A young surfer plans to transform a Ghanaian fishing village into a dream destination for wave riders – a much tougher task than the laid-back mood here suggests
Behind me, the ocean is a seething mass. The roaring wave moves in closer. I grab on tighter to the edge of my surfboard, then the surging water catches me up and the force of the wave sends my board shooting forward.
Now is the moment I have to move fast. I bounce up off my stomach to a crouch position, my legs trembling with the effort. From the corner of my eye, I can see Peter on the beach, giving me – thumb up, little finger outstretched – the surfer’s greeting. Shaka! I’m doing fine!
He’s right. After a dozen failed attempts, suddenly I can do it: My body rights itself, my feet are firmly planted on the board, and I am riding the white, foaming wave. I’m a beginner, but still I get an immediate sense of the magic of surfing: I slide off the wave like water off a duck’s back. Sassy. I haul my board out of the water.
“That was pretty good,” says surf instructor Peter, “for a first time, that is.” He slaps me on the back and I find myself wondering whether he really means it. Or does he say that to everyone who comes here?
I am in Busua, a village in Ghana, West Africa. Roughly 5000 people live here – no one knows the exact number. Busua is a small place between beach and jungle on the Gulf of Guinea. It’s home to fishermen, farmers and also to one of Ghana’s few surf schools, Ahanta Waves, run by local surf instructor Peter Ansah, 29.
On the outside, he’s certainly a typical representative of his trade: easy stride, broad shoulders, muscular arms, six pack. There’s a trace of melancholy in his eyes, even though he smiles most of the time.
Surfing in Ghana is about as popular as cricket in Germany, a discipline way out among the most marginal of marginal sports in spite of the fact that conditions on the Gulf of Guinea are ideal for it. The breakers crest at one or two meters maximum.
That means pretty safe wave riding for beginners as well as experienced surfers. And plus, you are more likely to spot whales here than sharks. Since Ghana does not count among the world’s dream destinations for a beach vacation (although its growing tourism sector looks close to reaching the one-million-visitors-a-year mark), very few surfers or other tourists for that matter stray to this region.
So far, those that have come were either bold globetrotters including the country in their travels or devil-may-care cultural tourists on organized, chauffeured tours of Ghana. But there’s so much more to the country. Even in the Busua area, there’s quite a lot to see: solitary beaches and dense jungle, as well as colonial forts.
Peter wants to boost his hometown’s popularity – on a global scale. His vision is to transform Busua into a dream destination, a kind of Santa Cruz or Bondi Beach on the coast of West Africa. How could that become reality? More about that later. Right now, Peter wants to grab a bite to eat.
Busua – the name itself rolls off the tongue like a wave. We walk across the planks of a wooden bridge on our way from the beach to the village, passing brightly painted fishing boats, a surprising number of them sporting the FC Chelsea logo.
The houses have corrugated-iron roofs. In the back yards, women are mashing cassava to make fufu, Ghana’s national dish. Children in ragged t-shirts chasing a leather ball through the narrow streets yell “Obloni!” (white man), when they see me.
We stop at a building by the beach. Reggae music blasts from within. This is the village inn. “Peter, everything easy?” Waitress Patricia welcomes us in and puts cola and fried rice on the table.
Then Peter starts talking about how he came to surfing. Back in 2006, two American aid workers turned up in Busua and opened the Black Star Surf Shop with the aim of teaching wave riding to the locals, and Peter was one of them. First he learned to swim, then he ventured onto a board. And he was good.
“I knew right away that this was my thing!” He even entered a competition in South Africa and announced to his parents that he did not intend to work the land like them.
Why not make a living out of surfing, like the happy-go-lucky Europeans and US Americans, who regularly washed up in Busua and stuck around for a couple of months? They told Peter about life in California, Hawaii and Bavaria.
That’s where Otto, a southern German surfer and backpacker came from. He showed Peter how to teach surfing, including the theory, technique and safety rules involved.
Peter borrowed money from some friends to invest in his business. He bought surfboards for beginners, t-shirts and bermuda shorts for the shop, and opened Ahanta Waves. That was nearly two years ago. Since then, adventurers and expats in search of relaxation have been finding their way to Busua and also dropping in on Peter. He could be happy with that. But he wants more. Much more.
After lunch, we make our way back to Peter’s surf school, a two-story concrete building framed by palm trees, where surfboards stand propped against the walls, drying in the midday heat. The painted sign above the door reads “Surfshop” and “Ahanta Waves.” The name “Ahanta” brings Peter to the first point in his action plan: He aims to win over the people of the Ahanta region and enlighten them about surfing.
Peter is trying to do this with the aid of a legend: “Bonsoe” in the Ahantan language is a whale, and that is where the name “Busua” is said to have originated. It was also the name of the kings of the region because the Ahanta, so the story goes, are said to have traveled the oceans by holding on to the tails of whales. In other words, they were none other than Busua’s first surfers – or water skiers. At any rate, they were people who loved the ocean.
Today, many locals care precious little about the sea – even though it is their livelihood. Many have never learned to swim. They regard the gulf as a moody beast from which food can be wrested , but is otherwise best left in peace.
Local ignorance concerning the environment is not limited solely to the ocean. This brings Peter to the second point of his action plan: To clean up the village – or at least make it more attractive to foreign holidaymakers. Not that Busua is dirtier than other villages in rural Africa; it just isn’t tidy enough to satisfy Peter.
Why don’t they see the big picture?
Not so long ago, he organized a big beach clean-up day to get rid of the plastic bags, dead fish and all the other garbage that constantly pile up by the roadside and on the shore! On the day, only inquisitive children and teenagers turned up. The ocean washes the garbage away on its own, as some fishermen dozing in the shadow of the Chelsea boats explained.
To Peter, their lethargy is particularly galling. “Why don’t they see the big picture?” he asks. A clean beach, a healthy ocean – what could be more important for a fisherman? He just doesn’t get it. “But it’s not that we need any outside help. We can change our attitudes on our own,” says Peter.
That’s why “education” is writ large on the action plan. “We have schools enough; what we need are teachers who will tell the kids not to toss garbage into the bush or burn it,” says Peter. Someone needs to do it if the parents won’t.
Waste disposal, community volunteer work, beach clean-up week – sometimes there’s something of a German local councilor about our surf instructor. Despite all attempts to make Ghana big on ecotourism, as well, Peter appears to be fighting a lone battle.
Nevertheless, his plan seems plausible: A functioning community attracts tourists; vacationers bring wealth and with it, progress. And that would benefit not only him and his surf school, but also the entire region: the taxi drivers, the fufu cooks, the bar owners and waitresses.
But in a village in the middle of the jungle that has no regular waste disposal or sewerage and that was only hooked up to the electricity grid a few years back, the clocks naturally tick more slowly than in other places.
“Peter, can I borrow your board?” a young man asks. His name is Emmanuel and he’s a friend of Peter’s, who helps out in the shop for a couple of hours every day. Deep in thought, Peter doesn’t answer. Does a Ghanaian sometimes despair at his own complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory culture?
In the afternoon, we walk along a beaten track through the jungle as far as Dixcove, the neighboring village. Coming toward us, we meet children balancing machetes on their heads as they carry freshly harvested bananas to market. “Hey, Peter!” they call. Peter winks. He likes kids and knows practically every one in the area, and children like listening to him.
Now Peter is smiling again, talking about his where he has been successful: about the smart homepage a European friend designed for Ahanta Waves, and about the German tour operator who specializes in African holidays and has included Peter’s surf school in his catalogue.
Wave riding is one of the oldest sports. Duke Kahanamoku from Hawaii (1890-1968) is regarded as the inventor of surfing. His first board was made of acacia and weighed 52 kilos.
A survey revealed what 66 percent of all surfers think of while they are in or on the water: sharks!
Picuruta Salazar from Brazil set the record for the longest ride in 2003. He stayed on Pororoca, the extremely dangerous, tidal Amazon wave, for 12.5 kilometers and 37 minutes.
We sit down on the wall of Fort Metal Cross, a stronghold built long ago by the British colonial masters. It was from here that the conquerors of the Gold Coast advanced into the interior in search of precious metals, ivory and slaves. For centuries, they engaged in bloody wars with the Ashanti tribe.
The remains of a holiday resort are visible today below the fort: an empty pool, dilapidated bungalows, building shells. Here, too, someone dreamed of bringing in the tourists. But Peter looks beyond it, keeps his gaze set further out in the distance to where the waves are piling up.
Then he pulls an iPad out of his pocket, swipes through the picture gallery and points to the fourth point in his plan: building a house. The photos show a concreted area encircled by dense bush. “This is where Busua’s first surfer lodge will be built!” Peter sounds like a priest quoting from the Bible. A guesthouse will be built there, for surfers and tourists. The foundations are long since ready. “I’ll show you tomorrow!”
The next day dawns with a clear sky. Peter already has clients, three British student teachers, and is just explaining how to pull the board into the waves and climb on top. Before I get back on my board, Peter wants to ride a few waves himself.
First he encounters some problems, falls, bobs back up, paddles out again, and waits. At some point, the perfect breaker arrives. Patience is something a surfer needs. In fact, this applies to everything – also, and especially, when it’s a question of setting up a new tourist attraction here, in the no-man’s-land of Ghana.