The last time I flew alone was during the literary festival season of 2009, when I had to go from Guernsey to Glasgow – complete with a criminally early start – in time for a reading at the Wigtown Book Festival. I loved the buzz of just making it, always have – as a young boy in Accra, I was known to burst into classrooms, backpack overflowing with books with just moments to spare before class. Unfortunately, I have had to dispense with that small pleasure since I began to travel en famille. It was fine when it was just my partner, Marrianne, and me – we managed to do Cuba while she was pregnant, running down departure halls – but then along came Omara, my daughter. What was spontaneous is now precision-planned. Guernsey wasn’t complicated. Try a ten-week long family holiday/research trip to Ghana.

We started with airlines, making our selection based on a combination of budget, flight times and global geopolitics. EgyptAir won on all fronts, beating Afriquiyah weeks before the well-publicised crash in Tripoli. Then came packing: ten weeks meant we had to consider food, nappies, vaccinations, insect repellent and appropriate clothes for a heat that Omara would never have experienced before. Ghana wasn’t our first flight together, but the first trip was to New York and it was short. All I needed was a caddy to secure Omara on my back so that I could still carry our cases without too much trouble. I didn’t mind that she spent half the time pulling my hair and yelling ‘boo’ at me whenever we passed a reflective surface.

Travelling for ten weeks alone would have meant two pairs of jeans, six T-shirts, a formal shirt and a change of shoes – all in hand luggage, with my suitcase filled with books and notes. With a baby, it’s a bit more like moving house than going for a holiday. So I bought reusable nappies and decreed that milk would be a night-time treat rather than a four-times-a-day habit. And I took charge of packing, which upset Marrianne, who loves folding so much that one of my pet names for her is Foldita. She’s very good at it – but her folding is more contemplative, something she does while listening to music. What we needed here was migration folding, which I am much better at; Marrianne wasn’t raised by my mother, who can pack a suitcase so tight that an ant would suffocate inside it.

We still paid overweight luggage charges, and I couldn’t help remembering my late father’s jokes about how rich he would have been without children. Once you have kids you’re punching above your financial weight – overweight charges are just a reminder. Regardless, we made our first stop in Cairo with no hiccoughs; Omara slept the entire time. In Cairo she was habibi-ed to death as she ran up and down a terminal that was brand new and bore no resemblance to the prison-like building I knew as a student thirteen years before; in place of stained grey walls, were stunning views of reclaimed desert and expansive works of art. In fact, it wasn’t the same terminal; it was brand new – built to accommodate the boom in holidays to Sharm el Sheikh. Marrianne was stalked by a toilet attendant for twenty-one minutes for not tipping. Understandably, she was relieved to touch down in Ghana – go through the two-tone green forest of Customs, waved through by a kindly rat-faced man with a bald patch the shape of the Niger Delta – and see my sister waving frantically to welcome us. Babies get you through customs very quickly in child-loving Ghana and – we soon found out – babies get accustomed very quickly to child-loving Ghana.

Omara took to Ghana like she was born there. In the mornings, she battled me for a share of my Hausa Koko and Kosé; she fell in love with Kenkey; she handled Banku and spicy Okro soup without pausing to drink water; and she chased lizards and chickens with abandon. Ants became an obsession with her – she darted with them as they changed paths, watched them find their way around obstacles placed in their way. She rarely asked for milk; she had a new love – akutu. Oranges. In Ghana, oranges are sold with the skins artistically peeled off with specially sharpened cutlery knives. The tops are lopped off when you buy them and you suck them dry.

Things were different for Marrianne. She didn’t love the ants of Accra, didn’t appreciate their creepy ways, the way some flew after rain. Flying ants? Her artist’s eye loved the intense sunlight and bright fabric patterns, but she had to adjust to the oddity of seeing me drive in manic traffic. She grimaced as I drove up a street I had used years previously to find that it was now one-way. I don’t think I had ever mentioned to her that I had a driving licence. I had grown as strange to her as Accra’s streets had grown to me, but we had enough time to find our way.

 

Photograph © Matt Northam

Anthony Doerr | Interview
West African Sketchbook