I make a play for a front seat, but too late. It’s amazing how fast this bus is filling up – as in seconds – something to do with the surge of humanity pushing into it at the moment the driver opened the door. I dive for a seat in the rear next to a kind-looking man and hunker down with the wisp of a paper ticket held hopefully in my palm.
As the ticket guy -the driver’s assistant- comes down the aisle I squint at the tiny numbers and letters printed faintly upon it and wonder is this thing even valid? After all, on another leg of this trek, in the coastal town of Elmina, I had bought a bus ticket which turned out to be worthless. My seat mate, sensing my concern, holds out his huge hand, takes my ticket, studies it, smiles and nods. With a Mampruli greeting to the ticket man, he extends him the two stubs. I’m in. And I’ve got a friend. His name is Youssif. Bye bye Kumasi. Tamale, here I come.
I’m in Ghana for a dental volunteer assignment, and I’m covering the 800 miles from the capital Accra to the bush outpost of Nalerigu overland. Yesterday arriving in Kumasi from the coast I had an interesting time navigating the street chaos in my efforts to find my proposed lodging, the Presbyterian Guesthouse.
While English may be the official language of Ghana, I have a difficult to impossible time understanding their version of it. Besides, most people speak one of the hundreds of tribal languages instead. In short, it seems that no one on the street has ever heard of the Presbyterian Guesthouse, and since I do not have any actual arrangements with the place I wonder if it even exists. But I finally find it, such as it is. Luckily my expectations were well in check per the dorm room accommodations of the ramshackle church offices compound.
Yesterday went about as smoothly. I got lost -figuratively and literally- in Kumasi’s Asafo market, one of the largest markets in west Africa. The smells, sounds, and sights there are intoxicating; it’s sensory overload, from the brilliantly-colored Kente cloth with which the women create beautiful wraps, to the sellers of all kinds of bush meat. The wildness of the market was a little unsettling at first, but as I calmed to the rhythm of it I found it absolutely fascinating and delightful.
It’s about a six-hour bus ride to Tamale, and as the spectacular disorder of the outskirts of Kumasi fades behind us I settle in to getting acquainted with Youssif. He is very polite, gracious, and well-spoken in British-accented English.
As he relaxes he’s becoming more talkative, and I’m all ears, except of course when he asks me questions about American culture, of which he is as fascinated as I of the Ghanaian life. A student at the English Language Institute of Tamale, he’s working on the equivalent of a masters degree. Ghana is surrounded by French-speaking countries such as Toga, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso, so the country is the regional destination for those wanting to learn English -my earlier comments notwithstanding. Tamale’s Language Institute plays to this demand and Youssif hope to be a professor there eventually.
“This is Kintampo,” Youssif gestures with a thick finger as the bus lumbers to a stop at a busy roadside village. We have twenty minutes to stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat from one of the food stalls crowded around the hot, dusty square.
First things first, however, and Youssif shows me the rest room facilities -such as they are. Let’s just say that one finds it difficult here to carry on with the abundance of modesty which we insist upon in the United States.
Anyway, the aromas from the food sellers’ stalls is overwhelmingly good, and here comes smiling Youssif carrying two flimsy plastic plates bending under the weight of generous helpings of chicken and rice. Upon diving into the deliciousness I find it hot and seasoned to perfection. The fact that my eating the day before had been a bit sketchy -highlighted by leaf-wrapped mush- makes this all the better.
Under way again, Youssif and I settle into relaxed familiarity, and we freely share insights into our respective lives. We talk about our families and our work; we laugh at little things. The exotic landscape slips by the dust-covered windows, and it gets more arid, the vegetation sparser, the further into the interior we travel.
We finally arrive in Tamale, and I can see right away that this small city is frenetic with life. The scratchy calls to worship emanating from the local mosques’ loudspeakers welcome me as I stumble off of the bus and into the heat. Thankfully, I’m fully under his wing now, and the afternoon passes with Youssif showing me around town, helping me find a place to stay for the night, and introducing me to all his friends on the streets.
Best of all, he’s going to help me find a way to Nalerigu. That little village is many kilometers away from here, and it’s reachable only by branches of rutted, crimson dirt roads which aren’t even passable when wet. Not to mention the fact that there is no regular public transport to it.
“Yes, ummm yes” Youssif mutters as he nods his head, his eyes focused on the horizon and his hands clasped before him. “I will get you on a lorry to Nalerigu tomorrow morning,” he says with one final, emphatic nod.
And I, for my part, have no doubt that my new friend will do just that.
– Johnny Robinson