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April 28th, 2009 | Africa

Borge’s Visit and Father’s “Zoo”…

I trust you are all well, and are ready for further news of my trials and tribulations here in Ghana!

With the exhibition of our products and the dubiously named “Cocktail Party” finally behind me, I could once again concentrate on the myriad of things that I had to do back at the factory, and the changes I wanted to make to ensure we would at least survive 2009… But before journeying back to Mim on the shuttle flight to Kumasi, I had to meet with the MD of our marketing arm in Europe, Borge Leth.

Scanstyle has controlled its position in the Outdoor Furniture Market through its subsidiary, Alexander Rose Limited, which is based in the United Kingdom. The company was structured and built by Borge Leth, who had started out by working in the factory in Mim more than 25 years ago. He convinced the Pepera family to form a company to sell directly to the garden centres in England, circumventing the distributors that they had been selling to for years. It was a bold move, which has paid handsome dividends over the last decade.

Borge is one of those “large as life” characters, and we had become firm friends when Top-Pine had supplied Alexander Rose with outdoor furniture from our factory in Swaziland. I had spent time with him and his family in the U.K., and had crewed for him aboard his racing yacht “Panic 4”, during both Cowes Week, and Rothmans Week, where yachts stripped down to the barest essentials, raced around the Isle of Wight in a mad, ten to twelve hour scramble to claim line honours in the harbour of Cowes. “Barest Essentials” on “Panic 4” did not include any toilet facilities, but two cases of Heineken had made it onto the list of “essential items needed to win this race”… A race which Borge had actually won on two previous occasions! I remember asking him what had happened to “Panic’s 1, 2 and 3”, and with a smile he pointed over the rail to the bottom of the English Channel… It took a while for my eyebrows to return to their normal position at this bit of news…

In that first race, after taking a terrifying “short-cut” through The Needles, a set of rocky outcrops and shallow reefs on the western end of the island, we entered the English Channel miles ahead of the fleet, and cracked a few beers to celebrate… Needless to say, things went a bit pear-shaped from there… One minute we were chugging beers in the middle of an empty seascape, the next, half the fleet were sailing past us as if we had been at anchor…! A mad scramble ensued, with Borge shouting epithets from the stern, while the rest of us hung on for dear life…Despite running aground in the channel just an hour short of the line, (trying to take yet another short cut!) we still managed to finish third… After nine hours on the water, with the crazy Dane as skipper, I thanked my guardian angel for getting me back up the Solent River to Southampton in one piece…

Despite the fact that he has a stutter of somewhat epic proportions (especially when he is in an excitable frame of mind, which is often…) Borge has never let his speech impediment get in the way of his ambitions. He is one of the most driven individuals I have ever met. The factory management were not looking forward to his visit, as he had made their lives a misery over the years in his pursuit to make and market the best Outdoor Furniture in Europe. His attention to detail and design is legendary…

At 7.00am on the morning after our exhibition, the phone in my hotel room rang… The conversation went something like this…

“R-r-r-r-ronnie… This is B-b-b-b-orge! W-w-w-w-here the f-f-f-f-uck is your d-d-d-d-river?”

“Huh….? Oh… Hi Borge, how are you?”

“N-n-n-never mind th-th-th-at, I’ve been s-s-s-tuck at K-k-k-k-otoko Airport for ta-ta-ta-two hours now…”

“But I was told that you were landing at 7.30am! You were going to meet me for breakfast here at the hotel at about 8.30… The driver was told to be at the airport by 8 o’clock to collect you and Antonia…”

A long silence followed….then,

“Well we l-l-l-landed at f-f-f-five thirty!”

My brilliant “Accra Administration Manager” had neglected to factor in the little matter of Time Zones… He had advised all and sundry that Borge would be arriving at 7.30am, forgetting to deduct the two hours time difference between London and Accra… His plane had landed on time… at 5.30am… Great start to my day… After a few frantic calls, we located the driver and despatched him to the airport to collect an irate Mr. Leth… I hoped that he would take out all his venom on the poor driver before they arrived at the hotel, because after yesterday’s stress, I really wasn’t in the mood for this… By the time they arrived at The Shangri La, he was his usual jovial self, teasing me about how “old” I looked. I had not seen Borge in about six years, and he hadn’t changed at all… Time can be cruel to some, and kind to others it would seem !!

Borge on arrival at Kumasi Airport… Still mumbling about having to wait for two hours at Kotoko Airport in Accra…

Our flight to Kumasi and the ride to Mim went off without incident, except for the part where, while waiting at a traffic light in Kumasi, we were mobbed by a gang of beggars, led by one who had lost both his arms… Tiring of the incessant noise they were generating at his window, Borge rolled the window down, holding a one Cedi note in his hand (about R2.00)… The armless beggar’s eyes lit up with glee, and he leant closer to try and take the money with his mouth… Borge pulled the money away from his mouth, and said, “S-s-so s-s-s-sorry, no arms, no m-m-m-money!”… Antonia and I gaped open-mouthed at Borge, who rolled the window up mumbled something to himself which contained many “f-f-f-f-f’s…” That’s Borge for you… Those of you who have met him will be able to picture the scene above without much effort…

Once we reached Mim, the days went by in a blur of high energy meetings, interspersed with evening bouts of heavy drinking, very late nights (or early mornings depending on which way you looked at it!) arguing, more meetings, more drinking and eventual agreement on “the way forward”… All in all, his visit provided me with an opportunity to watch the reactions of the Factory Management, who either welcomed him with confidence, or broke out in a sweat whenever we approached their various departments… The former were the guys who I would be depending on in the future, the latter…guys who I would have to watch closely… The fact that Borge and I laughed and joked at every turn, left the staff in no doubt that we were not only old friends, but thought and acted in a similar fashion…except when it came to beggars of course…!!

One of the first areas we visited was the log yard, where he was re-united with Abner Nasser Owuso, otherwise known as “Father”, who is our forestry, log-yard and saw-mill manager. Father was to Borge at Scanstyle, what William Mazibuko was to me at Top-Pine. Men you could turn to when the chips were down, who you could rely on when the “hard yards” needed to be negotiated… We walked around the log-yard, chatting about the various compartments we were logging in, and the species we were harvesting. Then Borge turned to father and asked him if he still had the Porcupine… I wasn’t sure that I had heard correctly, and edged closer with a frown on my face. Borge noticed this and asked,

“Have you not been to F-f-f-father’s zoo yet?”

“Zoo…? What zoo…?”

“Father”, seen here on the left, telling us how the Mahogany logs were “getting smaller”…

And so it came to pass, that half an hour later we were driving up the horribly corrugated road that led to Father’s house in the centre of Mim… Goats, dogs and pedestrians in equal quantity scattered before the frantic hooting that Father’s driver used to clear a path to the only decent looking housing compound in the entire area, surrounded by high walls, built from proper bricks… It seemed so out of place amongst the squalor of its immediate surroundings that I gaped open-mouthed at the sight of it all… This was the first time that I had been into the town itself since my arrival in Mim more than a month before. Two three-bedroom bungalows had been built on the property, which was at least an acre in size, which for Mim is BIG! Father is known as a “mover and shaker” in the area, and is well known throughout the province. He has personal relationships with all the local chiefs, and many people come to him for advice. They line up outside his massive wrought iron gates each morning, from 5.30am, and his houseboy then lets them in one at a time to state their problems and receive their advice… He has two other homes in the town, one which houses his mother; and the other where his wife and their children live… I quizzed him on why they stay apart, and his reply that he needed “peace and quiet in the evening to plan my life and so forth” seemed a very reasonable one! Unless he summons them, his wife and children actually have to make “appointments with his houseboy” to see him…

Between and around the two houses is a grove of indigenous trees, with small concrete ponds nestled in their shade. There is also a large thatched Lapa-like structure, furnished with a complete range of Scanstyle’s garden furniture… Not a blade of grass grows anywhere on the property…it’s all concrete paths and hard ground… Large piles of dry leaves dot the garden, and on walking past one, an ominous rustling alerted me to the fact that there was more to the pile than meets the eye… On seeing my interest, Father shouted something in Twi to one of his sons, who reached into the pile and withdrew by the tail, the largest Cane Rat I had ever seen…!!

The Grass Cutter....

The biggest rat I had ever laid eyes on, and this wasn’t Father’s “Prize Grass Cutter” which was twice as big as this one, but shunned my attempts to photograph him…

I gaped open-mouthed at the sight and size of the “Grass-Cutter” as it is known locally, but Father assured me that there was an even bigger one lurking around, but that it was a “bit wild” and was wont to bite when it was picked up… When we finally located his “Grandfather Grass-Cutter” it was sitting near a pair of Turkeys, nonchalantly munching on a mango that had fallen from the tree above it. From a distance, I thought it was a medium sized dog…!! It must have weighed at least ten kilo’s and holding the Mango in its jaws, lumbered off at our approach and entered the chicken coop… I was too stunned to speak at the sight of this most monstrous of rodents. It sat next a large red rooster with its back toward us, continuing to bite chunks out of the mango… Meanwhile the first Cane rat we had found was still perched on Joseph’s shoulder while Father led us further into the garden to see his animals… This was one of those bizarre moments you seldom experience in life…leaving me for the most part, mute with astonishment…

Standing under a young Mahogany tree a short distance away, was an Abbott’s Duiker, with its distinctive white eyebrow. It was not in the least perturbed by our presence and continued to nibble at a pile of grass that Father’s houseboy and other sundry servants, bring from the forest for the animals each day.

The Abbott’s Duiker, not much larger that the “Grandfather Grass Cutter”…

Under an African Teak, stood a Harnessed Bushbuck, similar to those we have in South Africa. It stood watching us with those huge liquid eyes. As it scratched around in the leaf litter with its dainty hooves, chickens darted closer to peck at the insects and grubs that it had uncovered. A large Turkey Cock lumbered closer to get into the action, and was chased away by the Bushbuck… There seemed to be an unusual pecking order here! The Bushbuck tolerated the chickens, but seemed to dislike the turkeys…!

The Harnessed Bushbuck, keeping the turkeys at bay, but allowing the chickens in close…

Borges wife, Antonia, called us over to the side of the house, where an African Grey Parrot sat perched in the lower branches of Wild Pear Tree. At our approach, if clicked its beak a few times before screeching “Father! …. Father!!” We all burst out laughing as Father came up to us and put his hand out for the Parrot to jump onto…

“You’ve found the master of the house,” he said to us, as the bird walked up his arm and muttered into his ear…

“This bird is better than all the security guards I have” Father said proudly… “He walks throughout the grounds and the house and none of the animals bother him at all!” he continued…

“W-w-w-where did you get him?” asked Borge, as amazed as I was at the sight of an English-speaking African Grey in a garden compound in Mim!!

“My forest boys found him when he was still a baby and brought him to me… He is now eight years old, and can speak in English and in Twi…”

Father gently took the bird off his shoulder and placed him on Antonia’s arm. He then clapped his hands loudly, and from out of the kitchen door marched his houseboy, bearing a tray containing two bottles of Star beer, and a bottle of white wine. We strolled over to the gazebo, where we sat sheltering from the late afternoon sun. While Antonia sipped her wine, and Borge and I sucked on our beers, Father told us how this house had been given to him as a gift, by the shareholders of Ayum Limited, a large plywood and block-board factory on our boundary, owned by a Lebanese consortium. He had assisted them in brokering a deal with the local community which gave them access to over a 1000 km2 of forest to harvest in… A very valuable man to have on your team is our Father…!

Antonia makes the acquaintance of Father’s pride and joy, an African Grey Parrot…

All around us, chickens and turkeys scratched amongst the dead leaves, Cane Rats scuttled across the concrete paths on their way to the ponds for a drink of water. A Peacock waltzed past us, rattling his tail feather at his hen, who was having none of it, and darted off to keep the turkeys company. The African Grey came waddling up the pathway muttering to itself, mounted the steps to the Lapa and made a beeline for Father… He clambered up the leg of the bench which Father was sitting on and settled down in his lap, picking delicately at the hem of Father’s shirt…

My addled brain was still struggling to absorb all I had seen, when yet another species of antelope which I had not seen on our first round of the garden, came ambling up the path, then stepped off it into the loose leaf litter and settled down in a little “bed” that it had scratched out for itself…  It was an adult Bay Duiker, and a well-fed one at that… It took little notice of us, sitting only metres away… Its beautiful russet coloured coat was split down the centre of its back by a broad jet-black stripe. I crouched down close to it to take a photo and it accepted my presence without flinching… I have always taken great delight in seeing an animal or bird for the very first time, and in this late afternoon, in the town of Mim, I had seen three different species of antelope that I had never set eyes on before… I felt a bit like an explorer in a bygone era… I wore one of those face-splitting grins for hours afterward…

The beautiful Bay Duiker, nestled among the leaves in Father’s “Zoo”…

But there was more to come! In the fading light, another rodent which I had never before set eyes on came purposefully out of it’s hiding place under the chicken coop, followed closely by its mate… Having read all of Gerald Durrell’s books as a child, wherein he described his animal collecting forays to all parts of the world, including West Africa, I knew immediately what I was looking at! A Brush Tailed Porcupine! It was roughly the same size of a large Cane Rate, with a pointier snout and small ears tucked close to its head. Its coat was a dull grey, and its fur seemed to bristle away from its body. At the end of its threadbare looking tail was a bunch of white quills that made it look like they were dragging a hairbrush behind them…

As I stepped out of the Lapa, intent on capturing the animals on film, they lifted their heads, took a long look at me, and then sped off in the direction of the flowerbeds surrounding the house, scattering chickens and turkeys in their wake. Having watched them come slowly towards us, I was unprepared for the turn of speed they showed in getting as far away from me as possible. I followed them across the yard, Borge and Antonia clumping along behind me… They had taken refuge in a dense shrub, and I was unable to photograph them. I asked Father’s son to try and get one of them out into the open, but from the look on his face, I could tell we were not dealing with a tame Grass Cutter here!! Try as we might, we could not get them to leave the sanctuary of the shrubbery, and eventually we gave up and returned to our beers and wine…

Although I did not manage to photograph the one’s at Father’s house, here’s a photo of a Brush-Tailed Porcupine…albeit not in the healthiest of states…

Father has let it be known that he is willing to pay for any wild animal delivered to him unharmed, and this is how he has come by his little collection… Even the ponds contain Side-Necked Turtles, with their snapping jaws, which he feeds with insects and raw meat… He does not allow any dogs or cats onto the property, and woe-betide any of the local flea-bitten hounds which might mistakenly (or purposely, I suppose!) wander onto the property…

As darkness settled down over Mim, we drove back to our own compound, chatting animatedly about the sights we had seen, and commenting about the many sides to Father that even Borge was surprised at… I have arranged to spend some time with Father in the forests where our various logging operations take place. Our concessions total about 400 km2 of virgin forest, and a few days spent in them with the loggers, is something I am looking forward to. I wish I had brought my tent, as the “Small” rainy season is now firmly upon us… I might have to wait for the short dry season to make the trip. Father seemed quite perturbed that I wanted to spend a few days out there…

“Why you want to do dat?” he asked… “It is not a place for White Men… It is full of dangerous animals, snakes and scorpions…”

“Are you afraid…?” I asked…

“Of course!” he said…

“Good,” I said. “It’s settled then! We will be afraid together…”

He rolled his eyes heavenward, and with a deep sigh said,

“As you wish, Big Man”…

That night I lay awake thinking about all I’d seen on my visit to Father’s “Zoo”, and I knew why it was that I wanted to wander all over this planet… I wanted to see for myself all the wonderful places, the beautiful Fauna and Flora that others only saw in magazines and on TV… I wanted to see them for myself, take my own photographs, breath in the smells, and experience the people and their cultures that inhabited the “far ends of the earth”… Here in Ghana, I have felt that excitement again, akin to that when I rode my bike across Southern and Eastern Africa… It awakens in me the urge to experience life as fully as I am able.

The following day, Father took us out into the countryside, on the road to Sunyani, where we visited an illegal gold mining operation. A scary experience, which reminded me again that this is Africa, where danger and beauty can be found in the same instant…

But that’s another story, and will have to wait until the next issue of “The Daily Debacle”…

2 comments to Borge’s Visit and Father’s “Zoo”…

  • mona

    thanks for the story… just found it on the net…. old story, but fun end entertaining…. always nice to hear parts of my big Brothers life…. from Borges younger sister Mona in Denmark….
    and it sure was a ugly rat……

  • Doug

    Hello! I am a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, USA. I am working on journal article for my degree, and would like to include your photo of Abbott’s duiker as part of a figure in this article. It will be one of several thumbnail photos representing different species in my analysis. Would you be willing to let me use your photo in this way? I will provide full credit; just let me know to whom I should provide credit.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    Doug Keinath
    dkeinath@uwyo.edu
    PhD Candidate
    Program in Ecology
    University of Wyoming

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