Balloon hats by
it on the ocean?"
"Yes. Beach and fishing. Come, follow me."
arguments there. The four of us climbed into the back seat of a
small Toyota (there were three others in front) and bounced down
the dirt road to Busua, a small fishing village on Ghana's Cape
Coast. Toward the end of the ride, Addi wasn't talking anymore.
Charlie wondered whether he was still conscious, since everyone
had been piled on top of him. When we got out in Busua, Addi explained
that he hadn't quite passed out, but that the weight of everyone's
bodies along with the impact of driving through some large sinkholes
in the road had forced all the air from his lungs. Busua then, not
a moment too soon. A balloon hat twister with collapsed lungs is
no one's idea of a party — that is if he actually was what
he claimed to be. Although he had told me three-quarters of his
backpack was full of balloons, I hadn't yet seen one.
woman led us to her friend Elizabeth's guesthouse, a cement block
structure and some steel-roofed huts around a central court. The
sanctuary of the Musama Disco Christo Church, of which Elizabeth
was an elder, formed the remaining side of the compound. The local
children who attempted to carry, and ended up dragging Charlie and
Addi's massive bags seemed confused that neither one of them was
particularly interested in seeing Fort Metal Cross, one of the sixteen
old slave-trading forts that dot the Cape Coast of Ghana, and the
primary reason tourists come to Busua at all. Addi would merely
say, "maybe later," as he and Charlie continued to poke around,
muttering lighting and backdrop logistics to each other.
dark in our small hut, Addi pulled out some balloons and began twisting
practice shapes for what he knew would be his African debut the
weren't kidding," I remarked as I drew down the holey mosquito net
and began the evening's anti-malarial ritual. After a few satisfying
kills I sat down and asked him how he'd picked up his craft.
he lay on his back, knees bent, with a yellow balloon twisting
into knots over his face, the kerosene lamp on the floor cast
giant balloon shadows on the ceiling, turning the hut into
more of a mad scientist's laboratory. He described the three
months in his bedroom at home, crying over a lost love, mindlessly
twisting balloons to keep his hands occupied — above
his waist. And here he was, probably in the same position
he'd held for those three months learning to twist balloons
into sculpture because his grief would allow nothing else.
more balloons, he explained he'd been thinking about a new hat design
during the excruciating, six-hour, minibus ride in order to take
his mind off the pain the makeshift wooden seat had given him. More
pain, more balloon hats. This one was turning into a woven web of
four colors as he lay on the cot, squeaking and popping the twists,
complaining about the intense humidity's effects on balloon performance.
Laughing children could now be heard whispering outside the window.
hard rain came the next day, and not surprisingly "Balloonhat" decided
to postpone any performance. It happened to be Palm Sunday and there
were far more than the usual worshippers in attendance at the Musama
Disco Christo Church just ten feet away from the damp hut. Throughout
the Christian/Animist hybrid rituals of a three-hour service, village
children wearing balloon hats would wander in and out of the shelter,
their hands feeling up and down the contours of elaborate new headdresses
Addi had made for them. Obviously, he hadn't been able to help himself
first encountered these two serious young men in the currency exchange
line at the airport in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where Addi just
happened to be standing behind me. I had come to Africa on frequent
flyer miles as part of an egoistic attempt to call myself well-traveled
by meeting West Africans and listening to their music firsthand.
Wondering whether anyone else's trip could possibly have been as
pathetically half-baked, I asked Addi what had brought him to the
region, expecting to hear that he'd come for a vaccination project
with some Western aid group. Northern Ghana was in the midst of
an unusually harsh meningitis epidemic and the only other non-Africans
on the flight had indeed been Doctors without Borders. Instead,
to my surprise, he hesitated with a sidelong glance as if to prepare
himself for the usual response, and explained that he had come to
Africa to make balloon hats. When I asked him if USAID or the Peace
Corps had sanctioned such an absurd idea, he explained that he and
his partner, a photographer documenting the experience, were financing
the project out of their own pockets. By this time Charlie had arrived
with their bags as my night's worth of money was being counted out
under the change window. After a few pleasantries, I wished both
of them luck with an eye-rolling smirk and disappeared into a chaotic
airport crowd expecting never to see them again.
days later there they were, though, boarding the same small bus
(known as a tro-tro in Ghana) with the same vague idea of ocean
in mind. I was crushed in next to an officious Ashanti gentleman
in a suit and spectacles. He had spoken at length about his job
for a government development agency and his mandate to find a solution
to the problem of street children in the cities of southern Ghana.
Two hours into the trip he stopped talking and started vomiting
into a Notre Dame T-shirt on top of the briefcase on his lap. My
leg was getting the overflow. I glanced back at Charlie and Addi
bouncing miserably in the back seat. The look on Charlie's face
told me he was feeling no less pain than I. A town like Busua couldn't
have been a better place to end such a ride.
as is the case almost anywhere Westerners go to try and escape
everyone else of their kind, we soon found we were not the
only visitors around. One walk to the village well revealed
two Scotsmen sitting perched on the stoop outside some random
hut, tripping heavily on spacecakes they'd bought from the
local Rasta drummaker. It looked as if the Scotsmen had set
up their new Ghanaian peg drums outside with the intention
of practicing the "Kpanlogo" or
first rhythm of coastal Ghanaian drumming, but instead had
forgotten who they were, much less why they had come to the
village in the first place. The one thing they probably hadn't
forgotten, indeed the only thing that seems impossible to
forget in any altered state of mind, is that they were in
Africa. They had just returned from the Dogon region of Mali
with tales of robbery and harassment, and needed decompression
on the coast before returning home. "We're glad we
went and got through it, but we would never go back."
the Scots' stories centered on their difficulties in finding
an honest guide in all of Mali, they also mentioned their planned
visit to Timbuktu, that proverbial most-inaccessible place on earth,
had been thwarted by all manner of obstacle — from thieves
in Bandiagara, to warnings of Tuareg unrest in the region, to lack
of any certain overland route — and they had decided that
for them it probably would remain the most inaccessible place on
with open mouths to the Scots' hallucinatory memories, Balloonhat
seemed to revel in the sheer happenstance of it all, and right then
under the full moon a tangible goal for their African Balloon Hat
Experience began to rise out of the very thick air.
Balloonhat had heard of it before, but where exactly was it? To
discover that it was here in West Africa and perhaps only a thousand
kilometers north gave rise to the quixotic challenge Balloonhat
seems to need from every journey. An overland dash from a sixteenth-century
slave-trading fort to the edge of the Sahara where exotic hats from
the West could be traded for photos of people rarely seen outside
the region; that would be the easy part. The hard part, all agreed,
would be to make it back to the coast by the next full moon in order
to board the nonrefundable flight out to another part of the world.
Scotsmen returned to their hallucinations with serious doubts
about the success of such an endeavor. Nevertheless, they
smiled at the idea and wished Balloonhat luck with eye-twitching
hour north of Accra, at the southern tip of Lake Volta, the largest
artificial lake in the world, a freight barge christened Buipe Queen
makes its weekly port of call at Akosambo, bringing yams, goats,
and other cargo from the Upper East Region of Ghana to city markets
nearer the coast.
Buipe Queen cruises the lake at around ten knots with a deck full
of empty crates, stopping occasionally to take on cargo and passengers.
During most of the daylight hours no one can move. As is the case
every day in this region, during the high-sun hours people don't
talk. Lying around in empty crates on deck, half-asleep, they rest
heads on elbows, staring sideways into space, knowing they're trapped
in a hundred-twenty-degree floating oven. Even the galley maid who
is supposed to be on shift cannot help but pass out over her counter.
If anybody wants to eat, they have to be satisfied only thinking
about it. But then as simultaneously as any African town seems to
awaken itself, people stir a bit all at once — maybe think
about moving for some bit of sustenance — and the late afternoon
comes alive with conversation and a new shift of work for the crew.
was here among swarms of lake flies too numerous to swat that I
asked Charlie how he happened to find himself sleeping on tables
and cement floors halfway across the world for the dubious privilege
of shooting photos of people in balloon hats. His answer was simple.
To see the look on a child's face, to discover people's universal
need to laugh, to find the connection to humankind strengthened
by the smallest gift of color, had become more than addictive. It
had become his only purpose.
said he'd first noticed people's reactions to Addi's hats on a Halloween
night in New York the previous year. After a group of four of them
had failed to come up with any costumes for a friend's party, Addi,
who was then only a vague acquaintance, offered to make hats for
all of them and fulfill the costume requirement without too much
work. The moment they stepped onto the street, though, Charlie was
amazed at the awe-struck responses to the hats. He had walked these
streets his whole life without so much as drawing a glance, and
here were total strangers smiling, laughing, eager to converse.
The next morning, hungover at the breakfast table, he wondered aloud
to Addi whether taking the hats to people all over the world might
be a cool thing to do. He hadn't quite realized how seriously Addi
had taken him until a couple weeks later when Addi called and told
him he'd cleared his schedule and was ready to begin the project.
here he was, in the middle of the hot season in West Africa, lying
on top of a table with flies stuck to his face, wondering when the
cool part of the idea would occur to him again.
hours after the Buipe Queen's departure, Balloonhat and I debarked
from the freighter on Lake Volta's northern shore, where there still
remained another twenty-four hours of almost continuous travel by
dump truck, minibus, and small, beaten sedan before reaching Bolgatonga,
the capital of Ghana's Upper East Region. In Bolga, we could rest
for a day or two and figure out the shortest way across the border
to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and from there into
Mali, and with luck, Timbuktu.
Dogs and Balloonhatmen
our local man in Bolga, actually a seventeen-year-old on break from
the Navrango Secondary School who had marked us getting off the
dusty bus, magnanimously offered to act as guide to the nearby village
of his birth.
a rented yellow Toyota, Solomon brought us five clicks on a dirt
road southwest of town where we parked underneath a lone Baobab
tree, looking beyond a few goats to a settlement of painted adobe
huts well away from the road. The inhabitants could not have known
what awaited them. Nor could Solomon for that matter.
with bags of cameras and balloons over dusty, cracked earth in the
heat of another hundred-ten-degree day, Charlie noticed Addi had
forgotten to bring his hat. He walked up next to him and asked how
he was feeling.
Dizzy. I might pass out." Addi had been vomiting and feverish since
the previous evening's arrival in Bolga. And though none of us could
utter the word, some strain of malaria seemed a likely scenario
in our paranoid American minds. Of course it turned out to be his
anti-malarial medicine, but that would take another few weeks to
you make any hats?" To that Addi gave a look of hopelessness, knowing
he could do nothing else now that he had come this far.
lasted for a respectable five or six hats before turning to a bizarre
shade of off-white, and back in the car he explained that he had
basically gone on autopilot---blow and twist, blow and twist —
and at the moment didn't know whether he would even be able to get
out of the car at the next stop. But during the short drive to the
next settlement, as Charlie mentioned the approach of near-perfect,
late afternoon light — the golden hour — Addi knew he
would have to drag himself out of the car again and somehow manage
to keep going until the sun was gone.
the next settlement Charlie entered a frenzy of shooting unlike
any before it. The sun was low, truly gold, enhanced by the reddish
dust of the earth in the region. The sky was perfect too —
a brilliant blue with giant cumulus clouds adding depth to the scene
— a landscape completely different from that of the jungles
of coastal Ghana. The Balloonhat had reached the edge of the Sahel,
the great buffer zone between the ever-expanding Sahara Desert to
the north and the rainforests of equatorial Africa to the south.
And Charlie was, without question, trancing to the light's effects.
He continued shooting long after Addi had stumbled back to the car,
waiting in the back seat to die.
the way back to Bolga as Addi hung his head out the window,
our driver swerved to avoid a stray dog in the middle of the
road. Solomon seemed strangely disappointed in this. A moment
later he casually mentioned that both the Dagete and Grune
people of Northern Ghana like to eat dog meat. According to
Solomon, they not only like the taste of it, but they also
believe a man will die at home rather than during his travels
if he eats the sacred flesh of a dog raised for this specific purpose.
As Addi seemed to be getting sicker by the hour, it was unanimously
decided that a dose of dog from the new market in Bolgatonga
might be the only way to get him back to the States intact.
new market is a place where men buy and sell goat kids and
black and white checkered guinea fowl, or sit under corrugated
steel-roofed shelters drinking pito, a sour, fermented millet
wine, out of large calabash bowls as they recline and listen
to the spare sounds of lute and shaker.
in the dog meat shelter six men sat in a row at a wooden table,
whiling away the afternoon, eating chunks of dog sprinkled
with hot red pepper freshly crushed in a nearby mortar and
pestle. Solomon suggested buying a thousand cedi's, or about
sixty cent's worth of meat and choice organ slices to make
enough for everyone back at the hotel. There can be no doubt
as to the animal it has come from either. The butcher leaves
the leg and rear paw on the boiled meat, and unmistakable
jawbones lay strewn on the ground beneath the table seeming
to say "You've tried the rest, now try the best."
thousand cedi's worth turned out to be over a pound of flesh. It
seemed much of it would be wasted.
at the hotel the meat was spread out on a night table, and
inspection began. As I was reading a particularly interesting
piece of liver, Solomon's fingers grabbed it and popped it
in his mouth. It became apparent then that if Addi didn't
rise up from his death bed soon for a piece to chew on, Solomon
would eat the entire pound, compulsively, like snack food,
leaving nothing for the cure. Eventually, with some prodding,
Addi forced a couple pieces down and fell back hard on the
days into the journey here, we could only worry that if the
illness didn't suddenly improve, his life would possibly be
in danger, making the goal of Timbuktu unattainable. Fortunate
then that Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, happened
to be the closest city with any substantial medical facility
and also happened to be on the way to Timbuktu. Addi basically
had no other choice but to press on and make the dusty four-hour
ride by broken dirt road through a desolate border zone, putting
us that much closer to the goal, whether the dog meat would
ultimately succeed or fail at its job.