It was not the love of eating fish that drove Kwajo out to sea, though he knew that taste better than most. Nor was it the love of clawing with his paddle through the powerful waves and currents, or struggling to drop the net overboard and then retrieve it when heavy with catch. Every morning, the fishermen waited on the beach for the third wave to blanket the collision of the first two, aimed the bow of their dugout canoe at the horizon and shoved off into the chilly mist. As he listened to his father’s chant to motivate them, young Kwajo did it because he was proud to work with men.
His younger brothers dressed in khaki shorts and shirts and carried books on their heads to the village school, where they sang childish songs and learned to read and write in a language that local people used only with strangers. Like the tourists who stayed in the old stone fort. Kwajo thought of them whenever his father’s canoe, painted with protective markings, passed under the antique cannons. The original founder of the village, Chief Dekyi, did not expect to find its fresh water stream there, hence the name Infuma in Nzima. European traders later asked to build the fort and paid rent to Dekyi, calling the place “Dick’s Cove,” now Dixcove. They exported gold, ivory and slaves. But now young foreign travelers rented rooms in the fort and bargained for souvenirs in the market place and lorry park.
Kwajo laughed. The visitors were not very good bargainers. As the fishermen lowered their net into the ocean, such old stories seemed like a vendor’s tall tale. This morning, the waves were relatively calm, as if awaiting their god’s holiday the next morning. But Kwajo knew the undertow plucked playfully at their net like a hidden giant. The strong currents converged just past the breakers of Cape Three Points near Dixcove, where they regrouped before flowing on eastward. The net was already feeling heavier.
Suddenly, his father shouted from the bow and pointed at an object bobbing on the surface — a swimming human, desperately trying to reach shore. The fishers pulled in their net and paddled swiftly, answering the chant of his father in unison as they hauled their canoe across the waves like a long beetle. When they pulled alongside the exhausted swimmer, a white woman, Kwajo jumped into the brine and helped her aboard. She was naked, weak and as pale as a ghost in the bright sunshine. They covered her with a cloth and tried to comfort her as she cried and coughed, clinging to Kwajo’s wrist. She had soft brown hair and bloodshot blue eyes.
When they returned her to the fort, a white man with long blond hair who was apparently her partner bought everyone beers in gratitude. Kwajo’s father contributed fresh fish, so the sun set amid singing and laughter. The rescued woman sat by the campfire on the beach, wrapped in the woven blanket Kwajo had given her. She stared quietly at the surf that had nearly fed her to the deep. Kwajo caught her eyes once, testing her memory with a smile. She nodded, but he wanted to know her thoughts – if only she could speak Nzima, or if only his English was better. What was she doing on this beach so far from her village?
Using the Fanti watchman from the fort as translator, Kwajo asked the blond man for news, a customary welcome query. “I’ve been to thirty-four countries,” the traveler said, “because the next time I’m born, I want to do so on another planet.”
“Yih!” the Africans gasped at each other in amazement. They too believed in reincarnation. “What do you worship?” one asked.
“Nothing!” he replied.
Kwajo was puzzled. “What’s wrong with being reborn in your own village, in the body of one of your descendants? Every family depends on able hands to survive, guided by ancestral wisdom.”
Blond Know-it-all considered this idea, but then shook his head. “My country is over-populated, polluted, corrupt and in decline. There is no hope for industrial countries, or for this planet either. The ruling powers are blind to the suffering of others, they fool everyone with lies and toys while they poison the very air that we breathe. I’m a pilgrim seeking the last remaining edens before the apocalypse, free of my own culture and history and ready for a completely different place.”
“Then,” Kwajo’s father said, “your ghost will wander forever.”
In his family compound that evening, Kwajo washed off with stream water in a bucket, while telling his younger siblings about the rootless white visitors and how he rescued the woman.
“How big are her breasts?” one brother asked.
“Small,” he grinned.
“And her buttocks?” asked the other brother.
“Skinny,” he laughed, “but her eyes are…”
“What?” asked the little sister.
One boy held colored bottle caps over his eyes and pranced around until he fell down, amusing everyone.
Later, Kwajo repeated his story at his football club meeting, asking why should his brothers learn to imitate people who hated their own homelands? Even Mensah, the goal-keeper and team captain, wagged his head. He plopped the last dregs of his palm wine on the ground for the ancestors, and yelped in pleasure at the story. And he followed it with one of his own: “I was once the top goal-keeper in Cape Coast, until an enemy worked juju on me. I started falling down on the ground and missing every shot. Even in school I lost my concentration. The headmaster was a white man and could not believe my problem, so he sacked me. I left and came to your village, and now nobody can score on me, because I sacrifice to Kotoko, the Porcupine.”
“Obruneys (whites) think they know everything,” Kwajo complained, “but they cannot even understand the sea. They are no smarter than we are. Tomorrow is the sea’s day of rest, so let’s challenge the tourists in the fort to a match!”
His friends snapped their fingers in approval, and passed the calabash again. They loved him, not only because he was their leading goal scorer, but because he was proud of his heritage and free of the confusion that arose among those who could read.
The obruneys agreed to playing the match the next afternoon, after the village fishermen had finished mending their nets. Kwajo joined in, sitting on the beach and examining the strands of sturdy fiber webbing for any rips or loose knots. He thought of some local people he knew who had gone off to the city and returned empty-handed. His uncle Yao still sat in his hut with his finger on the yellowing page of a book, as if to remember who he had wanted to be, like a zombie who could eat for free once again.
A loud argument interrupted his meditation. Two women were tugging a small boy by each arm. A fishmonger from Sekondi said the boy had tried to steal one of her fish. But the mother retorted that the vendor was buying up fish that were needed in Dixcove. She accused the market woman of spending her profits on creams to bleach her face, wigs instead of braids, lipstick and nail polish. The vendor insisted that people in Sekondi were hungry too, and that her money and goods helped people in Dixcove to become modern Ghanaians instead of bush savages. The insults continued as a crowd gathered like a jury, until fishermen used their paddles to separate the women, so that everyone could return to work.
Kwajo went back to his task, but soon a slender shadow crossed his net. He looked up to see the young woman he rescued. She wore shorts and a halter-top and a smile that made her attractive, unlike when they pulled her out of the sea. Her eyes sparkled, and she squatted to watch what he was doing – he almost forgot how! She offered him some fried plantain she had just bought, wrapped in a palm leaf, and even gently pushed some into his gaping mouth. He felt embarrassed to be seen with her, thought of his mother, and started to walk away toward his home. But she grabbed his wrist and tugged him through nearby bushes until they wound up in a secluded spot by the stream and fell right into the water.
He tried to resist but was curious, as they splashed each other. She pushed him down and undressed over him, dangling her small breasts in his face as she undid his own shorts. She was playful, arousing him, and so affectionate that he felt tender toward her, almost paternal. He wanted to save her from eternal wandering with Know-it-all. After they made love, she still sat on his lap and explored his curly hair, and he held her close, communicating with her in a way that needed no words. She seemed fragile and soft but willful, and they lay together on the stream bank for a while.
But now Mensah was calling for Kwajo and his teammates to join him for the football match by the school. He and the woman dressed, and she squeezed his hand and kissed him before parting. Kwajo felt sheepish before Mensah’s clowning gaze. “Has she be-witched you?” the goal-keeper joked, mischievously. “Don’t forget how to play with your feet and head too!”
They laughed as both jogged to the pitch for warm-ups, and Kwajo picked up his uniform on the way. The afternoon sun made their red tunics and yellow shorts bright against their perspiring skin. The obruneys looked motley by comparison, an assorted collection of hitchhikers and scrapbook fillers with only their white skins as identifiable uniforms. They had not brought proper shoes for football, so Mensah told his team to play barefoot too, which was almost an advantage as it turned out. Some of the visitors could only play defense, because they could not dribble or pass well. Know-it-all and his companions huffed and puffed in the heat and fell behind by four goals to none. Kwajo scored a hat-trick, because he knew she was watching, and Mensah’s goal-keeping was impeccable. Frustrated, Know-it-all kicked with all his might, hitting Mensah’s leg. The ball rolled in for a score, but Mensah fell to the ground in severe pain.
The match ended in confusion as the hosts carried their leader to the healer’s compound. The old woman knew Mensah because she had helped him make offerings to Kotoko. She cleaned off his ankle, wrapped it in a poultice and had it positioned over a hole in the ground, where a small fire was lit and pungent smoke warmed the injury. To awaken her spirit ally, she also had a hen killed by cutting its throat, after which the body fell backwards, a very good prognosis. Know-it-all and his friends soon arrived, distributing more beers and apologies. “I’m sorry,” the tall blond said sheepishly, “I just don’t like to lose.”
Mensah chuckled and gestured at Kwajo: “It was not I who beat you. This young hero outscored you.”
Know-it-all gamely shook Kwajo’s hand, saying, “You should play in Europe, kicker-king, where the game was invented.”
After Mensah translated, Kwajo looked the obruney in the eye. “White men did not teach the bat to sleep upside down.”
The Africans snapped their fingers in glee.
“How much longer will you stay in Dixcove?” Mensah asked.
Know-it-all sighed, “Not long enough for you to heal, I’m afraid. There are other gardens I want to visit.”
“And the woman?” Kwajo asked, glancing at her.
“She goes wherever I go. She has no choice, because she has no money of her own. And the only language she speaks well is the dialect used in her home village.”
Mensah translated and asked a follow up question: “What can you two find farther along the beach of Africa?”
“Freedom,” Know-it-all replied proudly. He hugged the woman’s shoulders, stroked her hair, and asked, “ya?”
Kwajo gazed at her. “You don’t need money here. Our food comes from the sea, our clothing and shelter from the forest. We sell some fish to get a few other things. All you need is family.” Kwajo watched for the woman’s response. But she only stared straight ahead, pensively, and her eyes looked very sad again.
Lena was fed up with Max’s arrogance. He imagined he had rescued her from her small, poor town in Germany, because he was the son of a businessman who had built a factory there, and she was just a farm girl. Western Germans lorded it over the old east like feudal nobles in imaginary castles. Max had the money and foreign language skills, but inside she hated her dependence on him. Like many young women of her generation, she was matter-of-fact about sex, especially if it brought advantages, but Max forced her to do things she did not like, even yanking her hair and choking her to show his power. He also shared her with other men and pimped her for extra cash. His eden quest was a farce, because he was not as free of bad old habits as he imagined. When he raped her that night, she would think of the beautiful, innocent black boy, wrapped as he was in his illusory cocoon of custom. She had seen the squabble of the market women in Dixcove and passed through Cape Coast and Sekondi with Max earlier. Lena decided to pop Max’s egotistical bubble by showing him the metal plaque she had found hidden in some bushes near the fort entrance, even if he shouted and abused her again for it.
The next morning Kwajo’s heart felt very heavy, and his mind wandered, remembering the plantain and love making with Skinny. Dark clouds warned of rain, as if the sea god were upset about something. Instead of going fishing, he helped his father do some repairs on his canoe, including installing an outboard motor from Cape Coast. He almost regretted the modern intrusion, though the crew was still needed to man the nets. He noticed two small boys playing in the shell of an old broken canoe, half-buried in the sand. They wielded stick-swords and pretended to fight for command of the wrecked vessel. Kwajo felt older than he had ever felt, a man but not yet an adult, without a family. Was he in love? What sort of woman was she really? How many boys had she collected on the beaches of her heart, only to wind up with Know-it-all?
He could already feel light raindrops in the air, but he selected a plump market fish, wrapped it, and carried it to the fort to offer to her for supper. In the entranceway, Know-it-all brushed past him on his way out, his heavy rucksack strapped over his shoulders.
“You go?” Kwajo asked as he stepped aside.
The hostel-keeper was close behind: “Please, sir. Why are you leaving in such a hurry? I heard you two arguing in your room again this morning. Is everything all right?”
Know-it-all turned around angrily: “I thought the British built this fort after the abolition of the slave trade. But I just read a metal plaque nearby that says Germans from Brandenburg first built it in the 1600s — to export gold, ivory and slaves!”
“Yes sir, that’s true. The British expanded the original fort and also exported those things, until they stopped slaving in the early 1800s. Then they switched to palm oil and cocoa, plus gold. It’s been a peaceful place ever since, in a beautiful location.”
“I’m German,” Know-it-all explained. “And we get blamed for too many bad things. I thought I was free of them here…”
Kwajo asked Know-it-all, “Woman go?” The fed-up blond just shrugged and walked down the road, so Kwajo asked the hostel-keeper about the woman, but he said she was not there. The blond traveler had given him her things, however: a bedroll, shoulder bag, passport, money pouch, sandals. Where could she be?
Suddenly, Kwajo was shocked by fear. As the dark sky began its downpour, he ran toward the boat harbor. He walked anxiously along the shore and searched the water surface with his eyes. As he approached the small boys who had been playing in the broken canoe, to question them, they frantically called him over, pointing to the rocky water nearby.
Her lifeless, naked body floated among the stones and debris, bobbing in the rain-splattered sea foam like a lost child’s doll.