DAY 20. SUNDAY MAY 3rd 2015. TAMALE, GHANA
I have spent more time in church in the last twenty four hours than in the last eight to ten years! Five and a quarter hours. Today I was expected to attend first mass – at 7.00am for goodness sakes. It dragged on for just a few minutes short of three hours! There were so many false ends that I lost heart. The verbose and tedious sermon about vines (that don’t grow in Ghana) must have taken the best part of twenty minutes, the same things said five different ways and me being told that I lived a weird and useless life because I had not accepted Jesus into my life. Happily, the offertory came after the sermon, so church got the smallest banknote I could find. Petty revenge!
This wasn’t the happy, exuberant ‘charismatic’ music of yesterday, although the African music did offer some brief respite from the tedium. I was horrified at the end of the long, long sermon, when another man came forward and read the whole darned thing in the local language too as people round me dozed! More punishment. If you are going to do it all in two languages, at least cut the thing in half. THEN there was communion with all its bowing and genuflecting, bells, incense and ritual. Even my tro-tro meditation technique failed to get me through today’s service. It was, after all, about the same time it takes to get from Bolgatanga to Tamale…
I don’t often listen to catholic masses. The emphasis of the entire ritual was on sin, fear and our unworthiness and inadequacies. Sorry, I don’t want to go through life with that indoctrinated inferiority. To me, it is all just an unpleasant way of imposing control on the masses by a narrow elite.
Then, just as I was breathing a sigh of relief with the end in sight, came the commercial scam.
Temple? Money lenders? Don’t even I remember such things? Huh. Now we entered the realms of very tasteless pantomime and a show little less than extortion. It even offended me!
The ex-bishop, whom I met years ago, became a cardinal and now the parish wants to get him a sainthood – by buying it from Rome, it seems. Buying privileges from the world’s richest organisation – paid for by people scratching a living in the hardest part of the world. It disgusted me, it honestly did. Here’s how it went. The master of ceremonies (or warm up artiste…) called for a representative of about twenty groups or callings: priests, leaders of various parish groups and professional callings, plus the newly wed couple (I noted a big round applause for Dennis, obviously a popular character!). These twenty or more individuals walked forward to applause to stand on the altar steps. This took the first fifteen minutes of this tasteless charade. Then each one was essentially ‘auctioned off’ to the poor but good hearted people of the congregation. “Who will pay 100 cedis (£20) for the new bride to return to her seat?”; “Someone must pay 150 cedis for the ‘man of faith’ to return to his seat,” – and so on for the next forty minutes of shameless extortion, sums from £20 to £40. Surely the meaning of the phase ‘charity begins at home’ is that it is discrete and given without any show, let alone extorted by theatrical means that demean the whole process of giving to a tawdry game show? Some £700 to £900 were probably raised in this offensive manner that took almost an hour and proved the catholic church to be even materially greedier than I imagined. I found it offensive and insulting to their faith. Happily, Frank, sitting next to me, agreed and we left the church before the end of this undignified exhibition. A horrible process.
The videographer and photographer and his light-moving sidekick seem to be standard fittings in church. The whole service appeared to be the stuff off video recording. How odd…
At last it was all over and we were freed. We were transported home in various cars to continue the weekend-long party at Gladys’ house. Under the canopies we ate again, her women friends still turning out to help her in their impressive show of solidarity. We took more refreshment and eventually danced to the drums. As I know must happen, I half-reluctantly joined in, dancing my travesty of local dances to generous, undeserved compliments. “Eh, Navrossay, how you can DANCE!” Hmmmm…
Slowly the various families and guests departed to their distant homes. I’m always particularly sorry to say goodbye to lovely Rhoda, Wechiga’s third-born, a delightful girl of spirit, humour, excellent English (she grew up through formative years with a white house guest and uncle) and charming prettiness. The yard quietened down; a brief visit from my son and new daughter in law and a short ride out with Perry and family and Gladys for a beer under the full moon as a storm rolled closer, lightning flickering amongst gathering clouds. “Eh! It will rain tonight!” everyone said, watching the skies.
And, sure enough, about 9.30, after a stifling hour in the yard at home, came the dusty, gritty gale and – at last after three ghastly weeks – a rain shower. Suddenly the night was cool, even if the electricity was off again. It came back just in time to sleep under the fan. The country has not enough money to pay the fuel bills for generation. “But what about Akasombo?” I asked, for the Akasombo dam stills the Volta rivers into a vast lake and supplies electricity to Ghana and surrounding countries, instituted by Nkrumah in the post-colonial euphoria and spirit of independence. But it appears that after two years of very insufficient rains and the fact that Burkina Faso to the north has built a dam of their own, Akasombo is now totally inadequate for even domestic supplies to this ballooning nation, all of whom demand increasing electricity.
Dennis admitted that the wedding has gobbled up about 8000 or 9000 Ghana (approximately £1500 to £1700). Add the traditional wedding costs and you are up to the best part of £2000, a phenomenal bill for young Ghanaians to foot. My contribution has helped of course (altogether about £950) but I am so proud that there have been no loans taken out by the couple and Emmanuella has footed most of the bills from her salary. At least they won’t begin their married life with a debt. I’d like to think a bit of my mentoring has influenced that!
It’s been a fun weekend! I shall have many happy memories of the end of this visit. I’m glad I changed my plans and came early and can leave on a high directly after the celebrations. The warmth I feel for this young couple is a pleasure. And I have been so generously welcomed and taken in with heartfelt warmth by all the Tamale family and Gladys’s friends, who have worked so hard to make it all a big success.
DAY 21. MONDAY MAY 4th 2015. ACCRA, GHANA
My visit almost over, I now realise that the value of this journey has been a lovely growing relationship with the young man who calls me his father. And now with the very charming young woman he has selected as his wife. I see in them a strong instinctive match and we have enjoyed our times together warmly. A bonus today came with the postponement of my 10.30 flight to Accra until 1.30 and a chance to enjoy Dennis, Emmanuella and her beautiful friend Mary’s company for an hour and a half in a quiet cafe on the airport property – the only real bonding time we have had over the very busy few days.
Dennis gave me a very moving and emotional thank you for all the years I have supported him, probably more than anyone else has – except of course his delightful mother (often restrained by her proud, conventional husband). “He’s not easily tearful,” said his wife as poor Dennis emotionally wept his thanks. I am so proud of my ‘son’ and this visit has cemented the father/ son relationship so warmly. Through thick and thin, I have believed in his absolute integrity. It’s caused jealousies and strains within the family but I have realised that I don’t care any more. This is the relation I have picked from my Ghanaian travels – a son. Should I have chosen to have children, I I would have chosen a Dennis! With all his flaws and youthful mistakes, I believed in him – and he has proved worthy. What instinct ever told me that? As a ten year old, I saw it and reacted to his qualities, maybe seeing some of me in him, for in some ways we have some similarities of character. Often I was held back by the fact that I wasn’t really anything in his family more than a visiting friend, and a foreigner at that. Much as I might romanticise that I had influence, he wasn’t actually mine to advise or influence. Had I really understood the strength of the extended family system and his needs, maybe I should have taken more control – but I couldn’t, for his father and I are at opposite ends of almost every scale of attitude, behaviour and view of the world. Shame, he’d have turned out differently if I hadn’t been so culturally tactful! I’d have applauded some of the youthful rebellion and blasted his narrow minded, prejudiced teachers into supporting him and encouraging properties they were too damned blind to see.
Still, I am happy with the product! And happy, too, that he has met his match in Emmanuella, a very pretty, independent-minded, capable young woman. She will rationalise his dreams and fight her corner when required. She has paid for much of the wedding and worked hard for her ‘big day’. Not to ‘go in for loans’ is no small achievement in this economy, no small achievement indeed. And it must be that love has grown: who else would take on a penniless teacher in Africa unless she believed in his potential. Find Dennis the right avenue and he will go far – except that his deeply set honesty and integrity are just out of step in this shamefully corrupt nation… If you can’t beat them, and you aren’t prepared to join them, life is difficult here. How I wish Ghana were different for him or he had been born elsewhere. This continent so needs people of his integrity, for it has so very, very few…
So, the easy flight back to Accra, just 50 minutes or so on a small plane. Once at the airport I dismissed all the clustering taxi drivers and walked a quarter of a mile to the main road, where I pushed into a battered tro-tro to town. Why pay 10 or 12 cedis for a taxi when I can do it for one cedi? My arrangement was to go to Perry’s office where Cephas, his third-born now works and he would drive me the hour home to the western hills. Perry was driving himself, his wife and daughter and grandson the eight or nine hours of long road journey that I covered so easily by plane. He wouldn’t arrive for some hours.
Accra is an almost cool 31 degrees!
DAY 22. TUESDAY MAY 5th 2015. FLYING HOME – AGAIN
Twenty times I have been to Ghana. It’s been a large part of my travelling life and a huge life influence. But each year I admit I have come with less conviction. Why is this..?
It’s a combination: familiarity has bred, not contempt but discernibly less fascination. I come now to visit a very small group of people; novelty has worn off and the culture which I admired so much has reduced to a bad pastiche of my own flawed materialist culture; and I have discovered other lands in Africa that I enjoy so much.
Back in 2011 I wrote at the end of my journal of visit 18 the following paragraphs. I think they still describe my feelings very accurately four years and a couple of months later:
‘As the aircraft thrust into the tropical night a little while ago and swung 180 degrees over the Atlantic shores before racing northward through the African night I feel as if a door has swung quietly shut behind me.
I have been coming to Ghana for a long time, a third of my life. But a review of my journals passim will show a slow disillusion setting in over the past few trips. Ghana remains unique amongst the ninety-odd countries in which I have travelled; unique for its welcome and friendliness, smiles and optimism. It is a wonderful taste of this continent at its very best.
Ghana has enriched my life beyond measure these past 22 years. What I have learned by getting inside the culture of (the old) Navrongo has given perspective and shape to my outlook and thoughts, my perception of life. I will be forever grateful to have met Akay and her ways, to have known something of her culture. Sadly, that culture has died before my eyes. I no longer respect the culture that is developing. It is cheap and inferior, based on wealth and status, not human warmth and wisdom. It is now aspiring to the material culture and capitalistic economy for which I was trying to an alternative. Family values have cheapened; nuclear family style is replacing the strength of extended family closeness; people increasingly look after themselves instead of each other; they are beginning to judge one another by what they own rather than what they are…
…My life has changed too. I am a couple of decades older after all. My compulsion to travel has weakened just a bit – to a strong desire, maybe. My restless love of new places does not go away but it can be assuaged with other travels and in other directions. My tolerance for squalor, discomfort, loneliness and boredom are not what they were!
Everything has a time and place, and a duration as well. Perhaps it is time for new pastures? Navrongo gave shape to my life for over a third of my life. I have been very privileged. All that I experienced over my eighteen visits will not go away. It will still form a structure to my opinions and way of life. But the Navrongo I knew and loved is gone now. Gone forever…
As we head north, perhaps now flying past Navrongo itself down there in the African night, I don’t harbour feelings of disappointment. I have a mild sense of relief at facing the fact that the time has come to move on, find new stimuli while accepting an awareness of all that Navrongo meant; the stories, memories and perspective it has provided…’
That’s how I reacted to the eighteenth visit. I acknowledged that my visits would be for family occasions in the future, and so they have been. The nineteenth visit was to meet my old and dear friend Dee from Canada and her travelling companion Sharon and introduce them to Navrongo, my extended family and a bit of Ghana; this twentieth visit was prompted by my son’s wedding. So I still honour significant family events but I am also finding new satisfactions and fascination in southern and eastern Africa, especially cultured and educated Zimbabwe. And Uganda and Rwanda and Ethiopia still await exploration!
In the past three weeks I have perceived instinctively that the open, happy, cheerful nature of Ghanaians has changed too. Perhaps it’s all the current economic mess, frustrated material aspirations and the pervasive corruption at every level of the country? Perhaps, the widespread influence of bad TV and pernicious 24 hour ‘news’ (mainly speculation, melodrama and sensationalism) has taken away the mystery of white visitors and shown them to be shallow and flawed? It’s just a feeling that people do not accept the stranger in their midst with their usual warmth and humour. The once effusive welcome isn’t what it was. I’m not sure Ghana IS ‘…unique amongst the ninety-odd countries in which I have travelled; unique for its welcome and friendliness, smiles and optimism…’ any more. Something is different.
Had I come to Ghana for the first time only in recent years, I don’t think it would have had the same attraction. It would not have led to all these visits. A few maybe, but not twenty. It was my appreciation of the values of the former culture that so impressed me, and my reluctance to face their disintegration that kept me visiting so often – that and my friendships with a few special Ghanaians, but even those have altered, as one would expect over twenty five years.
Happily, the bond between my son and I has strengthened on this visit. Perhaps that is the real wealth of all these journeys..? I gained a son. What an extraordinary thing…
6th May 2015
Soon to land in Amsterdam. The temperature, the pilot tells us, is 10C! I may freeze. At least the tulips are in flower.
9C in Bristol..!