Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Obolobo Show

The Obolobo Show: A (fictional) reality show focused on women of a certain size who have to navigate life in Ghana while simultaneously being called all manner of pejoratives and being offered useless advice, remedies and commentary on their ‘obolonity’. I have found myself as unwilling cast member of this show.

I was feeling really good about myself when I landed at Kotoka International Airport three weeks ago. I had packed efficiently enough to deter porters from feeling the need to “joss” me for change as I tried to leave the terminal. I had smiled and slanged my way to acquiring decent service in the city. For the first time in my life, I have even been wearing sunblock in an effort to protect my skin! For the majority of my vacation, I have felt like a confident, proficient sojourner through the streets of Accra and its environs.

The feeling didn’t last as nearly as long as I needed it to though. With one word – just one word hurled at me in rapid succession! – I’ve found myself shrouded in self-doubt and diminished self-confidence.

Obolobo.

“Obolobo” officially means “fat.” However, the true context of the word is not so innocent. How can I put this? In America, it’s the equivalent of being called

1)      Thunder Thighs

2)      Thunder Chunk

3)      Chunky

4)      Chunky Ass

5)      Fat Ass

You get the picture.

Can you imagine that? Just chilling at Subway and some dude walks up to you and says “What it do, Cheese Cake?” Yet people in Ghana feel at liberty to do it every day!

The first week I was in Ghana I was essentially sequestered in the beach town of Axim, and had no encounters with anyone I knew or who had known me at my previous weight. I was apprehensive about taking off my clothes and playing at the beach, until I saw this whale of a White woman lying out in shorts and a BRA. Well, if she felt secure enough to expose herself, then why shouldn’t I? I who was half her size at that? Off into the water I went.

photo(3)

However, once I left the polite company of the resort, I was no longer sheltered. On one of or sightseeing trips, I got out of the car to take a picture of a sign board. A group of young men were sitting idly in front of a small kiosk. I nodded in their direction in acknowledgement, took my picture, and went back to the car. One of them could hardly wait to get the words out of his mouth.

“Ei! Obolo! Wo ko hein? (Hey fatty! Where are you going?)” he taunted.

I pretended I didn’t understand Twi kept walking. I mean, what does one say in response to that? I wasn’t quite ashamed, and I wasn’t quite angry. I certainly felt “some way” though.  However, I shook the foreign feeling off and tried to keep a positive attitude.

When one comes to Ghana, as I’m sure is the same in most parts of Africa, it is customary to greet as many of your relatives, family friends, former school teachers and pets as you possibly can. It’s considered a slight if you don’t and I have made every endeavor to do that since I’ve been here. Generally I can’t be bothered with the effort, but I am trying to keep the flame of my waning Ghanaian customs and obligations alight as much as I can on this trip in particular. I dutifully went to visit an “auntie” (no blood relation at all, of course) in East Legon. She owns a shop, and is always out of the country. To my surprise, she was behind the counter, chatting with her daughter and a friend.

“Hei! Malaka!” she said in genuine surprise. “When did you come?”

I explained that I’d been out of town to celebrate a birthday.

“Saa? And you went to the beach looking like that?”

“Sorry?” I said. This time I was the one genuinely surprised.

“Yes! Look at how you are fat! Is Marshall also fat like this?”

Her daughter, who has lived in the States and understands the implications of calling someone “fat” was aghast.

“Mommy! You just can’t call people fat,” she whispered harshly.

“Oh! Oh, okay! You Americans don’t like to be called fat, eh?” she chuckled.

Again, what could I do? I did the only thing I knew how to do in my defense: I made a fat joke about myself.

“Yes,” I confirmed with a mischievous grin. “Marshall and I are gaining weight and keeping each other warm in the winter.”

I invited my auntie to laugh with me, which she did uproariously. Ghana is so weird. People feel at liberty to offend you, and it is incumbent upon you to assuage them of any feelings of guilt after meting out any offense.

From East Legon I found myself in Labone. My father had told me that one of my good friends had given birth just 2 weeks before. Victoria and I have been friends since Form 3, and although we aren’t as close, we have kept in touch and can always pick up in our relationship from where we left off. I walked up to her house and found her in the kitchen cooking and completely doused in sweat.

“I brought you a present!” I said smiling broadly and handing a pack of diapers to the house-girl.

“Oh, thank you,” she said softly.

She seemed happy to see me, but a cloud of concern soon covered her face. She frowned and put her hands on her hips.

“Malaka, you are really fat, you know? You were doing so well the last time you were in Ghana. You lost some weight.”

I was taken aback, but as is my role in these types of encounters, I forced myself to explain my circumstances. I refused to apologize, however.

“The weight I lost last time I was here was because I didn’t have food and because I was sad,” I informed her. “It wasn’t healthy weight loss.”

“Still,” she continued, “you have to try and get back on it. This is too much!”

I glanced over at her and held my tongue. She had a patch of grey hair the covered her forehead. Her hips were wide from child birth. Her feet and ankles were swollen and she was in desperate need of a pedicure. None of that mattered though. I was the fat one, and no matter how busted she looked, my crime was the worst offense.  Her guests, who were greedily eating fufu, smirked silently and gazed at my body.

“You know what?” I said earnestly. “I actually bought something in Cantonments that’s going to help me with my goals. Let me show you.”

You make me so happy, Kingsbite!

You make me so happy, Kingsbite!

I rooted around in my purse and pulled out a half-eaten bar of chocolate. Victoria and her guests were distraught.

“Henh! Is this supposed to help you lose weight?” they cried in near unison.

“I didn’t say it was to lose weight!” I cackled wickedly. “I said it was to help me with my goal…which is to be happy!”

I invited them to laugh at my expense, which again, they were more than happy to do. I smiled and said goodbye to her and said I’d be back in a week. At this point, my self-esteem was at the rim of the toilet. All I needed was for someone to push me in and flush.

I never realized HOW body conscious women in Ghana are. I look around and everyone looks so healthy to me. People over here don’t live a sedentary lifestyle. They walk everywhere. They drink loads of water. But if you’re any bigger than an American size 4, you’re automatically labeled as obolobo. It’s maddening, and troubling. Doesn’t anyone care about health? What does one’s size (exclusively) have to do with your health?

Ghana branch of the MOM Squad: Have you ever found yourself on the Obolobo Show? How do you cope with it?

The Next Big Thing

My BFFFL, Nana Darkoa has asked me to participate in The Next Big Thing. As for this woman di333, she likes these things too much. The exercise has all the qualities of an online version of pilolo (in my humble opinion), but it’s really an opportunity for writers in the blogsphere to tell readers what they’ve been working on, and introduce them to the works of other writers they may or may not already be fans of. Nana answered questions about her next big thing here: http://adventuresfrom.com/2013/01/09/my-next-big-thing.html

Here’s more about my Next Big Thing.

What is the working title of your book?

Untitled

I was going to call it Malaka’s Book, since 89% of my friends, family and acquaintances have been asking about “my book”, but I figured Untitled would do the work better service.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

From my valued readers. The contents on my blog Mind of Malaka is an amalgamation of every day events as I experience and witness them. A fair enough number of people have expressed an interest in seeing my blog in book form, and I suppose I should give the people what they want.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Is chucklesome a real genre? That’s what I’d put my book under. I’d like to see Barnes & Noble stock my book under the chucklesome section.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I am the main character in my book, so someone insanely attractive and terribly witty would have to play me. Queen Latifah maybe. We’re about the same size, and sport similar scowls. She punched a guy in the face for touching her booty in that one video, which I found SO empowering. I’d like her to play me.

We could hold an open casting call for all the other supporting actors. They don’t have to be household names. They’re just people. However, there’s a groundnut seller that lives/works in Labone that I’d REALLY like to see play a pivotal role in the film. I love groundnuts.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

All I want is some peace, and neither the world nor my children, nor the GOP or President Obama will give it to me.

When will your book be published?

I guess when I finally write it. I’m going to self-publish. I don’t handle rejection well…not well at all. If I were going through a publishing house it would be impossible for me to answer this question. It’d be akin to asking “When will Jesus come?”

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Not long at all! In fact, it’s all stored very neatly in my head and on scraps of paper. It really is a riveting read, once you paste it all together. Pity we can’t publish and sell scripts emblazoned on toilet paper. I’d be a millionaire by now.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think the experiences I share are issues that anyone with a pulse can relate to. Constipation. Shopping. Dieting. Those sorts of things. Only people whose synapses have ceased to fire will find that there is nothing in this book to pique their interest; for obvious reasons.

 

*At this point I’m supposed to invite two other people to share their next big thing and give them a one week deadline to complete the exercise. I really can’t be bothered to harass anyone. Any volunteers? Most of the MOM Squad have blogs of their own. Who’s got next? Leave a comment here with the link to your Next Big Thing so that we can all read it. I’m on vacation mode…

Beauty, Beauty, Beauty!

As I said before, I have made the conscious decision to only see the good side of Ghana, as much as I can. I suddenly have the urge to take a break from detailing  the beach chronicles to express a range of emotions that have gripped my belly this morning, chief of those being one: Appreciation.

Perhaps it’s because this is the first time in a long while that I’ve been anywhere alone – sans children and husband – but I’ve really had a chance to appreciate Ghana for myself and not had to divide my time between being tour guide and entertainer. I’ve had a chance to just sit back, reacquaint myself with the country, and soak it all in for myself.

IMG_1913 I went squat pissing the other day, for example. If the kids were here, there was no way I’d be able to appreciate the experience.

On the way back from Axim, Emefa and I took the bus back to Accra because there was no space in the one car we had left among the 6 of us. It took 5 hours from the time we bought our tickets to the time we left for the bus to fill up. The driver refused to set off until every seat was full. Emefa and I led a small rebellion and demanded a refund so that we could get on a different bus line.

“Your business plan doesn’t make any sense,” she pointed out. “You have been idling the bus, with air condition, for 5 hours so that you can get an extra 60 cedis? What sense does that make?”

“Oh. That’s be business plan!” countered the enormous driver, who glared at us through aviator lenses and spread his legs in order to assert his dominance. All the same, we left within minutes of that conversation as more and more passengers filed off the bus to demand their money back as well.

IMG_1912 Now, one would expect to have to urinate in that amount of time, at least once. The only facility available was a three wall tin shack with a sign posted on one of the walls. I could tell you about it, but I was so intrigued that I shot a video. Some things are just better said with pictures.

OHHH! Malaka?!?!,  you say. But when will I ever get the chance to squat piss outside again? It’s a crime to do that in public in the states. Sure I did it all wrong – I was supposed to stand on the two larger stones and pee between them (I thought one of them was bulls eye and whizzed right on it) – but it took me back to a time when I was kid and had no control over my bladder. It was an exercise in nostalgia.

The other thing that has been nice is seeing SO many Black people EVERYWHERE. I’m not being xenophobic or anything, but it’s nice not to stand out in the crowd for a change. I live in the Roswell/ Alpharetta/ Sandy Springs triangle in Georgia, and because I’m a stay at home mom, I feel like there is always some sort of value judgment of me based on my gender and race, and where I’m supposed to be in a certain space in time based on those factors. I often get quizzical stares in the grocery store from other customers for unknown reasons. I think it’s because they assume that I’m on welfare and unemployed and whittling away my time when I should be out looking for a job…but that could just be me projecting. The point is, no one stares at me in Ghana, and I love it.

In the last three to four years, there has been a surge in the use of local prints for everyday wear. Previously a woman dressed in print was either going to a funeral, church, or a traditional function of some sort. Everything Western was “better”. I’ll never forget when one particularly cantankerous Ewe woman looked at the beads I’d strung around my wrist and told me to take them off.

“You look like a villager,” she spat.

photo I’m so glad that times have changed and we’ve embraced the vibrancy and allure of our cotton prints. My sisters and I are finally at liberty to wear attire and jewelry that celebrates our heritage, that is comfortable, and that makes you feel regal in the process. Even the brothers are getting in on the phenomenon and sporting button down breathable cotton shirts in the most kinetic of colors!

photo(1) There has also been a swell in the number of women wearing their natural hair in creative ways. I have to confess that it has been amusing and confounding about two trends that are rampant in the capital, those being women who are strongly on the Weave Team and others that are on Team Dread Locks. Weaves are more glamorous, but locks are more practical. I shared a taxi with a woman this morning who was sporting a sew-in down the middle of her back, and I watched with humor as the foreign hair clung to her sweaty back.

IMG_1925 Yes. Yes I took her picture. Sue me.

 

 

IMG_1922I love the way everything has more than one purpose; like this empty whiskey bottle turned vase. Isn’t that amazing??

I am tempted to concede that this may all be enthusiasm based on my own version of exoticism of my culture, but darn it if it doesn’t feel good. The evidence in an abrupt encounter I had with a stranger just the other night. I went into Jokers with a friend from elementary school and followed him in as he greeted the bouncer at the door. There I was in my African print halter dress, hair all twisted up in flip flops looking very out of place in the midst of women in Lycra, heels, and enough weave to stuff a warehouse full of mattresses. I made eye contact with a girl who had been waiting at the door. As is customary in Atlanta, I nodded and gave her a half smile, just to say “I’ve seen you.”

She cut her eyes at me, looked me up and down, and tilted her head in disdain.

I laughed uproariously in return and walked into the bar/club. It was wonderful! Even getting “eyed” by a whore (which is what I found out later that Jokers is – a place for whores to pick up Johns) was a soul stirring experience!

I’m glad I’m leaving before the novelty wears off, however. I want to hold onto these feelings as long as I can.

Fanta’s Folly

Folly. What kind of foolish name is that to give your resort? Msteeewwww…

IMG_1698 Our time at Axim Beach Hotel (ABH) soon came to an end. Three nights had passed before we knew it. We had an amazing sendoff the night before. Nana’s birthday was a blast. I did some fire bending by the bonfire and we feasted on fish, lobster, octopus and 7 different sides (that I can remember). A particular DJ whom she had hired (and who will remain nameless) did not show up, albeit for good reason, and we had to rely on Chanelle and Emefa’s spinning skills, which proved interesting. We danced to everything from Azonto to some ubiquitous UK garage mix. The night ended when we did the electric slide to Cameo. It was more like an electric train wreck than a slide. Like fried chicken and grits, some things are just better left done in the hands of Black Americans.

We said a long goodbye to ABH the next morning and set off for Fanta’s Folly. Nana thought it would be nice to extend the holiday for a few extra days, and had asked Ernestina – one of her friends who was not able to make the first leg of the trip – for a recommendation. The Folly was her suggestion.

“I’ve visited friends while they were here, although I didn’t stay the night myself, I really liked it.”

Upon Ernestina’s recommendation, it was decided that we would carry on the merriment there.

Emefa and I – who are both wordsmiths in our own right – were more than a little concerned about the resort’s moniker.

“Hmmm. I hope it won’t be folly to go to Fanta’s Folly,” she hummed. “Particularly after the great time we’ve had here at Axim.”

“I was just thinking the same thing!” I exclaimed.

Nana did not see our point.

“A ‘folly’ is something light-hearted and whimsical,” she said.

That was not our understanding of the word ‘folly’. The back and forth over the semantics ended when I whipped out Merriam-Webster’s dictionary on my iPhone and it was confirmed that a folly ‘was defined as lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight’. It is a foolish act or idea. None of this bode well in my mind, but I could appreciate the owners’ desire to use alliteration in naming their property. I quite enjoy alliteration, even when executed poorly.

We went through Takoradi to have lunch at Captain Hook’s and to say goodbye to Mariel and the Twins. She wanted to get back to Accra to see about her car and did not join us for the next half of our holiday. Ernestina was flying in and was going to rendezvous with us at the restaurant as well. Portia and Chanelle had left separately in a taxi and went straight on to the Folly, where Chanelle’s American boyfriend would be joining us for two days.

IMG_1737 Fanta’s Folly is located at the end of a labyrinth of dirt roads and bamboo plantations, which housed some slightly schizophrenic neighbors. We saw a sign posted that both welcomed us and told us to go away. Fortunately, that was not our final destination. After what seemed like an eternity, we ended up at the resort. There were 4 big white 4×4’s parked in the lot, which said that there were expatriates afoot.  I was correct in my assessment.

The entrance to Fanta’s Folly brings you to the rear of all the buildings. There is no way to conveniently see when guests are leaving or approaching, which is why I surmised that no one came to greet us or help us with our bags. As Nana, Emefa and I walked through a dirt path in the garden towards the front of a building we hoped was reception, we saw Portia and Chanelle sunning themselves on the beach. Portia leapt up and bounded towards us like a mahogany Baywatch babe.

“You’re here! You’re here!” she squealed. “Our rooms are already ready.”

“Great!” said Emefa enthusiastically.

The three of us looked around, waiting for someone other than our friend to greet us. There was a skinny Black woman with patchy skin seated at a wooden dining table with three White men in her company. I thought this might be Fanta, as I heard that she was Francophone and married to a Frenchman. She stood up and approached us after we had greeted the group.

“The room is already unlocked,” she said with a half-smile. “You can just go.”

I saw Nana’s shoulders stiffen. This was not the kind of service she was accustomed to. Portia informed us which rooms were ours and began to lead us away.

“Just go, just go!” urged Fanta.

So we went…dragging our luggage behind us the entire way.

Emefa had made a last minute decision to stay, so she was going to be in a room all alone. Chanelle and Colin (her boyfriend) were going to make wild jungle noises in the chalet next to hers; Portia and Ernestina were bunking together and Nana and I shared a room. Despite the less than cordial reception, we were all very impressed with the property from the outside.

“It’s like rustic glam!” I gushed.

“I like the way the buildings are on stilts,” Nana added.

IMG_1739 We unpacked and looked around. The bathroom was modern, and had beautiful glass tiles on the walls. It was very spacious with angular fixtures. There were two beds in the room, both with blue mosquito nets above them. I liked the décor very much, but I couldn’t wait to hit the beach.

“You’ll have to bring the pillows from the lounges on the veranda,” Portia warned. “They have no cushions on the beach.”

That seemed like a bit of a hassle: having to bring pillows, towels and whatnot to the beach…but I wouldn’t let it ruin my fun.

“We’ll just get one of the guys who works here to do it,” Nana said.

IMG_1788 At that moment, Emefa showed up in our room. She was very unhappy with her accommodations. Her room was dark and hot, the lights did not work, and her shower was outside. It must have been one of the older villas that had not been upgraded. She spoke to the grounds manager/waiter, who then spoke to the madame of the resort, who then told Emefa that she could move in to our chalet. With that out of the way, we could finally go to the beach. My toes were thirsty for salt water!

This is where they trouble really began.

Chanelle and Portia were laying on two bamboo beach lounges…the only two lounges available at a beach front resort.

“What do you mean?” snapped Nana. “Do they mean I can’t lay out on the beach because they have no lounges.”

“Seems like that’s the case, bubbins!” laughed Chanelle.

The very idea was ridiculous. Still, some of us were determined to have fun. I motioned for the waiter to come over so that I could order something to drink.

“Do you have pineapple juice?”

“No. We don’t have it.”

This is Ghana, where several items listed on the menu will never be available. There’s no need to get bent out of shape about it. You just drill down until you find something. I asked him about 3 other items before Emefa suggested I ask him what they DO have instead.

“We have fruita (?) juice,” he said simply.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s very nice…”

“Can I mix it with something else?”

“No. It’s not possible.”

We went on like this for a few minutes before he described a mixed berry drink that I could have over ice with a straw.

“I’ll have that,” I said, balancing my rear on the edge of one of the hard lounges.

I looked at Nana, who was attempting to control the scowl that was taking over her face.

“Can you get some more lounges for us to sit on?” she asked. Her voice was tight.

“No, please,” said the waiter. “It’s not possible.”

“Heh?”

“We only have 2 lounges,” he explained. “The other ones are broken.”

“Then bring the ones from in front of our rooms,” Portia suggested.

The waiter looked confused, and a little stunned by the idea.

“I will ask Madame,” he offered, before disappearing with our orders.

A few minutes later he came back with a tray and an apology.

“Please, Madame says you cannot bring the lounges to the beach. Those ones are very light in weight, and they should stay at the top.”

I shrugged and sipped my drink. Emefa had set out her beach mat and I flopped onto it. Nana was not so easily pacified. I thought she might burst an artery in an attempt to control her fury. Portia, who was very much the big sister among us, followed the waiter and soon returned with four more lounges in various states of disrepair. Everything should have been settled after that, but then the flies invaded our space.

“Why are there flies on the beach!” Nana growled, swatting at the fat blue and black cretins. “There were no flies on the beach at Axim!”

“Oh it’s nature,” I fussed back. “Flies…and red ants (which were crawling all over us at this point) have a right to enjoy the beach too!”

At that point, Colin showed up. He was everything I didn’t expect. Colin had mousey brown hair and shifting eyes. He was about 4 inches shorter than Chanelle, and spoke with a hint of a country accent. Turns out he was from Kansas.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

We couldn’t tell him fast enough how awful everything was, from the reception to the treatment we’d gotten. He seemed particularly surprised that we had not been helped with our bags.

“Yeah…some guy came running up the moment he saw me, trying to take my backpack,” he said. “I told him I didn’t want any help.”

We all ‘humphed’, but didn’t state the obvious. Beh he saw a White man and was eager to serve him. A Black woman is capable of carrying her own bags, isn’t it?

IMG_1750Chanelle and Colin disappeared to go have lunch together. I tried to relax on the beach, but the insects proved more formidable than I expected. I fled into the ocean and Emefa soon joined me. Nana was reclined on a beach lounge with a book, trying to look relaxed, but her wrath and displeasure were obvious, even from a distance. Portia walked over to us and gave us the scoop.

“Basically, Nana isn’t happy here and she wants to go back to Axim,” she said. “I think we should take a group decision as to whether we stay or not.”

Emefa and I agreed. We both wanted to stay, but would defer to the group’s decision.

“It’s Nana’s birthday, though,” I added. “I think in the end the decision should be hers no matter what we say.”

Portia called the rest of the gang over and explained the situation. The majority of us wanted to stay, despite the less than stellar service, but were too sheepish to say so. In the effort to compromise, we decided that we would spend the night and leave for Axim the next morning. Since Ernestina had made the reservations, it fell on her to tell Fanta that we were not happy with our accommodations and that we wanted to leave.

“If we don’t take time, they may ask us to pay for the whole 4 days,” Emefa said ominously. “I know these people. We haven’t given them any sort of notice.”

“That’s crazy,” Colin scoffed. “We’re only staying the night, so we’re only paying for the night!”

Ernestina looked worried. Sensing that there might be a bigger conflict than she anticipated, she retreated from speaking to Fanta right away.

“I can go talk to them if you want me to,” Colin offered.

“Uh uh!”

“Oh NO!”

“Nope, you can’t.”

“I mean how? It’s like we couldn’t speak for ourselves and we had to send a White man to go and speak for us.” (That last comment was made by yours truly.)

Eventually, Portia went with Ernestina to seek out Fanta. They caught up with her between the eating area and one of the houses that the owners lived in. Their body language suggested that things weren’t going too well. Portia’s jaw was tight, Fanta was flailing her spindly arms about her, and Ernestina had shrunk into herself.

I took a break from watching the trio and got a chance to look around the resort for the first time since we’d gotten to the beach. The property was walled off by flimsy wooden structures on either side. The family had cleared the trash and debris that washed ashore from the front of the beach, and deposited it on either side of the walls. This explained the presence of so much vermin. There were two main buildings where the family slept. Fanta, her husband, her sisters, and their respective boyfriends all lived on the premises. Their drying laundry served as banners along the guard rail of the taller of the two buildings. This certainly did not meet the standards of a $120/night accommodation. I still wanted to give that outdoor shower a try though. It would be a first for me.

Meanwhile…

“I don’t understand what you are saying!” Fanta screeched, looking and Portia and Ernestina with venom in her eyes. “You say you are unhappy. Eh? Why? Because the room is too hot, the shower curtain is torn, there are flies on the beach, we don’t have sun lounges, and the lights in one room don’t work. I don’t understand why you are unhappy!”

“But Fanta, you just ran down all the reasons why some of us are unhappy,” Portia pointed out.

“Heh. Me, I know how we Africans can be,” Fanta continued, shaking her bleached, fianga-ry body with every word. “We Blacks can be very difficult. There is a White man who has been staying here. No shower! No toilet! For three…four days – but he doesn’t complain!”

Ernestina tried to play the pacifist and asked her what compromise would be acceptable to her.

“You will have to pay for today and tomorrow,” snarled Fanta.

She spun around and walked briskly off. Portia and Ernestina came back to report the results.

“I want to leave right now,” Portia gravely.

Ernestina was trailing her finger across her collar bone, looking very upset. She didn’t want to leave on a bad note, because she was really looking forward to coming back there again. (But why??) After hearing what Fanta said about “Africans” and “how difficult we can be” (because we expect basic service??) I was motivated to leave immediately as well. Nana practically leapt out of her chair. She called Jonas to tell him of our demise and to plead for shelter back at his resort. Without hesitation, he said he would come and pick us up. There would be no need to get a taxi.

As we went back to our rooms to pack and shower, Emefa slipped away to find Fanta. She was sitting at a table with her husband a few of their French guests, dissing us in French. Emefa asked if she could speak with her privately, which she agreed to do. She pulled up a chair and patted the seat, inviting Fanta to sit down. Fanta sat down and eyed her warily, a portion of her brittle weave covering her dark eyes.

“Me? I’m ready for nonsense! I’ve been ready for nonsense ever since they started talking!” she roared.

“No, no,” Emefa said soothingly. “I just want us to leave on a positive note. I want you to be happy.”

Twenty minutes later, Emefa had negotiated one night’s pay instead of two. All would have ended well had Fanta’s elderly, slimy husband not found them out and warned that he would lock our belongings in the room and put our names in the “instigators book” if we did not pay.

Seriously? Does he treat his expatriate guests that way? The overt implication that we would try to skip out on our bill (presumably because we were Black)  was more than I could handle. After we had our showers, we waited in the back parking lot for Jonas to arrive. The mosquitoes greeted us eagerly. As we filed past Fanta and her troop of White men, not one offered a farewell or an apology for not making our brief stay a pleasant one. Stupid woman.

Hey Fanta: I have a new verb to add to the alliteration in your moniker. F*ck Fanta and your Folly. Choke on that.

 

 

The History They Don’t Teach Us

I have a problem with the way some of our municipalities are named in Ghana. They are a constant reminder of the oppressive colonial regime that Ghana found itself under for centuries, and in some sadistic way still takes pride in. The most offensive of these is McCarthy Hill, which is a west of the capital, and was the site of a battle between the British (led by Sir McCarthy) and the Fantes. The Fantes defeated General/Governor/Massa McCarthy during the skirmish, where it was said he died. The colonialists later named the site McCarthy Hill in his honor. I’ve waited my entire life for someone in government to rename the hill (which is now prime real estate) after the brilliant Chief or Fante general who led his forces to victory, but that day hasn’t come. My Spidey senses have advised me to stop holding my breath.

History was always taught in school from a very Eurocentric point of view. It wasn’t until I got to SOS HGIC and did my IB program that I even discovered that African history is taught from the White man’s perspective or that there was an alternative. The narrative was that we Ghanaians were tribalistic and therefore very easy to divide, which was how they came to rule us. It’s a narrative that is still very strong today, and embedded in the national psyche. ‘Divide and conquer’, they called it.

I grew up believing that Ghanaians were inherently “bad” and that white people were “good”. After all, what could be worse than selling out your fellow African for the benefit of a few beads or a mirror in trade? And why did we as people not try to resist more? I was disappointed in my heritage for a time in my life. Apart from the gallant tale of Yaa Asantewaa and her charge into battle against the British, I thought we were docile, pliable, malleable, vindictive, deceivable people…all the things we still call ourselves today.

That’s why I’m so glad I got the chance to visit Prince’s Town.

We thought this castle was serene and beautiful!

We thought this castle was serene and beautiful!

The area is traditionally known as Pokesu, which the guide told us meant “forest” in Nzema. It is at Cape Three Points, which is the southernmost tip of the country. The German’s arrived in 1683 and built a small fort on an elevated portion of land that was donated to them by Nana Jonkone, the chief of the area at the time. The German’s came to do earnest trading, and got along really well with the locals. They ‘donated’ the left over stones and bricks from the fort that they built to Nana Jonkone, and helped him build a small fortress for himself on the land near the beach. The German’s left the area after their business was complete and returned to Europe. However, they sold the fort to the Dutch but did not tell Nana that they had sold their donated property. Nana Jonkone  moved in a little while later and converted the fort to the seat of his government. Imagine the Dutch’s surprise when they arrived and found all these Black guys in “their house.”

“What are you doing here man?”

“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing here’? I live here.”

“No…you don’t. Fritz sold me this land. Here is the bill of sale.”

“Well let me ask YOU a question, Bjorg. How did Fritz sell you something that I gave to him? I gave him that land, and he used my materials…except the wood. That came from Germany. And furthermore, he didn’t tell me that he was selling it to you! That’s just plain rude. I’m sorry. You’re going to have to go back to Holland.”

“That’s not possible. And I want you to know, we have guns.”

“Oh yeah? So do we!”

But Nana Jonkone did not have enough guns or men to repulse all these Dutchees. But he did have gold. He travelled to the Ashanti Region and begged Nana Prempeh for his help. He paid Nana Prempeh a calabash of gold for each Ashanti mercenary that would help fight against the Dutch and their unrighteous quest. The Ashantis easily quelled the attacks of the enemy, and kept them at bay for 20 years.

If you look in the distance, you can see the ruins of Nana's house

If you look in the distance, you can see the ruins of Nana’s house

After the Dutch discovered that the mercenaries had left, they returned for the fort and attacked Nana Jonkone with venomous force. They pointed their canons towards the town and blew up his home. All the forts in Ghana have their cannons facing towards the sea. Prince’s Town is the only one with a cannon facing land. Nana Jonkone escaped the attack, and was never heard of or seen again. It has been said he died in the Ashanti region or was sold into slavery following the Dutch attack. Unlike their German predecessors, the Dutch came to trade in lucrative human flesh, and did so until they sold the fort to the British.

IMG_1677 Their treatment of the slaves was among some of the most inhumane I’ve seen to date. As a Christian, I was offended and disgusted. I wondered how Ghanaians could ever partake in the practice of Christianity as it was presented at the time, and what manner of Christ that these Europeans had presented that would make it acceptable to lock 300 men and women together in a 40 square foot room and conduct church services just outside of it. What do you mean, Malaka? I mean the dungeon was not built to be a dungeon. It was a store house for food that the Dutch later converted into a holding cell. There were no widows – only four small openings cut into the ceiling to let air in and out. When it rained, they could cover the holes, leaving the room in total darkness.

The straight and narrow road

IMG_1676 Because Fort Gross Friedrichsburg was not built for human captivity, it was easier for some of the more daring male slaves to try and make their escape. The enslavers soon put an end to that by constructing a straight and narrow path leading into the cell. They would place a soldier at either side of the path and tell their captives to walk within to confines of that path or be shot. Meanwhile, the slaves locked within would yell at the new captives, urging them to go back.

“There’s no more room! There’s no more room!”

I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around the scene.

Your last bath and a song

IMG_1675 Our guide took us to a well where the slaves would have a final wash down before being loaded onto the ship. The well was right behind the church. Hymns and songs of praise would ring out from the congregation as the enslaved were being hauled off for a lifetime of misery.

 

Slavery’s dirty little secret

There is a tale of a young girl who managed to escape slavery after being sold by her uncle to the Europeans. She spent the rest of her life seeing the very same man who traded her for a petty item day after day in the market and in town. There is nothing else to the story, but I imagine the anguish and anger she must have felt.

That is the crux of slavery’s dirty secret that we don’t often discuss as Ghanaians. It’s estimated that as much as 60% of all captives were sold by a relative or someone they knew.

Was your son a trouble maker? Sell him to the Whites.

Did you want a new gun? Trade a child to the Whites.

Were you not getting along with your husband’s second wife? Sell her kids to the Whites.

Couldn’t afford all these kids? Sell a few to the Whites!

Sure there were slave raids and rival tribes sold their war captives into slavery, but there were not enough raids and wars to account for the millions of people that were shipped off from Ghana alone.

IMG_1686 The day ended on a high note though. Our guide offered us a canoe ride (which we thought was going to be free, but turned out to cost ₡8 apiece) on the lagoon that sat to the west of the town. I would like to say that it was beautiful, but it was absolutely terrifying. The canoe was 7 feet long and 8 inches deep. A gently breeze could have overturned and sunk it! At one point we got marooned on some rocks and our guide had to get out of the canoe and dislodge us. Emefa shrieked in fear. Her shrill cries sent birds and fish scattering throughout the mangroves. I advised her to sing something soothing. She murmured something about meeting her Maker, I think. I have never been more motivated to get out of the water!

I know. Seriously?

I know. Seriously?

We thanked our guide and he led us back to our cars using the most direct route – right through the town’s growing trash heap and grave yard. O_o

I began to itch, and walk a little more quickly. I wondered what Nana Jonkone might think of the town he fought so bravely to defend if he saw it today.

Prince’s Town

After we left Fort St Anthony, we asked around town for directions to Nzulezo and Prince’s Town. It turns out they were in opposite directions. The care taker of the Fort suggested we go to Nzulezo instead. It would be much closer, he said.

Mariel decided that he was wrong. The guide book AND the entry on Wikipedia said that Prince’s Town was only 5 km away from our current position. Given that the internet is never wrong, we ignored his advice and made towards Prince’s Town. We had also been told that visiting Nzulezo meant physically entering people’s private homes in order to tour the village, and most of us found it off putting. To Prince’s Town we went.

Along the way, we stopped periodically to confirm that we were heading in the right direction.

“Ehhh, wo di3, ko straight, enaa branchie right,” were the directions we head again and again. So we branchied (turned) right and found ourselves at a signboard that pointed us in the direction of ‘Princess Town.’

“That didn’t take long at all,” said Mariel with a sly grin.

“No, not really!” chirped Chanelle.

Hmmm. Men. They can be so too known. We all settled back in our seats and continued conversing about the general splendor of the region. Somehow, the subject of boyfriends and partner’s came up. Mariel opened up on the subject, earnestly seeking advice.

“You know, I have this guy friend who has started giving me gifts that are quite troubling,” she said in her sing-song voice.

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“Well, we’re just friends like I said, but he’s been treating me to nice dinners, gave me a really expensive box of chocolates one day and a Movado watch for Christmas,” she said with a furrowed brow. “I was really confused, so I asked one of my guy friends about it.”

For the rest of the women in the car, it was obvious what was going on. This was an older guy trying to buy the affections of a younger woman. And what better way to do that than with a $2000 watch? What she said and did next changed the course of the universe forever.

“My guy friend said he must be gay, and he said I should ask him,” she continued innocently. “So I did. I asked him at dinner one day if he was gay. He seemed very shocked by the question and he’s been very distant ever since.”

She let the words hang in the air, as if she was still genuinely confused by the series of events. We couldn’t jump in fast enough.

“Ah. But you Mariel paaa, you’ve gone to ask a full blooded older Ghanaian man if he’s gay?”

“And after he’s gifted you with such an expensive watch?”

“Did he ask for the watch back?”

“Like if it was me, I would come and collect my watch!”

“Oh…no,” replied Mariel dreamily. “He hasn’t asked for it back, but if he did, I would happily give it to him.”

I couldn’t believe this woman. She was so sweet she could give you diabetes. In fact, I think I felt my kidneys go into shock. We each gave our advice to her from our own perspectives and experiences and secretly hoped she would get a clue.

Soon the topic turned back to our destination, which was still not getting any closer. The road got rougher and rougher, and huge tipper trucks zoomed past us, throwing dust and mud in our view. Mariel had carefully wiped her windshield with baby wipes that morning (yes, baby wipes), but the effort seemed all for naught at this point. The Twins bumped along in the car behind us until we got to a huge pond in the middle of the road.

“Oh my God!” I yelled from the back seat. “How do we get over that?”

“It looks like someone has set up some bamboo sticks on the side of the road,” Chanelle pointed out.

“Perhaps we should drive over them?” said Emefa.

“Okay,” Mariel chirped brightly.

She obediently turned her wheel towards the right of the road. The car lurched, burped, and we were stuck.

Six Sticks in the Road

“We’re stuck in the mud,” I said, stating the obvious.

“No we’re not,” said Mariel optimistically.

She ground her foot on the accelerator and sent thick red clay spraying all over the windows of the car. Someone yelped and squealed in fear.

“We’re stuck in the mud,” I said again.

“Yeah.”

IMG_1662 We each got out of the car and looked around to assess our situation, and tried to keep calm. This was particularly hard for Chanelle, who as I’ve mentioned before cannot sit still.

“Right,” she said assertively. “We’re just going to have to push it out of the mud.”

Emefa, Chanelle and I bent determinedly in front of the hood of the car which was now quickly sinking into the clay. Mariel got into the driver’s seat and put the car in reverse. It was no use.

“Do you I have 4 wheel drive?!?” I asked desperately. Sweat was pouring down my back. I was nervous and hot, and half expected a jaguar or mmotia to come and drag me into the woods.

“No,” Mariel sung. “It’s a two wheel drive.”

Panic set in with full force. I felt a rush of power enter my legs. The seriousness of our situation had washed over every woman there.

“Give it gully girls!!!”

Mariel gunned the gas and we lifted the car out of the mud. It moved 3 feet back and we roared with pride.

“We’ve got girl power!!!” Chanelle growled.

Ah. But why wasn’t Mariel moving the car back to the main road, eh?

“It’s stuck again,” she said simply.

I tried to conjure up my inner Girl Scout, but she had long since fled and abandoned me.  I knew we needed friction, but from where? Mariel was apparently on the same path of my thinking. She began to pluck little bits of twig and leaves from the bamboo sprouts and laid them neatly under the front tires.

“Now let’s try it,” she said hopefully.

This time Chanelle got behind the wheel and we pushed anew. As she floored the gas, the front left tire rubbed viciously on the fresh foliage. It sparked a small fire. This was the only time Mariel showed any emotion even resembling concern.

“Wait, wait! I see smoke. Maybe we should put the fire out before we continue?”

Was she for real? She reached into her glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of Voltic water.

“Is that the bumper I see on the ground?” she asked obviously.

Indeed, it was. A piece of her undercarriage was planted in the mud. Things were getting worse! At that moment, a red trotro came rolling past. Great! We would have some help.

The driver of the car stuck his head out of the window and shouted at us.

“Heh! Nkwai ni ho! (The road is not there) Adein na wo ko fa ho? (Why did you take that side)?”

He smiled condescendingly and kept moving.

Ten minutes later another trotro came rolling through the scene. As he rumbled through the pond (which was really a small water table), he repeated the other driver’s admonition.

“Heh! Nkwai ni ho!” he shouted…and kept driving.

A guy on a motor cycle too came along and revved his engine. He had the audacity to drive between us and the ditch where the car sat, forcing ME to step aside so he could get to the other side. By this point I was just pissed. Ghanaian men SUCKED.

We had exhausted our options, and were in the middle of nowhere. Just as I was about to give up hope, Emefa saw 3 men and a boy approaching in the distance. She changed tactics and introduced a new character: The Damsel in Distress. She flagged them down and mournfully explained our circumstances.

“Unkre (uncle), so please, can you help us move our car?” she begged apologetically.

“Ah,” said one with patronizing disgust. “But nkwai ni ho!”

They continued for another few minutes explaining that we should have gone over the standing water and asking us why we went this way, and didn’t we see the other cars passing over the water until Chanelle had had enough.

“Look! We can either stand here and talk about it, or you can help us move the bloody car!” She was mixing Twi and English and throwing her hands about.

All conversation ceased after that.

The men ushered us aside and in a few minutes emancipated the car from its muddy captivity. We jubilated and cackled with glee. One of the men even got under the car and fixed the bumper. I offered him money, but he refused to take it. I saw why. Mariel was thanking them individually and he wanted to get to her to receive her gratitude. She clasped each of their hands in hers and shook it gently.

“Thank you, thank you,” she whispered melodiously in accented Twi (she’s Ewe). “Nyame bless you for your kindness. Thank you, thank you!”

We waved goodbye to our saviors – who had redeemed the virtue of Ghanaian men in my view – ad had to take a decision. Did we risk carrying on to Princess/Prince’s Town, or go back? Surely something spectacular waited for us at the end of this journey.

“We’re not going back,” I said flatly. “Not after all this. I’m gonna see me a castle today if it’s the last thing I do!”

IMG_1734 Perhaps if we had seen this sign on the way in, we would have been better prepared for what lay ahead.

Fort St. Anthony

Our first night at dinner was decidedly delectable. Nana had arranged for all our meals to be a buffet with items of our choosing. I can’t remember what I ate, but it was good. Nana casually mentioned that Jonas had left careful instructions with the staff about our meals and our care, after she had laid out her expectations.  I wondered about this mysterious Jonas, the owner of the resort. According to Nana, he is the only Ghanaian to have sole proprietorship of a beach front resort in the Western Region of Ghana. Most – if not all – of such ventures comprise of a husband and wife team, one of those generally being an expatriate who fronts all the capital, while the Ghanaian half of the entity is used to present just enough exoticism and feel good-ism to provide a heartwarming image for the guests and the national image. I despise that narrative.

I decided that I liked Jonas immediately, without having had the benefit of meeting him. Portia had mentioned that he was extremely talkative, and not an endearing way. How was that even possible? Talkative people are delightful! Who wants to spend an evening with brick wall?

After dinner I went to the reception area to get on the internet and hopefully do some people watching. Mariel was browsing through the artifacts that were for sale. She beamed when she saw me.

“Hello, Malaka!”

“Hey, Mariel. What are you up to?”

It was as though she was waiting for someone to ask.

“Well, I was doing some research in the area and looking for some tourists attractions. I thought we might go to Fort St. Anthony and Prince’s Town,” she said effusively. “Apparently there are some colonial mansions that are part of the attraction.”

Well how about that? I never knew we had colonial mansions in Ghana! It all sounded very romantic. I imagined that I might be a house girl running through the narrow corridors of one of those great estates.

“I’m in. What time do you want to leave in the morning?”

“I was thinking we could set off around 10:00 am?” she mused.

“Great! We can bring it up at breakfast and see who else wants to go.”

We said good night a little afterward and went to bed. I drifted into a deep sleep, lulled by the sound of the crashing surf and then was jarred awake in the middle of the night by Nana’s dancehall/R&B/rap mix which she preferred to sleep with.

The next morning Chanelle came pounding on our chalet door.

“Wake up loves! It’s time for yoga and a run,” she roared.

I discovered that she had lost almost 100 lbs in the last 2 years and had become an exercise nut. I applauded her for that, but I had lost all the determination to exercise at some point during the night. I buried my head into my pillow and listened to Nana give Chanelle her apologies. She said she would join her for yoga after she came back from her run.

“That’s ok bubbins! See you in a bit, yeah?”

And just like that, she took off like a wily leprechaun.

Nana had driven 6 straight hours the day before, and didn’t wake up when Chanelle returned. I however was dressed and ready to go for a walk. Chanelle corralled me and informed me that I’d be doing yoga instead.

“Great! I’ve never done yoga before,” I admitted.

“Whaaa…?!? You’re going to love it!” she shouted.

(Chanelle is Ghanaian who was raised in England. You have to imagine her speaking with a deep UK accent to get the full, manic effect. Think Mr. Bean meets Yaa Asantewaa. Do you have it in your head now? Great. Let’s carry on.)

Chanelle instructed me to grab a towel. She had arranged for the conference center to be used for our yoga sessions.

“I would have liked for us to have done it on the grass, but it’s so wet,” she mused. “It would have been so peaceful and lovely.”

IMG_1648 It was hard for me to imagine Chanelle at peace, but I nodded as though I agreed with the idea all the same. Soon she took me through a few breathing and stretching exercises. It felt amazing. My mind was focused. I felt centered…Basically all those fuzzy things they tell you yoga does for you. After breakfast, we set off for our adventure.

The twins, Abena and Charlotte, rode in one car, and Emefa, Chanelle, Mariel and I rode in another. Nana and Portia elected to stay behind for a day on the beach.

We had decided that we would try to hit three historical sites that day. Nzulazu, which is a village built on stilts in the middle of a lake, Fort St. Anthony and Prince’s Town. The fort was the quickest to get to.

IMG_1651 There was a funeral taking place just outside the walls of the fort, which was in the process of being painted. The entry on Wikipedia said it was a small fort that was built by the Portuguese in the 1500’s and later purchased by the Dutch.   It made no mention of what the fort was used for, which soothed me into a false sense of tranquility. It talked about a lighthouse on an island and a picturesque view, and that’s what I set my expectations on. I was not disappointed. The view from the top of the fort is indeed beautiful. In the distance I could make out the roof of an old light house sitting on a deserted island. The water was azure blue and emerald green.

The guide showed us where the European governor in charge of the  fort was buried and then began to tell us about the commerce that he and the town’s people were involved in.

Very soon, the full scale of the horror hit me like a herd of spooked horses.

Courtyard where slaves cooked and exercised.

Courtyard where slaves cooked and exercised.

“This is where they would keep the slaves – from six to six,” he said in very simple English.

There was no chaser. He rattled off the facts without any emotion or any warning. I had come to see mansions! And here he was telling me this was a slave fort? Foolishly, I had assumed there were only two of such forts in Ghana: Elmina and Cape Coast. I soon found out that there were dozens of smaller forts dotted along the coast where slave raiders and traders would pack off their human cargo, parcel them off according to the mark that had been seared into their flesh with an iron brand and shipped to the Americas.

“You see, because the rooms were too hot…that is…not enough ventilation…they keep them here in the yard and then send them back to the dungeon in the evening,” he said glibly.

He has probably given this tour a hundred times, and most likely desensitized to the malevolence that this fort represents. I can’t say for sure. I never asked him.

He showed us where the soldiers would have their meals and entertain guests. Then he showed us the galley and the room where the governor slept (which was locked, so we couldn’t enter). After he took us up a flight of stairs, he opened a small, short door and didn’t say a word. I had an instant panic attack.

“What the hell is that?!?”

“This is where the slaves will enter before they take them to the boat.”

“What do you mean?” I said, my voice growing thinner and higher as my stress level increased.

As it was explained, Fort St. Anthony was built on a very craggy patch of beach land. The large slave ships couldn’t dock close to the fort, so they would wait a few hundred yards out by the lighthouse in the middle of the ocean. The captives would be sent through this dark underground tunnel, chained one to another, loaded onto skiffs and then locked up on the large slaver.

I felt sick. I felt an unexplainable sense of despair. I felt trapped. I felt something in the belly of my spirit die. I almost begged him to shut the door so we could move on, but I didn’t want to be overly dramatic. I decided to step back, but my feet felt planted on the concrete surface. Something about that door connected with me on a visceral level. Had someone from my African-American side of the family been through that door? Nana says we can’t ignore cryptic emotions of this sort. Who knows what history might reveal?

Finally, he did close the door after a few of the other girls had gotten their pictures and I was released from the confinement I felt, though I was still completely shaken.

I still am.