An unlikely stop in the pursuit of the perfect wave
“‘It’s DJ Shocker!” someone shouts, pointing towards the stage, where a young man is standing behind a rented 1990s desktop computer flanked by two gigantic palm trees. “You gotta listen to this guy,” I’m told. “He’s a local electrician.”
It’s Saturday night in Busua, Ghana, and I’m dancing in the jungle to the high-octane shuffle of West African dancehall. It’s the first evening of my surfing holiday in the small coastal village but with the Easter celebrations in full flow, it’s impossible not to get sucked into what I can only describe as Ghanaian Spring Break. Besides, with most of the village – surfers included – fully preoccupied with the party, it was always going to be a case of dance first, surf later.
No surprise, then, that the surfing competition due to take place the following morning starts a little – well, a lot – later than planned. Making my way down to the beach, head still fuzzy from tropical punch and “atomic bombs” (an energy drink mixed with a brand of whisky called K20 that comes in plastic sachets and numbs the mouth on contact), I pitch up on the sand outside the Black Star Surf Shop and wait for its owners to drag themselves out of bed.
Soon enough Ben Dewar, a 24-year-old Welsh lad with a shock of blond hair and a penchant for fluorescent green clothing, arrives to open the store. He hands me a board: “Careful dragging the fins along the sand,” he says. “They keep on breaking and it’s not like I can nip down the local shop to get them repaired ...” Indeed. As surf destinations go, Busua really is a frontier town: it’s home to the only two surf shops in Ghana, and almost every one of the country’s surfers live in the village. Not that there are very many of them.
“Places like America have many generations of surfers,” says Ben. “Here, we only have two. It’s got that real Dogtown spirit about it.” Ben has been running Black Star along with partners Peter Ansah and Kofi Acquah – who both grew up in Busua – since taking it over last summer. The store was founded in 2006 by two Americans, former Peace Corp volunteers Peter and Katrina Nardini, who teamed up with local cab driver Frankee Bordes and began encouraging locals to get into the sport. Before then, the region had only seen the odd intrepid surfing hippy or those looking for more remote spots, perhaps inspired by the footage of these same beaches in Bruce Brown’s seminal 1960s surf flick The Endless Summer.
Black Star was the country’s first significant surfing outpost. Now, with the addition of a second shop, Mr Brights, and the collaborative efforts of both businesses to build up the Ghana Surfing Association, the scene in Busua has been experiencing a momentum not felt since the Nardinis first started teaching local kids how to ride the waves. When Mr Brights (owned by Brett Davies, originally from Cornwall) opens its second shop in Kokrobite, the country’s primary beach destination, near Accra, this summer, Ghana will be on its way to developing a countrywide scene.
But for now, visitors to this exotic stretch of coast dotted with peaceful villages and colonial slave forts can still enjoy the experience so coveted by the surfing community – being the only person in the water. As I paddle past the breakers, there are only a handful of other surfers out there to share the clean beach break that Busua enjoys at this time of the year. There’s Etienne, a young German on a two-week surfing holiday, a couple of nongovernmental organisation workers down from the north of the country for the weekend, and three or four local teenagers, shredding effortlessly down the waves and putting everyone else to shame.
With gentle waves, 25°C water and an apparent absence of sharks, the beach is an alluring proposition for anyone looking to learn to surf in a tropical destination off the usual circuit (and lessons with Black Star are great value). It is perfect for beginner to intermediate surfers, but the more experienced can make easy trips along the coast to find more challenging, quieter and potentially unridden waves. The village of Dixcove, just round a headland, boasts a fantastic point break, surfed predominantly by incoming fishing boats, while Cape Three Points, a 30-minute drive west, has a sometimes surfable right-hand break on a wild beach that is completely deserted but for the Escape eco-treehouse resort, with its ramshackle bamboo bar.
After a morning spent cruising the waves on a long board, I return to find that Busua has whirred back into party mode. The sound system is pumping from outside Coconut Dreams bar, MCs are hyping the crowd and at least 50 people have gathered to watch the surf competition. It’s a true community event: young children dance with impressive fluidity in the sand, effortlessly ripped lads do back flips (losing their Ray-Bans in the process) and women in bright batik dresses cast their eyes over the action.
The biggest whoops and cheers are saved for teenager Michael “Ballack Obama” Bentum, who became the first Ghanaian to win a surf contest outside the country when he took home a trophy from a recent competition in Côte d’Ivoire. Not surprisingly, he steals the show this day, too. Even a power cut caused by a dramatic thunderstorm can’t stop the dancing that evening; a generator keeps the speakers going till the early hours. As the weekend fades away, Busua gets back into the laid-back swing of daily life. For us, that means surfing every day (and there is surf, every day) and slowly moving between the beach, the restaurants and the small shops selling ice-cold “pure water” out of 500ml plastic bags to keep us cool in the muggy 30°C heat.
We spend our evenings drinking Club Lager and gossiping with locals, surfers and other travellers on the beach, before walking back through the dusty paths of the village at night. We pass sleeping goats and oil lamp-illuminated domestic scenes; a woman grinding yam with a long stick, or a man stitching fabric with an old Singer sewing machine. One evening we join Ben and Kofi for dinner at the Busua Inn. A French-Ghanain restaurant, it’s a notably smarter choice for dinner than the other friendly, delicious yet low-key joints on the beach and the road behind it, such as Florence’s and Okorye Tree.
It’s a chance to hear more from 24-year-old Kofi about how he came to join the steadily growing crew of surfers in the village. “I had to learn to swim first,” he says. “I’d been trying to swim at the lagoon but almost drowned. I started surfing to be able to save people in trouble in the water. I started out working for Black Star about six years ago, helping out in the shop, but eventually I told Peter I just wanted to be surfing. Last year I got my lifeguard certificate.” Kofi now gives lessons and hopes to eventually set up his own shop. He is especially proud to see the younger kids taking to the waves.
Ben has been a driving force behind the Black Star development programme: “We do lessons with the local schoolchildren,” he says. “But only if they turn up for classes. Attendance just went right up.” As the scene grows and attracts more tourists, other villages still largely untouched by tourism are becoming curious. “Some of them find it really interesting,” says Kofi, “and some people in Agona and Takoradi just think it’s funny that I’m teaching white people to do things.” When the tide is less favourable and the waves a bit “dumpy” we explore the surrounding villages. Butre, to the east, can be reached via a spectacular walk (far safer to be done with a local guide), through the shrubs and over the peninsula with views back over Busua. A few miles inland is Agona – taken over every Wednesday by a weekly market.
Peter joins us on a walk westwards along the jungle path to Dixcove, a small bay filled with brightly painted fishing boats, their coloured flags – from the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes – flickering in the wind. While the village has the same affection for Chelsea FC as Busua (the club’s crest can be found hand-painted on carts and sheds), there is almost no sign of tourism there. Our arrival is greeted with cries of “Obruni! Obruni!” (white person! white person!) from the local children. “Bibini!” (meaning black person!) is the stock reply, usually greeted by laughs.
As the night falls on our final evening, we take to the beach once more. Bamboo is piled up to make a bonfire and we drink and dance as the waves crash into darkness. I take the opportunity to speak to one of the village elders, Kofi Stephen Yankey, to find out more about Busua’s past. Kofi, who’s in his 70s and has lived in Busua for over 50 years, acts as security outside Black Star and Coconut Dreams, where he sits in dazzling Hawaiian shirts and shakes his stick at the kids if they get too close. He has seen Busua develop into an increasingly popular resort. Now, not least because of the laid-back and inclusive community cultivated by the surfers, visitors are more involved with village life. “Before, we could only sell kerosene and cigarettes to visitors,” he says.
“Now everyone eats banku, everyone eats foo foo [Ghanaian casava dumplings]. Previously, we would take any plank of wood and surf on our fronts. Now, things are very different.” As the fire starts to dim, people drift off from the beach to their beds. We have only been in Busua for a week but every face is already a familiar one.
“There’s a phrase we have here,” says Kofi, sipping on his beer, as I try to imagine him surfing on a plank as a youngster. “A village without strangers is not a good village.”