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!!!”
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.