On the central coast of Ghana, a water-washed castle towers above mounds of rock. A great deal of commerce revolves around this castle; however, very few Ghanaians know that the British used this building for the incarceration of their ancestors, and that the shores on which they park their fishing boats were used to stabilize slave boats that shipped prisoners out to sea: each African attached to a chain and stuffed into a space the size of a coffin.
Inside the castle, I entered through an archway that led down a pathway into the men’s slave dungeons, where hundreds of captives suffered confinement. Each dungeon had a tiny window from which a small portion of sunlight broke through: just enough to see the surrounding filth. Throughout the 19th century, the cement floors were covered feet-deep in corpses, sweat, urine, and feces. The prisoners slept in it all.
Directly above the slave dungeons was the church. While the pampered British sang praises to their Lord, the captors simultaneously listened to the cries of their discontented prisoners. With a practiced glare, the tour guide illuminated the irony of placing a house of Heaven directly above the dungeons of Hell.
In one of the dungeons, a colony of bats hung comfortably in the abandoned space. Hundreds of bats crowded the low dungeon ceiling, finding refuge in the darkness that, centuries ago, brought a great deal of misery to its inhabitants. Beneath the ceiling of cold cement, I could feel the bats swooping overhead, haunting me with tufts of air that rushed at me like invisible breaths.
He carried me on his broad back across the gutter, which dipped abruptly from the dirt road. I wrapped my arms around his chest and let my dirty feet dangle above the river of wet filth. At the steps of a large empty home, he set me down and invited me to relax with him. We conversed for a long while as the road grew darker and more remote, and the surrounding nature accumulated layers of silence.
On the walk home, he took my hand and led me through the village to my quiet compound, where my host family slept soundly. His hand was strong and agile, although I sadly reminded myself that it could not write.
In Ghana, only a collection of adults know how to write, and very few write well. Without a movement for written transcription in their native language, Ghanaians must fumble through the English language they never quite master.
Still, the minds are quick and capable, and communication is fluid.
Although a compulsive writer and lover of literature, I took great consolation in holding the illiterate hand. Quite frankly, it didn’t feel different from any other.
In Mole National Park, I climbed into the bush at the crest of a valley, which dipped into a standing pool of rainwater. In the tall grass, antelope (all female) scampered into the valley, dominated by one horned male that observed his pack from afar. He mounted his lovers whenever the scent of feminine heat provoked him to reproduce, and waited for other male antelopes to fight him for the same privilege.
By the main path, baboons crouched like relaxed children: furry faces long and stoic. At the sight of humans, the female baboons scrambled up the nearest tree, babies clinging to their mothers’ stomachs and backs. The infant baboon faces gleamed bright pink where their hair had not yet grown.
Deep in the forest, among fallen palm leaves, I spotted a pile of dung the size of an American football. Past a long stretch of trees, I noticed a gray tail swinging among the bushes and, as I moved closer, the outline of a giant mammal. The elephant’s ears were the size of large quilts, and its wrinkled body soared high into the branches. As I stepped carefully forward, I saw that the beast was accompanied by three companions: all huge, all hungry. In large swoops, their large trunks grabbed hold of branches and bent them until they snapped free.
For recreation, Ghanaians gather around pixelated television screens for hours, fixated on foreign soap operas that many viewers cannot understand. The plots are always the same: porcelain-faced women lust after broad-chested men as the peripheral characters sneer from a distance.
Although Ghanaian culture insists upon modesty, young viewers enjoy the twisted privileges of witnessing half-naked women on screen pollute the happiness of their equally-skimpy companions. The shows are punctuated by traditional commercials in which shapely African women smile grandly at food and kitchen products.
The extremity of the gestures and facial expressions within these television shows inspires me to laugh aloud, although my fellow viewers don’t see the humor.
In Ghana, nothing is over-acted. Drama, no matter how poorly-displayed, is the welcomed escape of devout Christians who very rarely explore the liberties of evil.
Seventy years of sunlight has dried off all the fat from Ampento’s most respected herbalist. His skinny limbs are mostly bare, apart from the ragged cloth he hangs around his waist and the broken sandals he wears on his feet. The herbalist’s workshop consists of a small hut made of sticks, and contains numerous pots in which he stores local remedies. When the old man sits down to grind medicinal herbs, flies feed from the open wounds on his ankles, indulging in flesh the man has been too busy to mend.
Every morning, the herbalist hunches over his walking stick and prays that his ancestors will expel evil spirits from the plants he wishes to collect. In the forest, he wades through dirty rivers with a large, hook-shaped machete tucked under one arm. After hacking away medicinal bark and leaves, he scrambles on the dirt to collect the shattered bits of plant. Stooped low to the ground, ants climb freely up his arms and disperse across the surface of his body. He is too old and too tired to swipe them off.
On the return home, the herbalist stops in town for a large glass of local liquor, which wastes him in moments. As he shuffles back to his hut, he stops periodically to retie the drawstring on his pants, rambling meanwhile about his history as a Ghanaian warrior.
At night, the herbalist dreams of his grandfather, who also possessed the gift of healing, and who blessed his kin with the ability to carry his knowledge forward. In his dreams, the herbalist communicates with the spirit of his grandfather, who demonstrates new remedies the herbalist records upon waking. Each Wednesday, the herbalist refrains from food and drink to ensure that God will instill power within his herbs.
Not only can the herbalist navigate through the African bush, but–more importantly–he expertly ventures through the spiritual ream that reigns over everything he knows.
An old woman bears her breasts in the cement clearing of a village compound. Wrinkled yet erect, she leans against the arm of her elderly daughter and shuffles slowly from one side of the compound to the other. At age 120, the shapely old woman drapes her traditional cloth around her waist as if her ancient skin were a fashion: exposing a full chest that hangs down to her tired pelvis.
In the afternoons, the old woman huddles on the stoop of her bedroom and chomps on oranges with surprising vigor. When I walk past, she stares with an attentive gaze that bears over one century’s worth of curiosity.
From the village of Ampento, I may walk along a straight path leading directly into Ghana’s forest bush. From the ground, pineapples grow among long skinny leaves that bend outwards like fireworks. Maize stretches parallel to palm trees, and vibrant, pink cocoa pods (ready for plucking) hang from the sides of thick tree trunks. Within the shorter grass, I may walk amongst the graves of villagers who lived and died as farmers, and who were buried to rest in the very land they tended.
Deep inside the bush, the Ampento River flows across the main path. The water bears the color of strong lager, and plays host to numerous bugs that skim lightly across the liquid’s surface. Plants drape elegantly over the river, softening the sight of pollution. Before the establishment of pumps, the villagers used this river’s water to drink, satisfying their thirsts with technological waste.
In Kumasi, my mother’s hair bobs around her head like the bulb of a perfect mushroom. She wears elaborate black and white gowns that loosely hug her figure, which flows softly outwards from breast to belly.
In the mornings, she stands by the gate and drapes her arms around my shoulders before I depart for school, and never fails to wish God’s divine guidance upon my soul. In the evenings, she serves me delicious feasts I can never finish before retreating to the living room, where she watches television on the carpeted floor and listens to the portable radio she props firmly on her lap.
While teaching gospel hymns, she passionately swings her hands back and forth as she sings off-key. As she closes her eyes, she must imagine that her God is inside me somewhere, because whenever she looks at me, she smiles.