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.