ENTRY 1: (Not all my pictures are uploaded but the words need to be downloaded. Come back often for pictures.)
I woke up this morning to Twi flowing through my brain. Phrases slipped in and out of my conscious – disembodied voices emerging from an immersion in the collective voices of Ghanaian radio hosts shouting for seemingly no good reason, hawkers selling everything from credit to plantain chips to tvs to bofloat to cultural artifacts, passer-bys yelling out to one another as they move in their day to day, tro-tro mates sussing you to come over and deposit your 1 or 2 cedis into their hands…
Ghana is in me. But am I in Ghana? In a physical sense, no because I am back in the states. What about in a metaphorical sense? Is there a place for me in that vibrantly intense country where everything seems so much more immediate, so much more NOW than here? Is there a place for my timidity when dealing with the bartering of everything from taxi rides to purses to eggs to becoming comfortable sitting in tro-tros to exercising my Twi? Does Ghana have a place for a soul like mine – uncertain of its own destiny but seeking a place to one day, and finally, call home?
Was I happy in Ghana? Yes. And overwhelmed and inundated and brimming over with everything. I am sure it had to do with the limited time – a two week span wherein I was everywhere all the time. Arranging meetings, trying to find internet, sitting hours in traffic, waking up early because the roosters have no sense of decorum and dumsor comes when you least expect it made me very tired. Never having a place to just sit and be still because we were ripping and roaring was very hard for me but it was also, in a strange twist, perhaps exactly what I needed?
A part of me simply wants to sit in my memory sauna, steeped in all the sights, sounds and senses of Ghana. Yet another desires to make known the odd little thoughts casually strolling about my brain. I feel as if there is much to say and yet nothing much to be said. It is a strange juxtaposition, I know but can you blame me? My perfectionist self wants to start at the very beginning so I don’t forget anything.
My plane ride to Kotoka was nerve-wracking. My guts were twisted in anxiety, unsure as to what was awaiting me – nervous about the next two weeks. It wasn’t great. I arrived, walked down the stairs to the waiting bus, feeling the heat. I was finally in Ghana. Months of planning were now about to reveal itself — would this trip be good? What would I meet? What would happen? Did I bring enough money? Would my lodging be okay? What about dumsor? So many questions begged to be answered. No chill to answer them in.
Kotoka airport is not very large. I retrieved my baggage with no problem and lugged them behind me. I was stopped a few times by individuals who may or may not have been employees – it was hard to see who they were and why they were stopping me.
“What flight did you come from?” – SA 210
“Where did you come from”? – Washington, DC
I answered these questions straight-forwardly and firmly as is my general manner when in a place of uncertainty. Act as if I know what I’m doing and pray that no one questions me.
I emerged into the open area outside that was ringed by people waiting for other people. It was very disconcerting for me to see all those people out there staring at me. Could they tell I wasn’t from here? Did I look like I was from far away? Where was my ride? My eyes swept the area, quickly trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Finally I found my name on cards of those who were awaiting Shypmate packages from me and then the man who had been sent to pick us up. We were followed by some helpful gentlemen who wished to take our bags from us in the hopes that their efforts would be rewarded with a few cedis. I just wanted to get in the car so I could get to our lodging and take a long shower.
Ghana was all around me. People were all around me. Everywhere I looked, brown faces looked back at me. It is impossible to underestimate the power of being around your own. All my life I’ve had to share my existence with a mixture of people – most who don’t look anything like me; so how can I explain what it means to be surrounding by people whose very skin is like yours? I don’t know how to explain the sense of relief – that now I don’t stand out because I’m black. I may stand out because I have a certain “Dadda B” look to me but at least everyone looks familiar; everyone is black.
Needing to exchange money, we turned in at Nungua Junction Mall. It would be a commonly returned to place in the few days ahead. We grabbed some rather expensive jollof and then hopped back into the waiting taxi. My anxiety rose again as we made the final turn to our hostel. The street is a very small unmarked, unpaved road with deep indentations, flanked by a church and various small homes. We pulled up to a blue gate. Going straight-away in, I breathed a sigh of relief to see that the house we had selected on AirBnB was actually what we had arrived at.
I made my way upstairs, dumped my luggage and then walked around. The space is airy, comfortable with wooden accents and a large wooden table in the middle of the downstairs living room that is flanked by wooden seats. On both sides are smaller living space areas with wicker furniture. There is a large kitchen and three rooms downstairs. Upstairs there is another living space that has a kitchen area with wicker furniture and two bedrooms. I chose the larger of the two.
Finally dispensing all my things into the room, I sat down to eat my jollof and then to take a shower. Emma, the young man who had been asked to come and help out with the house since the housekeeper was away on bereavement leave, informed me that a young man had been calling to get directions to the place. A man whose face and presence I had only seen online. A man who had the distinct novelty of being the first to show up and greet me in Ghana. A man whose voice I often heard only online. A man whose presence made me squeal in delight. A young poet by the name of Kwame Write….
I rushed downstairs, threw open the doors and squeezed him with the joy that only many years of separation can possess. I couldn’t imagine it. Here I was, wondering how I was going to get in touch with various individuals as the lodging’s “internet” was only just a laptop modem that required credit to be placed on it and I, being sans laptop, couldn’t access my WhatsApp or my Text messages. So it was with a gleeful squeal that I hugged Mr Write – held him for a very long time. This was a man whose poetry resonated deep within – whose words excited and challenged me to higher heights and he was here. Right here! In my arms! I spent the next few hours alternating between smiling and exclaiming, “Eiiiiii Kwaaaaaaaaaaame Write!” and he, ever ready with a quip or two indulged my little happy spells. Ghana was not yet real to me. Shoot, Kwame wasn’t real to me.
Could it be that I was finally in the presence of the first poet whom I had ever collaborated with? I bounced. I bounced up and down in my chair, unable to contain my excitement. I had no idea he would show up. I had no idea he would take the initiative to be there and there he was – slim, cocoa colored, bright eyes and wide smile. Kwame’s presence during the trip would turn out to be one of the best aspects of my time in Ghana simply because he reflected, in so many ways, the genuine and famed Ghanaian hospitality that I had long since ceased to sense in my own life. Yes, I still offer guests food and drink but that only touches the surface of true Ghanaian hospitality.
It is more than a feeling or an expression — it is a way of life. It is an understanding that people help one another — no matter what the cost, simply because that is what we do. There’s no question. There’s no consideration that the ask is too great or the matter too complex. There is merely the expectation that we give to others and others give to us. That is how life must be. And there is nothing behind the gestures or the words that should cause anyone alarm. Over and over again during my two week stay, I asked myself, “how is this man doing this? How is he spending so much time to take care of us? How is he protecting us? What kind of love does he have that he would do this?” I am yet to fully grasp it. It is such a foreign concept to me — having spent most of my life in the States where everything is quid pro quo — one good deed is done with a thought that someone is owed. It is a concept that I will see time and time again — and one that will continue to surprise, please and challenge me. Can I do the same?
So here I am, still not able to sense that I am in Ghana and Kwame is here. He is sitting in my living space, talking, clad in a yellow horizontally striped cotton tee, khakis and black boots (which I cannot for the life of me understand given the Ghana heat). I shoot video of him to remember him by – to hear his voice again, to see his mannerisms, to watch his long limbs gesticulate as he makes his points. We sit, chatting – not speaking of anything particularly intense, but discussing philosophical ideas. I am happy. My mind is engaged in one of its favorite past-times — intellectual conversation while my heart is happy – I have finally met my Poetic Crush.
I sit there wishing I had some sort of poem to share with him but I have nothing. The past few weeks have been heavy with preparation and I have not felt that urge to write. I have brought my travel journal, hoping that I will scribble some words on page but as of now, I only have joy.
A few hours later and what will soon be a familiar sound – creaky gate scratching gravel – catches my attention. I am like an anxious jack-rabbit. The entire time Kwame and I have been talking, I have been bouncing up and down in the seat, walking to the balcony, staring out the window, exclaiming at being in Ghana, stopping to listen to the sound of roosters, people, music floating in the air around me. I hear a voice – my sister the PhD has arrived. I jump up and hug her, lifting her up before I set her down again. It has been a long time since we last saw one another. Much too long. I introduce her to the Poet and then resume chatting with everyone. Not long after, she showers and returns, fresh to laugh with myself, the Poet and my travel mate from DC – Chi.
Time is easy, slow in our languid upstairs area. Laughter is prevalent and genuine. Not wanting to be left out, the heat makes its presence felt. I am glad I am wearing a light fabric blue dress and can pull up my hair. Again, the creak of the gate and I run downstairs. Again my heart jumps. Can it truly be who I think it is? Kola Nut? Thomas? Nii? My gosh! How did they…what…who? I hug everyone and Kola lifts me up off the ground, turning me around and around and around. It is too much to believe. In classic, GH fashion they carry cold liters of Fanta and Coke. IT’S A PARTY! Soon enough the party moves downstairs and Nii’s new speakers carried by me from DC are put to their debut. Hip-life rocks the room while the fans rotate (oooh, I like how you rotate). Dancing begins. PhD, Chi and I are dancing maniacs so it’s less than 2 seconds before we are on the make-shift dance floor, grooving. The guys watch, in amazement at our moves. Something tells me they weren’t expecting this — at all. More people arrive – Fafa, Daphne, David – all members of a WhatsApp Poetry Group I belonged to.
Soon we are all sweaty — sliding side to side, hips low and swinging, feet shifting, arms extend and pull in — and happy. Our night is full. Hunger comes upon us – so off we go to Nungua Junction Mall. Music avails our ears – youngsters move in choreograph formation to the sounds of Bisa and Gasmilla. We move in closer and are sussed – we are in someone’s way. But that doesn’t diminish our happy. We stand in a cluster, taking videos and pictures. Every so often we imitate their movements – their energy is high, joy in their steps. It’s Sunday and why not? We take our time, still rolling about. People are everywhere – sitting, standing, chatting, listening, watching. I am incapable of making any decisions. I’M IN GHANA! Who can think? Who cares what to think? Who knows what to think? I don’t. I’m just a big ball of feeling.
Finally we decide upon wings and jollof. They come fried, the sauce on the side — different from what we are used to but it’s food. And we’re hungry. The night continues – we’ve been in two taxis already. This is our third. Kwame bargains down the prices. It is obvious we are not from here and even more obvious that the drivers wish to remove as many cedis from our pockets as they possibly can. Hopping into the taxi, three in the back and one up front (a formation that will be common this first week of our trip), we go back to Peacehouse where the party continues. Someone has taken my camera and is busily snapping shots. I hope he’s a good photog. The night wanes. We are tired. It is hard to get the younger ones to leave. I have to remind myself that they haven’t spent 7 hours waiting for a flight to Ghana and then 10 hours on a flight and then God only knows how many more hours up and entertaining.
It’s been wonderful but I’m hot and sticky…Ghana’s heat is impressive…
My first morning in Ghana dawns. I’m more excited than an ant in a honey farm. I sit outside in the cool of the front yard wishing I didn’t have to go back inside. It’s nice to chat and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood. I’m actually in Ghana! Who would have thought? But here I am, chatting away in my ntoma outside while the sweet air wraps around me, playing hide and seek. I think it’s just as happy as I am that I am back.
We will be off to the races but first, waakye. I am a bit concerned as my American stomach may have qualms with the nourishment but I’m much too stubborn and foolhardy to accept caution. Indeed, I throw it to the wind and eat my waakye — with my hands — at the table. The waakye is spicy – the noodles are vermicelli and the shito is GOOD. I’ve never had waakye this mouth-watering in all my life. In fact, I normally stay away from waakye in the states because I find it too thick and mushy for my liking. This waakye is savory, just the right amount of everything in it. Unfortunately, I can’t eat it all. I think my stomach is full on the thought of Ghana and waakye so it can’t handle all of it, but it’s okay. I’m deliriously happy. Kwame and Emma sit down to eat with me. It feels good to be eating my first real meal with others. It feels right. I do wish there was more cool air circulating in the downstairs living space but it is what it is. WP comes down and eats some eggs. She’s not quite as giddy about the food as I am, but that’s okay. She’s not Ghanaian (wink).
After breakfast, my cousin M’o stops by to pick up some make-up items I brought back for her. She’s rocking a see-through top that overlays her shirt — quite fun and promises me one. It’s cool. She can’t stay long but she manages to pull a promise out of me to come and see about her and the fam the next day. After she is whisked away, I shower and get ready for the day. The water pressure is very low but I do what I can. We’re off to the races!
First off it’s the tailor’s. WP and Chi are intent on sewing outfits. They’ve brought lace and ankara. Discussions occur about styles and seams, fabrics and fashion. I have no fabric. My goal is to buy ready made outfits. I don’t want to mess around with getting them done for me. My impatience shows – I just wanna grab and go. or is it my Americanness? Negotiations done, Kwame takes us Tema. Tema is quieter, smaller, less sparsely populated than the faster-paced Accra. A long highway along the ocean connects Tema to Accra. Immediately, there is a sense of calm. I don’t see as many people rushing about. We arrive at Agbamami where I exclaim at the wooden decor. I know that if I were to move to Ghana I would buy all wooden Ghana furniture — perhaps even have them carve a family seal into them.
I’m still giddily silly. I can’t contain my joy. I’m not thinking about anything per se — I’m just feeling, just allowing myself to simply be — to engage in my environment in all the many silly wonderful ways that come to mind. I can’t stop smiling. The smiles get larger when Cugino shows up!!!! I wasn’t sure he would be able to make it but there he is! In living color! Suave, sophisticated, smelling good and being sweet! The whole meal – full of incessant chatter – is punctuated by laughter. Cugino has eaten so he doesn’t order any food but he sits next to me and I smile at him a lot. It’s so good to finally see his handsome face! My family is good-looking!
Banku is on the list for today. Kwame asked for suggestions and I said I was cool with banku which is what led to our arriving at Agbamami anyway. I dig that word, “Agbamami”. It just sounds super cool. We ask the waiter to snap our photos. He can’t seem to grasp the concept of moving in closer. When we urge him to move closer, he moves an inch – taking pictures that make us seem so very far away. I’m not pleased but Warrior Princess to the rescue! She takes one of us that is far better than any before but I do wish she could have been in it. Our night has not yet ended. The 9jas are in search of meat pie. We go downstairs to the store but are told that the meatpie lady has left. #teamsadface. Nonetheless, there is a frozen food section. And that means FAAAAAAAAAAANYOOOGOOOOOOOOOOO! It’s been 17 years since I ate some. The last time I had it feels like another life time ago. I was so much younger then – so ready for life. Yeah, I had felt the sting of disappointments and the angst of an immigrant adolescence but I had not yet experienced the true anguish and pain that would visit me for many years after that initial trip home. In my mind, FanYoGo represented a certain exotic and innocent sweetness that had no match in the US – a simple treat that symbolized Ghana. That time before the storm. So I snatch up that memory quickly and with a squeal head to the register. The others are laughing at my enthusiasm but it doesn’t take long before they too pick up some FanYoGo. HATERS! As Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Yup, I won people. I. Won.
Unfortunately, Cugino aka Bloss has to go home. No matter how much we urge, prod, attempt to blackmail and physically place him into our taxi, he won’t budge. He’s got to go home. So we bid him a sad farewell and take ourselves off to Cocoa Beach. It’s quiet there. The night is dark. We take pictures with all the random sculptures. Some are freakishly odd and others are just fun. Lots of running around ensues – it feels like we are taking 20 pictures of each sculpture with different poses. Finally we sit down by the ocean. There is an old man sitting in front of the gate. No one is allowed on the beach after 6pm. Kwame tries but he’s not having it -no means no. It’s cool. We settle for the round tables. Chatting, laughing, taking pictures and the ever present West African hip-life/contemporary music that pours from Chi’s phone is what we engage in for the next hour or so before it dawns on us that it may be difficult to acquire a taxi to take us back home. We walk a bit in the quiet road, only one or two cars rumble quietly by on the dusty, pot-filled road. Finally, a taxi appears. Kwame hails it and we’re off once again. Another day done.
Today we aren’t spending any time at the house. Makola, The Arts Centre and Osu beckon and we’re informed by Kola that the best time to go shopping is in the morning. So there we are, rip roaring and ready. Waakye handled, I’m good! Kwame takes us to the Arts Centre where he hands us off to Kola for the rest of the day’s sojourning. On our way in we are alarmed by the presence of a truck on fire. We watch as men push the truck across the road and the owner frantically scrambles to get his goods out of the truck. My only thought is – “What if the truck explodes? Then what?” There is not a single fire truck in sight. In fact, I haven’t heard any fire engines since I’ve been in Ghana. How many stations are there in Accra? How many engines? What is the state of the Accra emergency alert system?
Are there any fire extinguishers available? Our taxi driver tries to drive onto the curb so that we can go around the fracas but we opt just to pay him and walk the few yards to the Centre. I’m not a fan of crazy public mishaps and the thought that someone by end up being fried to death bothers me greatly. We stay long enough to see the truck continue it’s descent into hell while more and more people rush around, some gesticulating wildly and others trying to aid the hapless men. It represents to me a deep struggle for life and death. These men are working so hard – putting all their energy into pushing this truck over and trying to pull its contents out while some help and others watch. There is something so very primordial about it all – and all I can feel is a sense of dread. Dear Lord, please, please, please, don’t let this truck explode. Please don’t let this engine catch fire. Because then I’m going to have to be faced with a crisis situation I didn’t plan for and I’m going to have be a doctor on duty. And that, means lives will be at stake. Blessedly, the truck doesn’t explode but my heart is in the pit of my stomach.
The Arts Center awaits us. As do the owners. Quickly we are summoned to everyone’s shop. It’s obvious that we aren’t from here. I’m uncomfortable with all this attention. I do want to buy items and I do want the best deals but my natural tendency toward safety means that I blend and observe. But here, well here there is no blending. I’m as obvious as a sore thumb. I scream “foreigner”. Everything that I do seems to bring more attention to me. The time is spent quickly – inspecting items, inquiring as to prices, laying them down and then being pulled again to offer up my prices. I’m not used to this. I know it’s part of the fun but I don’t feel confident in my ability to get the best prices. Also, I know I’ll be back again the next week and I don’t want to drop all my cash in one setting. My friend has already informed me that given the number of places we plan to go, it may be the best idea to buy items whenever I see them as I may not be able to get back. I keep this in mind as the 9jas look through items. I am becoming tired. I like to look in peace. I don’t like to be harangued. The more I’m pushed, the less I’ll buy. While others may respond to the constant presenting of items that I have already said I don’t want to buy; I am not. In fact, that will cause me to walk away and never come back.
From the Arts Centre we move on to the Museum there. It’s fun. The art is lovely and I wish I could buy some to bring it back
with me. The Museum has a lovely adinkra carved door that we have fun with, popping our heads in and out of like the children we are. There are some installations that we see as we walk around, inspiring us to play along. Kola pretends that he’s just like the kids and I pretend like I’m a storyteller – which, actually, I don’t need to pretend because I am! I’ve been telling stories since I could read.
Now, let’s move on to the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and Park. It’s 40 cedis for non-Ghanaians. WHAT???!!! Well, next time then! Makola beckons. I find myself calmer in Makola. It’s bustling yes, but no one is vying for my attention. Everyone is about their businesses. Cars move slowly around the masses of people. You’ve just got to walk like you know exactly where you’re going. I really want to just take pictures but my camera is too big and there are too many people around for all of that touristy stuff. So reluctantly, my camera stays in my bag….
We have found ourselves in the sprawling market known as Makola – one of the largest markets in West Africa. My friends are looking for fabric and I’m just looking. Kola and I, walk hand in hand while people busy themselves about us. I feel as if I should be buying something but I don’t actually know what to buy. Makola isn’t as overwhelming this time around as it was when I first came 17 years ago.
We keep walking, as we are going to Osu to check out merchandise. From there we’ll be heading to Atomic Junction to meet up with my play cousin whom I haven’t seen since my family stayed with her family 17 years ago. On our way, Kola takes me to a woman who is selling ready-made dresses. I buy one with the most recent Angelina print on it. As we keep moving, I smell the unmistakeable wonderfulness of bofloat. But these are bofloat unlike any I’ve ever seen! They’re huge! And they taste more like bread. Amazing! Bofloat advancements! I immediately buy four for only 2 cedis. I should have bought 8 but my bag is already brimming with water, some print that I bought, camera and other whatnots. It’s only a matter of time before I sink my teeth into the hot, round, doughy goodness. It will be the best bofloat that I eat while in Ghana – the lightest, sweetest softest bofloat.
We stop by a local liquor store to check out their offerings and while the others look to buy, I’m enjoying my bofloat. Ghana has many of its own alcohols and it’s nice to see that we’re doing our own thing in that arena. In Osu, we are slammed! The open stores aren’t that large and the sellers are true hagglers. We are followed by insistent men who don’t take no for an answer. Like flies, I swat at them, over and over and over and over again. I understand that you gotta make a living but I don’t want to buy that t-shirt or the paintings that you say are your own but that I saw somewhere else with someone touting them as his own. One guy tries to bribe me by giving me a bracelet which he says is free if only I look at his paintings; which I do. I don’t want any as I have already bought two paintings at the Arts Center. He then follows me about, pestering me to buy a painting. Finally I give him back his bracelet and he stomps off angry. BUT WHY ARE YOU ANGRY AT ME? Is buying your items by force? And do you see me buying anything from anyone? Nope. So take yourself off and be gone! Mtcheeeeew.
Kola wants us to take the trotro so we pile in for the nearly hour long trip to Atomic Junction. I feel like I’ve stopped everywhere and then some. I’m munching on bofloat to take my mind off my fatigue and the hot, humid air that makes me feel sticky. Kola and I keep up an ongoing dialogue about everything from the sites we’re passing to the Ghanaian sociopolitical landscape. I’m pretty sure the other passengers are either listening silently or have totally tuned us out on their way to wherever it is that they’re going. Finally we arrive at our destination – Atomic Junction. The place is busy! Trotros, people, cars all milling about in a constant motion. And there stands a coconut seller.
I approach the coconut seller a bit cautiously. He’s got a massive machete. I want to engage him in small talk but he’s busily chatting with a young guy (an apprentice maybe) and another young woman who seems to be a regular. The small talk doesn’t go over well. I don’t know the protocol so I just ask for a coconut. He does say a few words in Twi but his voice is low and fast so I don’t quite catch him. After quickly preparing it, I guzzle down the juice which, is not sweet but hey, it’s still coconut! I ask Kola how I can get at the inside and he tells me to give the coconut back to the seller. What? Why? Did I just put my mouth on it? Anyway, I comply and the seller chops out a small scoop from the coconut that I can use to scoop out the meat after he cracks it open. Well, I’ll be darned! I scoop out the goodness, noting that it’s not as sweet as I was hoping but okay, it’s still good for you. Then Kola tells me to give him back the coconut. Waaaait, again? Yup, they’ll recycle the rind to pave roads. Oman Ghana!