“Allah akbar”. God is great.
This is the refrain that swoons me in the darkening hours of a tropical night in a land where Muslims and Christians live side-by-side with no nevermind. Far from the diametric dialogue that blazes across TV screens in Western countries where comfortable white families metaphorically clutch their purses, this is just one of the many subtle beauties of Ghana, a country as abundant in peace as it is natural plenty. Ghanaians cannot be outdone in regards to hospitality, nor in their easy going attitude most readily felt in the soothing beats and comfortable melodies of the signature highlife music that visits every radio, every household, every-day, all-day. It is in this corner of the world where I find myself, in every sense of the phrase, and from which I hope to share a few anecdotes.
See, when I travel, it seems there are always two distinct stories that emerge: first, there is the strange-white-man-stumbling-through-a-country-he-barely-understands-but-finds-he-appreciates-very-deeply story. Then there is the story of the people I meet along the way. The prior is always a clusterfuck--funny and revealing, as much about myself as about the world in which I am wandering, full of equal-parts adventure and misadventure while being perhaps slightly voyeuristic and completely absurd (as much a product of the storyteller as the story itself). The latter (I hope), is more human, sobering, and grounding; it is something that draws me, personally, from the lofty heights of youthful wanderlust into the stark realities of life in some unbelievably harsh conditions.
And so with the next few blog posts, during which I hope to share some of the experiences I have had thus far during my fieldwork in an isolated part of Ghana, I will endeavor to tell both stories, however separately. First, the adventure. Then some portraits--some portraits of people to whom I know my words can hardly do justice, but to who’s telling I will set my pen regardless, for theirs are stories worth telling. Mine but a footnote.
But without further ado: Adventure!
It was Friday evening and it hadn’t rained in more than a few days, an uncommon state of affairs in the tropical forests during the wet season. I was ready for something, anything to rupture the monotony after a few full days of interviews in the community of Mamfikope. It was during these interviews that I had heard tell of an island, not too far offshore in the ominous and eerie Lake Volta (a lake populated by an endless grove of ghost trees--remnants of a forest that once was, before the waters rose, changing both human and natural ecology in the same simple stroke). On the island, I was told, the incredible producers of Mamfikope teased from the sandy soils an agricultural bounty of groundnuts and potatoes that made them the legendary agrarian masters known throughout the Volta region. I was enticed, and the boats were, as always, waiting patiently on the calm shores.
As we approached the muddy edges of Lake Volta, with the island situated just above the northern horizon, it was clear that my guide was hesitant. While the day had been sunny enough (an understatement for West Africa), dark clouds were gathering in the east. He explained to me, usually, if clouds come from the east it will not rain, unless there are strong winds across the lake. Almost as if by divine command, a strong, cool breeze was ushered and the placid waters of the Volta were whipped into a frenzy.
“It will rain.” He said.
“Ok.” I replied.
“Do you still want to go?” He asked.
Smiles exchanged and with our few fellow sailors in agreement, we pushed the notoriously leaky wooden skiff into the warm waters and began paddling. Other than the sacred boats on Lake Bosomtwe (approximately 100 kilometers to the west and certainly not in the purviews of the Afram Plains) which are crafted from a single massive tree, the fishing boats in Ghana seem to be in need of repair from their very inception. To create a truly watertight vessel, the fishermen on Lake Volta use knives and nails to drive plastic bags or tree sap into the cracks that spring leaks. Needless to say, the continuous tail-chasing this invokes means that there are three positions in each boat: a front paddler, a rear paddler/captain, and a central bailer who constantly employs a plastic bucket to dump water overboard, ideally faster than it invades the boat.
|The boat ride out and the impending storm.|
About mid-way between the island and home, the winds changed from strong to somewhat unmanageable. And cold. In all my time in Ghana, thus far, I cannot recall ever having experienced such a sensation. But this wind, blowing down from the mountains of Togoland to the east and with the bullets of rain it lashed at us, was truly cold. We continued.
When the boat finally slid expectantly onto the opposite shore, I realized that I had perhaps put us in a rather precarious situation. All four of us were completely soaked through by the time we made landfall. The wind became relentless--the only comparison I can think were the gusts that once made a rag-doll of my traveling companion (Kayla Angstadt) and I in the Chilean Patagonia. Still, we wandered the shores, marveling at what I can honestly say were endless groves of groundnuts, maize, potatoes and beans, all of which seemed to leap into the sky from the wealth of the fluvial deposits that composed the island.
|On an unnamed island in Lake Volta.|
Still, all this considered, there was the return journey.
As we boarded our vessel and began our surge into the surf, against the currents, it became quickly apparent that this was going to be more a matter of luck than either strength or skill. My glasses, which I could not keep on my face in the strong winds, were tucked into my shirt while my fellow companions and I began paddling madly against the storm. Navigating the labyrinth of trees that stood like dark sentinels blocking our path, we eventually found home, albeit significantly further up the coast than we had hoped. I leapt into the shallows and heaved the boat ashore along with my fellow adventurers: the aptly name Freeheart, the intrepid Daina, and the surprisingly presidential Kennedy. I looked at them, three people who, just a few days ago, were strangers, but were now my friends.
|The chaotic boat ride back.|
“Mario! Are you feeling ok?” Demanded Freeheart who, in keeping custom with incomparable Ghanaian hospitality, was perpetually concerned with my personal comfort.
“Yes, Freeheart. I am fantastic! How are you?” I responded.
“God is great!” He replied.
Now, I don’t personally believe in much of a god, at least not what anyone anywhere would readily identify as “god”. But I do have very strong beliefs. I believe in people. I believe in the inextinguishable endurance of the human spirit. I believe that beyond the superficial words and books we use to describe and understand a maddening and chaotic world, there is a central truth at which we all arrive, sooner or later, in both our darkest and brightest of times. This was perhaps both: a moment, like a few others that I can recall, where I honestly felt I had pushed my luck too far and yet, a moment in which I found something completely unexpected. In the face of something profound, something far greater than any of us could control, I had found myself in the same boat (literally) with three other people who owed me nothing, and yet, were bound to me by a common purpose. It was a moment, and perhaps it was only that, but it happened, and of that much I am certain.
I don’t mean to overstate my own importance or worse, superimpose a sense of significance that actually never existed. Still, I feel like such moments, when shared, are known. There is no lying in it, no deceit. Just a smile and a handshake that expresses more than words ever could.
It was the next day that I was informed by Mauko, the chief and community elder of Mamfikope, that he wished to offer me some land overlooking Lake Volta and an honorary Chieftaincy title if I should choose to stay and live with them. As I type this, I realize how fucking insane this must sound. It certainly feels like some absurd white-boy fantasy. How completely self-righteous and ridiculous of me. But it just sort of happened. I guess that is what I am trying to say--by pushing yourself beyond the comforts and complacency that define our society (the ends to which many societies strive), doors you never knew existed can be opened. Do I have any right, any claim to such an offer? Absolutely not, I can think of few people less worthy of such generosity. But still, that moment happened, and for that, I am infinitely grateful, and infinitely humbled.
I slept like a rock the night following our adventure on the lake to the pat-pat-patter of rain on thatch-grass roofing. There may be no sweeter sound in all of life.
I have yet to respond to Mauko about his offer.
From the AP,