BUNBONG, Ghana—Our journey to Ghana began with an email, in September, from a former executive at the Los Angeles Times. She had a startling lead. Her sister’s husband’s brother, Wumbe Dawuni—the chief of Bunbong, a village of about 2,500 in northern Ghana—had a problem, and wanted to share it with the world.
I called Chief Wumbe, and he told me that six months ago, the Ghanaian government completed a road connecting Bunbong to Yendi District—a town 18 miles away—cutting travel time from several hours to 30 minutes. Almost immediately, small-time Chinese entrepreneurs arrived in the village. They brought slot machines—crude, LED-lit boxes—and installed them in local cafes and convenience stores.
Many children in Bunbong grew terribly addicted. Some stopped going to school. They stole money from their parents to keep playing, throwing the village into crisis.
Chief Wumbe invited me to the Northern Region, and videographer Noah Fowler and I recently flew out to meet him.
We arrived in Bunbong in the late afternoon. The Chief’s Palace was painted a brilliant white, rising like a mirage from the dusty landscape. As we walked inside, about a dozen village officials stood to receive us. Wumbe sat quietly on his throne, a leather ottoman atop a raised platform. The assembly applauded our arrival, then the Chief spoke.
He told us that he had successfully forced the machines out of Bunbong. Yet they continued to proliferate across Ghana, sucking scarce resources from communities that already teetered on the brink of destitution. “I travel around a lot, and they are everywhere,” he told us.
We were determined to find the machines, and discover what they were still doing to local communities. How extensive was the problem? What did it look like on the ground?
So we set out again, driving through Ghana’s Northern Region, a seemingly endless sprawl of packed-mud huts and yellow brush, in search of the Chinese machines.
ZAMASHEGU, Ghana—We found our first Chinese slot machine tucked away in a dusty lot, flanked by two small children.
It was remarkably crude: an orange plywood box about the size of a mini refrigerator. Its only distinguishing features were a coin slot, an arcade game console, and a flimsy plastic facade, on which dirt-streaked Super Mario Bros characters framed a backlit square of classic slot machine symbols—cherries, bells, lucky sevens. I put a coin in the slot and pressed a button on the console, wagering about 25 cents on cherries. Then the machine sprang to life. It flashed and growled, spewing 8-bit sounds.
The light spun around the square and landed on an orange. The machine went quiet. The children stood and stared.
The machine’s manager was George Afful, 35, the proprietor of an open-air electronics store in Yendi district, a small, impoverished town in Ghana’s Northern Region. He said that a Chinese man provided him with the machine last year. Occasionally, the man would drop by to unlock it and remove the coins. Afful would receive a 20 percent cut. The machine was good for business, he said. He was saving to buy his own.
Later, we started to see the machines everywhere, tucked into small packed-mud houses only a few steps from Yendi District’s main thoroughfare.
China’s relationship with Africa has been deepening for years, and Ghana has consistently ranked among its greatest beneficiaries—trade between the two nations reached $5.6 billion at the end of 2014. Yet throughout the Northern Region, at least, Chinese people remain largely invisible, their presence marked only by the gambling machines—a sign of how deep, complex, and sometimes troubled the Ghanaian-Chinese relationship has become.
In interviews, villagers cast the Chinese suppliers of the machines as ghosts. They’d arrive in pickup trucks every few days, accompanied by Ghanaian fixers; empty the machines; and drive off with small fortunes in Ghanaian coins. Nobody seemed to know anything else about them.
Then, in Zamashegu—a thatch-hut village of about 1,500 people—we found one. We were interviewing villagers about the machines, when someone spotted a white pickup truck on a nearby road. The vehicle's owner was probably in a roadside shack, removing money from a machine, we were told. We dashed over, and a Chinese man emerged.
He was tall and pale, and wore a gray T-shirt and black baseball cap. I greeted him in Mandarin. He told us that he had worked as a cook in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region, until a Chinese “agent” approached him with an opportunity overseas. His boss, he told us, was Ghanaian.
The villagers took interest in our conversation, and as the crowd pressed in, he grew taciturn; his eyes darted uncomfortably. He said he was busy, hopped into his truck, and vanished.