Travel and Sports Silver Winner: Ghana Will Always Win

by Joshua Berman

The author experiences World Cup fever on the Gold Coast

It was a two-day journey to Tamale, where Mammah Tenii was waiting to connect us with Chief Kansuk, who everybody called “Chief.” It was the summer of 2006 and the national soccer team, the Ghana Black Stars, was playing in the World Cup in Germany. It was a historical moment to be there and we had this other mission on top of it.

My wife, Sutay, and I arrived at the station early, before the sun was up, and got in line for the bus. If we’d learned one thing about traveling in West Africa, it was to show up early and be prepared to fight for a seat. With an eight hour ride ahead of us, the stakes were high.

Sutay and I were volunteering abroad, stationed on the old Gold Coast—Ghana!—with its drums and kente cloth, slave castles and tribal dynasties, its ink-dark Castle Stout beer and of course, its beloved Black Stars. We’d signed on with an organization that matched our professional skills—a writer and a registered nurse—with a non-profit organization in Accra, the crusty capital. On this day, we were on our way to a clinic in the north of the country, to deliver medical supplies and to visit Chief in the Kparigu clinic.

The bus driver showed up an hour late, opened the door and let us all rush for seats. He wore a loose, knee-length blue smock over dark pants and polished shoes. He faced everybody and spoke in a loud voice: “We are about to begin our journey to Kumasi. May God be with us all.”

Everybody on the bus responded on cue, “Amen!”

We lurched forward into morning traffic. The driver took our vehicle through crazy back-street detours to avoid the morning gridlock. The radio blared a morning talk show whose topic was, of course, the Ghana Black Stars and their prospects in the next round of the tournament. The entire country was on fire about it, especially during game time in bars and restaurants, when the entire country shut down to watch. The government even ordered several industrial and mining operations to cease so there would be electricity for everyone’s televisions.

Our housemates, Yaya, Effo, Kojo, and Odartey, dominated the television outside our bedroom, watching every game, whether Ghana was playing or not, and always singing the national anthem at every commercial: “Raise high the flag of Ghana, And one with Africa advance, Black star of hope and honor, To all who thirst for liberty!”

Team jerseys were on sale on every street corner in Accra with the names and numbers of the stars: Mensah, Appiah, Amoah, Essien, Kingson. Things had peaked a few days before, when Ghana played the United States. In Mamprobi, our neighborhood, each of Ghana’s goals against the United States was followed by an eruption of families into the streets—yelling, playing drums, singing, gourd shaking, running and racing in every direction.

Then the game was over and Ghana had won 2:1. Let me repeat this. Ghana had defeated the United States. Sutay and I burst out of our gates with our host family to join mobs of young and old in the streets. People drag-raced cars (we pressed our backs to the fence when they passed), shirtless men hung out of the windows; other groups ran wild with flags, chanting, singing, shouting:

“Ghana besha debiya!”

Ghana will always win!

People had climbed atop vehicles to dance and formed impromptu processions of celebrants. I paraded through the streets with a group of teens; they draped me with yellow-red-and-green flags, hats, and ribbons and shouted over and over, “Don’t cry, obruni! Don’t cry, white boy!”

I congratulated everyone I met. I said, “You scored my country!” This was their word for “defeated.” I laughed at their taunts then asked if I could take their picture. When I returned home, spent and sweaty, covered with dust, Effo, the caretaker of our home, sent Kojo down the block for a basket of beers. We sat in front of the house with our neighbor, Uncle John, whose little granddaughters danced around us and we shouted to all who passed, “Ghana besha debiya!”

Beating the United States was one thing, but now the Black Stars faced Brazil, five-time World Cup champs and the top-rated team in the world. It did not matter. Ghanaians were riding so high on their team’s Cinderella trajectory—the only African teams to advance this far in the World Cup, ever!—that they started having wild delusions of success.

On the packed bus to Kumasi, everyone listened attentively to “The Choice Breakfast Show” on Joy FM. The DJ was taking calls, which were divided into fatalists who saw no chance of beating Brazil and believers who thought there was hope. Callers were either drowning in despair or praying for a miracle.

“If you fight a lion and die, it is better than fighting a dog!” said one caller.

Others made predictions: “Brazil-1, Ghana-0!”

Why?

“Because the Africans brought their girlfriends to Germany, how can they perform? These boys do not control themselves! If you touch a woman, it takes seven days to recover before a game. That is football! Self-control! Argentina, Brazil, and the UK have learned this!”

“Let us call for a national hour of prayer,” said the next caller. “God will make sure we win. The Almighty will provide. Tomorrow we will know if God is fair or if He is not fair.”

As we approached the edge of Accra, the DJ was on a roll. “What does Brazil have? They have the samba! Where did the samba come from? From Africa! The Brazilian voodoo princes put pins in Black Star dolls’ faces, yes! But we gave them their voodoo! Whatever Brazil has, we have better!”

Thundering applause in the bus and shouts of approval.

“Are Brazilians not human?” he continued. “Then can we not score them? Let us pray.”

As we left the city limits and pointed into the interior, the radio began breaking up, turned to static, then we were out of the traffic and a breeze blew through the bus and dried the sweat on our foreheads.

The next morning, while it was still dark, we ate omelets, drank instant coffee, and watched a news reporter on TV interviewing a few of the Black Stars. Today was game day, David confronting another Goliath in a massive German arena with the whole world watching.

Sutay and I shouldered our packs and walked two blocks to the station where we waited for the bus to show. We boarded, prayed with the driver (in both Twi and English), joined the choral “Amen!,” then pulled away, only two hours behind schedule. The delay ensured that everyone on the bus would miss at least the first quarter of the game and I heard people grumble about it.

Seven hours later, a wide, round-faced man named Mammah met us in Tamale and took us to the Catholic Guesthouse. We joined staff and guests clustered around a single, tiny television. Ghana was down. Robbed of the last goal, was the consensus, the referee was racist! This was not fair!

After Ghana had lost, denial quickly turned into a surge of support for their team. I followed the parade of bodies, shouting, drumming, and singing into the streets. After two days cramped in buses, walking was a joy and while Sutay rested in the hot room, I walked clear across town with the celebrants, past the mosque, its silhouette sleek against orange light, through the market, and back in the dark.

I woke Sutay and made her get up to eat a dinner of rice and guinea fowl in red sauce, washed down with sweet soda, then to bed. Our room was dismal and the first mosquito bites came just as I drifted off, on my shoulders which were rounded domes, mosques, mosquitoes, inviting me inside, rounded backs but with flat fronts, bites and dreams, tossing and turning.

I awoke and realized the fan had stopped, the power was out, and I was going to drip sweat through the rest of the night. Sutay struggled to sleep in her creaking bed across the room. The night dragged until the night began to fade and grayness appeared and I realized that in only one hour, Mammah would be picking us and up and carrying us to our next adventure

This not-knowing energized me, this wide-open moment before dawn in northern Ghana. It overshadowed the bites and exhaustion and itching, at least for a moment as I stood under a wonderful, tepid trickle of water.


Joshua Berman has been traveling, living, teaching, and leading trips in Central America since 1998, the year the Peace Corps sent him to Nicaragua as an education volunteer. He has taken students to Guatemala and El Salvador, guided film crews into caves in Belize, and has eaten raw testicles on Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”

Joshua is a freelance writer, Spanish teacher, and television production fixer who bounces between Colorado and Latin America. He is a proud alumnus of Brown University, AmeriCorps, Outward Bound, and the Whiskeytown Fire Use Module. Joshua is the author of Maya 2012, Moon Belize, and Moon Nicaragua.

His work has appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Outside Traveler, 5280, Sunset, National Geographic Traveler, The Boston Globe, Worldview, and Mountain Gazette. He hopes 2012 will be a year of continuing discovery for himself and his family.

One Response to “Travel and Sports Silver Winner: Ghana Will Always Win”

  1. Ghana Will Always Win! Africa story wins the silver in 2012 Solas travel writing awards | Joshua Berman Says:

    […] Travel and Sports Silver Winner: “Ghana Will Always Win” […]

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