To Understand Ghana, I Went To the Shore

'But it's Sunday," Bert said. "You won't be working - just loafing in the yard or something."

He wanted me to come with him to his family camp - a jerry-built retreat like those many expatriates build on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, for weekend recreation. Bert was ex-Peace Corps, ex-USAID, ex-Ford Foundation; I never knew the full story. But now as a resident director he liaised (his word) volunteer consultants with Ghanaian government bureaus and indigenous private companies.

I was one of the newest arrivals on his list, and as such he was always trying to get me to trek (his word) with him into what he referred to as the bush. I knew he meant getting outside Accra to farms and factories and loading docks. He meant driving through rain forests and across savannahs and along the once-good tarmac roads to anywhere on the old Gold Coast.

Trouble was, he had the time and excuses to go. I didn't. I was tied to a four-month project requiring periodic progress reports and evidence of real progress. But Bert was always telling me I should get to know the people better, observe the currents of change. Bert was right.

"Come to Big Ada," he said now. "Relax, swim, fish, just rest - do nothing."

We went. It was a leisurely two-hour drive east along the savannah coast from Accra. Big Ada, Bert said, was where the Volta River flowed into the ocean. But there was no harbor here, he explained. The coast was not sheltered enough, and heavy surf constantly rolled across undersea shelves, creating deceptive undertows. The sandbar at the river's mouth allowed only big fishing canoes to ride over it.

"Wait till you see the place," Bert said. "Good fishing. Nice warm water for swimming." I wanted to ask about what to look out for. Crocodiles? Sharks? Snakes? But I kept quiet so as not to confirm the fact that I didn't know much about the country.

THE camp was made of mill-cut lumber and corrugated metal; it opened onto the river. Bert brought out some chairs then disappeared back inside. In a few seconds he emerged in his camp gear: longish Boy Scout-type shorts and a safari jacket with expanding side pockets and puckered shell-holders.

"Me Bwana," he posed with his arms out. "Now, you take my extra pith helmet" - papier-mch, with an elastic chin strap - "and we'll get going."

My California casuals and Topsiders were not the most practical or comfortable. The air was steamy hot - hotter in direct sun. I remember thinking about offices in Accra that were well cooled with small Israeli-made air conditioners.

A few feet from where we were sitting, the bank dropped six or seven feet to the water. There was Bert's dock and his 18-foot rowboat with an outboard motor.

"Don't worry," Bert said "We tie it up well - lock and cover it, too. Once in a while there's mischief - tribes of those wild monkeys; hear them chattering now? - come over looking for food. The only other precaution we've had to take is building our bunks on stilts and setting the legs in water-filled pots to thwart ants."

"Wait'll you see the lagoon," Bert said.

It was wide, like a small lake. Surf burst over a 50-foot sandbar. The force of the water coming into the lagoon created an undulating motion. It was a crystal-blue blanket moving its unbroken surface in rolling swells.

Bert, hand on the tiller, said, "Wonderful, isn't it?" We were already bobbing over and down and up again. "And see the beach out there? It's covered with dried cuttlebone, the whole thing."

I was hanging on to the gunwales. I couldn't see anything but the rolling wet sheet we were riding - and, well, the approaching sandbar. If we rode over it, I thought, we'd be thrown into the surf.

Bert cut the motor. Steering deftly, he brought the boat parallel to the sandbar, then headed away from it to an inside lagoon beach. Scrunching the boat up on the sand, he said, "Here's where you can fish a little with me or take a swim or walk the beach or just sit in the sun."

Just sitting - at that point - was fine with me. Bert got out some fishing tackle.

"Let me ask you something." I was sort of pestering. "Is this 'getting close to a country'? You know, absorbing the culture, understanding the economy, identifying the underlying currents? All those things you keep accusing me of not doing?"

Bert shoved his tackle aside. "There are hardly any Ghanaians around here today. But a lot come down all the time from the villages. Mostly they buy food - bananas, star fruit, pineapples - all plentiful and cheap. And they love to stop and talk." He paused, trying to explain it well. "Often as not they buy great fresh fish from the open boats that sometimes come into the lagoon across the bar when the tide is right. And you know what? Between the fishermen and the villagers, I learn a lot: What's going on, what's new up country, if there are more jobs coming along in the cocoa sector. Lots of things like that."

"Maybe," I said. "But your weekends here look to me like very nice R&R."

Bert nodded. "Hey - it can take a lot of different approaches to learn all about a country. I just said you ought to try mine."

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