A man in a traditional gown stood outside the door with a massive carpet bag. He wore a small taqiyah which crowned a withered face. He was a travelling salesman. I was not in the best of moods, and felt like a bit of sport to cheer myself up. So I led him on.
“Yes?” I said, not giving much away, there. Eh?
“You want something for home?”
I thought whether I really wanted to have this conversation and started regretting having opened the door.
“What have you got?”
“Plenty, sir. We have much wood carving, much brass work, real brass, lovely.” He took the carpet bag off his shoulder and unclipped the fastener. Reaching deep inside he came out with some ragged newspaper. It was wrapped around one of the brass ornaments that are so common in that area, a fertility symbol showing a rather lewd pair of breasts bulging out of a very thin woman. He took another out, a man with a spear, then another fertility doll.
“Plenty wood, sir” and out came (perhaps from another compartment but I couldn’t be certain. Whatever, he was able to navigate down into as fast as all mothers getting round their handbags) a wooden fertility doll. And another. And another.
“Have you anything except fertility dolls?”
In he delved again and this time he pulled up some animals, a crocodile, lion, elephant. Ghanaians have driven out so much of their wildlife that I was surprised that the carvers knew what one looked like these days. But wooden elephants and giraffes and hippopotami I have seen plenty of in southern and eastern Africa, and better carved. I began to tire of his wares. Or wear of his tyres, or something.
“I have these.” I implored.
“Very good ones?”
I looked at this rather disfigured Elephant. If that is a good one then the original model should have been excluded from CITES.
I realised by now that most of the contents of his bag were on the stone corridor floor, and I thought it would be a brilliant wheeze just to say “Not today thank you”, slam the door in his face and leave him to pack his things up (I really was in a stinking mood). Then I had an idea. Since he had travelled from the nearby villages into the campus just to sniff out this European with his money, perhaps I could make him do more legwork. I had recently become aware that Ghanaians are one of the biggest advocates of the most played game in the world. Not Chess or draughts or Monopoly or even football. No; this game is Oware. O what? I hear you ask. Oware, I say, or Woaley, or Woley, or Warri, or any number of other alternatives from around the world. Although it is not big in Europe almost every other continent plays it. In the Middle East, throughout Africa, Latin America and parts of the Caribbean, and right across southern and eastern Asia there are versions of the same game. It is played on a wooden board with six scoops on each side with four beans in. The aim is to capture all the beans. Because the idea is so simple, in many places they don’t even use playing boards. They simply scoop twelve holes in the sand and pick up 48 stones.
Kojo had wandered up to the scene in his usual quiet way and was watching this guy spit and polish a couple of the brass artefacts. He stood there with his usual toothy grin.
I said. “ I want a Woaley board”.
They looked blank at me. I was a bit surprised that they didn’t understand. I’m sure it was pronounced Woaley. I went into the room and hunted round for my Lonely Planet guide to West Africa. I flicked through the pages in front of them and showed them the section on Woaley.
“Owale!!!!” they cried.
“Er yes”, I said. “Can you get me some boards to look at”. He hurriedly packed the other things away and said “Yes, yes, yes”. Then he had second thoughts about the missed opportunity. “You sure you want nothing?” he asked.
“You get me the board and I will be very happy.”