Accra is one of those great chaotic, overwhelming African cities whose defining characteristic seems to be the extreme contrast which exists at every level.
The spectacular McMansions of the diplomatic district coexist with the squatters just across the street who let their goats roam freely onto their well manicured lawns. Fancy restaurants surrounded by hawkers. Posh New York-style boutique hotels patronized by the English speaking yuppies wearing the latest fashion while the working class meet at the corner “chop bar” (local canteen). Accra Mall, which looks like any American mall where the middle classes indulge in typical middle class consumerism while a mile down the road, hundreds of farm animals are kept by the roadside, lined up to be sent to an illegal slaughter house.
The traffic is so bad that it would put to shame Bangkok or Jakarta. There is endless construction, everywhere, which gives the city the look of one great big construction site.
And, finally, there is Jamestown. The beating heart of Accra, from where the town grew in the colonial days. More shanty town than proper district, a neighbourhood so rough that the police do not venture there. Garbage littering the streets, crumbling old colonial homes taken over by squatters, and kids hanging out by the roadside with that cocky “don’t mess with me” look. Growing up on the mean streets makes you stronger (if it doesn’t kill you first). All of Ghana’s prize winning boxers come from Jamestown, as do its Premier League footballers.
The European powers which established themselves on the Gold Coast from the 15th century projected their power through networks of forts built along the coast.
The Portuguese built St George’s Castle at Elmina in 1482, which makes it Africa’s oldest European building. They initially traded gold and ivory with the local kingdoms. They dominated that trade until the early 1600’s when the Dutch started to dislodge them from their forts and became the leading power on the Gold Coast. By the the middle of the 17th century, the global price of gold had dropped as supply from the New World increased. At the same time, the plantations of the Americas and West Indies had an increased need for labour. That triggered the start of the slave trade and the European forts of the Gold Coast were re-purposed to drive the slave trade. Most of the slaves sent to the Americas during a 150 year period passed through the “gate of no return” of one of those Gold Coast forts.
Today, about half of the 60 forts built on the Gold Coast survive. Incongruous white monoliths sitting on rocky outcrops above small fishing villages. The towns around the larger castles of Elimina and Cape Coast still have a whiff of their colonial past. Their streets lined with run down grand merchants’ houses and churches. People bearing exotic names like Van Dijk, D’Almeida or Wilson, a distant echo of the liaisons of Europeans with local women.
Ghana is situated closer to the centre of the world than any other country. The Equator and the Greenwich Meridian meet here.
The run-up to Christmas was a bit depressing. We spent the first three weeks of December in the back country of Togo, Benin and Ghana, which gave us a fascinating insight into a lost world organized around the worship of spirits and ancient social allegiances (to kings, fetish priests and traditional chiefs) and where magic permeates every aspect of life. We met characters straight out of story books and witnessed phenomena which we still cannot explain. And most of that time, we were the only visitors around. There was not a tourist in sight.
But such an insider view into a secret world comes at a price. It was rough going. Limited infrastructure. Bad hotels (Laura has a 2-page long list on everything that can go wrong with a hotel ). Bad roads. Bad food. Endless journeys on broken, dusty roads in the dim light of the Harmattan-veiled sun. And all the while, that nagging feeling that at home, we would be preparing for Christmas, choosing presents, decorating the home and setting up the Christmas tree. Meeting with friends and family and attending our usual year-end performance of the Nutcracker.
So by the time we reached Takoradi on December 24th, physically and mentally exhausted, it was time we saved Christmas from the Grinch in our subconscious who had stolen it.
We then found a great Christmas buffet with turkey and stuffing, roast suckling pig and other delicacies.
Being internet-challenged in Takoradi, we were not able to download the traditional heart warming Christmas movie and so had to settle for two irreverent episodes of the Simpsons, which we watched on Christmas night. Finally, after a few calls and Skypes with friends and family, we felt re-motivated and re-energized. Christmas had returned !
Christmas trees (the real type) come and go. But we will remember Christmas at the Centre of the World with our virtual tree and the Simpsons for a long time !
There are only a few things which give sub-Saharan Africa a sense of common identity. One of them is police road blocks. Every road in every country we visited had police road blocks, often many of them. Typically they consist of a flimsy piece of wood flung across two empty metal barrels. But we have also seen stones placed on the road, cardboard boxes, or just a table and a chair on the side of the road. The policemen who man the roadblocks vary from the smart uniformed (and usually heavily armed) type to the dishevelled tramp type with shirt unbuttoned and a sleepy, faintly annoyed look.
We usually encounter two types of situations. Some policemen are very inquisitive and nitpicky – obviously after a bribe. During the Christmas period they even lose whatever reserve they might have had to ask for their “Christmas present” outright. Others are slouched at their desk and not too thrilled at having been woken up by the rare car driving past their forgotten road blocks. They typically wave us on with a grouchy look on their faces.
After crossing, probably, well over a hundred road blocks, I still struggle to understand their function – and value. On the 200km run from Kumasi to Takoradi in Ghana, we counted no less than 13 road blocks – each one of them delaying us for 3-5mn. At an average speed of 40km and hour, the time wasted by road blocks represented 15% of our total journey time that day.
Therefore,assuming that wasted time could be spent productively, Africa has a simple solution to instantaneously increase its GDP by 15% (and that’s not even counting the savings from not doing the road blocks!).
Kejetia market in Kumasi lends itself to superlatives. West Africa’s largest, with more than 10,000 traders selling every possible product. Probably the world’s most crowded market- full of narrow lanes where fierce “porter” aunties plough their way through every obstacle, physical or human, with shrill cries of “ago, ago” (make way, make way!) seconds before they come crashing into you with their load.
Definitely the most overwhelming crowd experience we’ve ever had.
The Ashanti Kingdom, from the 16th to the 19th century was one of Africa’s most powerful polities. The Ashantis fought three wars with the British before they were finally subdued in 1900 and integrated to the Gold Coast colony. The source of Ashanti power was gold. The gold which first brought the Portuguese to West Africa in 1471, as they tried to break the Arab monopoly on the African gold trade.
Ghana remains a major gold producer to this day and that production is still centered on the Ashanti region and its capital, Kumasi. The Portuguese and other Europeans who followed them to the Gold Coast, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, Germans, British are long gone. They have been replaced by Chinese miners and traders – all clustered around Kumasi and after the same prize: gold.
Driving through certain suburbs of Kumasi feels like being in a third tier city in China. Chinese hotels and nightclubs, Chinese supermarkets and restaurants abound. 65,000 Chinese from Guanxi province reportedly live in the area, most of them involved in small scale gold mining.
For us, though, the main benefit of that state of affairs is that Kumasi has the first Cantonese restaurant we have seen in Africa. Chef Chan quickly becomes friends with the boys – and the Han Court restaurant a welcome respite from the culinary frustrations of travelling through the hinterland of West Africa for three weeks.
Having taken our leave from the Paramount Chief and gotten back into our car, the matter of what to do with the two guinea fowl became a pressing one. The birds were in a panic in the boot of the 4×4, banging their heads and wings against the back seats, desperately trying to jump to the front of the car.
The boys were adamant that they wanted to keep them as pets. Our driver felt strongly that the chubby avians were too good to waste and that we should slaughter them and roast them for dinner.
We talked of finding a poor man or woman by the roadside and giving them the birds. Or of walking to the busy central market and offering them to one of the many beggars there. Or perhaps just release them in a patch of forest outside the town to “give them a chance” – though they would not have survived long in the wild. But none of those ideas could garner a consensus among us.
It is at that moment that a brilliant solution suddenly came up. Having decided to keep the birds for the night in our car while we looked for better ideas, the friendly security guard of the hotel where we were staying started to show an interest in their welfare. He built a small cardboard house for them to spend the night in and helped the boys catch the birds every time they escaped from the boot (which was quite often…).
The boys finally decided to entrust the pair of guinea fowl to him for safekeeping, under the condition that he would not to slaughter the royal birds until they had first given birth to chicks and raised them. This he did, taking an oath on the Koran under the watchful eye of four witnesses.
Thus was the saga of the Royal Guinea Fowl brought to a happy (or at least – less complicated) ending, albeit perhaps not that intended by the king of kings when he gave us the birds.
We cross the border from Togo to Ghana through a dusty isolated crossing. The border post is so under-resourced that the immigration officers need to borrow our pens to “stamp” our passports.
In Tamale, a vibrant Muslim city in northern Ghana, we are invited to visit the palace of the Gulpke Naa, the paramount chief of the region (or king of kings as he is called here). We are granted an audience by the king himself.
While we are waiting for the lesser kings of the surrounding districts to finish their audience with the paramount king, we can hear the court herald chant the praises of the king and his forefathers. Finally, we are introduced by an interpreter and seated on the floor facing the king and his council of elders. The king is seated on his throne in a dark room with only one opening, behind him, through which the afternoon sun gushes in. We can only guess his outline, surrounded as he is by the golden light of the afternoon sun.
A charismatic figure in his traditional robes, he appears surprised that we have come to visit from so far. After giving us the traditional kola nuts and asking us some questions about our travels, he blesses us and gives us two (live !) guinea fowl and six yams. The story of what we did with the guinea fowl is for another day!
Magic is central to West African society. Every phenomenon, event or process is explained and enhanced by magic. This is a deeply animistic society where the traditional monotheistic religions play second fiddle to ancient animist beliefs.
The Kabye blacksmiths, outstanding craftsmen famous throughout the region for forging metal with a 15 pound stone rather than a hammer are also traditional healers, able to treat wounds caused by fire or metal with a mixture of herbs and incantations.
The Bassar, who mine iron ore and transform it in their earth smelters, use magic charms and spells to do their work.
We hear of the Night Plane at Kara airport in Togo’s second largest city, which takes off at night, unseen, though its engines can be heard. It travels the world invisibly, carrying witches to their congresses.
We visit a colony of reformed witches. Banished from their villages for having caused harm or death to some people, they live in a “safe house” under the supervision of powerful fetish priests.
It is difficult for a rationalist to fully accept the role attributed to magic in Africa. The Fire Ceremony we attend, late one night, in a remote village in Benin seriously shakes our skepticism though. We see men from the Tem tribe rub burning torches against their bodies and their faces, munch on red hot embers like crisps – feeling no apparent pain and bearing no wounds on their bodies. The old man leading the ceremony moves with almost demonic energy, shrieking in a blood curdling voice and staring at us with mad eyes. He covers himself in flames two feet away from us, then cuts himself with sharp pieces of glass – to no apparent effect.
Magic, apart from its role in bringing order and understanding to their lives is also a filter through which people here are able to see the world in a more interesting, colourful manner. It is a script written over an otherwise harsh, mundane life.