We were last in Rwanda in November 2013.I am back for a few days to support a project which the family has sponsored through an NGO, SURF (the Survivors Fund).
It is the “short rains” season. Soft, low clouds sit atop the hills of Kigali. Standing on the balcony of my room at the Mille Collines hotel, on one of the city’s highest hills, feels like standing in a sea of clouds.
In the last days of our African odyssey, traveling through the pretty countryside of the Free State, getting lost in a hostile downtown Johannesburg , visiting the capital Pretoria and finally a large diamond mine, I am struck by how South Africa encapsulates all that is working – and all that is wrong in Africa. And how it (and the continent) is at a crossroads in its economic and social development.
It is a tortuous 16 hour journey by car through remote jungle roads to get to back to civilization.
Brazzaville, the capital of the Rupublic of Congo, is a sleepy city of 1.4 million on the banks of the river Congo. Just across the river, Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire) with its 14 million inhabitants and its high jumble of high rise buildings, stares at Brazza with a mixture of pride and defiance.
Neater and better organized than many African cities, and with a distinctly French provincial feel, Brazzaville is a pleasant enough city to recover from our days in the jungle.
The M’beli camp is set up near a “bai”, a natural swampy clearing in the jungle, where researchers monitor the behaviour of the large mammals who visit it. Primarily a research station, M’beli seldom receives visitors. It is a very basic camp with no electricity or running water. We live in huts built on stilts (forest elephants and buffalos wander through the camp at night) and are the only visitors there during our stay. Water carried from the river, candles to light our huts and long drop loos are our only comforts.
Being so deep and remote in the jungle is a magical experience. We hike an hour every day to reach the bai’s observation platform where we spend several hours. The bai is a secret stage, open only to initiates. The animals make an appearance, perform, and then disappear behind the thick curtain of the jungle. There we get to see our first western lowland gorillas, distant cousins of the mountain gorillas we met in Rwanda. The lowland gorillas are a bit smaller than their mountain cousins, but still impressive creatures. The silverback whihc we see on several occasions, Morpheus, seems to sport an orange mohawk.
Our walks through the jungle take on a fairy tale-like quality. In the late afternoon, the gloom and darkness of the forest is interrupted by sun rays which find their way through gaps in the canopy and create patches of liquid gold on the forest floor. In the evening, as we walk back to our huts we are surrounded by the flickering lights of fire flies, like lights flashing around a giant, shapeless Christmas tree.
At night, the temperature suddenly drops as the heat accumulated during the day evaporates. The cacophonic night concert of the forest begins and we feel like we have been transported to another world, far away from tropical Congo.
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine.” Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
It takes us 22 hours from Brazzaville to reach the research camp, deep in the Congo jungle, where we will spend the next four days. We travel by car, by motor boat, by dugout canoe and on foot through the Congo forest, the world’s largest primary rain forest after the Amazon. The hours we spend going up the meandering river take on a strangely hypnotic quality. We are alone on the broad river, surrounded by thick jungle, a green impregnable wall hiding the mysteries which lie behind it.
The last leg of our journey, in flimsy dug-outs through a maze of swampy water channels alive with the buzzing of swarms of abnormally large bugs tests our nerves. We finally reach M’beli research camp, sore and exhausted and wondering what on earth we are doing in the heart of darkness
Traditional chiefs, or kings (called “fon” here), are an integral part of the political organization of the country. Officially functioning as auxiliaries of the central government, they are often the only face of the authorities which people in the countryside are exposed to. The more effective kings are true figures of authority for their people, more influential and respected than the remote central government in Yaounde.
We visit several palaces in the western highlands, where we travel for a few days, and get fascinating insights into sophisticated cultures.
The Bamoun kingdom, founded 600 years ago and whose current sultan is the 19th in the dynasty, is one of the most revered in the country. The 17th sultan, Ibrahim Njoya, initiated Meiji-like reforms for the kingdom in the 1920’s at a time when the French colonial administration was trying to defang the fon-doms.
He created one of sub-saharan Africa’s first written scripts, to counter the introduction of the latin alphabet. Made up initially of 530 pictograms, it evolved to become an 80 letter alphabet. He set up printing presses to spread the use of the new writing system through books, used in newly opened local schools. He introduced modern agriculture and adopted western architectural styles which he blended with local traditional styles. Ibrahim Njoya was exiled by the French when he proved too successful – and before he was able to complete his African “Meiji restoration”.
We also visit the palace of one of the great kingdoms of Cameroon, Bafut, in the Bamenda area of the northwest highlands. One of the king’s eight wives, Queen Constance, shows us around. An articulate and charismatic personality, she gives us a behind the scenes view into the role of traditional chiefs. She touches on the creeping centralization which the government in Yaounde is trying to impose, to delegitimize traditional chiefs. More than 50 years after independence, politics in Africa remains resolutely local and tribal, with most people’s main allegiance being to their traditional leaders. The extreme example of this being the Ashanti king in Ghana whose power and influence rivals that of the elected government.
Cameroon is a country of stunning natural beauty, with tropical beaches, lush rainforest, dry savannah and fertile highlands. Home to 256 tribes, each with their own dialect and culture, some highly sophisticated. Host to one of Africa’s last “Big Men”, Paul Bila, who has been president since 1982. Colonized by three nations. The Germans were here for 30 years until they were ousted in 1916. They left a legacy of interesting colonial architecture. The League of Nations then gave France and Britain a mandate to administer it. By the time Cameroon gained its independence in 1961, it had split into two countries. Anglophone West Cameroon and francophone East Cameroon. The two entities reunited in 1972 after a referendum but have been uneasy bedfellows since.
The francophone part (making up 80% of the country), which dominates, inherited from the French their cuisine, their dependency on the state and a general sense of unfriendliness. Nowhere in Africa have we met such sullen and obnoxious behaviour. One of the worst hotels we stay at in Africa displays a “credo” in every room advertising their aspiration to benchmark the Ritz Carlton. The anglophone part is a little friendlier (we remember at least two smiles from our journeys there ). It does not have much to show for 50 years of British rule apart from uniforms in the schools.
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 !