Monday, June 14, 2010



Visiting my brother Dan in Africa last week I thought I'd make some small, long-needed repairs at his compound apartment, while he did his day's work at the embassy. Fixing the leak in his bicycle tire was ideal, because tasks that get you out in the community are the best. Dan had been carrying a full size metal pump in his backpack to refill the failing tire every 20 minutes of ride. I scotch-taped the pump to the crossbar and went into the afternoon heat of the city streets looking for the repair person.

The first two young men I met on bicycles I asked, "Where would you go to fix a leak in your tire?" They look at each other a moment. "A petrol station?" I ask. "Maybe--- Ah, try Wyeliss school." "How do I get there?" They point down the road. "Everybody knows where it is and I just ask as I go?" "Yes" "Thank you" and I'm on my way, five street vendor inquiries later turning into a 20 flagpole-lined [no flags] driveway towards an upscale gated community. But going past the turn-in gate you're dumped into an area of fields bordered by piles of red clay rubble, with a cluster of low-lying dust brown home-made cement block and stick houses, well beyond that, stretching out along the horizon.

That's where I'm headed, the well appointed gatekeepers tell me. Going slow on my bike down a narrow clay path strewn and lined with garbage out six feet on each side, I'm making my way through a much larger field of beautiful healthy corn. Planted green and random, not in Midwestern rows, it's up about 3 feet now, and contrasts with the somewhat unpleasant smell of the throw-as-you-go dump that winds through it. Approaching Nicholas [he gives me his name] from behind, I decide to walk with him, and yes he knows Wyeliss school, they do fix bikes, and he'll show me the place.
Into the dirt streets we go crowded with cars people vendors and animals mostly chickens. "Its not far down on the left he points. You'll see it." And he leaves with one of the picture postcards-- ice dominates freighter under the Blue Water Bridge—that I've brought as touchstone gifts from the far north.

here is no apparent school [it was down a little further perhaps] but I come upon a packed clay front yard chock full of repair needy mopeds—maybe twenty of them, with parts strewn about. Picking my way though them to the cement block house entrance, I meet Patience in her mid-forties. " My husband is out, can you wait? Can you give me your cell phone, units are up on mine?" "I don't have a cell phone, and can't wait an hour—would rather ride about--but if he'll be back I will return. It is just a slow leak, easy to fix on the front tire. I do them often myself but don't have the tools."

She goes inside for a moment, then across the street and finds a 10 year old neighbor boy who will do the job. "Will you use water to check for the leak?" "Yes." "How much will it cost?" He looks lost. I throw out, in the presence of Patience, "How about three cedis [~ $1.80]?" A flicker of smile and light pass quickly over the boy's face, and I know this is a good price. He starts in efficiently removing the tube from the tire, then takes care to show me the bubbles leaking from a spot near the stem, with tube immersed in a couple inches of water in a plastic pail. "Are we going to check the rest of the tube?" He responds by offering a most deliberate joint in water inspection along the whole length.

Postcard photo by Terry Ernest

Soon Julius, in his mid teens, and a friend appear. "You gotta have heart to ride a bike, some have to stop after only a couple blocks." They don't--they ride everywhere all the time. "I ride a lot in Port Huron too, if it's not a time when there's deep snow, and that's not often because they plow and salt the roads." "You put salt on to melt the ice," they say. "Yes." "And do you go with skis when you can't ride your bike?" "Sometimes, but we can't go on the roads, so it's more for exercise than to get around. The corn that I saw growing around your neighborhood, how do you use it?" "We soak it for 2 days, and then wet grind it for pancakes to eat as is, or to fold around meat pies." "That's like what I saw in Chiapas Mexico, except they re-dry it, and then dry grind." "Do young people in the U.S. get together to talk, like we are now, or are they just stuck by themselves talking on cell phones and computers all the time?" "They do still get together." "You're welcome to come here anytime."

"Do you have email?" "Yes," pointing to the address on the back of the picture postcard [river freighter surrounded by chunks of ice], and I pass three of these around for Patience and the boys. Patience at the start of my visit had brought out to show me her U.S. embassy photo ID badge, proud of having a permanent cleaning job there, being from a neighborhood of few jobs. "We will email you." I hope so, but even my brother at his private embassy apartment, hasn't been able to set up adequate internet connection in his 2 years here. Internet connection is very spotty, even in the multimillion dollar brand new walled and securitized U.S. embassy office compound.

Patience says, "I wish I could come to the U.S. someday. It is very expensive." "Yes, it is very expensive [thinking of the $2,000 it cost Dan & me, just for air ticket and visa hassles, and Dan working for the embassy]." To the boys I say, "My brother does interviews for those caught in troubles and wars, those needing to get out. He leaves back for the U.S. in one month."

The 10 year old neighbor boy doing the work has come up to me and shown me job complete with a hard thumb press on firm re-inflated tire. "Did you retest with the water after you put the patch on?" A moment of slight embarrassment, recovered by the boys saying, "There should be no problem. You know where we are now, and you can come back anytime if there's a problem with the tire." To the ten year old I say, "You are right. This repair most always works. And you have done a very good job. Now what is the price?" Older boys answering, "There is no charge. You are our friend." "Since I mentioned 3 cedis at the start, I think I should keep the agreement." For a second I was going to give the cedis one to each boy, then gave them to the 10 year old who'd done the job. "Here's 3 cedis, that you can share with your friends as you like. And one more [I passed to Patience], for having made the arrangement." That seemed to satisfy everyone. They would have gladly gifted me with the favor—but the money helps.

There was no further leak in the tire, and I rode it many places in Accra those next five days. Even up [strapped to the back of a tro-tro—people's mini bus] and down the mountain hiways to the Aburi gardens of huge tropical trees. It was often in some of the most downtrodden places that I gained the best viewpoint. When you're not afraid to come to their place, they're less afraid of you.

Africa has a long history of terrible deprivations.

Illumination by Kathy Brahney.

Unfortunately, my camera was stolen out of Delta baggage {first time that's happened in years of travel} either in New York or Accra, so no direct visit pictures, unless Dan can find a method to download from his European style, U.S. embassy issue cell phone camera.

A thousand thank you's to my brother Dan, for introducing me to Africa.


  1. Thank you for this touching perspective...

  2. What a powerful much to be gained, for all of us, for only 4 cedi...beyond priceless.