Kumasi is Ghana’s second-largest city and the country’s inland hub; all major roads leading north towards the Sahara Desert or south to the Atlantic Ocean pass through.
Kejetia Market occupies the centre of it all.
Kejetia is one of West Africa’s largest markets. Hundreds of wood-frame stalls covered with corrugated tin roofs are close-set in a vague oval shape in downtown Kumasi, with several kilometres of cramped mud paths snaking between them.
Every day from dawn until dusk two lines of opposing human traffic flow constantly, bringing goods in or taking them out, like the network of blood vessels that keep a heart beating.
Navigating Kejetia is straightforward enough, as long as you’ve got the time and patience to get lost.
You pick a thing — say, a tennis racquet — and go try to find it.
Asking directions doesn’t really help.
“Go this way, then keep going,” accompanied by a vague hand wave is about the best to be hoped. Most market people have comparatively less education, as their limited English reflects.
Besides, Ghanaians are not inclined to give things precise addresses.
Even houses are not known by their numbers and street names but by nearby landmarks, like a football pitch or a drinking spot.
Likewise with merchandise. A tennis racquet? “Go this way, then keep going.”
No matter. Kejetia is a bit like a department store without the floor, walls or ceiling. There are sections, though.
To get to sporting goods from the main entrance you cross through the ever-present throng of people, pick one of two main arteries and join the flow.
The first rule is never to stop moving.
You’re in a line, there’s a person in front and one behind — usually women — and if you stoop to tie a shoelace they will run into you and curse in words you don’t understand except for one, oburoni, which means ‘foreigner.’
That is you, the white man who is in the way.
So you keep pace, shuffling past older women seated at their stalls — you’re in hosiery — and wonder how they make a living since there’s no room for anyone to stop and make a purchase.
The answer comes a moment later when the flow hits some resistance.
There is a negotiation going on, you are pushed up to it, and for the briefest of moments you pause, thinking there’s no way around.
But the woman behind you grunts exasperatedly and pushes around you, into the flow of oncoming traffic, body-to-body, past you and past the negotiating duo.
You push through too, dodging the metal basin a kayayo girl headed in the opposite direction is carrying on her head.
They are the most prolific marketeers, the kayoyo girls from northern Ghana with their bright head kerchiefs and black eyeliner and facial tribal scars. They are Kejetia’s offloaders, making their few daily cedis moving goods from a truck outside into the market depths.
Kayayo girls carry their temporary wares in bowls on their heads with flawless balance, even in Kejetia’s crush.
It’s rare that the basins should collide with anything, like the cheekbone of a passing oburoni, and rarer still that anything — a tomato, a pack of gum — should fall out.
A fetid stench warns you’re reaching the end of women’s wear and about to enter the butchery. For some reason, animals are cut to pieces near Kejetia’s centre, so the aroma of raw and rotting fly-covered meat wafts throughout the corridors.
A butcher gestures with his machete — tennis racquets that way — so you pass the sheep heads and the snail counter and step around the fowl cages. Chicken crap muddled with the mud of last night’s rain conquers the olfactory spectrum.
The discovery of cheap soccer balls from China means you are on the right track.
“Yes,” a man says, and leads the way to a stall where badminton racquets hang from hooks.
Not quite, you say, and explain the difference. He says you’re out of luck: such specialty items are only found in nearby Adum, Kumasi’s financial centre.
So you weave your way back through the labyrinth, skipping meat and hosiery and hitting housewares instead. You fall in line with a quintet of kayayo girls also headed to Adum, where they go for their midday break.
They don’t know about tennis racquets either. They don’t know what tennis is.
But they want to know how much cash they can get out of the oburoni who wants to snap their photo.
Three Ghana cedis, or about US$3, as it turns out. Which is more than any single one of them will make today.
Which is why the kayayo girls will be back in Kejetia again tomorrow.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.