“Through the eyes of a child you will see the world just as it ought to be” – unknown.
Welcome to Ghana, West Africa – a country with a people so open, welcoming, soulful, you will instantly find yourself in the arms of one great family.
This is a story about my African family, and how my eyes were opened by a new way of life.
These people accepted me with such love, devotion, humble heart and faith. They have fire under their feet, music in their bones, they get you moving, jiving, singing at the top of your lungs and proclaiming your freedom to all who will listen. You will clap your hands and feel the beat of African earth beneath your bare, dirty soles, start randomly saying hallelujah and amen and not even care why, look up to the sky and remember your purpose, your promise to live a beautiful life; your promise to reach out, embrace, and believe…
You will hug strangers in the streets, have people offer you their seat, help you navigate the bustling market, share their food, their homes. What do they expect in return? A smile. The warming of your soul. The touching of hearts. A moment of humanity. These people challenge every fear you could ever have about travelling alone on the Mother Continent, Africa – every misconception about their poverty, unhappiness, lack of education. It is in fact we who are miseducated, misguided sheep. These people shine bright with truth and humility, they illuminate the spaces around them. They haven’t yet forgotten how to shine, how to smile.
They will teach you too… just in case you have forgotten.
Never in my aesthete life did I imagine falling upon such grace, such humanity, such truth and joy. This is turning out to be a pilgrimage far greater than my wildest imaginations.
So I arrived in Accra, the capital, after a long 48 hours of flights, customs and exchanges. The air was humid, thick with heat and dust. I stripped down to my lightest clothes, and began to walk the streets… camera already at hand. I very soon met a chap called David, a God send – he was happy to show me round, help me find the bus station, an internet cafe so I could message my close friends and family and let them know I was safe and happy; he even bought me fresh water and food.
I had only just arrived and already I was being helped, guided by a local, purely by chance as usual.
David and I chatted a lot, about life, religion vs spirituality, the state of our earth and the corruption of politics. No, Ghanaians don’t really do small talk, which is great because neither do I. I will talk about Art, literature, fashion, history, architecture, travel, nature, humanity, photography, religion or faith for hours, but I’m not interested in small-town gossip, who slept with who, what’s happening in the anti-life of Facebook or what’s in the ‘news’.
Please. There’s way too much beauty to be discovered in the world yet.
David took me to the market where his family had a stool, selling beads and jewels. I was tired from travelling from the other side of the world, but I was being lifted by all these new smiling faces, people that kept passing by and saying ‘welcome’ on the streets.
Although, in the capital, not everybody seemed to be so welcoming to my camera…
But I was keen to get on the road anyway… I wasn’t here to spend time in a big city.
After saying goodbye to David, exchanging contact details, I headed to the bus station and jumped on the first tro-tro heading into the Volta Region.
So the heat is blazing, you’re cramped up in this tiny bus with a load of locals who think you’re a bit of a novelty, your knees are up by your ears, you’re thankful you haven’t got loads of unnecessary luggage. You’re breathing deeply as you haven’t slept for a couple of days of flying and sleeping on airport floors (again…). Still, there’s an excitement burning steadily inside you. You know this is going to be a story worth telling. You can just feel it.
I chose one of the cheaper, non AC tro-tros, had the window down instead, my head craned out watching this new continent blurr by. Vultures and red earth, mountains and tropical trees. So great to be back in the tropics. Europe may be where I was born, a place I’ll always return to (I’m in cold cold Madrid writing this now), but there is no doubting I am happiest in the sun, on the road. Free…
We pulled over about two hours into the journey, me and a few others peeing by the side of the road, whilst the driver ran down to the stream to get some water for the overheating truck. Still couldn’t believe I was in Africa, and, really, how easy my journey had been so far. Was a little bit shy-making peeing by the side of the road, as I was the only white person in sight so was getting a lot of attention, especially as I kept talking to everyone like a naive child, enthusiastic about everything. My hair was enormous! The humidity had quickly turned me into a sort of shrub on legs, just about the most tropical thing in sight. People asked me where I was from, I told them to guess, a game I often like to play – they kept saying India or Israel. People rarely seem to guess England for some reason. I think it’s the fact I wouldn’t be seen dead in tank top, shorts from topman and plastic flip-flops like most other Anglos… did I tell you I arrived in Ghana in a pair of high-waisted military trousers from the 1940s?
Anyway, we soon reached the vastness of the Volta River… and a terrific traffic jam.
On the advice of a few others in my bus, I got out and started walking down to the river, so I could cross on the ferry by foot and catch another tro-tro the other side. As soon as I got out I was flocked by about thirty women trying to sell me goods from boxes and baskets on their heads. I abstained, but thanked them all the same. I find good eye contact and an assertive but friendly ‘no’ always satisfies street vendours. They know I mean it, and won’t budge if I don’t want something. I got some big smiles from the ladies, they probably weren’t used to white men like me (I did also make a point of trying to personally acknowledge everyone who approached me).
After crossing the river, wading through the crowds of merchants, I sat down in another tro-tro, paid my two pounds or whatever it was for my journey, bought some fried yam and then shut my eyes for a bit. I felt relaxed here, and very safe, as if I’d been in Africa a long time and these were my very own people.
Then we arrived in Ho. I got out of the bus, stretched my legs, jumped into the back of a taxi with about five other people and explored a bit. I had pre-arranged to stay with a very lovely family for a couple of weeks, in their home, where they would cook and care for me. But I had no idea what to expect.
Next minute I’m walking down into a neighbourhood in the centre of town – a place I could only describe as a slum. I was a bit surprised at first, I can’t deny it. The pathways between half brick, half metal, half wood, half straw houses, sprawling in every direction, nonsensical, everything uneven, half-finished, with rubble and broken glass in between. I was only wearing espadrilles so had to watch my footing. I even had to jump over a few open-air sewers, which ran through the neighbourhood like little black streams – just the vilest smell you can imagine. I had to jump across on these sort of stepping-stone islands. Could have very easily slipped and fell in.
Then I come out to the edge where there were tropical trees, yam plantations, cassava, sugar cane growing wild, lizards everywhere scattering in the blazing sun, people sat out in little communities on doorsteps, around communal water wells, kids on the streets barefoot and little animals everywhere.
I found the house and family, who were very welcoming. There was a big cross above the front door I noticed – a familiar sign. I knew I was in the right place. I went to my room, sat on the bed (a bit of sponge on a hand-made, rickety frame) and just sat in awe of this apparent enigma I was in.
But I soon fell in love with the place. Hard to explain, but there was a refreshing sense of truth about this way of life for me. It grew on me, massively. This was how Ghanaian people lived – they didn’t have beautifully-decorated houses, neatly-trimmed gardens and picket fences – wifi and enormous, mind-numbing TVs constantly telling them how to behave and what to believe – they just had what they needed, nothing more, nothing less. No expensive paint to cover up the cracks. And, yes, they didn’t cover up their shit with elaborate underground sewer systems, like we do, and pretend it’s not there, as if everybody was born with a clean arse! Please. It’s just a part of everyday life. It helps the trees grow and makes flies for the dragonflies. You didn’t think about it too much.Why would you? You just gotta learn how to jump, quickly.
It was somehow liberating. I had nothing but the moment around me to think about – basic survival – a far cry from life in Europe.
There was a sort of garden – beautiful birds and dense clusters of banana, palm nut, and plantain trees, chickens and lizards dashing around in the undergrowth, behind which was another open-air sewer that cut through this sort of slum village like a natural stream.
I sat on the terrace, just shy of the hot sun, watching as little forms of life came scattering into view. This was a sort of strange paradise – I was a world away from London, Paris or Milan now – all the trouble of the western world far behind me.
More and more, I discovered – there was much beauty to be seen. You were now part of the basic circle of life, no pretence – your feet firmly on the dry ground.
But it was the people, these special, special people, who made this experience so worthwhile for me, and so utterly rewarding.
I met another David in the streets around the neighbourhood whilst exploring one day. He came over, introduced himself, took my hand and we began chatting. Next minute we’re in a full-on discussion about Man, God, Earth and Corruption and Greed of Government and higher power. We were standing in the streets I think for at least half an hour, talked so much about FEAR and how it deceives Man, and withholds him from his full potential. I really connected with this David – it was one of the most passionate conversations I’ve ever had, and with a complete stranger too.
Then, I noticed something else – David had been holding my hand the entire time! He never let go from the first handshake, and I didn’t notice! There was not a flinch of social awkwardness, I felt no cultural difference, not race nor colour of skin divided us. We connected, both physically and emotionally, and it was the most natural thing.
“That would never happen in England” I thought, as we finally went our separate ways.
Of course it wouldn’t happen in grey England, where people are too embarrassed to even make eye contact half the time… unless they’re drunk or horny.
No, this was Ghana, this was the spirit of Africa I had long heard tell of, and now finally was feeling for myself.
I sat down on a bit of broken wall, and watched these two kids playing football in a dusty clearing among the houses. They didn’t seem to mind me, so I took a couple of pictures.
Next a few more children from the area, expressing an interest in my camera, and me, came over and joined the circle. So I started taking more snaps – didn’t even need to prompt them to pose. They loved their moment in the limelight.
They were just the most beautiful kids I’d ever encountered on my journey – so open, smiling and loving. Amazing demonstration of trust, inquisitiveness that seems to be lost in developed parts of the world.
I handed the camera to one of the older ones and jumped in myself.
They were so simple, free, and their energy was infectious.
It didn’t take long until one of them popped the question – “do you want to play football with us?”
I looked down at the jalaba I had bought from an elderly Muslim man at the market earlier, then at my flimsy espadrilles, then around at the dust, the heat… Not the best kit for the job. But, as you can imagine, the rest is history…
I ended up playing football for hours with these kids, sweat pouring and the dust and rubble flying – best game I ever played. It was me and one other kid versus the rest. The elders of the neighbourhood would walk by smiling and encouraging, laughing at my ridiculous choice of attire. We made so much noise, screamed every-time we scored, high-fives flying all over the place. We drunk so much water, laughed a lot, and played until dusk!
At the end of the night they all thanked me and we went to our separate houses.
Next morning I came out and was literally bundled to the floor by about 15 kids, who all ran over crying James as soon as they saw me. I didn’t need to be reminded how to smile that day.
They wanted to play football again, but had broken their little 2 dollar plastic ball. I told them I’d buy them another one if they sung a little Gospel with me. They were more than happy!
So next we’re all running round in circles clapping our hands singing a simplified version of O, Happy Day, I taught them. They loved it, but not as much as I did.
One of the older kids, who really loved any excuse to play with my camera, requested we make a video of it, which sounded pretty fun to me!
And so it became a bit of a routine, everyday after school we would dance and sing Gospel songs that I taught the kids back from my days in the Florence choir, and we’d play football until we dropped. I’ll never forget running through the narrow, rubble-filled streets of the slum with all the kids fighting over who gets to hold my hand, as we rush out to the main drag to buy a new football… I think I bought them about five footballs in the end – they kept popping on the rubble!
As the days went by I became more and more accustomed to the way of life in this place, until it didn’t feel foreign any more, and I felt an integral part of it.
I’ll never forget those faces that I passed-by everyday, who smiled and called out my name, how when I walked around the big town kids from the neighbourhood would smile and wave, remembering me from our epic football games and Gospel songs. I’ll never forget the people of this town and the little neighbourhood I stayed in who were so happy to show me their way of life, answer all my inquisitive questions, or pose for my pictures.
We shared something there, something simple, something organic, one of life’s easiest and yet greatest joys ~ the love of a family. There ain’t no love greater in all the universe than that which is shared through experience, through family, through connection and collaboration.
This was merely the beginning of my journey in Ghana, but already I felt I had achieved so much.
The kids all waved me off as I left a couple weeks later. It was sad, but I knew I had more to do – more people to connect with. My journey had just begun…
Written in Cafe La Falda, Lavapies, Madrid. 19/02/2016.