DAY 1. MONDAY 20th NOVEMBER 2017. ACCRA, GHANA
It’s sort of DAY 2 really. Never have I come to Ghana in such a round about route – and seldom arrived this tired. This is my 21st visit to this friendly West African country: a brief stop on my way back to East Africa where my little blue motorbike waits for more abuse and further journeys.
Coming to Ghana via Kenya was just one of those arcane quirks of airline ticketing. My alternative was to fly round trip to Ghana, spend a night or two at home and set off again for a return trip to Kenya. It’s so maddening that return trips cost so much less than multiple-stop flights. The only ‘triangular’ option (UK/ Ghana/ Kenya/ UK) I could find was with Kenya Airways, via their home hub, Nairobi. So overnight I flew to Kenya, spent three hours in the airport and flew on to Accra, my first flight across Africa in all this time, not that it was informative from 36,000 feet. This was the second night I spent crammed incommodiously into an airline seat of dwindling proportions: only last Monday night was spent flying the Atlantic once again. Bristol airport is becoming unpleasantly familiar.
What a relief to get horizontal at last, out in Perry’s western hills’ house, far from the bustle of airports, cities, traffic and noise, even if it does take over an hour of ceaseless city traffic to get there! This city has swollen so much in the years I have known it, suburbs sprawling over the dusty hills far from the centre. There’s been such changes in this land. When I first approached Accra, in early 1987, riding my motorbike from Yorkshire across the ‘bulge’ of Africa, to this place where I met the Atlantic Ocean again, it was described to me as “oh, it’s like a big farmyard!” The roads were potholed, the buildings rough and ready, the streets chaotic, and the air often filled with dust. The people, though, were unlike any I had ever met: they laughed and smiled, were friendly and noisy, colourful and lots of fun. That was the beginning of my love for Africa.
Tonight Accra is busy, modern and has new buildings arising everywhere. Most of the streets are paved, the traffic relatively disciplined, certainly for Africa, and huge strides have been made to clean and order the city. It no longer resembles a farmyard at all. The temperature is a pleasant 31C/86F. We can get within a mile or so of the house on tarred roads now. It used to be a ghastly test of stamina and cars on dust and ruts, bouncing over the degraded roads.
There’s no place for vanity in Africa! Approaching the immigration hall, I was accosted by a short, heavy-set woman, of the sort of square woman that seem reserved for employment in immigration posts the world over. Aggressively, she demanded, “where’s your yellow card?” I had no idea what she wanted and thrust out the passport that was in my hand. She took it and riffled to the personal details, looked briefly and returned in somewhat scornfully with the word: “Huh, aged…!”
It seems she wanted my yellow fever certificate. It is inadvisable for the over 60s to have the live vaccine and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime injection – despite the fact I have had two and only prevented from having a third (to update the ‘old’ certificate that runs out in a month) by the advice of the NHS.
Oh, how I chuckled as I queued for my immigration officer. ‘Aged’!! I SO MUCH enjoy travelling as an older person. Not just because of the yellow fever requirements, but because I can speak with anyone, offer no threat, am generally respected in Africa, considered to have mature opinions (!) and, as a white-bearded ‘old man’ on a motorbike, often beyond the average life expectancy age of countries in which I am riding, have become something of a wonder, an eccentric to be smiled at. But I have to put up with words like ‘aged’!
Next to me on the plane from Nairobi, sat a very sexily dressed young woman: tight body stocking with sewn in thigh boots, revealing top and a colourful jacket. She had the figure to do that. I find African women generally so much more attractive than white ones anyway. Apologising for my doziness, I explained that I’d been seven and a half hours on an overnight flight before this six hour flight. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve had a long journey too! I started in Harare.”
“How was Harare?” I asked enthusiastically, it being one of my favourite cities in Africa. In the past week life has been changing in wonderful Zimbabwe. In a very peaceful coup, the ruling party has finally overthrown the old dictator, Mugabe, after 37 years. This is largely because of the ambitions of his inadequate wife (the ‘First Shopper’) whom he was manoeuvring to be his successor, despite her lack of qualification, except a masters’ degree achieved in three months at the University in Harare: ‘coup by marriage certificate’ as it has been described. People back home, knowing my love and respect for Zimbabwe, Africa’s best educated, most cultured country, asked me if Africa would be ‘safe’ to visit (even though I am thousands of miles away). “Of course”, I kept replying, “in fact, I wish I was in Harare to see this! The people are so educated, they know that violence won’t help their situation. You watch, it’ll be a very well organised, well mannered coup. It will be a big party. Most of the country has known no other leader, but the old man has gone too far now, even his military support has turned against his wife as president.”
My neighbour, who hailed from Guinea, smiled widely. “Oh, it was such fun! It was like a huge party! We were dancing in the streets, cheering, singing..!” I was envious. I’d like to have seen this coup! I miss Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, though, doesn’t see that his time is up and he should go quietly into wealthy retirement while he has the option. He is resisting resigning, so impeachment – by his own ruling party – looks to be the only way he’ll go. Whether this quiet coup (naturally, the pictures we see in the Western media concentrate on tanks in the streets) will solve any of that delightful country’s problems, remains to be seen. I will go back next winter.
For now, though, it’s a quick revisit to Ghana. Perry’s eldest son, now working for him in his insurance company in Accra, Philemon, whom I first knew aged about two, collected me from the airport and I dozed a couple of hours in the office until Perry arrived to take care of me – a couple of welcome beers at an outdoor club bar, a Chinese meal at an upmarket city restaurant and the drive home to an empty house out on the quiet western hills, a house I have watched develop over twenty five years, from the lone property in the bush, to a house surrounded by the half finished palaces of ambitious businessmen. As the house grew – as money was available – it filled with young people, the relatives and dependents that aspiring Ghanaian middle class people have to take in. Now the next generation is growing and moving independently, grandchildren arriving and the bungalow, with its five fairly basic bedrooms, is empty again. Perry’s wife, Rose, is away helping a new mother – (young Romannus’s wife) with a newborn and Perry and I have the house to ourselves.
It’s a bit warm and sticky, I am exhausted – but my sixth consecutive winter trip as begun.
DAY 2. TUESDAY 21st NOVEMBER 2017. ACCRA, GHANA
Awaking from a quite warm, fairly sticky night, I realised that I had hardly moved since I fell on the bed. All these long flights take their toll. But I awoke to a hot sunny day and a calm breakfast with Perry, just the two of us rattling in the big bungalow. Some small girl had been in at five to boil water and eggs for our simple breakfast, and long since gone away again. Perry had a meeting until twelve, then, he said, we’d maybe go to the Aburi botanical gardens on the hills north of the city, and visit Anutua, his first-born, now mother of two small boys. On the way out of town we’d buy my air ticket to the north.
Buying said ticket turned out to be less easy than we assumed. First the office was gone; second, no one could tell us where to; third, at the airport, there was no parking available and I had to leg it to the busy office; fourth, having waited in line and ordered my ticket, the airline’s credit card machine only accepted debit cards, entailing a long hot walk down ramps and around car parks to a cash machine where I froze my credit card thanks to bad information on the transaction. Fortunately, I have two cards for just this eventuality, one of the many frustrations of transacting financial business in Africa. Finally, dripping sweat, I had my ticket – about £67 to fly the hour north to Tamale, avoiding probably eight hours on the road. “Oh, you are too hot!” said Perry, “we’d better go for a beer before we set off!”
Well, I guess I knew then that our plans would disintegrate! When sociable Perry meets his tribesmen and women at Maggie’s Place, plans get forgotten. We stayed talking with a cheerful lady, an ambassador for Ghana in Europe and were joined by other ‘big’ people from the northern tribe. I believe one was a brother of the president. Amongst such people, Perry now moves – and does his business. It’s always been an inspiring story, this boy from illiterate parents (but with one of the wisest mothers I ever knew) and humble beginnings in a mud-floored primary school, largely self-educated through his own unswerving determination, and chance and seized opportunities; through various insurance companies, where he rose to MD; to running his own insurance brokerage, catering to the ‘big’ people of Ghana. Soon he turns 60, official retirement age in Ghana and I realised that I have known him just about half his life, for we first met at Christmas 1987, when he became our chance guest for an English Christmas, organised by an old Commonwealth charity, the Victoria League. Certainly a meeting that changed the course of my life, for there the seeds of my involvement with this continent were sown.
So I must settle into a different mode now, African patience; my pace slows and I have to accept a calmer attitude: things take the time they take, credit cards don’t always work and not much goes to any plan I may make.
The ambassador spent half an hour working and communicating with two phones in hand. It’s normal here to share the attention of anyone you are with, with multiple incoming and outgoing calls to people you can’t see, sometimes in languages you don’t understand. It’s risky to start telling any lengthy story, for you are unlikely to complete it! This is the continent of mobile phones, 650 million of them, more than in Europe or North America. My only retaliation would be to buy a wifi connected phone myself: concentrating on a phone is the new convention, whereas taking out my book would be impolite.
As the ambassador completed her calls, she said, “Right, my work is finished, why should I punish myself any longer?” and wrenched her elaborate wig from her head with a sigh. Later, Perry admitted he had been a bit shocked. I suggested he should feel complimented. It’s so confusing for a visitor, this wig business! Doubtless, I will meet her again sometime, probably sporting a totally different look – and inevitably I shall reintroduce myself, to a woman with whom I sat a couple of hours and shared two bottles of wine she had imported…
Later, after we excused ourselves and aborted our visit to Anutua since the traffic by then was its usual early evening chaos (as opposed to the morning, noon and evening chaos), we went quietly to another beer bar, the Prison Service Club, where we drank beer last night. We joined a young woman at a large table, where she was alone. It’s like that in friendly Accra: you can do that sort of thing, and end up in conversation – even to a goodbye hug for me an hour and a half later. Chatty Henrietta is a lawyer, “probably a junior one,” exclaimed Perry somewhat disparagingly some time later, but she was cheerful company and obviously at ease with two strangers, as she began to remove the woven extensions from her hair and drop them in a carrier bag. Two in one evening!
By now – four pints of beer and perhaps a quarter of a bottle of wine inside me, plus a pretty good fish dinner at the first bar – food quality standards are rising fast in the big city as it pretends to a cosmopolitan air – I was wobbly on my feet. I’m still tired of course, from two nights in the air this week. Now we had the hour’s drive back to the hills in still congested traffic. How does Perry still drive so well by this time of day? I’ll never know, but he does.
Whenever I come back to Ghana, I am reminded just what fun the people can be. Meet them with a smile and it is without exception returned. Be it a complete stranger in traffic, one of the legions of salespeople at traffic junctions and lights, children from school, vendors and everyone else: always eye contact and a smile. I love it.
Another remarkable thing, especially bearing in mind that I was in Florida only a week or so ago, is to see people shaped so naturally, the shape that humans were meant to be. Watching the lithe, hardworking Ghanaians, I am struck by how so much of the world has lost the basic shape of their bodies. Here I can SEE bone structure and muscle. It helps that people are relatively scantily clad. Women often wear shape-hugging dresses, and often not a much of them. Men wear shirts and slacks or shorts. Little is left to the imagination beneath layers of voluminous fabric, let alone layers of pendulous fat, as in Florida, where the only shapely people I saw were at a vegan food festival (probably the best advertisement for veganism that I saw). Here in Africa, neatly proportioned bodies, shapely breasts, comely hips, curvaceous bums – and on the men, handsome shoulders and narrow hips. And most have a spring in their step and an easy elegant posture – perhaps it’s the posture that does it, for we have forgotten the importance of standing erect so much – frequently with loads on their heads. As we slow in traffic jams and approaching lights, I watch with amusement the bobbing trays, bowls, bags and bundles of the vendors weave and race between the crowds of waiting cars. For a few minutes, all is shouts and sales pitch, items as diverse as juice and car mats, melted ice cream and dog leads, greasy snacks and decorative fans, wall maps and razors, newspapers and bath towels, all are jiggled at our windows in the hope of a quick sale.
Accra is fun and crazy, a great introduction to sub-Saharan Africa for anyone who’d like it. It is safe, exceptionally friendly and has all the essence of ‘Africa’. In our new ‘review’ culture, I recommend with five stars
3. WEDNESDAY 22nd NOVEMBER 2017. TAMALE, GHANA Most of my time in Ghana, which must amount to at least 18 months over thirty years and twenty one visits, is spent in the dry north of the country, up here in and above Tamale. Tamale, the largest northern city, is 400 miles north of Accra on the coast, and Navrongo, the town in Africa that I know best, is another 100 miles further north, almost on the border of this rather rectangular land. Rectangular, of course, in memory of the arrogance of the white man and the carving up of Africa into colonial parcels in the great competition that usurped every indigenous culture for thousands of miles in every direction from here, and the cause of so many of Africa’s modern day ills, for those arbitrary lines split tribes apart, favoured one tribe above another and created unrest that has lasted for over a hundred and fifty years on this beleaguered continent. Such internal tribal wrangling created hierarchies and jealousies that still tear apart these countries. Tribalism only recedes slowly: I still see it all around me on my journeys, in the favouring of tribal brothers and sisters in the work place, politics, business and in the residue of distrust as I move between district loyalties. Very slowly, particularly in a well adjusted country like this, the ‘Father of Africa’, as Ghana likes to think of itself, allegiances are converting to political parties and tribalism is just a little less important, still existing through language and culture, of course, and through preference in employment and so forth, but I notice some more mixing of marriages in modern times: family ties that will break down the tribal order in time.
Ghana is fortunate: it was the first African nation to become independent of its colonial shackles in 1957, through the efforts of the revered Kwame Nkrumah and his colleagues. I’ve always maintained that that is the reason that Ghana has high self respect and a strong ‘Ghanaian’ culture: most Ghanaians’ first allegiance is to the country, with their tribe a definite second. It may well be the reason that Ghana is so much more stable than much of Africa: their national pride, their identity is so strong. They have become a peaceful nation, well respected in the world. It’s no coincidence that Barack Obama visited Ghana as his first African country, or that Bill Clinton was the first American president to set foot in sub-Saharan Africa in Accra (!), even that there’s a George Bush highway in Accra (not many of THOSE about the world) in commemoration of his visit too. Barack Obama stood in Parliament House and addressed Africa. He said that other African nations should take a look at Ghana and learn. He stood at the podium, while behind him sat the ruling president and three former presidents – all of them still living in Ghana, not exiled and hugging Swiss bank accounts. Only today, the Ghanaian president addressed African heads of state in London, saying that up to £10 billion of aid and development money was being corruptly diverted by officials across the continent every year, without which criminal activity Africa, with its wealth of resources, would not even need the help of the outside world.
On which note, I must be happy for Zimbabwe, for the 37 year tyrant finally ‘resigned’ from power today, to save his face and probably many of his millions of corrupt wealth as impeachment was begun in Harare by his own party. The fact of Grace Mugabe being lined up for the next president was just a step too far for Zimbabweans. The removal of the Mugabe family may not solve their problems – the military and the ruling party still have a lot of power – but it opens the doors to new horizons, watched carefully by the world, following one of the most well mannered, well planned peaceful coups in modern African history. Well done Zimbabwe!
“The temperature at Tamale is a little hotter than Accra, at 38 degrees,” the pilot informed us as our small jet, only three seats wide, descended over the red dust and dry scrub of this northern area. The city – not a favourite of mine; I only come to visit my ‘son’, Dennis and to meet my new ‘grandson’, Hezekiah, Heze for short, it seems. Of course, I’d come to visit my cheerful, generous ‘sister’ Gladys too, and now Dennis’s delightful wife, Emmanuella. Nothing else about this grubby, dusty, busy, predominantly Moslem (only about 20% of Ghana is Moslem) small city attracts me.
Charming, loquacious Dennis , who looks upon me as his father and mentor, was waving widely from the airport perimeter, his real father, with whom relations have always been strained – the reason for the estrangement being that Dennis is so like his ebullient mother and grandmother and Frank is a dour, rather critical character who sees their generous cheer as trivial and beneath their (his) dignity, without recognising their extreme popularity amongst all their wide circles. Both Dennis and Gladys have that instinctive integrity that is of such value and a somewhat uncommon virtue.
Frank now has a car (nowhere much to go in it, except church (a mile away) on Sundays, but it is a Ghanaian symbol of success these days, surpassing the bicycle of the 90s and the mopeds of the 2000s. There is no hope for the planet…). Back at the increasingly fine bungalow, sister Gladys ran in excited greeting, attacking like a bull in a giant hug, dancing and exclaiming. Little Heze, shy of the strange white man, watched intrigued. He’s a delight, an engaging, active, cheerful child of 20 months, old enough to be interesting to his not-very-baby-oriented white ‘grandfather’. Doubtless, by tomorrow he will overcome his shyness. Emmanuella is back at her studies, training towards a masters’ in midwifery here in Tamale. Dennis is a teacher, now progressing to teach in JSS. They have a rented home a mile or two from Gladys’ house. ‘As befitting my status’, I am to stay at the family house, where a bed had to be bought before my last visit, especially for me, despite the fact that I’d be equally – if not more – comfortable on a mattress on the floor…
Ghana is certainly moving forward. There’s so much new building and so many new roads, dozens of times more cars, endless traffic; there’s a new smartness visible: the country has been cleaned up since even my last visit two and a half years ago. The acres of rubbish and litter, the plastic and mess is largely gone or going, people look more prosperous, the environment a trifle more cared for. As everywhere else, this economy is difficult for young graduates; employment prospects narrow for the increasing numbers of well educated young people. Ghana has long been a pretty equal country, insofar as any African country really respects the overworked, undervalued female population. Women occupy positions of power and enjoy tertiary education, and have relatively equal rights – while at the same time, of course, bringing up the children, keeping house, washing, harvesting and all the other things that basically lazy African men consider beneath them.
DAY 4. THURSDAY 23rd NOVEMBER 2017. TAMALE, GHANA
Every time I go away, I forget just how improbably HOT the north of Ghana can be. The day was a little cooled by a thin cloud layer, but at night, when the electricity dies in not infrequent power cuts in the early hours, I am left in a muck sweat on top if the bed, at which time all the mosquito bites of the evening warm up and torment in a slow agony. But this is how so much of Africa lives: the water supply came on briefly around 2.00am and I heard Gladys get up to fill buckets for the day. “Those who overslept and stayed on bed, they will have no water!” she exclaimed as she cooked breakfast. At least she enjoys tap water here. It’s not so common… These days, in so many African countries I visit – and doubtless all the rest – demand far outstrips supply for the basic utilities. Generation of power, here in Ghana, used to come from the Akosombo Dam, the biggest earth dam in Africa, that encloses an expansive lake and was foresightedly constructed by the first post-colonial government. But now, countries upstream on the Volta Rivers have built their own dams at the same time that demand is ballooning, for now electricity reaches much of the country and everyone has been made dependent on power. In the late 80s electricity ran for just a few hours, from dusk until eleven, it was in Navrongo, I remember. The local diesel-fuelled generator roared away up the Hospital Road, and at 11.00 we were cast into (what I saw as) thankful peace and blissfully dark darkness, when the stars exploded above. It’s not like that any more… Perhaps that is really the STORY of my travels and acceptance in Navrongo – the incredible changes I have seen.
Some of them have brought good to the populous, but the baby went with the bath water and the erasing of the old culture, which placed its values on mutual support and a light ecological footprint, is to the detriment of the world. So much was good – along with plenty of ignorance, I must admit. The headlong race for change and aping the materialism of the West has brought many social and environmental problems. But this is life. We race towards the apparent riches without assessing the hidden costs. I am almost apprehensive to see Navrongo, a place that meant so much to me, for I know I will hardly recognise the place again. I am sure I have witnessed the biggest cultural changes in northern Ghana of the past several centuries in my 30 years’ of visits. I put it as high as that.
We visited Dennis’s school, where he now teaches computer technology and literacy in a poor, predominantly Moslem school, where most of the students today seemed to be girls. Ghana is officially a Christian country, so school time complies with the working week and teachers can be of other faiths. The school is poor, set in a dusty part of the sprawl of ‘suburbs’ beside a small mosque. Classrooms are standard government issue, basic block and tin-roofed rooms with plastered blackboards. Dennis considers himself fortunate to have five fairly elderly computers with which to teach. His colleagues gather beneath a tree between the two blocks at a shaky table as their staffroom.
The arrival of a white man inevitably causes commotion. Photos are demanded – no reluctance on my part! Excited girls in cotton school uniforms and head shawls clamoured for pictures with the white man. There’s little of the reserve most of us associate with Islam: this is still cheerful Ghana after all. Seems I began to work on my next photo book and collection for my crowded walls today.
Little Hezekiah is at a school not far away, and already at 20 months, is familiar with being collected on Dad’s small motorbike. Dennis takes care of him in the afternoons, so we carried him back to Dennis and Emmanuella’s rented rooms – a sixth or so of a square, single storey block around a small concrete yard. There’s a living room, bedroom, bathroom and store room, the latter currently occupied by a small girl, Hege, aged ten, from Emmanuella’s village, who helps attend to Heze in exchange for her food and education, a common arrangement for large families. The kitchen is in the outer corridor of the block. All is tidy and clean but simple. There’s the inevitable TV, a sound system, easy chairs and low table. Possessions are relatively few, clothes kept tidily in bare wood wardrobes and beneath dust cloths. The block is amid many others, and small mosques abound out in those half rural, half suburban areas of red dust. It’s probably quite noisy even though it is far down sandy paths from any road. People come and go on small mopeds and cars, in such an area, are rarities.
We whiled away the hot afternoon under a tin shelter of a nearby beer bar, Heze and the little girl playing nearby. I don’t get much done in a day in this climate and I sleep – or try to when there’s a bit of cooling fan – far more than at home. My body will adjust a bit to Ghana’s furnace, but it takes its toll on energy levels, does this intense equatorial sun. Most of my energy goes into a vain attempt to cool down!
DAY 5. FRIDAY 24th NOVEMBER 2017. TAMALE, GHANA
I doubt the Taliban would much approve of the ‘looseness’ of Tamale’s Islamic interpretation, which is, of course, all in its favour. All children, girls and boys, are educated equally, pretty young women wear figure-hugging dresses, even if they still sport a low hemline – but many wear tights to cover their legs instead. Most wear the traditional headscarf, that often slips to a neck scarf, pulled loosely back now and again. It seems a healthy adaptation of a sometimes oppressive religion. And now they have Islamic pop music with unforgettable lines like, “Everybody say inshallah… boom… boom… everybody say inshallah…”! No, not Taliban material at all. These folk actually dare to enjoy themselves.
Travelling encourages happenstance, often the reason for so much of the fun on my journeys. Frank, a man of few friends who sleeps by seven at night and dislikes socialising, seldom goes out with Gladys of an evening. His sociable wife, my ‘mad sister’, is his opposite entirely. Psittaceous, is a word that we discovered in the dictionary years ago, when Dennis was a teenager; a word he loves to use about his mother. It means to be parrot-like and I notice my online dictionary doesn’t include it, and I wonder just how we discovered it! Maybe in the days of the paper dictionaries that I used to bring to articulate, loquacious Dennis we were sharing our love of words. His Jane Austen-like letters were one of the things that early attracted me to my ‘son’ and I miss them in these lazier days of email and phone-speak. Anyway, Gladys doesn’t get out much of an evening, and hardly gets to enjoy a beer in uncritical company, so I suggested that, despite the fact that I have five days on syrupy soft drinks thanks to having two molars out last week and now having to endure a course of antibiotics, it was an opportunity to get her out.
We went to a nearby bar, a cut above most but under cooling trees and apparently mosquito-less. We were early, but something was going to happen: people were gathering, mostly Moslem, dressed to the nines, coming and going in the darkened yard. Then floodlights sprang on and I could see an audience gathering in the further yard, no one drinking alcohol, it seemed (certainly not in public). Gladys turned her chair next to mine to watch the crowd. “Let’s go home, it’s nothing for us,”said Frank, but Gladys and I were determined to find out what was going on. We love to watch people and there was to be a talent contest, the bar-girl told us.
Frank slept, slouched in his chair as the place filled. Traditional drummers had gathered and now they began to drum noisily, thankfully overcoming the horrid rap music from Nigeria that played at huge volume. At nine, a compere arrived on the stage area. We were about to witness Miss Adama 2017, a contest in traditional dancing from the upper areas of the country: ‘Strictly’, Ghanaian style! Contestants would be eliminated and this was the semi final. Next week the final comes on at the sports stadium, pity I can’t take Gladys…
The performances were great, each of the nine dancers introducing her dance, then dancing in various regional, tribal styles that they had learned at the nearby Centre for Culture, an old Tamale institution. They were judged on their presentation, their fine, sometimes wild, costumes, use of the stage and so on, by a panel of judges. It was amusing and entertaining. Gladys beamed and exclaimed, and translated where necessary, although, as is common in Ghana, English is the language of all such events. A couple of the young women were outstanding and all entered into the fun and glamour of the evening. The crowd cheered, clapped and ululated.
It all ended soon after ten. “We can go now to avoid the crowd!” Exclaimed Frank, waking from his doze, three hours past his bedtime – so we did…
Earlier, Dennis and I went to visit Gladys’ school, at Saka Saka, a relatively wooded part of town, where she has been headteacher now for a few years. How proud her late mother, Akay, would have been. She’s a popular woman, much loved by her fellows and pupils. The cheerful children are excited when a white man comes and pandemonium erupts, with an unselfconscious naïveté that is delightful. All is smiles and noise and a song from them all is always forthcoming, as are the chanted rote greeting: “Good afternoon, sir, how are you?” yelled out with gusto as they all stand politely.
Later, Dennis and I sat under a shady tree at one of the club houses that belong to any institution with staff quarters (‘quarterziz’ in Ghana-speak). This pleasant expanse is that of the Volta RIver Authority, who control the hydro electric supplies of Ghana. Little Heze played happily around us. Dennis a good father and his son is devoted to him. In untypical African fashion, although I do see signs of change, he bathes his son, changes nappies, even put him on his back for a time yesterday in the manner of West African mothers! The little boy is cheerful and full of smiles and very active. At only 20 months, he appears to understand much of what is said to him already and loves to dance to music. A show of traditional dancing on TV prompted him to jig and dance for a long time with a wide smile. He’s a delightful little boy.
DAY 6. SATURDAY 25th NOVEMBER 2017. TAMALE, GHANA
There’s a sort of condensed essence of this continent to be found in its seething markets that I love, but I can’t roam there with Wechiga or Dennis, only with my sister, Gladys.
I persuaded Gladys to leave her kitchen and come out for lunch in town with Dennis and I, a rare treat for this poor hard worked woman. On seeing the menu, Gladys exclaimed. “Eh! It’s expensive! Wow! Eh!” I was back to my usual conundrum of trying not to see how cheap this was for me – as a lunch date for three! A huge quantity of fried rice with a small portion of guinea fowl, a dish of chicken with cashew nuts, vaguely Chinese, and a plate of potato chips with a small Guinness (for Dennis, still to Gladys’ disapproval, even now he’s 35), a shandy for her and another tedious soft drink for me – all came to 82 Cedis = £14… It’s difficult not to look wealthy, and become a source of so many demands. Frank actually thought I’d pluck an iPad from the European money trees for him. After all, in Europe money just litters the ground, doesn’t it? A brief lesson in the price of a pint of beer, a gallon of fuel, my shoes, my monthly electricity bill – a damned iPad – shocks, but there’s still this concept of how wealthy I must be, not knowing that I have a 20 year old car worth £150, while he has a car costing £9000 here in Ghana! Anyway, Dennis’s iPad, second hand, cost £100 in Accra, a price I can’t hope to equal.
So Gladys and I walked the streets and the rough market lanes, squeezing between towers of goods on rickety tables, dodging bowls on heads at my eye level, coughing in the fumes of a thousand mopeds and Indian-style three wheeler tuk-tuks, (copied by and made in China) the new vehicular plague on Africa. There are smells of petrol, spices, food, rotting meat and soap; piled dry goods, tins and containers; sacks of rice and foodstuffs; draped vibrant cloths and cheap tee shirts, jewellery and second hand clothes, babies on backs, thrusting bicycles festooned with merchandise; dangerously sharp-edged tin awnings, potholes and puddles of god know what; whirring sewing machines, chatter and music, more tinny treble than melody, and the calls of children selling water, and babies screaming. There is colour and interest everywhere; it’s a perilous place for an inquisitive visitor, all uneven and full of obstacles, full of novelties that distract and smiles that mirror mine.
Then a terrible moaning fills the air, constituting worship in this Islamic town. A ghastly wail wavers upwards into the dusty air from a thousand speaker cones strung from peeling plaster minarets on low-rise mosques. How can anyone praise their god so drearily, no one muezzin in tune throughout the town? It’s a dismal intoning of ritual drone with no feeling, no joy, no tunefulness, a miserable noise quite unlike the brazen cacophony of the Middle East.
We were looking for printed cotton fabrics, the famed West African dazzling wax print cloths, draped in kaleidoscopic walls in small tailors’ shops and booths and piled in teetering criss-cross piles at the roadside, ranged in pyramidical displays on head bowls. It was fun to select and spot the ones we liked – and thought my dear friend Leslie, with whom I stayed and worked happily in Florida these last couple of months, might enjoy. Gladys is so popular, so gregarious and so positive that it became most enjoyable work, despite the heat, the noise, the dust. We bundled our purchases into my little backpack (that’s been mended in Tamale for several years) to add to the delicious ripe pineapple (£1, much of that cost being transport from the south), the tins of condensed milk, a bag of greasy ‘bo fruits’ a form of local doughnut, stodgy and fried in oily fat, and some ‘Tutenkamen fish’, my name for ugly, curled dried and smoked fish that look like an artefact buried for five thousand years beneath the Egyptian deserts.
It’s not surprising that I can sleep for ten or more hours here in Africa, so much of my energy going into trying to keep cool; my days filled with observation and here with sociable activity. I can sleep from 9.30 until 8.00 with no trouble, long hours after most of Ghana has arisen and been at work since before dawn.
DAY 7. SUNDAY 26th NOVEMBER 2017. TAMALE, GHANA
Most of today was spent acting out my ‘father’ and ‘father in law’ role with Dennis and Emmanuella. I wanted an hour or two with them to discuss present problems and future dreams. I am surprised how I can slip into this mode, me with so little experience of such things. Maybe that’s the best way, for perhaps I approach such things with a naive and new attitude! Well, it was an interesting conversation, but nothing to share in my diary now that I am ‘blogging’ my words with the world – and some of the people with whom I meet! So we enjoyed a couple of hours’ of conversation beneath the same tree at the Volta River Authority guest house under which Dennis and I sat a couple of days ago. We then repaired for lunch at a roadside restaurant, before Dennis sped me off on the back of his uncomfortable small motorbike, on miles of sandy tracks and bumpy paths into the bush some miles north of Tamale where he has negotiated or reserved various ‘plots’ of land. One of them is for an eventual house. Now it seems to be out in the rural, farmed wilds, but with the way that the Ghanaian population is expanding and sprawling development across the bush lands, it may well one day be no more than a distant suburb of town. Other plots he has reserved as investments for future use or profit.
All very well, thinks I, but all the land being parcelled and sold is farming land, currently producing subsistence living to hundreds of small scale, traditional farmers. What will they do when all the plots – about 100 foot square – have been sold? Where will the food in the market come from then? Rural farmers are generally illiterate and have no other trade or income after the initial one-off wealth of receiving perhaps £1000 for their land… Of such is the new Ghana and the new material economy – short term profit appears the best but the long term cost is extreme. Those with a little money and enough education will make the profits from speculation: the poor and uneducated are selling the only asset they possess. Soon they will be dependent on China, the colonialists of present day Africa. And there’s little to no generosity about THAT country.
Dennis helped me over the last couple of days to look for replacement parts for the starter clutch on my Kenyan motorbike. There are so many motorbikes in Tamale these days, most of them small cheap imports, but also a few ancient Japanese bikes. In the motorbike graveyard that we visited, there were even a couple of very dead BMWs as big as 1100ccs. I wonder how they got to Ghana? But I expect to draw a blank with finding parts to replace those that broke near the end of my last East African journey in March. The bike still works with the kick starter. We found a near miss, a 250 Suzuki rather than my 200cc bike. The fitters removed the covers yesterday and discovered the pieces I need, each cog with one less tooth. Huh. Well, I shall consult the most knowledgeable mechanic I know, Rico in Kenya, with whom I shall be in a couple of weeks, and ask if it’s worth negotiating.
DAY 8. MONDAY 27th NOVEMBER 2017. NAVRONGO, GHANA
And so, at last, back to the place I know best in Africa, to my best friend, Wechiga, and my little African house – currently a startling white thanks to Wechiga’s efforts to renovate for my visit. In fact, it’s Wechiga who prevents the house from succumbing to the depredations of the African climate. He’s painted the outside white, which makes it cooler, with a band of brown triangles at the top and a brown band around the foot of the walls. It looks good, and cared for, in contrast to so many Navrongo properties, in fact, to almost all around, where stained paint, cracked concrete and general lack of maintenance is the norm. Well done Wechiga!
Wechiga is one of my oldest friends in Africa, and my closest. He’s been to visit me in England three times and is due for his fourth visit in 2019, after he retires, when he’ll be 60. Where did all those years go, I wonder, since I arrived at Paga border post on 23rd December 1989 on my African Elephant and Wechiga came running to meet me: the moment at which my odd obsession with Africa began? He was such a very intelligent, sensitive host back then, sensing what I needed to know to bond in his then completely mysterious culture. I often wonder at his sensibility then, for he knew nothing of MY cultural background either. I suppose we recognised a fundamental integrity in one another, that has never shifted, and that enabled us to become firm warm friends for the past 28 years and 21 visits and three visits in UK for him. Life was different then for us both, but we have maintained such a friendship that is just a little wonderful, between an African carpenter and farmer and an English, what? designer and traveller?
So here I am back again, greeted by all and sundry, ‘their white man’. I arrived in the early afternoon, riding from Tamale in a considerably more comfortable ‘tro-tro’ than I am used to. This minibus is a relatively new venture, a private initiative running up and down between Tamale and Bolgatanga on the decent road that was for so many years one of the worst in Ghana. This service is a little more expensive (£3.25 or thereabouts for the 100 miles journey) and offers ‘one man, one seat’ – meaning only three people across the bus instead of the four passengers, with bags, baggage, babies and chickens that used to fill the old ’18 condemned’ minibuses, also called ‘have you told your family’! Our driver today even wore a seat belt. The minibus roared north across the bush country to Bolga, where we pulled into a new stop at a petrol station, where private cars waited to taxi anyone to Navrongo, the last 18 miles. And so I blew into Navrongo in a decent private car listening to Bob Marley as we drove the last miles to a busy Navrongo market day. The convenience of mobile phones let Wechiga find me at the transport yard gate for a fond reunion and a ride, via the vegetable market, back to the family home.
The biggest change was in the family home. When I came first, thirty years back, the traditional compound was an organic, soft-edged mud structure, all flat roofs, moulded corners, grass-hatted grain stores, decorated walls and all surrounding a cattle pen that could be closed at night. After the old generation died the biggest shock of my travelling African life was to return one year and find the entire compound flattened and replaced by a hideous, ugly rooming block of rented rooms with red zinc roofs and filled with strangers. Every vestige of the old place that I had admired so much that I constructed a small block in a complimentary style, had been razed and obliterated. Now the rooming block holds strangers I don’t know, who don’t know the white man in the now rather quaint round traditional house, and few of whom understand the first thing about the dying local culture. Wechiga has built his own block fifty yards from mine, a much cruder structure, dictated by his impecunious circumstances. Perry built the huge square compound that is let to strangers, and above which towers his own two storey block and roof terrace, all sliding glass windows and tiled surfaces. There is none of the old Navrongo vernacular to be seen only 30 years after that was ALL you could see. From my house, in the old days, I could watch the sun set behind the giant baobab, the only landmark left for me to guide by, a view interrupted by only trees and a couple of mud built family compounds. Now, behind the baobab, all I can see is the ugliest imaginable utilitarian bungalows and part-finished concrete block buildings of extraordinary unsightly plainness, many of which will probably never be finished before they are -hopefully – pulled down for even more suburban monstrosities. It’s certainly not the place I came to enjoy and admire so much in the early visits. If my old pal Wechiga wasn’t here, I doubt I’d be in Navrongo now.
Fortunately, Wechiga is his same old self: charming, entirely straightforward, and of huge integrity. Since lovely Grace’s sudden death a number of years ago, he remarried Mary, a homely woman somewhat his junior. Little Faith was born five years ago. He is a talkative little boy whose excitement at the eventual arrival of the ‘fillca’, or white man, knew no bounds. He rushed out on hearing us and threw himself upon me and didn’t stop talking until Wechiga eventually carried him from my flat rooftop to his bed, hours later. I have, over the years, had this effect on so many children here, from Shiela, now a graduate and mother, her sister, Sandra, now at university, through many others to delightful Itiel, one of my complete favourites, from a neighbouring house. If I’d had a child, I’d’ve liked to have one like Itiel. Within ten minutes of arrival he too had found me and was shaking my hand, grinning from ear to ear. He’s a lovely boy, now 13, charming, quiet and respectful – a child I’d happily bring home!
It’s clement enough for me to sleep in my own round room, gently warm with the likelihood of a cool night. My double bed, built from concrete, has a comfortable foam mattress and Wechiga bought me a mosquito net. I’ll probably sleep like the dead, tired from the hot day. Now I have an iPad, I no longer have to blow out the candle, for of course there is no electricity. It was never worth extending the line to my little block, and I rather like it without anyway. Outside the night is deliciously cool, now the Harmattan season is approaching. In here, in my round bedroom, the temperature will slowly drop until I may need a cover by dawn.
- DAY 9 TUESDAY 28th NOVEMBER 2017. NAVRONGO, GHANA
Morning broke blissfully coooool! Everyone a7round me was wrapped in jerseys and coats, Wechiga in a big old padded jacket. I wandered happily shirtless. It enforces the reason I get so tired in the heat, and why I look like a sweaty mess beside the ‘big men’ in their crisp white shirts and dark suits. Of course the cool doesn’t last much after nine.
Tuesday was spent with my old friend in the old way we used to ‘roam’ twenty years ago, cheerfully doing small errands and sitting in quiet drinking bars, hiding from anyone who might trouble us, and talking the way we always enjoyed. It’s often risky, sitting in view in town bars for Navrongo has such a drink problem. It’s always been full of drunkards, especially at this season, when farm work – for those who still farm – is generally completed, and all the rest of the work is done by women anyway. So the men take to the strong, home-distilled liquor that usually finally kills them. So many people of my acquaintance have died in the 28 years I have been coming to Navrongo, young active people as well as the old. Health provision is poor, accidents common, people avoid hospital bills until it’s too late and drink ruins livers and brings early deaths. We may complain about the NHS (I don’t) but we are so very well cared for, a fact that a brief visit to Africa would prove to all those complainers.
At the Mission House, beside the century-old mud cathedral – now a preserved historic monument – and the new ‘discotheque’ concrete cathedral that ministers to congregations of several thousands on Sundays in interminable masses, we visited one of my old friends, Paul Kapochin, a priest with whom I had very good conversations in beer bars when he was just a young priest. He could never balance my atheism with my goodness, as he saw it, in being myself in such an alien place as Navrongo and helping the people with the projects I instigated over the years. He always argued that goodness came from his god, against my response that it came from personal conscience that didn’t need the confining framework of religious belief. We’d usually just order another beer and agree to disagree! Now he is parish priest for Navrongo, the major parish that administers to all its satellites in the surrounding bush country. We enjoyed another beer and lunched with him and a couple of his colleagues, all of them well briefed in and very curious about the disaster of Brexit and what had motivated the people of Britain, still held fondly here as a father figure. Generally, people I talk to in Africa on the subject – and all politically aware people are fascinated by it – it is treated as a rather sick joke at British expense…
We wandered happily the whole day. Wechiga’s friendship seldom lets me down. It’s as warm today as it ever was, especially now he has so many people to ask after back in England. His greatest wish (and always one of mine too!) is to go back to Erraid, the best place in the world in my eyes, and the best place he visited on his three trips to UK, the small island at the end of the Isle of Mull that has been part of my life since the early 70s. Wechiga has such memories of that place and of Glen, who took him out in a boat for the first time to catch fish for the first time. I promised him we will be there, all being well, on his trip in 2019. Strange that the place has such universal appeal.
In the evening we ate our supper – local bambora beans tonight, a favourite of mine and the food enjoyed by school children as cheap nutrition, for they are full of carbohydrate – on the flat roof of my little round house. It’s concrete laid over zinc sheets and heavy timber beams. Sadly, it leaks in the rainy season but it doesn’t seem to be deteriorating badly. We sit on the floor on ancient thin foam cushions covered in printed fabric. Within minutes my small friend Itiel and his school mate are beside us with their homework books. They usually finish off the bowls of food, for in this generous extended family society, you look after your neighbour’s children and they look after yours. Although we are now surrounded by strangers, unlike the days when I first came and when we knew or were related to everyone for a mile around, this aspect of Ghanaian life is still maintained and children are free to roam safely around the immediate neighbourhood.
As I write this morning I can hear popular Christmas music – ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is on its third airing – reminding me that despite the searing sun, or the ‘cold’ and Wechiga’s heavy jacket, we are less than four weeks from Christmas. Slowly the materialism is creeping in, in support of big business, and Christmas ‘promotions’ are encouraging spending of money that no one here actually has.
DAY 10 WEDNESDAY 29th NOVEMBER 2017. NAVRONGO, GHANA</ul
A crazy state of affairs has arisen for people travelling to the north of Ghana. Maintenance work was needed on the two crucial river bridges on the main road artery of the country. So the government has closed both bridges, causing all the thousands of people who travel north and south through the country to deviate onto the two other roads, detours of hundreds of miles, badly surfaced and plagued by armed robbers. We are hearing stories of people taking twenty four hours, or even a couple of days to traverse the five hundred miles between Accra and Navrongo. There was no warning given for anyone to arrange their necessary journeys, and no provision made to transport people past the blockage for a month or more. Not only does it make no economical sense to cut off the northern third of your country, it disrupts communication and social life. This is African politics. Once you are in government, you pay little or no attention to the plight of your people.
There’s a huge funeral due in ten days here in Navrongo, that of the mother of the sitting MP, currently in opposition (or I bet this blockage would have been postponed!). All the ‘big men’ will be travelling home for that. The poor woman died several weeks ago, but funerals are such a social convention in Ghana that the body will have been embalmed and kept in storage for weeks. It doesn’t seem dignified to me but this convention must be served by a lavish, extravagant funeral. In Ghana you may live in poverty, but you hope to die in splendour. Perry will be here for it, five hundred miles from work and daily life, and we’d thought I would travel back to Accra in his big car. I can’t afford to get trapped in the north, so today I invested another £75 to fly from Tamale back to Accra on the 11th. I leave to Kenya on the 12th.
It meant a ride to Bolgatanga in a shared taxi for Wechiga and I and a couple of quiet beers in ‘Street View’ bar, our old drinking place in Bolga. There we know few people so we don’t have to hide ourselves away to avoid recognition and troublesome drunks and can chat away calmly. I am so fond of my old friend, who’s taken his annual leave to coincide with my visit. Wechiga is now the foreman of the maintenance staff at the big training college in Navrongo, a well respected man and a hard worker. It’s fun to have his whole attention for a couple of weeks.
Returning to Navrongo we went to find out how the Bike Butchers were getting on with his little Chinese motorbike that needed new clutch plates – parts cost: £2.50!!! – and other work. These boys work in petrol-smelly, oil-infused clothes on the oil-filled mud floor, hammering and beating soft Chinese steel; using a selection of old tools, most of which don’t fit, on Chinese nuts that are like butter. I picked up a random spanner and found it to be an ancient Imperial size. It’s awful to spectate and I realise who fortunate I was in March, when my little blue bike broke down in Kericho, Kenya, to find Nashon, the experienced mechanic who stripped and rebuilt my machine.
Wechiga’s youngest child, Rhoda, always my favourite Navrongo child, is now 28 and married. She was always a determined, entrepreneurial girl, trained in hairdressing and beauty and now has her own kiosk beside the road that leads to the university campus south of town. She greeted her white uncle with such excitement! She speaks the best English in the Navrongo family, learned, I always claim, by having me around so much at an impressionable age. She is cheerful and smart, now with her small salon and making jewellery from beads. A delightful young friend of many years.
Then it’s back, exhausted from walking in the burning sun, to my cool roof for supper under the enlarging moon that makes it bright enough to eat without the candles and torches of old, or the mobile phone flashlights of present day. Faith, full of five year old chatter, joins us until at last his rattle is silenced by a full belly and sleep, and faithful Itiel is there of course to chat on with us. We were remembering the late paramount chief, a friend to all of us and a cousin of some sort to young Itiel, whose father was late chief and his Korean wife’s driver, so he grew up as a toddler in the Navrongo Chief’s Palace, where Wechiga and I spent so very many cheerful evenings with Chief and Madame, before he was struck down by a series of strokes. Chief languished for no less than fifteen years, speechless – this loquacious man whose stories and wisdom we used to enjoy – bedridden and silent in his Accra home, kept alive I think by his daughter, a doctor always on hand when the strokes happened. It was sad to visit him the last time I did so. Before he dozed back into his semi-comatose state, recognition was there to see Wechiga and I, and a small smile passed his lips. He finally died last year and his body returned quickly and secretly to Navrongo. Perry was one of the entourage as this family is of the same clan and has to perform those rituals for the chief’s family. There was a quick burial, as is the custom for chiefs, in a location unmarked and unknown to most, somewhere in his palace. Chiefs are buried anonymously and a wall pulled down over the grave. The funeral still has not happened. It’ll be a huge affair and succession rites and Navrongo politics are making the arrangements complex and fraught with local jealousies.
The small round traditional house I built some years ago, a western designer’s interpretation of the local historical vernacular, now almost unseen anywhere in the region, is a fine refuge from the heat and the social expectations of the community. But those duties are so much less formal, now that the area is filled with strangers coming and going on motorbikes and in cars. Where there were foot-wide dust paths for feet and bicycles are now swathes of dust ten and twelve feet wide. Where we used to crane our necks to inspect any very infrequent car – and I am talking of perhaps once a week – passing through our fields, there are now mopeds and vehicles billowing dust into the dry skies, unknown and un-noted strangers coming and going across Adamba’s groundnut fields, past mangoes we planted on early visits now standing beside bungalows of extreme hideousness. There’re are big screen TVs on the verandahs of strangers’ homes now, where once we gazed into the empty, dusty sunsets. It’s not the town I knew.