GHANA APRIL 2015 – the 20th visit!
TUESDAY/ WEDNESDAY APRIL 14th/ 15th 2015. UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS – ACCRA
Only a month ago I flew north from Africa, and here I am heading south once again. My fascination with that continent seems to be developing into an obsession…
And with very good reason!
I think of Africa as ‘the last frontier’. A continent forgotten and ignored by the greedy so-called ‘developed’ world, overlooked and abused by the rich world, seen only as a cheaply exploitable supply of resources and minerals. Many Africans – and I know I am generalising about a whole, remarkably diverse continent of more than a billion people – have remained somewhat uncorrupted by the insane greed and pressures of the commercial, consumer world, largely because they lack the one vital resource to partake. That’s all changing of course, nowhere more so than in Ghana, whence I am headed now. But I can still find pockets of a continent where image and consumption are secondary to human interaction and mutual support – dwindling fast, but still just discernible.
There is an immediacy to life in so much of Africa: perhaps through necessity where people have so little that they must concentrate on the important. People tend to live in the present: there are enough challenges to get through everyday life for people left on the fringes of the wealth of the world, denied many of the privileges of science and social development. They employ generally honest emotional and social responses; they tend not to have much envy and seldom indulge in regret for things past. Maybe I am romanticising it all – but how else do you explain all those smiles? Few but the already wealthy and manipulative benefit from all the pressures that are put upon us in our materialistic and consumerist life: the pressure to own more and more ‘stuff’ and live life by inconsequential and trivial values.
Africa is changing though, and I suspect that the next three weeks will include a list of the lost values I came to respect on so many of my earlier journeys, the social mores of the old generation, now departed. In one side of the scales sits the increased access to education and medical advances, better housing, improved nutrition and communications. On the other sit a tangible decrease in community cohesion, rising crime, envy, pride, personal greed, show, family breakdown and self-perceived poverty of another sort, the material sort…
Right now, flying above the wonderful Sahara for the 46th time (I counted: it’s boring, flying!) I will use some of the time to introduce this journal. I have never blogged these Ghanaian journals before so a short explanation is called for, for those who don’t know the story.
Loyal to KLM, once again the purser sought me out. Last flight, a month ago, the purser cleared a row of four seats for me to stretch out. Today she offered me an upgrade to Economy Plus (which they offered for sale for €110!) – but then agreed I was probably more comfortable in my exit row seat with an empty seat beside me. Since her visit soon after take-off, I have been politely addressed as Mr Bean every time the cabin attendants come to me. It’s useful having the name of a universally recognised comedy character! But I like KLM and they do seem to respect my loyalty to them. I have to rebuild my gold level status that I lost two weeks ago, since last year I made only 16 or 17 flights, not the 30 required for that level of privileges. This is already my seventh flight of 2015.
This is my twentieth visit to Ghana since 1987. How little did I suspect that Africa in general and Ghana in particular (challenged, I sense, by Zimbabwe) and my Ghanaian family would become such a huge influence in my life and the way that I look at it.
In the winter of 1986/7 I took a long ride on my old motorbike – well, it wasn’t even old then! That journey took me from Yorkshire to Ghana, across a lot of Europe and the bulge of Africa – not least across the incomparable Sahara Desert. There, incidentally, before I continue the story, I met my very dear friends, Rico, Marti and Leisbeth driving an ancient Land Rover. We travelled together for the four or five best weeks of my travelling life, across that sand and rock, alone under the Saharan skies, weeks that none of us have forgotten. Give me back three weeks of my life and I would choose those three weeks on the Sahara with my special friends. And on day one of this journey, I was staying in Marti’s home in Utrecht with his lovely family, now also fond, warm friends – his wife Marthe and three utterly charming daughters (Marti was in Geneva). And before setting off back to Schipol airport after a one night stop-over in Holland, lovely Leisbeth too – almost thirty years on, unchanged in our fondness because of those magical days. Friends that I value so much.
Back to my explanation. We all ended that journey in Ghana. It was a revelation to me: I had no expectations and no knowledge (or understanding!) of the country. But I loved it. It was English-speaking, fun, noisy and colourful and a wonderful taste of Africa – real ‘black Africa’. I spent about three happy, hot weeks riding through the country – with my poor friend Barbara joining me on my pillion and putting up with my vagaries after several months on the road. God, it was hot! And I was adapted to sleeping in any dive and eating anything I could find within my minimal budget. Looking back, though, it’s a wonder we still talk to one another!
In May I got home to England, That year I was designing heritage things in Nottingham, living on my narrow boat. My mother, who always liked and welcomed strangers to her house, spotted a piece in her local paper asking for hosts for foreign students for the Christmas holidays. “You’ve been everywhere and people have been so generous to you,” she said, having ascertained that I would go to the family home for Christmas. “Where shall I ask for?”
“Let’s see if they have any Ghanaians!” I suggested, Ghana and my fun time there still a warm memory.
And so it all began.
Perry was to be our student guest that Christmas 1987. “Where do you come from, Perry?” I asked on the way home from the station.
“From a small town in the north of Ghana called Navrongo, you won’t have heard of it!”
Not have heard of it? Why, I had ridden through Navrongo in March, following an ancient truck with workers clinging all over it laughing and waving at two sweating ‘white men’ (the local language doesn’t differentiate the gender) on a large motorbike covered in dust. It was my introduction to the joys of Ghana.
Perry and I, not surprisingly, became firm friends over the next two years as he studied in London. My parents’ village adopted him and helped him with his studies. We saw him often.
In October 1989 he was due to return home. I decided to ride my motorbike again to Ghana and be with him that Christmas. It took me two months to ride down. From Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, the country north of Ghana with a border only eight miles from Navrongo, I phoned home to wish my parents happy Christmas from the last available international phone. (How that’s changed!).
Perry, said my mother, would be arriving at her house for the Christmas holiday the next day! He had been sent back to England to finish his course, having done so well; completed so many papers in such a short time that his employers, the State Insurance Corporation, were embarrassed by their meanness in granting him only unpaid, limited leave to pursue his studies.
I was almost in Ghana; he was in England…
To say I was a bit upset doesn’t express my feelings! Next day I was due to meet my friend. He would show me his town, introduce me to his friends, teach me about his culture. Next day I left Ouagadougou late; rode slowly and despondently; had two breakfasts; stopped for long coffee drinking at shacks by the Burkina roadside. It was after 2.00pm when I rode through the border gate into Ghana, my journey – as I thought then – in tatters.
I pulled up by the immigration office. Moments later a young man ran towards me. “You are Jonathan and you’ve ridden from ‘London Proper’!” It was Perry’s junior brother and the true beginning of my acceptance in Navrongo. He climbed on top of my spare tyre and we set off the last few miles of that eight and a half thousand mile ride to Navrongo.
Afterwards, I realised that this was the best thing that happened in my relationship with Navrongo, my inclusion in the family and my ability to work myself, to some extent at least, inside another culture. If Perry had been at home I would have been, and perhaps remained, ‘Perry’s friend who comes to stay’. As it was, I became ‘Navrossay, the white man who rode a big white moto from ‘London Proper’. Navrossay means ‘Navrongo accepts you’ and has been my fond local name these twenty five years, given to me that Christmas in Africa. Wechiga was – and is – a man of his community and his extraordinary sensitivity and wisdom allowed me to blend into his society. He seemed to know, this man with so little experience of white men, what I needed to know to appear polite and respectful, sometimes whispering from behind me how I should act or behave to gain respect from elders and those we visited. He probably knew his farming community better than his elder brother, who had gone away to study and improve his situation, a possibility for only one member of such a financially stressed subsistence farming family. Even Perry had only attended basic schooling, encouraged by the extraordinary wisdom and hard work of his wonderful, illiterate and uneducated mother, Akay, who now accepted me into her family. She was one of the most admirable women I ever met, a wise leader of people despite her lowly situation as wife of a junior brother. It was entirely her determination that sent her three children to primary school, a fact that has paid off so handsomely in the progress of her family, many of her grandchildren now university graduates. It’s an inspiring story indeed, one I never tire of telling. It is no coincidence that all three of her children, Perry, Wechiga and Gladys, have been to ‘white man’s land’, as Akay would have called Europe. How proud she would have been to know they were all ‘Been-to’s’.
My brother Wechiga became one of my best friends, a remarkable bond between a subsistence farmer and carpenter from rural Africa and a middle class, privileged designer from from half a world away. To this day, with the advent of mobile phones, we talk every week with a great understanding of one another. Poor man, he has put up with my moods and irritation for many a year. But it has been my pleasure to show him Britain and introduce him to my friends on three occasions – as it was with Perry in other years. Ours is a bond that has been reflected in my many visits to Ghana, my ‘visiting the funerals’ (ie. paying my respects) of their parents and uncle and aunt, all of whom I came to know in my earlier visits, and in Perry’s insistence of attendance at my own mother’s funeral in 2011.
Perry, Wechiga and Gladys have four children each (in 1987, my first visit, Ghana had a population of about 14 million. It is now nearer 23 million…). Eldest, by chance, of them all is Gladys’s son Dennis, with whom I bonded at the age of 11. I have spent 20 years supporting him and trying to mentor him, a sort of son that I never had, who calls me Dad and sends me Father’s Day greetings. These are valuable relationships in my life and I am flying down once again to attend Dennis’s wedding to Emmanuella in Tamale in a couple of weeks.
I’ve spent an aggregate of something like a year and a half in Ghana, so I have come to know it quite well. Mainly, I spend my time up in Navrongo, the ‘small town I wouldn’t have heard of in the north of Ghana’, with my brother Wechiga and his friends. Some years ago, over a few visits, I built a small house on the edge of the family compound, now one of the only traditional-style structures in the area. For the town that I knew in 1989 has almost disappeared beneath the new development of recent years. Traditional organic earth-built compounds have been flattened and replaced by ugly – and much less well adapted to the climate – concrete block and zinc-sheet buildings, imposed upon a landscape that was once groundnut and millet fields dotted with mangoes and baobabs.
It’s my belief that in aping the only model of ‘development’ that the world seems to recognise – that is Western materialism – most cultures throw out the baby with the bathwater and end up as greedy, self-interested and fractured as our society based largely upon money and consumption. But I suppose I am idealistically naive to think there is any alternative in a world run for the benefit of the largest American corporations and greedily ambitious governments. They have no interest in the admirable qualities that many of these old cultures possessed. Mutual help, extended family units, keeping economies local, using local materials and developing vernacular style – being as opposed to owning – do not make money for greedy manipulators. That only happens by encouraging wild material aspirations. And that’s seen as the challenge in Africa: developing those ambitions. The tobacco corporations are an outstanding example of what I am writing about. As sales dwindle amongst educated nations, they peddle more and more of their poisons in the ‘developing’ world where people haven’t caught up with the perniciousness and cynicism of the corporate bullies yet. When I travel in Africa I am constantly disgusted by the aggressive creation of a new ‘market’ that purports to be generously ‘giving people what they want’ – or, in my terms, beggaring them and getting control of them by selling them things they don’t need… Debt brings control. It’s so easy to manipulate those who owe, be they individuals or nations. We live in a cynical world.
But let me not get off down that avenue – yet. Let me return to that wonderful moment as you step out of an aeroplane door into the warm bathroom air of Africa. It’s literally a sensational moment, that first step into the warmth that wraps itself around you and you look up at the African stars above the tarmac and runways. Then the slow frustration of immigration halls and airport corridors; ignoring the crowds gathered round a stationary luggage carousel (with a small frisson of superiority to be travelling so light as always!) and emerging into the chaos of taxi drivers, touts, general vendors and the crowds that populate African airports, secure in the belief that I can bypass it all as soon as Perry, larger than life as always, rescues me from the melee.
There he was, marching purposefully, the successful business man carving his way through all the crowds as if they didn’t exist. A quick greeting and out to his car – now of course a Mercedes Benz, the car of choice for well to do African businessmen, and away into the night streets to find a meal of barbecued meat and a couple of beers at the street-side bar that his kinsmen from the north favour, a mile or so from the airport. It’s an invariable ritual on arrival taken before the long drive home to his bungalow built in the western city hills. It used to be a two hour drive, now reduced to one by all the new roadbuilding projects of the last fifteen years.
And so to bed, three and half thousand miles from home and 31 degrees Celsius. The electricity is off – shades of South Africa and its ‘power sharing’ to cover for vastly increasing levels of consumption – running all those material possessions that no one needed until the marketing men made them necessities in life. A sticky night naked on the bed beneath a mosquito net, the moonlight dappling through mango trees outside.
DAY 3. THURSDAY APRIL 16th 2015. ACCRA, GHANA
My friend Nak sometimes introduces me to his friends as his godfather. He was one of the first Ghanaians I met on that first trip in February or March 1987. Son of a wealthy Ashanti family – the kingly tribe from middle Ghana who control a great deal of the commercial life of the country – he was bored at his brother’s wedding and wandered out of the function to find a dirty, flustered white man attending to a motorbike, that had suffered five punctures that day, in the hotel car park. I recollect that the last thing I wanted then, and shortly after in the dining room as Barbara and I ate a late and weary super, was to chatter to a cheery young Ashanti boy of, I think he was, about 22. It had been a difficult day. Five punctures and many miles of dusty gravel road, dirty diversions into the bush around stretches of road building, falling darkness and the eventual submission of my obstinate nature to the practicalities of our circumstance. i flagged down a passing car and bundled poor Barbara into it to go and bring help. Qn hour or more later she valiantly turned up in an old Land Rover and we bundled the poor bike into the back, where I had to sit astride it to hold it against the bumpy, rutted and derelict road. the driver and his laughing mates brought us to Kumasi, the sprawling capital of the Ashanti people and their aggressively commercial centre. “Take us to a cheap hotel,” I requested.
A few moments later the driver pulled into the car park of the City Hotel, a ‘proper’ hotel of the sort I never frequented – porticoes, balconies, marbled reception area, lifts and dining rooms. “We can’t afford to stay here!” I objected. But Barbara, dusty, tired and having put up with my moods for a problematic day, dug in her heels. “We are going no further!”
So we stayed in the City Hotel, actually inexpensive since the hotel was on a downward trajectory just then and the air-con system (that I didn’t want anyway) was defunct.
Well, months later I provided young Nak with all the paperwork he needed to get through the xenophobic needle of the shameful British Home Office and its revolting representatives in Accra at the British High Commission, that is a scandal to the British people. Applications cost about a month’s salary for workers here; rejections are non-refundable and interviews carried out by arrogant junior officials (actually, franchised out these days to a Lebanese company…) with no knowledge of the culture in which they are dealing. I have had two friends – one of them Wechiga – rejected after a 500 mile trip for the eight minute interview – for being ‘of low income’ and unfortunately not unbelievably, ‘of humble birth and therefore no incentive to return to Ghana’. It still makes me angry to write that sentence. I did get an apology from the Home Office that time, but it was far too late by then…
And 13% of the electorate is willing to vote for the revolting UKIP next month. Against these people of the Commonwealth and ex-Empire from which we made our vast wealth as a nation, from whom we stripped as many assets as possible and upon whose submission we owe our situation in the power stakes of the world, this tiny insignificant country on the edge of Europe. Thatcher took the subsidy from Commonwealth students – upon whom it was a wonderful benefit that aided our past colonial friends – and gave it t the Europeans. I mean,the Germans really needed help to study in UK, didn’t they? Now that education is a cynically money-making business venture, few of my Ghanaian friends can even contemplate studying in Britain.
Sorry! It’s a liberal soapbox of mine.
However, Nak, of wealthier birth and better influence and he came and studied. i did make the stipulation that I would sponsor him on the understanding that he came home to Ghana afterwards, where educated men were needed. He respected that and is now a businessman with a chain of opticians and some other ventures around Accra. He is an ebullient character and I was happy to phone him and find him excitably willing to spend a day with me at short notice. Reasonably amicably divorced now, Barbara and I went to Nak and Jane’s wedding in London many years ago. Jane is still there, a lecturer now in a university but it was fun to drive out to Legon University, Ghana’s top institution, and see his son for a short time. It’s a fine university on the north side of Accra, a place built just post independence and of fine sweeping avenues and good buildings of whitewash and pantiles, dark wood and with a strangely Japanese architectural influence.
We were returning to the city, stationary at a filter to turn left across a main highway when an ‘articulator’ (articulated cab and container) crashed into the passenger side of Nak’s Mercedes! So the remainder of the afternoon was engaged in dealing with the truck driver, negotiating a financial deal (he didn’t want to get the police or insurance involved – one imagines there was some defect about which he knew, and Nak wasn’t much more keen, knowing the inconvenience involved!). They came to an understanding of £400. For that Nak will have to get the side of his car beaten out and the whole car resprayed as it is an unmatchable metallic paint.
I shall stay with Nak on my return to Accra as Perry will by then be in UK. He represents a small success for me – a young man whom I helped many years ago, now in a better situation than he’d have been without that assistance. Am fond of his cheerful boisterousness too. A thoroughly decent man – now almost 50!
The first time I came to Accra in 1987, it was described to me as a large farmyard! I doubt the speaker would recognise the modern city, thirty years on. Then there was little traffic and a few potholed roads. High rise blocks didn’t exist and it was all quite folksy in an African way. Now it is a vast, swelling mess of traffic and humanity, fumes, raucous noise and expanding building projects. But at least the traffic is moving better, aft some years in which it would take us never less than two hours to drive the 17 or 18 miles back to Perry’s hilltop, which was then on the very edge of the city, now not much more than a distant suburb.
It’s a fun city in which to wander, though, for the African smile is so often in evidence as I catch an eye across the crowds. The’s not much novelty left for me after so many visits but I enjoy its liveliness, and it is a wonderful, safe and friendly introduction to African life for any novice! A few days here and I guarantee that anyone would be hooked by the spirit of Africa.
DAY 4. FRIDAY APRIL 17th 2015. CAPE COAST, GHANA
Tonight I am in Cape Coast. It’s an historic town about a hundred miles west of Accra, infamous in past times as one of the busiest centres of the West Africa slave trade, a shameful period that caused probably the world’s major diaspora (figures up to 20 million are mentioned) and changed the face of history in various nations, bringing vast wealth to some and poverty, racial tensions and prejudices to so many others, ramifications of which last until today.
On other occasions I have toured the large castle, built to facilitate the trade and to store the ‘commodity’ before shipment. As with other castles along this coast, Cape Coast Castle is now a World Heritage Site and home to a moving museum. Most emotionally affecting, though, is the ‘Gate of No Return’ through which so many Africans left on the fateful voyage to the New World, abuse, separation and destitution. Huge numbers died before they even reached the far shores. The Trade is truly a blemish on history and the castles of Ghana’s coast a sobering reminder of man’s inhumanity to his own species.
But I am not here for historical exploration. I seem to be here to accompany Perry to some enormous funeral for deceased policeman of exalted rank, a far distant relation, but one who used influence to help several young men of Perry’s acquaintance to find work in the service. Funerals are the major incident in Ghanaians’ social calendar. Being seen is important. It’s a part of Ghanaian culture that I have never been able to accept comfortably. Teachers will leave classes to fend for themselves; businesses close for days; exoduses of the ‘Big Men’ from Accra will travel 500 miles home to Navrongo to be in attendance at funerals; huge monies are spent amongst poor families; more money is spent in death than in essential life.
We drove the traffic-clogged miles in the middle of the day. Almost the whole way, these days, is urbanised, so unlike the journey I made almost thirty years ago. Now that Perry has ‘retired’ from employed business to set up his own insurance brokerage, he has more time to relax. His second son, Cephas, is already employed in the family firm and Philemon, the eldest, will return from his MA in Cambridge to join in too. The birth if a dynasty?
I am staying in a guest house on the campus of Cape Coast University. A pleasant enough place, I have walked around the campus and am now sitting in a campus bar, the Senior Clubhouse (for which I guess I qualify!), noisy on saturday night, recalling my student days – and being grateful that I was not in a concentrated campus environment but in the thick (and I mean thick, in New Cross!) of south London at Goldsmiths, with the whole city on my doorstep and all the pubs full of normal working people as well as we students. But it’s fun to be people-watching in southern Ghana, surrounded by students and teachers. No one questions my presence.
Perry went off to prostrate himself alongside colleagues in a big catholic service from which he thankfully excused me, at 5.30. “I’ll be back in an hour, hour and a half… then we’ll go out.” Well, I know by now, these Ghanaian Big Men! At 8.30 I gave up and made my own decisions, and here I am in the club house drinking Castle Milk Stout, the beverage that I have been drinking all over southern Africa for most of 2015 so far (responsible, I think, for about an inch on my waistline…)
Religion is such a big business here in West Africa. Every few yards is a church of some dotty denomination and everywhere signboards advertising the miracles available from evangelistic and charismatic preachers. There are fortunes to be made from the gullible here – scandalously rampant and manipulative. But then, I have met only one African, a very charming senior doctor, who professed atheism in Ghana… And I have spent a year and a half here – often fascinated by the belief systems of the old animists (that are being bulldozed by the catholic machine and exploitative death-bed conversions). I have probably seen the last of the old beliefs and the old believers. Just as I have seen the last of so much during my Ghanaian travels…
But then, what chance does it all have? I am watching – reluctantly, out of the corner of my eye – some dreadful American TV imported chat-show. It is all about ‘glamour’, consumption, status, ‘celebrity’ and superficiality. TV has been the ruin of Ghana. Thank god I can’t hear what the vacant bimbos are saying beneath the noise of the clubhouse. I am absolutely certain it would make me angry that this tosh and trivia is being peddled on this continent! It’s irritating me even in silence.
Perry resurfaced about 9.15. The prayers started long after the appointed hour of course. We shared the last of my bottle, took a ride round town in the warm night air and have now retired to bed, ready for an onslaught of funeral shindigs in the early morning.
DAY 5. SATURDAY APRIL 18th 2015. ACCRA, GHANA
My travelling life has certainly brought me into contact with diverse and remarkable events and experiences! Today’s funeral was a huge occasion. Everyone who is anyone (or thinks they are or ought to be) was there – an astonishingly lavish show of pomp, ritual and show.
This was the funeral of one of the county’s top policemen, Commissioner of Police Stephen Andoh Kwofie. Thus it was a militaristic affair with a lot of marching police in dress uniform, the Police Band, a number of Chiefs with full regalia and all Ghana’s great, good and probably corrupt. The main event took place on a large playing field or park where hundreds of cars jockeyed for parking. In the centre of the park rose a square of tents – or gazebos in alternating red or black, the funeral colours. The more red you wear, the closer family member you are. In the middle of the square of awnings was a white gazebo decorated with black and white drapes. Underneath it was a vast, opulent coffin from which rose the head of the diseased. My first and pervading thought was how they stopped him smelling in the dazzling sun. But then I learned that he had died on January 9th! Either he was embalmed past all life or still frozen in the middle… These things didn’t happen much twenty years ago. It was the custom to bury quickly in the African heat and then celebrate the funeral for three or four days – usually with a disco bearing from speakers the size of wardrobe day and night. When universal 24 hour electricity came to Ghana, only a few years ago (when I first stayed in Navrongo the town generator ran only from late dusk until 11pm).
“Don’t be shy if you want to take picture, you can walk about all the time with you camera, but don’t go and snap the body!”I hadn’t much desire for that in my photo library, but it seemed to have been photographed on an awful lot of phone, cameras and the official video. Later the family made a request that images should not be shared on social media. You might as well tell the tide to turn! It was probably out there everywhere already all over Facebook anyway.
We had seats beneath the awnings on the north side of the event, but I did, indeed, wander about at will.frankly, it wasn’t the show of the funeral that intrigued me, but the assembled Chiefs, Elders officials: staff bearers, umbrella bearers and all the rest of the colourful panoply. Many with traditional headdresses, voluminous cloths – and iPhones and iPads!
The ceremony began; a long and fairly tedious catholic funeral with many prayers and endless addresses. Most interesting was the presentation of traditional gifts: foodstuffs, water, booze, baskets, a pillow and blanket, ceremonial drums, all carried atop women’s and boys’ heads around the arena. It struck me that I could almost be watching the burial of King Tutankhamen! This was idolatry in spades! But then, the catholics do pretty well on that score too… Only the mythology has changed from sun gods to catholic gods. It all seemed much the same language, just a different dialect.
My northern smock is a good disguise for such events. There were a total of three white people there, one of the priests and alone woman and me. My smock is a bit of a miracle in Navrongo. presented to me on my first visit by all the brothers of the extended family, it is a high quality traditional smock. Wearing it I am respected as it is the best form of dress up north. With it I can go most places and the warmth is a worthwhile. Every year I take my smock home and wash it on a cold gentle wash in my machine – hence the miraculous nature of the garment! No one else’s smock lasts beyond a few seasons, beaten and battered in washing bowls.
It is impressive to see the ratio of women in all ranks in the Ghanaian Police Force.many of the armed guard round the coffin, and even the Sergeant Major who changed the guard regularly, were women. Ghana is certainly ahead of most of Africa in these things. Ahead of much of the West too…
The deceased was a friend of Perry’s – but then so are most people in the small middle classes in Ghana. By the testimony of the speeches, he was something of a saint – but I suppose that’s the purpose of funerals.
As the ceremony led up to a minute’s silence – and by now, over an hour in, the chatter had increased – the whole event was hijacked by the appearance of the Leader of the Opposition, said to be the next president in waiting after the mess of the current economy. Typical of these people, he arrived well over an hour late, a ploy to get the best publicity. The priest actually had to request that he and his large retinue wait until the end of the ceremony, but they continued with their insensitive arrogance, greeting the great and not very good. African politicians are a dreadful breed. One wonders if the next administration will do any better than the present. It seems unlikely…
Priests, policemen, politicians – masons – frequently together. All the Grand Apron Washers were here… Perry himself is shortly to leave for England on a Masonic jolly, to luncheon hosted by the Princes of Wales and Kent. I have no time for the organisation and its silly secrets and Jobs for the Boys. It’s big here, amongst the ‘Big Men’, a guaranteed way to rise.
The funeral ceremony ended with the coffin carried away by police guard as the band played. The burial was taking place in a nearby village from which the dead man originated. We repaired to the reception in the gardens of a nearby hotel. As we walked in, my heart sank at the pounding volume of music. I so hate disco funerals. But then I saw that this was a live band – and a very good one too. The speakers were the size of a caravan and the volume so loud that any conversation was quite impossible but both the women singers had great African voices and the music was Ghanaian, not American like th horrid discos. The immense volume put me me mind of the 70s film, ”Earthquake’, a silly confection that was all the rage at the time because of the way in which you felt the rather frequent quakes (as soon as the plot line slowed, you knew there was another quake coming!). It was always said, but I doubt the story, that they had to repair the Odeon Leicester Square (where I saw it) after the run because of the vibrations! Those vibrations were caused, and I suppose it was a novelty then (used on so many of my ‘experiential’ immersive museum exhibits since for eruptions, cannon fire and storms), they were created by sub-bass sound waves reacting in the air spaces within the listener’s diaphragm. It causes vibrations that feel like movement. It was thus with the funeral band! I was visibly shaking from the volume. But the music was very good and vibrant, with drums both African and Western, brass instruments, electronic keyboard and various percussion. The group was from the Air Force and the energy was fun to watch.
We ate the buffet food and drank our beers in the hotel garden, surrounded by lush growth of this coastal region – where it hasn’t been destroyed by ‘development’. There was no possibility of conversation with those around us at the red and black decorated tables under the red and black gazebos. These, incidentally are part of a lucrative rental business – renting out of chairs, tables, gazebos to the huge Ghanaian funeral market.
In the late afternoon we began the drive back to Accra – after a diverting, interesting day. The ride home was slow and tedious. When I think back to 1987 and the sparsity of traffic on Ghanaian roads…
Living in squalor and poverty so you can die in splendour. Where’s the sense in this..? Not that a Commissioner of Police lived in poverty, of course. This is Africa. But you get my drift, for I have seen this on so many occasions at smaller scale village funerals – but with the same pride and show.
DAY 6. SUNDAY APRIL 19th 2015. TAMALE, GHANA
Sitting at the funeral lunch table yesterday, Perry yelled into my ear that perhaps we should go away to find fresh food, for funeral food, prepared many hours in advance and sitting in the sun for hours, frequently brings trouble. But I have guts like steel, don’t I? And I was enjoying the music.
Well, whether it was the chicken or the keli-weli we ate from a street stall on the way home, my record is broken. Keli-weli, by the way, is one of my favourite Ghanaian street snacks, diced plantain fried in coconut oil with chilli and cloves.
The fact that my anti-shits pills have an expiry date of 2005 (!!!!) proves how infrequently I fall prey to stomach problems. Those tablets have travelled in my luggage for not less than eleven years unused! That must be at least ten trips to Africa, and I drink well water, eat salads, share calabashes of local ‘beer’ and eat what is put in front of me. Sadly, the 2004 capsules seem to have lost their power..! I will have to get fresh ones tomorrow… But it made for a slow day with little sleep and no energy. Fortunately Perry and his wife went to church – a trip of three hours: these catholics spend a lot of time over their rituals – and I returned to my bed.
I was booked on the 3.00pm flight up to Tamale. Gone are the days of the many ghastly hours in broken-down buses, cramped, 70 plus in a fifty-seater coach in West African heat on dirt roads. Gosh, how many times did I suffer that indignity and discomfort! One trip I remember particularly, when, following various breakdowns all along the 400 or so miles north, we missed a curfew that was in place outside Tamale over some local Islamic dispute (For Tamale is one of the main Moslem areas of this overwhelmingly Christian country) and we had to wait by the roadside for several hours, continuing shortly before dawn to ugly Tamale.
But now it is easy, at about £100 return, to fly north in an hour on a small aeroplane above the tropical haze and land onto the grey parched lands of this district, descending over tin-roofed and thatched compounds amongst the dust of Africa at this hot, hot season. So hot, in fact, that I was even a little relieved to find it ‘only’ 39 degrees at 4.00pm!
Tamale airport is rather small and homespun – soon to be upgraded (enough flat land is not a problem) to international status, largely, I think, to cater for Haj travellers to Mecca. People will then travel from surrounding countries to make the pilgrimage from here.
The reason for this journey, at this unseasonable time of year, is to attend the wedding of my ‘son’ Dennis. Dennis was the child with whom I most identified and bonded over twenty years ago. First son of Gladys, Wechiga and Perry’s junior sister, I’m not sure what it was that attracted me, partly his open, cheerful manner so like his mother Gladys and grandmother, Akay; partly the drawings he sent me in those early years; partly his wonderful erudite writing style; partly his honesty and integrity; partly his palpable excitement when we met or communicated. He was about 11 when we first became friends and I undertook with his warm-hearted mother and his father, with whom he has always had a strained relation, to pay his school fees. He is now 32 and early school fees became senior secondary costs, university costs, post graduate teaching degree costs, computers, motorbikes, housing, accommodation, travel, course fees, medical help – and all the other things that become customary for fathers! Now a wedding too!
It’s been a bumpy journey but for some reason I never gave up, despite some immature errors, bad judgements and endless grandiose schemes and dreams. Maybe things that also become customary for fathers…
As the years went by, I became benefactor and mentor and father figure. There’ve been many bumps in our road, many of them caused, ironically, by his honesty and integrity – qualities not common in West Africa – that endeared him to me. Sometimes his honesty and dislike of untruths and dissemblance made him thoughtlessly outspoken. Well I remember his reply to the priest at seminary school, when asked about his view of entering the priesthood as a career: “I don’t want to join a group of castrated men.” How I (secretly) applauded him and howled with laughter!! How he suffered for the reply. On another occasion, knowing several of his fellow students had not grasped some concept but were nervous to ask, he asked what his teacher took to be a stupid, ingenuous and probably insulting question for clarity. Again he suffered. His natural father, Frank, is a man strongly rooted in convention and unquestioning respect for any authority – and perceived his boy’s behaviour deeply upsetting and embarrassing to his position as a senior teacher in this small city. Frank’s serious, highly conventional character is the total opposite of his cheerful ebullient, out-going son. Rifts widened and his reliance upon the white father figure increased year by year. Every small, and to me completely innocent transgression that were explained by immaturity, added to the scales against him.
So here is my son, a cheerful, charming, loquacious fellow of sunny disposition and scrupulous honesty and integrity – that often showed as disrespect (generally completely justifiable and sometimes applaudable to a western liberal dad). A fellow who can talk the leg off a donkey, be patient and polite with his elders, full of schemes and plans, deeply caring and a chip off his mother’s, my ‘mad sister’s’ block. As a major influence in his life, I had to be here! His surrogate dad.
No one was waiting when I arrived at the hot airport so I sat on the kerb to wait, refusing a ride to town from a doctor I know well, who had travelled on the same flight. Doctor Kanlisi spent some years at ‘Jimie’s’ hospital in Leeds training in public health medicine and his wife was, for five years, a nurse at Otley hospital – where maybe I saw her at some time.
A few minutes later Dennis and his new wife – the traditional wedding has already taken place (more about that later) – Emmanualla, arrived in the car of another nurse friend, Jane. We drove back towards the city, one wheel so far out of alignment that we wobbled the ten miles. But this is an African car.
Emmanualla, my daughter in law, is petite and smart, a pretty young woman of keen intelligence, the eighth and last daughter of a Fra-Fra household of a village near Bolgatanga. Tribal matters still have importance – at least for conventional Frank, if not so much for the present generation, so the fact that Emmanualla is Fra-fra, like Frank, is important in her acceptance as a wife for his son. Her father is ‘late’, as the African saying goes and she herself is a fully trained nurse and midwife working for a private clinic here in Tamale, where she has some sisters too. The couple met, inevitably, at church. This nation – and sadly my son – are so deeply in thrall to the catholic myths that it controls almost all of life, social as well as moral and even secular life. Submission to this stuff irritates every atheist gene in me when I am here, surrounded by images of wimpy Jesus’s and wistful Marys, where prayer is invoked to solve so many practically-based problems and submission to the prejudices of archaic beliefs and modern clerics is so pernicious. But in this, in Ghana, I am out of step! Each, I suppose, to his own..! I will submit to the catholic wedding for their sake!
We came back to Gladys and Frank’s new house, into which they moved since my last visit in 2013. Frank is now retired from deputy head of the teacher training college and Gladys still heads her big primary school on the edge of town. Until his retirement they inhabited a house belonging to the education service that was degraded to impressive levels – for no one in Ghana would contemplate maintenance or redecoration on a property not their own, even if they live in it for decades. I have seen senior nurses living in ‘quartersis’ in squalor for years rather than invest in a few cans of paint or new window louvres – seen as the responsibility of ‘them’. An odd African trait I can never understand.
But over the years Frank and Gladys have invested in a new bungalow on the north side of town. Before it was completed, it was rented by an NGO, so they began to build another next door. This was appropriated by the same NGO as an annex, so they began again, with two rental properties on which to base the new house. It is spacious and much better built than many places, but will probably never be completed! There is a speed that is special to Africa that never reaches full time…
There is still much superficial work to be finished and they have been deeply concerned about the lack of a bed for their white guest! As if I cared about a mattress on the new well tiled floor. Dennis tried to reassure them but the verdict was that if I was dissatisfied the blame was on his head. Frankly, I hardly even noticed! There’s a fan for the 39 degree heat, which I found a lot more reassuring.
I could not even face beer tonight. My stomach must be poorly! Doubtless it’s only a mild disruption to normal astonishingly strong and resistant service. I am proud of finding my anti-shits pills to be eleven year old – even though they are as ineffective as dust. Each time I travel I just shove them back in the bag, maybe more as a talisman and deterrent that an emergency treatment. Haha!