Isaac Knows

The welcome breeze sneaks into my shirt.

Today, this week, this month, have been equatorial-style, shirt-drippingly hot.

Of course, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

But it’s also the heat.

With dusk comes breeze and welcome relief.

Our taxi is cozy but full of light and energy. The four of us peek out the window as we pass Pig Farm. Sheet metal walls, hastily erected, signal some sort of new construction. We wonder what it will be.

We look out. And up.

Evening sky, all grey, purple, and blue.

The bats are back.

They swirl. And we wonder.

That’s amazing!There are so many!

Tonight, we have an expert in the car. Mr. Isaac knows about the bats. So we of course ask him

Why do they

Where are they

When do they

He divulges.

Geography matters most in this tale. And royalty. The tale of the King of the Bats.

Many years and generations of bats ago, the King became ill. His tribe wasn’t sure what to do to help him, but as a last resort took him to 37 Hospital. There, he was nursed back to health. He slowly gained strength, he grew a fondness for the trees surrounding the campus. As he returned to full health, the tribe of bats was so grateful they came to call 37 their home.

To this day, it is home to the clan. Under the daytime sky, you can see thousands of bats, nestled, snug, sleepy.

Until dusk, that is, when they stir, unfold, chirp. A cacophony of batsounds, readying to make their way tens of kilometers north, to Atiwa. They migrate nightly and dance their return, filling bellies for the long day’s nap.

And subsequent dreaming, probably of bugs.

beat

The whir of the treadmill is rhythmic, sedative. Andres runs, a steady pace, beads of sweat pool.

But now, we need a beat.

It’s my turn to run.

I leave him. Crack the door, bright sunlight confronts me. I step, hop, move. With purpose.

Through a swaying mass of swim caps, arms windmilling, stretches accompanied by Bon Jovi blasting across the pool. Troy’s voice interrupts, but only for a moment.

Woooooooooaaaahhhh we’re halfway the-ere

next up, 14 y/o girls freestyle

So much energy, all bustling and frantic as I pass. Dolphins are here, Lions too. All poised and ready to dive. I nod hello to familiar faces but signal there’s no time to chat.

A swarm of six and seven year olds dashes back and forth, kicking and chasing balls. Their coaches entreat, encourage, cajole. Elephant is there. And in between drills he sits on his ball.

don’t sit on the ball

I want to yell. But there’s no time.

We need a beat.

The tennis instructor has secured a makeshift net. Three students aligned, waiting their turn for volleys. A ball drifts off the court and into the big toy. All pavlovian impulses kick in and like a puppy I’m ready to chase.

But my purpose holds. Stay on target.

We need a beat.

I beeline into my room, grab the bluetooth speaker, a snug fit in my hand. I marvel.

And remember the four-foot speakers in my brother’s room as a boy. The delicious smell of vinyl as Supertramp told us they could see us in the morning when we went to school. I’d lay there for hours, enveloped in sound, hidden away in melody and amazement. As Earth Wind and Fire, all horn and sync and beauty, asked whether we remember.

We do.

I’m back in the race. Speaker in hand, my return trip is quick. I pass the meet, a swirl of humanity, and avoid all eye contact because I’m almost there.

The whir of the treadmill is rhythmic, sedative. Andres runs, a steady pace, beads of sweat pool.

And now we have a beat.

aqi

I step out of the room and approach the three steps to the playground when I am assaulted.

We’d been here for a couple years before we started to pay attention to air quality. In fact, we had been working on the assumption that the air here is fine.

Of course, the Harmattan is its own beast. Thousands of tons of Sahara sands airborne, bringing haze, density, grounding flights and hampering visibility. The layered dust visits daily. We clean it away, but it persists. It says hello again, and again, and again.

But the Harmattan is seasonal. It comes, stays, then goes.

Unfortunately, the type of assault that arrived this morning visits year-round.

Burning is habit here. Yard waste, food scraps, trash. Burning makes it all go away. It’s easy, effective, cheap.

But nothing is without cost.

Levels of particulate matter are high. Not China high, but they are up there. Literally.

When a big burn takes place the daily parade of ‘not-quite emissions-checked’ vehicles is augmented by suffocating black smoke. It’s the cost of doing business. The cost of development. The cost of we’re not quite sure how to manage all our waste.

And so, when I step out of my classroom I am assaulted. My eyes water and squint, nose wrinkles. For a moment the smell evokes roasted campfires, calling out for marshmallows. But there’s more to this. An extra layer, something that doesn’t quite sit right.

I seek refuge under the mango tree.

And take a breath.

legends

I did not come here to sing

I did not come here to sing

But he does sing, anyway. Unexpectedly. The band leader called him out, and up.

We are in the company of greatness! Please, Mr. Ambolley, please come and join us on stage.

Lounging in the back, chatting with friends under the stars. He’s sitting quietly, not wanting the extra attention. Perhaps just a jaunt to hear some HighLife, an evening out, without fanfare.

But when you’re a living legend, you don’t always get to take a night off.

I’m going to take it in a different direction tonight

Stage, fronting trumpets, drums, bass, is a familiar spot for him. You can tell. A majesty, he moves with the beat. Because it’s part of him.

Football may be life in West Africa, but music is heart and soul. Wander any neighborhood, in any town, and you cannot escape it. A reggaeton beat fuels your step. Hip Life giving you bounce. Gospel down the way. And always, drums. Volume turned to eleven. We all dance. We all sing.

Ambolley, forefather of HighLife, humors us, treats us to a song. And his voice, all deep and sugar. Ad lib, improvisation, all soul, all magic.

Some in the audience know him well. Others, first time. But everyone, in a matter of moments, knows. We’re in the presence of greatness. Of legend.

He did not come here to sing.

But as the beat washes us, we’re sure glad he did.

Bigger goals

The generator is humming today, but it’s the crickets buzzing that grab my attention. There must be so many, hidden in the grass. Krrrrrrrrrrrt. Krrrrrrrrrrt.

Don’t they get crushed by the boots?

I breathe heavily, not quite panting, but close. My heart bumps as I regret a lack of exercise over the past week. Month. Year.

I track forward, then back, a weather vane spinning as the flow of play turns me once, then again. A familiar twinge as first my left, then my right achilles cries out.

I’m getting too old for this.

But I love it so damn much.

Football is king here. Cruise round country and it’s a stone guarantee that you’ll see ten, twenty, even thirty young boys (why always boys?) chasing a ball.

To most outsiders, the typical pitch is little more than a red-dirt, uneven, bumpy patch of land, bereft of marking or sidelines, usually nestled abruptly against a too busy street or highway. Makeshift goals, usually torn-up shoes or a couple weathered, just big-enough rocks. To most outsiders.

But to these footballers, it’s Camp Nou, 100,000 deep. And nothing matters besides the ball, the score, the game. Football is life.

Today’s game is on grass.

It’s been some twenty years since I played on grass. The ball off your foot, the way it travels, the smell, the sound. There’s nothing like it.

When word gets out there’s a game, we get players. Real players. These guys are good.

Danny, sinewy, a spider. Always the ball, in sight and mind. When he’s ready, he dives in, all in. But still in control. It’s inevitable that he comes away with the ball at his feet, and once he does, he lays it square to

Gideon, the vet. Still fleet, still cagy. Not afraid to make me look bad. And in this moment, he does. He feints left, dodges right, ball tethered to his feet. He plays the ball to

Coach, the thinker. Constantly directing traffic, he’s lost a step, but makes up for it with savvy. And strength. A kindred spirit, I dream to play like him. He makes a move but is dispossessed by

Alfred, all legs and pace, flash and smile as he’s by you. A lightning bolt, daring you to take him on, daring to take you on. He veers quickly right, laying the ball square to

Ben. The Maestro, the Engine. Playing 3D Chess as the rest of us struggle to get our checkers in place on the board.

I don’t always feel like I belong with these guys. They’re younger, fitter. Better.

But I still have my moments. A graceful pass, a deft feint. A searching ball over the top, paced to lead a teammate on. They don’t happen as often as they used to. But when they do, I’m afloat.

The games are battles. We’re all in, and we play like it matters, because it does. Because football is life.

But, at the end of it.

It’s these moments, post-match, that I’ll remember. Full of heart and sweaty affection for one another. Full-bodied handshakes with a hug and a snap. We are all damp stink. But it doesn’t matter.

Laughter catches as we recap, talk smack, surprises, miracle plays. Always the mistakes, especially the mistakes.

In these moments, we are here. And we are together, and football is all that matters.

I’m getting too old for this.

But I love it so damn much.

Commute

First bend, a right turn

Papa

Did you know this is the smoothest part of our ride

We round, the morning still quiet. Our ride together allows us to slowly wake, in unison with the world. We pass a young boy on his way to school. He seems lost in thought, but still has time to wave hello.

The birds are the ones most alert, patterned warblers long since busy. They taunt us, asking What took you so long to get out of bed?

Left turn

Two night-shift guards heading home. One wraps his bright orange neckerchief, readying for the sweaty tro-tro.

This section has a lot more potholes, we need to be careful

Elephant is paying attention to the roads this morning. He is present, awake, noticing. It wakes me too. He perches on the rack behind me, his arms around my waist just firm enough to steady.

He’s comfortable back there. And his arms around me are the best start to the day.

Turn three

Morning workout for our friend. He must be finishing his jog as he bends his arms, touches his shoulders, bends his arms, touches his shoulders. Maintaining his pace, you can tell he does this a lot. He nods hello and smiles. I should probably get some exercise

Fourth turn, a final right

We amble lazily down the home stretch. The sun plays off the leaves, the breeze is welcome. Elephant waves a quiet hello to our usual friends.

They’re happy to see us too.

Spiced

Leticia and I have quiet agreements.

She glides, like a ray patrolling the reef, graceful, steady, her daily rounds. She has her stops, a pattern to follow.

At the same point in each morning, she pokes her head in the door, makes bright eye contact, and smiles.

Without saying a word, only raising her arms and eyebrows, she asks.

Yes, please, today.

She is steady of hand and sturdy afoot, with her silverware and dishes. She moves with certainty. And is always accurate with her bookkeeping.

How much is left from before please

I know it’s 26. But it’s been 11 days since I’ve seen her so want to double check that we’re on the same page.

26, please

As expected, she knows the score.

She departs silently but I know she’ll be back.

Many things happen in between. A’s water bottle spills into A’s cubby and he mops it up. A fifth grader comes in to survey the crew about Overnight. The usual suspect breaks wind, yet again. They all know it’s him, yet again, but rather than disdain, it’s giggles that spread, yet again. It’s funny, still funny, always funny.

She returns with her tray, this time loaded, for me. It’s a simple, predictable meal, but a ritual that fuels my afternoon. Tomato-rich jollof, fresh greens, crisp beets and carrots sliced just small, chicken with what everyone would agree is the right amount of pepper.

Red sauce, mild spice. Brown sauce, beads of sweat begin to form spice. Green sauce, take a break and sweat for the rest of your afternoon spice.

I mean, sweat more than your usual, normal, equatorial-sun is blindingly hot and humidity is off-the-charts sweat. To clarify.

She places it on the counter and I unwrap the thin layer of saran.

I stick with the red today.

Elephant Poop

We lounge on the bed, the gentle breeze of the ceiling fan fueling our indifference to ambition.

Elephant steps out of the bathroom, pantless yet unconcerned.

Papa

Yeah buddy?

Toilet paper is divided into two parts

He precisely pries the two ply plys, then proudly prizes the pried paired plys for our proud prying eyes.

I acknowledge his accomplishment with an understated nod. It’s the little things, when you’re six.

Heck, it’s the little things when you’re a grownup.

Like ceiling fans. And alliteration.

Did you wipe?

Not yet.

Was it a healthy one or a bit runny?

We’ve been passing around yucky tummies this week, the question is timely and urgent. His reply is perfect.

Not runny, just a little chicken nugget

Distance

Driver’s license.

He takes the gray tri-fold pamphlet with showmanship befitting his immaculate, neatly-trimmed uniform. He studies it carefully, a matching hat tipped slightly, shading a corner of his face. He means business.

Roo-doo.

Yes, please. I don’t correct him.

You’ll need to accompany me to the courthouse. I need to write this up.

I play my expected role and bristle. By all accounts, a trip to the courthouse is a bureaucratic nightmare. Hours, and hundreds, in the making. He doesn’t want that, and neither do we.

Oh, no sir, I’m very sorry for overspeeding. I don’t want to waste your time going to court, you are a busy man. Please, there must be some way we can work this out.

Hold on, I’m coming.

He saunters away, confident, likely weighing his transactional opportunity, sizing us up. Making us sweat.

He checks in with the truck driver, stopped meters in front of us, to inspect cargo, an ocean of green and yellow. Hundreds, thousands of sweaty bananas, heaped throughout the half-open trailer. The doors, walls, and sides of the too large truck are a brilliant orange, blasting the sun back towards us.

The lanky trucker offers a lone banana to the detective. They exchange words, share a joke (orange you glad I didn’t say banana, perhaps), and a laugh.

They reach agreement. The trucker ambles back towards the cab, his limp slowing him, only slightly.

He knows he has us. We were at 66 in a 50 zone. His proof taunts us in the handheld gun’s dated gray calculator font. We’re not the worst offenders, but he’s got us, just the same. We take out some money.

100?

Nah, that’s way too much!

Okay, keep 50 handy. Let’s see how it goes.

I try to ignore all the cars blowing by at what for sure is 85 out of the corner of my eye. <Be the adult, not the nine-year old> I remind myself.

He returns to the car, pauses, tsks, and looks to his left, my license still firmly in hand.

Give me 50 and you go.

.

During our first days, a local professor in sociology assured us that distance to authority is high in this country; you don’t joke with Johnny Law.

At checkpoints, we have a go-to routine: smile, greet, ask after their health, act like we know them, as old friends would. They hold the chips, but they’re human, and being polite usually wins the day.

<we smile broadly, and remind the boys to look up, make eye contact, and do the same>

Hallo sir! How is your day? Everything good?

Where are you heading?

On this day, our destination is met with a cringe.

Axim, please.

He knows how long the day before us in the car will last. His sympathy wins out and with a nod and a smile, he waves us along.

Thank you, all the best!

And we’re off.

That’s how it generally goes.

.

Time to time, we meet an officer with something different in mind. He or she will quickly size us up and determine whether there’s value in posing the question.

My friends! What do you have for me today? It’s very hot.

We have a 5GHC bill handy and that is usually enough. About a dollar, it buys a cold beverage, earns a hearty smile, and passage forward. The cost of doing business.

This time, though, for some inexplicable reason we offer something else. J rifles through our bag of snacks and I suggest, meekly,

Would you like some peanuts?

He bristles, chuckles, and refuses politely, probably saying to himself, these people have no clue, but his refusal concedes that we now have the upper hand. His bluff has been called. This is not a toll station, and we have broken no laws.

There will be no money changing hands here. So we borrow a line from departed colleagues.

We can offer you…our blessings?

He bursts into laughter, gives the side of the car a gentle tap, and sends us on our way.

Anchorman

Today it is his turn to dive.

Loaded with netting, a threadbare hull scarred by sun, deeply worn by wind and wave, the canoe is nightmare fuel for one who does not understand or respect the ocean.

But clearly, these men do. Oars in hand, synchronous, attuned. A six-person canoe that, for now, holds seven. They push off, move past the break, and swing the bow parallel to the shore.

The journey for him will be quick. He perches on the stern, sturdy, twine coiled and ready around his shoulder.

He’s the only one without an oar, and seemingly the only one without purpose. A stowaway, tagging along for the ride with a steadfast grip on the line that only hints of what’s to come.

When they reach the perfect spot, he must swim.

Now they have. And now he is the one who coils.

There is little fanfare to his departure. A curt nod from a shipmate and he is below the waves.

Alone.

But essential.

He knows these waters well, grew up learning to swim, watching the fishing boats. He peeks above the waves to see his crew leaving him behind.

They make for open water, tripling the intensity of their stroke. They are oblivious to him, he is an afterthought.

But their indifference signals trust. They have faith that he’ll do what is needed. And it is clear, so does he.

He swims a steady, confident path into the uproar of wave. Yet unable to touch, he pauses. Another look back towards his mates, perhaps with longing.

He is the one left behind.

The once-tightly wound line is now a snake trailing. The boat a distant beetle, wriggling six legs in perfected, rhythmic cadence. Snake chases beetle, agonizingly close, always in pursuit, never a satisfying taste.

He persists.

If his grip on the line is lost, so too is the day’s work for his crew, his family, his village. And also, their trust.

He knows the stakes.

With one last powerful push he crests a wave and welcomes the sand between his toes. He steps confidently toward the shore and again turns his gaze to the distant vessel.

They too have reached their destination. A crew, acting not as six, but one, offload the netting over the sides of a craft now drifting. Beetle has tired of the chase, and snake, it seems, has too, straightening to warm itself in the blistering sun.

He steadies himself on the beach, digging his heels into the sand. His well-worn hands steady the now-suspended line as his grip, his stance, and his resolve kick in.

Now the real work begins.