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Published: April 28th 2019
This trip was jinxed, or so I thought, still recovering from a duo of lurgies as I lay in an MRI on a Saturday evening five days before my flight. Not to mention the saga of getting a Ghanaian visa, the moral of which is – to save you the gory details, not least of which was the size of my ’phone bill to the High Commission – if in doubt, pay more to get it done fast. You can’t lose, and it beats having the travel agent on standby and almost missing a friend’s Kenyan wedding. This is not a time to be Scottish.
So it was with a major degree of self-pinching that I found myself boarding the right flight on the right day, and then, still glowing from the buzz of a spectacular bush wedding, getting myself across the continent a few days’ later to the source of my visa-stress. But if I were in danger of holding its intransigent bureaucracy against Ghana, I was soon won over by the chatty friendliness of my pink-shirt-uniformed taxi driver at the airport as he pointed me towards an ATM, escorted me along the road to his car (taxis pay
a premium to park outside the sparkling new international terminal, so most simply park at the old terminal down the road, now dedicated to domestic flights, and take their customers on the free shuttle bus that runs between the two), and chatted English premier league football on the way to my hostel. (Not for the first time, I sent silent thanks to a football-mad ex, courtesy of whom I have managed to absorb enough to blag my way through a good 10-15 minutes of soccer-talk, an invaluable skill in 95% of the countries I’ve visited, not to mention more than the occasional business meeting in my old life.)
“I’m HERE!!!” I wrote incredulously in my diary that night.
Maybe it’s not surprising that, the more you travel, the more echoes new places have of the previously-visited. I remember the bustle of comparisons in my mind when I first reached Leh in Ladakh – the Wakhan, San Pedro de Atacama, Bhutan – and I found similar memories crowding in, unbidden, on my first day in Accra – Yangon, Sittwe, Mawlwamyline, Bangalore. But then, as I had found with Leh, Accra’s own personality began to come through.
not an introduction for the faint-hearted. Determined, as ever, to kick off my exploration of a new city with a Sight-With-A-View, I negotiated a taxi-ride across the city to the James Town Lighthouse (the negotiation being somewhat to the surprise of the cab driver, who visibly re-categorised me from naïve oburoni to oh-dammit-she-knows-how-this-works, though I subsequently gave him the balance as a tip; he’d been a deft driver, a valuable skill on Accra’s busy and often not-always-well-surfaced roads). Sadly the red-and-white-striped lighthouse was closed, but, as I stood getting my bearings, I was buttonholed by Daniel, a teacher at the local orphan school. A young widower with dreadlocked hair pulled back in a rough ponytail, telling me tales of the slave days and modern-day political corruption, he took me around the fishing village below the lighthouse, and through the maze of streets of James Town itself in a way that I could never have managed on my own. It wasn’t so much the risk of getting lost that would have held me back, as a very British reluctance to intrude on someone else’s space. Only with a local could I meander through a school, walk down a narrow
alleyway between houses, inch my way between the crowded fishing pirogues as their crews cleaned up after the morning’s outing, or pause for any length of time to absorb my surroundings while he exchanged pleasantries with the locals. Litter was everywhere, but so was hard work – the physical effort involved in every aspect of daily life – and, with a little coaxing, smiles.
For me, the city should have been redolent with history, but it’s such an appalling and tragic history that I felt embarrassed to talk about it or look for it. Time and again through the coming weeks I was – not surprisingly – asked where I came from, and I’d give my answer a little tentatively. “Our colonial masters,” came the response on several occasions. The first time I had gulped, “Err, yes”, otherwise lost for words, but it tended to be said in such a matter-of-fact manner that my embarrassment slowly lessened, though it never entirely went away. But Accra does not seem to be particularly interested in its history, if stopping short of bulldozing the trio of European castles that still line its coast. The formerly-English James Fort was used as a prison
until 2009, and is now theoretically open to the public, but it was closed when I was there – no reason given, and no sign that it would reopen any time soon. (That said, I’m not sure that you can see much more than the old buildings themselves.) More disappointingly, Ussher Fort – formerly Dutch – which has been developed into a museum to try and attract tourists otherwise heading to the better established “slave castles” along the coast, was also closed. Christiansborg Castle, now known as Osu Castle, has had various incarnations since the Danish left, including as the seat of government and the president’s official residence at independence in 1957. There’s talk of turning it into a museum as well, but some government departments are still based there, and there’s a ban on photography anywhere closer than 250m away.
Instead of history, I opted for retail, albeit first on a spectator basis, and dipped into the chaos of Makola Market. Brilliant colours surrounded me – Ghanaian fabric, whether already made up into clothes or piled up in bolts, is fabulously colourful and steeped in tradition. Proper Kente cloth, for example, with its history in Asante ceremonial practices,
is woven and uses traditional geometric designs, and even the cheap printed versions are dramatic. But with part of the Makola Market in a still-being-used car park, meandering around was not something to be undertaken lightly. Winding my way carefully between cheek-by-jowl stalls with the added frisson of potentially being squashed, I could have done with surround-vision. I decided not to chance my luck for long.
Despite repeated evidence to the contrary, particularly in the developing world, I persist in the optimistic view that roads running parallel to the coast must be scenic. But not here. Further along the dramatically-named John Evans Atta Mills High Street (a bit of a mouthful, but that’s what happens if you name a road after the first Ghanaian president to die in office), my surroundings developed an oddly soviet feel. Independence Arch might have had echoes of India Gate and the Arc de Triomphe if it weren’t for the huge black star perched on top. Across the road, I couldn’t imagine that the almost agoraphobia-inducing Independence Square would often be filled to capacity without a Chinese or North Korean culture of regular military parades. And here, what passes for beaches, as I was
to find again further along the coast, often does duty as latrines and garbage dumps, rather than pretty places of recreation.
I returned to retail later in the day, having found my way to Oxford Street (yes, really – although the name is pretty much the sum total of its resemblance to either its London or Sydney namesakes), my specific destination the Vidya Bookstore. I’m often intrigued by bookshops abroad, particularly if there’s a chance of finding books in English by local authors, and this one did not disappoint. I had to restrain myself, conscious that, whatever I bought here, I’d be carrying for the next seven weeks of my trip.
The next day I returned to Oxford Street with a more functional shopping list in anticipation of my venturing further afield later in the week. While my need for a local SIM card was relatively conventionally fulfilled by an electronics shop, it was a man sitting behind a tiny stall wedged between a couple of badly parked cars and a shop-front who replaced the battery in my watch. Not cheap – this isn’t Delhi, where a stallholder in the depths of Khan Market had provided the now-defunct
battery – but very quick and efficient, and definitely with the personal touch.
Later in my trip, when I overnighted back in the city and needed to shop for a few mundanities, the wonderfully-named Koala Supermarket produced a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate from its over air-conditioned interior. Sometimes a girl just needs chocolate, and I sat on the low wall around the supermarket’s small car park and devoured it happily, the speed and location of the devouring being more driven by ambient weather conditions of 33°C (91°F) and 80% humidity than my self-justified need.
The next day, I went in search of more recent history in the Military Cemetery and the Christansborg War Cemetery. At the former, a guard belatedly emerged from his hut and, stern-faced, summoned me in to ask my purpose. Clearly this wasn’t supposed to be open to tourists, or, in any event, my interest in history and acknowledging the sacrifice of others did not tick the right boxes for him, so I smiled my apologies to his continuingly implacable features, and scuttled out of the gates. By contrast, at the War Cemetery, I had the place to myself. As ever in such places, there
were rows of identical marble headstones, the simplicity of the engraving on each – the regiment’s name and crest, words from the Koran or a serif-ed cross, the serviceman’s name, number and dates – so much more poignant than flowery words would have been.
Later, I reached Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, a permanent tribute to the first prime minister and president of Ghana, who led the Gold Coast to independence in 1957, the first sub-Saharan African country to shake off European colonialism. Here too the structure above his tomb is somewhat soviet in impression, but the small museum behind it was oddly affecting: an endless collection of photographs of Dr Nkrumah with the great and/or notorious of his generation – Mao, Zhou, Khrushchev, Nehru, JFK, Queen Elizabeth II, Lumumba, Nasser and Castro amongst them – and some touchingly personal items, including his no-frills acreage of a desk, a plain bookcase and some clothes.
At the gateway to the Park, I had a lovely exchange with a bracelet-maker, who asked if I was a researcher (must have been the Aussie bush hat). When I disclosed my profession, he said “I love lawyers!”, so I teased him, “Nobody loves lawyers!”,
but it transpired that a long-time UK-resident friend of his who, thanks to a stint at Her Majesty’s pleasure, had found himself on the point of expulsion from the UK, was saved (at least for the time being) by the actions of one of my professional colleagues. A rare positive PR moment for the legal profession.
In between the Second World War and Ghanaian independence, I had checked out the National Theatre. Although more recent and Chinese-constructed, its shape and oddly anonymous facade strongly reminded me of London’s South Bank version.
My final “see the sights” stop was the impressively-named Rising Phoenix Magic Beach Resort, with its delightful injunction, “NO SMOKING. Let’s all breath the ocean magic”. Grander in name than actuality, I found myself supping what I considered to be a well-earned beer in the company of Chris from Ethiopia, pot-smoking, sign-disregarding, Rasta woollen hat and all, whom I managed to distract with the Book while I caught up on my diary.
Over the coming weeks, I was to come back to Accra in between forays further afield, and, each time I returned, it felt more and more like ‘home’, an invaluable and friendly stop-and-catch-up-with-myself point.
It’s scruffy and ramshackle and full of traffic, but it’s also full of people and colour and friendliness. And it’s a base I’ll definitely use on my next West African peregrinations.
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