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You Bring the Yam, I’ll Bring the Fire

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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{ 17 comments… add one }

  • Ekua November 28, 2011, 8:02 pm

    LOVE this post, Phil. You capture the scents and scenes that you encounter when you arrive in Accra very accurately! Reading this, I realized my heart has not fully healed from the World Cup debacle with Uruguay 🙁 And you make me wish I could be sitting outside in the warmth eating jollof and listening to highlife and hiplife!

    • phil November 29, 2011, 1:31 pm

      Thanks, Ekua. As you know yourself, those scents and scenes are very distinct, very visceral. My heart has not healed from that loss either. I was in Accra during the match and it was a very sad scene when it was over. What are your travel plans?? If you go to southern Africa you should try to tack on a trip to Ghana on the way out 😉

  • Erica November 29, 2011, 1:09 am

    I’m in love with posts like these. Seriously man, you make me feel like I’m there. You really put it across that even though the place is different, it feels like home to you. <3

    • phil November 29, 2011, 1:33 pm

      Thanks, Erica 🙂 Very kind of you to say. It’s a weird connection. Not home, but familiar and to an extent, comfortable.

  • Katrina November 29, 2011, 5:22 am

    I am so fascinated by your connection with this part of the world, Phil, and all the wonderful people you know and love. Thank you for sharing this with the rest of us.

    • phil November 29, 2011, 1:34 pm

      Hey thanks, Katrina. I always appreciate your support 🙂

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures November 29, 2011, 9:59 am

    Your writing in this post is incredible — I can see how much Africa inspires you!

    • phil November 29, 2011, 1:35 pm

      Thanks Andi 🙂

  • pam December 4, 2011, 10:50 am

    Related to a totally peripheral item in this post. In February, I was in Santiago, hosted by the excellent Eileen/@bearshapedspher. I’d gone into to town to poke around, but returned too soon. When I walked in the house, Eileen said this: You’re back too soon. What happened? The answer? I fell into a gutter and oh, it was a stellar injury, I tell you what. Took months to heal.

    • phil December 4, 2011, 10:55 pm

      I still have a horrific scar from my episode. In fact, the other day someone asked me whether flesh eating bacteria were involved. Maybe we should team up to do some outreach on this??

  • Laura December 5, 2011, 3:36 pm

    Although the circumstance is sad, I had to laugh that he is telling you a story about an accident that took place in 1986!! haha. And ironically, the brakes failed on my bus in Nairobi today and we took out a few cars. It’s kind of a big continent, but reading these things and knowing how I can relate makes me feel like we’re practically neighbors 🙂

    • phil December 7, 2011, 5:12 am

      eesh. Glad you’re ok?? I also thought it was hilarious he was telling me about a story from 1986.

  • Amanda December 6, 2011, 7:56 pm

    Awesome bit of writing! You took me right there with you.

    • phil December 7, 2011, 5:12 am

      Thanks, Amanda

  • TheWorldOrBust December 8, 2011, 2:15 pm

    The colors of that sunset are amazing, haven’t seen something so purple like that.

  • Akila December 9, 2011, 5:32 pm

    Phil, fantastic, fantastic post! This is how I feel whenever I go to my family’s home in India. Though I am exhausted from the 24 hour flight, the moment I get there, my mind explodes with the at-first-unexpected-unfamiliarity yet the quickly-deepening-familiarity of the place. You captured that beautifully in this post.

    • phil December 10, 2011, 5:34 am

      Hey Akila,
      Thanks! I definitely made an effort to step back and observe, feel, listen. Glad you could relate to the post.

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