Azonto Lessons

It’s Trinidadian writer Attillah Springer’s first time in Ghana. Why does it feel so familiar?

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

This is my first time! In Africa! I exclaim this first to the immigration officer. And thereafter to anyone else who comes too close.

My mother meets me at the airport. We sit and have a meal of ochro stew and gari. We are giggling at everything. The food. The heat. The background noise of horns and high life music and airport announcements. The photograph of Malcolm X watching us.

I am laughing too much to cry anymore. I have been crying since I got on the flight in London, half out of excitement and half out of fear that something would go horribly wrong and stop me from having this trip of a lifetime.

Accra envelops me like my mother’s embrace. Warm and familiar. There is a pause when the lights go at 1 a.m. and the fan stops whirring. Until the generator shudders to life and the air returns to the room, the fan whirring reassuringly over your head again. In that pause you hear the world of other sounds that exist outside the electric drone. A neighbour’s child, the thunder of a storm making its way across the night, the dying moments of an evangelical service, a lone dog barking in the distance, insects whose names you do not know. The sounds of nighttime Accra are so familiar that in those seconds when I wake up in the sudden and unbearable stillness I get confused about where I am.

There are many moments of confusion during my time in Ghana. It is déjà vu for something I have not yet seen. It’s more than the cookie-cutter imprint of colonial architecture. More than the Burning Spear on the radio. My mother and I go to Makola Market in search of fabric. And it is here that I first get seduced by Ghana’s magic. You can buy everything from avocados the size of your head to the same Ashanti gold that drew Europeans here hundreds of years ago, from giant slabs of shea butter to a bus ticket to take you to Lagos.

The market women roll their eyes at my attempts at Twi. I already know the tenor of their derisive laughter. I have heard it before. In Papine in Jamaica, and Tunapuna in Trinidad.

One of the first Twi words I learn in the market is obroni — a generic term for foreigners, who can be identified by a few things: namely, their inability to speak Twi, the sickly sweet, slightly metallic odour of insect repellent, and the ever-present camera to capture the most everyday of things, like women carrying loads on their heads. I learn about obroni price — the tourist tax that sees you paying twice and three times what a local would.

Ghana’s cedi currency is strong enough to make your eyes water at the conversion to TT or US dollars, so for the sake of my pocket and my pride I have to figure out how not to look too obroni. I set about the task of learning as much as is humanly possible in three weeks. I am like a child who has missed several weeks of school, and my teachers are eager for me to catch up.

I find teachers everywhere, old friends and new ones who adopt me because they say I resemble a long-lost cousin, or — for the sake of mamaguy — a princess from the Niger/Congo region.

I get a series of crash courses in azonto (stick out your bum!), malaria (the tablets damage your kidneys, just don’t get bitten!), and Fante etiquette (never, ever hand an elder anything with your left hand!). All of this information is a bit overwhelming.

I spend most of the time in dream-like state, hardly believing I am here, having these experiences. But there are two Africas constantly clashing in my mind. The Western media images of starving children and war. And the idea of motherland created in a house of Pan-Africanists. I find them both here.

On the compound of W.E.B. Du Bois, where I go to hear Angela Davis speak. In the library named for George Padmore, the Tunapuna-born right-hand man of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. The intellectuals wax lyrical about the re-colonisation of Africa by economic giants of the East.

Outside the city, progress reaches a full stop. We swerve along potholed roads into the Central Region in the company of my friend Dr Alfred, a Trinidad-born dentist who is setting up clinics with the help of a tiny army of rurally based women she is training. There is so much work to be done here, and everyone is willing to get involved. We leave with a trunk full of coconuts and yam and dried fish and other mysterious food items it will take me a while to figure out. All is fair in love and bartering.

I make two trips to Cape Coast. The first to Elmina Castle, owned first by the Dutch to trade gold, and later converted into a holding bay for the human cargo that came to be much more valuable during the transatlantic slave trade. It is even more awful than I could have imagined, and I emerge gasping for breath from the foetid dungeons that still smell of decay.

On the second trip I visit Cape Coast Castle, and I’m a little more prepared for what confronts me, but it is still a distressing journey into a history I have a hard time coming to terms with. But our tour guide Justice points out that Ghana started observing Emancipation after past president Gerry Rawlings visited Trinidad during our Emancipation celebrations in 1998.

We continue past Elmina, along the Cape Coast Road that looks and feels like Manzanilla on Trinidad’s east coast. Past Takoradi, Ghana’s burgeoning oil town emerging from the impenetrable bush. We end our journey at Axim Beach and a small resort far from the road, populated by a handful of chic Ivorean women, a family of Americans, an old couple from Accra. By the second day the bar staff are obliging our requests to turn the music up. I promise to show them my azonto skills. My Twi isn’t ready yet. I wake up early to listen to the sea, and stretch into the dawn’s first rays.

Alone in the bay I find the space to weep a few tears into the warm water. For ancestors whose names I do not know. Whose bones litter this ocean. For those who survived out of sheer bad-mind. And lived to fight, so that a few hundred years later I could be here, free to swim in the sea at dawn. Marvelling at the familiarity of the coast and its colours. No obroni at all.

The confusion washes off in the waves, and I realise that if history were a living thing it would look like me in Ghana — managing a complicated dance between past and present, striding confidently into a future where we are not strangers to each other.