Ten minutes after our encounter with the off-putting Georges, as we were rattling down a backroad along the coast, I suggested to Sampson he pull off at a random left towards the beach. I was still shaking and just longing to put my feet in the quiet sea.
My homing instinct led us to follow the winding road down alongside a long white wall, that led down to an abandoned security turret, overlooking a perfect, long empty beach lined with palms. The unerring talent that has taken us to presidential palaces all over Africa had triumphed once again.
The next morning, we were welcomed by hesitant, French-speaking Monsieur Kassim, head gardener of the estate. He explained that we had happened upon the holiday home of President Compaoré of Burkina Faso (famous for arranging the assassination 25 years ago of his former friend, iconic President Thomas Sankara). The President has only been here once in five years, but continues to pay a water bill of R100 000 per month for the upkeep of his immaculate lawns and manicured bushes in the sand next to the sea.
Burkinabé people are renowned for their friendliness. Gentle M. Kassim was remarkably generous with the President’s water supply and I felt our taking advantage of it was some small measure of payback. However, that’s hardly comforting to the Burkinabé taxpayer.
Chatting with his family also helped to keep my French oiled. We spent nearly a month here on four separate occasions during our three months in Ghana, and every time was a vital bit of R&R. It was the only place we found where we could ‘wild camp’ right next to the sea, as the coastline is so much more developed in Ghana than anywhere else we’ve been to so far. It also had a half decent surf break just round the corner, which Sampson christened ‘The President’s Right’.
I love being at ‘The President’s’. The golden dawns are full of butterflies, big black and yellow ones, small white ones with orange tipped wings, that skip between the prickly pear cactus plants and patches of wild spinach with purplish pink flowers. The guardian eagles, that have been scoping us since Cameroon, gather here in such numbers, that this might be their headquarters for the rest of West Africa. They circle over us in the early mornings as we do yoga, miles of them, spiralling higher and higher between the palms until I can hardly see them.
After the city, it’s so divinely quiet, apart from the crashing waves. That sounds like a cliché, but I have never lived next to so noisy a sea. Mind you, I’ve never lived so close. We are sleeping only 20m away from the shore, 10m at high tide when each breaker sounds like a forklift truck dumping a ton of pebbles outside the door. That only happens in this bay – just round the corner, it’s much quieter and much hotter as you don’t get the full force of the wind powering off the sea from the early morning to the evening. It’s the exact opposite of what happened in Benin and Togo, where the wind would only rise in the afternoon. Here, at the peak of the hot season, the constant stiff breeze is a lifesaver; later in the day it becomes damp, even, sometimes, deliciously cold.
The second time we stopped off at ‘The President’s’ was just before Nana’s arrival, when we spent a couple of days scouring the truck from top to bottom.
We invited Fabian and Jasmine, a dynamic young couple we’d met at the Stumble Inn in Elmina, to visit us there. He’s German, she’s Swedish, they’d met each other in Australia and communicate in English. They were doing the same as us, only anti-clockwise, so we’d met in the middle. We had so much to share!
I was so impressed with them: it’s hard enough to travel with someone you’ve been married to donkeys’ years and gone through births and deaths with. To set out to circle Africa together at the age of 23 is hardcore. Their mothers must be even more anxious than mine…
The third time, we arrived at dusk, just ahead of a storm. There was no great downpour, just lightening for hours, making the sky flicker like an old fashioned TV set in a darkened room, lighting up stark silhouettes of palm trees against the raging foam of the ocean.
I’d been longing to escape back here. After two weeks’ missioning for visas in Accra and two more weeks in the garage in Tema, it was beyond lovely to be back at the beach, walking barefoot at 7am, feeling the sand nourishing my aching soles. Maybe there’s something in reflexology after all, my feet so needed that wet sand massage after weeks cooped up on concrete. Back to nature, to fresh air, to light.
Best of all was the blessed WIND, like the cleansing Cape Doctor, but gentler. It was such a huge relief because it meant no exhausting sweat dripping down, and no mossies, which were dreadful in the Accra Mall carpark, and no more torture of feverish scratching. This little slice of peace was our haven and I don’t know how I would have survived without it. I needed this space of No-one and Nothing to recover my equilibrium and my strength, and we were gifted that here.
I’d begun to suspect I was getting overtired in Benin. The adrenalin of Nigeria had kept me going, but all of a sudden I had zero patience with the hordes of curious kids piling in doorway. Granted the constant cry of ‘yovo yovo’ was wearing, but I realised my skin had worn thin over many months of travel and heat. It wasn’t that the joy of the journey had begun to pall, more that the effort of constant introductions and being the centre of attention was beginning to chafe.
At this point I feel I need to explain something about myself, which you may already have picked up on. I’m not ‘normal’ – or at least my tolerance levels (of everything from gluten to airconditioning) are not – and I should tell you why.
The last time I went travelling, across Asia in 1992, was 6 months after having glandular fever (a.k.a. mononucleosis) just before my final undergraduate exams. Halfway through the best year of my life, after taking powerful drugs prescribed for dysentery, I became sick with an illness that got increasingly severe and took more than a year to diagnose once I got home to the UK: M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis). There’s no space to explain all about it here, but if you’ve got several hours/weeks/months to waste, Google it.
Suffice to say, M.E. is the reason I ended up in South Africa in 1994, on a convalescent holiday with my long-suffering aunt, and one of the main reasons I’m on this trip now: because I know what it’s like to be 75. For a couple of years in my early twenties, I lived as an arthritic old woman, mostly bedridden and unable to leave the house except in a wheelchair.
I wasn’t able to work for another five years, but once I finally learned to manage my condition, was able to live a ‘normal’ enough life in the more gentle climate of the Cape. I arranged my life so that I could work from home and when I had an off week/month, could quietly withdraw without anyone noticing much. Relapse warning symptoms – muscle pains in my arms after just a couple of hours on the computer, a sudden inability to do figures, nagging nausea, light sensitivity, a pressing need to lie down – sound so nebulous as to be excuses. Only I know what a red flag they are, how I have to heed them unless I want to risk much worse.
I don’t usually talk about M.E. as it’s complicated and inevitably sounds like bleating. I write this not for the doubters – they will always be with us, until the inevitable chemical proof materialises in 30 years’ time – but for those living with it. To give them hope that they too can recover enough to fulfill crazy dreams that may seem impossible now, once they learn how to cope with the condition.
I’m telling you this mostly for the sake of a young woman I know who is currently suffering in Cape Town, and another young woman I knew many years ago in Coventry, both of whose lives have been blighted by a disease that many people think is just in their heads. Their courage to carry on living in the face of chronic pain, constant nausea, hot flushes, cold sweats and a permanent feeling of deathly exhaustion – achey all over like you’ve just run a marathon with ‘flu – inspires me.
Nothing I have attempted on this trip, not setting off into the unknown across Africa with two kids in tow, breaking down in the dark on the side of a highway outside Lagos, or facing a bloke in a ski-mask with a machine gun in the DRC, is braver than a person with M.E. dragging themselves to the toilet and dry retching with the effort, waiting for a muscle spasm around the heart to pass to be able to start breathing again, or sitting dizzy in front of another disbelieving doctor and resisting the urge to rant or scream because it’s a waste of precious energy.
The good thing about experiencing chronic illness early in life is you don’t ever mistake priorities or lose perspective afterwards. Health is wealth and nothing else matters even half as much. In my early twenties, I learned the hard way what my body needs to keep well, and it’s saved me years in the long run. Twenty years later everyone else is ending up on my regime: cutting out caffeine or alcohol or wheat or sugar; avoiding stress, doing more beach walks, more yoga; learning to ‘just breathe, just be’.
Sampson’s Dad spent ten years building a boat, then had a stroke before he could sail it across the Atlantic with his sons. Life is short. Put your dreams in motion. Take that first step.
Twenty years ago, a bad day meant more than 15 hours in bed; too much pain to lift a cup, never mind a book; sound and light sensitivity too intense to watch TV, or even hold a conversation with more than one person; and complete brain fog. Today a bad day just means I didn’t get enough sleep to abate all pain, I can’t exercise, I have to eat more often, I get muscle ache in my arm from resizing photos, I can’t concentrate to write for long and by 4pm I’m wrapped up on the bed – despite 28˚ heat and 70% humidity – shivering cold under a blanket until someone hands me supper, after which I might rally for a couple of hours.
We stayed at the President’s for two weeks until I got my strength back. Sampson turned it into a proper campsite this time, moving all the palm fronds and coconut husks to clear a path to the beach and a place to lie down comfortably. Infuriatingly for him, he’d pulled his back out again, just climbing the ladder into the truck at the garage, so he was mostly lying down too. We passed gentle days just doing school with the promise of “Double Downton” for Friday Night Treats (along with the children’s favourite, popcorn sprinkled with milk powder and sugar, a trick learned in Calabar).
The first week I am inordinately proud of my daughter. Not only did Ruby finish term on Friday only one week behind her classmates (having received her school books half way through week five of eleven), she has been thoughtful and kind to me while under par. She seems to be over the worst of her hormonal hurdles – the malaria prophylaxis Mefliam interrupted her menstruation as well as messing with her head and sleep patterns – and is settling into a monthly rhythm. I’m glad, ‘cos I like her a lot more now. She’s funny and kind and loving. And only gives me that ‘daggers’ look about once a week now, instead of once a day. Suddenly she looks like a woman – I’m so glad I was here by her side, watching closely and didn’t miss my butterfly emerging.
Zola is also growing up. He has broader shoulders and deeper thoughts. This week, he asked me “What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?”, while Ruby’s question was “What does egotistical mean? Is it bad or good?”. Tells you a lot about my kids. I endeavoured to answer them, while Sampson carried on inventing nicknames: “If Zola is Captain Wazzock, then Ruby must be Corporal Wazzock, Mum is Major Wazzock and I’m General Wazzock.”
We gave ourselves a week’s holiday. Allowed to do Whatever They Liked, the kids immediately got the Lego out. I’m fascinated by their ongoing negotiations, for parts and process: “We’ll leave the cars and just remake the houses”. The reimagining of all the details of transport, furniture and relationships takes an hour or two before the real play starts. I noticed their secret agents had developed Downton-type servants…
We were hardly ever disturbed. There was no one around except for M. Kassim’s family: his wife, nephews David and Mohamed and his young son. Saluf had learning disabilities, so although 12 years old, was more a peer for Zola than Ruby; a sweet boy who could match him for cartwheeling off banks and throwing himself into the churning sea. Zola got very adept at using the boogie board as a skim board during these weeks. Ruby was busy giving her Dad back massages and storing up her earnings.
The palm trees at the President’s are perennially absorbing. Local Mr Hassan told me that there were originally six lines of them planted, perhaps 60 years ago, as they were small when he was a little boy. Three lines have already disappeared, and the rest are gradually being eroded by the tides.
Sampson and I lie in the shade underneath them, watching the eagles wheeling overhead checking us out. Palm leaves swing like the tails of caged tigers, back and forth, back and forth in figures of eight. We watch them swaying in the breeze, occasionally bestowing a tiny blossom on us, apparently as relaxed as it’s possible to be, while simultaneously aware that we’re continuously dicing with death: you never know if a coconut is about to land on your head. Lying under palm trees tempting fate is a tempting metaphor for life, or at least our life on this trip. Make the most of the blossom rain time, ‘cos the coconuts are going to fall…
Slowly I got better. Gradually, I got back to knocking out words on the blog.
It was only when David came to help Sampson filter oil that we learned his story. He was 32 and had spent the last 2 years in China. It had taken him 5 months to learn Chinese, then another 18 months earning 10% as a middleman for Burkinabé businessmen, until he had enough to invest 30 million FCA (R600 000) in 3 containers’ full of electrical goods to be shipped back home.
David entrusted another 7 million FCA (R140 000) to his elder brother for customs duties – which his brother neglected to pay, thinking he could get away without it. The whole lot was confiscated at the border. To get it released, David would have had to pay another 50 million FCA (R1 million) . So he lost everything.
David was so traumatised by this betrayal, his mother had sent him to live with his Uncle Kassim for awhile to regain his composure before going back to China to start over. David has a wife in Burkina Faso with an 8 year-old son, and a wife in China, with a 14 month-old daughter. He was training hard to get his mind back in shape, running and swimming at 5am every morning. Sympathising with his fragile mental state, Sampson recognised a brother in David.
As I was too weak to walk half an hour in full sun to the nearby village of Senya Beraku, David would fetch a bag of eggs or tomatoes for us. We hadn’t expected to stay here this long and were eking out the remnants of our cash. I supplemented our meagre supplies of vegetables with the juicy leaves of wild spinach growing behind the truck.
One morning, David borrowed one of our Merida bicycles to go to Senya to buy airtime to call his family, and came back in a state: his son had malaria and needed to go to hospital for treatment. He needed to send 50Cedi (R250) urgently to his wife in Burkina, but he only had 20Cedi left until money he was expecting arrived next week. Luckily 30Cedi was exactly what we had left. He confided to me afterwards that they had lost their 4 year-old child a couple of years ago, and he found it so difficult to bear, that “although my father is a good Muslim, sometimes I drink whisky to forget”. I think he was afraid he’d go mad if this happened again, now, while he was feeling so vulnerable. It was a privilege to help save a life for just R150.
After a week of me being laid out, Sampson had gone too quiet and very distant. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely in a 3m2 space. When I felt strong enough, I challenged him about it and, after some prising, it all came crashing out: his admission of returning depression, his fears of inadequacy and mortality, his guilt about not being at his dying Mum’s bedside to comfort her. It was good to cry it through.
I did some dissecting of #Depression Lies: we are in no actual hurry; thankfully, we have no title sponsor, so there’s nothing pressing us in terms of a schedule; we have plenty of time till our Ghanaian visas expire at the end of the month. So, don’t stress, chill. I kept him busy marking Ruby’s Natural Science and Technology.
We needed a change of scene so took a day out to Shoprite at Weija, 20km away, to stock up on food and cash. It was exhausting and I was so happy to come back to the President’s, amongst the cleansing wind and the trees, away from the hot dusty pollution of the road to town. We treated ourselves to apples – they’re always imported and so expensive, we’ve only had three each since we left SA.
The second week, Sampson’s back was better and four days’ surfing in a row helped pull him out of his depression. He also put our Freeform awning up with the help of David and Mohammed.
While I wrestled with internet connection, Sampson and Zola painted the truck against rust, redoing the fuel tanks and wheel inners.
I met Godfred Adjei on the beach one morning as he was walking to work. Godfred is a true philosopher. “Africa was the first word spoken by God. We are so rich in Africa, with gold, with all this (wave of hand encompassing all the bounty of the soil) the poor man can live. In Europe, it’s hard to grow things”.
Over several chats, I discovered that Godfred disliked thieves and murderers, fingering both Compaoré and “the white man on the hill” who shot an armed robber, as the latter. He told me all about the Ghanaian son of the founder of Stanbic Bank who was so rich, he was continually rebuilding the walls of the new house up on the hillside, even though, because the Chief had sold the land several times, he was in dispute with two other claimants and it had been knocked down three times by villagers who hate him.
Godfred speaks in a rasta patois, hates alcohol, recommends dagga for concentration, and was shocked I’m so old. He asked if I would allow my daughter to marry a poor man? “Whomever she chooses” I said. “Even if he’s poor?” “Well, I chose a poor man” I said. He shook my hand warmly.
Eventually, when I got strong enough, Ruby and I went on a shopping expedition to the market with David and Mohammed. In Senya Beraku, David told me, they speak their own language, Senya, a type of Fanti. I asked him how to greet, and he told me “Iko” if someone is working (they respond “Iyeh”), or “Atisang” if they’re not working. So it seems the ‘Bon travail’ greeting is a translation of a cultural tradition across the Gulf of Guinea, to acknowledge when someone is hard at work. It would be interesting to know if there was any equivalent of this African habit in other European languages?
On Sunday afternoon, David arrived with a tiny brasier and kettle and conducted a tea-making ceremony – combining a Burkinabé cultural practice with a packet of green Chinese tea. He boiled and poured and shook the potful of tea assiduously with sugar to make a foamy Guinness-looking type brew, before distributing it, one shot glass at a time, to Sampson and I, M. Kassim and Mohamed.
When we left for what we thought was the final time, Mark gave a Silver Star Auto Ltd. Mercedes shirt to M. Kassim, and sunglasses to David and Mohamed for all their help. Sampson told David the gold-plated tortoiseshell aviator shades from his sponsor Von Zipper were worth $300 new, and suited the successful businessman he is fated to be! “Génial!” he exclaimed. Mohamed was equally chuffed with the rather funky shock-orange mirrored pair last modeled by myself at Africa Burn.
However, whizzing out of Accra the following Thursday afternoon, after picking up our Diplomatic Bag parcel, we realised we were going to get caught in Easter holiday traffic along the coast, so snuck off to Senya once more to wait out the weekend. By 5pm we were back on the beach, with a misty breeze blowing, and elation in my heart. It was high tide, and I immediately got my feet in the chocolate mousse ice cream sand, better than Sandra’s finest. Zola and Saluf were falling about in the sea, and dolphin-boy Sampson was ploughing out beyond the breakers; it was magical.
By now, we were getting a bit bored with the selection of games we’d brought with us. That night we played dominoes and upped the excitement factor by putting a 5 second countdown on each play. This was much more fun. Zola could hardly breathe, he was crying so much from hype and laughter.
On Friday night, we invited M. and Mme Kassim, David, Mohammed and Saluf for a meal and a show. After David had made us tea, I served a delicious fish casserole with tumeric rice. A sudden rain shower had all nine of us scrambling into the truck, giggling. With everyone squeezed in around the table, Sampson and the kids did the close-up magic part of show to great hilarity. Mrs Kassim kept clapping her hands to her mouth and even mouse-quiet M. Kassim was making exclamations. Thankfully, the skies cleared just in time for the juggling and fire show finale.
The Burkinabé were such a giving audience. During Parafina’s performance, Zola running at them with fire clubs had them jumping out of the way and laughing their heads off. Sampson handed out the dessert of sliced pineapple and everyone went home contented. There was still time for Friday Night Treats and an hilarious Simon Pegg movie The World’s End which, if you’re the same age as me, you should watch.
Only after listening to four Chain Reactions on my iPod did I realise the euphoria I’d been feeling might have something to do with the caffeine in David’s green tea. There was no sleep till midnight, but it was no hardship. I lay looking out the door from the cuddling cool of Sampson’s bed at the silhouetted palms calm against the moon, listening to the reassuring shushing of the low low tide.
I can look around me and say “There’s my daughter’s hair clogging up the plughole again, and there’s mold on the shower curtain, and I wish we could get the towels and sheets properly clean with one decent spin in a washing machine, and I can’t seem to banish the mildewy smell coming from the wardrobe, and how is the cutlery drawer/cooker/floor filthy again so soon…” OR I can focus my attention elsewhere and say “Wow, listen to the waves, aren’t they supremely beautiful, the way they roll and break so magnificently here, so grandiloquently, with a flourish like a film star’s skirts across the red carpet. Isn’t it amazing how I have time to notice them, how I’ve given myself this time, how I’ve noticed the slight changes each time we’ve been here, how I’ve gloried in them, from damp to mist to storm to tropical heat? How amazing that I wake up amidst this scenery, how I can roll out of bed, straight onto the beach, hot water and lemon in my hand. How my son can run wild on the rocks, through the waves. How I love this wildness. How I will never be this free and this fit again. How glad I am to have seized it.”
This is our choice, humans, every day. Chose your outlook. Live your dream, or scupper it.