The International Writers Magazine: World Travel: Ghana

Arrested Development
Susan Mintz

"There’s no competition!" Karen said over a tall glass of lime soda. "Walk into any market in a third-world country, and you’ll see stall after stall of identical produce." Karen had a degree in International Development and the experience of over thirty countries. I was a rookie. Karen was my new travel partner, and this was our first meal together. I didn’t venture an opinion.

We were in the city of Kumasi, Ghana. The next day we were headed to Kejetia Market, reputed to be the largest open-air market in West Africa.

We saw him first on the main road bordering the market. He walked to my right, leaving about a meter’s space. He wasn’t a typical-looking Ghanaian, standing just over five feet, with long hair, and barely enough weight to fuel his fluid motion.

At first I thought he was one of the numerous people who, by virtue of our white skin, wanted to start a conversation as to where we were from, why we were in Ghana, etc. But several minutes passed, and he didn’t speak a word. Having read that Africans can take the initiation of eye contact as an insult, I decided against a questioning glance.

He maintained our pace, despite the fact that Karen had started to speed up. "We have to get rid of him," she said as we entered the market. "He’s going to try to rob us."

The brightly patterned clothing of shoppers squeezing past produced a kaleidoscope effect. Karen, who now walked in front of me, took several successive rights and lefts. The market was a life-size maze, and I have little sense of direction. Karen’s almost a foot taller than me, and I found myself with the occasional trot in my step. Finally, she turned around. "It may be pre-mature," she said, "but I think we’ve lost him."
Her pace slackened, and I started to take in the market’s structure. What Karen had said the night before was true: there were entire walkways devoted to candles, others with purses hanging wherever the eye could land. In a walkway lined with tailors, the refrain of "Obruni! White! Buy my shirt!" played to a full orchestra of whirring and cranking sewing machines.

Occasionally, we’d find ourselves walking along a valley path. Bowls of oranges, sitting on the heads of women in adjacent paths, seemed to follow their own procession. On one such occasion, my eye caught an anomaly. The Thief’s head was floating among the oranges.

"Agooo! Agooo! Get out of the way!" A couple of men were coming through with their alley-wide wheelbarrow. I caught up to Karen while we waited for them to get past. "It’s going to be hard to get rid of this guy," she said. "We’re not exactly inconspicuous." Neither is he, I thought.

It wasn’t long before he was in the same walkway as us, albeit several blocks behind. We continued pushing through the crowd whose density seemed to increase in direct proportion to the heat. The odor of human sweat permeated the air. A waft of at-least-day-old fish assaulted us before we were greeted by thousands of beady eyes, barely implanted in their decapitated heads.

As we turned a corner, we found ourselves in quintessential tomato alley. An impossibly high pyramid stood at the far end. "I’d love to get a shot of that," Karen said, "but I don’t want to get out my camera with that wacko following us." I thought it would be funny if we got a shot of him.

He’d gained on us while we stood entranced by tomatoes. Karen told me to guard my backpack carefully. Entering the market, it hadn’t struck me as risky to carry my backpack in its normal position - on my back. But there was Karen’s extensive experience in developing nations. And my tendency to take advice to its literal extremes.

I transferred my bag to my right shoulder, cradled it in the same arm, and using all my fingers, pinched the access points of each of the four pockets. By this time, Karen had barreled ahead. In my newly discovered Yoga pose, I teetered on.

As I approached the end of Tomato Alley, I noticed too late that the highest stack of tomatoes extended further into my path than I had allowed for. I found myself hovering over the bend. The vision of myself face down in a bed of tomato guts flashed across my mind. I shifted my weight as far as balance would allow and swung around the corner.

What I forgot was that with every pile of tomatoes comes a tomato-seller. Seated cross-legged on the opposite side of the pile, she had, until this moment, escaped my notice. As I made the final portion of my turn, my backpack, now hanging off my shoulder and following the laws of inertia, propelled directly into the woman’s face.

As she stood up, her fleshy indignation filled my view port. "Oh, my God, I’m so sorry," I said. She waggled her face towards mine, yelling abuses I couldn’t understand. As she gesticulated, I realized I had two options: either continue staring at her blank-faced, or figure out my next move. She was definitely mad, but I didn’t perceive any physical threat. I decided to go for it. Checking left and right, I sidestepped her.
I kept walking until the last tomato was out of sight. Finally, I wiped the sweat from my brow and cursed the Thief. Then I realized he was right behind me.

While my amusement had turned to annoyance, his nonchalance had metamorphosed to mockery. That was it. I lifted my eyes and met his gaze.

It didn’t faze him. In the manner of a French farce, he turned his head ninety degrees, stuck his chin in the air, and started whistling. I half expected him to pull out a newspaper.

My backpack now firmly on my back, I shoved past several shoppers before finally catching up with Karen. I summed up my experiences as we wound our way out of the market. By the time we were seated at dinner, I had my own theory as to what the third-world needed to lift itself out of poverty.
Better thieves.
©  Susan Mintz Oct 18 2006
Ottawa, CANADA

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