We arrived in Ghana on the Thursday before Easter weekend. After spending a long day on a bus from Abidjan, including a breakdown which lasted for several hours when our bus failed to make it up a small hill, we stopped at Axim, one of the first towns in any size on the Ghanaian coast. The first thing that struck us about the town was the massive, tented enclosure in the town’s centre, beneath the old European slaving fort. It was about 9 O’ clock in the evening and this enclosure was crammed with a sea of swaying human bodies. Upon approaching closer, we could make out the strains of a hymn, accompanied by a live gospel band. The tented structure was large, accommodating a couple of thousand people on rows of benches. The canopy roof had many fluorescent lights attached to it which created a shining glow around the whole area. Loudspeakers were fixed to the poles that supported the roof, carrying the music far into the night. At the front of the enclosure was a low platform. On one side of the platform there was a band with 4 members and in the centre there was a table behind which sat 4 or 5 men in flowing white robes. The audience were standing, arms in the air, swaying to the music and singing with ecstatic expressions on their faces.

We were hungry after a long day on the road and stopped in front of this area at a street food stall. Here we ate a meat pie, a telling introduction to the culinary heritage of British colonialism, a sad contrast to the delicious brochette sandwiches common in the Francophone lands. While we sat there, the singing came to an end and the robed men started shouting into the microphone in the rising and falling rhythm of the charismatic preacher. The crowd contributed regular cries of “Amen”, as if with a single voice, which was the only word we understood among all the torrential sermons. We watched this spectacle for about half an hour before retreating for a drink. The rest of the town was quiet, modest and low-key. The few dilapidated colonial mansions stood out among a sea of rust-roofed single story modern wooden dwellings. The noise, lights and pomp of the prayer meeting seemed a bizarre anomaly in this setting, particularly since none of the inhabitants that we talked to seemed to think that it was in any way a remarkable event. At about 10:30, on our way home, we encountered the worshippers again, now streaming home all prayed out for the night.

Ghana, route taken, April-May 2000, full map

At about 5am the next morning we had our next religious encounter. Sleeping peacefully in our beds, we were woken by the sound of what appeared to be a large group of young women walking by our hotel, clapping and singing hymns in unison at the top of their voices. We were too sleepy, stunned and newly-arrived to react rationally and thus spurned the chance to re-enact the crucifixion, contenting ourselves with a selection of sleepy curses. A few hours later we arose and headed into town for breakfast. There we found the prayer meeting reassembled and in the full flight of their rapturous lord-praising. We left Axim two days later, on Easter Sunday, and during all this time these people (who we discovered to be some species of pentecostals) never ceased to pray, sing and dance for the big man above, from before dawn until well after dark. And they were far from being the only prayer meeting in town. Walking around this small fishing community we came across numerous halls packed to the rafters with clapping, crooning, amen-ing, sinners. Most of these meeting seemed to be part of smaller, less well known sects of christianity, few of which I had ever heard of before. None of them seemed to possess a purpose-built church; the worshippers were crowded into halls of all descriptions, sometimes spilling out onto the streets. They were all dressed in their Sunday best and answered the preacher fervently as if in a trance.

Modern Church, Axim

Although this Easter weekend in Axim was certainly the most concentrated example of religious fervour that we encountered in Ghana, it was by no means altogether exceptional. Christianity is omnipresent, from the gospel music on the radio to the iconic statues and the religious secondary schools, all of which seemed to be run by some variety of priests. At least half of all businesses have a religious name: the ‘clap for Jesus hardware store’, the ‘fishers of men snack bar’ or the ‘he is lord computer school’. Posters advertising church activities are everywhere, declaring “Crusade! Crusade! Crusade!” and announcing drives for mass conversions of animists. Large marquees and tents are dotted around the towns, stuffed with sound equipment, broadcasting the strident tones of various preachers far and wide, at all hours of the day and night. A controversy was raging on the radio phone-in shows as one administrative area of the country had confined all religious activities to their own premises and imposed a maximum decibel level on them in an attempt to reduce noise pollution from over-enthusiastic worshippers, a move fiercely opposed by the evangelicals.

Read for Jesus

For several months myself and Deirdre had been looking forward to arriving in Ghana to replenish our stocks of English language books. In the Francophone countries every large town in sure to have a reasonable bookshop stocking international newspapers and magazines as well as books. The major cities like Abidjan and Dakar have excellent bookshops, yet reading books in French is too much like hard work. At first, when we failed to find any decent bookshops in Ghana, we simply assumed that we just hadn’t looked hard enough, but after spending several full days searching in the two big cities, Accra and Kumasi, we finally gave up. The end result of our long quest was one small new bookshop in Accra with a pitiable selection of mainly government publications and trashy romantic novels. Somewhat better was a second hand bookshop stocked with bulk-imports from the US, mostly pulp novels, but there were a few inexpensive classic novels. Other than these two enclaves and the university bookshops, the national book business was entirely dominated by three christian chains: Presbyterian book depot, Methodist book depot and Challenge books.

The Methodist depot made the greatest pretence at being a general bookshop. The religious section took up only about half the stock. They also had a large biography section and an extensive ‘general reading’ section. However on close inspection there did seem to be a certain slant in title selection. Accounts of the lives of about 6 different members of the Wesley family made up a large part of the biography shelf and I don’t think it was any coincidence that all 3 branches which we visited, in Accra, Cape Coast and Kumasi, stocked large numbers of ‘God loves communists too’, a real-life account of how the author had been a member of a lefty group in England in the 1970’s until God came to her, she saw that she was doing the devil’s work and left to join some weird christian sect where she has found spiritual bliss.

The Presbyterian book depot was even worse. 90% of the books were purely religious and the one small shelf labelled ‘novels’ contained such classics as ‘Our police friends’ by the PR department of the Ghana police force. Challenge books – “for the best in christian reading” managed to make the other two look like enlightened bastions of rational thought. While the other two were scruffy and musty, this was a slick affair, full of clean-cut young men in suits. The books were glossy, shiny and new. Apart from a few textbooks the entire stock was religious. There were biographies of obscure American faith healers and preachers whom I had never heard of, self-help titles responding to various crises one might have and children’s books designed to teach morality to the young. The whole place reeked of American money, come from one of the unspeakably evil born-again sects which dream of spreading their tentacles of ignorance, prejudice and superstition all over the world.

Get better for Jesus

Nationwide, the larger, longer established churches do have a considerable presence – there are plenty of schools, missions and 4 wheel drives sporting the logo of the catholic, methodist, presbyterian and anglican churches – but it is the multitude of smaller, evangelical sects which catch the eye. Some of these are imported. Various baptist denominations, the church of Jesus Christ of the latter day saints, the seventh day adventists, the christian scientists and the Mormons are among the sects that were previously familiar to me. However the greater number of churches seem to be home-grown and I had never previously encountered many of them. The Divine Life Power Ministries, the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star and many other convoluted titles featuring bibles, crosses, lords and miracles ring out from posters and signboards. Many of these sects are based around a single charismatic leader and incorporate large amounts of ‘miraculous’ interventions and faith healing. Some of them are extremely weird: in Cape Coast we heard the unmistakable sound of heavy metal drumming coming from an open doorway. Upon investigation, we discovered that the building housed a congregation pacing briskly up and down, eyes fixed on the floor, heads bobbing frantically up and down. All the while they emitted a low demonic guttural murmur and appeared completely oblivious to the world around them.

The success of the charismatic churches surely rests upon their incorporation of many elements of animist and traditional beliefs into the framework of Christianity. The various animist systems of belief are generally ill-adapted to the complexities of the modern nation-state, being based on localised, homogeneous ethnic groups and emphasising kinship groups and common ancestry. These systems have limited utility in the ethnic mosaic of modern African cities. In contrast Christianity and Islam both aim towards universality. Yet animist beliefs have the selling point of providing much more immediate access to divinity which resides in trees, charms, crocodiles or catfish, all of which are plainly visible and can be persuaded to intervene on one’s behalf if the right invocation is used. Considering the vast magnitude of the social problems facing people all over modern Africa, it is no surprise that the immediate availability of God should be so important as a selling point of a religion. In many places the scale of poverty, insecurity and disease is such that no deliverance is possible, at least in the short term, other than a miracle working divinity. Ghana’s economy, like most of its neighbours, is heavily dependent on global commodity prices, in this case cocoa and gold. These have been steadily declining in recent years and cocoa has lost a quarter of its value in the last year. This has caused serious depreciation of the currency and consequent inflation of living costs – over the 5 weeks that we spent there the currency lost over 10% of its value, a trend which has been going on for some time. In the face of such facts, which are completely beyond the control of ordinary people, it is no wonder that people turn to the false hope of superstition. There are many cynical opportunists who take advantage of this despair. We observed a large billboard advertisement which simply read “there is a cure for aids” with the name of a sect written in small type beneath it.

On one occasion we had the opportunity to closely observe one of the charismatic holy men at work. In fact we had no choice but to watch his show since he delivered it to a bus-load of captive spectators throughout a 4 hour journey. We had already endured a full hour of preaching in the bus station, courtesy of two young men, by the time the bus actually left. Since the preachers had been left behind we thought that we had escaped without being saved. Then, within seconds of leaving the station, another preacher who had cunningly disguised himself as a passenger stood up, made his way to the front of the bus and turned to address the captive flock.

“Praise the lord”, his opening pitch, met with a resounding “Amen” from our fellow travellers. From this opening he went on to expertly work the crowd, extracting Amens at will by producing a stream of canned holy invocations. It appeared that these responses were wholly involuntary on the part of many of the assembled sinners. Having warmed the crowd up, he led them in prayer, getting everybody to bow their heads and repeat his humble words of thanks and praise. Having got the people on his side, he switched from prayer to sales, producing a bottle of some sort of miraculous medicine from his bag and proceeded to extol the virtues of this curative remedy for the next half hour. This speech was conducted in a local language, but we were able to make out several words such as “diarrhoea”, “syphilis”, “malaria” and “infertility”. Five or six of these remedies were purchased at a couple of dollars apiece and then, just as it looked as if the crowd’s interest was flagging, the quack reverted to preacher in spectacular fashion, producing a small stringed instrument and drum from his bag. He launched into a set of favourite hymns, belting the words out in his strong voice. This proved very popular with the crowd who joined in, clapping along with his drumming. They even sang along enthusiastically to several of the crowd pleasing numbers. Many songs later, the passengers were sufficiently rejuvenated for him to venture another round of remedy sales, which was even more successful than the first. By the journey’s end, after several cycles of hymns, prayers and sales, he had sold some 30 bottles. 10 kilometres before we arrived, he announced his imminent departure and led the bus on one last singsong before getting the driver to stop the bus. He got out in a remote spot which appeared to be far from any human dwelling and with a last blessing he was gone.

II EUROPEAN RELICS OF THE GOLD COAST

From Axim, we journeyed West to East across Ghana’s coast and stopped at several points to visit ancient European forts, relics of the early period of contact between European traders and Africa. The first fort that we saw was in Axim. It was built by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century and taken by the Dutch in 1642. The building is situated on top of a hill projecting into the sea at the centre point of the town. It is small solid and was clearly built with defensibility as a very important criterion. Arrays of ancient cannons line the walls. A system of drains traps rainwater into a large subterranean reservoir to provide for sieges. As it stands today, it dates from the period when slaves were the mainstay of commerce and so there are numerous dark dungeons for holding them in wait of a ship. Great pains have been taken to ensure access to the sea. A tunnel runs from the fort, several hundred yards under the sea, to a small island in the bay. This would have allowed slaves to be loaded without leaving, even momentarily, the confines of captivity as well as allowing provisioning if the fort was besieged on land. It is an impressive monument to the European merchants’ technical ingenuity and moral decrepitude.

From Axim we proceeded 100km East to the small fishing village of Dixcove, which is again dominated by a European fort, this time English, built in 1691. It is similar in design to most of these forts, with several slave dungeons set around a courtyard where the unfortunate captives were segregated by age and sex. The walls above the dungeons are lined with cannons and above these, towering over the courtyard, are the spacious, airy quarters of the governor. This fort is somewhat larger than that in Axim, but is somewhat less distinguished in terms of self-containment and ingenuity of design. One notable feature is the window in the roof of the female slaves’ dungeon, giving onto the officers’ area above, which the caretaker informed us was intended to facilitate the choosing of comely slaves to provide the poor lonely Englishmen with some comfort in the absence of their dear wives.

After Dixcove, we travelled another 200 km East to Elmina where the Portuguese had their headquarters for 150 years until they were superceded by the Dutch who made it their headquarters in turn until they were finally ousted by the British in 1872. Constructed in 1482, it is the oldest European monument in sub-saharan Africa. It is much larger and more impressive than the forts which we had already seen. The compound, surrounded by a moat and high wall, is made up of several courtyards, one of which houses a Portuguese catholic church in its centre. The European’s living quarters are extensive, particularly the governor’s whose 5 room duplex commands spectacular views of the bay. The dungeon complex is large and labyrinthine. The main building is 3 stories high, about 50 feet wide and over 100 feet long. Entrance is gained by means of a lowered drawbridge and the castle is built of dressed stone, imported from Europe. Overall the structure has the atmosphere of the European middle ages, quite disconcerting in the midst of this modest West African fishing town.

Deirdre (middle) poses with a large swordfish (bottom)

15 kilometres further along the coast is Cape Coast, where the fort was the site of the British headquarters in the region until 1876. Curiously located barely a cannon shot distant from their major rivals, the Portuguese and later the Dutch. This castle is of similarly large dimensions to the Elmina fort although its plan is somewhat irregular giving a less pleasant aspect to the whole. A large trapezoidal courtyard is the compound’s centrepiece, surrounded by slave dungeons on two sides. One corner of the yard slopes sharply down to a large double gate giving directly onto the sea, conveniently allowing slaves to be loaded onto ships almost directly from their cells, minimising the opportunity for any last act of defiance. The other two sides house the main building incorporating large rooms for the hosting of a large garrison. The governor’s quarters again surmount everything, commanding a view over the entirety of the compound as well as much of the surrounding town and the bay. Despite the 50 cannons or so lining the walls, this castle gives the impression of being less fortified than that at Elmina, especially on the landward side, perhaps because the predominant British felt less threatened.

The story of the European forts, 37 of which line Ghana’s coast, reveal much about the history of pre-colonial contact between Europe and Africa. The Portuguese buildings are a remnant of the first period of contact, in the 16th and late 15th centuries when European merchants came to this coast looking to obtain the pepper, ivory and gold of trans-saharan trade closer to source. As the scramble for colonial possessions in the Americas intensified and the genocide of the indigenous peoples created huge shortages of labour, the trade switched to slaves. The 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries saw violent competition among the burgeoning bourgeois merchant classes of the various European nations for control of this lucrative trade. The forts of this period were larger than before to house the bulky human merchandise and stronger to withstand the assaults of European rivals. The Germans, Swedes, Danes and French all built forts on this 500km stretch of coastline but it was the Portuguese, British and Dutch which had the most substantial presence. Many of the forts changed hands many times between the various powers and by the end of the 17th century the British and Dutch had emerged victorious and squeezed their competitors out of the region.

This slave trade proved disastrous for Africa, partly due to the huge drain of manpower which caused whole areas to become depopulated. However, at least as damaging as the loss of manpower, was the arms race which erupted among local powers in the wake of the influx of European firearms. To get guns, slaves were the only currency worth anything, to get slaves, warfare was necessary. Hence this vicious circle led to increasingly bloodthirsty, despotic empires who depended for their survival on endless wars to supply the slaves with which to purchase the guns to enforce their cruel and unpopular rule. More than two centuries of this process left the indigenous civilisations devastated, unable to oppose the European imperial powers in their colonial drive.

The colonial period, beginning in the late 19th century, saw the decline in importance of Ghana’s coastal forts. The British empire had no longer any rivals to its hegemony over the Gold coast. The Dutch, long surpassed by the other European powers, had finally ceded the last of their strongholds in 1872 and the Asante kingdom, the most powerful of the indigenous states, was decisively defeated after a series of wars. Nevertheless the forts still contain some memories of this period of imperial conquest. In a punishment intended to symbolise the final humiliation of the Asante, a tiny room in one of the towers of the Elmina fort was used to hold the last independent Asante monarch, Prempeh, en route to his exile in the Seychelles.

III GHANA TODAY

The English legacy

Since, with the minor exception of a week in the Gambia, we had been travelling through ex-French colonies, Ghana was noticeably different to everywhere we had hitherto visited in a number of ways. Firstly and most happily, we discovered that prices were very much lower than elsewhere. We never paid more than $6 for a room which were generally of very good standard with fans and bathroom ensuite. Food, drink and transport were also similarly inexpensive. Related to the low prices, but much less welcome, was the problem of dealing with a seriously unwieldy currency. All of the ex-French colonies use a common currency, the CFA franc, which is tied to the value of the French franc at a fixed rate. The French government holds 50% of all their foreign exchange and has the power to arbitrarily revalue the CFA franc. In exchange for this total economic and political subjugation, the Francophone African countries at least have a currency that is easy to deal with, comes in sensible denominations and is relatively stable (except when France decides to devalue it by 100%). Ghana has its own currency, the Cedi, and inflation has meant that the biggest note is worth about $1 and even these are sometimes unavailable. When you change say $400 travellers cheques into Cedis, you can end up with a sackful of notes worth 40 cents each, not exactly convenient for shopping.

Another major difference between Ghana and the Francophone countries is, naturally, the language. However, unfortunately English is much less widely spoken than French is in the ex-French colonies and the English is heavily flavoured with local peculiarities. Thus we were disappointed to find that we found it harder to communicate with people, despite the best efforts of the school system; everywhere we went small children would sing at us, in a tune obviously taught to toddlers: “hello! how are you? I’m fine. Thank you.”

With the change in language came a change in what we were called. For months we had been answering to the title of ‘toubab’, now we became ‘blonni’, a welcome change since toubab was starting to grate a bit, especially when followed by “cadeau?” as it so often was. Finally, as I have already mentioned, the food changed dramatically. In contrast to the French lands where French cuisine is available everywhere, restaurants serving international cuisine are rare outside the two big cities and even Ghanaian eateries are sometimes strangely difficult to find, even in fairly large towns. We were therefore constrained to eat almost exclusively from street food stalls. These stalls are ubiquitous in West Africa, selling plates of starch with a splash of sauce. In the sahel regions. rice is the most common starch but here along the coast there are a plethora of stodgy staples made of pounded yams, plantain, corn, millet or most commonly cassava. They are normally served in a large sticky mass from which you break off lumps, roll them into cylinders with your hand before dipping them into your sauce and eating them.

The problem with relying on street food is not the taste, for it is frequently delicious, nor is it the hygiene, for we have never got sick from eating it, rather it is the difficulty of figuring out how the hell you order, what to order and how to eat it. These stalls are not focused towards casual or occasional customers. This economy largely depends on the traders cultivating regular customers who are fully familiar with the prices, menus, cutlery conventions, hand washing formalities, suitability of various dishes as accompaniments for each other and a thousand other questions which seem to vary arbitrarily between every stall and can prove utterly confusing to the ignorant. On most occasions you approach a table behind which a formidable women stands guard, ladle in hand. When you ask what there is, she gestures at the dozen or so pots in front of her, all containing mysterious concoctions. When you ask how much, the response invariably comes back ‘how much do you want?’ At this stage you simply have to point at a couple of pots and say “10 cents of that, 5 cents of the green stuff and one of those squishy things”. It is easy to get the proportions wrong and end up with a huge mound of starch with a single drop of sauce, or a pile of goats intestines, a boiled egg and a small ball of yam. Normally, you do end up with something edible but then chances are that you’ll eat it in absolutely the wrong way. Considering that the sight of a foreigner eating street food is often enough to attract a crowd, who’ll be thoroughly amused by any breach of social conventions, it can be a trying affair requiring some patience. On many occasions in Ghana, we plodded through towns, dreaming of the cheap restaurants of Francophone lands, hoping forlornly to find something familiar looking before giving up and returning to the dependable street vendors and their trial by pots.

Accra

After seeing our fill of the European monuments of the coast, we caught a bus to the modern capital, Accra. It is a large, spread-out city and possesses an almost total lack of distinguishing features. Most of the buildings are relatively modern and the city lacks much sense of history. It appears much more like a European city than an African. The main administrative, commercial and business districts are scattered across a large central area, linked together by large, modern, multi-lane roads which pass through a landscape sprinkled with huge sport stadiums, conference centres and luxury hotels. Much of it is almost totally devoid of pedestrians and seems strangely empty. Nevertheless, despite the lack of physical attractions, it is a thoroughly pleasant place to spend some time compared to the other large cities of the region. There are many trees and the physical dispersion means one is rarely troubled by excessive noise and crowds, but most importantly it feels entirely safe to walk around at all hours. The reasons for this surprising lack of urban tension in a very poor city of over 2 million people are doubtless manifold but it must have at least something to do with the fact that Ghana has had a markedly less corrupt and repressive regime than most of its neighbours.

The Flight Lieutenant

Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings has ruled since 1981, mostly as unelected dictator. He was formerly a close ally of Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and shares his penchant for anti-imperialist rhetoric, although in fact he has never failed to follow the diktats of the international financial institutions. While he is far from being a great democrat of revolutionary, it seems that control over resources, particularly the national media, is his means of clinging to power rather than an extensive apparatus of repression. Furthermore, the ostentatious display of wealth by a tiny class of ruling elite among oceans of poverty, is far less noticeable in Accra than in Abidjan or Dakar. There seems to have been a genuine attempt to prevent political power translating directly into extravagant riches for those who control it. This has alienated the bourgeois who seem to largely oppose Rawlings.

There will be elections later this year and Rawlings may be forced to relinquish his hold on power. He is constitutionally barred from running and his hand-picked successor (whose appointment he announced to his party while we were in Accra without giving them any say in the matter) lacks his charisma and rhetorical flair. With the opposition of the bourgeois and the devastating effects of IMF ‘medicine’ on workers and peasants, election victory will be difficult; when we arrived in Ghana our hotel receptionist earned $28 a month and a primary school teacher $46, when we left 5 weeks later, their wages were $24 and $40 respectively – a powerful argument for change.

Kumasi

From Accra we headed for Kumasi, the pre-colonial capital of the Asante empire, set among low, rolling rainforested hills 250 km north of the coast. In contrast to the modern capital, here the sense of history is strong and the Asante culture seems to far outweigh external influences. The centre-point of the city’s main roundabout is a statue of a stool – an object which has huge symbolic significance to this culture. Kings and traditional rulers derive their authority from the stools on which they sit. Newspapers are full of reports of ‘destoolings’ when kings are deposed and ‘enstoolments’ of new monarchs. They also have importance to ordinary people who have their own personal stool which follows them through life. Marriages are sealed by an exchange of stools. The size, strength and development of Asante before their defeat to the British meant that they were one of the few African cultures which has been able to survive intact, on a large scale. Their city was less fortunate. Although the city has a distinctly ‘African’ feel, the old buildings all date from the colonial era since the British razed the original city to the ground.

The city, in true African fashion, is centred around a market, but this market is like no other. It is situated in a valley with the city rising up above it on all sides. It is enormous, the largest market in West Africa. It’s circumference is about 3 kilometres within which thousands of people throng through dozens of internal alleyways among the countless stalls. Walking through this miniature city is perhaps the closest experience one can have to a medieval town. The streets are narrow, the shops crowded together, the crowds bustling. From time to time the crowd will part and a cart, impossibly heavily laden and hauled by a bunch of burly men, will career through the tiny alley, the momentum of the cart making it impossible for them to stop or slow down. Porters stagger along with huge sacks of grain balanced on their heads. As you pass through the outer lanes of the market, the salesmen’s stalls give way to workshops. Whole areas or entire lanes, 100 metres long, are given over to one activity. You pass through a region of sandal-makers where dozens of artisans are engrossed in cutting sandals out of old tyres. Elsewhere you find neighbourhoods entirely devoted to cloth, each lane holding a single type of cloth. The din of toolmakers rises above the whole, hammering metal into spades, picks and hoes. Traders from far abroad come here to buy in bulk and the atmosphere of concerted industry is overwhelming.

Kumasi was the place where we came across the beginnings of the rainy season in earnest. Until now we had experienced several short rainfalls in the previous month after 4 months of unrelenting sunshine. Here, in the rainforest, the rains follow a predictable pattern. The mornings are clear and sunny, by late afternoon the sky has filled with clouds obscuring the sun. By sunfall, at 6:30, the sky is heavy and menacing and about one hour later, a swirling wind suddenly descends on the streets, whipping up dust in miniature whirlwinds and causing the temperature to drop sharply. This is the signal to flee. All the street vendors and stall holders hurriedly gather their wares and sprint for cover. Within 5 minutes of the wind, the rain starts and pours torrentially out of the sky as if it was trying to wear out the ground beneath.

Winneba

After an all too brief stay in Kumasi, we hurried back to the coast to Winneba, 100km West of Accra, where we were hoping to observe the Aboakyer, a traditional deer hunting festival. Winneba, like many of the towns of the coastal Fante people, possesses a traditional militia made up of the town’s youth, organised into several rival companies. These militias are known as ‘Asafo’ and each company has its own shrine, known as ‘posuban’. The asafo companies are closely linked to the traditional rulers and kings and are the means by which their authority is enforced. This institution, like many of the surviving elements of the traditional social order, has an ambiguous relationship with the modern state. On the one hand traditional rulers are on the government payroll and are used as intermediaries between the government and the people, in an arrangement instituted by the British. On the other hand, through the asafos, they challenge the state’s monopoly over the means of violence, they do not rely on the state for their legitimacy and their succession disputes can often provoke disorder. The enstoolment of a new ruler is a complex affair, involving councils of kingmakers drawn from various tranches of society, who select between several possible successors. This gives plenty of scope for disputes and although the state courts are supposed to be the ultimate arbitrator of succession matters, in practice their decisions seem to carry little weight with the communities.

The Aboakyer festival is a competition between the town’s two asafo companies. Number 1 supposedly represents modernising progressive youth while number 2 represents those who keep to the traditional fishing lifestyle. The festival lasts one week and includes boat races and other competitions, culminating in a deer hunt on the first Saturday of May. Both companies set out from town into the bush at dawn, the first to return with a live deer is the winner, a victory to be celebrated with days of feasting and drinking. We arrived in Winneba on the eve of the big event to find the town embroiled in the midst of a bitter dispute over the traditional ruler’s position. On our arrival the only hint of the festival that we encountered was a procession of angry, headbanded youth, jogging chanting through the streets and, a little further on, a few hundred riot-clad policemen with armoured vehicles and water cannons.

It turned out that the presiding, state-sanctioned ruler was opposed by both companies who were thus boycotting the event. However breakaway factions of the companies, loyal to the ruler, were intent on carrying our the hunt, which would be physically opposed by the main companies. This dispute had been running for four years and in 1999 there were several shootings and one death during clashes between supporters of the rivals to the throne. For fear of any repetition, this year all hunting of deer was banned. The large well-armoured police presence was meant to ensure this.

By the time we awoke the next morning, all the action was over, but plenty of people were happy to fill us in on the outcome. Shortly after dawn, one of the dissident factions had paraded a deer through town, the police had rushed to head them off at the ruler’s palace. Once they got there, the commandant ordered his men to intervene to stop the ceremony whereby the ruler steps on the offered deer 3 times to mark god’s acceptance of the sacrifice. Intimidated by the spiritual and magical powers of the ruler and the sanctity of the ceremony, all the police had refused to budge which enraged the police commander. He rushed to try to stop the ceremony himself, only to slip and fall on his face, injuring himself. This must have confirmed the troops’ opinion of the wisdom of intervening against such powerful spiritual forces and the ceremony was duly carried out. By the time we emerged from our beds at 9 am the only hint of a festival remaining was the occasional carload of drunken youths, careering around town chanting war songs, and truckloads of police moving out of town. I reckon that the organisers have got some way to go in the packaging of the festival for tourism.

IV THE BEACH

Busua

Having quaffed on unrelenting culture for several months, it was time for a hedonistic interlude, lazing on a beach. We originally planned to spend 2 weeks at Busua, a small seaside village on the West coast. However, although the beach was certainly spectacular, set between wooded hilly headlands, it fell some way short of our ideal retreat due to the large, luxury, ‘beach-village’ resort dominating the bay. This resort played host to numerous ‘beach bashes’, wild beach parties involving live musicians which drew large crowds from neighbouring towns and from as far afield as the capital. These bashes, held at weekends, somewhat shattered the sense of a remote secluded paradise since they involved thousands of people running rampage on the resort’s beachfront while thousands of others stood forlornly just beyond the resort boundary. From time to time these excluded ones would make mass rushes across the sands towards the resort, pursued by baton-swinging police and security guards.

But it wasn’t really the beach bashes which ruined our enjoyment of the beach, it was the presence of dozens of other white Europeans, sunning themselves on the sand which did it. It was just too difficult to retain our carefully cultivated mental image of ourselves as intrepid explorers of wild lands, while lying beside a group of 20 fortnight package tourists from Essex. Elsewhere there was always a foreign presence but this mostly consisted of aid workers and volunteers. Other than these we occasionally came across people who, like ourselves, were spending a considerable length of time travelling through several countries of the region. These encounters were always extremely welcome since they offer a chance to exchange everything from stories and advice to books. It is unfortunate that, in this part of the world, long term overland travellers are few and far between.

While the encounters with overlanders had been hitherto thoroughly enjoyable, here in Busua our happy record scored its first blank, for here we came across two Swiss men who single-handedly succeeded in permanently shattering our generally benign view of overlanders. Although we first met them in Busua, we had already had a close brush with them. While waiting for our visas to be delivered to us in the Ghanaian embassy in Cote D’Ivoire, we unwillingly listened to the conversation of two of our fellow supplicants in the adjoining room. One of them was explaining to the other, at great length and in minute technical detail, just how clever he had been in making various adjustments to the engine of his Landrover which had allowed him to escape the normal pitfalls associated with cross-desert travel. Since, not wishing to let him see the irritation in my face, I did not look in his direction during this long wait, at first I did not recognise him when he happened to walk into the restaurant where we were sitting one evening in Busua, accompanied by his travelling companion.

Both were in their early forties, mustachioed and clad in sleeveless safari jackets, covered with zips, pockets and loops – the kind of thing that Prince Charles wears while visiting the Nairobi Hilton. There were no free tables so they shared ours. We engaged them in conversation and quickly recognised one of them as the landrover expert from Cote D’Ivoire, when he decided to treat us to precisely the same account which we had previously overheard. I feel quite sure that neither myself nor Deirdre offered the least encouragement to his litany of mechanical triumph. We sat in stunned, uncomprehending silence, not even offering the merest grunt of congratulation when he reached the climax of his story: the replacement of a broken part of the carburator with a part from an older, apparently incompatible model! He was totally oblivious to his audience’s reaction and, supported by occasional supplementary details interjected by his buddy, gave us the full mechanical chronicles of their trip. They had driven from Switzerland through Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire, but even the non-mechanical details of their tales were ruined by the fact that the point of every anecdote was that “all those others who do these trips are fools, we on the other hand know better”. We told them that two South Africans whom we had met with a Landrover had grave security problems. Their car was broken into in Morocco and they lost many of their belongings. They chuckled and shook their heads in sadness that there were such foolish people in the world before explaining to us that all the security measures propounded by the guide books and travel experts were utterly wrong. They appeared amazed that anybody could miss the glaringly obvious and clearly superior security system that they had adopted.

Before they managed to kill us with boredom, we were saved by the arrival of two attractive young Ivorian women whom they had met in Cote D’Ivoire and whom they were now kindly ‘giving a lift’ to. The next day we encountered them on the beach, in the midst of treating another unfortunate tourist to their tales of glory. We kept our distance.

Ada

After just 4 days at Busua beach we decided to seek another retreat, free of holidaying hordes and Swiss travel experts. Therefore we travelled Eastwards to the small town of Ada Foah, on the mouth of the Volta river. This was much more like it; a sleepy townland spread out along the strip of land between river and sea. There was a tourist industry here but it was all focused on a short stretch of riverbank where a few dozen luxury villas and a hotel provided weekend entertainment for rich Accra businessmen and expatriate workers who fish and jet-ski on the tranquil river waters. The rest of the town is focused on the seafront and has little to do with the tourist economy. All along the coast groups of people can be seen engaged in the amazing spectacle of collective fishing with huge nets. The nets are hauled in by 20 or 30 people to the rhythm of a common chant. Each net takes over an hour to haul in and men women and children all participate equally in the operation. The initial impression of idealistic communal labour is, however, punctured by the economic reality. The net’s owner gets to keep the vast majority of the catch, while the haulers are given a few fish to share among them.

As well as the long lines of fishermen, the coastline is dotted with abandoned, collapsed buildings, many of which have been partially swallowed by the sea. These testify to the fact that the town is essentially built on a sandbar, the coastline is constantly shifting, backwards and forwards into the sea in cycles that can last several decades. The traditional housing, built of palm-fronds and sticks, was well suited to this, since one could pick one’s house up and move it backwards or forwards as the shifting coastline demanded. On the other hand, modern concrete buildings, rooted to the ground, have often to be abandoned to the encroaching sea.

We spent a week relaxing in one of the palm-frond huts, rented for $3 a night, with a sand floor, a mattress stuffed with straw for a bed and the sea 20 feet away. Except for a South African couple who stayed one night, we were the only guests in the ‘beach village’, a collection of half a dozen huts, 2 hammocks, many palm trees and a bar. The seclusion, beer and beach went a long way towards making it a pleasant stay but what turned it into paradise was the proprietor ‘Groove’. A large man with long afro-style hair, I knew that I’d like him from the moment he approached me on the first night and said “do you smoke grass?” before handing me a large joint.

Now this was certainly not the first time that we had come across grass in Africa. It is available everywhere but is often difficult to procure since it is illegal and in some countries, like Cote D’Ivoire, its use is considered a serious offence which forces its consumers to be very secretive. Normally it is of a very low potency compared with the produce of the hydroponic labs of Holland and North America and it is generally sold with small branches and many seeds mixed up with the smokeable parts. The price is uniformly low, 1 joint of pure grass normally costs about twice the price of one cigarette. $1 buys 10 to 15 grammes and at the site of production prices are as low as $30 for one kilo.

The grass that Groove introduced me to came ready-divided into single joint-size portions, each portion artfully wrapped in its own cigarette paper, in small croissant shapes exactly the same way that cheese is wrapped inside pasta. This grass was top of the range, 10 cents a joint, pure, without any seeds, of quite a different quality to that which we had hitherto come across and thus I was quite unprepared for its effects. I sat down with Groove and shared 3 joints and 2 beers with him as the sun set over the sea. Presently Deirdre arrived to collect me for dinner and joined us briefly. Soon we arose, thanked Groove and set our towards the village centre to look for somewhere to eat dinner.

We stepped out of the confines of the beach village and onto the small sandy lane, which stretched through the flat, reedy swamps which separate the village from the coast. The fluorescent sign of Groove’s beach village lit up the lane for 20 yards in front of us. As I surveyed this scene, I realised that I had no idea where in the world I was. As I took slow, hesitant steps along the lane, my mind frantically searched for some reference point to locate myself in time or space. The scenery, populated by palms, cactuses and a cacophony of strange insect calls, seemed entirely unfamiliar to me. I found myself completely unable to place myself, the best guess I could make was that I must be on a film set due to the bright lights behind me and the fact that surely no such scenery could possibly exist outside the films. Eventually I had to get Deirdre to explain to me where we were and what we were supposed to be doing. Her bemused answer, that we were in Ada Foah on our way to dinner, lacked any real meaning to me, but I resolved to keep walking and trust Deirdre to lead the way.

After walking for what seemed like hours through the film set, we arrived at the village crossroads. Here we had to make a decision as to which was the best way to go in search of food. Deirdre decided to seek my opinion which was unwise since every direction appeared equally mysterious to me, full of frightening beasts and unknown dangers. As we stood there at the crossroads, weighing up the terrors of the two potential routes, we obviously appeared quite lost and so, naturally, the first passers-by approached us to offer their assistance. They were three young men on bicycles, helpful and friendly, but to me their approach was the most traumatic event imaginable. Bravely I managed to return their greetings but that was the end of my participation in the conversation for at that moment I suddenly realised that I no longer had any sense of up and down. It required all of my concentration to stay upright. I felt certain that my body was leaning forward at an unnatural angle and that I must surely fall. However, since I had no idea which was up and which was down and since I didn’t seem to have fallen over yet, I decided that the best strategy was to remain rigidly still. As I was battling with this problem, Deirdre heroically concluded the conversation and discovered which direction to go. As she guided me along the road, my senses happily returned.

From then on, I was very careful to exercise caution in indulging in Groove’s grass and thus managed to retain my senses throughout the week that we spent with him, drinking and chatting on the beach. He came from Accra, from a well-to-do family and had originally aimed to go to university. On the way into one of his final high school exams, he was suspected of cheating and was searched. Instead of finding any hidden notes, marijuana was found, he was expelled and missed out on going to college. Later he had tried to go on a private course but hadn’t been able to afford it. He was still upset that his emigrant cousins in London had refused to finance him. After the end of his education dreams he went into small business, starting off by running a market stall before graduating to running a video house, showing videos to punters for a small fee. He delighted in recounting the plots of many of the films that he had shown, enlivening the accounts with vivid gestures and turns of phrase. Within the last year he had moved onto run one of the two beach villages in town and was delighted to see it mentioned in our guidebook. A week of his company on the beach refreshed our spirits and readied us for the impending trip along the coast towards the infamous citadel of Lagos.

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