After spending an hour and a half in two different cramped and dilapidated minibuses, I am looking for a shared taxi to my final destination: Beach Road. My first couchsurfing experience has led me to the western-most neighborhoods of Accra, Ghana. Dansuman, Shiabu, Beach Road. All three suffering from low-lying geography, recent rain, and a poorly thought out approach to road construction.
I soon find out that the shared taxis “aren’t working” on this day because the roads are underwater. I ask several people if I can walk the remaining distance – too far, they say. Dropping taxis ask for exorbitant amounts or simply refuse. Ready to take a drink at the roadside bar, a taxi driver, ambitious or desperate, propositions me with a reasonable offer.
If video does not play, here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UergSK9vav8
Absurd traffic jam before getting on our way and then this silliness:
Once on our way, I understand why the shared taxis aren’t working. The road – flanked by open sewers on either side – is submerged in a lake of rainwater and human waste. Many of the cars, trucks, and buses in Ghana are the discarded carcasses of European automobiles that Ghanaians have revived, retrofitted (typically with seats that are unsafe in both quantity and quality), and I want to say reengineered, but jerry-rigged is more appropriate. Taxis are no exception. It might be unreasonable to expect these resurrected autos to negotiate a landscape that calls for an amphibious vehicle with four wheel drive. And yet, the taxi shakes its way through the gray water without stalling.
We approach a dry stretch of road like a half-capsized canoe coming upon a sand-bar. I pay the fare and dash the driver a few extra cedis – it was apparent from the sounds under the hood that this man might have just inflicted serious damage upon his car. I meet Abigail, my host, and we make our way through a labyrinth of boxy concrete dwellings. Mountains of trash, some of it being consumed by the occasional pig, goat or chicken, clouds of black flies, overflowing sewers producing inhuman stench. Sand, wet from the gray lakes of water, flicks against the back of my legs with each step.
We arrive at the house, a concrete cube like the others. Abigail’s mother is hunched over, inexplicably laughing while sweeping a dirt patio. Abigail and grandma escort me inside, plying me with packaged biscuits imported from Dubai and a 500ml sachet of “pure water.” The TV is turned to “Storm Over Paradise,” a Spanish telenovela awfully and hysterically dubbed in English.
This is where I would put a David Foster Wallace sized footnote about TV shows in Ghana, but for now I’ll just mention that my favorite show at the moment is a Nigerian soap opera called “My Mom and I.” The teaser for the next episode indicates that the daughter, who is maybe thirteen, becomes an alcoholic at the same time the ex-husband tries to move back into the house. Talk about fireworks.
My muscles relax for the first time in hours and I find myself at peace in this small square room with worn walls, a stuffed animal Ms. Piggy perched on the TV, Abigail and grandma smiling as if I am a friend returning from a long journey.
Grandma and Ms. Piggy working the TV
While grandma becomes engrossed in “Storm Over Paradise,” Abigail and I discuss whether witches and wizards exist – she thinks yes, I think no. Two boys enter wearing orange and brown junior secondary school uniforms. They are in fact identical twins, Abigail’s nephews, in her company because of her brother’s financial struggles.
The boys, disciplined, industrious, take up positions on the floor and begin their homework. Abigail starts preparing dinner while I leaf through a weathered text on Ghanaian citizenship: “We can prove to be assertive and confident on some issues. For example, telling people to stop spitting openly while in the midst of people.”
Dinner is banku, fish, and salad. Banku, made from pounded fermented maize, is doughy and dense (similar to similar to kenkey). It is like eating a sour ball of glue. Banku, lukewarm tilapia, salad washed with well water. Visions of my asshole turning into a water cannon. Grandma looks on eagerly as I clean my plate.
Me and Abigail
After dinner we walk through dark narrow corridors, straddling gutters the whole way. Aware of the open-sewers, I labor to replicate Abigail’s every step. At the roadside we check in on the family business, a wooden stall that serves as the neighborhood liquor store. Three shelves of Alomo Bitters, Cardinal Strawberry Liqueur, Lime Cordial, and five varieties of gin.
Sarah, Abigail’s junior sister, is tending to customers that are mostly interested in single cigarettes and shots of Mapouka, an Irish crème liqueur sold in ketchup-packet-sized sachets. Hiplife plays through blown out speakers and I dance with two four year old girls to the delight of family and customers alike. Despite two legs’ worth of mosquito bites and skin an inch thick with sweat, I am jubilant, laughing and dancing with new friends.
Abigail’s sister, Sarah, manning the shop the following day
I would adopt these young ladies
Back at the house, grandma tells me to sleep in the bed. I tell her I want to sleep on the floor. She raises her voice and I relent. I settle on the far side of the bed, offering enough room for someone to occupy the space next to me. I lift my pillow to see something like fifty moth balls. I pass out immediately despite the fumes.
I wake up twenty minutes later to someone tickling my feet. It is grandma. And the whole family. They are looking at me, and laughing. Hoping I did not wet the bed or shit myself, Abigail tells me that it is not appropriate for me to sleep on my back because I look like a dead person. I pretend I’m amused. Everyone watches as I switch to my side.
Foreboding noises from my stomach interrupt a renewed attempt at sleep. As the lights go out I realize that I do not know where the latrines are. There is no water or bathroom in the house, and while Abigail had earlier shown me the outdoor enclosure where I would go to urinate, taking a shit there would be disastrous.
I start to plan an exit route, figuring I will crap in a sewer if I have to – I just need to make it out of the house. One of the twins is occupying the edge of the bed. On the other side is the wall. At the end of the bed there is a mountain of fabric. I will have to get over the twin. Then it’s a human minefield of Abigail, grandma, the other twin, and Sarah, in complete darkness. The possibility of emptying my bowels on a family member is horrifying. Despite intestinal discomfort and growing anxiety, I fall into a deep sleep, perhaps intoxicated by the moth balls.
I open my eyes to the mildewed wall hugging the bed. I feel like I’ve been sleeping in a tent. Everything is damp. Saturated with moisture already, the air does not bother with my sweat. I am the last to rise. The boys are already at school. Grandma is furiously sweeping the dirt patio. Abigail is selling booze. Sarah is watching TV, singing along to a detergent commercial. Her voice is pleasant and I’m happy to lay like a dead person and listen.
An expanding bubble in my gut forces me into the fetal position. I recklessly try to fart. Nothing. There is no relief for this sensation. I get out of bed. I skip good morning and speak quickly.
Sarah, where are the latrines?
You need to urinate?
The walk is short. Sarah points to a row of three stalls, wooden frames with disintegrating doors. I have no toilet paper. There is no time. Sarah hands me a bucket of water. I poke a twisted nail through the latch to lock the door. I squat over a hole in the ground. It is dark. Five days ago I was taking a shit in central air conditioning while reading The Atlantic Monthly. Now I am sitting in a wooden sweat box, swatting mosquitoes, shitting pure fluid into an abyss. I look at the bucket of water and begin to laugh. There is nothing else to do.
Some more pics of Abigail and her fam are in this post towards the bottom.
Next up: Making tunes in Accra and a mini-documentary on a family of awesome ladies