Welcome our guest blogger this week, my sister Lily White. As she describes herself in a published short story-The Upholsterer’s Wife: “Lily White is a saxophone player and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Born and raised in rural Illinois, she now divides her time between performing, playing with her daughter, and trying to find a legal parking place.” This is a tidbit from a much longer essay on her trip to Ghana with a musician friend in 1993. If you are looking for a naughty guffaw or two, read this published story in the New York Times, although it can’t be considered a travel post, no matter how large it’s writ. The photo is a market shop in Accra.
Part 1 Air Afrique. The sound rolls off the tongue and caresses the ears. The mellifluous combination of “Afri,” with the French, “q-u-e,” promised romance and adventure. To my American sensibilities, France seemed exotic enough on its own, but Africa was something else entirely.
I had toured with bands across America, Canada and Europe. By 1993, my passport was filled with stamps from countries with money to spend and an interest in jazz. Those countries were overwhelmingly white and European. Now, I was flying to Accra, Ghana on a whim. My friend, Rob, a jazz piano player and former fellow student in Godwin Agbeli’s Ghanaian drumming class, had invited me to accompany him and his sister to a grade school they had established there six years earlier. In December he mentioned he was going to Kopeyia to celebrate the commencement of the first graduating sixth grade class. I was impressed by his accomplishment and flattered that he would ask me. Did this meant he liked me for more than my saxophone playing? Rob was cute, but I wasn’t sure whether he was someone I could be attracted to. I just wanted to go to Africa.
The plan was to fly to Paris and then onto Ghana. The plane made a few extra stops along the way, scalloping around West Africa like a local bus. In each new place I stood atop the gangway and smelled the air. In Dakar, I detected something like cinnamon. In Lagos, turmeric and ginger. Every country had a different perfume, and, with every stop, new people would board and join me in row 26 where I had nested for the last 12 hours. The first man was wearing a gold and red dashiki and carried a briefcase. He looked at me and smiled.
“What brings you to Africa, young lady?”
I told him about the Kopeyia grade school and studying drums. I told him it was in the easternmost part of Ghana, on the coast, and I told him about my drum teacher in New York City. I was impressed with his curiosity and openness.
“Young lady, have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart?”
The question took me aback.
“Would you mind if I prayed for you?”
I figured it couldn’t hurt.
“No, go ahead…Thanks.”
The second stop brought on a statuesque woman with a tailored outfit and matching headdress. The fabric was a magnificent geometric pattern of black, gold and royal blue. She offered me a candy. I asked her where her next stop would be in Nigeria, and she asked me where I was headed. I told her I would be studying drums with the Ewe people of Ghana. A shadow fell across her face.
“Those people practice ju-ju,” She whispered.
“What’s ju-ju?” I asked.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart?”
I waited a beat.
“May I pray for you?”
“Of course,” I replied.
Never had I had so many people praying for me. I was racking up all kinds of good will on my behalf. As she bowed her head, her face turning serious and deep, I hoped she wasn’t secretly cursing me, praying for my luggage to get lost, praying for me to get dysentery.
On the third stop, I buried my head in my book and didn’t look up at the man who sat down next to me.
In Accra, I was met by Rob’s sister, Cathy, who had arrived on a previous flight. She had brought boxes of first aid and medical supplies to bring to Kopeyia, and had to get them through customs. We got in line with our luggage cart, my saxophone case over my shoulder. The customs officers sat at folding tables sweating in their khaki polyester uniforms. They were flanked by other uniformed officers with machine guns slung over their backs. In a line to our left, one customs man was shaking a video camera in a passenger’s face and yelling,
“Do you have a permit for this?”
I looked at my feet. Cathy had several video cameras. She had a video business back in New York taping weddings and bar mitzvahs. When it was our turn, we approached the table and I mustered an air of calm respectfulness. Cathy showed the man the inventory list for the boxes. He looked disinterested and then noticed my horn case.
“A musician?” He brightened.
“Yeah, um, it’s a saxophone.” I tried to smile.
“Hey, maybe you play for us, eh?”
He chuckled and motioned for the officer with a machine gun to come closer. I pictured bullets grazing my toes while I ran through jazz standards. I regretted bringing my $3500 Selmer horn.
“Yeah, I guess…”
The man threw his head back and laughed sardonically and stamped our passports.
We were swept outside into the oppressive heat of the parking lot. Men surrounded us shouting and jostling. A man in a Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt grabbed my backpack from me, and began walking away in the opposite direction. I yelled for Cathy. Putting me in charge of our bags, she ran after him and told him we would allow him to carry our bags for such and such amount of money. He insisted on a larger amount, until they finally agreed on a price. She directed him to a pick-up truck where Rob was waiting for us and we climbed inside. The man threw my pack in the back next to me and walked away with two American dollars in his hand, confident that he had gotten over.
The first stop was a pink stucco house where I was to stay for the first night. The woman who lived there was one of our drum teacher’s wives, the plural being news to me. Godwin was already in the village and she was at work, so I dropped my bags inside, tucked my horn underneath the little bed and followed Rob down the block to another pastel house filled with children. A boy of 12 wearing a brown and yellow school uniform greeted us and offered me a warm Coke. I started to ask for water, but Rob looked at me and shook his head. A Coke would be fine.
It was hot in the little living room. The one tiny window on the far wall was closed against the heat. The flowered upholstery covering the little couch was covered with clear plastic, and my legs stuck to it as I adjusted them. The lady of the house came out and introduced herself as Afreya, Godwin’s first wife. The uniformed boy was Kenji, their oldest boy, and though he appeared small, was actually 16 years old. He spoke English very well, and said he was training to become a drum teacher like his father. Next year, he was going to accompany him on one of his university trips to California. He grinned proudly. Godwin’s home life seemed complicated.
That night, I fell into the bed in the pink house. I slept fitfully as motorbikes buzzed by my window. In the morning, Cathy and Rob helped me load my bags into the back of a truck. His dashiki looked funny against his pale orange-freckled skin, but I guessed he was trying to fit in. In the cab of the truck were two duffel bags filled with American cash. The plan was to go to the “money changers” since banks, apparently, were a bad deal.
Cathy instructed me not to take photographs in Accra, because people in the city would get angry or demand money. Outside, in the rural areas, they didn’t care. We proceeded down the dirt streets past Heaven’s Gate Barber and stopped at Kingdom of God Quick Kaasa Kwaami’s. Rob left me in the truck and soon returned with a bigger duffel bag filled with cedis, the Ghanaian currency. It was only 9:30 am and the temperature was nearly 100 degrees. He dropped us at a breakfast wagon in the middle of the market and Cathy and I shared a couple of spongy crescent rolls and a warm Coke. As we walked around waiting for Rob to return I noticed that I was becoming puffy. My fingers looked like ten stiff, yeasty biscuits. When I left New York, it was a cold January and apparently my body hadn’t yet adjusted to the sudden change in temperature.
At 9am, I was brought to the Ministry of Tourism office to obtain official permission to visit the village of Kopeyia. I climbed the stairs of a white, stucco building and entered an office where a single air conditioner throbbed in the window. It was the only one I had seen so far, and just managed to take the edge off the heat. In the hot room, the woman behind the desk had an impatient air. She took my passport and examined it. Shuffling through some papers, she wrote down our names and rubber stamped something. I waited for her to hand it back, but she shoved it all into a manila envelope and stuck it into a filing cabinet.
“Come back in three days.”
I looked around desperately at the other people in the waiting room to see if they were as aghast as I was. As an American, my passport was my safety net. I knew from the movies that at the first sign of trouble, I could hightail it to an American Embassy where, waving my passport, I would be served cold Cokes and McDonald’s. I stumbled back out under the blazing sun where Cathy waited by a bench under a tree. She said, “That sometimes happens.”
To the reader: Stayed tuned next week for Part 2, where Lily frees the Chicken.