The chill of the night air on the outside still clung to the windows of the bus, but it was warming up on the inside. I shed the jacket the driver had lent me earlier when it had started to get cold. I had not expected, and so was unprepared for any weather like this. For it was Africa, after all, and Africa was supposed to be hot all over, and all the time. Even though I knew better — that it was a jigsaw of diverse countries running up and down latitudes – my recessed imagination of it being characteristically the same recaptured my mind. Characteristically hot. Snow-capped mountains? No. Hot deserts? Yes.
The passenger directly behind me mumbled to someone that we were getting closer to the border now. We would be entering Ghana in a few more hours. The faint glow of daylight was slowly turning brighter. Evidence that the sun was about to put in its daily appearance, shepherding in a new day on this side of the world. I thought about my world of Jamaica still asleep, with half-a-night still to go before the roosters would start their infernal crowing, conspiring with the sun to cut dreams in mid-action and jolt slumberers into the reality of another day. For some, a new day was just like any other, with the same humdrum existence about to be recycled for another twenty-four hours. Not for me, though, as a new beginning was about to start unfolding. I was looking forward to the new adventures that lay ahead of me, once I got back to Accra.
The bus had left Ouagadougou round about mid-morning the previous day. I had a ticket and a reserved seat. Everyone was seated, which was a bit unusual for me. Back in Jamaica, the drivers and bus loaders would cram the buses, with always enough room for one more, trying to outdo the record of which bus could hold the most passengers. I was taking a circuitous route to get back to Accra, where I had begun my adventures. Actually, my adventures had started in Brussels, home for four years. Brussels to Sofia, then on to Tripoli, followed by Lagos, and then Accra. After spending a couple of days in Accra, I had flown to Abidjan on Nigeria Airways, spending a few more days, and then taken the train from the Treichville station all the way to Bobo Dioulasso. Ghana to Cote d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso. I had a return train ticket to Abidjan from Bobo Dioulasso and a return airline ticket back to Accra, but was enamored by the intrigue of a long bus journey through the West African countryside. There would be so much more to see that would make my discovery and experience so much more diverse. So much more intimate.
“Sit here, sit here,” the immigration office half-commanded, half-invited me to do, dusting off the top of the stool with the palm of his hand to make it clean and, presumably, more comfortable. He gestured to the other passengers with a wave of his hand to form a line under a tree nearby. The special treatment was because of my diplomatic passport, I thought at first. But I soon realized that perhaps it had more to do with my nationality. Jamaican. Being Jamaican outside of Jamaica is special: Despite the stories of crime and violence, Jamaica and Jamaicans are held in reverence for a multitude of reasons. Earlier, during my weeklong sojourn in Bobo Dioulasso, the friends I had made would come over to the house almost every day to listen to my Bob Marley cassettes, constantly asking me to interpret the lyrics into French so they could better understand his messages. I must admit, I got bored of going over the same thing repeatedly, but realized that though they were mesmerized by the mellow, smooth and syncopated rhythms of Bob’s signature reggae beats, my new friends were equally, if not more, captivated by the messages carried across the tracks. They felt a connection with Jamaica through Bob’s incantation of struggles and triumph, pain and survival, fear and encouragement, good over evil and blessed love. Through reggae music, Jamaica was Africa Expatriated. We were their brothers.
Perhaps the bus ride through Burkina Faso to Ghana could have been shorter, were it not for the frequent police and military spot checks along the route. Citizens and foreigners alike had to carry IDs, risking fines if they did not. Fear had gripped me initially upon the first check shortly after the bus left Ouagadougou, though it was a waste of emotion, for my Jamaican passport elevated me to the ranks of celebrity. Maybe it was not often that the officers came across Jamaicans. The guardians of Burkina Faso’s security seemed to forget their mission, at each check point, each time I produced my passport.
Fast forward a few years later, I was back in West Africa. I had just gotten married and took my wife on a trip to Ghana and Togo as part of our honeymoon. We stayed with friends in a little town in the Volta region of Ghana, near the Togolese border. On my previous trip to Ghana, I had not managed to visit any of the historical sites that were part of the genesis of my entering the world as a Jamaican, so I decided to clear up that faux pas this time around. We ventured from Ho by bus to Accra, and then from Accra heading in the direction of Cote d’Ivoire. We wanted to see the famous Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese way back in 1482. Though recognized as being the oldest European building south of the Sahara, Elmina Castle was famous for something else. It was pivotal in the infamous Atlantic slave trade, which saw millions of Africans shipped across to the Americas to become the burdened protagonists in Europe’s quest for economic might. My wife and I were humbled, walking on the floors of the castle. Floors, revealed the guide, that were compacted with dirt..human excrement…tears…blood… But more on this emotional foray among the spirits of those who had died on the way to Jamaica, and those who had died there, succumbing from the duress of arduous labor under the burning sun, for hours on end.
Before visiting Elmina, we took a walk through the town to get a feel of the place. Thirst and hunger set in, and we sought somewhere to stop and have a bite. The restaurant sign did its job. It beckoned our thirst, and our appetite. They yielded, and up to the door we went. But, an entry fee to the connected museum, we were told, was necessary to gain access to the restaurant. “We don’t want to visit the museum. We would just like to eat.” “Sorry, you have to pay”. Then, the Jamaican accent resonated within the guardian of the door to our quench. He had noted we were from somewhere else. “We are from Jamaica, just visiting”. We showed our passports. “Why didn’t you say so, my brother and my sister! Welcome, welcome! Come on in!” With an accent at the other end of the spectrum of our Jamaican accent. Not only did we get to the restaurant, we also got to see the museum, full of artefacts related to the slave trade. Interesting that among the displays was a photo of an ad appearing in a Jamaican newspaper announcing a slave auction on the island. Jamaica, represented in the history of Ghana. That Blue Book came to our rescue.
But, while the Blue Book placed us in lofty places, it mattered not in certain instances. Didn’t carry any weight at all. As a university student in France, I embarked on a few days of adventure traveling by train to a number of cities in Western Europe. Eurail Pass. See Europe by train. Limitless pass for one price. Grenoble to Geneva, Geneva to Bern, Bern to Zurich, Zurich to Stuttgart, passing from West Germany to East Germany at Probstzella. “It is 9.00 a.m., so I must be in West Berlin”. After spending a few days discovering Berlin with the aid of my Jamaican host, including a visit to the Berlin wall, I hitched a ride to Hamburg, connecting by train from there to Amsterdam. Once out of West Berlin and back into East Germany, we had a few spot checks by military personnel. Reminiscent of Burkina Faso. At one check point, I was ordered out of the car and taken to a station. My Blue Book was unroyally inspected. Dissed. Violated.The photograph lifted to see if it was covering some other picture. In those days, when you entered East Germany you were given a small green document, a visa of some sort, which you had to redeem before crossing back into West Germany. Years later, I still have mine. At the border, they were so mesmerized by my Blue Book that they forgot to collect the document. I have heard horror stories of visitors who had misplaced their green document and so had a difficult time being able to leave the country. The communists feared the green documents were left in the hands of East Germans who wanted to flee the country. I left without redeeming mine. I need to get it appraised. I wonder how much it is worth today as a collector’s item?