Rain. Rain pouring down, trickling down through the roof of the wall-less shack I sat under, dripping onto my head and back and soaking me to the skin. Rain running through the red mud all around, filling the pits that the miners have dug. Rain coating the slick black skin of the workers panning for gold in waist-deep pools or shoveling gold-rich dirt into sluice grates. Rain steaming off the clattering gas-driven sifting machines into the guts of which miners reached, risking life and limb for a few specks of gold.
My heart was racing as I sat under the shack. I was in the middle of the Ghanaian backwoods, an hour-long tro-tro (a small, terrifyingly rickety bus) ride from the ship in Takoradi, surrounded by an illegal gold mining operation conducted almost entirely with hand power: shovels, pickaxes, and gold-pans. A kid who couldn’t be more than 12 worked side by side with a man in his late twenties wearing blue jeans ripped down the back, revealing his Barack Obama boxers. My three friends and I were the only white people in the whole village, and our two local guides were the only people around who spoke English. I couldn’t have designed a situation more perfectly suited to making me feel like an obruni (white man) if I tried.
A man about my size and wearing a ripped t-shirt and rubber boots ducked into the shelter and sat down on the bench opposite me, flashed me a bright white grin, and offered his hand. I took it and we did the Ghanaian handshake–an intricate pattern, ending with a cooperative snap. He grinned again, and then said something in Twi that I didn’t understand. One of the locals who was showing us around translated: “He wants to take a photo with you.”
I nodded, handed my camera to the guide, then ducked out from under the shack to pose with the miner. Photo taken, I turned to him and we did the handshake.
“Medaase,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Medaase!” he exclaimed, a massive grin breaking across his face. “Ey! Medaase!” His excitement at my saying a word in his language was palpable.
From that moment on, we were inseparable. He introduced himself as Ando, and started showing us around the area. On the way through the village, a few women called out to us, and he just laughed.
“T’ey say you girl,” he explained, in what English he had. “You no girl, you man!”
I just laughed, flipped my foot-long ponytail, and walked on. This made him laugh even more, and we did the handshake again. (In Ghana, every time I did anything noteworthy, I would get the handshake, and often doing the handshake was grounds for doing another handshake.)
On the other side of the village, Ando showed me around another mine. A kid panning for gold in a big steel salad bowl called out to him, and he beckoned me down to see the specks of gold dust that the boy displayed. Grinning broadly, he picked up some gold flecks on his fingertip and wiped them on the back of my hand, carefully pushing them back and forth to make sure that they were all together.
When it was time to leave, Ando walked us back through the village to the main road where we could catch a cab, still grinning and chuckling all the time.
“I love you, brother,” he said as we walked.
“I love you, Ando,” I replied. We did the handshake, with the extra fist bump and heart pound on the end, which in Ghana signifies brotherhood. And even though we spoke only a little of each others’ language, I did feel a real kinship with Ando, a sameness that shone through our different cultures, appearances, and languages.
The taxi arrived, and I had to say goodbye to Ando. We did the handshake, fist bump, heart pound, and then embraced.
“Medaase,” I said.
“Medaase,” he chuckled.
As the taxi pulled away, I watched him in the mirror as he receded into the distance. When we finally turned a corner, he was a little black dot in dirty white rain boots in the distance, but his presence in my consciousness still looms large. I see a shadow of his grin in every smiling face, and I feel the strength of his hand in every hand I shake. We spent less than two hours together, but in those two hours, I had one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life. For that, Ando, I have one thing to say: “Medaase.”
— Lander Ver Hoef