ArchiveBlogBlog 16

Shoes and Sewage

I could have taken a nap. I could have lounged in my hotel room, watching Ghanaian soap operas and eating sweet rolls — oh, and the chocolate I’d found just an hour before, made of real cocoa harvested just a few miles down the road! My fingers were still brown from it.

The ground below me was brown, too, though a different shade and flowing quickly. A steady stream of wastewater, food wrappers, feces in various states and a heavy ripe stench of sunbaked decay. And me, teetering over it all on a thin pipe, camera in a fanny pack across my waist, backpack swaying me back and forth in a precarious balance.

I’d seen a kid cross just a minute before like it was a paved road. I could hear him laughing behind me as I struggled across, stepping ever so slowly, wobbling, mouthing a prayer, then stepping again. With just a few feet to go, I made a leap for it and graced the solid ground I landed on.

It was Saturday, our second day in Kumasi. We’d just come back from shopping at the city’s main market, an expanse of ramshackle stalls sprawling for miles and bustling with marvelous human life.

I was exhausted, but we had a limited time in the city — we’d be leaving the next day — and I had yet to see the backstreets of the city, where I was convinced humanity bared its dazzling insides to those willing to look.

I’d come to the sewer crossing early on, just a block from the hotel. Across the way was a small garden. Bananas grew in thick bunches, lettuce heads poked from the ground, and hens rustled food from the shallow grass. I passed through a skeleton of a house, reduced to doorways standing on their own, a spiral staircase that led to the sky and nothing else.

I came to a road and heard my familiar call, “Obruni! Obruni!”

Across the way, a group of men beckoned me to come over. I obliged, and found them standing around a taxi propped on cinderblocks. A man worked under the hood, another eyed some parts strewn on a towel.

Two men sat on a wooden bench observing the scene, and they invited me to sit with them. They asked me the usual questions, where I came from (followed by the usual “ooohs” at “America”), how long I’d been in Ghana, why I’d come etc.

I managed to throw some Twi into my responses, to which they hollered and laughed. They wanted to teach me more, rattled off some phrases but were too excited to hear about my thoughts on the election for me too learn too much.

They were NPP-supporters, and I was glad because I knew more about that one from my time at the Daily Guide. When I told them I worked there, one of the men slapped my back,

“Ah, you know what the country needs, then,” referring to the paper’s heavy bias towards the NPP.

He introduced himself as Kofi — Friday born. He smiled when I told him I was Kojo, Monday born.

“He knows his Ghanaian name!” he beamed to his friends. “Come, come, I want to show you something.”

He led me across the street to a large building pluming smoke from one of its corners.

“This is my shop,” he said.

Inside, men worked away at tables by candlelight — he told me the power had gone out again. They were all busy fashioning shoes. Kofi picked up a finished one, a velvet red slipper that shone from a thin patch of window light. I told him it was very nice, that I’d have to get one for my mother.

“Four American dollars and it’s yours!”

If I’d had the money, any money on me at all, I would have taken the deal. I told him I’d have to come back the next day, but he said they closed on Sundays.

Still, he gave me a tour of his shop — the Mensah Shoe factory. He’d inherited it from his father, said the work was very good. He supplied shoes to stores in the city that paid well.

I talked to one of the men making shoes, an apprentice he called himself. He’d been at the shop for three years, and used the money to pay for his university classes. He wanted to go into the tourism industry.

“I have a lot of ideas that will bring people to this country,” he said.

I asked him what some were.

“They’re confidential,” he said smiling.

I watched as he brushed adhesive onto what looked to be the underside of a pair of classic Vans sneakers. The upper fabric around the laces was made of a blue suede, but the part above the toes was extravagant, patterned in bright colors like the wax fabric I’d seen at the market. I asked how they came up with the shoe designs, as there didn’t seem to be any consistency in the finished shoes — a worker across from us was busy on a pair of Birkenstock-esque sandals.

“We go on Google,” he said. “We look to see what is popular.”

I asked him about his life at home. He lives with 30 people, all members of his extended family: brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, all sitting down to dinner with 30 stories of the day to share. He said he enjoyed living at the house, but he was ready to move on.

“I want to make enough money so that I can buy an apartment,” he said.

I thanked him for his time, and Kofi led me back out to the street. I told him I’d try to come back for a pair of shoes, and I really meant it, though I think he doubted me. He returned to his friends working on the taxi, and I returned to the hotel.

At the river crossing, I did a few hail Mary’s before jittering my way, nearly slipping on my final leap.

I could have stayed in my hotel room. I cringed at the thought.