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Age isn’t an issue for one oldie in West Africa


It’s a lazy Saturday in Hohoe, Ghana, where I’m volunteering for three weeks. The rest of the volunteers have headed out on various weekend excursions to see wildlife or slave dungeons or whatever. I’m on my own and have my sights set on exploring a nearby area I’ve heard about. As I walk toward the trotro station, I realize I’m having mixed feelings about this excursion. I’ve been pampered by being with this group of volunteers under the care of Cross-Cultural Solutions, which has organized some fun activities in addition to our work placements—to see a stunning waterfall, a drumming and dancing demonstration, etc. But now, I remind myself, I’m back to more typical “Dorothy” travel mode—heading out solo to a place that none of the others seem to have visited. Although I don’t speak the local language, Ewe, the national language is English, understood throughout Ghana.

Oddly-shaped Lake Volta and its rivers meander through a large area of the country. Hohoe, a town of about 30,000, is in the Eastern Volta region. I want to see the lake itself, check out the local markets and visit a pottery factory I’ve heard about near the town of Kpandu (sometimes spelled Kpando). After a leisurely breakfast, I wander downtown to the busy trotro station, taking pictures of street scenes as I go. Trotros are the best way to get around in this country, but so far in my two weeks here, I’ve not used one. You might call them bush taxis—vans that follow a specified route but no schedule. They leave when they fill up, sometimes a long wait. I climb into the back seat of this van and sit by the window, joining about a dozen other passengers, including several kids. It’s half an hour before we’re crammed full and depart for Kpandu (pronounced Pandu, with a forceful “P”).

Everybody is quiet in the van except for the buxom lady sitting beside me, dressed in an elegant long dress, black with a small flocked red design, and wearing an African head scarf, also black. Her loud comments in Ewe seem to be directed toward a woman sitting two rows ahead, who rarely says a word or even turns her head. There is a young family sitting in the row ahead of me, and at one point, a sudden loud eruption tells me that one of the kids is being violently carsick. Nobody, including the mother, seems very concerned. She cuddles her child on her lap. Pungent body odor is pervasive in crowded trotros.

The 45-minute ride—which cost me about eighty cents US—is through lush agricultural country. I see an occasional mango grove or field of banana plants, but more typically, a little of this, a little of that—sugar cane, bananas, corn, cassava, pineapple—subsistence farming. Just as in other parts of Africa, there is an occasional tall pyramid-like termite “tower”, almost hidden beside or under a leafy tree. We’re stopped only once, briefly, at a police checkpoint. By the time we reach Kpandu taxi station, it’s 9:30 and getting really hot. After a bit of hassle, I hop into a “shared taxi” to Torkor, which costs only 35 cents, compared with two dollars for a private taxi. It’s barely ten minutes to this village on the shores of mighty Lake Volta. First I meander through the market—a large but almost deserted area, except for a little cluster of women selling fish, which is mostly dried and salted, rather smelly. On a Saturday morning like this, I expected far more market activity.

Down by the water I find a vibrant scene, with fishing boats and people just hanging out sociably. I inquire about hiring a boat and am directed to the next larger dock area, a few feet farther along. There are half a dozen or more open boats pulled up, and I again ask someone about how I can hire one to go out on the lake for half an hour. Where to? Nowhere in particular, just around. That will cost thirty cedis, I am told. No way, I say, and start bargaining, fruitlessly. Then I see a handsome young man in an official-looking blue shirt proclaiming him to be a lifeguard. He introduces me to his boss, a cop. They assure me they can arrange a boat for me for ten cedis ($7), and insist that I wait in a chair behind their kiosk, in the shade. It turns out to be a bonus seat, because three youngish women proceed to change from their ordinary work clothes into fancy tight 2-piece dresses right in front of me and visible to anyone around. But it’s done very modestly, with no body parts exposed for more than a split second. They’ve obviously done this before. An act of magic.

Soon Yawovi appears, a pleasant-faced man who helps me into his open boat that could easily seat ten people. I put on a life vest, and so does his young son, Foster, who sits up in the bow while his father drives from the rear, sometimes put-putting, sometimes zooming us along. We see an occasional ferry or overloaded fishing boat, get closer to the shore at one point, but never anywhere near the opposite town of Donkorkrum, to which a regular ferry plies. I take lots of photos and chat a bit with Foster, who comes to sit beside me. He looks about 12 but tells me he is 15 and in his second year of high school. When we pull in at the end of my refreshing thirty minutes on the lake, the bow of the boat is wedged in mud. Yawovi stands in shallow dirty water right beside the boat and directs me to climb onto his back. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. When was the last time I rode piggyback? But I finally realize that there’s no way I can get to dry land otherwise, unless I want to soak my shoes and legs in murky lake water. Laugh-ing wildly at how we must look, I do indeed climb onto his back and get a ride for those few steps till we reach dry land. As someone says later, that’s how he would have carried his mother or grandmother ashore. I only wish I had a picture of me being carried ashore.

Back again in Kpandu, the market is more lively, and I find the women vegetable vendors love to have their pictures taken. We’ve been warned to always ask permission for photography and to expect refusals. Not here. I see stands loaded with tomatoes and okra and chilis and basil. Suddenly I realize it’s about noon and I’d better eat something before making my way to my third goal of the day. The lake, the markets, and a pottery cooperative were my three reasons for coming to this sleepy town. Following a sign for Mary’s Chop House, I explore behind some decrepit abandoned stalls where I finally find a tiny open shack with half a dozen tables. The cooking is done a few feet away. The meal? Gooey banku, which I break off and dip in okra stew with fish. At least I thought it would be fish, but it turns out to be a fish head. More bones than edible meat there. Banku is fermented corn dough, molded and steamed, so it’s soft and sticky and messy to eat. Tasteless without the spicy sauce. You’re served a pan of water for rinsing off when you have to eat with your hand, as I do here, like a Ghanaian. I can only eat about half the meal, but it is zesty and filling.

In the nearby community of Fesi is a women’s cooperative which produces distinctive and charming pottery. After a short shared taxi ride to this village, I get out and am immediately taken in hand by a woman just standing by the roadside. She acts as though she was expecting me, escorting me wordlessly along a dirt path among small huts until we reach a clearing with a large open shed. Here we are. About six women are sitting on the dirt floor, busy at different projects, almost buried in tall black pottery pieces, mostly vases. And why mostly black? I never find out. Everything is hand formed; not a wheel in sight. An outside pit serves as a kiln.

I chat with one woman after another and end up in a small simple salesroom chock full of finished pottery, large and small. Most of their work is commissioned, by whom is unclear. Hotels maybe? Overseas, they say. Their coordinator is not there today or I might get a brochure explaining more. This Kpandu Pottery Coop has existed for fifteen years and provides work for 25 women. I sign the guest book, but more importantly, purchase a few whimsical small pottery animals, a turtle, an elephant, an alligator and a tiny fish. I could happily have bought all their little animals, they’re so charming, but the candlesticks and vases don’t appeal to me much, even if I could get them home easily.

When I finally leave, another woman appears and leads me on a shortcut back to the road. She insists on staying there for the 20 minutes it takes her to hail a taxi that will stop, to get me back to Kpandu. Ghanaians are famous for their friendliness; I’ve had plenty of evidence of that today. As I am dropped off at the noisy station, it’s great to see a trotro marked Hohoe almost ready to leave. Ha!—no long wait, for once. Alas, it is already too full for me to squeeze in, so I watch it pull away and resign myself to waiting on a bench in the heat for the 45 minutes it takes to fill up the next vehicle and be on our way. I’m very sleepy during this ride, and weary enough when we reach Hohoe at 3:30 that I can hardly drag myself back to Home Base for a cup of tea and a snooze on my firm bunk bed. What a full, fascinating window into bits and pieces of Ghanaian life and craft this day has been.

Dorothy Conlon is an octogenarian globe-trotter who, often traveling alone, explores destinations that are well off the beaten track. Combining personal travel with volunteer/service learning experiences, she has traveled from the far reaches of the Amazon to Africa, Asia, India and many other locations. She is the author of “At Home in the World: Memoirs of a Traveling Woman.” Learn more at www.dorothyconlon.com.

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