I hustled up the main road out of Kokrobite, headed straight for those three roads across from AAMA, the Academy of African Music and Arts. (AAMA was the old hotel that I had already found in ruins on my first brief trip to the area where I used to live.) It was the day after my visit to Big Milly’s, the guesthouse that we used to call Wendy's Place, where I had learned that Ernest, the man who had owned the land on which Koro and I had lived, was still living somewhere in this area. One of those three roads across from AAMA had led to that land, to my home at the shack; and I was ready to go deeper into my old “neighborhood.”
Although I was pretty sure ours had been the middle road, I turned up the closest road first, across from the near end of AAMA’s property – both because I wanted to explore all possibilities and also because I wanted to avoid being stopped again by that same young Rasta with the shop or home or whatever it was at the start of the middle road. I soon felt quite certain that this first road was indeed not the correct road, but I continued up it anyway, not only just to make sure, but simply because it now felt so pleasant to walk along a thin dirt road with no traffic. With so many cars and motorcycles going by on the main road now, there was so much dust and exhaust that, for me, it really felt disgusting out there.
This much quieter road was lined on either side by house after house, mostly big cement structures, some extremely nice, many only half-built, and most looking empty, at least at the moment. Perhaps they’re weekend homes? I wondered. Getaways from Accra? It was shocking to see how very many houses there were now, and even after I had gotten well past where the shack could have possibly been, I continued up this road just to see where it would end; I thought I must surely eventually hit the bush that used to be all that was there. But I never did. Finally I hit more roads that intersected with this one, and still there was just house after house. I passed by several people out on the road, too, mostly young adults and kids. Of course, it never used to be like that! Basically, the area has become populated; it’s a real neighborhood now – no longer a swath of bush with a handful of small structures inside it. The only patches of bush I saw now were hemmed in by cement walls – as if they were someone’s property, but the owners had left them to become totally overgrown.
I found just one footpath, heading in the correct direction through one of these few plots of bush, that looked somewhat like the path that had led out to our site; so on my way back down this first road, I took it. But I came across nothing except the next road over – the middle road, the one that I was pretty sure used to be the overgrown road that had led to my home. Now an actual, usable road, though, it no longer looked the same – it was no longer the two tracks with grass growing high through the center that back then we just called a road. But, of course… nothing looked the same. As I walked up this road, and then up and down a couple of times, again it was house after house, mainly big houses (not a single shack), at least half of which looked either empty or only half-built. Some were indeed occupied, though, and again I came across young people out on the road. The other thing I came across was a great deal of burning trash. There was one particular cloud of smoke that smelled so intensely toxic that I guessed it must have been mainly all plastic that was burning, and it was painful to be near it; for a minute, as I passed by, I really felt like my brain was frying – which is a terrible feeling! And still, plenty of trash, almost all of which was plastic, was lining the road, everywhere. It’s not as if it had been pristine before, but the trash had at least been confined to the areas surrounding the few other homes out there besides ours. (Out at our site, the best option I could come up with was to dig a hole in which to bury the bit of trash we produced.)
Again I found just one spot that seemed like it could possibly be the entrance to where the shack used to be. There was a little footpath heading off in the right direction – towards the third and furthest road, and the plants at the start of the path actually looked familiar. This whole time, there had been absolutely nothing along the road to orient me, nothing that I could recognize from before; but looking at these plants, I thought… maybe. Maybe these really were the same bushes that met me every time I reached the path to our site. I had a somewhat strong mental image of the plants at the entrance to the path because, during my last trip, post-Koro, when everyone convinced me not to sleep alone out at the shack (where I did spend most of the day), I used to stop and gaze longingly up the path – potentially at this very spot – just before sundown, on my way back from a dance lesson or a visit with someone in the village. The sinking sun behind them had a way of lighting these bushes that made them look so rich, so verdant, and I would stand there taking in the image for as long as the sun lasted, before continuing on to my tent outside a neighbor’s half-built house further down the road, much closer to AAMA.
Now I carefully began to step my way along what I could of the little path – thinking about snakes. But I couldn’t make it more than probably half a dozen steps before it was completely overgrown with bush, grasses as tall as I was, and there was no seeing beyond them. …Is our site in there? The only way I would be able to know, I thought, is if I can find Ernest, and if he could show me where it was – that’s the only way.
But I don’t even really care, I thought as I passed back down the middle road, heading now for the main road from Kokrobite in order to continue on and check out the third and final road across from AAMA. What am I going to do out there? Have some ritual? Cut off my dreads? (I had been itching to do this for a while but needed, as always, to find the right setting for it; our old site seemed especially perfect because I had felt that I should do this there eighteen years before, in the wake of losing Koro, but I had been too attached to that first set of locks and never did.) No, it’s either completely overgrown, I told myself, or else it’s someone else’s property now, with a new big house on it. Yes, I would really like to find Ernest, but if I don’t, that’s totally fine, too. I didn’t need to come here to do anything in particular, or find anything in particular. I needed to come to just be here and feel what I feel.
I had felt nothing, trying to make my way into that footpath that felt closest to our site – no emotion came up for me. I had felt nothing this entire time that I had been walking and exploring my old “neighborhood;” I simply felt like I was out for a pleasant walk. I walked for over two hours straight, up and down the first road, the middle road, and finally the third road – a paved road that for sure was not our road, and all the while, I felt absolutely no emotion. And I knew there was nothing there for me.
Already the sun was going down. But about halfway through my two-week stay now, I was no longer rushing to get back to the AirBnB before dark, confident now in knowing my way around, and also getting used to the fact that I could somewhat easily be out at night here, aided by my strong glasses. When I had lived here before, I had been working on the natural improvement of my vision – through eye exercises and through going without any glasses the entire time I was here – which made for quite a different experience, as I am severely near-sighted. I was able to do this in Ghana, back then, because I wasn’t driving or using computers or doing anything else that really required sharp vision. I could see well enough to get by in the daylight, especially here, so close to the equator, where the strong sunlight shed so much illumination. But going out at night, which I did not do often, had always entailed a bit of a challenge for me. Now I had to remind myself that I was wearing glasses – the pair with my strongest prescription in them, even, and that I would be okay walking back in the dark.
But I found that walking back in the dark was a very easy thing to do now, anyway – with lights from the shops lining the road, the occasional overhead streetlight, plenty of light from the headlights of passing traffic, and with the moon getting towards full – all of this but the moon was different from before. There were plenty of people on the road now, too, and I walked slowly amongst them, feeling a bit weary. I was thinking about the nostalgia we can get for places we’ve lived in the past, how much a particular place can be wrapped up with a certain period of time, a certain experience we’ve had. But we can never entirely go back and revisit, I felt – we can never really see it how it was. As soon as we move on, leaving it behind, the place moves on as well, adjusting to its new humans or evolving in its own way, and it will no longer be the same. When I had been allowed by new owners to walk through my two childhood homes, I was only looking at someone else’s home – and maybe, at most, a ghost of what used to be my home, or a shell of it. How much did any place really hold my memories?
Ok, maybe I don’t need more than the two weeks here, I thought as I neared the AirBnB – I had been wondering before I had set out whether it was time to make some arrangements in order to stay longer. Now it seemed that maybe just one more visit to the area, one more walk through AAMA and up the middle road, would be enough for me.
By a couple days after my first visit to my old neighborhood, I was absolutely loving being back in Ghana, loving feeling so independent here, and, most of all, LOVING being fully immersed within a writing retreat. There was so much to say – both to myself, to help me understand and move on, and to everyone else, because I had very clearly been feeling the need to share myself lately. It was because I was so loving the uninterrupted time alone to work with all the writing that I began to wonder if two weeks in Ghana would be long enough.
This was a Tuesday, a particularly quiet day. The weekend had been so terribly loud, and now, after so many people had cleared out on Monday, the village felt blissfully relatively empty and quiet. In retrospect, it was the quiet that allowed me to even consider staying longer, to think that perhaps two weeks might not be long enough for me to spend here – only because there was so very much writing work to be done, and this was the perfect opportunity for it, and meanwhile I might also still need a few more exploratory missions to my old site.
These thoughts emerged after my daily exploration had taken me to Big Milly’s, the old guesthouse – the only guesthouse that was here in the village before, where I had spent my first two or three nights upon my arrival in 1999, before finding a bungalow to rent further down the road towards AAMA. Back then it had been the main (or perhaps only) place to go to socialize, and now it seemed to be known for its “Reggae Night,” held every weekend, so I had been assuming that the place gets fairly packed on weekends. This quiet day had seemed like the perfect time to check it out.
In all my explorations thus far, in all I had seen of Kokrobite, so far this, the original guesthouse, Big Milly’s, also known back then as Wendy's Place, was the one thing that I found to look somewhat the same, to have remained at least somewhat unchanged. Yes, it was more crowded with structures now – a surf school, a shop, etc.; but the guest-room structures looked the same; the bar, though looking very updated, was at least in the same place it used to be; and the restaurant… the restaurant looked exactly as I remembered it – it was the same open-air structure, up a short flight of steps, it had the same big thatched roof, the same sandy floor, same long wooden tables and benches. This was where I met Koro, where we had our first, exceedingly long conversation, where he showed up and sat down at the table with me and my travel buddy after we had eaten dinner, on our second night there, and began to talk and talk and talk and talk. And then he talked some more. And then he continued to talk extremely late into the night, long after the travel buddy had excused himself to go to sleep. There we sat – right over there. And here I was now, sitting at one of the tables, with a view out to the ocean – and it was all the same. And I did not feel any sadness.
After making a very specific and simple special-order food request from the kitchen, I ended up having a long talk about diet with a woman working there, who surprised me with the fact that she had tried out vegetarianism, veganism, and even raw foods and juicing – that she had learned about all these things there in Ghana. Vegetarianism was somewhat common amongst the Rastas, but not the mainstream Ghanaian population (and sure enough, she explained that while she had felt great, she had found all of these diets too difficult to stick to while surrounded by family and friends always eating the usual very heavy and meat-oriented Ghanaian diet); but it was really her interest in raw foods and juicing and the health aspect of it all that surprised and inspired me. Maybe some positive, conscious changes had taken place on the health front while I had been away… Eventually I told her about being here eighteen years ago; and when I asked if Wendy, an older English woman, who had been very kind to me before, was still the owner of this place, she said, "Oh yes, she is sitting and eating just outside there – let me take you to her..."
Wendy, of course, did not remember me, or even Koro, but she invited me to sit down and join her and we had a nice talk. When I told her that I had originally come here to study dance, she informed me that the local group with whom I used to study is still going strong. And when I mentioned my particular teacher by name, she informed me that she thinks Yaa has been living in America for a long time now. Then I stopped to consider whom else she might know. And this is how I found out that… Ernest is still around.
Ernest, a musician who had been a friend of Koro’s closest friends in Accra, had been the owner of the land on which Koro and I had lived, and I thought perhaps Wendy might know him because he had frequented this place so often. Yes, she did remember Ernest, and she said he was living somewhere around these parts, with a Swiss woman.
…I would love to find Ernest, I thought. Does he perhaps still own that land? He had never lived there, back in the day, because it was too undeveloped – there was no water, and he didn’t want to carry water as we did. I had figured for sure he would have sold it by now and the shack would have been torn down to make way for some big house, like all the others that have popped up everywhere around here. …But wow… now… for one night, at least, before going to explore more the following day, I would hold onto this glimmer of a possibility that he actually kept that land, that it was still out there, somewhat undeveloped...
By two days into my stay in Ghana, I was loving being back there. I still simply loved Ghana – or maybe it was just Africa in general, but either way, there was just so much to love about being there. It felt amazing to return to the slower pace of African life – no hustle, no busy-ness or rush – this is simply not the way it is there. Coming from America, or from the Western world in general, to me life feels generally relaxed in Ghana, and less complicated. There is a certain EASE to life there, which seems very much wrapped up with the mentality of the people, the cultural mindset. This was all so much of what I had loved about living there and what had made me want to live there, and now it was so easy to sink right back into it, and it felt so refreshing to do so. Not to mention the fact that it was warm, and there was moisture in the air, and it felt so much easier (especially coming from the cold of Munich) for a body to be in this environment.
As for Ghana in particular, as compared to most other countries in West Africa, it was so easy for me there because of the language, as most people speak English, or at least some. (Though it’s been on my to-do list for years, ever since becoming interested in traveling more widely within West Africa, I unfortunately have yet to learn French.) Of course, one needs to be able to communicate in order to tap into the cultural mindset, or to be able to interact enough to feel that you exist within the culture rather than just alongside it. But what I appreciated most about the lack of a language barrier in those first few days back was that it also meant independence. This was important to me – that I could function on my own here, was not dependent on a host or a guide. If I needed something, I could go ask the women at the “market” along the road, and they, or more often their kids, would help me find whatever it was I was looking for. I also loved that this could easily turn into a small adventure – you ask one woman if she knows where you can find something and then get led to four different places by four different people before finally you get it – plus many nice interactions along the way!
My independence played a big part in the way I was feeling – so free, so activated. And I knew, too, that my past there was also playing a role in the way I felt now – in some way, I did still know Ghana, and that made me feel very comfortable there. All in all… I just felt so very happy inside. I realized that it wasn’t even necessarily the fact of being in the environment of Ghana that was doing it, that it might have had just as much or even more to do with something inside of myself – something that had clicked into place now – now that I finally made it back, as I had just known for so many years I needed to do. But whatever it was… so very happy inside…
* * *
By three days in, I was ready to take my first walk down towards the area where I used to live. It’s about a twenty minute leisurely walk down the road from Kokrobite, and as I ventured along, I continued to be amazed at the changes in the area – now at all the huge structures that have gone up. One massive, modern, multi-story edifice had big signs on the side reading, “APARTMENTS & HOMES, SHORT & LONG TERM LEASE, AVAILABLE NOW, STUDIO – 3 BEDROOMS” – and this just looked so bizarre to me! This kind of thing simply did not exist here, in any form, eighteen years back; my travel buddy and I had been lucky to find a little bungalow to rent by word of mouth. For the most part, though, all of these giant structures, so many that I passed along the main road, which all looked quite new, also looked completely empty. It was as if the village was trying to move in a certain direction, but it wasn’t quite there yet.
What had stayed the same, and now felt comforting in its sameness, was the land itself, the beautiful red-brown of the earth here. And there were still the ever-present chickens and goats wandering about pecking and nibbling at it, finding scraps of food amongst all the trash. …Ah yes, the trash. The plethora of trash, predominantly plastic, was another thing that had not changed; always a part of the landscape here, it still lined every road or path, and was scattered just about everywhere as well. Nor had there been any change in the standard method of trash removal – burning it, plastics and all. I had had a long talk the day before with an Italian man who has had a restaurant in Kokrobite since before my last stay there, and in the midst of talking about all the changes that have taken place in Ghana, he and his wife were saying that, after trying all these years, they just can’t get the people to understand about not burning the trash… I saw several piles of trash burning now, as I passed through patches of smoky air, and I wondered whether the haze in the sky was from some climatic source or from the sum of so many small fires burning throughout every village in the area…
Moving at a slow pace further and further down the road towards AAMA - the Academy of African Music and Arts, feeling my surroundings, taking this all in, I began to feel sudden waves of emotion rising up within me, lifting my stomach towards my throat for a second or two, just long enough to let me know they were there, to make me feel my heart beating suddenly a bit harder, and to make me wonder. This undefined raw emotion was tinged with a sense of “whoa, what-am-I-doing” – the same wary sensation that had occasionally fallen over me on the day that I traveled from Munich to Accra; and spontaneous tears now began to pop up just as they had done a few times that day as well.
AAMA was the one big structure – or compound of structures, really, all whitewashed and grand – that had been here before. It had been a hotel/drum and dance school, and it was what had originally led me to Kokrobite. I had not wound up studying music or dance there, as their lessons were pricey, but I had found that the members of the group that both taught and performed there also taught at a much more reasonable price at another space they had in Kokrobite (where I had also found more reasonably-priced accommodations). AAMA had been pricey in general, and there never seemed to be very many people staying there, but the free drum and dance performances they had offered on the weekends in their little outdoor theatre had always drawn a small crowd.
After I had married Koro, I sometimes went there to sit and do writing or editing work at a sheltered table that overlooked the beach – a quiet spot where I found I was never disturbed. This was before Koro and two others completely rebuilt the shack in a more waterproof manner before the start of the rainy season, and then used the excess scrap wood to build me a table and a stool; and though I had never minded, or even really noticed, our lack of furniture, I surely did relish the occasional outing to sit at this table – walking down the path with my bag full of notebooks, it felt like the equivalent of going to work at a library or a coffeeshop back in the States. I had discovered this spot when Koro had taken me to AAMA’s relatively private, unfrequented beach shortly after I had moved in with him, telling me that if I wanted to go to a beach, this was where I should come. He felt that I would be safe and undisturbed within AAMA because we had a special connection there – one of the night watchmen, Assibi (or Bra Assibi --> BraSibi), was his closest friend around these parts – and it seemed that to Koro this meant we were a part of AAMA’s extended family, and therefore had rights to be there.
“We can never forget BraSibi,” Koro would often say, as BraSibi was the one person who helped us with every single minute detail with which we could possibly need help in our lives out in the bush. He was also there for the bigger events – he came with us to Accra’s City Hall to be the witness at our legal wedding, he was the one who had to inform me of Koro’s passing, and it was his home in which I stayed during my first few nights back in Ghana after losing Koro. (If I haven’t mentioned this before, I was in the States, in Maine, when Koro passed.) BraSibi also cared for me when I eventually got sick (malaria Round Three) during that post-Koro trip. And he was the one person in Kokrobite whom I had thought, before embarking on this current trip, that I would like to somehow find. But the only place I had ever known in which to find BraSibi was AAMA, where he had lived with his wife and children in the workers’ quarters, and I knew from researching Kokrobite on the internet when planning my trip that AAMA was no longer up and running.
Now it was shocking to see the crumbling state of ruin in which I found it. Yes, AAMA, which used to seem so relatively grandiose out here, is now in ruins. I ventured inside the property and walked a bit through the paths that remain – while the land around them was completely overgrown, many of the paths through the site were still clear. But it felt a bit… eerie. I saw some clothes hanging out on a line near one of the run-down and empty-looking buildings – so it seemed there must be some squatters at least somewhat living in there. And I did come across a few other people passing down the paths on their way towards the beach. It was a Sunday, though, a weekend, when the area in general becomes more populated with visitors from Accra and other areas, and these folks did not look very local.
Eventually the eeriness got to me and I meandered my way back out. Koro and I had lived out in the bush directly across from AAMA – on the other side of the main road from Kokrobite; there had been an overgrown road (back then two tracks with grass growing high through the center) leading out into the bush in which just a handful of us were residing. Before I moved in that direction, though, I walked a bit further up the main road, only because the pavement had stopped at AAMA and it now felt so heavenly to walk on the wide, red dirt road, with much less traffic, in the peace and quiet, watching the big orange sun about to set directly in front of me – this was how it used to feel to walk along the road from Kokrobite. Now there was no peace and quiet along most of the length of the road up to this point, with most of the noise coming from traffic and from the occasional bar pumping out recorded music at a deafening pitch – and with all the dust and exhaust from the passing traffic as well, I found it difficult to entirely enjoy walking along Kokrobite’s “new and improved” paved road.
But time was running short – the sun would very soon perform its descent’s swift finale, and I wanted to make it back to Kokrobite before dark. So I hurried back to have a look down the road across from AAMA, the road that used to lead to the path that then led to our site. …But now there were three roads turning off from the main road, heading out across from AAMA – one at each end of AAMA’s sprawling property and one across from its middle. I was pretty sure our road had been the middle road, but I wasn’t positive. Hurrying because of the limited daylight, I made it just a short way up the middle road before I was stopped by a young, lounging Rasta brother, sitting in a little structure with a couple of friends, who (typical) wanted nothing more at this moment than to chat my ear off and get my phone number. After finally freeing myself – without being too impolite, I went just a touch further, looking at the big cement houses on either side of me, and at the cement walls dividing up the land that used to just be uninterrupted bush – only dotted here and there with a few other small structures besides ours.
The sun was falling, nearly gone now. I stopped and gazed up the road a while, wondering. …And then I decided that I wasn’t ready for this, and that time was too short, and that I would come back again, and that this was definitely enough for today.
* * *
Writing in my journal that evening, in the midst of reflecting on how, while it had been so heavenly to be down there where it was quiet, and closer to home, this was not my home anymore, and how I had stayed long enough the last time to feel, by the time I left, that a Kokrobite without Koro was no place for me… I thought about how a lot of what I had been feeling was how I have moved on, and how my life is no longer here. Maybe my heart – or part of my heart – was left here, I wrote, recalling that feeling of reunion that I had had at the beach at the end of my first day back, and maybe I just needed to come pick it up, but beyond that… I feel so… done.
Later that night, when I couldn’t sleep, I found myself writing to Koro…
Koro, I want to put this all behind me, I wrote. Of course YOU will always be with me – I know that will never change; I still feel your love, as always… But this – Kokrobite, Ghana, the pull on my heart to be here, the draw here… it’s time to lay it to rest…
My whole desire to be in Ghana, that persisted for years after you passed… that is what I want to lay to rest. The desire to create a future for myself here has passed – has probably long since passed, but I must have needed to come to really experience the fact that it truly has. Yes, I am always open to new possibilities, to exploring whatever direction the Divine provides, but right now… I feel like the direction is out of here.
…I am so thankful I have finally come. I needed to come, and I’m not done yet – I know I need a bit more time out near – or very hopefully at – our old site. And yes, it feels wonderful, in many ways, to be back in Ghana, back in Africa, and that is something for which to be thankful. But what I feel even more thankful for, in this moment, is the feeling that I can lay my life here, my past here, to rest.
And I can’t even describe to you what that means. I just know that I feel it.
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...