Travel Notes from Kumasi and the Greater Accra Region

Photo by Fati Abubakar

Three years ago, I was in Accra, Ghana to film The (In)visible Organ documentary. At that time it was May, and I was busy praying my new Sony a6500 would be able to record 30+ min. interviews in the heat. I’d be capturing B-Roll in crowded hospital hallways or churches in rural areas up mountains, always making my way, impossible to both meet my production schedule and be present in my surroundings. And so Ghana, to me, remained within the images recorded behind my camera, scenes that I’d watch, cut, re-watch, edit, and deliver as a film.

This time around, I was going for a wedding. It felt somewhat like a season 2 — same characters, cast, but fresh circumstances. Funnily enough, on my first trip to Accra in 2019, I watched Black Panther on the plane ride there, the film ending to my flight descending into the night lights of the city. The year after, Ghana established its Year of Return, an initiative for the African diaspora in the U.S. to reconnect with their heritage, which then extended to a 10-year campaign, Beyond the Return. Sure enough, come December it seemed like it was the month to be in Accra, my own plane filled with Americans bubbly from airplane wine flying straight to Afrochella (now rebranding as AfroFuture), the largest music festival in West Africa, boasting headliners like Burna Boy and shows with Erkyah Badu, Chance the Rapper, Sarkodie, amongst many others.

I myself was not staying for such festivities, and rather went straight to the first early morning bus taking me to Kumasi, in the Ashanti region, the hometown of the bride and where the bridal activities were happening. Cutting my hair short, I realized, offered a degree of anonymity in my travels that I enjoyed. I forgot to buy a SIM card at the airport so was without internet most of the trip, but in the spirit of travel was intrigued simply by the micro infrastructures that shaped social experience (I borrowed a lot of mobile hot spots). Several years ago, when I was as a researcher at a biomedical research lab, I would read transcripts of interview data of women talking about how they traveled from rural areas to cities like Accra or Kumasi in order to go to the hospital and access health screenings. Being outside the lens of social science or documentary was freeing. I felt like I noticed more things about people beyond public health as a crisis. Asking about someone’s family, their hometown, or when they started working in the city, could similarly evoke, through story, such details about people’s lives, what troubles them, how they think, what they care about.

Being in the region for only two weeks, though, it was only through Jonathan’s perspective that I could navigate the city with nuance beyond the shell of an aimless chinoise who spoke no Twi. Jonathan Dotse is a writer and technologist from Accra who works with XR and mixed media to design virtual worlds and build mobile-based platforms. Ever since watching his VR film Spirit Robot (2017), immersed in Accra’s Chale Wote streeet art festival from my research lab in Cambridge, I knew he was someone I wanted to talk to. A long-time researcher of hypermedia, Dotse’s work is centered on reconstituting traditional African knowledge systems through non-linear, interactive experiences. Our first meeting is one that I would treasure, a rare collision of worlds that would last in my memory, difference parsed through our writing and art, generating new meaning in the process. To demo his virtual space (in Afrocyberpunk Interactive‘s VR app) but in person within his context and narration, was the inverse gaze of 360 VR that redefined my concept of “social VR” once again. We went bar hopping near the beach, drinking K20, an Accra native liquor made none other than on Spintex Road, the street off where I stayed. Breezy rooftops, gizzard skewers, and infused plant drinks coupled with production talk and new thinking– inspiration was flowing like limitless cobalt for the imagination. If I played a song, he knew the sample; if I referenced a film, he read the book. Such is the case spending time with Jonathan, always at the source of material.

We were able to visit the Shai region, a beautiful landscape of grasslands and dry forest formerly inhabited in from the 1300s by the Se (Shai) people, who are part of the Ga-Dangbe ethnic group many of which are now spread out, at one point forcibly displaced, across souther Ghana, Benin, and Togo. Until the 19th century, however, the Se kingdom flourished in the highlands, a natural fortress and large cave serving as a palace for the tribal chief, its top deck being a watchtower that warns of dangers on the horizon. We cried and heard its echo, but to no response. Another hill not too far away, ensconced in trees, housed baboons and monkeys, and was where young women would spend periods of seclusion as part of their fertility rites of passage. I wondered what memories Se women had of this period, how the queen and village leaders assembled around this sacred space. What is learned and shared between women to protect woman and their communities, give honor and dignity to her status as woman?

When our driver turned the ignition, his car began to speak in Japanese. The cars were Toyota, the buses Daewoo. Living in the U.S. I had never seen a Daewoo car before, but I knew Daewoo as the first company my father worked at in the mid-80s in South Korea, at the time a rising brand before being acquired by GM. Time moved differently in Ghana– you somehow are in the radical present of a past memory. New identities emerge, ready to play a different game, a call and response at the storefront of markets. In Accra, I am Kim, in Kumasi, I was Efiya. At Makola market, I found Korean products with Chinese text, a dress with a tag that claims it was once worth 14 Euros but here, was mutually regarded as worth considerably less. Chiffon was not an overpriced boho aesthetic, but a cheaper material than more durable fabrics. Here, the cedi was elusive– more than a currency caught within a global exchange rate, but cash given meaning by the hands moving between it. Further westside of Makola was Agbogbloshie, a commercial district and waste site offside a river basin. Agbogbloshie houses the unconscious residue of the world’s technocratic elite, where foreign countries illegally export its electronic waste and industrial scraps, desperate for a final destination that promises an erasure of reality from the consumer mind. You don’t need to imagine a future to see cyberpunk, Jonathan would say (more written here). If only the rest of the world caught up.

Concept art by Jonathan Dotse

Many conversations and derivative experience happened through the drivers in Accra. One driver, Elvis, had a bushel of dried leaves nested in the front of his car. When I asked what it was, he explained it was nyinya, or the leaves of the bitter melon plant. “It’s for protection,” he said, and shared a story of how one of his clients, a woman from the Netherlands, was so disturbed by the smell of the plant that she had him store it in the glove box for the remainder of her ride. “It’s powerful,” he said. I wanted some fresh nyinya for myself– just a few days prior, I had missed my flight, accidentally trapped myself inside my hotel bathroom, and was humbled to the ground floor for the remainder of the trip, sharing meals and evenings with the staff next door. When I brought nyinya up to another of my drivers, a father of two daughters named Alex, he helped me pick some up; shortly after, we found ourselves surveying a yield of two large plastic bags filled with nyinya and susumasa in the back of his trunk. He explained that I should soak the leaves, say a prayer, and bathe in it, and also boil some, along with lemon halves into a medicinal drink. Thinking of the thick lemon peels, I asked, “isn’t it bitter?” Alex smiled, “Medicine is bitter,” he replied.

It was a beautiful experience to reconnect with the production team of The (In)visible Organ and make new connections in Accra. My trip inspired me to remaster the audio and image of the documentary, create hard DVD copies, and make prints of the photographs from the 2019 production. I also need to transcribe and dub the film into Twi so that I can screen it the next time I go to Ghana. What a meaningful journey it has been thus far, with much to be learned and remembered, and one that certainly is not over.