This story emerges from the depths of my memory with each detail still clinging to it easy like geckos walking on a ceiling. There is no effort involved in drawing the picture inside my mind; each smell and waterdrop that caught the crystalline rays filtering through the canopy of green is still as it was: intact and waiting to be brought back to life with these words. But this is not the beginning, and that is where I would like to start.
When I was twenty I studied abroad in Ghana, West Africa. People often asked me, “why Ghana?” It seemed to confuse a lot of folks that one would choose to live in desolate, hot, “dangerous” Africa when there were perfectly acceptable places to study abroad such as London, Madrid or Munich. But I chose Ghana. I wanted to be flung as far outside of my comfort zone as possible. I wanted to see the world from an entirely different perspective. I wanted to see things that no-one else saw.
People also often ask, “what was Africa like?” and I’m never able to answer. My first response is that I have no idea what Africa is like. . .it’s a huge continent of which I saw only the tiniest teeniest bittiest fraction. To explain the time I spent in Ghana and the things that I learned about myself and the world would take far longer that you’ll want to sit. So instead I want to share one moment – experience, sight, adventure - that sticks so saliently inside this mind from which so much else slips surreptitiously away.
About three months into my semester in Ghana, I decided to take a little road trip by myself. Although I was technically there to study, I spent most of my time exploring the country and attending the bare minimum of classes to get a passing grade (70% and above constituted an A). I had a difficult time convincing myself to go sit in a classroom when there was a wild, open, enthralling country to discover. Who knew if I would ever get a chance to return? And even if I did, everything is always so different the second time around. Nothing remains the same, and nostalgia has a way of tainting even the most sacred of memories.
This road trip was to take me back to Wli in the Volta region where I had previously traveled with two other exchange students. To get there I had to catch a five-hour tro-tro (Ghana’s version of buses: VW mini-buses brought back from the dead, crammed with an unfortunate number of seats and running on diesel) to Ho then another three-hour fun-ride to HoHoe (ho-hway), and stay the night in HoHoe for fear of traveling by myself at night, which fell every single night at exactly six pm. This full day of travel was replete with the memories of intensely uncomfortable seats, the smell of goats drifting down from the top of the bus to which they were fastened with rough twine, raw peanuts, an avocado and unidentifiable fish parts for lunch, and enough breath-taking views to render one speechless for the entirety of the ride.
The Volta region hugs the southeastern part of Ghana and abuts Togo next-door. The people there are the Ewe, and are a historically more gentle and humble tribe than the majority clan of Akan, who are known for their gold and kings and warriors. As you enter the Volta region, the dust and dry gives way to lush moss-green tropics: trees pregnant and dripping with fruits, rivers slicing through the vibrant hues, clouds and moisture in the air beckoning and smelling of the mountains. A heady richness of earth and life jumps at you and a deeper breath is drawn. Life seems softer there.
I felt something magical the first time I visited Wli, the “waterfall village” in the northern Volta region. We had stayed one night and hired a local boy to take us through the thick foliage and up the mountain to the pristine waterfall hiding in the forest amongst impossible white flowers and ferns as thick as the water rushing past. We didn’t stay up there very long that first time, and I felt that I had missed something; that I had passed through far too quickly to truly feel the place. And so I returned.
I caught a bush-taxi from HoHoe first thing in the morning and arrived in Wli in the mid-afternoon. Although the distances are not incredibly great, it took a lot of time to get around in Ghana. Patience was a commodity necessary in great heaps.
In Wli I found the same nice family with a room for rent and used one of my five Ewe words to thank them for the lunch of banku (fermented raw corn dough), swimmers (fried tiny fish) and hot sauce before I packed up my camera and water for a hike to the lower falls before sunset. To get there I had to walk about half a mile to where the dirt road met the forest and then take the footbridge over the stream and walk into the jungle. There were children washing clothes and gathering water from the stream, and I was greeted with the usual curious teasing and laughter brought forth by my strange and foreign white skin, and was asked to try to balance my jug of water on my head as I passed. We shared many universal smiles as I failed miserably at the task, and left them with plenty to tell their families about when they returned home with their chores complete.
The rainforest in Ghana is different than most places in that there are very few poisonous or deadly creatures. There is a smattering of king cobras, but other than that the critters are more or less innocuous, which helped me to gather courage as I walked, alone, further into the depths of the thick trees and mosses. To be honest, I wasn’t really concerned about the wildlife much. What I was thinking about were the Little People who lived deep in the forest. Or what Ghanaians referred to as the Little People. Just about everyone I met in Ghana believed in them. When someone traveled to another village and did not return, or simply disappeared, it was assumed that the Little People got him. Similar to our stories of the Sasquatch, no one has ever seen one and lived to tell about it, yet everyone believes. And they are believed to live in the thicker parts of the forest, simply waiting around to snatch up lonely wanderers.
I was contemplating how many little people I could take on by myself if it came down to it, and marveling at the enormous centipedes and flesh-eating ants that meandered across my path as I closed the distance to the waterfall.
I arrived and looked up with hand to brow, shading the intense glare of the sun as it broke through a hole in the canopy to light my face. The top of the fall was high enough that I could not determine where it began. The volume was magnificent and made a roaring noise in my ears that brought about a sense of peace that I feel only when I am close to moving water. I climbed a large boulder slippery with moss and sat to drink in the wonder around me. I closed my eyes and imagined myself as a microscopic dot in the middle of the woods far away from the closest village in a huge unknown country thousands of miles from all I knew in the world. The deliciousness of this feeling is what keeps me going and seeking and walking to still newer places. It is like nothing else in the world. I felt gigantic and like the tiniest thing in the world all at once.
I took this time to take a few photos of the waterfall with the intention that I would put the pictures together later to get an idea of how huge it was. As I took the last shot, my little camera shut down and went into automatic rewind: no film left. Oh well, I remember thinking to myself. It’s almost dark anyways.
So as I sat there turning over the great questions of the world inside of my mind, my reverie was interrupted by the shouting voice of a young boy, over there beyond the escaping waters. Thinking that he must be calling to me, concerned I was in the jungle alone so close to sundown, I jumped from my perch and hurried over to explain that I was just fine.
Lawrence, as his name turned out the be, was shocked to see me and explained in his broken English that he had, in fact, been shouting up to his friend up on the cliffside. Turns out that Lawrence and his friend were bat hunting. He showed me the large hollow slugs that were filled with shrapnel and explained that they cost a lot, so it’s important that they kill at least fifteen bats with just one of them. I was trying to figure out how this worked as he tried to point out his friend far up the waterfall wall. I wasn’t able to make out the tiny moving speck, and Lawrence ushered me under a small tree just as a shot reverberated through the canyon, and my jaw dropped as I was treated to the most magnificent sight: the air became thick and literally darkened with the activity of fruit bats the size of an overweight house cat. There were thousands upon of thousands of them.
By the time I recovered from my shock and looked to say something to Lawrence, I noticed that he was already busy at work gathering his prey. He had jumped into the base of the waterfall and was gathering dead or wounded animals that had fallen from the sky. He somehow noticed a wounded bat crawling along a narrow ledge about twenty feet above his head and spent the next fifteen minutes throwing rocks at it to bring it down. Fifteen minutes of effort for a bat. These boys were fourteen years old, and this was what they did to make money. Once Laurence knocked the bat down he gripped in firmly by its wings and gave its head a solid whack on the rocks to assure its death. He repeated this with several other of the bats and then, stuffing them in his pockets and gripping their wings in his teeth, he swam back across the pool to emerge dripping from water, bat blood running in tiny rivulets down his chest and legs.
As Lawrence came over to me he took the bats from his mouth into his hand and wore a triumphant grin. He had gathered eleven bats and was expecting at least another five or so from his friend: today there would be profit. He made jokes about which parts I would like to eat and showed me the magnificent bones of the wings and their perfect rounded claws, and how dog-like their faces were.
Lawrence’s friend emerged silent from the forest like an ancient hunter, with the one significant difference between them being the shotgun slung haphazardly across his shoulder. Shirtless and well muscled, his blue-black skin glistened with the sweat and effort of climbing; his worn shorts low-slung and filthy were the color of newborn fawn. He had gathered eight bats on his treacherous climb from above, and the boys chattered excitedly in Ewe about their success; the last few hunts had not yielded so much.
Chagrined that I didn’t have any film left in my camera, what with this amazing scenario having just played itself out before my eyes, I promised myself to remember this scene. The picture of these two young, strong, beautiful Ghanaian boys, Ewe boys, trying to eke a living out of their lot in life in any way possible. Standing with smiles wide open to the world in front of the cooling mist of the waterfall, framed by the green and white of the flowers and trees, holding the dead bodies of all those small animals that meant so very much, that could give so much back.
I was grateful for the company on the walk back to the village, as night in Ghana fell fast like a curtain and jungles have a way of coming alive in the darkness, innocuous or not. We parted ways when the forest emptied onto the street, and I made my way to sleep on my mattress in the home of a welcoming stranger.
I can close my eyes still, so many years later, and see them standing there laughing into the fading sunlit forest the exact color of their teeth embedded in my mind forever more.