*These are some edited journal entries from my recent trip to Ghana with a research team from Penn State and the University of Mining and Technology (Ghana). I am working on a more comprehensive and in-depth article for the HuffingtonPost on the Buruli Ulcer disease and illegal mining in Ghana, but in the meantime, these should serve as some nice preliminary reactions to my experience.
June 1st, 2014
The Sahara is the biggest anything I have ever seen. To fly over it takes hours; but to live in it, I can't even imagine. Right as the desert begins to peter out into precarious trees and cursive streams, our plane enters a wall of dark clouds that reaches miles into the stratosphere. These are the rains of the equatorial African jungles. We are not in the desert anymore.
The Accra airport has a very limited capacity. And yet, despite the lines and the mass of people, the atmosphere was surprisingly cordial and relatively relaxed (all considering).There are no terminals, just staircases that are wheeled up to the sides of the planes. When they thrust the sardine-can doors open the heaviness of the humid air hits me in the chest like a brick. I have a strange affinity for counties in which sweat is an intimate aspect of everyday life.
A driver named Abdul takes us from the airport in a rickety car that groans with each gear and at each stop light. On the streets, skinny boys with missing arms and soccer jerseys wash car windows for the locals and turn beggars at the site of foreigners. It’s not a particularly clean city and between the roads, the climate, and the people—even this late at night—it feels a lot like Paraguay. I have never been here before, but it reminds me of a home I once knew so well. Goddammit, it’s good to be back in a country with some character.
They may be continents apart, but Accra smells the same as Asuncion: in the cities its petrol and diesel fumes, burning trash and rubber all marinated in a deep tropical humidity. Cars, people, livestock, motorcycles, street animals, bikes, trucks, rickshaws and vendors all compete for space along liberally interpreted roads with a relentless chorus of honking and languages and radio stations. This sort of chaos once intimidated me, but now I find it comforting, soothing, even inviting.
June 2nd, 2014
It is a bird-less morning. That was the first thing I noticed. Maybe it is because we are still in the city, but it was almost 20 minutes before I heard the first bird call and even then it was fleeting and solitary. Boys dot the small rocky bluffs that look out over the ocean and fishermen battle the breakers as they head out for the day. The beach at this part of the renowned “Gold Coast” is nothing to write home about. Ghana's nickname can be misleading: the Gold does not refer to the sand or the beauty, but instead the fact that gold has been funneled from these lands for centuries, first by the British, later by the multinationals, and more recently, by the illegal small-scale 'galamsey' miners in the interior.
At one point, Ghana was the world's largest producer of raw cacao beans, a title that has waxed and waned over the years as the government and the global markets pushed through cycles of change—rising and falling, expanding and collapsing. All considering and despite its problems, Ghana today has a strong and stable democratic government. Especially when you take into account the state of its neighbors here in West Africa, Ghana is a leader in the region but nonetheless, a large portion of the populace is desperately poor. And while the notion of colonialism disgusts me, I have to thank the Brits for at least one thing: English is widely spoken to a greater or lesser degree.
June 4th, 2014
The humidity is so thick that a meal sometimes seems redundant. Each lung full of the tropical air fills me up and soaks into my pores until there is no more space left between my cells. We are a ways from the city now in a town called Tarkwa at a small hotel called the Morning Star. This is a gold mining community as are so many other small hubs dotted throughout the interior. The town is crisscrossed by a myriad of rivers and dirt roads and cut right down the middle by a big piece of asphalt—the main “highway”—that pumps trucks and travelers and miners and merchandise through the surrounding villages like an artery.
Tarkwa, like the rest of southern Ghana, sits in the middle of the equatorial jungle. The original forest was cut down long ago leaving tangled secondary growth in its place. Native saplings are interspersed with groves of coconut, coco palm, cacao, banana, and rubber trees—transplants from South America—and only occasionally lorded over by an old-growth giant lucky enough to have escaped the previous century's botanical holocaust. Most of the country has been deforested. Like so many other brilliant corners of our world, modern man has made a point of extracting resources first and only later asking important conservation questions. Then comes the inevitable scramble to protect what little natural beauty is left so that white tourists still have something to look at other than the wretched poverty of the surrounding population.
Still, what is growing here, what it living here, buried in the endless green carpet and on the sides of red-dirt hills and in the markets and on the streets, are some of the friendliest people I've ever met. Beautiful faces—these people remind me of the polished Greek busts of antiquity if they had been carved instead out of brilliantly mahogany. The women carry their happy babies on their back inside colorful sashes wrapped around their torso (one of my favorite African practices). On their heads, an endless variety and quantity of other things—food, water, firewood, commercial items, goats, chickens, anything—are balanced with ease. No hands required. Both women and men seem calm, as if their load were nothing but a natural extension of their body.
June 6th, 2014
The breeze through the coco trees sounds like rain. It looks the sky could open up at any time. There is a storm on the horizon, peeking over the hills. It has looked like this almost the entire time I've been here. The tropics have a mysterious feel. Covert—burying every artifact of human occupation under coils of vines, brush, moss and saplings—and intense, unforgiving, but also vibrant and full of abundance for those who know how to use the resources. Mostly, the jungle just feels indifferent. It has its own agenda and if it weren't for the constant and comprehensive human intrusion, it really wouldn't give a shit about who we are and what we want. We are just another species among the millions that inhabit every available inch.
June 7th, 2014
I am sipping whiskey and sweating madly while listening to the Pentecostal ministry across the street blast religious fervor into the heavy night air. At the back of my tongue I can still feel the chili spice from the fried goat stew that I had for diner. I am a little drunk and my skin still prickles from a day spent working under a blazing equatorial sun.
Several days ago we arrived in the town of Dunkwa, northeast of Tarkwa and the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Like Tarkwa—really like every town in the tropical south of Ghana—Dunkwa is a small gold mining city amidst the rolling hills and forest. The streets, even if paved, are muddy and riddled with a moonscape of potholes. Traffic laws seem to be limited to “don't hit another car” but short of that, almost anything goes. Honking is a practical way of communication and does not carry with it the force or frustration that it seems to entail stateside. This is nothing new; this is how the third world—weather Africa or Latin America, in my experience—seems to universally operate. It is glorious, muddy mess but it works.
Dunkwa is a strange twilight zone caught between competing, dichotomous worlds. On the one hand are the local people, mostly of Ashanti tribal origins and speaking the indigenous language of Twi; they survive through either subsistence agriculture, commercial cocoa farming, illegal mining, or by working in the service sector for the multitudes of prospectors that have been drawn like flies to the abundant gold.
Then there are the foreigners, the predominantly white representatives of the multinational conglomerates who stumble up from the coast and into the jungle in order to oversee the mining interests in the region. Lastly, there are the Chinese, thousands of them (much less since the Ghanaian president forcefully removed them from the country about a year ago). This transplant population consists mostly of single men who stole their way into this country from China under the guise of tourist visas in order to insert themselves illegally into the prolific scramble for Ghana's mineral wealth. It seems like a confusing mix of peoples and cultures, but the promise of gold buried just under these thin forest soils has always had such an effect on men.
And despite the infusion of people, foreign capital and the promise of wealth and riches, Dunkwa remains an extremely poor place. Shanty living facilities start at the very center and extend outwards into the countryside. There is little infrastructure, intermittent electricity (on a good day), and undrinkable water. The surrounding communities are even more impoverished and they are only getting worse as the legal and illegal mining industry slowly consumes more of the land, depriving livelihoods and poisoning the environment.