Published: July 8th 2009June 5th 2009
And so we come to Ghana, on the hunt for the Nigerian visa. Seth has arranged to take some photos for a development charity called Trax Ghana and thus we base ourselves in the little touristed northern city of Bolgatanga for a few days. It is a compact, hassle-free town, with chilled out folks getting on with their daily business and absolutely no children asking for presents - amazing. We meet Vincent, the regional director, over dinner and he explains about the projects Trax have been working on, and arranges to pick us up the next day to drive us out to see them (I figure I’ll come along with pen and paper, and try not to get in anyone’s way.) Come morning, however, the situation is such that it is not possible for me to be more than a few metres from toilet access, so the guys head off without me, and I lay in various states of consciousness, making notes that make little sense, and cursing the fan for being so weak. Around midday, a knock on the door. It’s a young guy I passed in the corridor earlier.
‘Hi, my name’s Junior. Can we be friends?’
I feel like a troll stamped on my guts and now I’ve got gentleman callers. I’ve got to stop smiling at everyone I pass in the corridor.
‘Actually, I’m not so well...’
‘How many days in Ghana?’
‘Well... a few... listen, I can’t chat…’
‘How do you find Africa?’
Enter Seth, carrying a cockerel. Junior and I gawp. It’s an awesome entrance, I’d give it a nine. Vincent and Stella join the scene and Junior slopes off. After kind enquires after my health, it becomes clear that the morning has been very successful - great photos for Trax to use and kind farmers who have gifted Seth a big (live) cockerel for dinner and some guinea fowl eggs for breakfast. I have clearly missed something lovely. If we like, Vincent can take us out again the next morning to another site, so I spend the rest of the day resting and popping all the right pills, listening to Seth’s stories of the villagers he met. The cockerel is handed on to the hotel chef who cooks us light red soup and doughy banku to eat it with that night. It is a generous gift from a prize winning farmer,
but still we feel a bit guilty as we sit there munching in the dark.
‘What are we now, serial bird torturers?’ I ask Seth, remembering Paga the previous day, where it was necessary to purchase a live chicken for consumption by the (also very live) sacred crocodiles. My body recovers sufficiently to join the team the next morning, as we drive on holey dirt tracks to the village of Gare and visit a compound where new soil conservation techniques have generated an especially prosperous yield of onions. The men who meet and greet us show us mud hut after mud hut full of onions. They are happy to see Vincent, who is in turn thrilled to see so many hundreds of the tear-inducing veggies everywhere we walk:
‘Onions!’- he keeps annunciating, ‘So many! It’s very impressive!’ The villagers are keeping hold of the onions and will sell them all at once when the time is right to get the best price. Guinea fowl peck for seeds behind a bicycle, turkeys fluff their feathers at one another and chicks run beneath our feet as we tour the compound, a family fortress where children eye us shyly and giggle together. As
we leave, we pass the hut of the traditional medicine man, the soothsayer. He comes outside, stands by a large mound of animist worship and begins to shake a kind of maraca over a hen he has scooped up into his hand. He’s bare-chested, with a head of fine dreadlocks, and has a goatskin tied around his waist over pinstriped shorts. A little crowd gathers, the women looking up from the preparation of vegetables and grains. It all seems a little ominous for the hen, and Seth and I exchange looks in between the clicking of his camera shutter; will this be the third member of the poultry clan to expire in our name in a brutal 48 hour culling? The maraca is decorated with... feathers. It’s not looking good for our feathered friend. The hen looks resigned to whatever bizarre human treatment it may receive.
‘He’s chanting something’, whispers Vincent, equally enthralled. For a minute, it seems certain that the hen is for it, but suddenly the soothsayer stops his chanting and lets it go. (We exhale...) I realise anyway that we can hardly talk about chicken torture - I must have eaten about thirty of them
since stepping foot on Africa, it’s just they look different bald and with a side of chips. As we drive back, Vincent talks about the charity and I continue to make scrawled notes that look more like hieroglyphics due to the number of potholes we’re encountering. I’m hoping to write a little piece about it all when I get a chance. What counts most though is that the pictures are superb, and we both feel lucky to have shared in this positive slice of rural Ghanaian life.
We leave Bolgatanga - it feels like we’ve been there an age - and head south to the city of Kumasi, travelling on a South Korean bus that has somehow, along with hundreds of cars, minibuses, t-shirts, and bags, wound its way half way across the world to Ghana. Before we go on board, I stand gawping at the old sticker on its window. It says ‘Andong to Hahoe Folk Village.’ The world suddenly feels tiny, or even claustrophobic; we were in Hahoe Folk Village, and Andong, eight months ago. I liked South Korea. It was like Japan but rougher round the edges. Part of me wouldn’t mind if the bus really did
deliver us to Hahoe Folk Village, but Ghana is working its charms on me. The dust, the heat and the hassle that rose between Southern Mauritania and Mali have calmed, and I’m more at one with my environment. I like how the people here seem relatively laid back. This is my impression, at least, until we visit Kumasi Kejetia market. It would be wrong to say the women vendors bully me, because at 29 you presumably can’t get bullied, but let’s just say they are generally twice my size and they like to grab me and hurl me around a bit. All in the name of fun, you understand. This time my fertility is not directly questioned, though one woman, a smiley vegetable vendor called Victoria, does comment on my big shoulders, ‘like a man.’ (She then almost rips my arm off when we shake hands.) (The shoulders thing I’m used to by now.)
It is the craziest market yet. Palm oil pods, dried fish, neon pink pig trotters in buckets, walls of candy shops and a sense of being completely lost in another universe. It is more a city within a city than a market, and even the outskirts,
the surrounding roads, are clogged with traffic and goods spread out along the pavement. Trying to escape and receiving further grabbings, this time from young male T-shirt vendors who practically imbed their fingerprints on my arms, I am tripping over cassavas and starting to get grumpy. In a local spot (a ‘spot’ is a bar in Ghana) I have to douse the flames with a cold bottle of Star Beer, then I unwind and feel less persecuted.
From here, we hit the coast. Accra, the capital, is where we will try for the Nigerian visa, but first we want to take a little sidestep westwards to visit some of ruined European forts that line the coast, standing as a reminder of the slave trade. In Elmina, we stand in the dark dungeons of Fort St George where the Europeans (Portuguese, then Dutch, then Brits) imprisoned West African slaves. The slaves were unable to wash, weak with disease and given only enough to eat and drink as would keep them alive. Though imprisoned in the same fort, whole families were split up and kept in different sections, never to see each other again. The women were raped by soldiers and punished
if they resisted. In the case of both the men and women, buckets were left in the corners of the dungeon for toilets, but as people got ill and weak they couldn’t reach them; the slaves were sleeping in their own excrement/vomit/urine/blood, and the tropical heat and humidity along the Ghanaian coast was - is - intense, making life even more horrific in such conditions. Waiting this way for weeks for a boat to arrive, sometimes up to two months, many died. On the boats the people were bound together in chains and laid out like sardines as they were forced to leave their home continent. The tour of the fort was the most depressing and important ‘museum’ experience I’ve had since Hiroshima. The picturesque nature of these forts, surrounded by swaying palms, blue sea and white shore, is thankfully dampened by the aggressive old cannons poking out of their walls. Otherwise it gets confusing, that buildings with such hideous historical significance can be pleasing on the eye. Our visit to Princess Town is a strange exception to the rule. It takes numerous tro-tros (minibuses) and a drive through tropical forest on a slim dirt road to reach the isolated
town, the simple houses fighting back a wild army of trees on three sides, the sea on the fourth. From the small fort, the view of the coast is so stunning that the past seems to remain firmly in its place - behind us all - and for an evening and a morning the world feels very beautiful. (The night, admittedly, is spooky. We are staying in a basic room located inside the restored area of the fort itself, and the long walk to bucket showers and toilets has an eerie feel.)
Back in Cape Coast, we have one more sidestep to take before heading to Accra. There is a town beginning with ‘J’, Jukwa, in-between us and a nearby national park, and we plan to visit both. Kakum National Park is the only national park I have ever been to where I have seen absolutely no animals. It is also the only one I’ve been to where you get to walk on a series of rope bridges through the trees, 30m above ground. All in all, a surreal place, and perhaps the only chance in life to pretend you are walking around an Ewok village. Jukwa is 105% less
touristy. Our huffy cab driver waits while the two crazy obronis (that’s the local slang for white people) insist on exploring Jukwa market.
‘Hey!’ I say to Seth, ‘Do a 360. What do you notice?’
‘I don’t know. What?’ (He’s trying not to trip over any avocados.)
‘It’s all women. I can’t see a single guy! It’s awesome. It’s like the opposite of those purdah towns we drove through in Pakistan.’
Every face in the crowd is female. Shopping for soap, selling fish, chatting with friends, hawking vegetables, cutting great rolls of cloth... all women. The only exceptions who show themselves are some clowns who come to perform, a man with a megaphone selling traditional medicine and a crazy man who walks around the edge of the market yelling sporadically. Seth sets off for photos; I set off for a trinket. The Jukwa ladies are less inclined to grab me than their Kumasi contemporaries, which makes for a slightly more relaxing shopping experience. That night we stay in the most eccentric and excellent hotel of the trip so far. It is near Jukwa, and it has a pond full of Nile crocodiles that are pretty much free to wonder where
they want, trees full of yellow weaver birds building nests, a pool (croc free), table tennis, a security guard with a passion for wearing a plastic policeman hat and an open air restaurant with a view of all of the above. It also serves a fittingly bizarre breakfast and I appreciate the presentation of the baked beans, in their own little metal ice-cream dish.
Accra is a muddle in my mind, very indistinct. For a big city, it has a lot of sky. It sprawls. My Grandpa Billy was stationed here in the Second World War, part of the Gold Coast Regiment. All I really know about it is that he liked the Ghanaians very much, and that he had a pet monkey that used to throw poo around the room. He talked a lot about the war but I was always too young to take it in. On the night we arrive in Accra it's the champions league final and as we watch it in an Irish bar awash with expats (white faces look strange!), I toast William Norris Heaton with a glass of red wine, and remember how much he used to talk about Winston Churchill after
a glass of the same. The wonderful thing about coming all the way to Accra to try for a Nigerian visa is that our efforts pay off. There’s a big hole in the money belt but our passports - already pleasingly rich in red, green, black and blue smudgy ink - are adorned with the full page, dark green authorisation we have been hunting for.
Ghana continues to stun us, and I am especially seduced by the area to the east of Lake Volta, rich in forest and green hills. Roadside stalls have pineapples and watermelons piled high, and there is a waterfall close to Wli village that plummets off a great cliff as big bats cling to the mossy walls. At the village of Tafi-Atome, the local mona monkeys are considered sacred (quite Indian…) and are therefore protected. When we visit, the village is loud and busy because of the many funerals being held. Rather than being solemn occasions, people have dressed up brightly and are enjoying themselves. A few men are drunk and staggering. Loud music plays. The life of the person lost seems to be celebrated at this time rather than mourned for, but I’m sure it’s
more complicated than that. Despite the relative chaos, the monkeys still want their bananas and they are incredibly cute, with grey, white and terracotta fur, and wise old faces, even on the babies.
When we leave we have been in Ghana longer than in any other African country so far, and are fond of it. Since we have come by necessity rather than choice, I feel glad that our visa hunt took us here; it’s the first time Africa has felt chill-out-able-in, if I’m honest. Perhaps it is us and not the dynamic that has changed; perhaps we have just settled into the rhythm of life and travel here now. But I do think there’s something special about this country. Togo is our next destination, and in fact the region we will be crossing into is just on the other side of Wli waterfall, just a short distance across from villages like Tafi-atome, and rich in the same beautiful forest and hills. We travel there from the city of Ho, and as we wait for our bashed up vehicle to fill up with passengers - (think half 4 x 4, half bizarre windowless safari style vehicle…) - I smile at the name of the hardware shop across the road: ‘Still Observers Are Worried.’ Ghana is full of excellent signs and names, often a combo of heavy Christian with pleasingly erratic. ‘God Is King Burger’ on the back of a taxi. The ominous ‘You Again’ on a village stall. ‘No Condition is Permanent’ warning me from the back of a tro-tro. The best is a big blue bus that races past us one day on the coast, leaving us in hysterics; ‘Cape Coast Mysterious Dwarves F.C.’ Yep, there’s a lot to love about Ghana.