I think that between us, we took about 200 pictures in Ghana.
Pictures of elephants, and baby goats – pictures of pythons and crocodiles and warthogs, oh my. Pictures of flowers and mosques, and obstinate sacred stones. Of bazookas and prison cells, and of the World War Two vintage tank covered in diapers for sale. Which is probably the best of all the things that you could possibly use an M-5 Stuart tank for these days.
But as I reflect back on that week, I think mostly of the pictures we didn't take.
I didn't take a picture of the packed flight from Amsterdam to Accra, nor did I capture a video recording of the loud applause which filled the aircraft when it touched down in the Ghanian capital. I didn't take a picture of the bustle at Kotoka International Airport, or of the mellow security guards who waved me back in to change U.S. dollars into Ghanian Cedi when I realized that the baggage claim area did not open into an arrivals lobby, but right out into the hot, damp West African night.
My camera couldn't accurately capture the darkness that cloaks Accra after sunset anyway – a darkness like no other capital city I'd ever visited, up until then. The absence of the fluorescent, the neon, the incandescent that is so ubiquitous to every other center of human habitation. It was a camera, back then, too – not merely one of several lenses inset into a smart phone.
I didn’t take a picture that captured the spirit of my driver, holding a sign lettered with my name – the spirit of kind, patient acceptance and basic happiness that I would come to associate with Ghanaian people. Neither is there an amalgamation of colored pixels that shows my reaction to the letter in neat, girlish script that my driver handed me, in a damp envelope that also contained 15 Cedi – taxi fare in case I’d been foolish enough not to change my American dollars before leaving the terminal.
There’s not a picture that sums up the really important lessons. Never trust a fart, perception is nine-tenths reality, love is necessary but not sufficient, and – like the man said – always wear sunscreen. You learn these things by experience, intuition, candid conversation, and listening to Baz Luhrmann’s reprise of Mary Schmich, in that order. But some things are best learned by reading the back windows of taxis – “Face the Future With Hope” – or by riding in them. The shortest distance between your hotel and a reasonably priced suitcase is a circular route and a helpful driver. You can substitute many words for hotel and suitcase, but there’s rarely a substitute for someone who knows the neighborhood.
We didn’t take a picture of the bushmeat – so anyone who wasn’t there with us will have to take it on faith that “grasscutter” is just another word for “A big fuckin’ rat!” and that the smallest of all antelopes – the dik-dik – has tiny, perfectly-formed hooves, no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger.
Maybe it’s better that way – pictures can’t capture the smells of a roadside bushmeat stand, fresh blood and cooling corpses and the flat-stretched carcasses being smoked. They can’t capture our incredulity that the old lady squatting on the red dirt means it’s two Cedi for the whole bowl of fresh pineapples, not just for one… Nor can it capture her inability to conceive that we would have happily paid that much – or more – for a single oblong fruit.
No, cameras aren’t much good for smells or emotions or tastes, really. Orange soap, unwashed hair. The air just before a storm, and just after. The salt of sweat and tears, the tart sweetness found in a slice of honestly bought fruit and stolen kisses. Pictures can’t explain the concept of every gas station for a hundred kilometers being out of petrol – for that you must know that it’s worth more if it’s smuggled to Burkina-Faso.
I have no pictures of women carrying every conceivable thing in baskets and bowls upon their heads. No pictures of babies riding contentedly on their mother’s back, bound there with a swath of kenti cloth. I have no pictures of McDonald’s or Starbucks, or Kentucky Fried Chicken – every ubiquitous symbol of Western civilization that was conspicuous by their absence in Ghana, circa 2008.
There were a lot of pictures we didn’t take, I guess. That is probably just as well, since sometimes taking pictures results in the police showing up at 6:30 am. If that happens, you’d better be drinking buddies with the head of the local vice division. Come to think of it, I guess we could have taken those pictures after all.
Pictures only go so far. They would show that we hung out with big men and beautiful women, but they wouldn’t tell you which was the conservative Christian father of three, who were the wives and who were the hookers – which one was the pornographer, and which one had just laid down a new reggae/rap crossover song in Twi’i. Considering those questions, I think – “Why Not Both?” – but of course, that picture hadn’t been taken, either.
I don’t have pictures of coffins shaped like crocodiles and soccer shoes, like Bibles or hammers. A picture wouldn’t really do justice to the idea that when you die, it might be fun to be inhumed in a custom-carved mahogany replica of something that was significant in your life – the semi-trailer truck that you drove, the plane you flew, the shoes you wore – or aspired to wear. A picture could convey the colors of the shop, the smell of the freshly chiseled wood, but not the wonder at how anyone could encompass such post-mortem extravagance. Then again, none of the pictures we took of ourselves could convey our thoughts on the afterlife, either.
Yes, there were a lot of pictures we didn’t take – pictures of the “Blood of Christ Bicycle Repair Shop,” or of the purple bus emblazoned with the words “Virgins Preparatory School.” I guess I didn’t know that was something you could prepare for – but it turned out there was a lot I didn’t know back then.
There probably still is.