Mortal Coil

December 12, 2012

by Galen Rogers
photos by Joe Edgar
A web-only supplement to Meatpaper Issue 19, the Fishue

After three months of living and apprenticing with a musician in Bamako, Mali, my American friend Joe and I ventured out of the dry country, our sights set on the Ghanaian coast, dreaming of the Atlantic. A trip that could have taken 24 hours ended up taking a week: attempted hijacking, kidney infection, and a party that went long into the night waylaid our itinerary.

The day after our arrival, walking along the beach in Cape Coast and enjoying the cool air of the early morning, I saw in the distance a dozen men in a line perpendicular to the shore, pulling on a thick rope that stretched taut far over the surface of the ocean and disappeared into the gray haze of the horizon. As I got closer I began to hear their song – a short repeated figure under layers of improvised harmony – and I saw the rhythm of their feet, digging in unison into the sand as they inched away from the water. One by one, the man at the back of the line handed his portion of rope to the human anchor of the operation, an old man sitting on a slowly growing coil, and returned to the front of the line to grasp the rope again. Standing close by, I strained my eyes to see what the line was attached to but each segment emerged from the mist exactly like the one before, and as I listened each harmony led inexorably to the next one in a steady string of resolutions. The momentum of the music, more than the weight of the men’s bodies, seemed to draw the rope out of the mist.

A short exchange of greetings with the men resulted, like most greetings I had experienced in Africa, in something unexpected. Within seconds of meeting them I found my hands on the rope, my friend and I absorbed into the human machine. I paused just long enough to get permission to turn on my digital recorder, and then I wrapped both hands around the rope. It was quivering, alive with so much tension that it hurt to touch, but my dignity as a traveler was on the line so I braced myself against the ground and started to pull. I was met with such inconceivable resistance that I began to wonder if I had just sentenced myself to a Sisyphean fate, pulling the full weight of the Atlantic on an infinite rope. But instead of letting go I started to sing along. I reveled in the feeling of inclusion, in the ways this simple task had erased cultural difference. I was in line with the men – physically, rhythmically, and harmonically – and I held onto the moment as tightly as I could even though my hands begged me to let go.

Half an hour later the rope, song, and waves were all unchanged, but my hands were raw, my back sore, my patience thin, and my ego shrunk. My friend and I abandoned the labor, disappointed by our comparable lack of stamina, and returned to our outsider comforts. The men weren’t surprised, giving brief acknowledgement as we walked away. Their focus remained on each other and the point where the rope disappeared in the mist.

After walking up and down the beach, we returned to the same spot several hours later. Now four ropes were emerging from the waves, each one connected to tightly coiled, blue netting, a dozen men pulling on each line. The beach was crowded, and the music had become faster, bordering on frantic. A big splash announced the arrival of a gigantic, shimmering mass of fish, wrenched to the surface by the men on the shore. The fish threw off water and sunlight as they struggled against the net that bound them together. Some of the men advanced into the water, crossing their ropes to close the net as the others pulled it onto the beach. Fish of all varieties pressed against each other. My friend and I joined the fishermen as they stood in a circle around the fish, considering their catch, pointing out certain specimens to each other and picking up the larger fish through the net in order to inspect both sides. I marveled at the bounty of the ocean and at how the men’s work was simultaneously efficient and beautiful, practical and abstract. Their work song repeated endlessly in my mind. “This isn’t a very big catch,” the man next to me said as he turned away from the pile of fish.

Here is an audio clip from that day.
Listen carefully at the end of the recording. While I was in West Africa, people I encountered commonly used one proper noun to create mutual understanding.

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GALEN ROGERS is an intern at Meatpaper, an employee at Olivier’s Butchery, and an avid consumer of West African music.

A web-only supplement to Meatpaper Issue Nineteen, the Fishue

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