Ghana: A slice of surfing adventure off the beaten track
Ghana's tropical beaches have largely been overlooked by foreigners. That's changing, however, as more travellers from across the world come to ride the warm waves, writes Will Bendix
'When we buried my father, we sent him to heaven in a fish," Paa says without looking up, his fingers working rhythmically to repair the net splayed on the sand in front of him.
"In Ghana you build the coffin to honour a person, who they were. He was a fisherman all his life, just like I am a fisherman now," he says. "This is all I know."
Paa's hands never stop moving. They are coarse like the ropes he has pulled since he was a boy growing up in Accra. The lines dissecting his palms are tattooed deeply with salt. Paa would also like to be sent to heaven in a fish, or even a boat, when his time comes.
"But these boys," he says, motioning towards the surf with his chin, "they do not know fishing. They do not know what it's like to spend days out on the ocean. But," he concedes, "they know the sea."
A wave peels off towards us, spilling a surfer onto the sand. I recognise Kofi, one of the local surf instructors. He flashes us a shaka, thumb and pinky raised from his clenched fist, and takes a few quick strokes back into the surf after retrieving his board.
"It doesn't matter. Busua is home for all of us," says Paa, looking down again, his hands still working. "And our home is the sea."
Booo-swah. The name rolls off your tongue like the long stretch of sand that curves along the western shores of Ghana. The small village is a far cry from the manic sprawl of the capital, Accra. In Busua there is no gridlock traffic, no clatter from the dusty skeletons of high-rise buildings continually under construction. There's only one road hemmed in by thick jungle and swaying palms that tickle the belly of endless beaches. The earth is rich here too, bubbling with oil, bleeding with gold. Giant deposits of crude were discovered in the nearby town of Takoradi in 2007, precipitating what's been called "Ghana's second gold rush". But we have come prospecting for other treasure.
Ghana was first surfed in 1965 when the makers of the seminal surf film The Endless Summer trekked along its coastline. Since then, its warm water and tropical beaches have largely been overlooked by foreigners. That's changing, however, as more Ghanaians take to the waves and travellers from across the world come looking for a slice of adventure off the beaten track. Invariably they find themselves in Busua.
Our ramshackle hotel on the beach looks over the Black Star Surf Shop where you can rent surfboards, buy wax or just crack a cold one at the bar and chill with "The Busua Boys". On Wednesday nights, the manager rolls down the big screen in the back and everyone gathers round to watch surf films, whooping, toes digging into the sand, as surf stars like Kelly Slater fly across the shop wall.
Eight years ago there wasn't even a local surfer around Busua. About the same time that oil was discovered in the region, an American named Peter Nardini and his wife were volunteering at a hospital in the nearby village of Dixcove. Nardini knew there were waves in the area and had assumed he'd be able to rent a surfboard in Ghana. He assumed wrong.
Nardini eventually managed to wrangle a few boards off some travelling surfers and started exploring. He quickly found out that the western region held the best waves in the country. He partnered with Busua native Frank Bordes and opened up a surf shop. Nardini taught Bordes and several other locals how to surf and run the business, which grew into a surf school, restaurant and tour operator.
Today, Busua is the heart and soul of surfing in Ghana with Black Star located firmly at its centre. Nardini has since moved on, handing the reins to his namesake, Peter Ansah, 25. Ansah has a perpetual smile stretched across his face. He laughs when asked how the son of a farmer ended up running a surf business in a traditional fishing village.
"Peter Nardini always planned that the business would be owned and operated by local people," he says. "I became good friends with him and I was the first local to be trained as a surfing instructor. When he left, he felt I was the right person to keep the business going."
Like many others from the area, growing up in Busua was hard for Ansah. He had to either hustle for fish or work on the farm for food.
"My family was worried at first because they thought I could get into trouble out in the water," he remembers. "Sometimes when the waves were really good they would drag me away from the beach to go and work on the farm. I would run off back to the beach but this meant no food for me that evening."
The same waves at Busua now provide a livelihood for Ansah and his staff. Every day the high tide pushes gentle rollers into the bay that has become a magnet for travellers bumping around Africa. It's also the perfect incubator for upcoming talent like Bebe, Ansah's younger brother, who ranks top in the Ghana Surfing Association.
But the most impressive thing about Busua is the vibe. There's cheering and high-fives. Young learners or grommies wiggle to the beach among travelling surfers who trade waves with the older locals. Ebenezer Bentum, who runs the development programme for Black Star, puts it simply: "I prefer treating people with love and care than to make people feel bad."
After a long day's surfing, the party at one of the beach restaurants is in full swing. Pop songs and bass-heavy Afrobeat blast from a tricked-out sound system. There's a goat on the braai and everyone dips in, grabbing chunks of meat, washing it down with quarts of Club lager. A few kids buzz around, trying on caps and sunglasses and striking their best gangsta poses. It culminates in a dance-off between two pint-sized performers, who go head-to-head with backflips and a synchronised twerking routine that would bury Miley Cyrus in the sand.
"Yeah, everyone in Ghana loves to dance," grins Ansah, pushing his palm down to his knees. "Children learn from when they are this big."
We're woken the next morning by the sound of men heaving a fishing boat through the shorebreak. It takes 20 of them flanking the vessel on either side to push it into deeper water. They shout in unison to lift the boat off the sand as a wave approaches. "Ho-heyyyyyyyyyyyy!" Once beyond the surf, all but the crew dive off and swim back to shore.
We also set sail, towards Cape Three Points, where hardly any roads reach. The western edge of Ghana is mostly nature reserve and pokes into neighbouring Ivory Coast like a crooked finger. Ansah identifies landmarks as the boat rises and falls with the swell. Despite looking desolate at first glance, many beaches are lined with small villages tucked behind a curtain of palm trees. In Ghana you are never really alone. With a head count of 25million inside its 239460km², it's one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and most people live along the coast.
After a morning's sail we make landfall in paradise. Long swathes of beach are broken only by rocky outcrops and deep jungle that spills onto the sand. We surf all day and sleep at night on bunk beds in huts on the beach. The crew from the fishing boat sleep up top, their bodies still swaying rhythmically through the night to the ebb and flow of the sea.
On the rare days when there are no waves, the light onshore breeze nudges us along Ghana's shores. We investigate fishing villages and whitewashed slave forts. Centuries ago, hundreds and thousands of souls were manacled and pushed through the "door of no return" to ships that took them across the Atlantic. Today, Ghana prides itself on being Africa's most stable democracy and is one of the most peaceful nations on the continent. The forts that line the coast are a profound reminder of the history upon which these freedoms are built.
Invariably, we find ourselves pulled back to Busua, to the dipping sun that paints the village orange, to the benign waves framed by towering kapok trees that stretch their arms to the sky.
Kapok trees originally came from the jungles of the Americas. Much like the slaves of Ghana's past, these trees were carried from one world to the other, and it was once believed that the souls of the dead would climb up the branches to reach heaven. But in Ghana the dead are sent to heaven. They are sent in fish and boats and, one day perhaps, in coffins shaped as surfboards.
- © Will Bendix