Peki was where my post office and bank were, and also my closest Peace Corps volunteer, Cindy. It was about a one hour journey by bicycle or lorry, and I made the trip frequently. I think the description of the road to Peki provides a good description of what it was like to live where I did, when I did, in Ghana in 1993.
I lived on the Southern outskirts of Boso. To the North of course was my small town. In all other directions all I could see were green forests and farms, and the road to Peki. Starting south from my house the road crested one and then another small forested hill. Near the top of the second hill but before the summit there was a sign next to the road – an advertisement or billboard for “Paradise Farms of Boso.” It was a simple wooden sign painted white, with red letters. I always noticed that the ‘s’ in ‘farms’ was added later. So sometime in the past it must have read “Paradise Farm of Boso.” I wonder what would have caused the change, but never asked the owner; I didn’t want to sound like I was making fun of his farm, and besides, he didn’t speak English, and my Guan (an Akan dialect, similar to Twi) was embarrassingly bad. The owner of paradise farms was probably my closest neighbor as my house was a bit in the country itself. He was a nice man; he would often offer me oranges if I happened to ride by while he was working near the road. The oranges were small and more yellow in color than orange, but they were the freshest and sweetest oranges I had ever tasted. I always offered to pay him but he never accepted my money. But I never asked why he changed his sign, or why he had a sign at all. Ghanaians are fond of signs and slogans though, so it really wasn’t that unusual. It was just another landmark on the road from Boso to Peki.
The road here was newly paved, smooth, maybe the newest and smoothest road in all of Ghana. It was a joy to travel on. I used to get up early and run on the road for exercise before school. Traffic was light on the road in the morning and even in the dim light of near-dawn the smooth surface ensured steady footing. Usually I would only jog to the top of that second hill, to the Paradise Farm(s) sign, and return home. For after the second hill, the character of the road changed. From here the road descended rapidly and turned to the right, and then climbed up to a third hill, higher than the others. Grasses, trees and shrubs crowded the road on all sides and at every turn. The combination of a twisty road and encroaching foliage made for a dangerous stretch of road, and I saw more than one accident. Periodically workers would come and hack back the tall grass from the side of the road. I rode by them a couple of times, dressed in their sweat-soaked work clothes – rags, really – chopping down the tall grass with machetes, or resting under the shade of a tree, staring silently at me as I passed by.
The flora was thick here, seemingly impenetrable, real jungle to my eyes. It opened to a view seldom and then only grudgingly so. At the top of the tall third hill was one of those hard-won vantage points. The third hill leveled off for a spell before heading down to the small villages of Nanyor and Asona. Up here though, through the dark trees and shrubs I could see framed by forest, the great man-made Lake Volta, hundreds of feet below the cusp of the hill. In the winter the water of the lake stretched grey to the horizon, obscuring the drier and hotter Afram plains far to the west in a haze of distance. The lake seemed to go on forever, into the dusty white sky itself. On this side of the lake the forested hills tumbled violently and rapidly into that impossibly flat, grey surface in a stunning visual display.
Form this vantage point a small island in the lake could be spotted, seemingly guarding the entrance to a cove or a bay. I often pondered over islands such as that one, man-made islands, spots of terra firma that once were merely tops of hills just like this one which I was on, but were now no longer connected. Did any animals get trapped on that island when the lake was created? Some confused animal, perhaps, living out an epic flood, desperate to come to terms with its shrinking earth. The island was quite tiny, a city block at most, but green nonetheless, with three or four tall trees standing guard over the rocks and shrubs. It was too far away to tell if anything lived upon it. I often paused at the crest of the hill to catch my breath and contemplate the lake and the island before making the screaming descent into Nanyor.
Nanyor. The Spanish, had they administered (colonized probably isn’t the right word, this far from the capital) this part of Ghana instead of the English, might have named this village Nañor instead of Nanyor, which might have seemed slightly more exotic to me, but probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference to the citizens of this small village. They didn’t get much choice in the matter. The Akan languages were not written down until European missionaries began to transcribe their languages in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was mostly for the purposes of translating the Bible into whatever language was spoken in the area in which they were proselytizing. But it had the affect of influencing the pronunciation of all written words in the newly transcribed language. This is a simplification of course, but English missionaries were here first, so the town names read like English, even though words weren’t English. Just over the hills to the West, however, German missionaries were first, so things looked slightly different.
I usually didn’t stop in Nanyor or Asona, they were very small villages with not much to offer. Once or twice I stopped to talk to some of the villagers out on the side of the road while they waited for a lorry, and one time I stopped to purchase some peanuts from a lady who had a road-side market table and sold the usual items – canned tomato paste, bananas, cassava, and matches. Nanyor and it’s twin village Asona, which I usually mispronounced as Asoña, clung to the road like knots on a rope as it climbed steadily South to the town of Anum.
Anum was a larger town, larger than Boso, much larger than Nanyor and Asona. It spread over the hills in a pint-size mess, without the benefit of any city planning or zoning, it seemed. Compared to the quiet of my country ride Anum was a noisy place, and the people weren’t quite as friendly. Anum had chop bars, two good-sized markets, a lorry station, and the usual assortment of shops: cutlass and machete sharpening, auto and electrical parts, electric corn mills, cooking supply shops, tailors and beauty salons, and a post office. Boso really didn’t offer any of this stuff, just a small market.
The post office was in the hot dusty center of the town, at the three-way intersection of Anum’s two main roads. This was the nearest post office to my house, and it consisted of 30 post office boxes, and one employee. The mail came about three or four times per week, usually on schedule but sometimes several days late. When I first arrived in Boso I had to put my name on a waiting list to get one of those 30 post office boxes. In the meantime I had a post office box in the next larger city, Peki. Right before I left Ghana I was awarded one of the Anum boxes – box 27, specifically – but I left the country before I was able to start using it.
Just south of Anum there was a health clinic. I met the clinic’s resident doctor once, his name was John. He wanted me to come and see the clinic – I suggested it, actually, and he enthusiastically agreed – but I never saw him again to make arrangements, only that one time on the road. But the Anum health clinic was a significant landmark for me because it was the place where I turned off the main paved road and began the second half of my journey to Peki, along a rough hilly dirt road. The paved highway goes to Peki as well, but from Anum by bicycle takes much longer to get there, because it goes all the way around the hills that the dirt road goes over.
This dirt road, dusty at times, and muddy at others, but usually in reasonable shape for a rural West African road, starts by charging straight up a hill, passing some of the nicer houses of Anum along the way. At the top of the hill the town abruptly ends and once again the jungle closes in, making way only for the dirt road and Anum’s graveyard. Never located inside of town, Ghanaian graveyards are an interesting sight. The stones are large, impressive by any standard, and conspicuously so by African standards. I often wondered where the money came from to finance such large headstones – or rather, where the money didn’t go instead.
Had I been able to see under the ground, I would have been even more startled at the fantastic caskets that embraced the dearly departed of Anum’s residents. Ghanaian caskets are an art form unto themselves. Not all Ghanaians do this, but some caskets typically hand made and customized to represent some important aspect of the life of the newly deceased. Similar in concept, I like to think, as an Egyptian tomb. But the beauty lies unseen with the person for whom it was made, providing comfort to the bereaved in the knowledge that the lives of the dead are faithfully and fancifully represented in the afterlife. It seemed an odd concept to a practical person such as I am, spending all this money on a beautiful work of art that will only be seen for the funeral and never again, and not even enjoyed in a tactile, living sense by the person for whom it was built. But on the other hand I appreciated the respect and reverence they held for the passing of their loved ones, and understood the desire to mark the occasion with something meaningful and even bombastic.
I never stopped at this graveyard on my way to Peki, or any other graveyard for that matter. Not that it frightened me or I wanted to leave the spirits undisturbed, but I was usually more interested in the jungle forest. Usually all I saw were trees and grass, but occasionally I came across something from the animal kingdom. Birds were a frequent sight, and army ants of course, and occasionally a large snake blocking the path in cold-blooded slumber. No lions or monkeys to be seen though, although I frequently heard monkeys in the night in the forest outside my house. I often wondered though, passing quite alone along this dirt road that was seldom used by any but me, what creatures might be sitting silently in a tree, with one eye closed and one eye idly watching?
It was with a mixture of curiosity and suspense that I rode the dirt path past the graveyard through the overhanging forest. After the graveyard the road seemed to twist and turn with abandon over the long ridge that separates Anum and Peki. At length the road made a final bumpy tire-popping descent into Dzake Peki, which was one of the many villages of the spread-out town of Peki. Dzake was pronounced like the Japanese drink “Sake”, and I assume that’s how it would have been spelled if Japanese missionaries who wrote with a Western-style alphabet beat out the German missionaries to this part of Ghana. For now I was in Ewe-land, not Akan-land. At some point after the graveyard I crossed an old border, one that had no guards or sign-posts, into a different culture and a different people, though I remained in Ghana. As mentioned, the English proselytized and administered the Akan people of Ghana, which included the Guan of Boso, while the German missionaries got to the Ewe people first. And that’s why the village is spelled Dzake, and not Tsake, or Sake for that matter. And also why the word “Ewe” is actually pronounced “eh-veh”, with the ‘w’ sounding like an English ‘v’.
However one chooses to pronounce it, Dzake was a fair-sized village, larger than Boso, but not nearly as large as Anum. I stopped there once to purchase some bread from a road-side market lady on the shoulder of this much potholed, most un-repaired, but now paved again road. Although the road was paved again, we were not yet upon the main highway. I made a left turn here and joined the main highway for a final flat stretch to Peki proper, and Cindy’s house. The highway was always busy, with trucks heading up from the Accra, the capital, to the northern Ewe cities of Kpandu and Hoehoe. The trucks would rumble past me on my small bicycle, going as fast at their bald tires and cracked windscreens would take them, and I would attempt to draft behind them and try not to breathe in the noxious fumes until I made the final turn to the left to Cindy’s driveway. This was easily the most dangerous part of the journey. Cindy would usually pick up my mail for me in Peki so I always stopped by her house first before going in to town. Sometimes she was home, sometimes not. There was no way to call ahead and plan a visit, so I just had to take my chances.
Cindy was my closest American neighbor, about an hour away by bicycle – or by lorry for that matter, once one takes into consideration the longer route via lorry (no car would attempt the dirt shortcut I took via bicycle) and time spent waiting at lorry parks. Cindy was a year older than I, and had been in the country for a year longer as well. She had electricity, and a great collection of jazz cassettes. We would sit on her porch and listen to music made to sound slightly thin by her small portable speakers, me sitting on the porch rail, and Cindy reclining in her hammock with one leg dangling over the side like a lure to her new house dog. Mostly we would sit and talk and complain to each other about our schools and our jobs, the annoying students, petty professors and awful food. I missed cheese. I missed a lot of things, and Cindy could empathize. It was good to have someone to whom you could vent off a little steam, someone who understood what you were going through.
When Cindy wasn’t home, or when I had to go to the bank, I would continue on into town to the post office and the bank. Cindy would usually pick up my mail for me so sometimes I would miss a few letters if I didn’t meet her, since my letters would be at her house. I found it amusing that the post office would so willingly give her my mail. I don’t think that would happen in the States. But I was glad that she did that for me all the same. The post office in Peki was much larger than the one in Anum. I always eagerly looked forward to receiving letters from my family and friends back home, and quite frequently I would open the letters immediately upon their receipt, just sit down in front of the post office and read them all before going back to Boso. The bank was very near the post office, and I didn’t go there all that frequently, about once per month to deposit my pay, which was given to me in cash at the capital. I have a suspicion that I never closed my bank account in Peki, I did leave the country in a bit of a hurry. Maybe Madeline, my assistant director, closed the account on my behalf after I left. There wasn’t much money in it regardless.
Quite honestly the best part about Peki was the chance to see my American friend Cindy. Sometimes she was not around when I rode over to her house through the forest, singing Simon and Garfunkel, “Baby Driver” or something awful like that, and when that happened I questioned the wisdom of taking two hours out of my day for the equivalent of an answering machine message. But the journey itself was pleasant, when it wasn’t raining, and when she was there the afternoons on her porch with her stories and her obnoxious dog, those times when she was home were a refreshing interlude to the day-to-day I was leading as a High School math teacher in Boso.