Generally, it’s not advisable to travel at night in Ghana. It’s a riskier time for accidents and highway robbery.
It is also, however, the fastest and most comfortable way to travel to more remote cities. The alternative for traveling to Kabile is to take tro tros, which means you must make transfers and stuff yourself onto bench seats, pressed together with others. That usually takes two days, with a stopover in Kumasi. The night bus, with assigned seating in bucket seats and air conditioning, is my choice to get to Sampa—the large border town that’s just three miles from Kabile.
The bus terminal in Accra is separated into sections by regions, and when I reach the section for the Sampa region, I’m surprised that some of the faces start to seem familiar in a general way. I wonder if they are Nafana, the people of the Sampa/Kabile area.
Finally we board the bus and it begins pulling out of the station, maybe an hour past its 7pm departure time. We seem to be traveling in a small convoy of big red VIP buses. They will drop off, one by one, as they branch out to their respective destinations along the way.
I had planned to get something to eat or take onto the bus, but I don’t. I just don’t see anything appealing. Managing food and water on long trips here has always been an issue; I dread having an urgent need for a toilet and not being able to find one—and that urgency can come on suddenly here, especially if the food isn’t well-cooked or handled properly. (Peace Corps volunteers used to ask each other if they were “in the club”—meaning had they yet endured the experience of shitting their pants. Most of us were.)
I end up having a horrendous time on the bus. A bright spot is that there were a couple of clean bathrooms along our route (unlike the return trip, where I had no recourse but to squat in the mud next to a gas station, hitching up my skirt with the other ladies). I think because I didn’t eat, I become susceptible to car sickness as the bus crawls through cracked and cratered sections of road. Wearing a face mask in the humidity doesn’t help, nor does The Sad Prince and the Female Palm Wine Tapper, which plays on a large screen above the driver. Actually, maybe the Sad Prince does help a little. A stop where I am able to get a hunk of tough white bread and a bottle of water to sip helps, too.
I try to drop down into my body and rationally sort out what’s happening, and realize that a big part of what I’m experiencing is anxiety running away with me, flogged on by self-doubt and criticism.
I knew this trip would be difficult. I would be utterly unable to undertake it alone without more than two years of experience living here. I marvel at the Peace Corps experience in a way that I haven’t appreciated before. We really did become courageous about facing the unknown, coping with problems, and being thrown into situations where we lack context and, so, understanding of what is going on around us. This bus experience, though, has taken me by surprise, because the night bus used to seem like such a paragon of comfort to me, back in the old days here. We really did get tough.
I also have been struggling with my purpose in coming back—a reason to endure the hardship and risk of it—other than “a feeling” that I should do it. I can come up with rational explanations that would satisfy most people, but when it comes down to it, I have also learned to follow my intuition when making decisions about my life.
That can come to a crisis, however, in situations like this dreadful bus ride. If disaster befalls me, I imagine the blame I will feel as I try to explain to someone why I was doing it in the first place, and why I didn’t have myself in better physical shape to do it. I haven’t yet evolved to the point where these imaginary opinions of others—really, those of my own inner critics—have little importance.
West African culture is rich with symbols and aphorisms. One of the most common you might encounter is Sankofa, usually represented by a bird looking behind, over its back, carrying an egg on its back that it is fetching forward.
Literal translations often don’t work well, but “san” is to return, “ko” is to go, and “fa” is to fetch, seek, or take. “Go back and fetch it” is how it’s commonly described. It has been powerfully adopted as a symbol of the African diaspora. But so, too, for others. Some of the gifts given to me when I left here feature the sankofa symbol.
Contemplating Sankofa helps me quiet the voice that has been yelling at me, “What are you doing and who do you think you are by even attempting it?” This trip is sankofa. It is just something we do.
Sunyani is the last major city before Sampa, and even in the dark I can see the terrain changing into something familiar, the bush coming closer to the road. But also the road worsening. I doze off and am awakened by a sudden jolt of the bus; it stops and then begins to crawl forward, the front dipping in one direction and then the back coming down in another. We pass some kind of gathering in the dark, and it takes me a moment to sort out that it’s a fuel tanker which has gone off the road and into a downslope. The people are there with jerry cans, standing in the ditch to collect what they can of this unexpected windfall.
Further along, we are stopped by border patrol. I don’t remember this checkpoint from before. I left my passport in my room in Accra, thinking it would be safer there, and am now kicking myself for that decision. The guard asks me for it as I’m digging in my purse and I tell him I have my passport card; he says he will return and goes on to check the other passengers. I find the passport card, now glad I paid a little extra to get it when I renewed the passport, and also decide to slip a US $50 bill into the cardholder, just in case he is looking for a dash. But when he returns and I am holding the card on top of the holder, he just says “it’s okay” and moves on without looking at it. He tells one woman, who seems Nigerian to me, get off the bus for questioning, but she is soon allowed to return, and we continue.
The sun is coming up as we begin entering Sampa—but we come into Sampa for a long time. There was one gas station in town ten years ago; now we pass a few of them, and lots of new construction. The growth is astonishing to me. I begin to feel better when I see the red dirt, the green vegetation, and the sky beginning to brighten into its steely hue.
It’s fully light and just after six when we arrive. I text Matthew to tell him, and ask if I should get a car. “I am on my way coming” he texts back, and I wait; I make inquiries about a bathroom, but there isn’t one available, and I reassure them that I can wait.
Matthew arrives on his motorcycle, smiling, and all of my doubts—and much of my nausea and tension—evaporate. There is only joy. He is laughing and smiling. “You are strong!” he says, and I laugh, embarrassed. He means that I am fat, but here they love it, so we just roll with that, too.
He takes in the surrounding transportation that is available; new here are three-wheeled motorcycles with covered passenger seats, like a motorized rickshaw (what a great innovation this is for this area). But none are free for hire at the moment.
“Can you ride the moto?” he asks. I tell him I worry about my weight, but he assures me it’s okay. He takes my heavy duffle and puts it on his lap. I crawl on behind him, clumsily hitching my skirt, ask if my hands on his waist are okay, and off we roll as I begin the customary prayers.
The three-mile road between Sampa and Kabile is no longer just a stretch of farms between the town. There are buildings along the entire road. The towns came to an agreement over where the border was—something they had begun to dispute ten years ago (Sampa began negotiations by claiming their town extended the entire three miles to Kabile. But the agreement they reached is roughly half way.)
People we pass stare when they realize a white woman is on the moto (though with my black face mask, some of them don’t seem to notice), but none of them seem to recognize me—until we come into Kabile. Then there are some waves, and some smiles as I see them realize who I might be. And now, sometimes some calls. “Yeli Ama!”
Matthew takes me to his house, at the far edge of town, and shows me to a beautiful room they have prepared for me, next to a lovely set of private washrooms an toilets. His wife prepares a breakfast, and I fall on the fried eggs and fresh-baked tea bread like a wolf, feeling stronger and stronger.
He asks me if I want to wash down. “I think before church, then I will change?” I half tell, half ask him. Yes, okay, he agrees that this is a good plan. Then we can go back into town and do some greeting now.