. He ran out of money again in northern Niger: he was stuck in a barren town where the emaciated cows chewed on cigarette butts. Finally, he was able to contact a sister in Cameroon; she sent him money through Western Union – enough to make it to Niamey, and then, Ouaga. If he had approached me with this story on the street, looking for some small charity, what would I have said?) I was tired – I’d had a long work-out – but I wanted desperately to believe them. They needed some money for food and cellphone credit. If they could only reach their mother in Gambia, she could arrange to send them money through Western Union. Still wary, I offered them my phone. A call was made, and then another. Their mother was in the village, they couldn’t reach her. They would have to try again the next day. I offered them a small bit of money – CFA 2000, about $4.50. It was, I knew, my way of hedging my bets: of giving just enough to feel like I was helping, but not enough to feel like I was being duped. I had been in the same position on this continent countless times before. Someday, I’ll offer a class in higher mathematics on the White Man’s Calculus in Africa.

The act of giving, I also knew, on my last days in Ouagadougou, was a way of compensating for the fact that I could not be a better person, a better friend – for the fact that, going back to the story I opened this post with, I could never be Fanny. Leaving a country, disappointed with the meagerness of my accomplishments, I always feel something of the spirit of Dr. Colin in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, who, turning his back one afternoon on the lepers at his hospital, “felt some of the shame of a deserter as he walked away from his tiny segment of the world’s battlefield.” I have occupied this small corner of Ouagadougou for the past four months, fighting my minor skirmishes. Now I am packing up my things and, like a true soldier of fortune, setting off for another front line.

A few weekends ago, my friend Davy Ouandaogo took me to the house of Valentine Sankara – the brother of the late revolutionary leader, Thomas. Valentine and his family lived in a modest compound not far from Davy’s home: a mango tree in the yard, some furniture arranged on the tiled patio, two unmarked plots where the bodies of the grand-mère and grand-père were buried. (Davy himself had a connection to the Sankara family, through the mother of his son.) We sat there in stiff armchairs while Valentine – a tall, somber man – reclined in a white tank top and cotton shorts, watching coverage of some parliamentary meeting on RTB. At the appointed hour, his young daughter duly came into the room and switched the channel to her favorite Indian telenovela. Valentine sighed and showed me around the house. In the living room there was an antique clock, a wall calendar from the Christian Children’s Fund of Canada, gilt-framed portraits of some ancient grandmother and paterfamilias. He showed me pictures of his brother, a young, handsome man in military fatigues staring bravely into the camera, as if already bracing for whatever treachery the future had in store.

The next weekend, Davy took me to see Thomas’ grave. It was in a shabby cemetery buried deep in Wemtenga; a sprawling landfill had grown beside it, and scraps of paper and plastic bags blew across the graves. Davy wound between the plots on his moto until we reached the former president’s tombstone: a big block of cement on which the white paint had flaked off, with the words “President de Faso…Chef de L’Etat…Camarade Capitaine” barely legible. It was a sad tribute to the man who had, perhaps more than any other, once carried the nation’s hopes on his shoulders. Two mangos had been laid atop the burial plot in offering; beside them was a small plastic sack filled with dirt, a dry branch poking out like a skeletal finger. Flanking Sankara’s were the graves of a dozen other soldiers who had died beside him during the coup that brought President Blaise Compaoré to power. Davy walked somberly around the faded tombstone, as if aware of everything its disrepair signified. But he was hopeful, too; he believed in the spirit of the protests of recent months, and knew there was a generation of young Sankaristas who would follow the example of their departed leader.

Yesterday, I met with Davy for our final afternoon together; his text messages, with their memorable “yo frèro” salutations, will be sorely missed. Late in the day, after the worst of the afternoon’s heat was behind us, he took me to see the small kiosque near his house that I was helping him rent – a business that he hoped to have up and running in the next few weeks. He laid out his designs for me: here he would arrange some chairs and tables on the street where his clients could enjoy their beers, there he would plant a small jardin of flowering plants, here he could grill brochettes in the evening. It was a modest place for his modest hopes. (My mind was called back, for some reason, to the wooden board hanging from a tree outside his home, with the Biblical “proverbes du jour” scrawled across it in chalk.) Describing his plans, Davy said he didn’t want to be like his friends – young men of meager means who had nothing to provide for their children. (The landlord, young and slightly disheveled, grinned and scratched his ass in the yard, explaining to me, “Moi, je bois trop!”) “Je combate,” Davy said. “Je lutte, je cherche.” He was searching for a better life – not for himself, but for Nicolas Dieudonne, the four-year-old son living with his mother in the far-off village Davy only visited every few months. He knew his kiosque would be a success: driving down the city’s dusty backroads on his moto, the whole world seemed to cry out to him, embrace him with their greetings.

J’aime tout le monde,” he said. “Je travaille pour tout le monde.”