Back in Ghana in the year 2000, I felt most like a “real African woman” when I could fetch water with some degree of ease – meaning when I could carry a bucket of water atop my head from the nearest village, somewhere around a kilometer or a mile away, back to the shack, both without spilling too much of it down my backside and without incurring an absurd amount of stiffness in my neck. This time, in Guinea, I knew that what it would take for me to feel reasonably acculturated here… would actually be to bring myself to throw my trash in the bush. Though I did consider the other alternative – not to leave it behind in my room for my hosts to eventually toss into the bush, but to pack it up with the rest of my belongings and dispose of it perhaps a little more “properly” (in my ingrained Western perception of where trash should reside) back home in the Western world… on my last morning, I finally brought myself to do it – to carry my small plastic bag of odds and ends of trash out in front of the compound and toss it into the bush myself. I suppose, though, the truly acculturated part of that scenario would be not feeling any negativity about doing so…
It was also on this last morning in Guinea that I finally met someone besides Alisco who spoke fluent English – a friend of Mohammed’s (Alisco’s younger nephew, who was probably in his 20’s), who came to visit him during this rare, blissfully quiet morning when everyone else happened to be out. When I eventually joined them on the porch to cut up some fruit, he asked me about my diet, as Mohammed had told him I had mainly just been eating fruit. And as we began to talk quite extensively about health and wellness – mostly about diet (vegetarianism, fruitarianism, breatharianism…), yoga, and Reiki, I was surprised to suddenly find myself having the best conversation I had had the entire time I was in Guinea. Wow, it was so wonderful to actually communicate with someone! Besides Alisco (who had to be away in Conakry half the time), I hadn’t been able to really talk to anyone, or understand anything being talked about, and there had only been a few of the basics of human experience to connect me with anyone whom I had met in Guinea thus far: love (as displayed through care and appreciation for one another), joy (smiles), and rhythm (drumming!). While the men had spent hours sitting in the courtyard talking, I had spent quiet hours in my room, practicing yoga, writing, and reading; I couldn’t share in their food with them, which was always a pretty central social gathering point (though at least they could eat my food, always enjoying the fruit I passed around); and eventually, I had felt so other, so foreign here. At least now, having this conversation, and in the end leaving Mohammed’s friend with a book concerning pranic nourishment that I had brought with to read, I finally felt that I was at least doing something positive in a cross-cultural capacity.
As we were talking, I was struck by the fact that Mohammed’s friend was speaking English with a perfect Ghanaian accent. And when I asked him where he had learned English, sure enough, he told me that he had learned it while studying in Ghana, which was also where he had been exposed to many of the things of which we now spoke. Like another Guinean man with whom I had spoken on my plane ride into the country, who also had been living for a stretch in Ghana, he now told me how much he loved Ghana, loved how “free” he had felt there. “Freedom country,” the man on the plane had called it. They both marveled at how easy it was to do what you wanted in Ghana, to move around without hassle, to relax.
Indeed, by the end of my stay in Guinea, I, too, for my own reasons, was feeling a renewed appreciation for Ghana – far more than I had been feeling by the time I had left it a couple weeks before, when I had felt so ready to explore Guinea (and someday Mali) – and meanwhile leave Ghana behind me. But now that I had this (albeit brief) experience in Guinea with which to compare it, I could see how good it was for me in Ghana: I appreciated how easy it was for me to have some independence there, to feel comfortable, and to connect with the people without much of a language barrier. The type of conversation I was having with Mohammed’s friend, for instance, had been so much easier for me to come by back in Ghana. And I could see that it wasn’t just the English language, either, that made it easier for me to be there, but also the fact that there were simply so many more Westerners there. And this made me see the relatively strong tourism industry in Ghana, which I knew had a great deal to do with this, in a new light. In the past, I had been prone to focus on the more negative aspects of tourism – particularly all the disconcerting ways in which the Western influence tends to change or disrupt non-Western cultures, too often to the point of so many traditions and languages and other key aspects of a culture, or even an entire culture itself, becoming lost. But now I recognized, and was grateful, that the tourism industry has contributed a great deal to setting things up for what I saw as a positive cross-cultural exchange as well. Because in this rapidly changing world, on which the human impact is proving so critical (and in which globalization has already made the Western/capitalist influence fairly inescapable), I think a healthy cross-cultural exchange can be of the utmost importance. (And cultures, I found it reassuring to remember, are not static but living, and therefore always somewhat shifting and evolving – not just in our modern age of “the global village,” but as a constant, as a course of nature…)
It was a bit to my surprise that I felt such an affinity towards Ghana again, and towards its people. But once again, retrospectively, it felt like… home. And now, as I was preparing to leave Guinea, already I was planning to return to Ghana, to explore some new places I had heard about that seemed a far better fit for me than Kokrobite.
Later that night, when I was finally settling into my seat on a Brussels-bound plane, I was surprised to find that the cover story of the airline’s magazine was about the growing health and wellness movement in Ghana – with both yoga and clean diet front and center in the story. And as I read the article, it seemed like another sign pointing me in the direction of Ghana as an easier place to share what I’ve learned, to contribute, to have cross-cultural experience. When I left Ghana in 2000, all I saw for myself back in America was family and education, and it had felt important to learn all I could – back then about permaculture and yoga, eventually dietary cleansing and pranic nourishment – so that I could bring it back to Ghana – to be able to contribute in what I saw as a positive, healthy way to the culture that had given me so much, that had made me so much of who I am today.
Though I did feel done with this trip, and had felt so extremely excited to get on that plane, I did not feel at all done with Africa – not even close. This trip broke the ice, but I could tell it was not nearly enough. And besides my feelings towards Africa… I was so enjoying the movement, the change, being around new people and different cultures…
As soon as I had left Alisco, his wife, and his nephews Youssouf and Sekou outside the departure hall, after sharing a heartfelt farewell with each of them (and after we had first endured a torturous two hours of crawling through traffic – and the extreme of air pollution that goes with it over there – to get to the airport)… as soon as I had stepped through the gate to the departure hall and started to walk forward on my own again, gloriously alone… I had suddenly felt so HAPPY, and lighter and lighter with each step, feeling a sense of freedom and independence returning to me. Oh, how I love to be alone! On my own! Moving through my life! Glory be! I felt so free!
As I relished the entire, long, wonderfully enjoyable journey home, I luxuriated in all the space I felt, even in my typically tiny seat aboard two full flights – plenty of space in which to feel my whole self, and my movement along my path. I loved the new airports through which I passed (especially Conakry’s sweetest of small airports – could be my all-time favorite), enjoyed learning about new countries from the African men sitting beside me on my flights, watched movies, wrote… And I could feel the travel bug stirring inside me, making its way to my heart, preparing to pull the strings and steer me towards another trip. “Yes, you still love traveling!” my inner guide shouted at me. “Keep going!”
As much as I have loved finally finding some sense of settlement and home and community in Santa Cruz, there’s something about feeling my little self loose out in the big world, beyond the safe embrace of my sweet community, that just makes me feel so… alive!
In addition to what was laid out in Part One of this post, “the plastic situation” was the other big factor playing a role in how I was feeling about being in Guinea. There were several aspects to this, many of which I could deal with for some time, but ultimately… I found that I just couldn’t hang with the plastic-burning fumes. I had known about and expected the burning of the trash, plastic and all – and I had actually already gotten a bit used to this in Ghana. Maybe I could have lived with that (and other pollutants that I usually manage to steer clear of, like the occasional cigarette now being smoked in the courtyard…), and maybe I also could have dealt with the generally prolific use of plastic bags – the fact that every single time anything was brought to the house, often for me (as, again, the language barrier amounted to a lack of independence – no shopping for my own fruit at the market), it was brought in yet another plastic bag…
Just like in Ghana, the discarded plastic bags were everywhere here, a part of the landscape. And this didn’t bother me. The plastic everywhere didn’t even look like “litter” here; it just looked like… something that existed in this world, alongside grasses and trees and birds and goats and humans…
One of the things I had always so loved about living in Ghana was how real it was there. For one thing, I loved how real my own life seemed to become without all the many distractions with which I had grown up – the television or movies, or even libraries full of books to read – as if (at least for someone as smitten with story as I am) one’s own story becomes the story without so many other stories to interfere. And I loved how another aspect of this “real” factor was that things were more out in the open there, more blatant or obvious – whether the corruption of the government, the trash situation, or the mystic workings of one’s own beautiful life. As for the trash… here in America, I think for most of us our trash tends to be “out of sight, out of mind” – sent off to some landfill where, unless we are one of the unfortunate souls living near it, we don’t have to be reminded of it; for most Americans, someone comes to pick up our trash for us and it disappears from our little realities. And though more and more of us are now aware of the evidence flooding in that in fact our trash ends up wreaking havoc on so very many of the creatures of this world, whether they be of land, sea, or sky… I think we perhaps still like to think of our trash being in some safe place, and moreover that all this plastic we use is okay, too, because when we’re done with it, we stick it in a recycling bin. Never mind the carbon footprint involved with the recycling process itself, in which our recyclables are mainly shipped to the other side of the world, or the fact that now most of the countries that used to do the recycling job for us are no longer even taking most plastics – so they are often not even being recycled at all, but just rediverted to landfills or incinerators… “Out of sight, out of mind,” right? …But in Ghana and in Guinea, and I would imagine probably in much of the rest of West Africa as well, there are no such illusions, and the trash produced can be seen all around – just part of the landscape.
On my first day in Guinea, I discovered where our trash went – right out in the bush in front of the gate to the compound (great, at least, for fruit peels, which the goats would eventually wander over and consume). And as I stood gazing upon not only so much trash, but also the big burn marks on the dirt road where piles of the trash had clearly been set ablaze… I suddenly somehow reached a new level of feeling at peace with the burning of the trash, plastic and all. It felt like hitting upon a pinnacle in the experience of nonjudgment, a clarity of nonduality – no good or bad – this is just the way it is. …No good or bad, just the way it is – to see the whole plastic situation in this way, to experience it this way, felt like a real accomplishment for me. …But coming to this point of view did not mean that I personally wanted to choose to contribute any more than my usual amount of pollution to this planet (the amount that I have come to accept as the best I am willing to do as I travel through my life in the modern world – many compromises of my lofty ideals of sustainable living having been struck along the way). It’s one thing to observe all that trash in the landscape and feel fully accepting of it, at peace with it, but it’s another thing to participate after nearly a lifetime of efforts to live as eco-friendly as reasonably possible.
And it’s also one thing to see the plastic all around me and quite another to actually breathe the fumes from it burning. And now I’m not talking about just the kind of burning outside in the general vicinity that I had already become used to, but suddenly a much more intense burning, just outside my window… I think I hit a turning point when a coal stove was brought to the courtyard, mostly for the men to use to make tea, as their food (nearly always rice with sauce) was cooked by a woman in town, and I saw – and smelled – the method of lighting the coal – which was to use knotted-up plastic bags as the kindling. Wow those fumes were toxic! I couldn’t hang with it – if I was too close or downwind, I’d have that awful feeling of brain-fry…
For my own fires, I used scraps of paper to get the coal lit – as a writer, I always have used-up scraps of paper around. But outside the realm of my own room, everywhere else, all around me… no paper and plenty of plastic – plastic everywhere. If someone had to go out to get some kindling to light a fire… it wasn’t sticks and leaves that were brought back, it was sticks and plastic bags. But most of the time no one even had to go fetch kindling, because usually any time the stove was lit, there would be a small amount of fresh coal brought to the courtyard – in a plastic bag – which then became the kindling.
Most of the friends who had been there had told me how “rough” Guinea was. And this had made me imagine less Western development, dirt roads and simple living – something a little closer to how I had previously been living in Ghana. And as that had been my favorite way to live out of all the ways that I have experienced so far in this life, it sounded appealing. But this other sort of “roughness” I now found was certainly not something I had imagined, and it surely was not at all appealing to me.
…So what to do about it? …I knew from my past in Ghana that implementing change is generally a long, slow process. Even to get Koro to refrain from taking plastic bags at the market had been quite the battle – because he didn’t want all the women selling produce to look at him like he was crazy. In the two weeks I had just spent in Ghana, it had actually felt like some small improvement in the consciousness around plastic might have been made over all these years I was away, simply because, although all the women from whom I bought produce started to put everything in plastic bags, they didn’t act surprised or make any kind of fuss when I told them “no bag” and put everything in my cloth bags from home; this was an improvement over the reaction I had gotten 18 years before. But unlike back in Ghana, here in Guinea, where I was not doing my own shopping due to the language barrier (and where one trip to the market – accompanied, of course, by Alisco’s nephew Mohammed – was honestly enough for me, as it was so enormous and crowded and busy and crazy that I really had no desire to go back), the plastic bags just kept coming, every single time anyone was sent for fruit, or a bottle of water, etc.; and this just did not sit well with me. (And what to do about drinking water was another issue, with impacts on both my health and environment – but I will spare you the details on that one.)
Here, where I was not only a guest but eventually even began to feel almost like a pet – a creature who was loved and well cared for, and who loved those caring for her, but was unable to communicate much more than love and gratitude (“thank you” was the first phrase I learned in Susu, and it was by far the one I used the most often), I in no way felt that it was my place to initiate some kind of change. I am not one who loves to have so much done for me, so already I was not in the most comfortable position, and to ask the people caring for me to change their whole way of doing things definitely seemed too much to ask – especially when it came to lighting the coal stove with plastic bags, which was the biggest issue for me, as there were so many different men using that stove, making tea on it numerous times a day. Not to mention that I couldn’t even speak a common language with anyone besides Alisco to even begin a discussion about all this! And Alisco was so busy with family matters in Conakry that I wasn’t looking to add to his load – I tried to burden him with my own needs as little as possible.
I also got the very strong impression that amongst the people surrounding me, there was zero idea of single-use plastics being a not-so-good thing. Besides the steady flow of plastic shopping bags making their way to the house, there was one other thing I saw happening with the single-use plastics that I found particularly striking. In West Africa, in addition to the spring or other types of water sold in plastic bottles, there are little plastic bags of purified water for sale, which I would imagine the people around me were sometimes buying because they were being sold cold, as these were the same people who also were drinking the local water straight from the wells – so I doubt that it was a purity issue that prompted them to buy this other water. But they would also use that bagged water to rinse things off or wash their hands – the same exact things for which they would use the well water; it seemed to be that whatever was most within reach was what was used. All those little plastic bags, thrown empty onto the ground, would eventually be swept out into the bush along with the rest of the trash, and all of that eventually would be burned.
This is how things are done. And I could accept that – did accept that. But it was also a difficult position in which to be: eco-conscious, culture-conscious, conscious of that old worn-out Western “we know better” mentality, conscious of all that privilege inherent in my upbringing in the West (and unconscious of plenty aspects of it as well, I’m sure)… and just watching the plastic bags build up – much of which was because of me, totally dependent on my hosts. And ultimately, the routine burning of plastic right in the courtyard… and that feeling of brain-fry… that much was definitely not okay with me. I am not one to mess around with my health; health and wellness are much of why I live the way I live, why I do the things I do – as most of you know, I’m all about self-care. And I am not one to linger in a situation I find to be unhealthy, if there’s an option for an exit.
And so I didn’t. By the second week, I had had enough and was making plans for my departure. (And the scary thing was, while the toxic fumes were initially the biggest factor in my decision not to stay, by the time I left, the lack of peace and quiet seemed a much more pressing issue – I had gotten somewhat used to all the burning plastic, which did not at all seem like a good thing.) I knew that what felt most important for me to do at that point was to continue to focus on the writing, and in this way process my experience in Ghana. I had so loved being alone in Ghana, and having so much time purely to myself to write, and I could see now that for so long, just as I had been yearning to be in Africa again, I had been yearning for uninterrupted time for the writing work, had long felt overdue for this type of inward, reflective period.
I had intended to spend just a few weeks at my mom’s house in the suburbs of Chicago on my way back to California, but now, deeply craving more time alone – quiet time alone, I could see that, at this time, the best place for me to find that, and to most easily be able to do the writing work, would actually be there, where I always felt rather “in the cave,” and where I had, for quite some time, been wanting a long stretch anyhow. And so I began to plan my early return (which was not so easy with no internet service – big thanks to my amazing mom (who was beyond overjoyed that I did not want to stay in Guinea) for arranging my plane ticket back). As for the trip to Guinea… I simply felt like there was always something I had needed to do – and now I had done it. And if I didn’t feel to stay, I did not need to stay.
It did feel a little surprising, though, that I did not feel at all disappointed about this situation not being the right fit for me. (Seeing the disappointment on the faces of others, however – Alisco’s nephews, etc. – these guys I loved, was the one thing that made it just a little hard to leave…) On the contrary, I just felt a huge sense of freedom. There was a relief in having played out the intentions I had had for so many years, to now be free of them, to say goodbye to some vague visions I had had about Guinea just as I had said goodbye to so much of my past desire concerning Ghana in the weeks before. Ultimately, this experience in Guinea felt like another “letting go.”
Having finally returned to Africa, having fulfilled this huge sort of… obligation (to myself) I had felt for so many years, my future now felt wide open. Though it seems extremely likely that I will be in Africa again someday, the pull on me to be there is no longer so urgent – there is no pressure anymore. And relieved of the weight of my long-time intentions, I already felt more present in the now. Indeed, it seemed that saying goodbye to more of the past allowed me the freedom to be ever more fully in the present. And I felt that I no longer wanted to be anywhere but in the present moment.
I didn’t think I was “done” with Africa, but for now… I was done with this trip. Mission complete.
A trip to Guinea to study dance (or, in the end, drum) was always tacked on to the return trip to Ghana that I knew I needed to make; as I’ve explained in a previous post, the idea of going there formed immediately after my last return from Ghana in 2000, and since that time, Guinea always remained a part of my vision for a return trip to Africa. But by the time I was actually going… just like going to Ghana by now felt not so much like something that I wanted to do, but something that I needed to do, it was somewhat the same for Guinea. Yes, I was certainly looking forward to spending time with my favorite drum teacher, and yes, I was very much looking forward to the generally slower pace of life and the simpler lifestyle that I knew I would find pretty much anywhere in West Africa – as compared to America. But also… by the time I went, so many years after that dream to be there formed… going to Guinea, like returning to Ghana, had become just another step I knew I needed to take along my path – I just knew, and had known, that it was necessary for me to go, and see what happened. While I was hopeful that I would like it there, I do generally go into any new experience without expectations, and I was not necessarily attached to any particular outcome being associated with the trip. …And perhaps all of this explains much of why once I finally had gone, I actually did not feel disappointed when the reality of my situation there was… well… for me… just not a desirable one.
This does not feel like an easy post to share. For one thing, one’s experience simply does not always provide the most comfortable story to tell. But more importantly (and what led to much hesitation over whether it was worthwhile to even share the Guinea story), I loved my hosts dearly, and in writing this next post or two, I felt plenty of misgivings about whether I was being as respectful or polite towards them as I would ideally wish to be. …But ultimately, I always seem to choose honesty and openness over diplomacy or tact; and I found that those things that it would be nice to somehow just gloss over, those things that made it most clear that this situation just wasn’t the right fit for me (not for a long stay, anyhow), were so central to my experience that I simply could not tell the story of my stay in Guinea – with my usual dose of honesty and openness – without including them (and why tell it at all if I’m not going to be open and honest?).
Let me jump right in by getting one of the worst parts for me out of the way, as it’s the part that I have felt the most uncomfortable writing about – and therefore would prefer to just “rip the band-aid off,” so to speak. ...While I did, keep in mind, cherish my time with my teacher Alisco, and while I did love him and his family dearly… as the population around the compound increased, living in a compound full of men (and loud men at that) made me realize how much I have grown accustomed to living alone, having my own clear mental space, and how much I absolutely love to be in my own peace and quiet. I had been very much relishing my time completely alone in Ghana, and now it was quite an adjustment, once more and more people began coming around, to be cohabitating with a very vocal bunch. And by “people” coming around, I actually mean men – all men – no women or children except for the occasional much-welcomed visit from Alisco’s wife, who lives at their house in Conakry, or the occasional appearance of an 11-or-12-year-old boy, Abwaca, who rapidly became my very favorite person in the country. And by “a very vocal bunch,” I mean… it honestly became a perpetual source of amazement to me how they could possibly have so much to always say to one another (and in such loud tones!). Of course, as my Susu was mainly limited to greetings, names of fruits, and a few other basics that helped me get by, I had no idea what they were actually talking about. And… full disclosure… to provide a more comprehensive depiction of the noise situation… if it wasn’t the constant talking that I found so remarkably… stunning, let’s say – in a pretty true sense of the word, then it was the cellphones – ringing – relentlessly – just blowing my mind how many times in any given hour these phones would go off – I had never heard anything like it! Each man had a smartphone set to ring to the first few bars of a chosen song, and it wasn’t long before each particular song (just the first line or two repeated over and over, mind you) was driving me absolutely bonkers! Like the talking, this was so constant that it became a real wonder to me how it was even possible.
The town of Dubreka, too, was far bigger and noisier than I had been imagining it. Though I generally go into all travels without expectations, I realized now that, based on what I had heard of it, I had indeed been envisioning a much smaller, more rural town (as well as a quiet, less populated home). Now that I was here, I could see that this wasn’t the kind of peaceful living I would want from a long stay somewhere in Africa. Relative to life in Conakry, sure, Dubreka was peaceful, but relative to that simple life I had had in the bush that I so often associate with being in Africa… no, not so peaceful.
Not only did this not feel like the right place for me, but it really didn’t feel like the right time, either. Here I was, with my favorite master drum teacher, with hours on end to spend in a private lesson – pretty intense lessons, going at my own pace, with three professional players (who would drive out from Conakry) playing the other parts… and all I honestly wanted to do was continue with my writing retreat – and in that way process the couple weeks I had just spent revisiting my past in Ghana; I did not feel at all drawn to focus on practicing for my drum lessons. (And to be honest, even though, yes, the drum classes overall were amazing… West African drumming is a very communal affair, and while it’s certainly helpful, as a student, to learn a rhythm with people who can already play very well the other parts into which you have to fit your own… in many ways I enjoyed playing with my own community back in Santa Cruz much more than these professional guys.)
Nor did I feel like drumming was important enough to me to be the sole reason for staying in a situation I wasn’t enjoying; as much as I love drumming, it was also just a way to be there, a means to spend time in Africa. I wasn’t there just to drum but to live within the culture, had yearned, for years, for a taste of the cross-cultural experience through which I had learned so much, grown so much, during those formative times I had spent in Ghana in my early twenties. Now I started to really appreciate what I had in Ghana, how easy it was for me to be there, and for me to feel that I could exist within the culture rather than just alongside it – largely due to having a common language. Whereas my first time in Ghana I had pretty instantly fallen in love with its culture in general, in Guinea, I couldn’t tell how I felt about the culture, because I couldn’t communicate enough with its people to tap into it.
When I was a college student during my first trip to Ghana, one of my academic advisors, a wise and wonderful Nigerian man, had often stressed that a culture is so well revealed through its language that learning its language is a huge and crucial step towards understanding its worldview. And in studying Twi during that trip, I found it to be a language structured so fascinatingly differently from my own – conveying the very different way of thinking, mindset, and perspective that would surely develop in the Ghanaians growing up speaking it – that I could see the truth of that statement. But in my current situation… while at first I had been excited to learn some Susu, it soon became clear that a deeper dive beyond greetings and other basics was not going to be a particularly easy task, considering that the educational technique consistently employed by everyone outside of Sekou and Alisco – all the young men often hanging around the compound as well as the drummers from Conakry who came out to join us for my drum lessons – was to throw a whole long sentence at me and then wait expectantly for a response; somehow I did not find this technique at all helpful. Sekou, by far my favorite Susu teacher, was the only one who seemed to understand the need to go word by word, and when it was just the two of us at the house, we managed quite well together despite our lack of a common language, using a sort of sign language and objects and sometimes a tiny bit of French that I could somewhat make out – or imagined I could, anyway, which seemed good enough. (And Sekou, thankfully, was the #1 person who was generally at the house with me, Alisco’s most trusted family member, whom he had raised like a son and trusted enough, he told me, to watch over any student he brought to Guinea – if Alisco wasn’t around, as he often had family matters to attend to back in Conakry, then I had Sekou by my side.) Alisco, meanwhile, remained the one person with whom I could speak English. Although everyone around me was speaking only Susu, my incomprehension of French began to feel like a real disadvantage, as I knew it could have been a bridge, and before long, I felt that I would not want to return to a Francophone country in West Africa, at least not for any significant length of time, without at least first learning French.
But now did not feel like the time to focus on learning a new language; it felt like the time to continue to go deep within myself through the writing – and between drum classes and finding peace and quiet only on rare occasions, this just wasn’t happening. The language barrier also amounted to a lack of independence, and this meant, for one thing, because I was being very well cared for, that I was never left alone – always there was someone around in case I needed something. I was indeed grateful that they were taking such good care of me, but… I really like, and am used to, having plenty of time alone, and perhaps especially now, coming out of that time completely alone with myself in Ghana that I had so been enjoying… this just wasn’t working for me.
…And then there was the plastic situation. This was the other main factor playing a role in my decision not to stay, but it is such a big topic that I am going to give it its own post (because yes, I have learned that blogs are not like books, and I’m trying to keep each post relatively short for you).
To be continued in Part Two…
As compared to my arrival in Ghana’s very modern airport a couple weeks before, arriving in Guinea felt, to me, like arriving in Africa – but I suppose I should say, “my memory of Africa.” Stepping off the plane and directly into the warm (very warm), welcoming African air; riding a bus from the tarmac to the airport itself; small and warm and simple inside, and not without its share of chaos as we were herded through Customs… this was all so much more like it had been at the old airport in Ghana. And after a fairly crazy day of travel with the African airline that had been my only option for air travel between Ghana and Guinea – a day full of last-minute changes and re-routing and some nearly serious mishaps (as in, winding up on the wrong plane – despite multiple employees having checked my ticket!), this familiarity now felt so very comforting. I was also extremely relieved to find that all signs were not only in French but in English as well, so it was easy to find my way out to the “Meeting Point,” where I happily found Alisco waiting for me, with his entourage of nephews. And then I was in their care. And I knew Alisco would take good care of me. And he did.
His first thought as we drove out of the airport was to stock up on fruit for me, and so we soon pulled off to the side of the road at a roadside market, where, as if at a fast-food drive-through, we stayed in the car as Alisco called an order out the window, my eyes meanwhile boggling at the absolutely immense amount of fruit piled up there – I don’t think I had ever seen so much fruit gathered into one spot. Then we headed straight to Dubreka, Alisco’s younger nephew, Youssouf, doing an amazing job of keeping his calm, sweet demeanor as he drove through some of the worst traffic I can ever recall experiencing. The traffic in West Africa is made so much worse than any I have experienced in the Western world by the lack of emissions controls in these countries, as well as the predominantly diesel engines, and the air quality as we inched along reached (not surprisingly) a new height in my scale of awful. We drove and stopped, and drove and stopped, and drove and stopped, and sitting in the backseat with one of the nephews, whose name I had already forgotten but whom I would soon come to know (and love) as Sekou, I pulled out a handkerchief to put over my nose. Still, though, burning nostrils that night…
I knew – had heard from friends who had been here – that to study dance in Guinea, to dance every day as my old dream had gone, generally involved being in Conakry, as that was where you could find the teachers, where all the “ballets” (performance groups) had their rehearsals. And Alisco now told me that Youssouf Koumbassa, one of my favorite master dance teachers (who has been based in the States for a very long time), whose camp in Conakry had already begun, was teaching some dance classes that were open to everyone – not just the students in his camp. But I couldn’t see going through that traffic again to get there. The pollution was far too much for me, and I definitely felt no desire to go through it all again until I absolutely had to, to return to the airport; to me, nothing seemed worth breathing in that much pollution.
Well outside of Conakry ages later, now moving along clearer roads, a refreshing breeze suddenly blew through the car, and the air felt about twenty degrees cooler as we approached Dubreka. After eventually passing through the town’s busy market center, we went slower and slower as the roads became increasingly rough, and my mind turned to what sort of living situation I might have in store for me. I had had no idea what to expect as far as this went, and now I felt a bit of relief as, though the roads still turned ever more haphazard, the houses lining them became increasingly substantial.
Finally we stopped before the gate in a tall cement wall surrounding what could only be a nice house inside. We walked through a concrete courtyard, so dark that I could barely make out the structures around its perimeter (which I would later discover to be an outhouse, a storage shed, and the living quarters for one or two young men who seemed to come with the house), and then, after stepping up some stairs, along a porch, and finally into the house – all of which were also fashioned from concrete, I was a bit bedazzled by how nice it indeed was. With its tile floors and its fancy ceilings imprinted with moldings, it felt grand and impressive in a way, a style, that was very different from any of the homes I had ever been inside in Ghana, and coming from Ghana, it felt very… foreign. The house was spacious, and perhaps appeared even more-so due to the fact that it was almost entirely empty: its big living room held only a handful of stacked-up plastic chairs, its four bedrooms only a standing electric fan in each. Although the heat here was intense – far hotter during the day, I would soon discover, than what I had just gotten used to right on the coast in Ghana (though also much cooler at night), the fans, as it turned out, were more to deflect the mosquitoes than the heat, as we generally only had electricity at night. Alisco’s nephews and son also now brought a brand new mattress and set of pillows into the room Alisco decided should be mine (and I, a pillow-free floor-sleeper for decades now, promptly took it all out within a couple days). This room, along with one other, had its own bathroom, complete with a sink, toilet, and shower – but no water. Water was brought from a well in buckets and jerry cans, and after the novelty of using a functioning shower at my AirBnB in Ghana, here I was happy to enjoy a return to good-old-fashioned bucket baths. (The toilet with no running water, however, proved to be a much less enjoyable affair…)
Alisco was just now seeing this house for the first time as well, as he had just arrived in Guinea a couple nights before me and had been staying at his family’s house in Conakry. He was having a house of his own built here in Dubreka, but as it was far from being finished, he had rented this house nearby for us to use. After sitting and catching up for a while (which was the only time that big living room would be used for anything besides storage, as the courtyard was always the hangout place from then on – day or night once the electricity to the outside of the house was set up in the next day or two), he went back to his house in Conakry for the night, but I had two of his nephews, Mohammed (from Dubreka) and Sekou (from Conakry), neither of whom spoke any English, to look after me.
And I felt so very happy and content. I had everything I needed, felt well cared for, already loved the nephews and felt like family. And I think, also, I was just so utterly relieved to have left behind me the disturbance of all that NOISE in Kokrobite, back in Ghana. There was amplified music and the sound of crowds as I was falling asleep, and this would be the case much of the time I was there, but it was never so loud or so nearby that I could not block it out with my earplugs. And it was always much better music than what I had been subjected to in Kokrobite! Dubreka was not quite what I would consider a quiet place, but at least it was an improvement.
I woke to the usual West African village or town sounds of roosters and goats and birds and hordes of children, and for those first few days in Guinea, as I got settled into the house, occupying myself with cleaning and with starting some very basic Susu language lessons with Sekou, I was mainly just thrilled with my change in environment – and with my room. After living alone for so long now, and becoming quite used to enjoying my own mental space, having some sort of space to myself was the one thing I had very much been hoping for here, but had not dared to ask about when planning the trip. Now, settling in for what I thought might be several months, and being a homebody besides, I was delighted to have the opportunity to make this wonderful room just exactly how I wanted it, in my minimalist way – plenty of space (once Sekou helped me remove the unwanted mattress) for my yoga practice. My universe felt simple and small – just the way I liked it, and in those first few quiet days, which were not overly populated with visitors (yet), I felt very content in my little sanctuary of a room…
When I made my last trip to Ghana in the fall of 2000 (from the starting point of Maine, where I had spent the summer working to raise some funds for my future with Koro), it was shortly after hearing the news of Koro’s death, and I was in a very broken state. Back in Ghana, dancing was eventually the one thing that seemed to really bring me back to life, the most healing practice I found – besides perhaps my life-long, tried-and-true and very much-needed writing practice. When I resumed my former dance lessons in the village of Kokrobite, the drums got everything inside me – all the emotion and heartache, black holes and anything else going on in there – moving, as they simply took over and moved not only my body but my whole being. The movement brought change, the change brought growth, and my reality could not help but be transformed. And meanwhile, as this all transpired, I was completely absorbed in feeling the Divine Spark running through me when I was inside the rhythm, enraptured, quite oblivious of all else.
Those drums brought me back to life whether I wanted to be brought back or not; I had no choice in the matter as that Divine element within them, coming through them, connected with that very same Divine element within me, shoring it up and prompting it to kindly toss my ego aside – so as to possess all of me, to shine through every speck of my being as it moved me. At that time, dancing provided me with the most clear experience of the Divine, and that experience of the Divine was all that really mattered to me, was “what it was all about” for me – perhaps now more clearly than ever before, as after losing my husband and my entire future in Ghana with him, I felt that the Divine was all that was left for me, all that remained. Soon dance was the one thing actually making me want to live again – just so that I could keep doing it, so that I could keep feeling myself enveloped in this pure, Divine experience – so that I could simply keep experiencing the Divine. Plus… it brought some sense of joy back into my reality.
Within the first few days of my arrival back in Maine – after that last trip to Ghana in the fall of 2000, my good friend Becky, whose family I had been living with over the summer, was randomly gifted two tickets to a West African drum and dance performance in Portland. (Side note: I had actually met Becky on my first ever trip to Ghana, while we were in college, and by now she had pretty well saved my life twice, both times Ghana-related – good friend indeed.) The group, we discovered once we were in the theater, was from Guinea, and I was absolutely blown away by what I witnessed in that show: the dance was so much more intense – so much MORE – than what I had been doing in Ghana. Eyes wide open, I turned to Becky and told her that this was what I wanted to do, that I wanted to go to Guinea and do this kind of dance.
And so the idea of going to Guinea, arising on the heels of losing the future I had envisioned for myself in Ghana, was tacked onto the return trip to Ghana that I always felt coming in my not-too-distant future. I still just wanted to live in Africa – saw no real future for myself anywhere else, and while I had just seen another prospect emerge for me with a friend back in Ghana… all I really wanted to do now was dance – so that I could keep experiencing this blissfully divine state into which it brought me. In Kokrobite, I had been taking daily dance lessons, and now I just wanted, again, to simply be in a place, preferably in Africa, where I could dance every day; and once I saw this style of dance, I thought, “why not Guinea?”
Back at my mom’s home in the suburbs of Chicago that winter, I began to dance with teachers from Senegal and Guinea. And over the years to come, when I began to study with particular teachers from Guinea, many of whom took students on trips home with them most winters, going there eventually started to look not so much like a dream but like a possibility. …Except that, by the time I was actually anywhere near ready to go… realistically… my lifestyle by this point being a bit… particular, and entailing a certain standard of healthy environment (relatively clean air at the very least – meaning no highly-polluted African cities), and also preferably a flexibility of schedule (hello three-hour-a-day yoga practice)… finding the right teacher with whom to travel was a bit of a challenge, as most of the teachers base their “camps” – consisting of a full schedule of classes – in or around the highly-polluted city of Conakry. I knew staying in Conakry was simply not an option for me, as my generally light, fruit-and-juice-based diet makes me extremely sensitive to air quality (among other things) – and at this point, I know I need to stay within that diet in order to feel fully healthy – a necessary piece of the puzzle for a return to Africa, as I would not risk getting malaria again. (After coming far too close to death-from-malaria back in 2000 – two blood transfusions and some heavy medication required to keep me in this life, a desire to be in Africa without getting sick was actually what first drew me into an increasingly cleansing diet, back in 2001 when I began to learn much more about the connection between diet and health.)
When I started to drum again, after many years away from it, I felt I had finally hit upon the right teacher with whom to travel. Alisco, my favorite drum teacher and a trusted elder in our community, took his students not to Conakry but to Dubreka, a supposedly much quieter, smaller place, about an hour outside of the city. As I have known the cities in West Africa to be extremely polluted (I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for one thing, the lack of emissions controls over there), I planned to spend absolutely no time in either Conakry or Accra, other than on my way in and out through the airports there; and Alisco assured me that with him I could do this. Besides the big issue of air quality, living in a quiet, peaceful place was a necessity for me if I planned to stay for any length of time. And with Alisco, I could stay for months, not weeks, as he went home to Guinea less often but for longer stretches than the dance teachers I knew – and I felt that when I finally made it back to Africa, I would probably want to stay a while. His trip also seemed much more laid-back than the others – less structured, meaning that it wouldn’t be a struggle to try to fit in my long yoga practice.
Alisco knew me well enough to know about my yoga and my diet, and it also helped that I loved him dearly and had always felt very comfortable with him. He had always felt like family to me, ever since I had met him in Chicago many years before I began studying with him in California, when I was introduced to him by a friend who was also my first ever West African drum teacher. I trusted Alisco and felt safe with him. And… drumming with Alisco generally felt like pure magic: beyond feeling that divine element of Connection running deep, it often felt as if he was downloading rhythms into my mental and physical bodies as meanwhile my spirit soared. So yes, for so very many reasons, Alisco seemed like the perfect person with whom to travel to Guinea…
I went back to see BraSibi again two days after our first visit, which also happened to be Christmas Day (a holiday I was confident BraSibi would not be observing). The night before, on Christmas Eve, I had gone to a local group’s drum and dance performance at Big Milly’s, the old guesthouse, and I had stayed out way, way too late afterwards because, well, as much as I had kept to myself during this writing retreat… it is impossible to not make friends in Ghana. (The show itself was pretty fabulous – I was especially impressed by the acrobatic and contortion portion, during which I witnessed a few young men doing very advanced yoga postures – but while also balancing atop another man’s head!) Now the physical exhaustion I felt from staying up ridiculously late was added to an emotional exhaustion that lingered in the wake of all the intense crying I had been doing after my first visit with BraSibi, and since it seemed he had been the key to unlocking my emotions here, I was steeling myself for another potent experience.
But in this second visit, it seemed our emotions had already been spent and settled, the shock of seeing each other having passed; and, having already communed over the past we both knew, we did not dwell on it now. I found myself able, now, to share with BraSibi all the things I had wanted to say upon first meeting with him – the assurances I had wanted to give him that I was ok, that my life was good – but that I had not been able to express due to the rising tide of emotion keeping me from speaking openly, for fear of being thrown by an enormous wave of tears. Now, dry-eyed, we agreed that “all is good,” and we smiled softly, easily, as we talked about what had been happening in our lives over the past eighteen years. And even after we finally did talk a bit about Koro and some of the less fortunate things that had happened back then, the summation of our experience was still that life is indeed good. “You can’t help it,” BraSibi sighed, remembering the way things ended; things are the way they are; and “we give it to God…”
BraSibi and I talked plenty, but after saying all I had originally wanted to say, it really didn’t matter what we talked about – it just felt good to be in his presence, to be in each other’s presence, to be standing there communing with the one person on this earth who maybe knew a little bit what it was like for me and Koro, the only person who ever really saw our life together out at the shack. BraSibi had loved us. And I still felt that love now.
As we talked, I watched the sun sinking behind the little mountain, as I had loved to do every day out at the shack. And by the time true darkness was approaching, it felt that there was nothing left to say, and that I could leave Kokrobite feeling complete. I could go now. I was satisfied. “All is good.” When BraSibi and I said our sweet goodbyes, they felt final, and I knew, finally, that, while one never knows what the future has in store, I did not feel a need to ever return to Kokrobite.
…To be perfectly honest, and perfectly blunt, by now my journal was becoming filled with profanities concerning how much I now hated this place – because of "ALL THE F***ING NOISE." This had been another topic of conversation between BraSibi and me – the changes that had come to the area and the fact that Kokrobite had become far too loud now – too many people and just TOO MUCH NOISE. The main issue was that the guesthouses on the beach and the bars on the road all pumped out the music so loud that it was beyond my understanding how it could possibly be enjoyable for anyone; and at the AirBnB, I was located right in the middle of it all, in a cacophony of sound, which even my best, freshest earplugs, shoved as deep as they could go into my ears, could not completely block, and which had been increasing in intensity as the days built up to Christmas. It was a pretty extreme situation – I was lucky if the blaring music (and never music I actually liked) would come to a close by midnight or one in the morning, and occasionally, on a weekend, it would go all throughout the entire night, until the birds began to sing their own songs to the sunrise, the thumping bass sometimes even interrupting that, bright and early in the morning. …For someone who loves peace and quiet, and who is also an extremely light sleeper (I tend to sleep with earplugs even in quite quiet environments, if there’s anything electrical going on in the vicinity), Kokrobite was not at all a good fit for me.
I still loved Ghana. I loved the way I could live there. I loved the way I could BE there. But as for Kokrobite… while a week before, on a blissfully relatively quiet day, I had been considering staying longer, by now I could not wait to get out; and while I was very thankful I had finally made it back, I did feel, quite definitively, that I wanted to leave it behind me, and to not come back again.
On my last day in Ghana, I took one more walk down to my old neighborhood. I walked through the property of the old, abandoned hotel, AAMA, where BraSibi had been a night watchman; and happily finding myself completely alone there, I wandered down to its private little beach. And there, by the ocean, where I always feel Koro so strongly, I said my goodbye. Loving my life, and loving Koro, always, I knew that it was time now, for me to move on more fully - always a bit more fully, it seems, as we continue along our way...
It took a full night as well as the following morning to drain the fountain of tears that had welled up inside of me upon seeing BraSibi. And all the while, as I cried and held myself, I wrote.
The following is some of that writing, which came through in the morning. I feel I should just give you this one raw, straight out of my journal – no rewrites, no cleaning it up, no additional thoughts – just the flow of emotion, in all its bare honesty, finally pouring out.
What can I say? I love honesty. And when people are 100% real. And 100% open. So… my turn – here we go…
* * *
Monday, 24 DEC 2018
Ok. Must get out of bed and try to get a lot of work done today. And 3rd Series before it is too too hot…
There’s still so much to do here, particularly with the writing work, but I am eager to get through my time here… And just go experience Guinea. And see what happens there. And then go home.
My life has moved on. Right? Are you starting to doubt that? Are you starting to doubt all you felt earlier, just last week? How much you have moved on?
It just all came back so hard-core upon seeing BraSibi.
I don’t know that I will ever “move on” completely. What does that even mean?
BraSibi reminded me how there’s no one like Koro, there has never been anyone like Koro around here, “so clever, so bright…” And it’s true, I have never met anyone who comes even close to being like Koro. And I loved him fully, and I lost him, and I can still feel the absolute vastness of that loss. And in order to keep living, and to keep finding joy and contentment in this life, I have to be okay with that. I have to simply be okay with that. And as BraSibi also reminded me (and as the people of Ghana assured me again and again last time I was here, when so many villagers approached me, knowing of my loss, knowing of Koro – people I had never met before, all consoling me, all telling me… that it is God’s way – “give it to God…”), I have to trust that this is “God’s way” – because what other way could it be? God is in All. Even in the hardship, the suffering – it is all the Divine unfolding, whether we can see it or not… whether we realize it or not…
Again it is the same as before – yes, there is the vastness – an eternity of oceans’ worth of vastness – of loss, and yes it is still there inside me, popping up from time to time – full force yesterday upon seeing BraSibi. But also it is the same as before in that I wake up every morning, and I am still alive.
It took a very long time to find contentment. I have never again experienced a love so deep and full and WHOLE as that I experienced with Koro, have never found anything that has come even close. I can see that so clearly in this moment because yesterday BraSibi brought it all back for me – just seeing him, talking with him, feeling also his vast and deep love for his friend Koro… it reminded me more than I have been reminded for a very long time of who Koro was, and how utterly vast was the love I experienced with him. …But while Koro lost his life and I lost my life with Koro, again… just as it was before, I still, unavoidably, have my life. So what can I do but do something with it? You wake each morning, you continue on each day. You do your practices, because they bring you joy. It is enough because it needs to be enough.
Oh yes, it’s all coming out now – the fountain of tears…
Geez louize, now I wish I brought more handkerchiefs…
I thought if anything, I would feel so much out at the land. But I was not expecting to see BraSibi. And the land was changed – the land has moved on – nothing is the same but the foundation of the shack, and that damn “fridge.” Everything else has grown and gone its own way. My friends the trees do not remember me – they have grown too high to see me, or to be able to feel me on them. The little paths we used to traverse through the site have been overgrown through lack of use, our tomato beds are gone, the papaya trees are gone, and to boot there is a big house now and a road crossing over where our path up to the shack used to be – in short, all – almost all – has changed.
But in BraSibi’s heart, nothing has changed. His love for his dear friend is as big as ever, it has remained unchanged, and seeing that, feeling that, brought back my awareness, full force, of the same inside of me.
My life has gone on – and now I have “a life,” where I had none before, but still, for me, deep inside, nothing has changed. Because Love, this Divine Force, LOVE – it is the one constant, the One, Unchanging, the Divine Element, the Divine Force, the Divine Creation, the Divine. The Divine was all that remained when I lost Koro, when everything changed for me – the Divine was the one thing that remained unchanged, a constant, still there for me. And that Divine Force, that Divine Element, that Power, is Love.
Today, Monday, the day of Christmas Eve, I will do my work. I will meditate and practice Third Series and pranayama; I will give my body some orange juice and most likely some fruit; I will work on some of the blogs I have open about my experience in Ghana, will try in particular to come close to completion with the first one, “Arrival in Ghana, Then and Now,” now that I am nearing the end of my stay here; and I will try to go back down to the beach outside Big Milly’s to thank the Rasta who brought me out to meet Ernest yesterday, whom I found myself too exhausted to visit and thank last night like I should have done. I will go to see BraSibi again probably tomorrow, not today, I will feel what I feel, I will write about it and will most likely shed more tears, and a couple days after that I will pack up my things, have a predictably sleepless night, and then leave for Accra at the crack of dawn to catch an early morning flight to Guinea. I will wait through my five-hour layover, and when, God-willing, I arrive at the airport in Conakry, I will be predictably so very happy to see Alisco. And then a new adventure, a whole new experience, will begin…
And God-willing I will also eventually go home to the warm embrace of my mother and her house, and then on to feel the love of my community in Santa Cruz, the members of which I know will be so happy to see me and to have me back in class with them. And though my fountain of tears is springing forth anew as I write these words, I know I will be so happy to see them all, to see Kris and Oumou and Rachel and Randee and Lilah and Kumiko and SARITA and Roman and Aaron and eventually Cici and Tomoko and Andrea and Paige and so many others that I will stop listing them now or else this will go on for ages… I will feel their love and maybe, just maybe, all those pieces, all those bits and pieces of love that come at me from so many sources, from so many loved ones… maybe it will add up to enough, to fill that vastness, to keep me afloat in the sea of my heart, riding the waves of love from one day to the next, finding the joy and the contentment to continue on in this life, in this same life, as I have done every day for these past 18 years…
* * *
…I know I said I wanted to give you this one raw – no rewrites, no additional thoughts, etc., but I do want to add just one more thing, one more thought/feeling that was put into words after this was written, which is that, by the last paragraph of that outpouring, I was feeling a deep ache that I could only interpret as a painful joy of moving on… It felt as if love, bright and fresh, was finding its way into that very vulnerable sore spot lying in the deepest, darkest depths of my heart, and that the contact it made produced a good pain, a healthy pain…
As we headed back to Kokrobite after leaving BraSibi, I sat quietly in the backseat of Ernest’s car. The tears that had been welling up inside of me during my visit with BraSibi weighed heavily on me – in me, actually, and now I was just waiting for my chance to be alone and let them loose. But when we stopped at the tiny store on the corner of the main road and the road on which I lived, very near my house, where Ernest got out to deliver the little boy who had been with us to his mother, I followed Jahfar’s lead and stayed in the car. And when, a minute later, we drove right past my home at the AirBnB, I did not mention this fact, as I made it a rule to never tell any Ghanaian man where I lived. And so I continued on with these two, down to Big Milly’s. The entire area down there was now so crowded that it was startling; the road was fully lined on both sides with parked cars, and there were people everywhere. And there was noise everywhere – music blaring from too many different places, each one crying for attention.
I was ready to go my own way, but after Ernest parked the car and we all three stepped out together, it seemed, as we looked a little questioningly at one another, that our time together was not yet over. I didn’t know if Ernest wanted to talk or what, and maybe he felt the same from me – none of us seemed to have any clear intention. For my part, after all the time both of these men had given me, and the kindness they had shown me, I certainly didn’t want to be rude. And so we all walked slowly together, as if unsure of each next step, into Big Milly’s yard, where we continued to take each step slowly as we looked around at the busy scene before us. One of them asked me if I wanted to sit, but besides not wanting to commit to so much more time here that a table would be involved, there was a band playing with far too loud a sound system. When I said no, that it was too loud for me, Jahfar happily led us out to the beach, where he clearly felt most comfortable. But the beach was overwhelming, too, now more crowded than I had ever seen it, so bustling with people and little pop-up shops and… stuff that it now looked entirely different from the beach I had known in the past. As the amount of foreigners visiting the village increased as we neared the Christmas holiday, so did the number of local artisans flocking to the beach to sell their goods, and the whole scene outside of Big Milly’s by now felt quite a bit consumer-oriented.
Ernest asked me if I wanted something to drink, and I saw a man selling coconuts near us and was very happy to take one. (I had never seen coconuts being sold here before, and now I realized that a consumer-oriented scene certainly had its up-sides.) The two men followed suit, and we each drank our coconut water, looking about us a bit bewildered by it all. When we each finished, the coconut guy hacked the coconuts open with his machete and chopped a little piece off each young green shell, with which to spoon out the meat. I generally don’t do well with heavy or fatty foods and so usually never bother with the coconut meat, but something told me to try it now, and with the first bite, in that moment it felt like the most nourishing thing on the planet.
Once we had finished with our coconuts, it felt very apparent that the three of us were acquainted but not actually friends, and after a few moments of standing awkwardly together, Jahfar, friendly and polite and helpful as ever, took his leave to return to his shop. After another few moments, Ernest suggested that I take his phone number. I had made so many excuses for not giving out my number while I had been here, but now I not only took his number (which I never used) but also offered him mine (which he also never used). Then I wondered what was the properly polite amount of time for me to stay before excusing myself to finally return to my room and my solitude and my journal and all the feelings that were now safely buried just deep enough inside of me to allow me to function in this social environment… We leaned on an open table behind us, watching all the people – women walking through the crowd carrying baskets of fruit for sale atop their heads, artists selling their wares in their makeshift kiosks, a profusion of men passing this way and that as they conversed with one another, Westerners in bathing suits getting in and out of the ocean or walking to and from the entrance to Big Milly’s… We chatted for a while about all the changes in Kokrobite, about the noise. Ernest told me that now he mostly stayed out on the land, where it was so much more peaceful, and that he was planning to eventually leave and start a farm up in the Ashanti region.
Ernest was well-known here, and he introduced me to a few of the men who were greeting him as they passed by, whom he thought I might remember from before. I did not remember any of them, but eventually I realized this was a good opportunity to ask after some other people I had known in the past. And so I went through my short list of four people – only four people that I knew well enough to think of and ask about – besides BraSibi, and besides one half-brother of Koro’s whom I had adored, but whom Ernest would not know. Only four people – two very close friends of Koro’s from Accra (who had originally connected him with Ernest and the land in Kokrobite) and two quasi-neighbors, and of those four, two, Ernest informed me, were now deceased. Azimba, the quiet, sweet, crazy Cameroonian guitarist who had been in Koro’s band in Accra, who, Koro loved to tell me, had played with Koro’s hero, Fela Kuti, had always been… well… “off in another world” – ever since, as a child, he was taken by the mmoatia (“dwarves” – in some ways like the equivalent of English faeries) in the forest; and Ernest and I now took a moment to reflect on what an extremely special being he had been. And Mawuli, the one person with whom I had kept in touch fairly regularly for a handful of years post-Koro, was the other one who had passed – right around the time we lost touch, according to when Ernest thought that it had happened. An older Rasta who used to come to Kokrobite to sell his craftwork, Mawuli had wanted to start an eco-tourism project in his home in the forests near Kakum, and I had been helping to support the project, which I had hoped, for a while, would eventually provide me with another future in Ghana…
I had never hung out with Ernest before today, and we were not now all that talkative with one another. And I still had that ocean of emotion to let loose and move out of my body… Finally I felt that enough time had passed, and I told Ernest I was going to head home. And when he then asked where I was staying, I gave him the same vague answer I gave anyone (always men) who asked – “Just up the road a bit.” They all then guessed where I was staying, listing off some of the smaller guesthouses, and Ernest was no different. I replied in the same way I always did, with, “No, just in someone’s house.” This was my cue to smile and be on my way; I was not interested in having visitors. I appreciated what Ernest had done for me this day, and I appreciated his kindness, but I did not see him again.
Finally alone back in my room at the AirBnB, I settled in for what I knew would be hours of writing and crying – releasing…
Ernest’s big red jeep was parked just in front of his house, and after saying goodbye to the young man who had been sitting with Jahfar while I had toured the site with Ernest, we all piled in – me, Ernest, Jahfar, and the small child who, Ernest now explained, loved to be with him. “He has been with me all day – I need to return him to his mother,” he said with a chuckle. Climbing into the backseat of the jeep, I reminded Ernest about one other time I had gotten into a similar red jeep with him, when he and a German friend of his had driven BraSibi and me to a mortuary in Accra early one morning. “Ah yes,” he said, remembering the incident well, “it was my friend Andrea who drove us.” I had known that, like me, Ernest had had no desire to go to the mortuary or spend any time with the family from whom Koro had been entirely estranged, who had arrived from the North the day before to retrieve Koro’s body for burial. The only reason I was going was to recover some of the belongings they had taken from the shack, before I had had a chance to go up there – as I, too, had only just arrived. BraSibi, ever of assistance, was accompanying me, and it was he who had insisted that Ernest go with us, though I had never really understood why.
I rode in the backseat of two privately-owned vehicles that day, both SUVs of some sort, one taking me to the mortuary and then one taking me to the home of some supposed relative of Koro’s, and inside both I felt like a child; with my feet barely reaching the floor in those big backseats, it was as if I was nine years old again, getting in the backseat of my father’s fancy car, to go on a ride to some destination I had no desire to visit – just fulfilling an obligation that someone else thought I should have. These SUVs felt fancy simply because they were not public transport – I had perhaps only once or twice before ridden in a privately-owned vehicle in Ghana, and I had felt so bizarrely, awkwardly privileged getting into them. It felt nearly as awkward to be getting into this one now – shouldn’t we be walking? This was the first time I had gotten into a vehicle since the ride from the airport to Kokrobite, and it had been wonderful to have a break from these noisy machines. Now I had the sensation of being back inside the belly of the beast, swallowed up. I remember feeling the same thing on that unpleasant day so many years ago, when I left the mortuary in that second huge SUV, with people I had never met before – again feeling like a child just doing what I was told. But at least I had had BraSibi sitting faithfully at my side, shepherding me through that trying day.
Now, as we started down the road, Ernest spoke to Jahfar, who sat up front holding the little boy, in a local language, and by Jahfar’s reaction, I could guess that Ernest was explaining some bit about the story of our losing Koro. We drove back down to the main road, turned left towards Kokrobite, passed the next road – the middle road across from AAMA, which Ernest now pointed out was the one that Koro and I used to take out to the shack, and then turned up the next road over. At BraSibi’s house, one of his daughters told Ernest where we could find him – he had been staying at another house nearby, which he was caretaking while its owner was in England.
Getting back into the car, Ernest sighed and said that, as to Koro’s untimely passing, “Still I question, ‘Eh, why? How?’ …And then I say, ‘No, this is not God’s doing.’ Eh, it is too much,” he said, shaking his head. “No, this I can never understand.” Ernest’s way of thinking about Koro’s death was clearly very different from my own; I had never felt the need to question the workings of the Universe, or the unfolding Path I traversed through my life, and somehow this had especially been the case when I lost Koro – I could never bring myself to question why. I stayed quiet in the backseat, just listening and observing, taking it all in...
We stopped at another house not too far from the first, and Ernest and I got out of the car, Jahfar staying behind with the child who had now fallen asleep in his lap. Ernest knocked on the metal door in the tall cement wall bordering the large compound, and after a short wait, he was walking inside, with me following behind. …And then there was BraSibi – an older, greyer, perhaps slightly shrunken BraSibi, quiet as he always was, moving slowly and looking quite taken aback.
As was I.
The entire time I had been at the site with Ernest, I had been fine – “calm, cool, and collected.” But as soon as I was greeting BraSibi, I was struggling to keep the tears inside and to be able to speak without bawling at the same time. Dear, sweet, ever-helpful Bra Assibi. He loved Koro so very much.
The last time I had arrived in Ghana – shortly after Koro’s passing, at the end of a very long and multifaceted journey from Maine (involving multiple planes, trains, and automobiles), in a shambles, and wearing the old black mourning shirt that had become my uniform, I had gone straight to BraSibi at AAMA. And when I stepped out of the taxi and BraSibi was waiting there for me, just outside AAMA’s gate, wearing the royal blue coveralls that were his uniform when on duty as night watchman, I had wondered how to greet him – a hug, a handshake? Back then he had stepped right up and hugged me. But now we were all formality and awkwardness, or perhaps we were both just too full of emotion to make any movement – using all of our physical capacities to try and hold it together – that’s how I felt, at least. Ernest told BraSibi who I was, but BraSibi knew; he said that he had been watching the road from the window and as soon as he saw me in the car, he had said to himself, “It is Susan.”
Wow, it really was so hard to speak without crying. I couldn’t manage much at all until, after quite a long while, Ernest left us alone and I felt a bit more freedom to express myself.
“There has never been another like Koro around these parts,” BraSibi was eventually saying, all of our shared thoughts on the past, on Koro, “no one as clever and bright as Koro.”
“No, I have never met another person like Koro,” I struggled to say. Eh, it was impossible to speak to BraSibi without letting out some of my tears – just impossible, and I was very thankful that Jahfar had stayed in the car and that Ernest had now left us to ourselves. When BraSibi told me about how often he thinks of Koro, I struggled to tell him that, every day, Koro is still with me, that I think of him every day, but that I know he is gone and at peace, and that my life has indeed gone on without him – again, struggled to say all that without bawling. That was really hard to do – all the emotions that for the most part during this trip had seemed in the past were now completely taking hold of me, and just like the last time I had arrived and had gone straight to BraSibi, back in 2000, all I wanted to do now was cry a fountain of tears.
I never thought I would find BraSibi, never imagined myself having this conversation.
BraSibi was so clearly and so deeply hurt when Koro died…
As we communed over the memory of our dearest of friends, BraSibi and I spoke slowly and tenderly, careful with our so suddenly raw, exposed hearts. And after what seemed a long while, eventually I felt not only the pressure that had been building within me – from all the tears pressing on me, desperate to be let loose, but also a pressure from without – of Ernest and Jahfar, these men I barely knew, waiting for me. Finally BraSibi and I agreed that I would come back for another visit before I left, and then all too quickly I was climbing back into the jeep.
I knew I needed to be alone, ASAP, to let out the fountain of tears that was pressing hard on me, ready to burst through the dam that had been holding them back for too long already. Why was I even getting back into this car? What was I doing with these people? If I were to walk home, alone, I thought, maybe I would feel I had enough privacy to cry along the way… I was so used to having my freedom, to going it alone. But here I found myself, tied up in social etiquette, and again there was that feeling of the child just doing what she was told.
I pushed my emotion and my tears further down inside, tucked them safely further away from the gateways – eyes, nose, throat – through which they would find their freedom. And then I settled in for the unnecessary ride back to the village. Well, I reasoned with myself, I suppose I don’t mind a ride back, and getting home a bit sooner – getting back to my journal a bit sooner…
But this was not how it worked out…
The day after Reggae Night, just past 4 pm – cool enough now for me to feel comfortable taking a long walk under the equatorial sun, Jahfar and I headed from his shop on the beach to the main road out of Kokrobite. As he led me through the more local part of the village, he informed me that Ernest had actually shown up at the beach outside Big Milly’s the night before, after I had left, and that he had told Ernest about our intention to pay him a visit today. This seemed like excellent news, as I figured it would greatly increase our chances of finding him at home.
Jahfar was not at all bad company, and we had a pleasant walk out towards AAMA (the now defunct hotel/drum and dance school that Koro and I had lived near). Jahfar greeted at least half the people we passed along our way up the main road, all of whom were excited to see him, all eager to talk with him. I got the impression not only that he was a good guy, but also that he didn’t get out – meaning away from his little shop and the beach scene – often enough.
I felt a tinge of disappointment when eventually we passed the middle road across from AAMA, the one I was fairly certain had been the road leading out to the path to the shack. When we turned up the next road, the last one across from AAMA – the paved road of which I had absolutely no memory, which, when exploring the area, I had been certain was not our road, Jahfar turned to me with a confident smile, searching my face for recognition. “Maybe this seems familiar…?” he prompted me. I smiled weakly and could only offer an accommodating, “Umm…,” as I meanwhile thought that Ernest must be living somewhere else now, that he must have wound up buying a different piece of land.
We walked a while up this paved road, pausing at one point to break a couple twigs off one of the many young Neem trees lining the road, to use for cleaning our teeth – this was the traditional Ghanaian substitute for a toothbrush. The strong, bitter taste of the Neem, my herbal line of defense against malaria, always brought back bad memories – of more critical malarial times, but I enjoyed using it anyway, knowing that it was good for me. As we walked on, both of us engaged with our twigs, Jahfar occasionally made suggestions of things I might like to do – with himself as my guide, of course. Perhaps I would like to go for a swim in the pool at the hotel we now passed (looking much misplaced) on our left? Or climb up the little mountain stretching above it, to get a view of all of Kokrobite and its surrounding area? …Poor Jahfar. I had very little interest in doing much of anything outside of my simple agenda for this trip – revisiting the places I knew before, feeling what I felt, and writing. I also didn’t want to get too involved with him because I knew he had to have some sort of motive behind wanting to spend more time with me, and it was becoming clear that that motive (refreshingly at least not a pseudo-romantic one) was to do business; he wanted to help me do whatever kind of business might interest me, and I knew that in this regard he was dealing with the wrong person. He was also keen to help me with anything else with which I might possibly need help, and I was far too independent here to take interest in any of that. But Jahfar graciously accepted all of my obliging but noncommittal smiles, as well as my direct rejections of his numerous offers. And now, finally, he motioned to a two-story house placed just beside the road, with a big red jeep of some sort parked directly in front of it.
I had never spent much time with Ernest, and I didn’t have much of a memory as to what he had looked like, other than the fact that he was tall. When Jahfar presented me to the man standing on the porch of the house, I did not recognize that this was Ernest, at all, and he did not recognize me; and as we stood before each other, both smiling and unsure, I began to wonder if perhaps this was a whole different Ernest and nothing would come of this trip. But when it was clear to all that no recognition was coming (Jahfar now looking as if he was beginning to wonder what the heck was going on), I tentatively asked, “Did you used to have a friend named Koro?”
Now Ernest’s mouth dropped, and he seemed to drop, and suddenly, wow – realization dawned. Yes, this was the same Ernest all right.
After astonishment and greetings and the laughter of relief that Jahfar had indeed connected the right people, I eventually asked, “But this isn’t the same land I lived on, is it?”
“Yes, yes, it is the same land!” Ernest assured me, in an excited but soft-spoken manner; and immediately he led me along the wraparound porch and out back to the land. Jahfar stayed behind with another young man who was there, who had greeted us with such an enormous and confident smile, and such overflowing friendliness, that I had wondered if he was someone I was supposed to have known as well.
Ernest was nothing but kind to me. He seemed… softer now than how I remembered him, and also just so much older. He took his time showing me all around the land, stayed with me as I slowly, piece by piece, took it all in. There were so many more trees now, and he told me about several of them – what had been planted when, etc. The ones I recognized from before – my good friends the Neem, whose leaves had kept me malaria-free for so long, and the beautiful Flamboyant, my favorite climbing tree – were huge, especially the Neem, its lowest branches now way above my head. “I used to hang my laundry on this tree,” I told Ernest; “back then it was all within reach.” I barely recognized the Flamboyant, now overshadowed by Ernest’s big house, which was built just beside it, throwing off my perspective. Once Ernest had confirmed that this tree had been here before and I could see that it was indeed the same tree I had known and loved, I tried to imagine how I had so easily gotten into it, back when all of its limbs were so much lower to the ground. This Flamboyant had not only been my favorite climbing tree, but its uppermost limbs had also been my favorite place for doing my eye exercises. Perched amongst the highest branches, even back then I could see the ocean.
I looked up at our little mountain-hill, the sun now approaching it, as I had seen it do so many times, just around the time I would be preparing our dinner. The sun was my timepiece when I lived here, and its position relative to that giant hill (which we always thought of as a mountain) was what I checked on the most, right around this point in the day, as it would tell me how much daylight I had left within which to complete whatever tasks I had going on, before we would be plunged into darkness, with only a candle to perhaps eat or read by. Halfway up the little mountain stood the white edifice that had been under construction when I was here, from which Koro had gathered scraps of wood that he and BraSibi and one other friend used to completely reconstruct the shack in a more waterproof manner before the rainy season began. I had been looking at these reference points – the little “mountain” and that huge white structure astride it – while making my last exploration of the area, trying to place the shack in relation to them; and looking at all of it now, from this perspective, right here, it all finally just looked so perfectly placed.
Yes, this was indeed where I had lived. In a way it was all changed, and in another way, it – the site – was just as I remembered it.
When I told Ernest about trying to find the site a few days before, and not at all thinking it was off of this road, he told me it wasn’t this road, because this road did not exist back then! “We put this road in when we built the house,” he explained, and now I could see why his house was placed just beside the road, not at all set back – when it was built, it was probably the only house out here, this new road like one long private driveway. “Koro used to enter from the next road over,” Ernest said; “there was a path.” Yes, part of the reason why the site looked so different now was due to the elimination of that long path – which had led to the shack from the current middle road across from AAMA, as I had thought.
All that remained of the shack was the foundation, a small rectangular perimeter of cement – that and the square hole in the ground inside of it, which Koro had called “the fridge.” The “fridge” was a space underground into which you could lower a basket of food tied to a rope, to keep it cool – though I think perhaps there was supposed to be some other element to it, like that the bottom was supposed to be filled with sand and ocean water(?), which, of course, never happened. Koro had considered this a great technology, but to me it never made much sense – as, in reality, it seemed to just be a place for insects and rodents to settle. It was funny to now see this as one of the only traces of the shack’s existence. There had been a cement floor, but that was now completely gone. What was amazing, though, was to see how very small the shack had been – so much smaller than I remembered it. Yes, in my memory it was small, but... bigger than that! It looked so tiny now.
It was nice to be there, but, of course, I really just wanted to be alone – with the land, the trees, the site, my memories… And I wasn’t – Ernest stayed with me, and we chatted off and on, quietly, slowly. We took our time, looking at everything, walking all around, and as I took it all in, I remembered to take some pictures, in my mind hearing countless friends telling me to. I kept harboring a faint hope that Ernest would leave me alone out there for a while, so I could just BE, ALONE, THERE, as I so often was before; but he did not, and for whatever reason – perhaps just not wanting to seem impolite within this culture of extreme hospitality, I did not feel comfortable asking him for some time alone. I wasn’t about to hurry through my visit either, though, and Ernest did not seem to mind the long stretches of silence. I don’t think I had ever had a single conversation alone with Ernest before, just the two of us, and I had little to say to him.
Having traversed the property, once again we stood near the back of the big house that he and his Swiss wife had built, a beautiful structure, standing apart from all the cement houses around the area through its incorporation of wood and stone. After he had told me about it in the same steady, quiet way in which he had told me about the land – offering a few details about its construction, the type of roof it had, the solar panels on the roof, etc., I finally thought to ask Ernest about BraSibi. “Yes, Assibi is still living around here, too,” he said, to my surprise. And after a little more time had gone by – a little more looking and quiet intermittent chatting and trying to stretch out these precious moments touring my old home, I asked how I could find him. “Ok, let’s go then,” Ernest said with a soft smile, and he began to walk leisurely towards the stairs leading to the porch. I followed behind as slowly as I reasonably could, trying to gather myself, or ready myself, my emotional body meanwhile bouncing around as if looking for another option besides following him – BraSibi??? Now??? Here and now – BraSibi?!?! And not only that, but also suddenly back to this other character Jahfar – whom I had actually told nothing concerning how I knew Ernest or why I wanted to visit him, and, too, here was that other young man who now, again, was greeting me with the utmost hospitality, and also the toddler who had been here when we arrived, who was now on Jahfar’s lap… all of these people… all just a slightly overwhelming shift in energy to suddenly have to interact again… and back to movement… already leaving the land… and really?!?! I was about to see BraSibi?!?!
BraSibi, Koro’s closest friend around Kokrobite, was the one who had been the night watchman at AAMA. He was the witness at our City Hall wedding, and he was the one who had cared for me when I fell sick, with my third round of malaria, during my last, post-Koro trip. BraSibi was the one person who had been there for us, to help with every possible thing with which we ever needed help. He was the only person I had thought I might look for during this trip – but then had no way to since AAMA had shut down, the only person from my life before that I really cared to see. …I had hoped to see the site during this long-awaited trip to Ghana, but I never expected to see BraSibi…
Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...