Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Ghana
The Old Man in the Village
WUTE, Ghana – The old man sits on the porch of a village house that once belonged to his mother. In three days, he’ll turn 80 so he’s in a reflective mood, as much as a man of his ilk can be.
My visit is unexpected. He excuses himself to change from a ragged t-shirt and pants into his best attire – a green dashiki favored by Ghanaian men and matching pants. The outfit is worn and ill-fitting, yet the old man wears it with considerable pride, as if it were bought yesterday.
Curious about village life, I have traveled four hours east from Ghana’s capital of Accra [ah-craw] to Volta, one of the country’s 16 regions, which runs along the country’s southeastern border with neighboring Togo. As we crossed from Accra Region into Volta the dark, red soil appeared to spawn more productive farms. I began seeing small fields of maize, hot peppers, watermelon, cassava, nuts, yam and tomatoes. Volta residents, the majority of which are members of the Ewe tribe, appeared better off than their Accra neighbors. It was Sunday. Groups of women wearing their best, colorful Kente cloth dresses walked along the road on their way to church for services that would last much of the day. [Christian missionaries are active in Ghana.] Young men on motorbikes cruised up and down the main highway, carting paid passengers from one village to the next.
At Akatsi, a highway town and market center, we headed south. After about 10 miles, just past a sign reading Wute, we turned onto an obscure, dirt path which led to the old man’s house amid a forest of palm and mango trees. It’s isolated from the village center, which lies several hundred yards up the path.
The village once thrived as a farming community but no longer. With few visitors venturing this way, the old man is happy to have company. A combination of factors neutered Wute, he says. Government support, always a given, mostly disappeared. The weather has changed, making the timing and length of the crucial rainy season unpredictable, diminishing crop yields. Most significant, though, is an attitude adjustment among the young men.
“They don’t want to do the hard work,” he says, “so most of them left for Accra.”
Ironically, the old man followed a similar path, though under different circumstances. He was raised in Atiavi, in northern Volta, one of 11 children in a family that included his father and his four wives.
The old man’s mother, wife No. 4, was for the period an anomaly – an independent farmer and entrepreneur. She owned a substantial number of cows and pigs, managed a lucrative tobacco farm and operated a successful Akpeteshie still – Ghana’s national, palm oil-based spirit.
After graduating from middle school at 17 in 1959, the old man joined the family business. But in his late 20s, he grew restless. He married, started a family and moved to Accra, where he leased a delivery truck. He was happy there.
“Oh,” he says, flashing a warm, mostly toothless smile. “I like Accra very much in those days.”
Eventually, cost issues involving his truck killed his business. Soon after, his father died and his mother asked him to return to the village to help her with the farm.
The old man obliged. Back home, he took a second wife – “because she was available” – and before long he had 11 children, just like his father.
The years sailed by. He made a good living working for his mother. Once, there was a teacher shortage and he filled in for six months. English and math were his subjects. He enjoyed the experience and, according to the old man, the students enjoyed him. His children grew, married and left home, mostly to Accra. His first wife died. His second wife left. After his mother passed, as well as all of his siblings but one, the old man inherited what was left of her estate. By then he was too old to work, so to sustain himself he sold off the cows and pigs and most of the land they owned in the village.
He kept the home in Wute. His mother also owned farmland here, which the old man kept as well. Accra no longer appealed to him. He wasn’t interested in living with his children; they had their own lives.
It was an easy decision to retire here.
“I enjoy my mother’s property,” he says.
The old man’s two-room, concrete, metal-roofed home has electricity but no running water, toilet or kitchen. He fetches his water from a nearby stream. A fire pit in front of the porch serves as the kitchen. The lack of a toilet is a non-issue; the nearby bush is vast.
Earlier, I strolled into the village, such as it is. It consists of a small cluster of mud homes with straw roofs, several storage huts and a chicken coop in disrepair. The chickens scattered upon my arrival. A middle-aged man sat on the doorstep of one of the homes. Nearby, a young girl with stunning dark eyes lounged under the common’s only tree.
I later mention the sparsity of villagers to the old man.
“It’s Sunday. Most of them are in Akatsi,” he says.
Four that remained, including the man and girl I saw earlier, arrive for a visit with the old man and to meet this pale stranger from another land. I learn that the man is the village chief. His name is Kudzo. The girl, Akos, is his 9-year-old granddaughter.
My visit has lasted a few hours. The old man is relaxed and chatty. We discuss what he likes to eat and who cooks it. Rice and yams are among his favorites along with a fried cow cheese called wagashi, which is similar to the Greek’s saganaki. As to who does the preperation, he points to the woman among the group, Ama. She’s joined by her husband, Kwame. Seemingly on cue, Ama gets the fire going and starts assembling a stew of some sort that will include local hot peppers, a Ghanaian staple in most dishes.
I ask the old man how he feels. Good, he says. He boasts about walking on occasion to Akatsi, a journey that takes several hours. It’s apparent he once was tall and handsome. He’s lost some of his height. His face is deeply lined. There’s little hair on top and gray stubble for a beard. His white eyebrows are as thick and gnarly as you’ll ever see on a man. Coupled with a strong chin, he has a look that holds your attention, especially when he speaks.
The topic of income is raised. I learn the old man allows certain villagers to farm his land at no charge other than stocking his pantry with some of their harvest. The children also assist their father from time-to-time. He laments they don’t visit more often. But several of them – nine are still living – often call him on his only modern possession. He keeps their phone numbers handy, etched in black on the front wall over his left shoulder.
The old man appears content in Wute, likely the last place he’ll call home.
I mention his birthday. Anything planned? I ask. A family wedding scheduled for next weekend that he won’t be attending means his children won’t be traveling here for the occasion. The old man doesn’t seem to mind. He’ll have dinner with some of the villagers, who are his extended family. His path has been considerably different, but he’s comfortable among them. He might have a celebratory beer, which is the extent of his drinking these days.
I tell the old man I’m leaving.
“Take me to America,” he says.
“You won’t like it,” I tell him.
“Yes,” he agrees. “You are probably right.”
Editor’s note: Second in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Ghana Sept. 15-22, 2022
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