Heading towards the centre of town in an exhaust-belching trotro, minivan, on a mission to navigate West Africa’s largest open-air market alone, I reflected on the journey so far.
Three months had passed since I bumbled into Kumasi, the obnoxiously proud city I dubbed "Maxwell Smart territory" (chaos!) which I loathed upon first impressions. I had alighted at Kejetia trotro station where a Togolese friend led me between thousands of busted-up vehicles, all trying to exit the station at the same time. Thousands more people were thronging towards the market. I followed him through a free-standing door frame, into a space crammed with hundreds of muddy alleyways sprawling in every direction like an urban township the size of several football fields. Over ten thousand traders plied their wares here. I stuck close behind, not daring to utter a word or touch a thing.
Outside, around the market’s edge and along every street in town, traders obliterated footpaths with their overflowing, rickety wooden stalls and shouted aggressively in Twi as we dodged past. And Kumasi’s endlessly twisting streets gave the impression that a mass of octopi, called squid in these parts, had dropped from the sky and splattered in the red dust, their twisted tentacles forming the lines along which the roads and highways had been created. I was scared witless of venturing to town for weeks; the city was anathema to my directionally-challenged self. As for the market, I pretended it didn’t exist.
So, it was against all odds that I grew to love Kumasi, the capital of the old Asante Kingdom. Its chaos energized me. I learnt to navigate and explore among the thrumming masses. I discovered a gem of a batik shop producing unique cloth hidden up the back of the National Cultural Centre, just a few minutes walk from Kejetia, along with excellent brass, gold and Kente craft shops, a nationally renowned drumming and dance group, and peace and quiet. The centre’s sprawling lawns offered respite from the city’s insanity; I often escaped to read in the shade of a mango tree. I also found the Prempreh II Jubilee Museum which housed a replica of the mythical Asante Golden Stool. According to legend, the Golden Stool descended from the skies and rested in the lap of Nana Osei Tutu I, declaring him the first king of the Asante Nation in 1695. The stool, now a symbol of unity and source of great pride, is considered the soul of the Asantes.
Further along Banatama Road a brilliant strip of street-side drinking bars offered the full range of Ghana’s beers and hip live music; dancing was a matter of standing up from your seat and “shaking your body". But none of that was the market. Indeed, nothing I’d experienced in Ghana – and I’d ventured far and wide – equaled that first, manic morning in Kumasi for sheer shock-value; Kejetia was the most chaotic point in the country. With one week to go before leaving, I vowed to trudge those alleyways alone, if it was the last thing I did.
We wheezed to a stop in the middle of the circular station among the masses of people and vehicles. Distorted music blared from speakers set every twenty feet along the almost non-existent footpath. Exhaust mingled with the sweat dripped down my back. I weaved east through the raucous milieu of vehicles and vendors imagining that the city’s chaotic heartbeat was what the Kente weavers captured when they wove their colourful zig-zag cloth.
Ah, the Maggi Billboards. The Star Beer sign. The ten-foot high Asante stool monument in the centre of Kejetia circle. And there it was sprawling uphill like a super-sized, corrugated-tin installation. I ran across the road where traffic seemed to be heading in whatever direction it pleased, stepped through the rickety door frame where muddy alleyways fanned left and right, where nshoppers and market traders balancing wares on their heads poured past.
Here goes. I took a deep breath and followed my feet along a maze-like series of aisles so narrow that I had to turn sideways to allow a woman carrying fresh eggs stacked ten rows high on her head to pass; the last thing I wanted was send someone’s weekly income splattering into the mud. I passed an entire row of Gino tomato paste sellers and another of Maggi stock cubes. Queen mothers controlled trade here. They arranged for transportation of goods into the market, allocating among the traders in their territory, monitoring everything that came in and out and taking a portion of sales for themselves.
I stopped at a pot-holed junction, I had no idea where I was or how to get out, but I didn’t care anymore. This was a true "choose your own adventure". I chose left and came face to face with a cow’s stomach the size of a basket of washing dropped in the back of a pick-up truck. I had stumbled into a an open air corner of decaying animal flesh where boys carried platters of roughly chopped meat on wooden trays balanced on their heads; the market’s fly population seemed to have settled.
I covered my mouth and moved on to a mercifully shaded alley where dozens of men were hunched over hammering black plastic sandals; the famous Asante footwear. I passed women standing against a wall braiding an entire row of crouching women’s hair into fashionable styles. And I passed rows stacked with huge silver bowls of maize, pyramids of pépé, chili, piles of yams, garden eggs, and tomatoes that enticed mothers to prepare a dinner of Ampesi, boiled yam and garden egg stew, an Asante staple.
I bought a bag of chilled, purified water from a small girl carrying them stacked in a silver bowl on her head. Tearing its corners with my teeth, I sucked the water in a single gulp. Just when I thought I’d had enough, I came along rows of cloth sellers, my feet stood still.
“Twenty Ghana Cedis", demanded the corpulent vendor for six yards of a peacock print cloth I was fingering, imagining the dress I could sew from it.
“Neboueden!” I replied in Twi, it is too expensive.
Her eyes widened with surprise. “Eh, obruni!” White lady!
“Me patcho,” I begged, “bra fon kakraaa.” Please, reduce the price, small.
She turned and muttered to the women stallholders which made them all laugh.
“Me te nya mouka nininaa,” I said. I can understand everything you’re saying. It had taken me three months to find the guts to say that and I could not, of course, understand most of it, but my Asante friends had spent weeks drilling me on that important line and I couldn’t let them down.
The women exploded in laughter. I didn’t know if I’d made a mistake or if I’d accidentally said she had a big bottom, which would be a compliment anyway. So, I mustered the most enigmatic smile I could and began to walk past the laughing women.
“Bra, bra!” the generously proportioned trader called. Come, come!
I stopped and walked back to her stall. “Fine, for you, obruni, fourteen Ghana Cedis.” I wanted to leap into the dusty air! Not because of the price, but because I had had the nerve to haggle in Twi in the very heart of the Asante world. Mission accomplished ninety-nine.
We exchanged money for cloth; I asked her how to exit. I had no hope of finding the makeshift doorways myself. A small boy led me around corners, alleyways, past beads and baskets and hundreds of plastic containers. Ghana, the dumping ground of China, I thought for the hundredth time.
Stumbling into the heaving streets, I pressed a worn note into the small boy’s hand. He grinned and ran back inside, disappearing into the maze of alleyways, knowing precisely where he was headed.
I’d done it. I felt I could look Kumasi in the eyes now. If I could, I would shake its pumping right hand, snap! Instead, I ambled up the walkway overlooking Kejetia station and the sprawling market area. More than ten long rows of vehicles fanned around the stadium-shaped space, and more than a hundred vehicles were parked along one row alone, waiting to fill up and head off into the evening to destinations all over the country.
If the Asante stool were the soul of Kumasi, I thought, Kejetia trotro station and the heaving market, like the left and right aortas, were its madly beating heart. Kumasi wasn’t pretty, for sure, but it was just aching to reveal its heart and soul if you dared.
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