Ghana Life: Wayside Markets on the Road to Kumasi

Kwame and his wife, Comfort, are driving from Accra to Kumasi with their English friend Tom Arthur. It is Tom’s first visit to Ghana. He is surprised to see how much food is displayed along the roadside for sale to passing motorists. He is even more surprised when Kwame stops the car and Comfort begins to bargain with the traders who cluster around the vehicle promoting their wares.

For Tom, the further they went the more dramatic seemed the scenery. The trees grew even bigger and closer to the road. He bathed his eyes in a greenness he had never imagined existed and which he found gently soothing. It was a greenness enlivened by frequent flashes of bright scarlet or gold as they motored past trees in glorious full flower. However, not all the sights were pleasant. Tom was disturbed by the sad procession of animal corpses displayed along the roadside. Held aloft by the tail by boys and youths, recently executed mammals and reptiles of great variety were offered for sale to passing motorists. When Tom expressed his disgust Kwame explained that bush meat was highly sought after in Ghana and many drivers would stop and buy. The most common bush meat on offer was forest snails, as big as tennis balls, sold alive and strung together in bunches with tough braided strings of elephant grass. Their abundance was testimony to their near universal popularity.

After they entered Ashanti Region and pressed on towards Kwame’s home town of Konongo the road rose and fell with a regularity that bred monotony in frequent commuters but fascinated Tom. It’s like riding on a low frequency radio wave cast in red laterite, he mused. The roadside wares became more attractive with each undulation. Masses of tomatoes, oranges and bananas came into view, piled high on wooden tables at strategic selling points. Lay-bys provided easy parking off the main carriageway and numerous cars were stopped at each location. Also on offer were farm products less familiar to the Englishman: yams, plantains, pawpaws and avocados.

As the car came to rest at one such roadside market, Tom was alarmed to find the vehicle immediately surrounded by a crowd of women and children, all shouting the supremacy of their wares. Each vendor balanced a round tray of produce on her head while she held out a sample specimen for instant trial. Tom tasted an orange. He was equally surprised by the greenness of its exterior and the sweet juiciness of its interior. He had previously supposed that all oranges were orange in colour. Now he knew that some of the sweetest were green. The downside was that they were also full of pips.

Comfort took the opportunity to stock her larder for the week ahead. The staple items were yams and green plantain. Tomatoes, onions and peppers took next priority and then smaller quantities of most other commodities on offer. Tom was amazed at the ferocity of her bargaining. He couldn’t hear what she was saying but he thought he caught the sentiment. Every price, it seemed, was grossly exploitive and only affordable by a rich foreigner. Were they playing Rule Britannia? Through a long discourse of declining volume every price was beaten down to a fraction of the initial asking. Then, most amazing of all, an extra quantity of produce was invariably added when the deal was done. No offence was taken on either side. Both parties seemed to enjoy the confrontation. At the end, buyer and vendor parted the best of friends, promising to do business in the future at every opportunity.

They drove on towards Konongo with the car filled with the produce of the forest farms. Tom hoped that no forest wildlife in the form of snakes, scorpions or spiders had accidentally hitched a ride, concealed in the voluminous bunches of plantain. Comfort assured him that she had checked everything carefully before loading it into the car. There was some bush meat that even Ghanaians didn’t relish, she joked. In answer to his question she assured him that the snails too were unable to escape from their binding.