The Shea Prince


It’s taken twelve hours on a ‘luxury’ bus to get here. My noise cancellation headphones block the relentless gospel music the driver favours. I rock to my heathen divas – Tina, Mariah, Beyoncé – and look out the window, watching the Ghanaian landscape change from verdant to sparse.

My first impression of Tamale is that it’s dry, dusty and low rise; not like overcrowded Accra. The Twi murmurings there are replaced here by smatterings of Hausa and Dagbani. I haven’t crossed a border but I feel I am in a different country. I’ve journeyed up north in search of women.  Those dynamic women who, after trudging for miles at dawn, picking up shea nuts, process them into butter by hand.

This butter is used in confectionary products, but is better known for properties that nourish hair and skin. It is now a key ingredient in the cosmetics trade. The women who pick shea have rarely had a chance to go to school, but shea income pays for their children to stay in school. One of those ‘shea babies,’ now an adult, is helping me navigate the terrain.

His name is Will and he’s a heartthrob. I’ve come to write a journalistic piece on economic development and my focus is now derailed. I’m distracted and ‘Heartthrob Will’ is the culprit. We converse about shea but veer off into other things.  I’m not sure how old Will is, but he estimates he’s thirty-seven. Like many Gonja people, he doesn’t have a birth certificate. He was born in a hut near Navrongo and uses a national holiday here as a birthday, putting that down on forms and also celebrating himself on that day, like other people do.

Will has made sure his own children were born in a hospital, where births are customarily recorded. Today he’s a clerk for a non-governmental organisation, with dreams of owning a coffeehouse. He’s been married, divorced, and married again. He remains a babe magnet. The women hover. It’s easy to see why. He’s skinny and very dark, but his smile and savvy fashion make him stand out among the other tall dark men in Tamale. He favors form-fitting Tee’s, jeans and sneakers in a place where traditional dress is often de rigueur. He has a full head of hair and delights in sporting mohawks, with shaved-in lines. The goatee and a high watt smile emphasise his deep dimples. He oozes vitality in a laid back Tamale. I’ve found a dandy.

Will comes from a long line of shea processors. I am impressed by his deep knowledge. But it is his melodic way of stringing together common words in English, his particular form of elocution, that makes me smile even when he isn’t saying anything profound. As I take notes, I feel I will not use him in my story. Instead, I find myself inviting him to join me and my friends for dinner at Mike’s Place, a pizzeria with alfresco seating that is popular with the expatriate crowd.

While we eat he says little, but focuses on me intently, staring whenever I speak. I think we might be in flirtation territory. There is an undercurrent, a nice vibe that feels like ‘we should be talking alone and not with your friends.’ I get nervous and wonder why he isn’t wearing a wedding ring. When he bids me farewell and says he’ll be in touch, I’m not sure I’ll hear from him at all. Maybe I should have invited him to eat with me alone.

However, Will calls the next afternoon, while I’m on the bus back to Accra.

He tells me – he doesn’t ask but tells me – he’ll be visiting me the following weekend.

You’re not going to ride the bus twelve hours just to see me are you? I ask, somewhat incredulous.

Of course I am, he says.

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