Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Adventures in Broniland: Part I

April 26, 2007
Accra, Ghana

She was taller than me in her high heels and too much bad red lipstick made her mouth into rubber. Hair dyed an orangey copper. I made the mistake of eye contact as she and her friend made eyes at me from a nearby table. In Africa, from a white man, a meeting of the eyes is all it takes for anyone selling anything to make their pitch. So she did.

She was bigger than me too, clumsy almost as she stood and tottered over, all smiles, hips swinging. Really, too much bad lipstick. Horn-shaped tribal scars on high cheekbones; black marks on black skin beneath eyes gone boozy with liquid courage.

Hello. Hi. How are you? Fine. I’m here with my wife. Smile vanishes, eyes widen, frightened almost. Really? Really. Gesture over my shoulder to the bar where Trish is buying gin tonics. I’m sorry. It’s no problem. She melts back into the crowded bar.

It makes no sense that I’m here; we’re with friends who know Accra for an aperitif and live music, but it’s not for fianc├ęs. The place is half-filled with hookers; Africa-chic whores with fake hair and caked makeup and long false painted fingernails pinching cigarettes. Women smoking are never seen in the ultra-religious Ashanti culture of Kumasi, where we live, but this is an Accra drink hole, and nobody is talking about God.

Instead they’re drinking and smoking and dancing and soon many will be fucking, interracially entwined in a forbidden embrace like the yin-yang, but for a price. I never asked how much.

The other half of the bar patrons are oboronis, foreigners, white people — and they’re mostly men. And most of those men are middle-aged; slobbering geek losers from Europe and North America, with potbellies and receding hairlines and fat wallets, on a break from their jobs and their wives and their lives, wookin’ pa nub they’ve never had, that exotic chocolate love they’d never go for, let alone pay good money for, back home.

After almost four months in Africa I’ve never seen a higher concentration of whites, all of whom shelled 15,000 cedis at the gate of this open-air tavern to get in — not much, only $2, but enough to keep the riff raff who can’t afford highballs and hookers out of Broniland.

Broniland. Those places in West Africa where the oboronis go to get away from West Africa; oases of white familiarity in the desert of black chaos.

We are who we are, and we are not comfortable in Africa. It is not a place of relaxing comfort; it is an endlessly fascinating place, hot, noisy, colourful, smelly, never still. Music and laughter, machines and marketeers. Roasting meat parts and raw sewage and burning garbage. Arguments between complete strangers and loved ones. To step outside the door to your fanned room at the guest house is to invite the waiting blast of oppressive heat and the market culture that will be constantly in your face the moment you set foot in the street; people everywhere, conscious of you and the wealth your skin colour represents, for you would not be here if you did not have money to spend — so spend it on me.

It fascinates but becomes overbearing, a sensory overload, except perhaps for that rare specimen of traveler who becomes so accustomed to Africa that he no longer notices.

The rest of us escape to Broniland from time to time — some more frequently and deeply than others. Those ones truly relish lying greased on a chaise-lounge beside a swimming pool at an expensive hotel patio, walled off from Africa, where the only Africans to be seen are working behind the bar or sweeping up cigarette ash. This African experience has little to do with Africa; to shop at Woolworth’s where the blast of air con at the doorway almost stops the heart, and a basted chicken roast from behind the glass refrigerator door costs more than a month’s wages for a middle-income local. You pay oboroni prices in Broniland — that’s the point.

We discover such places now and then, but we don’t cherish them. No, we duck in for a breath, for the contrast of familiar difference, then head back to the street to wait for the tro-tro crammed with locals, to find meat-on-a-stick and ignore hawkers and try polite refusals against the more persistent beggars.

Broniland is not what we came here for. But we all return there, sooner or later. G.

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