A Bicycle, Dust From the Sahara

I wanted to find an alternative to walking and Ubering around town; the former is slow and the latter seems like overkill for super short trips.  So I opted to buy a bicycle in the used bicycle market off the “Circle” – an interchange on the edge of town.

Melissa, a Seed staffer, kindly drove me out to the market and, as we walked up and down one of the side streets a bike seller – Philip – picked us up.  Dozens of sellers hundreds of bikes lined up for sale of all possible types were spread for a good mile in along a couple of different streets. There were actually so many bicycles it was hard to focus and figure out which ones to examine.  I identified one that looked good – a hybrid with multiple speed speeds and mountain-bike size tires (Good for the rough roads here) and steeled myself for some serious bargaining starting at 60% of what Philip asked.  I had checked out used bikes online (Ghana has a couple of Craigslist-like sites) so I had some idea where we should come out.

There was a pained look on Philip’s face when I made my counter – I could tell I had grieved him and not only because my number was low (It was) but because he hadn’t planned to haggle, and his initial offer was actually pretty reasonable.  I had embarrassed him and me in turn.  I needed to do something that would help us jointly save face so I raised my offer and said I would pay 90% of his initial number if he made some adjustments to the bike and threw in a couple of accessories.  We had a deal.

It is fine to pedal around the local neighborhood, doing errands, drenched in sweat, moving faster than I would if I were walking.  I rode down to the Anglican Cathedral – about nine KM – on Sunday morning.  The ride down was easy enough as the heat of the day was only building.  The ride home with a small amount of uphill was much harder; I arrived home drenched in sweat and realized that it was a good workout; dodging cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles is good for balance and reaction time.

I had ridden the bike around our neighborhood and out to a nearby shopping center, avoiding potholes and missing drainage grates when I found a problem with the front tire, something within the Presta valve was broken and so it was slowly leaking air.  I went to the local Lebanese-run Hypermarche where I remembered seeing tools and purchased a wrench and some vice grips and took the front wheel off the bike.  Then Daniel, the polite, sweet intern from our office took me by cab to meet with Joseph, the local tire repair guy.

Joseph, My Tire Guy

Joseph’s setup is by the roadside – no real building – and  bordered by a stack of tires; he was napping in a collapsed automobile seat next to an old compressor.  He figured out what the problem with the valve is using a pin and his compressor.  I love this about emerging markets: folks get stuff done with nothing.  I’ve seen drivers in India fix a broken down truck by the roadside with little more than a chisel, a hammer and some wire.

After much discussion we agreed that Joseph would fix not only the valve but find a replacement for the tire, which was looking pretty worn.  He and I jumped into the waiting cab that took us down to a local market next the central mosque downtown, funded by the Turks and modeled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  The market itself was spread along a single, rutted, dusty road, with small shops crowded around either side. The mu’azzin was just firing up his call to prayer from the mosque and as the car came to a stop, a long, plaintive chant greeted us.  Joseph disappeared with the bike wheel to find a replacement tire.  The cabbie and I sat sweltering in the car watching folks in the market come and go; I am feeling a bit like a piece of steak slow cooking in an InstaPot (An apt metaphor for the micro compact that we are riding in.)  The mu’azzin finishes his call.

Women with trays of whole smoked fish balanced delicately on their heads,  Men with piles of brightly colored fabrics balanced similarly, goats grazing down a side alley, clusters of men lounging in front of their market shacks, chatting and not doing too much of anything.  Now the mu’azzin is randomly reading something – he sounds like a heavy metal front man testing a sound system before the rock concert gets going.  A young man in a bright Adidas soccer jersey, a happy looking Muslim fellow in a brightly printed full length cotton smock and crocheted skullcap.  Now the mu’azzin is getting raspy – give that man a drink of water.  A modern looking gal in black slacks, heels, a red top, balancing a small plastic plate on her head very gracefully with what looks like lunch – a new way to get take out.  A light smell of an open sewer mingled with dust, cleaning products and cooking fires.  The warm brown haze created by the Harmattan reduces the sun to a white hot smudge on a brownish and very warm sky.

Perhaps 45 minutes passed – it is important in this context to let things unfold as they will – and sure enough Joseph reappears with the fully assembled wheel, complete with a much better looking tire.  Joseph is now my go-to tire repair guy and friend for life.  The cabbie rouses himself and we head back to Joseph’s tire stall where Daniel has stayed to keep an eye on things.  Even though we’ve doubled his route, the cabbie is happy because the fee he and Daniel agreed too was super generous.

Dust From the Sahara

Dust from the Sahara is blown clear across the Atlantic Ocean – presumably during Harmattan season –  to the Amazon rain forest, providing critical nutrients to the thinly soiled region.  The Hammartan winds move about 22,000 tons of Phosphorous, a element critical to plant health, from the Sahara to the Amazon.  This is about the equivalent of what the Amazon loses annually to runoff – phosphorous loss is a normal part of ecosystems’ interactions.  A total of 182 million tons of dust stripped from the Sahara annually by these Easterly winds.


  1. Donna Friesen says

    Fabulous Hugh! What an incredible way to experience Africa! First hand and personal!

  2. this description brings back memories of seeing how our youngest dealt with the repairpersons in Kampala…seriously creative men who fixed all wheeled contrivances. thanks. feels hot just reading your blog!

  3. Hugh – It’s great to learn about this part of the world, especially for those of us who have not been.
    Your descriptions are so layered and thorough. I looked up the temperature and humidity in Accra just now , Saturday 5 pm 85F 63% humidity and haze. But by your description it feels much hotter. The Hammartan winds must account for the haze . And the videos are fantastic.
    This makes me feel like the author of Tintin , George Remi who wrote his adventures of Tintin without ever leaving Belgium. James

  4. I feel like 45 minutes in a hot car might have pushed me to abandon my bike — but at the same time its cool how all the waiting gives you so much time to notice life unfolding and meet people. Looking forward to reading more posts!

  5. Steve Mezak says

    Looks like fun shopping for a bike there. But it looks like you didn’t spring for the extended warranty. 🙂
    I didn’t know about the Harmattan and enjoyed reading about the details and your description. BTW, another sand book is the sci-fi Sand Omnibus by Hugh Howey, but it’s fiction.
    Stay cool…

  6. Colin Hewens says

    Loving your gift of narratives; your style’s superb.
    30 degrees C in Whakamarama today, one of many records being broken in our drought climate change summer.
    Col and Steve

  7. andy hilliard says

    Agree with Colin……you are a world-class writer! Very engaging and descriptive; just enough to paint the picture yet not overkill. Quite the talent! Looking forward to more adventures!

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