You Bring the Yam, I’ll Bring the Fire

by phil on November 28, 2011

Mosque minarets of Newtown, Accra at dusk

The air of Accra clots around the door. Part salted sea breeze, part sweetened tropical smokiness, part diesel exhaust, burning refuse and dry palm leaves. The dead air of an airplane cabin is gone.

I told myself I would study the moment I stepped off the plane. But there is no time to pause. A group of batiked madams in wobbly high heels herds me down the stairs, onto the tarmac.

Akwaaba. Welcome. Last summer, arriving passengers were greeted by life sized cardboard cutouts of Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan and other stars of Ghana’s meteoric 2010 World Cup team. Today, we have the Akwaaba sign and many MTN advertisements (“everywhere you go”).

The baggage claim area smells like an aquarium. I am not a carry-on-only traveler on this trip. Minimalist packing is difficult when you are ferrying deliveries and gifts. I wait for my checked bag as most of the people standing beside me wait for 5 or 6. Whether it’s a visit or a homecoming, a plane trip from London or beyond is an opportunity to haul a great quantity of cargo. Even with extra bag fees and customs duties, it is cheaper than shipping.

It is 6AM in Accra. In the taxi, a radio talk show host berates Luis Suarez. A striker for Uruguay and Liverpool, Suarez was already widely despised in Ghana for his handball that stopped a Gyan shot from reaching the net, effectively ending Ghana’s world cup run last year. Now, he is charged with hurling racial insults towards Manchester United left back Patrice Evra, further agitating Ghanaians.

The driver is upset too, but mostly about other things. He is telling me about a series of car accidents that have happened along our route. “You see this junction? There was a mango tree there. A tro-tro was coming fast and the brakes failed. The tro-tro crashed and hit a woman who was standing there selling minerals. She had just transferred her baby to a customer so that she could get him the change. The baby was spared.” The woman died? “YES!! She died-oh!!” When did this happen? “1986.”

At another junction, a tro-tro’s brakes failed before it crashed into a container that had been converted into a boutique. The container rolled down a small hill and one person was killed.

By the time we arrive in Newtown, he has catalogued 5 or 6 accidents, all of them involving tro-tros with failed brakes. I ask him if there have been any accidents not caused by out of control minibuses. “YES!! Of course. There are many!!!” I pay the fare and tell him that he needs to get a job with the transportation ministry.

I step out of the taxi and let the riptide of Newtown carry me away. Here, the sidewalk is improvised. You don’t need to see my skin to know that I am not Ghanaian. Just watch my imprecise footsteps. A woman glides past me with a tower of glassware on her head. She doesn’t pay attention to where she is walking yet her steps are measured and balletic. Last year, I tore my leg open falling into a gutter.

Across the street, people are waving. Many friends and familiar faces. It is a reunion of back breaking hugs and stretched smiles. I’m quickly brought up to speed: Faty is in boarding school, Ernest is becoming a computer engineer, Hawa is married, Mavis is married and pregnant, Little Blessing has moved with her family to Labadi, and Ekow still wants to go into business with me.

I haven’t showered or slept in two days but I am energized by the warm reception. At noon, I move into my room at the Yas Guesthouse and peel off my clothes. In the washroom, I pour water over my shoulders, angling my arms to control the flow. The glass window slats are horizontal and the breeze chills me to the point of laughter.

A rumbling hiplife bassline shakes the neighborhood. The Muslim call to prayer floats to the top on less seismic frequencies. In between, blown out choral gospel music. This is Newtown. On Sundays, Hausa weddings fill the narrow side streets while pastors lead marching bands down the paved road.

In the courtyard, I eat jollof rice. My body has been reset. Twi words are exploding in my brain. Ekow is telling me about business prospects. Internet cafes, guesthouses, taxis. “You bring the yam, I’ll bring the fire.” There is a lot to think about.

But first, I just want to have a juice box with Felicity.

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