To travel is to disappear. At least it used to be, before blogs and cell phones plugged our movements into the ether for anyone to access and share. Keyboards and keypads have been at my fingertips for most of this journey but sometimes, I go deep enough that even gadgets are left behind. And while it is true that an unusual span of silence might signify the Tranquilo Traveler’s demise (by shipwreck, assassins, or shark attack, most likely), it is more probable that I have simply gone beyond wires and signals.
In northeast Ghana, Tay and I discover that this is easy to do.
We returned to Accra last night, stiff and loopy after the 16-hour “luxury” bus ride from Tamale, and I am reeling from all that has happened in the two weeks leading up to (and including) yesterday’s long ride. From everything we saw (mud-hut compounds, maize and ground-nut fields, and leather-sewn jujus) to everyone we met (Muslims, midwives, malaria patients, village chiefs, and children) â€” and all the sounds, smells, and tastes in between.
In short, this trip opened my eyes to a much deeper Africa than I had yet found in our previously Accra-centric experience; and with its hot, dusty rural-ness and rich blend of West African tribes, languages, and colors, the past two weeks took Tay a decade back to her own Peace Corps days in the Gambian bush. She is ecstatic that I am finally sharing at least a few sensory nuggets of her experience (the bitter, biting taste of kola nuts, the sensation of simultaneously enthralling and frightening young children by our white-ness). Through it all, I am simply overwhelmed by yet another world that I am lucky enough to visit and to know.
There was much movement, including new places like the cities of Kumasi, Tamale, and Bolgatanga, each with its own market and bus station, its dive hotel and chop spot, its local language and way of greeting, and of course, offering yet another disgusting toilet/latrine story for us to tell (my favorite is the sea-of-maggots incident in Bolga).
But beyond all of these invariably hot, hot cities and centers of rural commerce, lies the village Kparigu (pronounced with a puffy, hard “P” sound). For it is Kparigu which will be at the heart of any story I decide to tell, including, (possibly featuring) our 24-hour side-trip to Nakpanduri, where, as the guests of Chief David Kansuk Laari, we are allowed into his court to witness age-old African justice, as Chief and his council of elders arbitrate the Case of the Crocodile Killer. But I’m ahead of myself.
Kparigu is a West Mamprosi cluster of huts with about 4,000 mainly Mamprole-speaking inhabitants. Or 2,000; or 7,000; depending on who you ask. Perhaps a better way of measuring Kparigu’s size is by the number of market days it has in a week (three), whether there is transport in and out of town on non-market days (no), and how far it is from the nearest place with electricity (25 kilometers, I think, maybe more). For the PPAG clinic staff, the only thing more important than electricity (or lack thereof), is the distance to the nearest hospital to which they can refer critical cases (about ninety minutes to the Baptist Hospital in Nalerigu). And as the rainy season takes hold and malaria settles in, there are an increasing number critical cases.
The Chief of Nakpanduri, the man who sits on a throne of goat and cow skins to decide the fate of the Crocodile Killer, is also the Chief Medical Assistant of the PPAG Northern Zone clinic in Kparigu, which offers basic medical treatment and inoculations (the vaccines are brought in on ice once a week from the government hospital in Walewale), plus a family planning and pre-natal clinic, and operating room for labor and delivery.
This is the capacity in which we first meet Chief â€” in his role as nurse/medical assistant, buying wholesale drugs and contraceptives in Tamale and consulting patients in his round Kparigu office (the clinic is built in the style of a family compound, with walled-together round buildings surrounding an open courtyard). Here he dons western clothes, glasses, and stethoscope, carefully explaining each patient’s case, diagnosis, and treatment to us in excellent English; me taking notes, Tay nodding, asking questions, sometimes offering treatment suggestions which are well-received (“Two heads are better than one,” he says, “it’s all in the patient’s best interest.”)
But on our first morning in the village, while visiting the local Kparigu chief in his hut, our Chief gets a call on his cell phone from Nakpanduri, from one of his three wives. The Elders need him to come back, she says. Someone has killed one of the sacred crocodiles in the Pankok River and refuses to pay the sacrifices necessary to pacify the gods (one sheep, one white fowl, and one colored fowl). We are invited along, are given an hour to pack our things.
That night, after a long, official reception in his court, Chief invites us to watch World Cup football with him, proclaiming himself an addict of the sport. He carries his television into the courtyard of his “palace” (as any Chief’s residence is referred to), has a few of his 15 children bring his skins and pillows to the courtyard throne of raised concrete, then sits above his clan and guests, under bright stars and a crescent moon, as we root for France to beat Brazil (evil Brazil ousted Ghana’s beloved Black Stars the week before).
For this impromptu party, Chief has one of his officers bring us beers, and he summons the local Peace Corps Volunteer to the palace. Carl, known locally as “Ka,” is a Minnesotan engineer-turned-math-teacher and Tay and I smile when he arrives speaking the local tongue, Mwar, casually kneeling to clap and sing the proper series of greetings before the Chief, who then signals for Ka to rise and greets him warmly, like a friend. Ka is excited about the shipment of 100 bikes he just received through the Village Bicycle Project; he says he feels like he “hit the jackpot” with his site assignment.
The following morning, Chief’s hungover brother, Bartholemew, is appointed the royal interpreter, and he breathes stale fumes of gin and sweat into my face while explaining the proceedings and translating the lengthy testimonies of witnesses, the accused, and the elders. Chief listens patiently then makes sweeping pronouncements, looking very firm and decisive, under his gold-red-and-black smocks and sparkling hat. The man is guilty beyond doubt, but because he denied his guilt and forced Chief to disgrace him in public, he is fined extra, and a date is set for the sacrifice.
More than anything else we see during these two weeks, I am drawn to the strong, graceful way in which Chief straddles the modern and the ancient, the new and the traditional. Though he devotes himself solely to each task at hand â€” whether injecting chloroquine into an infant’s bottom, adjudicating a dispute in his court, tending maize in his field, or greeting his subjects â€” he is never without a square-jawed, complete sense of leadership.
When I ask about his Christianity, he proudly declares that his father went to Church every single Christmas, and that he himself goes on Sundays when he can. “But there is no pastor in Kparigu,” he says, “so I preach to the people.” In my interviews with the Chief, and in our conversations with other people, we talk much about what is “civilized” and “advanced,” and what is “primitive” and “developing.”
As for Tay, she gets the additional buzzes of working with Ayishetu, a tall and powerful midwife/nurse, who during the weekly ante-natal clinic, teaches Tay to find the fetus and listen to its heartbeat without machines or monitors and who, afterwards, teaches her how to properly tie a baby to her back.
Ipti-saam, the seven-month-old daughter of Baba (the clinic driver) and Auntie, reacts with such obvious enjoyment at being bound to my wife’s warm back, that the women (Auntie, Ayishetu, and Sister Amina) are hysterical with laughter as Tay bounces up and walks away with her. The baby’s name means “smile” in Mamprole, and she thoroughly lives up to it as the women announce that the child has found a new mother.
As I said, I am still reeling from it all â€” as I am from the extraordinary years of travel leading up to these moments, these weeks, and from the endless miles (and villages and people) that still lay ahead.
But one trip at a time.
For now, we’re still on the bus, still in Africa.