Here Today, Ghana Tomorrow
Words Will Bendix, Pics Greg Ewing
“When we buried my father, we sent him to heaven in a fish,” Paa says without looking up, his fingers working rhythmically to repair the net splayed on the sand in front of him.
“In Ghana you build the coffin to honour a person, who they were. He was a fisherman all his life, just like I am a fisherman now,” he says. “This is all I know.”
Paa talks about the ocean and the dead, about sending the departed off in elaborately crafted coffins that celebrate who they were on earth. His hands never stop moving. They are coarse like the ropes he has pulled since he was a boy growing up in Accra. The lines dissecting his palms are tattooed deeply with salt. Paa would also like to be sent to heaven in a fish, or even a boat, when his time comes.
“But these boys,” he says, motioning towards the surf with his chin, “They do not know fishing. They do not know what it’s like to spend days out on the ocean. But,” he concedes, “they know the sea.”
A wave peels off towards us and finally closes out, spilling a surfer onto the sand. I recognise Kofi, one of the local surf instructors. He retrieves his board, flashes us a shaka, and takes a few quick strokes back into the lineup.
“It doesn’t matter. Busua is home for all of us,” says Paa, looking down again, his hands still working. “And our home is the sea.”
Booo-swah. The name rolls off your tongue like the long stretch of sand that whips into a point on the western shores of Ghana. The small village is a far cry from the manic sprawl of the capital, Accra, from where we’d come. In Busua there is no gridlock traffic, no clatter from the dusty skeletons of high-rise buildings continually under construction. Instead there’s only one road hemmed in by thick jungle and swaying palms that tickle the belly of endless beaches. The earth is rich here too, bubbling with oil, bleeding with gold. Giant deposits of crude were discovered in the nearby town of Takoradi in 2007, precipitating Ghana’s ‘second gold rush’. But we had come prospecting for other treasure, our small entourage armed to the teeth.
Ricky Basnett sits on the cement floor in the middle of his quiver, unpacking boards, screwing in fins. “I love this board,” he says, rubbing the rail of a 5’10 Campbell Brothers bonzer, a gift from Taylor Knox. He flips it over to secure the big skeg that’s flanked by four stubby little keel fins, two on each rail. “It’s got the same feel as a single fin, the same glide,” he says. “But with these little side bites you can really put it on the rail and push it hard through the turns. You’re not gonna be doing fin wafts but when you do a proper turn, jeepers, it makes you feel like Curren.”
Scattered around him is a more conventional single fin, a bat-tail quad and one standard thruster. Not too long ago, in another lifetime, Ricky would have also been holed up in a hotel room, hoping for waves. But instead of a remote outpost in West Africa, it would have been at a contest site for the Tour, and his uniform quiver would definitely not have looked like this. Some critics still say Basnett is so much wasted talent - better than half the Top 34 at least, but too loose to get his act together. Dane Reynolds even pegged him as one of his favourite surfers at some point or other, indifferent to the fact that he couldn’t string together a winning heat.
“Do I miss the tour?” Ricky repeats when asked the question. “Shit, I dunno. It was really fun, but I hated competing,” he says. “Seriously, I don’t know how to explain it. The expectation, the pressure you put on yourself…” he trails off, stops, then waves his hand dismissively and laughs, “Ag man, I’m just doing a different tour now, the Africa tour!”
A breeze flaps the curtains of our shabby hotel room and we can hear a few of the locals waxing up outside. John Micheletti, who has joined us from Nigeria, starts bouncing around the room, telling Ricky to get his arse into gear - there are waves to be ridden. Unlike many of the African countries we’ve scouted in the past few years, Ghana has its own budding surf scene. Our digs on the beach looks directly over Black Star Surf Shop where you can rent boards, buy wax or just crack a cold one at the bar and chill with the Busua Boys. On Wednesday nights the manager rolls down the big screen in the back and everyone gathers round to watch surf films, hooting, toes digging into the sand as Ando or Machado fly across the shop wall.
Seven years ago there wasn’t even a local surfer around Busua. About the same time that oil was discovered in the region, an American named Peter Nardini and his wife were volunteering at a hospital in the nearby village of Dixcove. He knew there were waves in the area and had assumed he’d be able to rent a board in Ghana. He assumed wrong.
Peter eventually managed to wrangle a few boards off some travelling surfers and started exploring. He quickly found out that the western region held the best waves in the country. Not long afterwards he partnered with Busua native, Frank Bordes, and opened up a surf shop. Peter taught Bordes and several other locals how to surf and run the business, which grew into a surf school, restaurant and tour operator.
Today Busua is the heart and soul of surfing in Ghana with Black Star located firmly at its centre. Peter has since moved on, handing the reins over to his namesake, Peter Ansah. 24-year-old Ansah has a perpetual smile stretched across his face. He laughs when asked how the son of a farmer ended up running a surf business in a traditional fishing village.
“Peter Nardini always planned that the business would eventually be owned and operated by local people,” he says. “I became good friends with him and I was the first local to be trained as a surfing instructor. When he left, he felt I was the right person to keep the business going.”
Like many other families from the area, growing up in Busua was hard for Peter. He had to either hustle for fish or work on the farm for food.
“My family was worried at first because they thought that I could get into trouble out in the water,” he remembers. “Sometimes when the waves were really good they would drag me away from the beach to go and work on the farm. I would run off back to the beach but this meant no food for me that evening!”
The same waves at Busua now provide a livelihood for Peter and his staff. Every day the high tide pushes rippable little peaks into the bay that has become a magnet for backpackers and surfers bumping around Africa. It’s also the perfect incubator for upcoming talent like Bebe, Peter’s younger brother, who ranks top in the Ghana Surfing Association. But the most impressive thing about Busua is the vibe. There’s hooting and high-fives. Local grommies wiggle to the beach amongst travelling surfers who trade waves with the boys. There isn’t a whiff of aggression in the lineup. In a naive way, Busua feels like an alternate blueprint for the future of surfing. A place where the slate has been wiped clean and everyone is welcome. Ebenezer Bentum, who runs the development programme for Black Star, puts it simply “I prefer treating people with love and care than to make people feel bad.”
Ricky and John opt to use the punchy bowls as a ramp for airs, which elicit fist pumps and cheers from the beach every evening. Later, after one particularly impressive spinner, a man with thick flowing dreads finds Ricky having a beer and slaps an unsolicited bankie of Ghana’s finest into his palm. “Here, this is for you, for earlier,” he says, while sticking his index finger in the air and making invisible circles.
Busua is a perfect base camp, but it’s not really what we came for. From here to the Ivory Coast border lie a hundred kilometres of untapped coastline, begging to be explored. It had looked relatively easy from the heights of Google Earth.
“Watch your head, watch your head!” Peter shouts, too late, giggling as our heads collectively ricochet against the roof of the yellow van. We bounce out of another giant pothole that spits us back onto the road to Akwidaa. The dirt track cuts through thick forest and rubber tree plantations. The sliding door, already hanging on its hinges, threatens to fall off completely with every bump. Every now and then a man appears on the side of the road holding up a giant rodent splayed flat on a grill. Grass cutter is sold as a local delicacy. It’s similar to a cane rat, and falls off the bone in delicious chunks when braai’d just right.
After a couple of hours driving we pull up at a clearing and the battered van is immediately swamped by a gaggle of small kids who start chanting:
How are you?
How are you?
I am fine!”
“Obroni means ‘white person, white person’,” says Peter as we untie the lump of boards from the roof. “If you get tired of it, just call them ‘obibini’ – black person.” But this just incites the kids into hysterical fits of laughter and more determined chanting as obroni and obibini make their way through the jungle.
Despite looking desolate at first glance, the beach is lined with patchy villages tucked behind a curtain of palm trees. In Ghana you are never really alone. With a head count of 25 million inside its 239 460 square kilometres, it’s one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and the majority of people live along the coast.
We end our trek in a far corner of a bay where a right point connects with a lumpy stretch of reef. We paddle out into the deep green water, alongside cliffs that crumble into the ocean, and suddenly we are very far away from anything.
That night back at Busua the party is in full swing. Pop songs and bass-heavy Afrobeat blast from a tricked out sound system. There’s a goat on the braai and everyone dips in, grabbing chunks of meat, washing it down with quarts of Club lager. A few kids have latched onto our crew. They buzz around, tracing the outline of Ricky’s tattoos, trying on caps and sunnies, then strike their best gangsta pose. It ends in a dance off between two pint-sized groms who go head to head with backflips and a synchronized twerking routine that would bury Anastasia Ashleigh in the sand.
“Yeah, everyone in Ghana loves to dance,” grins Peter, pushing his palm down to his knees. “Children learn from when they are this big.”
We’re awoken the next morning by the sound of men heaving a fishing boat through the shorebreak. It takes twenty humans flanking the wooden vessel on either side to push it into deeper water. They shout in unison to lift the boat off the sand as a wave approaches. “Ho-heyyyyyyyyyyyy!” Once beyond the surf all but the crew dive off and swim back to shore.
We also set sail, pointing our compass towards Cape Three Points where hardly any roads reach. The western edge of Ghana is mostly nature reserve and pokes into neighbouring Ivory Coast like a crooked finger. Peter identifies landmarks as the boat rises and falls with the swell. After a morning’s sail we make landfall in paradise. Here we are truly alone. Long swathes of beach are broken only by rocky outcrops, sandbars and points. Despite the wind being against us, the potential is obvious. We surf all day and sleep at night on bunk beds inside a hut on the beach. The crew from the fishing boat sleep on top, their bodies still swaying rhythmically through the night to the ebb and flow of the sea.
The best surf we find, however, does not require a boat. Black Mamba lies just around the corner from Busua and you have no option but to scramble over endless boulders to make your way up the point or do the long, long paddle from the bay. “I don’t want to find out why they call it Black Mamba,” John says as we navigate our way gingerly over the rocks. The wave is worth the trek, coming out of deep water with velocity as it lopes off the point. Ricky and John find their groove here; John smashing the lip like a pendulum while Ricky buries his rail deep in the pocket. Fist sized urchins hide underwater while fish splash across the oil-smooth surface.
On the rare days when there is no swell the light onshore breeze nudges us along Ghana’s shores. We investigate fishing villages and whitewashed slave forts. Centuries ago, hundreds and thousands of souls were manacled and pushed through the “Door of no return” to awaiting ships that took them across the Atlantic. Today Ghana prides itself as Africa’s most stable democracy and is one of the most peaceful nations on the continent. The forts that line the coast are a profound reminder of the history upon which these freedoms are built.
Invariably we always find ourselves pulled back to Busua, to the dipping sun that paints the village orange, to the benign waves framed by towering kapok trees that stretch their arms out to the sky.
Kapok trees originally came from the jungle of the Americas. Much like the slaves of Ghana’s past, these trees were carried from one world to the other, and it was once believed that the souls of the dead would climb up the branches to reach heaven. But in Ghana the dead are sent to heaven. They are sent to heaven in fish and boats and, one day perhaps, in coffins shaped as surfboards.
JUST THE FACTS:
Best Bet: Ghana has surf most of the year but it rarely gets bigger than six foot. Expect plenty of two to four foot days with gentle winds, often switching to onshore in the afternoon. The best compromise is from March to May, with fairly regular swells, clean water and light winds. June to September are the biggest, most consistent months but they are also the wettest and the windiest.
Waves: Points and beachies with lots of potential to explore, but this ain’t Indo, so don’t go there expecting to find stand-up tubes. You will find rippable, uncrowded waves and some of the coolest people to share them with. There are also rumours of a few fast, sandy points to the east.
What you’ll need: Your standard shortboard, a pair of boardies and a visa to get into Ghana if you’re on an SA passport. A wetsuit top or shorty is advisable around August. Packing a fish or a hybrid will also serve you well.
Basic costs: SAA fly daily and flights are approximately R8000 to Accra from Cape Town or Durban. There is affordable budget accommodation right on the beach at Busua starting at about R120 a person for a basic room, going up to a four star hotel. Be warned though, basic in Ghana means basic. Dadson’s Lodge is a popular budget option and is run by Mama, the matriarch of Busua who will take good care of you. Food is affordable and good. Plenty of fresh fish and tasty local grinds like fufu, a starchy pap-like dish that’s dipped in an accompanying soup or sauce. Expect to pay about R25-R40 on average for a meal in a beach café, and R12 for a quart of Club beer. Street food is cheaper but also riskier. Follow the old rule of thumb and eat where the locals eat.
Hazards: Not much, besides the odd flying beginner’s board at Busua and the occasional mutant urchin at Black Mamba. Ghana is a safe, friendly country but things like malaria and lurgies in the water are always a concern. The country is billed as an African success story, but the reality on the ground is that there is still real poverty and a lack of infrastructure, which means some of the beaches near busy villages and cities are used as toilets and suffer heavily from litter and pollution. Pick your path carefully if you’re bundu-bashing. Busua, in comparison, is very clean and the reserve areas are generally pristine.
Inside scoop: Hook up with Black Star for your stay in Busua (www.blackstarsurfshop.com) or just for a recce around the area to get your bearings. The crew will get you dialed into the best waves and show you a good time, guaranteed. The Busua beach parties are also legendary. No invite needed, just pull in wherever the music is pumping and make some new friends.
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine