Accra: capital city, modern city, one of the most modern in Africa at least. I am here for a few days staying at a hostel in Asylum Down. I have done this hostel bumming deal for long enough to know that, as far as hostel traffic is concerned, you always meet some interesting people: ex-pats of all stripes, NGO workers and the like (my people), but also some grade-A fucking characters. This time, it happens to be some grade-A characters who dabble in Ghanaian gold speculation--not the friendliest of professions and not always boasting the most reputable of individuals.
Now, in Ghana gold mining is huge, but it tends to be a very, very shady business with a lot of bad people and lot of exploitation. Still, some people do it right, although the sense I have always gotten talking to these guys is that they are not in the majority. There is just so much money flowing in this sector of the economy that it's hard to keep the industry clean (but the government certainly doesn't go out of its way to make this happen--i.e. classic bureaucratic corruption and kick-backs). So whenever I meet mining people I always have my guard up. It's nothing personal, just better safe than sorry.
At this hostel, I am staying in a shared-room with roommates that include a few French backpackers, an Italian volunteer, some American study-abroad-ers (so idealistic, so naive--it would almost be cute if they weren't so fucking loud) and a middle-aged man with a unique accent that I can't quite place who tells me he is from the states. As the others come and go, my middle-aged friend, lets call him "Doctor Django", hangs around. We begin some small conversations and alas, it turns out he is in the gold buying business in Ghana (red flag). But he seems nice enough, asks me what type of anti-malarial meds I am taking, implores me to take them on schedule:
"Malaria is no joke, my friend."
"Ok, Django. Thank you, Django."
In general, he seems like a solid dude. He spends some time complaining about the buying market, telling me in not-quite-racist-but-definitely-not-comfortable language about how 95% of the sellers he meets in Ghana are scammers, looking to be wined and dined and then never providing any product at the end. He is frustrated. He has been here some time and he wants to go home. But he also wants to make some fucking money. Gold is a buyer's market in Ghana; it is also a market for the thieves.
Over the course of the next few days, I hear him on several phone calls with sellers. The discussions are fascinating (especially to someone who is not of the business world) as they effortlessly flow from cordial and friendly, to threatening and aggressive, and back again. Doctor Django was being awfully candid, even as I was sitting in the same room. He seemed quite comfortable discussing his business in front of me. After hearing a few of these exchanges, I started getting a bit suspicious and began to transcribe some of his more colorful moments (cause fuck it, I was curious, that's why). Below is a brief excerpt from one of these to give you the gist (mind you, this is only the half--Doctor Django's half--of the conversation that I could hear):
Do you want to sell on contract?So Dr. D proceeded to have a few conversations to this affect in the open, on and off, all day. It was good entertainment, but I thought little more of it.
No. Well then forget about Dubai.
My other buyer is Indian. I also have a Swiss buyer.
Do I ask you where you get your product?
Well then, where is your product? Where is your fucking product?
Where is it now? Where does it come from? Who's is it?
Do I ask you these things?
No. Cause I don’t care.
You give me the product and I will give you the money, that’s it.
Stop talking. Stop talking like a baby, start talking like a business man.
But no monkey business.
You guys are always talking, talking, talking; you don’t need to talk so much.
I will call my buyer when you have the product.
I don’t see the product as of yet.
So tell me, where is your product? Who’s product is this?
When you tell me, I will call my buyer.
Don't get upset.
This is just like when you asked me, “Where is your buyer? Where is the money? What kind of money is it?”
Later that day, I met a few other ex-pats at the bar, one a fun-loving Belgian NGO worker named William, the other a Malaysian named Singh who works in the gold mining industry as well (selling heavy machinery to miners) but who is much more discrete about his industry ties. They were both calidad gente, as the Paraguayans would say, so we sat and drank and shared crazy traveling stories for a while. Eventually, I relate the story of my hard-talking roommate to them and this begins a heated discussion (fueled by lots of beer and cheap cigarettes) about gold mining. Singh tells some truly insane stories about his experiences being held-up with a pistol in his face after having his car blocked by felled trees or rocks or just more people with guns. So basically, Singh wraps up these personal tales with this word of caution: if, as a gold buyer/seller you talk so openly (like Doctor Django has been doing) you are going to be killed. Period. In Nigeria, Singh assures me, this guy would already be long gone. But in Ghana, the industry is a little more forgiving, but only a little.
Later that evening, Dr. D informs me that he is heading out to meet a seller (I don't know why, but he very quickly seemed to confide greatly in me...which was worrisome) and leaves the hostel with his luggage still sitting in the room on the bed next to mine. Fast forward. After a long night with Singh and William at the bars in Osu along Oxford street--the trendy scene of ex-patriots and Ghanaian hipsters--and after far too much to drink, I finally get back to my room around mid-night.
No Doctor Django.
I wake up the next morning and still, no Django.
I didn't think much of it and went about my day--everyone has a crazy night sometimes, Dr. D being no exception. Hell, I was even on the cusp of one myself had my better, inebriated judgement not been my saving grace (also, thank you to William and Singh, those women were definitely too much for me to handle, in retrospect). Django will show up eventually.
I have a coffee in the morning, go to the library at Lagon University to dig around some archives for a few hours. Then I wander along the coast in the afternoon and have late lunch looking out over the Gulf of Guinea. It is only later that day while mulling it over on my way back to the hostel that I have a flash of worry: oh fuck, that guy is dead somewhere deep in the bush and I am the last one to see him alive. I am one of a few, maybe the only person in this entire country that knows anything about this guy. Immediately, in my mind, this becomes both an incredible responsibility and a terrible burden (does that sound selfish?--but seriously, who wants to spend their last week in Ghana at a police station being interviewed by questionably-corrupt officers instead of on a beach somewhere). Oh well, I think, if its coming, its coming and there is nothing to do about it. So I get back to the hostel and wait, either for the call to the front desk, the police cruiser at the front door, or by some miracle, for Doctor Django himself
Around mid-afternoon a taxi pulls up and, low and behold, out steps Doc D. I was seated outside having a beer and he waved to me, walked up and sat down. He did not look good, like not fucking good at all. His hair was disheveled and he was very pale, his hands were shaking and he seemed way out of it. You know when you see someone and, even if you can't point to any single aspect, you can tell from their face and their eyes that they have just been through hell. That is the look I got from the good doctor and I immediately felt this surge of empathy. These feelings were vying for dominance against the anxiety of possibly being wrapped-up in something terrible (although the beer was helping to calm the nerves a bit). I have made it an explicit point to never end up in a prison in a developing country--let's call it one of my few modest aspirations in life--and I intend to keep it that way. Still, this guy was in the shit, for sure.
"How the hell are you, doc?" I ask, half curious, half not wanting to know a fucking thing.
"Not good," he offers readily. Yeah, no shit. But this guys needs a friend, I can tell, so I sit and listen.
What I expect is a tale of some dark and shady gold deal gone awry but what emerges in the next few minutes is an entirely different, although nonetheless, incredible story. Doctor Django begins to tell me of the previous night in which, as he was on his way to meet his prospective seller, he found himself having a heart attack in the middle of a less-than-reputable part of the city. He calls his friend (in reality, a previous client and only recent acquaintance) who over the course of the next 18 hours drives him to 3 different hospitals and 2 different clinics trying to find the necessary care and treatment all while with Django basically dying in the passenger seat next to him.
"I tried to call you," he says to me, to my surprise. "I tried to call the hostel to get a hold of you but they couldn't find you."
'Fuck, really?' I think. 'What the fuck was I going to do?' I feel for the guy, sure, but my money is getting thin, I have no car here in Ghana and I am not sure what kind of help I could have offered otherwise. Still, I am flattered at the consideration although secretly glad that I didn't have to spend the evening watching this man gasping and sweating to death.
See, the way a lot of African health-care systems work is different than the US: they will not give you medicine unless you pay for it first. So Dr. D, through the fog of his own impending doom, finds himself laid up in a hospital finally, scrambling through his limited funds to see if he can afford the to pay for the medicine the doctors are holding in front of him: blood thinner to help with the heart and antibiotics to help with the vicious lung infection he finds he has been carrying around with him for some weeks (which also likely contributed to the heart attack). So close and yet, so far. What a strange ethos for a medical practice: tell your dying patient what is happening to his body, tell him all of the worst case scenarios that may befall him should he not get the appropriate medications/treatment, inform him that both are available at the hospital, but deny him any care, even life-saving care, unless he fork over some hefty bills first. Fuck man, what a trip.
Now, don't get me wrong, I don't really know the kind of person Dr. D is, but he seems alright to me. Then again, I am not his business partner, just a friend. But I do know a bit about gold mining in Ghana, and from the conversations I have overheard, it wouldn't surprise me if he was involved in some shit. Maybe he is into something, maybe not. Maybe it's legal, maybe it's fucked. I can't know and I don't want to. But when you see someone in a situation, like having their heart fail in a developing country without the support (either personal or financial) that they need to see themselves though, that sort of judgment is perhaps suspended and empathy overrides apprehension.
Long story short, Doctor Django eventually made it work, but not without some arm-pulling and a hospital-escort back to the hostel to get more money while he was still technically having a heart-attack (they would not let him leave on his own, lest he skip out on his bill--its like dine-and-ditch just with your life on the line). But as he is still in pretty bad shape, he may need some looking after, so he and I are now friends. He's got my number and contact info (giving this to a potentially-illegal gold dealer may or may not have been the most prudent decision in my travels) and I have volunteered to be on call should anything else happen to him while both of us are still in the country. He is recovering slowly here at the hostel, although as he told me:
"I am stuck here until I get better, I might as well try and get some work done." (i.e. some more high-octane, blood-pressure raising exchanges with gold buyers and sellers). Jesus dude, serious? Yeah, alright.
So lesson learned: life is precious. Whether you are a good person, a bad person, or somewhere in between, no one wants to go the way of an imploding heart on the street somewhere far from home. Even the toughest, roughest of them all still face a potentially-untimely death with fear and uncertainty. Mortality: the great equalizer. But at such a precipice, with which I have had my own fleeting personal encounters, what we all want is a friend, a hand to hold, a familiar face.
I travel a lot and I have for some time now. Its great when you feel strong, healthy, independent, alert, prepared, and ready. But when you find yourself in the shit, all you want is home. And when home is far away, a friend will do.
So here I am drinking a coffee on a warm African morning across the table from my new friend, not asking too many questions, but happy with this unspoken place at which we have arrived. Here I find myself wishing that all wanderers, whether moral crusaders or opportunity seekers, will find their friends when they need it most--including Doctor Django, including myself.