The song of a Ghanaian birder

We are sitting still. Dead still. Behind me I hear a cicada or cricket. Dunno which. Now and then I hear a turaco or hornbill overhead. And before me I see a leaf drop to join millions of other leaves that carpet the floor of the Ghanaian forest with a soft brown cloth. Shafts of light carve through the canopy and dance occasionally in the light breeze of the forest. It is still – dead still. You can literally hear the leaves drop. Each one of them.

We are waiting. Waiting before a giant piece of hanging rock that has created a cave like structure on the slopes of the forested hill. We are seated on ancient pieces of forest log-seats. On the roof of the rock is a birds nest. It’s built like a swallows nest out of blobs of thick mud with a long hole entrance protruding south. To a casual observer it could easily be mistaken for a swallows nest, except it’s about four times the size and the blobs of mud are thick and untidy and bulgy. No swallow could have made that. And it hangs off the roof of the rock cave seemingly defying all gravitational pull. It’s that big and bold and strong.

We are still waiting. We sit in total silence. Silently waiting for the evening homecoming arrival of the Picathartes (rock fowl). A rare, ground based, fowl like bird who occupies a senior place in any birders must see list. More so because it is also a long standing member of the IUCN deeply endangered “red list”. Which is why we are here too I suppose. Trying to get to see the rock fowl before it disappears into the blank pages of what remains of the history books of the anthropocene era.

We have been sitting silently for more than an hour. Just the sound of the forest leaves falling and the cicada now and then. It’s late afternoon and we are still waiting. Alongside me on my left is a beautiful Rastafarian man who has gone to sleep mode. Alongside him is the village chief who greeted us on arrival in his village and who insisted on joining us. On my right sits Kalu Afasi our Nigerian born Ghanaian bird guide. They all sit knowingly. Confidently. They have all been here before. Many many times.

I am writing this as I wait. I’m driven by the need to put to paper my thoughts and impressions of our journey through Ghana. My mind is exploding with thoughts. It’s burning so hard that I fear I will lose a lot of them in the ashes of the afterglow when we leave this country. So I gotta write them down. Record what I can. Get started. Waiting for the Picathartes alongside a cave like rock with a mud nest hanging from its roof is as good a place as any to start to write my thoughts down.

It’s Kalu Afasi that has bought us to this rock in the forest. I met him online after Lou read “My year of birding” by Noah Stryker. She made me aware that there was this man named Kalu Afasi who had showed Noah Stryker every bird on his west African bird list. All 250 plus of them. Google found him and we talked on WhatsApp for two months all the way from the Congo’s to Accra Ghana. When we finally arrived in Accra he came to see us in our apartment.

Kalu is Ghana’s top birder. He can literally identify any and every bird call in Ghana. More than that. He can tell if the bird is flying away or coming near. And he can tell if the call is of the bird settling or startled. Flying or settled. It’s as though he can see the bird through its call. And it always turns out the way he says it will. He knows when we will see the bird even before we actually see it. He is that good as a birder.

He is also a tall and good looking man in his late thirties or early forties. It’s hard to say which. He has a toned physique with a perfect posture and a warm welcoming smile that brakes out on his face into large pieces of happiness when it erupts. And it erupts all the time in a childlike giggle, smeared with a grin that stretches from ear to ear. But it’s the energy you feel when he is present in your space that is his most striking feature. An aura of warmth and serenity of a resolved and evolved human being surrounds him. He grabs you and holds you with that energy even before he starts speaking. And all this happens when he himself is motionless, but present. He moves only when he needs to. And when he moves he moves in slow motion. Lightly. Invisibility. He has low to zero carbo footprint. You know that without even asking.

And then he starts speaking. Forcefully yet gently. Eloquently. He responds to my conversation starter question of “how did you get into birding?” with a monologue that runs for 45 minutes flat. And yet, yet it holds one transfixed all the way through. “It was a chance thing” he says. “The kind of chance thing that was very unusual”. He goes on to account a story of how in his mid twenties his close friend invited him to participate in an online penpal lotto. “Choose a number from 1 to 100 at the Internet cafe and the desktop computer will generate a penpal message and we will come back next week to see if anyone responded.” Reluctantly Kalu chose a number and sent it into the internet ether. Expecting nothing. Honoring his friendship. That’s all.

The next week they returned to the Internet cafe and to his absolute amazement there was a message for him from a sixty something year old danish man. A kinda hullo and how are you type message. Kalu responded “out of politeness”. And the next thing was that the danish man was flying to Accra and asking Kalu to meet him at the airport. “This was serious” says Kalu. And its a problem. Because Kalu was an established professional football player. A striker who was feared by the opposition. A striker who dreamed of playing for Nigeria or Ghana or any African country for that matter. All he wanted was to be was to be seen by the touts as a supreme striker from Africa. And he was at this point at the height of his career. Feared by defenders. But also with a warning for failing to attend a practice hanging over his head. His career was on the line.

So the hard choice was to meet this strange online European penpal friend at the airport on his arrival or to attend to his football commitments. He thought about his career aspirations, his dream to play football in the top leagues of the world, and he chose to attend to the football and stood the danish visitor up. He didn’t get to the airport or even to meet the danish man on his first visit to Accra. He learnt later that he had sacrificed a wristwatch which the danish man had bought for him in the process. It mattered not.

Despite being annoyed for being stood up, the danish man did not give up on Kalu. He wrote more and came to Ghana more. And he persuaded Kalu to go birding with him. Kalu agreed. Reluctantly. Out of “respect and duty” he would say. And maybe fascination too. Because it was strange. That this white man would come all the way to Ghana to see birds. The very idea was unimaginable. But out of a sense of loyalty and intrigue Kalu went birding and found himself trying to identify birds with a poorly illustrated, in black and white, birdbook that the danish man had given him.

But there was another dynamic happening. Kalu was desirous of playing big league football, but felt his chances slipping away. He was nursing a bad knee injury and getting older. Age and injury – two fatal flaws for a professional footballer. And what’s worse his birding interest was being frowned on and laughed at by his football peers. He was mocked and told he is being led astray by a white man. His trusted friends spoke to him in earnest. Told him his activities with birding would threaten his football career. Even his father and kingsmen summoned him to tell him that football was his future. Kalu sat in silence. And once everyone left he said to his father that he felt he should continue to see the white man and the birds whilst still attending to his football duties. An uneasy truce was reached.

For a long while two potential career paths hung before Kalu. The professional footballer or a bird guide. The white man has said that you could make a living from bird guiding. But Kalu was uncertain. Not least because he was already scorned and belittled by his community for even having an interest in birds. But Kalu knew something no one knew. His injury was still there. It was getting worse. He was losing his mojo. “I was not feared anymore” he said. Kalu knew that an injured player walks a time line before he reaches his sell-by date. And Kalu knew more than anyone that his date with destiny was fast approaching. So he held on to his nascent, budding, birding interest as a way out of his humble life to find some income without football.

We are still in the forest. Everyone is motionless. Even typing this story into my phone feels disruptive. No one complains. I write on. I look at Kalu alongside me. And the Rasta man on the other side of me. They both seem to be in a trance like state. Motionless. Staring at nothing. Their ears working constantly. I can feel their ears burning. I can’t even see them breath. But I can feel their ears. We are into hour number two. Waiting for the Picathartes. My mind starts to wonder if they will ever come. And then I start to wonder if my compatriots are also wondering if they will ever come. I will never know. I couldn’t imagine ever having the audacity to ask. It feels like we waiting for a god. Maybe we are. I am not sure. I only know that this bird is 440 million years old with a featherless yellow skin covered head and wings that lost the capacity to fly over the course of its long evolution in the forests. That makes it god like in my world. Really god like. But like with the faith based supernatural god, no one in our tiny team of bird watchers asks if our bird is actually real and present. There is just an aura of acceptance and belief. It will come. Such is the space we are in.

I look again at Kalu. He looks stately. Noble like. And maybe that’s because in my head I am playing back all the conversations we have had on the birding roads to and fro. Deep and wide conversations. Ones that started with some gentle questions from me and then grew into a great big painted canvass covering his family, his ethnicity, his people and their politics and struggle for freedom and independence.

Kalu is an Igbo. But not just any Igbo. He is the first born son of one of the Igbo kings. His King and his father is a pharmacist by training. A pharmacist who provided medical support to the maimed victims who fought the civil war. Together with his uncles and aunts and his whole Ibho community Kalu comes from a long line of fighters who were deeply involved in the Nigerian civil war. They are all committed Biafran separatists who put their lives on the line for an independent Biafran state in south east region of Nigeria between 1967 and 1971.

Kalu talks of the civil war with a mixture on deep anguish and pride. Sad for the loss of somewhere between a million and three million lives. Pride and deep belief in the cause of his Igbo people to forge their own Biafran state. He says over and over that victory was certain but was stolen from them by Russian and English forces who backed the Nigerian government against the Igbo Biafran separatists. And together they crushed the rebellion. He is convinced that had it not been for the Russians and English fire power backing Nigeria, the Nigerian state would have acceded to their demand for sovereignty.

Layer by layer the onion skin that housed my bird man is peeled off. And as each layer falls I too become naked. Naked in my thirst to hear more, naked in my very being and my thoughts. Stripped down to a point of uncertainty about anything I thought I once knew for certain. I drift along, listening, absorbing all I can absorb. Sharing tentative thoughts. Building a fragile consensus around the eternal question of what is to be done.

“No food for a lazy man” says Kalu summing up the work and entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbo people with a glowing sense of pride. “We are not Nigerians” he says emphatically. “We are Igbo and Biafrans. We are not lazy : we struggle and we triumph”. He uses his own experience as an example : “At the end of the Nigerian civil war the victorious Nigerian state gave each of its victims families twenty pounds to rebuild their lives and their homes. Today I am one of three siblings who are all tertiary educated. My father did that with his twenty pounds” says Kalu.

We have talked for hours and I have learnt so much about the history of the continent, it’s traditions and it’s ethnic diversity, the strength of the tribal traditions, it’s slavery and it’s colonization, it’s post colonial state and economic recolonization by Asia. We have laughed at the local interpretation of the ruling Nigerian APC party as meaning “all promises cancelled”. We have admired and celebrated the warmth of the Igbo people and their belief that “If you do something bad to a stranger then something very bad will happen to you.” We have delved deep into the religions from Christianity to Moslem to Voodoo. And we have concluded that Voodoo is the only religion that has never exploited anyone. And that Voodoo is “to fast track a problem that Christianity can’t solve” with the “sacrifice of a hen or goat”. Which is why Christians easily migrate to voodoo but voodoo believers never migrate to Christianity. We have unpacked the meaning of word “Biafra” as the combination of Bia , which means “come” in Igbo and fara which means “live” also in the Igbo tongue. And I have learnt of the organisation of the Igbo people today : their country by country branches and chapters across the continent and abroad. The way they meet and share and plan for the independent separatist future that they hold in their hearts.

The sun is setting. Going into its golden metamorphosis. And suddenly there is a flash of movement in the forest. Everyone awakens from their trans like state. We are alert. Hand signals indicate that the Picathartes is near. We are frozen still when suddenly a bird appears on a rock no more than five metres from where we sit. It stands proud. It’s dark black eyes holding our stare. It feels god like. We are transfixed. The bird stands for a few minutes, then it hops from one rock to another, glances again at the bird watchers and then disappears into the forest. Only to be replaced by another. And another. Three in all. Each presenting and witnessing and disappearing. As of to say : “we are here, now you can go on your way”. Which we do. In silence we walk down the long path through the forest. Back to the village from where we came.

The bird men pick the path home. They walk silently. Lightly and deliberately. It feels like they are here, not as outsiders, but as part of the forest itself. Organically so. As we walk I feel a certain and distinct lightness and softness and slowness within me. It’s present and it’s sweet and gentle. Each step I take is deliberate too. Like every step is embedded with a sense of special care for even the dead leaf bed of the forest. I’m nowhere near the evolved and settled state of my bird men in front of me. But I am behind them, following in their footsteps, holding vigil with them, as an apprentice in the school of African life.

It’s early days. I have so much more to learn. But despite my infancy, or because of it, I feel like I have been changed forever. Kalu and an ancient bird have unexpectedly combined to radiate an energy that changes me. I am no longer who I was. That is for certain. But I know not who I am. And it doesn’t trouble me a bit. It’s that familiar feeling of the unknown that is pervasive across Africa. Only now it’s the unknown me trying to find a settled state in not knowing me or even caring about who is me or what I believe in. It’s a blissfully open and empty space. A blank space waiting to be filled with whatever emerges from the classroom of lessons that are etched into this african journey. Both physically and metaphorically. A state of being that is present and accepting and open and free. A floating space filled with nothing but gratitude. Really really. A feeling of deep gratitude.

Gratitude to have witnessed the Picatharthes in the forest, gratitude to have heard and learnt so much from the stories of Kalu. Just a deep gratitude. For everything I have heard and seen and experienced. Because each bit of it is stripping me down and creating a new me. And that too is the great gift of african overland travel, for which I will be forever grateful.

3 thoughts on “The song of a Ghanaian birder

  1. Ron Musoni

    Awesome writing Gavin !!!, I enjoyed reading this. Just like the previous blog on Nigeria, I enjoyed your humility, your willingness to be taught by the experience of the moment without bringing to it preconceived notions of what it should be. I read this blog twice over. I read it to my wife who has now started following you as well. Thank you so much for taking us along with you on this Journey.

    Please keep them coming and we are looking forward to seeing you and Lou in Kigali.


    1. Thanks Ron for your kind words. I’m trying to capture thoughts and impressions in words and stories. So I am grateful for your interest. Look forward to meeting you soon in your country, which I have always admired from a distance. Thank you.


  2. Tessa Batlis

    Beautifully written Gav – mom too was deeply moved by this story!

    Thank you for sharing this incredable experience in such exquisite detail…
    i could taste it

    love you
    Keep safe



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