Wednesday, 12 July 2006

On to Keta

There are two ways to get to Keta from Ada Foah. You can back track along the road to Sogakope and cross the Volta there over the bridge; or you can - on market days only - catch the ferry across the mouth of the river to the little village of Anyanui. Market day is once a week, on Wednesday, and it just so happens that today is Wednesday.

The ferry is due at 8.00am and the people at the hotel advised me to checkout by 7.00am to make sure I get to the boarding point on time, apparently a 10-20 minute walk away. Checkout takes 20 minutes, in the end, with manual writing of receipts and VAT invoices, credit card authorisation etc. I decide to skip breakfast. $10 (USD) for a paltry-looking buffet just doesn’t seem worth it. I plan to eat something on arrival at Anyanui.

It actually only takes 5 minutes to walk down a dusty track from the Manet Paradise Beach Hotel to the shore in the fishing village of Azanzi. En route I get a lot of attention from kids heading to school: "hello!", "how are you?" and, of course, "obruni!". I wander along and miss the turning to the boarding point. A girl of 14 or thereabouts comes up to me and asks where I’m heading. She then guides me to where I should be. An older woman sitting outside one of the mud huts jokes that the girl has found herself a white husband.

With chickens running about at my feet, I sit on a bench by the water’s edge next to a colourful wooden fishing boat, alongside a house where young children are getting ready for school or playing about. The oldest of them begins to ask me questions. She says she likes my backpack and then asks who’s in it. I tell her it’s just "clothes". She asks me: "who’s clothes?". I understand "whose clothes?". I say "my clothes". She persists: "who is clothes?". Ah! of course, sacks on backs are for children in Ghana and are usually carried by women. So I say "clothes" and indicate what I mean by touching my t-shirt sleeve. "Sheds!", she says. I can see how the word has come to have that meaning: shed your clothes, hence just sheds. "Yes, that’s right", I tell her.

Then shes says "Give me something!" and I begin to lose interest as does she when I flatly say "no".

A small group of men come and check out the morning’s attraction. They’re eager to know who I am, where I’ve come from, where I’m going. They reassure me the ferry will arrive at 8.00am. I receive a text message - yes, even on the shore of a remote fishing village, courtesy of areeba. I take my phone from my pocket and they are awestruck. What a beautiful phone! (it’s the Motorola V3i aka RAZR).

They ask me if it can take pictures so I duly oblige. They gaze at it strangely as I take the picture and the image is less than flattering. They ask how much it costs. I decide it’s best if they don’t know that it’s about twice the annual GDP per capita of Ghana. So I say it was a gift and don’t know. That way they won’t try to barter for it.

As the ferry approaches, they help me to the actual boarding point, 20m away, where some live chickens and various other bags and boxes are waiting to be loaded and taken to the market at Anyanui. The ferry, the MS Sogakope, according to the Bradt Guide to Ghana, can carry about 250 passengers and is already crammed with market goers carrying tomatoes, smoked fish and all sorts of other goods. I clamber up the narrow gangway and take my seat on the upper deck, where it’s a little less crowded. The ticket costs me 3,000 cedis, around 20 pence.

On the way, we stop at a number of small villages on little islands that have no other means of communicating with the world other than the ferry once a week and the little boats - canoes, essentially, sometimes with sails - that we pass, taking children to school and others to whatever place there might be nearby.

Anyanui has a tiny landing point and long canoes full of passengers, either just heading off or arriving, are crammed around it. Right by the water are large piles of wood, big sticks in big bundles piled high in to cuboid towers that are being taken apart and reassembled precariously on to small trucks and vans. Some men call to me "where to?" and they direct me to the tro-tro that will take me some of the way to my destination.

A tro-tro is essentially a mini minibus that ought to have about 8 passengers but in reality carries 14 or 15. I got a seat at the front, next to the driver, which gave me a little more space, to load my rucksack, camera bag and tripod on top of me. A local chief gets in next to me and I have the impression that the front seat is usually for white people and people of rank.

I have no chance to get any food or drink, which I’m in need of now, at 9.00am, two and a half hours after getting up. I manage to squeeze off a couple of pictures through my telephoto lens and hope that they might capture some of the sense of colour and movement.

These tiny little battered cans hurtle along at unmeasurable speeds. Unmeasurable because the speedo doesn’t work. They feel like they could topple over at any moment and apparently have a knack for it. I’m glad that I can use my luggage as an airbag, should the need arise. The tro-tros seem to race each other so that they can pick up the next people waiting along the route. These are private vehicles and the idea is to make as much money as possible, even if that means having the ‘conductor’ hanging half out the door as we dash along broken roads.

At a small town, we jump off and I’m guided to the station, where another tro-tro (they actually call them cars here, preferring the english approximation) will take me on to Keta. Again I’m sat at the front with a chief next to me holding his staff. It’s hot and humid now but I’m largely oblivious to the discomfort.

On reaching Tegbi, in the Keta area, I jump out at Lorneh junction and walk half a mile down the road towards the beach to Lorneh Lodge, the hotel where I’m hoping to stay. I settle in and go to the poolside for brunch and a swim. I get a club sandwich and after a very quick swim head back indoors. It’s extremely hot now and I think I’m going to blister if I stay out any longer.

I meet an American in the grounds of the hotel. Charlie is a baptist ‘worship pastor’ (his business card says) from Tampa, Florida, USA. There is a cult, he tells me, that involves sexually abusing children, who after a certain age are simply abandoned. Their parents don’t want them back and they are outcasts from society. His goals are to educate people against becoming involved in this practice and to buy land to build an orphanage for the abandoned children. He seems to be doing other things too, like providing medical assistance while he’s around and a whole series of ‘workshops’.

He offers the services of his driver, George, to take me into town. I’m not sure what I’m looking to see but I’m thinking of just wandering about. But George tells me it’s not safe and so I settle on being dropped off at Fort Prinzenstein, an old slave fort built by the Danes and sold to the British in the late 18th century.

Actually, the Brits were relatively late to the whole slave-trading bonanza. The Portuguese had got here 300 years earlier and the Dutch and Danes had been at it for perhaps 200. Staggeringly, there were 42 slave forts in West Africa, of which 38 were in Ghana.

The Brits cottoned on to the idea of improving the conditions of the slaves, while banged up in the forts awaiting deportation to the Caribbean or wherever else. But this was not out of altruism. Quite simply they realised they’d make more money by keeping the slaves alive and that enlarging the windows to allow air to circulate around the cells was a good idea. It was a Brit too, William Wilberforce, who pushed for the abolition of slavery by 1832. However, the records at Fort Prinzenstein show that trade continued for another 60 years.

I enjoyed this visit far more than my visits to Elmina and Cape Coast castles in 2004. Although the buildings there are far more impressive, the guides were thoroughly politicised and moralising, as though the tourists standing in front of them were personally guilty of the rape of female slaves and the barbaric conditions in which they were all kept.

The story is more complicated and happened more than 100 years before my birth. The guide at Prinzenstein tried to keep things factual. Yes, the Europeans committed this and that outrage. The local chiefs, however, were complicitous and aided the Europeans in kidnapping people in return for guns so that they could wage war against their local enemies. It’s a sad period of history from which not too many people come out well.

Later we talked about English and Ghanaian football and our marital status. I was guided to the road where I could pick up a tro-tro back to Tegbi and he and a friend wait with me until it arrives, to make sure I’m safe. Again, I get a front seat.

I walk on to the beach to see what activity there is and take a couple of pictures. Not too much to see at this time but I’m assured that tomorrow morning is the best time to have a look.

As I walk back up to the hotel, I get a text from Will. He’ll be joining me in Ho on Friday morning. In the meantime, IMD have called and want to offer me a place on next year’s MBA!! Woohoo!!

Monday, 10 July 2006

James Town

The plan of going to James Town first thing in the morning failed to materialise. I awoke just before my alarm sounded, so I switched it off and promptly got back to sleep.

A couple of hours later, it was too hot to wander about so I headed off to BusyInternet to update the blog and check on emails.

On the way home, I decided to go back down Oxford Street, as it is affectionately known to try to find the chap who wanted to sell me a wrist band thingy. I had decided that I quite liked it after all and if I could pay next to nothing for it, I would have it. When I eventually switch out of traveller mode, I’m sure I won’t ever wear it again. Needless to say, our man today was transformed into a painter not a craftsman and didn’t have what I wanted. I was good enough to let him show me his art before scampering.

Later I went out via the bureau de change where I managed to exchange a crisp $100 bill for 91 10,000 cedi tatty sheets. I flagged down a cab and got him to take me to James Town. My intention was to find the man from the little craft stall, whom I met a couple of days back, and to ask him to ‘guide’ me around while I took some photos ie talk the same language, steer me away from danger and persuade people that I’m not so bad after all.

I stopped briefly to watch the street football and as I approached the stall, he came out and called my name. He took me inside and I said to him that I’d like to take some pics around before coming back to buy a couple of items but that I thought that people didn’t much like photographers around here. He offered to take me. I managed to squeeze off a few frames of life in a shanty town. Hopefully, the outcome will be worth the hassle.

Back to his shop and I asked him for elephants. I haggled a little but gave him a good deal, knowing I was getting one too. Plus, rather than giving him cash for his help, I was paying a little bit more for the goods.

As I was leaving, he said ‘I like your sneakers’. I told him I needed my footwear and that I was heading out of Accra tomorrow. I would be back on Sunday but might not be able to make it back since I was flying to London that night. He said he understood and that he’d be waiting for me at 6pm on Sunday. I’m not entirely convinced he did understand.

Tomorrow I head off to Ada Foah, directly East along the coast.

Thursday, 6 July 2006

Accra Shuffle

I set off from Will’s Cantonments residence, carrying my brand new camera bag over my shoulder. In it, my loaded camera, 2 lenses plus some filters and spare film. First stop, forex on Oxford Street. As I come out, I make friends with a chap who wants to sell me a boy bracelet. He tells me his name is Black Africa and he knows someone living in Coventry. The bracelet is made of 3 different metals and signifies ‘Unity’, an important theme in Ghanaian art and craft. I thank him and tell him I have no money, despite 1m cedis burning a hole in my bag, and that I’ll pass by later, which I don’t intend to do. Not very nice of me but I don’t, as a general rule, wear jewellery.

I head south from there past the Noble House Chinese restaurant, with Heritage curry house upstairs, down to Independence Arch and Black Star Square. From there I continue in my flip-flops along the dusty pavement past Usher Fort, an old slave fort that currently stands unused and on to James Town. There I’m hoping to get pictures of the fishing boats and what is frankly a squalid township on the coastal side of Accra city. I recall it vividly from my last visit when I was struck by the bustle, the colours and the sheer poverty.

James Fort was converted into a prison at some point and a sign makes it clear that loitering and taking pictures are not allowed in its vicinity or that of the lighthouse but in theory it’s ok to snap away once you’re out of sight of it.

There’s no escaping I’m the only white face around here. I can’t pretend to belong, as I did in Argentina. There are a lot of eyes on me and I feel uncomfortable.

Here is a very basic way of life, marked by small stalls selling veg or smoked fish, children playing in the street and fishermen mending their nets. Lunch is eaten sitting on the pavement around a metal pot. A mother washes her young child in the stagnant stench of the gutter.

A pair of very small boys are playing football on the pavement. One kicks the ball and slices it off to the right past me in the direction of the road. I stick my foot out to stop it and the balls bounces back into the field of play and between the posts of the opposition. The oppo objected as I walked on but the other little footballer raises his hand and as I lower mine he gives me 5 and a broad grin.

Despite spotting a few photo opps, I didn’t have the bottle to get my kit out. The camera stayed in its bag. I don’t want to attract extra attention with it in my hand or around my neck, let alone with my eye to the viewfinder.

My new flip-flops have caused my feet to bleed (ok, they’re a little rubbed) so I catch a taxi back to base for lunch.

I spend the late afternoon planning what to do in the coming days. Probably head off along the East coast plus move on from there to the Volta region. Will is planning to join me at the end of next week for a saunter into Togo.

In the evening, I experience more expat life at the quiz night in Champs bar, part of the Paloma hotel ‘complex’. We come fourth by one point but I maintain that we were robbed. Sunflowers was definitely not painted by Monet, as the panel suggested, but by Van Gogh. Monet was obsessed with poppies mostly. Like my Murphy’s, I’m not bitter.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

African Drums: a fortnight in Ghana

Just a short one... 12 days in West Africa. I was last in Ghana a couple of years ago. As soon as I quit my job, I thought it would be great to spend some of my BA Miles, earned largely from travelling for work... that one-way upgrade to FIRST (seat 1A) on my way back from Bangalore last time really helped. Two objectives: to catch up with my brother, who in June visited London while I was in Jujuy and Salta provinces, NW Argentina; and to take some photos, especially of the fishing boats and food sellers, that had so struck me last time.

Unfortunately, it looks like Will can’t take any time off. In fact, he’s travelling back to London for 48 hours, leaving me in his house in Accra at the end of this week.

So here I am at 35,000ft. British Airways has redeemed itself by giving me a free upgrade to World Traveller Plus, which gives me a bigger seat, much more leg room and noone sitting next to me. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the next 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 months or 10 years. It’s very exciting. Unlike the people around me, I’ve been very comfortable and relaxed about the lack of clarity over what comes next. Will IMD offer me a place? Will INSEAD give me a place in Fontainebleau, rather than Singapore? Should I accept the offer from LBS, close to home?

So, later, I’m back in Accra and have dinner and a couple of drinks at Ryan’s Irish Pub. Ostrich fillet. I guess it’s imported from South Africa rather than local. One of Will’s friends comes round to join us later. Jane, from Washington DC, currently working with disabled children, about to go to the UK to do a PhD at Sussex Uni.

Tomorrow, Will goes to work and I plan to walk about Accra.