Two days ago, I crossed back into Ghana from Togo. I faced a minor incident at the border. The half-mile stretch of road at the Togo-Ghana border has a number of vaguely official looking checkpoints, manned by officials in blue or green camo gear or police uniforms. I never really understand where I'm supposed to stop or what I have to do... I usually just walk straight past everyone unless a guard calls me to come over.
This time, a guard summoned me over right after I got my Togo exit stamp.
"What are you bringing back with you from Togo?" he asked.
I felt like answering "probably hookworm and malaria" but I decided that he probably wouldn't get the joke. I told him: a small fetish, some Ashanti masks, Togolese clothing. The guard said that he would have to check and see if any of the items were cultural relics being taken away in contravention of an international agreement called "CITIS" (at least, I think that's how it's written). I told him that unless priceless Togolese relics were available at the tourist market for less than $5, I was probably ok. The guard started to get mad and insisted that I take everything out and dump it on the ground. A sketchy-looking guy with bad teeth whispered that I should just give him 5,000 CFA (~$11) to shut him up, but I was having none of it. The guard was yelling at me and threatened to take away all my souvenirs but then saw a 1,000 CFA bill among my things and pocketed it. I looked at him, incredulous, but he said that I could leave and that I passed the inspection.
As I was stuffy my sandy clothes back into my bag, the guard shook his finger at the bedraggled man with bad teeth who was still lurking nearby. "Watch out for him. That man is a thief," he said, shooing the guy away. I think the irony was probably lost on him.
Before I went away, I decided to mess with Captain Corruption a little bit. I gave him a friendly, I'm-not-mad-about-the-1,000-CFA smile and got him to tell me his name. "David Esegma? I'll remember that. My uncle advises your President on matters of corruption. I'll make sure to pass along your name to him." This was perhaps a dumb thing to do, but it sure was fun. I haven't seen an African official look so unhappy in my life.
Facing petty graft by military officials is never fun, but I put the experience in perspective. This is the only time I've ever faced bribe-taking like that crossing a border -- not just on this trip, but across all trips to West Africa. It says a lot about the quality of ECOWAS' success at regional integration, in my opinion.
Once in Ghana, I decided to visit Wisdom, an Ewe guy my age that I met on the tro-tro to Togo a week earlier. Before we parted ways the first time, he made me promise that I would visit his village before I left.
Wisdom (his Evangelical Presbyterian baptismal name) lives in a small village called Weta deep inside Volta Region, a rich and fertile farming area bordering large stretches of Togo. I enjoyed relaxing and hanging out in the village. It was completely relaxing, since there was absolutely nothing to do except visit people in the village, eat dry Ewe biscuits, and drink Malta Guinness (a non-alchoholic malt beverage, made by the Irish beer company, that tastes like milk at the bottom of your cereal). Wisdom made me Jollof rice for dinner, and it was very good, but way too filling -- I was still full by the next morning.
There were some humorous highlights to the visit as well. Wisdom and his buddies (Debaris and Thomas) were very nice village kids. Wisdom described himself as a family guy and very obedient to elders, as well as a hard worker (which I observed to be true). He helps his relatives run the Weta town general store most days. But Wisdom also likes American hip-hop and gangsta' rap (his words, not mine).
I didn't pick up on the rapper-obsession at first, but it crept into the conversation when I dropped my stuff off at his house in the afternoon. We had been talking about Wisdom's involvement in the church on the way there.
"Nice house. Very big," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "This my muthaf*cking residence, niggah!"
You know those times when you really want to laugh, but know you shouldn't? This was one of those times. Wisdom, whose English was the best of his friends, wanted me to teach him the right way to speak "Negrin," as he called it -- basically, the way American rappers talk. I tried to do that with a straight face for about fifteen minutes, and they couldn't get enough of it. My main teaching contribution, I think, was to explain the meaning of "cap yo' *ss" and suitable places to use it, as well as describing the importance of "rolling deep," and how many people were required to constitute acceptable deepness. Of course, the fact that I was teaching young African guys how to speak in African-American slang has got to be pretty high on the irony-meter.
Here are Wisdom and I, somewhat at a loss for the right hand signals to make. (Where's my brother Calum when I need him?)
Before I left, the guys took me to see the massive rice fields growing outside of town. While we were touring the paddies, we met Richard (the "biggest gangsta' in Weta" according to Wisdom). I guess he's the biggest gangsta' because he had dreads and because he does that Rasta thing where you touch your chest after you shake someone's hand. Maybe that wouldn't cut it in Compton, but it's all relative, right?
Richard the Gangsta' was working the rice fields when we came along. His English wasn't great, but he could understand if I spoke slowly. I asked if he was the owner of the field next to us. He made a sweeping gesture with his arm. "Yeah, all this is my shit! Rice, man!" When we left, he went down to the hut to help his mother with harvesting.
Before I left town, I stopped in at Wisdom's family's shop to say goodbye to people. Or, as my host put it: "let's give a big shout-out to all my niggahs!"
Check out this homeboy. He was briefly the eighth-biggest gangster in Volta Region: