Tripoli International Airport, Libya:
Olivier and I are connecting flights from Paris to Accra, Ghana, waiting in a transfer room that we were hastily and extremely rudely herded into by Libyan airport security. Olivier has struck up a conversation with several Africans so far, once correctly guessing the city that one intense-looking Tuareg man came from by the color of his robes. People of several North-African nationalities are milling around, some laughing together while squatted on their haunches in a casual circle, some praying seriously in an easterly direction on rugs, and some are jamming to 2Pac and 50 Cent on mp3 players. Some are wearing cheap suits, some elaborate cloth wraps, and others flaunt Sean John sweat suits and Tommy Hilfiger shoes, but the Ghanaian man that Olivier is talking to now is dressed like a casual American businessman in khakis, sport coat, and power tie. He is smiling broadly, explaining to Olivier (who has been almost everywhere in Africa except Ghana) that Ghana is a friendly country, very friendly, and the people are nice, very nice. He smiles even broader when we tell him that we are going to a paragliding event in the Kwahu, a region just to the west of Lake Volta. Perfect English flows through a now gigantic smile as he tells Olivier that the Kwahu region is very nice, very very nice, and that the people there are very very very friendly. It is also very beautiful there. And yes, there are some nice hills for us to jump off of. Olivier seems pleased, and not having taken part in the conversation yet, I feel compelled to compliment the Ghanaian man on his English. He chuckles, and tells me that Ghana is an English speaking country, and that is why his English is so good. Olivier shoots me a look, similar to the one he gave me when I told him that I was looking forward to seeing just a little bit if Lebanon when we landed in Tripoli.
“Tripoli is in Libya, not Lebanon”.
“Oh, right. I meant Libya.”
“Americans are not famous for their geography skills, I know this,” Olivier said.
I recovered from some of the embarrassment when we arrived in Accra and realized that Ghana is an English speaking country- theoretically. Ghanaians speak ‘Twi’, the African language of the people that has been spoken since long before the British showed up to colonize, organize, and attempt to educate them, and before Europeans and Americans of all sorts came to round them up, steal them, and sell them as slaves in our own former British colony across the Atlantic. Ghanaians fortunate enough to have had some form of education received that education in English, and Television, newspapers, and government business is all in English. However, in most of the rural areas where we landed, the extent of most children’s English seemed to be “Man-you-done-well-man-give-me-money-man-give-me-your-address-man!!!” Overall, however, enough English is spoken and at a high enough standard to make traveling in Ghana very easy.
A culture parallels the tone and form of its language, and Ghana is no exception. Ghanaian English is full of flair and magnificent exaggerations, in exactly the same way that Ghanaian culture is all about fanfare. Advertisements for products were poetic and descriptive to a point that most English speakers would find far beyond cheesy. Billboards shamelessly flaunted words like sumptuous, marvelous, and splendid. In Ghana, businesses can be amusing (Hilarious Communication and Computer Service), restaurants can be arousing (Nkwae’s Hot Sexy Spicy Chicken Wings) or uplifting (Grand Joy Palace Food Joint), Radio Stations can be odorous (104FM, the Scent of Music!), and mechanics are creative with spelling and long-winded (Mardin Luter King - Master Controler of Temperatur Special in Air-Con and BMW Mercedes and American Technic Service).
We marveled at the splendid attempts at advertising sumptuous foods and services as our bus lumbered northeast to Nkawkaw, Kwahu, where the First Ghana Hang-Paragliding Festival was to take place. Along the side of the road, free enterprise was in full effect and we passed countless offers of local goods, most notably: snails the size of grapefruits, miniature antelope-like creatures, and the worlds’ largest flying squirrel (the latter two being held upside down by men with their arms outstretched into passing traffic).
Let your imagination run freely for this bit:
As we lurched and smoked our way inland from Accra, our aging bus was being escorted by:
A flatbed truck with a 12 piece brass band enthusiastically screeching one song, over and over again. A semi-truck with the ‘Bic’ pens and lighters logo painted on it, and loudspeakers blaring something that was totally obscured by feedback and static. The ‘Cowbell Powdered Milk’ truck, with loudspeakers puking out the ‘Cowbell Powdered Milk’ cartoon theme song, again and again. The Redbull jeep complete with giant mock Redbull can on top, a virtual finger of the long arm of Redbull (the stuff might be illegal in France, but not Ghana).
The noise from our cacophonous convoy was deafening and impressive, and the locals we passed instantly broke out into dance as the shockwave of sound plowed across the roads’ shoulder and into the adobe outposts between towns. When we reached the township of Nkawkaw, we passed right by the turn-off to launch, and drove down the main street and back again, hyping up the busload of whiteys that had come to fly from the mountain above town where no one had ever flown before. Only after the entire local population was all too aware of our presence did we drive in the direction of launch and our hotels. “Tomorrow,” the organizers said confidently, “you will fly.”
This is what our Ghana tourist booklet said on page one:
Akwaaba is a word that you will hear several times daily as you travel around Ghana, one that will ring in your ears at night, and bring a smile to your face weeks after you leave. Akwaaba! It means welcome!
There was a word that rang in our ears at night, and still brings a smile to my face, but it is not Akwaaba. It’s Obruni, which is best translated as ‘Hey Whitey!’ We did hear it several times a day as well, in fact, if I had to guess, more than 100 times per day. Some of the villages that we passed through were not exactly frequented by white tourists, and although I would hesitate to say that they’d never seen white people before, we received some terrified and intensely curious looks from some of the adults and many of the children. We made an effort to learn some Twi, partly in order to help repel the constant stream of ‘Obrunis’ that we received. Antoine, and eventually I, began replying to the ‘Obruni’ call with our own calls of ‘Otumtum’, which means ‘Hey black guy!” They loved that, and it worked. After we yelled it back in return, it tended to mute the Obruni calls from that crowd.
The first day of the first ever Ghana Hang-Paragliding Festival was to adhere to a strict plan, according to our contact from the ministry of tourism. The night before, he very clearly predicted exactly how and when we would launch, how and where we were to fly and when and where we would land. Several of us tried to explain to him that everything was weather dependant, but he confidently wrote off our concerns, explaining that the chief of the region had blessed us and our efforts and so therefore the weather would be perfect, whatever perfect meant to us.
Fortunately for us and for the organizers of the event, he was right. The Vice President of Ghana was scheduled to arrive at 9am, meaning that he was right on time (or a little early) when he arrived at 11:30am. Along with him came the chief of the Kwahu region who was dressed in traditional cloths and escorted by over twenty tribesmen in similar dress, the minister of tourism, and various other government bigwigs. After a lengthy introduction of the events plan, the official members, and the honored and distinguished visiting pilots, the order was given: “And now, you will FLY!!!” A bold statement, considering that the launch we and the more than 500 spectators were perched upon had only been finished the night before. No one had ever flown here mid-day or even climbed above launch, but the program clearly called for demonstration soaring flights by the honored and distinguished visiting pilots.
Antoine was ready first. The crowd exploded into wild cheers as he laid out his glider, checked over his shoulder, and pulled up into a hot cycle of humid tropical air. He turned, ran, flew off the edge of the cliff launch, and the crowd went berserk. As I laid out my glider to go next, feeling thoroughly alone (the rest of the pilots seemed in no hurry to launch given the size and intensity of the crowd and the virginity of the site), Antoine had already climbed over launch and was winding it up into a SAT in front of the now frenetic crowd. As the cheers of the crowd went wilder, my hands shook as I connected my speedbar and cleared my lines. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and I couldn’t hear the radio check over the noise of the crowd. I was more nervous than I was on any of my first flights, but to the announcer on the loudspeaker this was all going according to plan and he brazenly counted down for me: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! FLY!!! Good cycles be damned, I pulled up my glider at his command and stepped off into the refreshing wind-chill and more bearable temperatures. The roaring of the crowed lessened slightly with wind noise and distance, and I climbed quickly in a nice tropical thermal and flew back to shamelessly show off some aerobatics directly in front of launch. I joined Antoine in another thermal and we laughed together at the spectacle of it all. From the air we could see the crowd waiting for us in the LZ– every African in the region that couldn’t afford to get to launch formed a thick, dark border around the soccer field.
Soon, other pilots launched and we all climbed together in humid, smooth, and mild lift, all the way to cloud base and beyond. The south facing ridge was about 1000’ high and extended out of site at varying altitudes to the east and west of launch. As I cruised along the ridge and turned circles in the gentle thermals, the sounds of the jungle wafted up from below. If I had a recording device I could have recorded a ‘Rainforest Vibrations’ cd for the meditative types back home. Thousands of species of insects and birds joined together to compose a constant and rhythmic song that drifted towards cloud base with the thermals. The canopy of the forest was between 60 and 100 feet above the ground, and as I flew past random white-trunked giants, I thought about how interesting it would be to take a little deflation and end up hanging 8 stories high, 1 mile and 3 days walk from the LZ. A helicopter would be your best bet. And if not, you could always cutaway from your glider and throw your reserve.
After getting our fill of the flying at the Kwahu region, we took a trip to the Shai hills region north of Accra where we flew a site that had only been launched once before, by Walter, in January. After hiking to the top in air that closely resembled a clothes dryer on high heat halfway through a cycle of wet beach towels, we arrived on launch to see cloud streets stretching downwind to the horizon. That day Antoine and Olivier set the Ghana distance record (45kms) and landed someplace remote enough to see children and adults running into their adobe thatched-roof huts screaming with hands covering their heads as they over flew a village on final approach. After waving and smiling at the locals, even the more tentative children emerged and greeted them in the fields, welcoming them warmly with happy cries of ‘Obruni, Obruni!’