Kumasi is the royal city of the Ashanti people. Established in the late 17th century by King Asantehene Osei Tutu I (the Emperor King of the Ashanti Kingdom). The city, located in central Ghana, was established to serve as central location for power and wealth in the empire. All forms of trade went through Kumasi, including slavery. It would seem that all roads lead to Kumasi, making it irresistible to the British Empire.
The first Friday of my work contract arrived, the weekend and time for me to explore. The plan was to wake up before dawn and some how make it to Kumasi. I had spent the night before interrogating the bartender on the mine compound, Bradford, about how to get there, he suggested the metro bus. I packed my gear and hit the hay. My alarm went off early, very early, I was to catch the bus at 5am! Setting a goal, and actually getting your ass out of bed to achieve it are two very different things, I lay in bed wrestling with my doubt and motivation; am I brave enough to adventure without guidance into a city I don’t know? What if I don’t enjoy it? What if I’m not an adventurer? What if I destined for the boring, safe life?
And then as the doubt reached its climax, my usual motivating thought came to mind: What would little Jay do?
Little Jay wouldn’t have been able sleep, and would have kept his parents up late into the night with his excitement. Little Jay would’ve woken Little Pete (Little Brother) with a fright before dawn with two little satchels filled with useless home made gadgets and gizmo’s to attack the exploration they were about to undertake through the park across the road; an expedition through forests, over mountains, across crocodile invested streams, and lion roamed grasslands to locate the grail of adventure… Knowing more.
Before I knew it I was being shuffled around in a bus, I moved from seat to seat. Every time I sat down, another person would arrive and stare down at me, “Obruni (White Man), this is my seat.” After the fifth relocation the kind soft spoken person next to me pointed out that when you buy a ticket, the conductor / whoever has the ticket slips, writes your seat number on the back. I quickly jumped across to my seat, apologizing profusely.
The drive there was like an old Nintendo game, the player has to get his convoy to the end of the stage avoiding various objects while jumping over potholes. Like every game I ever played, there was always a boss level, boss levels would increase with difficulty as you progressed. We rode through a series of boss levels, our driver a seasoned player, negotiated these with ease, until we were face by the most dangerous, treacherous, and difficult boss to navigate in Nintendo Ghana: The Baby Goat. The Baby Goat is a law unto itself, with a complete disregard for the lives of others as well as its own. The Baby Goat strolls into the road in full arrogance, hypnotizes the player with its cuteness and soft bleet and only when it’s too late does the player realize the danger and swerve, hitting the giant pothole and losing all the points he had collected along the way. The goat survived, but we were bounced around.
We reached Kumasi Station, I jumped out of the bus and looked around, completely out of my comfort zone. I had decided on the bus that I was going to walk the city, I would start with the Kejetia market, and then make my way to the Manhyia Palace, stopping at whatever caught my attention along the way. I also wanted to get a guitar and some gifts for Dom (Fiancé). Refusing all taxi drivers, I walked on, and found a police woman who gave me the directions to the market.
Clearly not a local, I received a lot of stares: I greeted, and being the friendly nation they are, most Ghanains greeted in return, often stopping for a brief conversation. I carried on with my mission. A young thin rasta lazing in the morning sun on his motorbike caught my attention, and I his. He smiled, waved, and called me over. ATO was his name, and he was a rapper. ATO offered to show me around the city, at first I hesitated, I was here to do it alone, to challenge myself, but his warmth soon ushered me into accepting the offer.
Despite not being a famous hip hop artist ATO’s rep in the local community was strong. On every street, passing bikes and taxis, people would shout out “A to the O! ATO!!!” To which ATO would acknowledge with a smile and a wave. ATO suggested we go to a cultural village before going to the market, there we could find local artisans and stop for a beer. I took my time as we visited painters, sculptors, wood carvers, and musicians, listening to there stories and admiring their work.
As an African, I am used to and love the heat, but not being from the equator, I was not yet acclimatized to the humidity levels, and desperately needed a beer, or two. ATO and I stopped at a spot (bar) that he frequented. As we entered, my attention was immediately drawn to the artworks painted on the walls, and everyone else’s attention to me. The walls were split into panels with portraits of voluptuous African beauties. The damp lowly lit spot had plastic garden furniture arranged around small tables, we sat down and ordered two beers. I listened as ATO told me stories of his travels to Europe, how he had lived and worked in England and Germany. I had only been to Europe once and listened closely to his tales. We chatted about our hopes and dreams for our countries and our continent, and how we intended to make a difference. We ordered more beer, and continued to solve Africa’s problems.
I’ve seen markets, I’ve shopped at markets, but my god, I have never been to a market like this, Kejetia Market: coming down the hill from the cultural village I was met by a sea of corrugated iron as far as I could see. I hesitated, taken aback by the size of the unknown I was about to step into. I like big open skies, vast landscapes, and low densities of people; a crowded market in a city where I have no bearings, no experience, is my idea of hell. I galvanized, looked up at the sky for a last glance of blue, and strode boldly into shadows of the iron roofs.
We plunged into the sea, desperate for air, I clung to the staircase of a dilapidated colonial building. We climbed up three flights of stairs climbing over people lazing in the shade out of the intense equator sun. On the top were stalls of toilets, and for 50 pesewa you could take a wizz. Next to the stalls, on a rickety old bench, were two young men working with, from what I could tell, were the mechanics of old clocks. The man on the right used his hand and a pair of scissors to create a beat on the bench while the man on the left began to rap. We were in the crows nest, while they created their beats, I climbed on the verge in an attempt to gaze upon pristine beer-infested abandoned beach. ATO assured me that such a place did exist, but we would have to go through the market to get there.The young men continued, ATO and I joined them. I contributed to the beat by humming a tune and ATO dropped a few rhymes. A small crowd gathered, I’m still uncertain as to whether this was due to toilet queues, the strange white alien, or the sick music we were making.
We pushed through the market, ATO in front and me behind. I struggled to keep up with my slight guide, the path ways were only about a meter wide, and like the other traffic in Ghana, there wasn’t really any organization. I soon learned that waiting for a person to pass and then taking your turn wasn’t how it worked, you had to push through if you wanted to get through. The market had everything; children’s clothing, traditional crops, chemicals, scooters, toiletries, meat, muti, toys, random plastic crap, and much, much more. For most of the trudge through the market I had to shoot from the hip, the camera wasn’t always welcome and many people believed I was capturing their soul with my tin can.
The market opened up and we were met by abandoned railway tracks running through the middle of the market. This brief respite allowed me the time to reset my focus for my adventure. Following ATO through the market had been overwhelming; the shoving and tripping while trying to take in the experience was impossible to master. I had had enough of the market, I had gotten Dom the fabric I promised, and now it was time to get out. I start losing my mind within ten minutes of being in a shopping center and this had been a two hour sweaty trek through a crowded market. We were only half way through and it would take at least another hour, if we moved swiftly, before we were out of the market and before I had a meltdown. ATO knew a shortcut.
A shortcut in distance, but an eternity of awkwardness… ATO took me through the “pleasure section” of the market, pleasure for those who paid, and for ATO as he watched this Obruni go bright red and squirm with all the cat calling. This section of the market is closed off with sheets draping across the pathway, and curtains covering the various stalls. There were all kinds of women here, short, tall, fat, thin, all dressed in tight clothing that left nothing to the imagination. “We show you good time white boy”, “Hey Obruni, wanna play?”, “You got money?” I smiled and pushed ATO along to get to the other side as quickly as possible, I pushed aside the last curtain and we were out.
ATO and I headed for the Manhyia Palace, the official home of the Asante King, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, here I was to go on an official tour of the palace to learn about the Asante Kingdom. Being a history geek I enjoyed the tour immensely, but the colonial actions left me feeling sad and ashamed. A proud, strong elderly man, dressed in traditional Kente Cloth, was leading the tour.
“The empire was booming, people loved their king! Then came the white man, and took it all.” I hid behind some of the other taller men on the tour, I was the only white man on the tour, and despite being an African myself, I took on all the guilt of my British heritage.
“What do you think of this my white friend?”, he asked.
“Well, um, um, um… Eish”
He smiled and continued the tour. The pride, passion, and rebelliousness with which he spoke enticed me. I want to become a badass old man, proud of my heritage and happy to share it with others. But what is my heritage? I was descended from a race that oppressed the people of the continent I loved so dearly. Bugger that! I thought, I am a proud sun-adverse African and I will create my own heritage of exploration, teaching, and giving to a continent I call home…
ATO lead me back to the bus station where we exchanged contact information, shared a manly hug, and parted ways. The ride back was long, hot, and cramped. I drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming of droplets sliding down a frosted glass filled to the brim with malted barley in the outstretched hand of my lady.