I glanced up from my orange Fanta. I had just become used to the fact that my name, when spoken, sounded like soldier.
Seeing no-one in my immediate space, I continued to nurse my soda. Seated at the Cape Coast Cafe, I had the perfect view. I watched the waves of the Atlantic crash against the brown boulders that encircled the Cape Coast Castle. Gray tufts of sea mist rose as a result of the spectacle. The salt of the ocean lingered on my lips. My book was purposely left behind, I promised myself I would watch, listen and take in this experience my first experience of Africa, traveling solo in Ghana, and accepting without distraction the beauty around me.
"So-jah!" I heard it again. Closer this time. Turning my back to the Atlantic, I spotted a remotely familiar face in this new and still foreign space.
"Can I sit?"
I shifted nervously trying to recall his name, place his face. He made himself comfortable before I had the time to reply.
"You look well So-jah. Ghana is agreeing with you."
I searched my head for his name. The details were filling in slowly. He was a drummer, a Rastafarian, we'd met before here at the castle. He owned a shop with his brothers. They sold drums, gave drumming and dance lessons mostly to British and French tourists. We'd talked a few weeks ago when I visited the castle to buy souvenirs after work with some of the other volunteers at the orphanage. He asked me where I was from, grew excited when I said New York. He had just been there, had some cousins and a favorite uncle who lived in the Bronx. We talked about being vegetarians, about cooking with coconut oil. How could I have forgotten, it had only been about two weeks ago. He, like most of the people I'd encountered in Ghana remembered my name, looked me in the eyes with a warm smile while addressing me by name. I, like many Americans, like many Westerners, let names roll in one ear and out the other, became embarrassed and apologetic when confronted by my instinctive and dismissive behavior.
"I'm so sorry," I finally managed. "What is your name again?"
His name was Elaji. He lived in town. He was the youngest of seven siblings, four boys and two girls. His mother and grandmother owned the shop next to his. His father was from Burkina Faso.
We began to talk. Elaji ordered a bottled water. I had another Fanta. The waves crashed. Flies buzzed. Skinny stray dogs settled at our feet.
"How is business?" I asked.
The long breaks in our conversation unnerved me.
"Business for me is very good. " Elaji smiled.
His teeth were pointy. He slightly resembled a fox.
"So many English this time of year. They all want lessons. We have drumming and dance circles when the moon is full. You should come, they're here in front of the castle." He pointed with his water bottle to the open space before the castle.
"I'm not much of a dancer, but I'll come. I'd love to watch."
"You'll watch, but then you'll dance. You won't be able to stop yourself."
A hearty chuckle escaped my gut as I imagined myself gyrating and spastic, dressed in kente cloth, backlit by the glow of the full moon. It wasn't a pretty vision.
"I want to show you something." Elaji grew earnest.
"Your face," he reached forward and touched my nose causing me to recoil alarmed.
"I"m sorry. Did that hurt?"
"No, I'm sorry. No, you didn't hurt me."
"I was saying your face is too dry. Your skin is peeling."
I gaped at his blunt observation.I touched my nose.
"I'm peeling because I lost my sunscreen in Accra before I came here and I haven't been able to find any more."
"Sunscreen?" Elaji's face wrinkled.
"You know, cream that protects your face and skin from the sun."
"That's what I want to show you." Elaji was all smiles. "My mother's shop has the cream for your face. Shea butter. In Ghana, we use Shea butter."
"Shea butter? I can't put shea butter on my face?"
"Of course. Why not?"
"It's too heavy. My skin will break-out."
"You don't have to worry about that. Shea butter removes blemishes."
"But it's greasy."
"Not at all."
"No, it's definitely greasy."
"Come, lets go to my mom's shop."
Skeptically, I followed Elaji's quick gait across the cobblestone road, through the gates of the Cape Coast Castle and into the shady courtyard that housed the artisan shops. I was led by hand into a small dimly lit nook. The three walls were lined with rickety shelves and stacked high with tubs of white, yellow and brown.
An attractive dark-skinned woman, popped out from behind a pile of cardboard boxes. She moved quickly, stepping forward and offering a greeting I didn't understand.
"Mama Sophia." Elaji proudly announced wrapping his arm around her shoulder.
I smiled. Mama Sophia wrapped me in a warm hug. She was simply stunning. Surprisingly petite, I was drawn in by her bright eyes and shining skin. She couldn't have been more than five feet tall. Her eyes danced with childlike joy.
Elaji exchanged slow words with his mother in Fante as she nodded and clicked her tongue in my direction.
"Sit." Sophia led me to a stool in the center of the room.
She had a metal basin of water. Using a cloth, she wiped at my face. I gripped the edge of my stool. Elaji appeared cradling a marble sized amber ball.
"This is black soap. It's good for your skin. You should use this. It works very well."
Before I had time to respond, Sophia was rubbing the black soap in enthusiastic circles around my face. She rinsed the suds then patted my skin dry with a towel.
"Feels good, doesn't it?" Elaji was beaming.
It did feel good. My skin, heavy with humidity and sweat was breathing. It felt alive and light.
"Close your eyes." Elaji said, motioning to Sophia.
I did what I was told. Shea butter was massaged into my face under the direction of Sophia's firm hands. When she finished, I ran my fingertips across my forehead, swept them down my right cheek. My face wasn't greasy. My skin wasn't sticky, or heavy, it didn't feel clogged.
I watched for hours as Sophia packaged tubs of Shea butter, some prepared with a turmeric mixture others pure. Elaji translated as I fired away with questions. I stayed until the shop closed and left that evening with a tub of shea butter and a tub of black soap.
Figuring I had nothing to loose, I set whatever facial cleanser I brought with me aside and began my black soap and shea butter regimen.
I stopped peeling and didn't burn as badly. I didn't experience a single nasty blemish. Shea butter provided a layer of protection beneath the harsh Ghanaian sun.
I visited Mamma Sophia almost every day from that point forward. My serendipitous and unlikely introduction to Shea butter marked the beginning of my shift towards all natural and organic bath and body products and eventually fueled Touch of Ohm.
What discoveries have you happened upon on your travels?