You need a healthy middle-class with the money and some spare time for the game to take root as it has in, say, Sweden, Taiwan, or South Korea. The only relatively prosperous African country is South Africa; and it’s the only one with a thriving golf scene, albeit still dominated by the country’s white minority.
I was not much surprised, then, to discover that Ghana has only eight courses, according to the count of a young Ghanaian golf pro, Daniel Appiah, when I visited last month. This West African country is better-known for its legendary ancient civilizations, kente cloth, and Black Stars national soccer team (though they made an inglorious exit from the last World Cup after blowing a penalty kick chance). The capital, Accra, is a sweltering megalopolis that juxtaposes the everyday hardships and vibrant street market culture of so many big African cities.
Global investment marketeers tout Ghana as a success story with its growing GDP. That would come as news to the more than fifty percent of Ghanaians below the poverty line. It was my first trip to Africa, and Ghana is the poorest place I’ve ever been, including years of fieldwork in the hard-scrabble Andes of Peru.There’s little steady work; child malnutrition everywhere; and miserable living conditions in slums without sewage and running water. Every year, legions of Ghanaians set out for Europe, Middle Eastern oil states, the United States, and elsewhere globally in search of a better life; millions more dream of escaping abroad. It’s been argued, only somewhat hyperbolically, that 21st century Africa has become a vast continental prison.
But, then again, there’s also plenty of joy, beauty and life to be found. At his workshop in Accra’s Osu neighborhood, I met the fashion designer Kofi Ansah. He was concoting a wedding dress for my fiancé, Katya Wesolowski, an anthropologist, capoeira teacher, and director of the Duke in Ghana program. A London-trained friend of the famed genius bad boy designer Alexander McQueen, Ansah has made his career in his native Ghana. His creations blend traditional motifs with avante-garde haute couture. Later, I made the trek with Katya and her students to northern Togo to visit the village where my colleague Charles Piot, perhaps the best-known anthropologist of West Africa today, has worked for more than thirty years. As challenging as life for farmers there, the village is stunningly beautiful -- a 21st century African Machu Pichu with its stone-walled compounds and terraced fields high up on a green tropical mountain. Here, too, Africa seemed much more than just the proverbial beleaguered continent in need of saving by a would-be benevolent West as the Gates Foundation and so many NGOs and missionary groups would have it. No wonder that observers seem to swerve, almost schizophrenically, between Afroptimism and Afropessimism about Africa's future (and, needless to say, it’s foolish to draw many grand conclusions about the continent anyway given the tremendous heterogeneity of its regions, countries, and cultures).
Most American visitors to Ghana head west to the Cape Coast, and I did too. The area is best known for its infamous slave castles – Elmina and Cape Coast -- where millions of Africans were shipped off in bondage to the Americas. As anthropologist Bayo Holsey describes in her Routes of Remembrance, many African-Americans tourists make the pilgrimage back to the castles nowadays; Barack and Michele Obama visited last year. Paradoxically, however, many Ghanaians don’t much think or care much about the slave trade; it raises for them tricky questions of guilt and complicity insofar as various Ghanaian tribes slave raided themselves to supply the European demand for human chattel. Surviving the present-day realities of poverty and marginalization is the more immediate Ghanaian concern in any event.
I toured the white-washed Cape Coast castle and its horrifying dungeons with a clatch of Senegalese and Nigerian tourists. Some were solemn, but others took calls on their cell phones – one had a Lady Gaga ringer – much to the distress of our Ghanaian guide and an African-American couple on the tour. A friend who’s a historian of Nazi Germany, when I related this, said it's the same way at Auschwitz – cell phones buzzing, teen-agers Facebooking on their I-Phones. No ground is too hallowed or blood-soaked to keep people off their devices in the age of mass tourism. Outside the castle walls, Elminan villagers motored their hand-hewn wood plank boats out to sea for a night of fishing, oblivious to us tourists. They chanted and drummed in the local tribal language, Fante, as they headed out into the deep water.
It was perhaps yet more postmodern tourist grotesque for me to visit the slave castles and then take to the fairways in the same day. But I played a few holes later that afternoon anyway at the Coconut Grove Hotel where I was staying. I was joined by Daniel Appiah, the club pro, and we shared his incomplete set of clubs, which was missing wedge through five iron. Daniel only had one tee as well, and we miraculously managed not break it between us. Daniel had picked up the game at the hotel, and, in fact, taught himself to play almost scratch golf in spite of his slender frame. He was the club pro by default because no one else on the staff knew how to play. His favorite player? Ernie Els, Africa’s most famous golfer.
The Coconut Grove course was little more than a cow pasture, albeit with astonishingly narrow fairways lined by scraggly trees. Daniel’s drive raised a flock of turkey vultures on the first hole; our drives in the second hole had to traverse a pit of crocodiles, there to add a dash of color to the hotel. I was so soaked with sweat that I felt as if I’d taken a shower with my clothes on at the end. Daniel didn’t even seem to have broken a sweat.
He shook my hand, then headed off into the tropical twilight with his bag of six clubs and that single wooden tee.