Collision, Ghana, 1958
More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drenched in rain. The airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind, darkness. But here, from the morning's earliest moments, the airport is ablaze with sunlight, all of us in sunlight.
In times past, when people wandered the world on foot, rode on horseback, or sailed in ships, the journey itself accustomed them to the change. Images of the earth passed ever so slowly before their eyes, the stage revolved in a barely perceptible way. The voyage lasted weeks, months. The traveler had time to grow used to another environment, a different landscape. The climate, too, changed gradually. Before the traveler arrived from a cool Europe to the burning Equator, he already had left behind the pleasant warmth of Las Palmas, the heat of Al-Mahara, and the hell of the Cape Verde Islands.
Today, nothing remains of these gradations. Air travel tears us violently out of snow and cold and hurls us that very same day into the blaze of the tropics. Suddenly, still rubbing our eyes, we find ourselves in a humid inferno. We immediately start to sweat. If we've come from Europe in the wintertime, we discard overcoats, peel off sweaters. It's the first gesture of initiation we, the people of the North, perform upon arrival in Africa.
People of the North. Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet? Canadians and Poles, Lithuanians and Scandinavians, some Americans and Germans, Russians and Scots, Laplanders and Eskimos, Evenkis and Yakuts--the list is not very long. It may amount to no more than 500 million people: less than 10 percent of the earth's population. The overwhelming majority live in hot climates, their days spent in the warmth of the sun. Mankind first came into being in the sun; the oldest traces of his existence have been found in warm climes. What was the weather like in the biblical paradise? It was eternally warm, hot even, so that Adam and Eve could go about naked and not feel chilled even in the shade of a tree.
Something else strikes the new arrival even as he descends the steps of the airplane: the smell of the tropics. Perhaps he's had intimations of it. It is the scent that permeated Mr. Kanzman's little shop, Colonial and Other Goods, on Perec Street in my hometown of Pi?nsk. Almonds, cloves, dates, and cocoa. Vanilla and laurel leaves, oranges and bananas, cardamom and saffron. And Drohobych. The interiors of Bruno Schulz's cinammon shops? Didn't their "dimly lit, dark, and solemn interiors" smell intensely of paints, lacquer, incense, the aroma of faraway countries and rare substances? Yet the actual smell of the tropics is somewhat different. We instantly recognize its weight, its sticky materiality. The smell makes us at once aware that we are at that point on earth where an exuberant and indefatigable nature labors, incessantly reproducing itself, spreading and blooming, even as it sickens, disintegrates, festers, and decays.
It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and putrid algae--in short, of everything that is at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will waft above stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.
And finally, the most important discovery--the people. The locals. How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are as one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. I am struck by how firmly each race is grounded in the terrain in which it lives, in its climate. We shape our landscape, and it, in turn, molds our physiognomy. Among these palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic. He is ever afraid: of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes--everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.
With their strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?
I've been here for a week. I am trying to get to know Accra. It is like an overgrown small town that has reproduced itself many times over, crawled out of the bush, out of the jungle, and come to a halt at the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. Accra is flat, single-storied, humble, though there are some buildings with two or more floors. No sophisticated architecture, no excess or pomp. Ordinary plaster, pastel-colored walls--pale yellow, pale green. The walls have numerous water stains. Fresh ones. After the rainy season, entire constellations of stains appear, collages, mosaics, fantastical maps, flowery flourishes. The downtown is densely built up. Traffic, crowds, bustle--life takes place out in the street. The street is a roadway delineated on both sides by an open sewer. There are no sidewalks. Cars mingle with the crowds. Everything moves in concert--pedestrians, automobiles, bicycles, carts, cows, and goats. On the sides, beyond the sewer, along the entire length of the street, domestic scenes unfold. Women are pounding manioc, baking taro bulbs over the coals, cooking dishes of one sort or another, hawking chewing gum, crackers, and aspirin, washing and drying laundry. Right out in the open, as if a decree had been issued commanding everyone to leave his home at 8 a.m. and remain in the street. In reality, there is another reason: apartments are small, cramped, stuffy. There is no ventilation, the atmosphere inside is heavy, the smells stale, there is no air to breathe. Besides, spending the day in the street enables one to participate in social life. The women talk nonstop, yell, gesticulate, laugh. Standing over a pot or a washbasin, they have an excellent vantage point. They can see their neighbors, passersby, the entire street; they can listen in on quarrels and gossip, observe accidents. All day long they are among others, in motion, and in the fresh air.
A red Ford with a speaker mounted on its roof passes through the streets. A hoarse, penetrating voice invites people to attend a meeting. The main attraction will be Kwame Nkrumah--Osagyefo, the prime minister, the leader of Ghana, of Africa, of all downtrodden peoples. There are photographs of Nkrumah everywhere--in the newspapers (every day), on posters, on flags, on ankle-length percale skirts. The energetic face of a middle-aged man, either smiling or serious, at an angle meant to suggest that he is contemplating the future.
"Nkrumah is a savior!" a young teacher named Joe Yambo tells me with rapture in his voice. "Have you heard him speak? He sounds like a prophet!"
Yes, in fact, I had heard him. He arrived at the stadium with an entourage of his ministers--young, animated, they created the impression of people who were having a good time, who were full of joy. The ceremony began with priests pouring bottles of gin over the podium--it was an offering to the gods, a way of making contact with them, a plea for their favor, their goodwill. Among the adults in the audience there were also children, from infants strapped to their mothers' backs, to babies beginning to crawl, to toddlers and school-age children. The older ones take care of the younger ones, and those older ones are taken care of by ones older still. This hierarchy of age is strictly observed, and obedience is absolute. A four-year-old has full authority over a two-year-old, a six-year-old over a four-year-old. Children take care of children, so that the adults can devote themselves to their affairs--for instance, to listening carefully to Nkrumah.
Osagyefo spoke briefly. He said that the most important thing was to gain independence--everything else would follow naturally, all that is good would emerge from the very fact of independence.
A portly fellow, given to decisive gestures, he had shapely, expressive features and large, lively eyes, which moved over the sea of dark heads with an attention so concentrated as to suggest he wanted to count each and every one of them.
After the rally, those on the podium mingled with the audience. It was loud, chaotic, and there was no visible police protection or escort. Joe, who had brought me, elbowed his way toward a young man (whom he identified as a minister) and asked him if I could come see him tomorrow. The other one, not really able to hear over the buzz and commotion what the issue was, replied, at least partially to get rid of us, "Fine! Fine!"
The next day, I found my way to the Ministry of Education and Information, a new building set amid a growth of royal palms. It was Friday. On Saturday, sitting in my small hotel, I wrote a description of the preceding day:
The way is open: neither policeman, nor secretary, nor doors.
I draw aside a patterned curtain and enter. The minister's office is warm. In semidarkness, he is standing at his desk organizing his papers: crumpling those he will throw into the wastepaper basket, smoothing out others to place in his briefcase. A thin, slight figure, in a sports shirt, short trousers, sandals, with a flowery kente cloth draped over his left shoulder; nervous gestures.
This is Kofi Baako, minister of education and information.
At thirty-two, he is the youngest minister in Ghana, in the entire British Commonwealth, and he has already had his portfolio for three years now. His office is on the third floor of the ministry building. The hierarchy of positions is reflected in the ladder of floors. The higher the personage, the higher the floor. Fittingly, since on top there is a breeze, while toward the bottom the air is heavy as stone, motionless. Petty bureaucrats suffocate on the ground floor; above them, the departmental directors enjoy a slight draft; and at the very top, the delicious breeze caresses the ministers.
Anyone who wants to can come and see a minister whenever he wants to. If someone has a problem, he travels to Accra, finds out where, for instance, the minister of agriculture can be found. He goes to his office, parts the curtain, sits down, and sets forth in detail what's bothering him. If he doesn't find the official at the agency, he will find him at home--even better, because there he'll get a meal and something to drink. People felt a remoteness from the white administration. But now these are their own people, they don't have to feel inhibited. It's my government, so it must help me. If it's to help me, it has to know the situation. For it to know, I have to come and explain. It's best that I do this on my own, in person and direct.
There is no end of these supplicants.
"Good morning!" said Kofi Baako. "And where are you from?"
"You know, I almost went there. I was traveling all over Europe: France, Belgium, England, Yugoslavia. I was in Czechoslovakia, about to go to Poland, when Kwame sent me a telegram calling me back for the party congress, our ruling Convention People's Party."
We were sitting at a table, in his doorless office. Instead of window panes there were shutters with widely spaced slats, through which a gentle breeze passed. The small room was piled high with papers, files, brochures. A large safe stood in a corner, several portraits of Nkrumah hung on the walls, a speaker wired to a central system stood on a shelf. Tomtoms pounded from it, until finally Baako turned it off.
I wanted him to tell me about himself, about his life. Baako enjoys great prestige among the young. They like him for being a good athlete. He plays soccer, cricket, and is Ghana's Ping-Pong champion.
"Just a minute," he interrupted, "I just have to place a call to Kumasi, because I'm going there tomorrow for a game."
He called the post office for them to connect him. They told him to wait.
"I saw two films yesterday," he told me, as he waited, holding the receiver to his ear. "I wanted to see what they're showing. They're playing films schoolchildren shouldn't go to. I must issue a decree that forbids young people to see such things. And this morning I spent visiting book stalls throughout the city. The government has established low prices for schoolbooks, but the word is that retailers are marking them up. I went to check for myself. Indeed, they are selling them for more than they're supposed to."
He dialed the post office again.
"Listen, what are you so busy with over there? How long am I supposed to wait? Do you know who this is?"
A woman's voice answered, "No."
"And who are you?" Baako asked.
"I'm the telephone operator."
"And I am the minister of education and information, Kofi Baako."
"Good morning, Kofi! I'll connect you right away."
And he was talking to Kumasi.
I looked at his books, stacked on a small cabinet: Hemingway, Lincoln, Koestler, Orwell, The Popular History of Music, The American Dictionary, as well as various paperbacks and crime novels.
"Reading is my passion. In England I bought myself the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and now I'm reading it little by little. I cannot eat without reading, I have to have a book lying open in front of me."
A moment later:
"I've got another, even greater hobby: photography. I take pictures all the time and everywhere. I have more than ten cameras. When I go to a store and see a new camera, I immediately have to buy it. I bought a film projector for the children, and show them films in the evening."
He has four children, ranging in age from three to nine. All of them attend school, even the youngest. It is not unusual here for a three-year-old to be enrolled in school. The mother will send him off, especially if he's a handful, just to have some peace.
Kofi Baako himself first went to school at three. His father was a teacher and liked being able to keep his eye on his children. When he finished elementary school, he was sent for high school to Cape Coast. He became a teacher, and then a civil servant. At the end of 1947, Nkrumah had returned to Ghana having finished university studies in America and England. Baako listened to his speeches, which spoke of independence. Then Baako wrote an article, "My Hatred of Imperialism." He was fired from his job. He was blacklisted, and no one would employ him. He hung around the city, eventually meeting Nkrumah, who entrusted him with the position of editor in chief of the Cape Coast Daily Mail. Kofi was twenty years old.
He wrote another article entitled "We Call for Freedom," and was jailed. Arrested with him were Nkrumah and several other activists.They spent thirteen months behind bars, before finally being released. Today, this group constitutes Ghana's government.
Copyright © 2002 by Ryszard Kapuscinski. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.