2015 – GHANA, WEST AFRICA – 1

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!

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2015 – GHANA JOURNAL – 2

Up in Navrongo I have had no internet signal, so here’s all the last ten days. In Tamale I have an intermittent, not very strong signal from the NGO in the next compound, for which Dennis has the password!!

DAYS 9 to 16. WEDNESDAY APRIL 22 to WEDNESDAY 29 2015. NAVRONGO, GHANA

I enjoy the mis-spellings I often see on signboards and posters. A stall outside the entrance to the catholic guest house is particularly good: ‘BUGGER KEBAB’.

*

At last home to Navrongo, the town I know best in Africa. I first arrived in this town on December 23rd 1989. Since then I have become familiar with the place and its customs and Navrongo has become familiar with me. I have watched children grow, seen most of a generation die away to be replaced by another, and grown 25 years older with this as a huge influence on how I look at life – and with my brother Wechiga as a close friend.

Some years ago I decided to build a small block in the family compound out in the fields behind the hospital, a mile or so from the market centre. It took about four visits to complete my house, built to a traditional shape but from concrete not earth. The bedroom is completely round, a twelve foot circle and, forming a sort of squared figure of eight is the hall, a rectangular room. It all has a flat roof, made of about four inches of concrete spread over zinc roofing sheets on strong 8X2 joists. This roof is now the only example of the traditional flat roof in the area, much prized for cooler sleeping in the sry season and for drying crops during harvest. For me, it is the best place to relax in the evenings and enjoy a little air after the oppressively hot days. Next to the roof are a couple of mango trees, planted since my early visits to shade the house.

*

Balanced on Dennis’s small motorbike, with my backpack threatening to jettison me off the back at every bump, we rode to the school where he is now working. It is a very underprivileged school in a rural area of the edges of Tamale. There are six very basic classrooms and a ‘pavilion’ – a shelter built on wooden legs. The teachers’ common room is a few plastic chairs beneath a tree amidst the dust as the sun beats down. The last day of term, no lessons were taking place. A few children kicked a football while small girls played their local clapping and dancing games. A group of teachers chatted in the heat. Children came running excitedly around the white man singing songs to Dennis’s command.

We carried on to Gladys’s school before riding into the chaos of the town traffic to the Transport Yard, a place of heat, noise and confusion above all others. It’s here that decrepit minibuses fill up for ghastly journeys to all corners. Taxis push through vendors; a thousand mopeds add to the soupy air and people thrust through with luggage, bowls on heads; trays of cheap goods; religious posters; umbrellas hung with handkerchiefs; boards covered in cheap sunglasses; enamel bowls piled with hot, greasy food, served in inevitable plastic bags; sacks of second hand shoes and bundles of second hand clothing. This clothing is called ‘Broni Wawo’, ‘white man dead’ clothes. For why else would white men give away serviceable clothing if not on death? In fact, most of these clothes are ones rejected by our European charity shops and shipped out in bales for sale in wholesale markets, straight from the shipping containers.

A ticket for the hundred mile ride to Bolgatanga costs about £3 in a derelict tro-tro. Tro-tros are rust-bucket minibuses. Once perhaps plying the school routes of an Amsterdam suburb; delivering bread and buns in Bremen; bathroom fittings in Berlin; printers’ supplies in Liege or vegetables in Delft, they at last fail their government tests and are shipped to West Africa, fitted with basic seats and rattle about the poor roads here for another couple of decades. Eventually, if they don’t end up crushed in a ditch, sometimes filled with passengers, they are stripped of every useful part and the hulk rusts in a roadside village or forms part of a chicken shed or fence. Thought notoriously dangerous, they are nicknamed ‘Eighteen Condemned’ and ‘Have you told the family?’ In the western world they would have a maximum capacity of twelve seats, in West Africa they customarily seat – if perching in appalling discomfort with a fellow passenger’s elbow in your ear on a narrow plastic-covered, steel framed seat can be called sitting – they customarily accommodate at least eighteen people plus the driver, random babies, goats, chickens and guinea fowls. Packed beneath the seats are bundles of hoary yams, sacks of rice, unlabelled ten gallon plastic drums of cooking oil, crates of beer and various bags, bundles and suitcases. The roof rack, another addition upon arrival in West Africa, is piled, sometimes doubling the height of the vehicle, with plastic drums, furniture, mattresses, bicycles and mopeds, more sacks of produce, tyres and bags, with an occasional forlorn goat tied to the rails. I remember the time we dropped passengers and someone railed angrily: “A goat has urinated in my bag! The owner must pay for it!”

Dennis secured the front seat for me. While knowing that it is the first one to crumple in a collision, it is the only seat in which I have a hope of getting my long legs out in front of me. The seat pitch would impress the cheapest budget airline, sometimes so tight that I actually cannot sit on the seat without having my bag below me to set my knees at a sufficient angle.

Sometimes you manage a journey without breaking down. Today’s shakily painted yellow minibus was so old and slow that the journey was relaxingly uneventful. There’s no way through the ghastliness except to slide into a contemplative state and watch the dry African world go by through the cracked windscreen. A wistful, Victorian Sentimental School painting of Jesus, eyes rolled up towards heaven, looking for all the world as if he was putting in eye drops into his blue (!) eyes, held together parts of the heavily cracked glass screen. The driver peered round the self-adhesive poster. Whenever he applied the brakes the chassis and bodywork flexed independently, the floor waving upwards beneath my feet and the door against which I was pressed firmly, weaving downwards. No instruments worked in the blind shell of the dashboard and internal linings had long since worn smooth or blown away. For once, thankfully, the usual raucous, ear-splitting, scratchy and distorted sound system was absent.

We rattled and shook slowly northwards, most of the contorted passengers asleep behind. The dry bush rolled by distorting in the heat as Bolgatanga seemed to recede into an unlikely distance. It’s a time just to sink into reverie or remember all the other times, invariably worse when for years this was a ridged dust track as they constructed today’s road. Then we had to put on our oldest clothes, wrap our bags in plastic and most people wore plastic bags on their heads. The filthy journey could take five hours or more. Today it is a small achievement to make it in three without breakdown except for an occasional pause to top up the engine oil or try to secure an errant flapping panel of bodywork.

But I have done this only, say, forty times. For me it is an experience to laugh about (afterwards); the stuff of travel stories. Most of the passengers have no alternative when they travel on business or to funerals and events in distant towns. This is happening all over this ignored continent. Everywhere old home-condemned vehicles are racing or struggling along inadequate roads carrying people and goods through economic necessity. We salve our superficial ecological consciences by scrapping old cars and vans, only for them to belch their fumes for another generation in someone else’s back yard. Next time you scrap your car, bear in mind: it may end up on African roads… You are not doing the ecological future of the planet a favour, just moving the filth elsewhere.

*

At Bolga ‘station’ I have to change to a taxi for the last eighteen miles to Navrongo. But a taxi is no better than the tro-tros – a little speedier maybe. They are old – equally condemned scrap Japanese cars of some vintage. Maybe this is the fate of your car (except that Ghana drives on the right so most of the cars are from Holland and Germany). In days past the driver used to pack two people in the front seat and four in the back seat with three more behind if it was a people carrier. New laws have made them slightly less packed, but little more roadworthy. Another collection of holes in the dashboard, handles that work only from outside, flapping metal, bald tyres, and the usual shock absorbers that don’t.

*

Were I able to ride that road again as I did in 1987, I doubt I would recognise much. Then I remember traditional compounds built from earth – the local material, not a sign of poverty – organically moulded structures of some beauty, joined by roughly circular walls to form secure places for cattle at night. Each member of the extended families had their own buildings, often round and always with a flat roof or two amongst the grass thatch for dry season sleeping and drying crops. Most of them were painted, either with traditional designs or with slogans and proverbs. Every compound included at least a couple of grain stores, conical mud structures with their thatched hats, used to store the millet and grains from the surrounding fields. Chickens lived in coops moulded into the mud-sculpted gate posts.

Not only the lovely granaries are gone now; the fields have been subsumed by ugly buildings of handmade concrete block and shiny zinc that acts like an oven. Gone is the vernacular design from the old days. The roads are lined by ugly, ever unfinished, angular grey block and zinc structures sporting ridiculous porticos on cement moulded pillars, a terrible pastiche of every style you can imagine. Should an old conical grain bank survive by some miracle, the thatched hat has been replaced by a scrap of rusty tin roofing and a broken block to hold it against the wind.

It’s all been wiped away by the new half-knowledge of the TV generation. No one values the old tales and stories or all the wisdom built up in centuries of living with this harsh climate. The new ‘reality’ to which all aspire, is seen on the screen, be it cheap American, Nigerian or home grown. It is all there just to divide up the adverts, which is where the exploitation really lies. Some years ago, CNN started broadcasting ‘as a service to the Ghanaian Nation’. Service to the nation, my arse. A fabulous opportunity to peddle stuff people don’t need, for money they don’t have, to unsophisticated viewers without the awareness of what’s real in TV and what isn’t.

Maybe the real story of my travels in Ghana is the wiping away of a whole culture within a generation. When I first came there was stability based on traditional beliefs, maintained by simple moral stories and beliefs. As soon as the new youthful ‘sophisticates’ started watching TV the old beliefs were seen as silly folk tales and disregarded. But those old tales served a purpose: keeping everyone on the straight and narrow. There’s nothing to replace it now and material aspiration is now the moving force in Ghana. It has started to become a self-centred, ‘I’ generation. Theft is rampant, crime is expanding exponentially, greed and dissatisfaction are increasing, everyone complains of poverty – while having more than any generation in West African history. Wealth is now the measure of success; family lands have been sold for development – a one off source of wealth that was built by generations of hard-grafting subsistence farmers…

*

I clambered stiffly and dirtily from the taxi at Navrongo transport yard – a large red dust arena at the top of town and began the walk home.

In early October last, my brother Wechiga pulled out to overtake a motorbike goods vehicle on the Hospital Road close to his home and ran head on into an approaching car. He broke his leg and arm and spent months in hospital at Bawku, in the upper eastern corner of the country, where he went for the surgeon had a specialisation in plating fractures. But it took a total of about six weeks before the operation could be carried out – such is life in Africa. It’s been successful but he could not walk to meet me. He gets about with a bicycle now. I walked most of the way to the house before meeting Rhoda, Wechiga and the late Grace’s third and last child – a pretty, cheerful girl now in her mid-twenties, a baby when I first came here, staring at me from her grandmother Akay’s hip.

Everyone has a moped now, Chinese made of course, in exact copy of Japanese designs. Rhoda ‘picked me’ to the house, my face engulfed by the scratchy threads of her weave-on hairstyle!

*

Wechiga was at home. It’s him (and Dennis) I come to see in Ghana. Over the years he really has become a brother, a warm, constant, decent man of great honesty and integrity. His education level is not particularly high – no one had money to send him to senior secondary level – but he is wise, literate and very good hearted. Another chip off Akay’s block.

Since 2013, Wechiga and his second wife Mary have moved out of the compound block that Perry raised over the ruins of the wonderful organic one I loved so much, which was bulldozed not long after the last of the old generation was gone. It was time Wechiga was independent, and not living amongst a dozen or more strangers in rented rooms. This is the very antithesis of the extended family!

A few years ago a new university faculty opened a mile or so down the Hospital Road. As students arrived from all over the country there was a scramble by householders to make money by building and letting out meagre rooms to students. More ambitious householders – like Perry – built large suburban bungalows all over the former millet and groundnut fields of their ancestors to let to lecturers and staff. Were it not for the giant baobab tree that stands on the property I doubt I could find the place any more. My own small house is marooned outside the edge of the giant, ugly and utilitarian block of twenty one rooms. Now mopeds and cars come and go and the place is full of strangers, few of whom know the culture of the tribe and care little even if they do.

One of the shocks of my life – a defining moment in my Navrongo travels – was the time that Perry drove me up from Accra to the family house. He hadn’t warned me. Where I expected to see the usual old brown compound of soft corners, flat roofs, granaries and chicken coops, stood the hideous concentration camp square of the new rooming house. The well that I had had dug had collapsed into itself with a great ‘whooomph’ one night some months before. In the dip it formed lay all Akay’s pots, that she washed and cleaned regularly; that took up a whole traditional wall of her small dark block and stored all her – now insignificant – belongings. Only one pot had survived the clearance – and I climbed into the pit to rescue it and have it in Harberton today, the last physical vestige of all that I came to admire in the Navrongo I met a generation ago. I rescued Uncle Gwea’s walking stick with its carved elephant handle from the debris as well.

*

…And if I thought that was bad… I grew used to foot-wide dust footpaths, on which the fortunate of us bicycled to and fro. They are now ten feet wide and cars and mopeds rush by between ugly grey block buildings, most of them completed only to the point at which they can be rented out. My little house, now a bizarre anachronism with its traditional style, sits beside a dust road filled with strangers driving home to ugly bungalows. Only the baobab reminds me of the view we used to have of small fields to the horizon. There is no horizon now. The view across Uncle’s groundnut field is of a vile vomit green bungalow of staggering ugliness with suburban iron railings and an SUV parked in the dust outside. Next door is a bilious green bungalow of equally horrid design. This is the new Philistine vernacular – sadly. Satellite dishes, cars and motorbikes and half-starved skinny cattle with no food or water at this desiccated season scavenging amongst the debris, for there is no refuse collection and few tenants have the interest to clean their landlords’ properties. Music and TV advert jingles drift over where the fields used to be.

Most noticeable difference between west and east Africa is in sanitation. Every Basotho home, however humble as it clings to the Lesotho mountains, has a zinc latrine with vent pipe rising above. In Ghana they are few and far between. In building a lodging house with fifteen rentable rooms, the basic latrine that I constructed as the resident white man for about ten of us, now does service for thirty or forty – those who don’t shit ‘free range’ as is the general habit in West Africa. Every fourth year, it seems, a cholera outbreak happens of course. ‘Development’ before infrastructure is the motto for Ghana! No rubbish facility, no drains, little piped water, no sewers, no roads beyond the informal tracks formed by use, insufficient electricity on wires dangling across the dusty fields. This is Navrongo in 2015 with its vastly increased population.

Were it not for my fondness for my brother, I wonder how much I would visit?

*

The temperature is a frightening 42 or 43 degrees, well over 100F! Ouch. My god, it’s hot! On the night of my arrival, after a couple of beers at a nearby bar – for with all the new inhabitants there is a market for beer bars, and after supper on my roof, Wechiga dozed off and I went down to bed. I slept inside my round bedroom as there was no facility to sleep on the cooler roof with a mosquito net. I slowly broiled the night through in a slow cooker that had sat, drenched in 43 degree sun for the whole day and lots before that. I leaked a pint or two of sweat into mattress and pillow during an unsatisfying night. Next day my priority was to set up a net on the roof and decamp, mattress and all to the relative airiness and fine sleep – for I always sleep well in hot rooms, but not in ovens. I dream profusely in Navrongo.

*

You’ll see that I am writing this Navrongo journal differently – just as a continuous stream unbroken day to day. For that’s pretty much how life is here. With this intense heat there’s not a lot to be done in the middle of the day. I rise about six thirty – most of the African world has been at work for a couple of hours and an hour or so later Wechiga and I take breakfast sitting on ubiquitous (horrible things) Chinese plastic chairs that have invaded the whole world like a plague – and a lot of the oceans too. Wechiga’s new house is a little apart from the main rooming block, dominated by Perry’s large two-storey castle keep – it was the first double storey building in the area. Just needs castellations round the top – or a spire! Wechiga has built what will be a four-roomed house, currently two of which are habitable – a bedroom and a store. Mary cooks over charcoal on the narrow verandah that fronts the structure. It has, as yet at least, no power and a zinc roof. In front is a dusty cleared area where passing people regularly come to greet us. As I write our neighbour Julie, a charming woman whose husband was Chief’s driver and whose lovely ten year old son, Itiel, follows me about and sits every evening on the roof with us, has come to invite us for supper. Sadly now, so many people around us are strangers from other parts of Ghana who have bought plots from the old landowners and built repulsive suburban bungalows all around us.

The Paramount Chief was an old friend of mine. An educated man with a PhD in soil science from a Soviet university, he met and married a Korean wife and brought her back to be the Chief’s wife of Navrongo. He was an important chief and when here in Navrongo Wechiga and I often visited the palace, where Madam, as she was always called, cooked fine food from local ingredients. Then, fifteen years ago now, he had the third and devastating stroke that has made him unable to move or talk for all that time. He is kept alive my a small group of dedicated nurses and his doctor daughter in Accra. It is so sad. How Chief could talk! Sometimes he would return to our supper table in his pyjamas, his wife constantly chiding him: “Navro Pio! Go to BED!” chieftaincy in Ghana has, however, lost so much of its power in his lifetime, now that this is a democratic nation in which the government encourages nationhood before tribe. To some extent it succeeds, probably because Ghana was the first African country to be liberated from colonialism in 1957, through the diplomatic efforts of Kwame Nkrumah. From this, it seems to me, Ghana has enjoyed a national pride that is unusually strong. They consider themselves the ‘fathers of Africa’. Navro Pio was part of the group that formed the constitution for the new country that came into being after the military coup that thrust Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings to power. ‘JJ’ kept his lowly rank and eventually, after about four terms of office set Ghana on the road to democracy. Unusually in Africa, where so many despots keep and hold power, he lives to this day in Accra, now working with the UN. When Barack Obama came to Ghana after his election victory, he stood in parliament and delivered a speech in which he said that Africa should take note of Ghana’s democracy. It was, he said, the reason that he chose Ghana for his first step back to Africa as US president. As he delivered the speech, JJ and three former presidents of the country sat behind him on the platform. They were here for the big day, not exiled in Switzerland hugging ill-gotten wealth. Bill Clinton was the first American president to set foot in sub-Saharan Africa (!) seventeen years ago. I know that for it was the day that Gladys’s fourth child was born: William Clinton Adakurah! Bush Junior also came on a brief visit: he probably thought he was going to Georgia or somewhere, for he knew notoriously little geography. Accra boasts, if I can use that word, a George Bush Highway. It must be a one-off – certainly outside America!

*

My little house has held up well to the depredations of the climate, but it needs re-rendering. Today as I write two fellows are attacking it with ancient hammers and an old pickaxe. With luck, we may get it re-plastered tomorrow and repainted before I leave. For the small investment, I might as well keep it useable for my very brief visits now, but also as a small annexe to Wechiga’s house. He and Mary moved in for a short while when they were moving out of the rooming house. There was some stress in the family and my house served a useful purpose. Also, my brother sleeps on the roof during these very hot seasons.

It should have rained weeks ago, relieving the oppressive heat already. Everyone bemoans the lateness and expected low quantities of rain. Coming here does not fill one with hope for the planet… Expanding, ballooning, population – from 14 to almost 24 millions in 30 years, and no sign of slowing; the rapid consumption of farming land for housing; the stripping of trees from the landscape; the increased use of resources like water, now pumped from bore holes so people perceive that there is now plenty of water to waste; all this and climate change. It’s not a happy outlook. China’s greed does nothing to help as it rapes the continent, nor does the exploitation of unsophisticated consumers.

The plastic bag scourge alone has to be seen to be appreciated. Every food item, as well as drinking water, is now served in cheap black plastic bags. Any item purchased is thrust into a plastic bag, however much packaging it already has. Plastic bags strew the entire landscape; they billow and blow about; they are festooned on every tree and every catch on the ground. The landscape at this season is of grey dust and flapping plastic. There is no waste collection and no one has the interest – without payment – to collect and burn this (noxious) stuff. Wechiga is the only one around who cleans what is left of his fields that has not been ‘developed’.

The plastic gets ploughed into the soil – and this is Chinese plastic and does not biodegrade. Animals are attracted by the food smells and scraps and eat the bags. If enough build up in their digestive systems they are slowly strangled and die. Only pigs are able to deal with the plastic they eat, Wechiga, my expert on farming, tells me.

*

Not often do I regret my childless state – until I meet such a ten year old as Itiel, just the sort of son I’d have dreamed of (but not necessarily the one I’d have got of course!). I suppose this was the case with Dennis twenty years ago. Itiel is a charming, warm hearted boy, just a little serious but bright and smart. Very polite and respectful, quiet and unprecocious. His ability to pick up on how my iPad works has been startling and he’s a small person I don’t mind letting try it out as he sits beside me on the roof after supper – even until 10.45 the other night. He has an astonishing ability to know round corners when I get back to the house. In minutes my shadow is there. It was always thus in Navrongo. I always attracted a Pied Piper collection of small children.

Sheila was one of the first. She came to visit me under the mango tree as I sweated out the midday oven. I am proud of Sheila, daughter of illiterate parents but smart and intelligent. She is now a graduate of Cape Coast University and a teacher of Business Studies in a secondary school at Sirigu, a large village a few miles away. Now married to another teacher, with her first child, she is confident and pleasantly cheeky with her white uncle.

Her junior sister, Sandra was another, with Simon from the next house. At some time, wherever I am around the houses, I have my retinue, fascinated by everything the ‘Fillca’ does. Shovelling the old render into a barrow pushed by Itiel and one of his friends in the -faintly – cooler dusk, I counted fourteen small people watching. Itiel, who asks for no reward except to be near and watch, is occasionally rewarded by a new pair of second hand shoes (£1.80) from the market and a few bits of clothing and a soft drink or two. He’s a charmer indeed.

It’s a pleasure to watch how children care for their siblings and play together without sophisticated toys. It’s common to see a small child carrying a smaller one, sometimes not much more than a baby. Itiel often brings his junior brother Jonathan (named after me) with him and, of course, no child ever has any sparsity of playmates in this hugely expanding population. They roam safely around the whole area, where other adults keep watch over all the children and they are included in our meals equally. It’s a grubby dusty life and pretty unhygienic, but they play happily for now. For the future, who knows?

*

Wechiga’s older daughter, ‘Becca, came from Bolgatanga, where she is studying fashion at the technical school. She is tall and slender to the point of skinny, but with the most dazzlingly beautiful face, complete with a wide, white dimpled smile. I have watched her and her junior sister Rhoda grow from babies. They are now young women of about 28 and 25. Their mother Grace, also a beauty, died five years ago, very suddenly – and probably from sclerosis as she had caught the Navrongo disease of hard, home produced alcohol that kills so many fit young men and women. Wechiga had the intention to remarry, after all, who looks after a man with no wife in Navrongo? He met Mary, a homely, quiet and steady woman. When he told me she was about 22 years younger I was a bit surprised. Of course, his fourth child followed! Faith is a tough little boy of two now and I can see that Mary has brought Wechiga stability. She is a quietly strong character, a cheerful round woman with a warm smile. She copes well with having a white man to look after, nervous at first, she seems at ease now with my funny ways.

*

There was a loud rumpus at five one morning half a mile away, yelling and screaming. A thief escaped with his life by the intervention of some authority. Justice is sometimes rough here and the theft of five students’ laptops was enough to spur a murderous mob. The thief would undoubtedly have died a few moments later.

Robbery is now so commonplace in Navrongo. Twenty five years ago there was nothing to fear. Now there are gangs stealing mopeds, motorbikes and bicycles, let alone the technological stuff of phones, tablets and computers. When we enter a bar we must take out bicycles inside. Poor Akay must be turning in her grave beneath the baobab. Theft is everywhere. Dennis had his best computer and camera stolen, presumably by a fellow student on the higher teaching degree course in Winneba, down on the south coast. I had to supply the wherewithal for another laptop… Dividing of communities like this removes the punishment of shame, so strong in former times, when transgressions brought shame on all the family. Now what is on TV becomes the reality and ‘all that glisters’ there the goal, and there is a pervading belief that everyone else uses corruption to get by so what is the use of integrity? And now the place is full of strangers anyway.

*

My little team, my child labour gang, has worked with a will to remove all the broken render from the base of my walls with wheelbarrow, head bowl and bucket. They are such a delight. The team has been formed of Itiel, Isaac, Emmanual and Kizito. I would guess that Kizito, the youngest, who laboured for two or three hours, carrying buckets of rubble on his head – the bucket had a hole so his wiry hair turned brown – is about six years old. At the end of their work I gave them all 4 Cedis each (about 70 pence) to go and buy soft drinks. They all thanked me most politely before running back to Itiel’s place, where his mother runs a small informal bar. Doubtless Itiel will soon be back.

*

Life is so hard here in West Africa. Every day brings news of death. I often hear the boom of gunpowder across the fields at this season, announcing another death. One of the tenants of the rooming house came while we ate breakfast in the shade of Wechiga’s empty chicken hut. Just back from one funeral, he was informed that his daughter had suddenly started vomiting and died. So off went one of my young team, Isaac, for this was his sister, to Bawku, away in the top eastern corner of Ghana to begin arrangements for yet another funeral. There is such scanty health provision up here, so little reliable infrastructure.

Funny, as I wrote that last sentence a young man arrived with large ledgers from the Navrongo Health Research Centre. It’s a well recognised centre for research into endemic disease and social statistics. Now about 27 years in the field, the centre has amassed a vast array of information on the district and is known as one of only two such projects in Africa, looking at health trends, population statistics and domestic situations for many families. Navrongo also has its hospital – but it’s generally a place to avoid with its lack of facilities, shortage of doctors and its dusty, airless wards. Some years ago the then only doctor took me on a tour of the operating theatre. He regularly carried out caesarean sections and hernia operations but admitted that sometimes he had to operate with the textbook in his hand. Treatment is paid for and family members expected to care for their sick with food and clothing. Hospitalisation here is an eye opener. You’d never complain about the NHS after even an hour in Navrongo hospital. We are SO privileged…

Treatment of Wechiga’s broken leg and arm cost something like £400 or £500, paid mainly by his son Romanus, now a policeman based down south, and me. A leg-pinning operation cost about £200, a huge sum for most families, probably about double the monthly income of most workers. So many rural people rely on more homespun methods, using ‘local doctors’ for fixing bones and the like. In recent years there has been a large push towards community health workers and trained midwives.

But many people die before their time. I have come frequently enough to realise just how tenuous a connection West Africans have with life and how easily it is ended. Partly this is due, I do not doubt, to the lack of general infrastructure. Many accidents prove fatal, whether immediate or lingering, because the medical help just doesn’t exist. Simple ailments in the West go unremedied through lack of medical expertise. Chances of recovery from illness generally depend on the financial resources and education level of the family. Cousin Joe has obviously lost the sight of his right eye through glaucoma. He’s a few years younger than me, who complains that my second cataract is irritating me in this sun. At least I know that in a few weeks I shall see pretty well again – and probably for the rest of my life.

It’s interesting this year especially to compare East and West Africa. West Africa was always considered the ‘White Man’s Grave’ and white men seldom penetrated much beyond the coastal regions. The colonial powers wanted the resources and riches but did not involve themselves much in opening up the countries, or instituting European hygiene and social standards, certainly not beyond the inland towns that were centres of colonial administration. In East Africa, however, with its much lower incidence of malaria and its more clement climates, with hill stations for relaxation and better farming conditions, the white man moved in. It has made for a much greater infrastructure, but of course more political stresses. Thanks largely to gold, Ghana has more than its West African share of European development and British systems of justice, education and finance.

The young researcher reclassified Wechiga’s house while he was here, painting a new number on a pillar for identification purposes. The original old compound was SGT13, his new block is SGT 133 – an indication of just how much building has occurred since this area was originally surveyed in 1993. Probably more building than in the previous century…

And mainly occupied by strangers to this culture.

*

Still no rain. On sunday afternoon filthy dusty winds swept across us, full of brown dust and shredded plastic bags. It fills the throat and eyes and nose. I always need decongestants in Navrongo. I am now sleeping on the roof of my house beneath a mosquito net strung between sticks planted in buckets and drums of sand. It is airy at night and I dream profusely and usually don’t wake until after dawn, around 6.00, despite being one of the world’s lightest sleepers. I am just so utterly exhausted by the extreme heat of the day that I am ready to drop by early evening, sometimes even in bed by 8.30. Just existing in 42/43/44 degrees is work enough! Thank god I don’t have to earn my labour in these conditions and can visit briefly and escape. I start to sweat at about six in the morning and it just flows all day. My liquid intake is prodigious, but very little comes out by the tap.

Late afternoon there was a half-hearted shower that evaporated as it hit the ground. It made the night pleasantly cool – such that Wechiga had to sleep indoors but I was fine under my usual thin sheet in the open air. When I repatriated Itiel to his house, for he had fallen fast asleep on the cushions on the roof, his mother told me that there was heavy rain in Tamale. But it is still reluctant to fall on the dust and sand of Navrongo. I have never seen the landscape so dry and parched, ugly and gasping. I myself have never in my life felt hotter or more uncomfortable. I run with sweat minutes after bathing down from a bucket in the rustic tin shelter in the field next to Wechiga’s house, where the roofless cubicle causes some of the worst sunburn I can remember – in moments, for I generally stay covered up.

People in Navrongo face these conditions all their lives.

*

Unlike so many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, no child asks for money or sweets in Ghana. In the French West African countries the common greeting from children is an outstretched hand and the words “Hello, bon-bon,” or “Bonjour, cadeau?” Itiel came to me very politely and told me that, “Uncle, our ball has spoiled.” Sure enough, the sorry scraps of their football were indeed spoiled. “OK!” I said, “I will buy you a new one if you clean up around my house,” for a labourer had by then chipped out the cracks ready for the builder to re-cement. Both Itiel and Emmanuel worked with a will for an hour, and it was a delight to see their joy when I bicycled back from market with a new yellow football. At £1.60, I suppose I could be accused of exploiting child labour!

*

To pay for the building works, I had to get more cash. I still cannot change the notes secreted in my belt in Navrongo. Over the years I have smuggled thousands into Ghana. There is now an ATM in Navrongo but it takes only my VISA card, and my bank charges a transaction fee plus interest. So Wechiga would not allow me to use that card! “Eh! We must travel to Bolga and get money from the usual place!” Wechiga HATES to see me spend any money unnecessarily. The nearest money changer is eighteen miles away in Bolgatanga. It is SO hot! We travelled by beat-up taxi, there and back, a ghastly journey that stained my shorts in about a pint of salty sweat. But we saved a few pesoas in the process! Honour was maintained. Sometimes my brother and I have remarkable similarities!

*

“Filla, filla, good mooorning!” comes the greeting from a hundred children a day. Obviously learned in school, this is the customary greeting for the rare white man. I so love (and am frequently irritates by!) all the constant greetings and trivial chit-chat that greases the wheels of this friendly community. Sometimes my western impatience just wants to get things done and all this inconsequential chatter seems to slow everything down. But convention must be served and the whole community exists on this mutual support. That’s why attendance at funerals is so important: next time it might be you that needs support. I admire it, even as it irritates me by its incredible inefficiency and time-wasting.

*

In the late dusk I climbed to my roof to make up my bed under the net. It’s just an old foam mattress with half a broni wawo (white man dead clothes) duvet cover for sheet, an ancient pillow and a pillow case I must have brought down over ten years ago. I used to keep my own feather pillow against the rock hard kapok ones Akay used to make, but the mice got it a couple of years ago so I have to use a Navrongo pillow, unforgiving and solid. I use an old cover cloth, the cotton cloth length women use around their waist as the traditional skirt, for my sheet. I do love sleeping in the open air like this. It is something we have lost in Europe, the pleasure of sleeping beneath the stars and moon.

I had been on the roof less than thirty seconds when I found seven small children up there watching me! How they know where I am is a mystery. But they are good children, led by my favourite, Itiel and his pal Emmanuel who now share ownership of the yellow football. I admire the way they share food or soft drinks I bring for them, and the way they look after each other and their young siblings.

It’s 9.00 now and I am on my bed, such as it is. I am utterly exhausted and still sweating gently on a day in which I must have imbibed at least ten pints of liquids – and pissed pathetically twice, a cupful each time! I doubt I have ever suffered such discomfort as the past week. But I reckon it pays for some of the memorable experiences I have and I do feel I am sharing the discomfort with everyone around me, none of whom have the escape I have in another week…

*

Needing a second pair of shorts, Mary took my measurement one day (sadly two extra inches round the waist in the last couple of years! I was 34 for at least two decades…) and while in the market found me a very good pair of broni wawo ‘cargo shorts’ for a few pence. These I took to Wechiga’s tailor friend, Baloo, to be shortened a bit and have the pockets repositioned. Another few pence. I suspect they will be my best shorts this summer! Often I bring broni wawo home. There’s quite a bit of this discarded clothing from the Western world in my wardrobe, brought back from the bales of clothing even rejected by our charity shops. I ordered a shirt from Baloo too, from white cotton and a printed cloth like Ghanaian Kenti cloth, the very expensive, fine woven cloth of the Ashantis. The fabric cost £2.40, tailoring may cost two or three more pounds. People here make do and mend and wear clothes until they fall off their backs.

Baloo has a treadle sewing machine with which he is very proficient. His shack is hung about with old clothing, broni wawo for repair and alteration. He sits by the door to maximise the sharp, reflected sun. A quiet, middle aged man with slowly greying hair, he is steady and courteous, and a clever artisan.

Outside Baloo’s hot market shack, buried in the narrow rows of informal tin and block structures with the lanes filled with debris and rubbish, sit his wife and a group of gossiping women sorting palm nuts for oil processing. They are cheerful and enjoy greeting the white man, joking amongst themselves, no doubt. But the atmosphere is universally of goodwill, welcome and fun. It makes the world go around when life is so hard.

*

Wechiga is doing well with his bicycle, good exercise for his broken leg. In the last week I have watched the limp reducing. In time he will be back to normal.

He hasn’t even checked on the condition of his motorbike. I suspect a psychological reserve on the matter. It will be dumped amongst hundreds of other wrecks in a heap beside the police station at the top of town.

The hospital must be straining under the onslaught of motorbike and moped accidents. The boom has been so fast. Even eighteen months ago, there were many fewer two wheeled idiots in town. Now people seem unwilling to walk anywhere and the threat of theft means that people even ride into beer bars, their fumes filling the air thoughtlessly.

No one has any form of training to ride or road safety awareness. They have little observation, relying on their squeaky horns as a safety device. No one wears any form of protection, just the usual flip-flops and tee shirts. It must be a severe strain on already meagre medical services. But what to do? This is, they say, progress.

*

One night I awoke a few times to a horrible new phenomena. Someone appears to have had the idea that the traditional drumming for funerals (seldom heard now that loud discos can be hired to play awful American rap and Nigerian music) can be replaced by isolating the drum of a computerised beat machine. For hours we were subjected to a fast rhythmical mechanical beat, ‘thimp thump… thimp thump… thimp thump… thimp thump… thimp thump… thimp thump… thimp thump-thump… …thimp thump… Thimp thump… Thimp thump…’ on and on with almost no variation for at least four or five hours. Earplugs save my sleep. If I had known how things would change I probably would have looked more favourably on the nights when I had to put in my earplugs to combat the fantastic African drums and whistles of the noisy, traditional, ethnic music.

*

It amazes me to think back to how many people that I knew have died. Death really is all around us here in this very hard life with so little chance of survival if your number comes up. Old people obviously have died in twenty five years, but I think of my contemporaries, the teenagers, children, young adults and all I have met who are now, as Wechiga would say “No more!” It is a far, far higher proportion than I ever knew to die in Britain, where it is generally the old who die, unless by accident. Here the axe falls completely indiscriminately. Neighbours, teachers, priests, babies, children, pretty young teenagers – all gone.

Considering the growth of population and the propensity for lavish funerals, a fashion that seems to grow year by year, this is a huge industry. Now it is the fashion to produce elaborate glossy books of tributes and photographs to disseminate at funerals. Funeral dress becomes increasingly grandiose, as do coffins, funeral tents, hiring chairs, renting noisy discos to disturb the neighbourhood for three nights and days, food and the inevitable booze that fuels these ostentatious affairs. People who lived near poverty die in splendour, bankrupting families into the bargain. A relative who dies overseas must be repatriated for burial in Navrongo – of course, cremation is not even an option in this catholic and traditional blend of rituals. Since the coming of electricity the fashion now is to freeze bodies, sometimes for months on end, while money is saved or found and every one of the relatives is summoned from around the world to be at the burial and almost endless masses that sometimes last for hours. One recent funeral involved a mass that continued all day!

Twenty five years ago I visited various local funerals and was so impressed by the ritual. The dead were buried at most next day, often in the evening of the day they died. Local undertakers came and dug the small grave, prepared the corpse with various cleansing herbs and soon had it underground. Considering that virtually all death in these rural areas is unexplained, this haste was a pragmatic health measure. The dead are often now ‘attended’ by women round the open coffin for hours. Consider this in temperatures in the 30s and 40s and a place where flies proliferate…

Of course, I have a certain nostalgia for the past (I AM British, after all!) but I do not want people to stay in that terrible hard life that they lived a generation or two ago. I am happy for educational and scientific progress, for the relative comforts that are swamping this society, for the overcoming of ignorant prejudices. But the baby always goes out with the bathwater: fine customs, strong moral codes, mutual support, selfless generosity, the strength of the extended family, use of cheap local resources and – perhaps most of all – the honesty and lack of trivial pretence and pride.

Akay and her sort had nothing much in material terms – but every beggar, cripple and madman, as well as any passing person, was offered whatever she had. No one passed Akay’s house without a drink of water at the very least. It’s my observation from travelling the world and seeing many cultures that those with the least to give are generally the most generous. They give whatever they can without counting the cost. I used to say that the most valuable lesson I learned in Africa was to accept in the same spirit. Things given with the heart have to be received with the heart. It’s a difficult lesson for a Westerner…

*

Some of my time is taken in formal visits – although not as much as it used to be when we had to visit a long list of old people to announce my safe arrival and to request to leave. These calls had to be made and a strict protocol was enforced. Now it’s a casual wave as we pass on our bicycles. But I am expected still to pay my respects in families where someone has died, and over the years I have made some friends and acquaintances whom I would offend not to call. I had to visit the Chief of Bongo, who is also the secretary at St John Boscos Training College, where Wechiga happens to work as a carpenter, and who considers me a friend to his community and invited me to a terrific harvest festival in his traditional village last visit. There I danced (as badly as usual) to the delight of the assembled villagers. When I bemoaned that my two Canadian friends were to arrive to meet me in Navrongo a week later and would miss the joyful – and very traditional – festivities, he organised another for them! I see we are all now on Facebook (!) (at BANACOMDA). Bongo has entered the digital age. I breakfasted with the parish priest of Navrongo Mission, Paul Kapochin. A young priest when I first arrived, we used to have good conversations in beer bars. He could never understand how I could be a good person, supporting people and projects all over this town, and an atheist, as if religion guaranteed compassion… (On a planet on which almost all current problems have their roots in religious interpretation and religious jealousies). We visited old Mrs Abatey, who hosted me on the first days of my first visit – because Perry mistakenly thought I needed to be in a house with electric light and a flushing lavatory. It was some days before I persuaded Wechiga that I would much rather be in the power-less, mud-built compound out in the millet fields with the family. Mrs Abatey is about 85 now, a gracious old lady but almost blind from, I guess, cataracts – sight so easily restored for some of us. She made a long prayer for Wechiga’s continued recovery and my stay. On early journeys days would be taken in these formal visits and we would have to plan my leaving days in advance, with lists of families we had to notify. It’s all casual now, just a wave and a goodbye.

*

As I write this morning, my last day in Navrongo, I know that I have never been more uncomfortable – in a travelling life not without its discomforts – as I have been this week. And it’s not just the white man complaining, for all about me are bemoaning this strange weather. This extreme heat is expected in March, not late April. Weeks past it should have rained but now the lack of rain threatens the crops for the year, increasing hunger and economic troubles in a country that exists on so little. Now even the wind is hot like a blower and the nights only reduce to an acceptable level for me to sleep on top of a mattress under the open sky. Temperatures in the 40s for days on end: it’s pretty unbearable. One night I sweated throughout the night as well. This trip has been quite a strain on my body, despite three months in southern Africa this year already.

The animals, too, such as are left in this now largely urban area, are suffering badly. There is not a single shred of accessible green to be seen, and plastic bags offer no sustenance. Almost all the chickens have died this dry season through the customary ‘Newcastle disease’ and most of the guinea fowls have perished too. I can hardly call my brother a farmer now. Many of his fields have sprouted bungalows and ugly buildings and he has no goats or sheep any more, partly because of the broken leg, of course. This family used to be considered one of the more wealthy in the community: they had a number of cows, and always sheep and goats. In the old economy, these could be sold or slaughtered when times were hard and needs pressing. Now Wechiga depends mainly on his salary as a carpenter. He tells me he will plant some corn and millet when the time comes, but will not be rice farming this year. If the rains don’t come soon, no one else will be either. Then prices rise…

A couple of miles from Navrongo is the Tono Project Area, fifty square kilometres of irrigated land from a dam and lake in one of the Volta rivers. This year this region, which has brought considerable prosperity during these extremely dry seasons by renting out lands to local farmers like Wechiga for dry season gardens, is being renovated and is consequently closed. It has one advantage for me, admittedly: there are almost no mosquitoes in Navrongo this year but the shortage of local vegetables at market will also impinge on the economy.

*

Looking around at all the new buildings, many of them hastily erected in the new rush to claim land, I wonder just what will happen. Beside my little block, now smartly replastered, a two day job that has cost me about £150 including the materials, are piled several hundred newly made concrete blocks. These are the property of Romanus, Wechiga’s policeman son. I honestly doubt if he will ever live back in the hot, provincial north. It’s the same with so many houses around, mostly half completed and empty. Families are mobile in this new generation. I suspect that most of these houses will become part of a residential district of some ugliness and within thirty years be demolished for grander homes than these crudely constructed houses. Plots will be sold to strangers and family ties will wither, as they did 150 years ago in Britain as workers moved away from their rural lives and industry and employment shook up the mixture.

*

I’ve managed to get this far with no mention of mobile phones – considerable restraint! The mobile phone hit Ghana about ten years ago, as it has most of Africa. Most of the continent had inefficient and spotty connections by landlines so the phone revolution, which started with satellite phones from wooden boxes around town, continued through call boxes and then just settled on a mobile in every hand, fiddled with and interrupting every conversation and calm moment. There is no protocol and no conventions – not there are many in Europe either. The phone call is always of greater importance than any live conversation that happens to be interrupted. The phone is toyed with constantly and people will just make calls in the middle of conversation. In time, maybe these people will have to develop a third hand. It irritates me no end of course, as it does at home, but at least there some people have a more sensitive approach… On the other hand, the phones have improved communication hugely, helped time keeping and efficiency and made life easier in a place with no other communication than face to face consultation. The internet, for instance, is still very small here.

DAY 17. THURSDAY 30th APRIL 2015. TAMALE, GHANA

“Eh! Make fast, fast and go! You destroy your body!” exclaimed Mary this morning as I emerged once again from the bucket bath house, where even those few minutes have been burning my skin as never before. Just as well, those months in southern African sun, or I should be in real trouble. Even though I have kept socks, tee shirt and hat on as much as possible, I have never seen my skin discolour as much as in the past week. The sun is utterly unavoidable, despite spending whole days sitting under a tree doing almost nothing. It’s just so hot and so severe that even walking from tree to tree or Wechiga’s house to mine has caused a sun tan unlike any other. Fortunately most exposure has been in short bursts.

*

So back to Tamale for the wedding weekend. Leaving Navrongo in a beat up taxi, I found. Benz Bus almost loaded at the Bolgatanga taxi station. Originally probably licensed as an eighteen or twenty- seater bus, here in Ghana they pack in thirty six adults and an array of babies, toddlers and small children plus driver and mate. I was able to negotiate the front seat once again. Ghanaians do have a deference to visitors, but also I am generally most of. Foot taller than any local. The bus was almost full when Zi arrived at the station, a happy circumstance: worst is to arrive shortly after one has rattled away and have to wait for the next compliment of three dozen passengers and their bags, baggage and animals.

We set off quite soon, three or four goats and a sheep tied to the roof rack where they did a desperate tap dance on the hot, slippery blue steel roof between the racks as the bus bumped and wove over all the speed humps, a hundred miles and over three hours of survival for them in 40 plus degree heat. Animal welfare is not given much thought in West Africa.

In my contemplative state I gazed at the passing hot, dry bush and sweated from every pore, my view animated by dancing Chinese lanterns, some dusty, ugly, dangling soft toys, Islamic script quotations and an array of insurance and tax stickers. There’s nothing to do but sit and think and sweat, and I found myself curiously content to be alone on the journey. It is a fact of Ghanaian life that I am never alone and of course I am quite adapted to my own company, so a chance of a bit of solitude – packed in with about forty five other beings! – is a treat. Always having an audience and keeping up constant inconsequential greetings with virtual strangers is difficult for us, not brought up in this social environment.

Poor Itiel! How desperately he wanted to accompany me to Tamale. But it was not practical for the weekend will be busy and the houses full already, without small acolytes following their white uncles about the country. It’s been fun, having the schoolchildren on their three week holiday as my somewhat relentless companions and observers.

The strain of the journey made it impossible for me to reenter the warmth and effusive sociability of my sister’s personality until I had mentally prepared! I got down from the appalling tro-tro and secretly sat for half an hour in a pleasant bar round the corner from Gladys’ house, drank a beer and girded my loins for the cheerful onslaught. As I sat, I was aware of an astonishing noise from hundreds of yellow and black birds in the large mango tree shading the bar. They were frantically weaving hanging nests from strips of mango leaf that they pulled constantly from the tree, flitting to and fro with great purpose and deafening screeching calls. I watched, fascinated by this activity. Then suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown, every last one of them fell silent! What caused this extraordinary communal instinct? What message passed? Evolution and nature is extraordinary.

*

Gladys has the most wonderful personality! I don’t think she has an aggressive, unkind, selfish gene in her body. She is noisy and talkative, works all and every day and is abundantly and universally popular. She can have no enemies, it’s just impossible, for she has such a generous and caring and inspiring nature. She is so much like her late mother, Akay, and fortunately Dennis has inherited her cheerful, optimistic, sunny personality, not his father’s stern, conventional nature. Many of the guests and most of the communal work for the forthcoming wedding will be in respect of her lovely character.

DAY 18. FRIDAY MAY 1st 2015. TAMALE, GHANA

This wedding is a vast affair! So much for all my advice and requests for modesty and remaining within means. Hundreds will turn up, many of them travelling from all over the country.

A crowd of noisy matrons arrived throughout the morning for hours of jocular communal cooking in vast aluminium caldrons over small fires of sticks, stirring their mixtures with long paddles. There were vats of boiling grease, gobbets of cow tongue, huge quantities of stodgy rice, and beans of all sorts. The trouble with Ghanaian food for me is that it is all brown and oily – unattractive stuff. I spent an hour, to everyone’s amusement, doing women’s work by cleaning and slicing onions on the doorstep. I try at every opportunity to make it clear that I do not believe in ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ – the latter a euphemism in Africa for doing nothing. There is just ‘work’ and it can be done equally. But no Ghanaian man would consider getting involved as I do with chopping vegetables, for instance. Frank lazes on a plastic chair and watches all the activity from the background. It’s much more fun to join in. That’s why I am here, after all. The noise level in the yard in front of the house increased as the day wore on beneath the punishing sun. A hundred mopeds came and went, many of them bearing Gladys’ Christian Mothers, all pitching in to help with the cooking in an impressive show of solidarity. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Professional caterers are chopping up the rest of the cow, boiling hundredweights of rice and stringy meat. The women round Gladys’ yard are only making local food, mainly for the guests staying tonight and maybe tomorrow night. Gladys tells me that when her compatriots have celebrations, she too joins in days of work like this.

One particularly unappetising food (but surprisingly less offensive to eat) is the cow’s skin! It has been scraped and washed and boiled in a large cauldron. It looks repulsive. I couldn’t help making all the matrons laugh by calling it ‘boiling their shoes’. Cooking cow skin: we use it to make belts and shoes, here it is a delicacy! Along with chicken feet, turkey tails and quite a few other items that we discard hastily, not least supper tonight: cow intestine…

I went with some of the young men to the church yard to help them erect six steel-framed awnings to shade tomorrow’s crowds. This became a frustrating hour or more as six or seven young men made independent decisions and no one of them seemed to have a practical way of working. We must have moved each of the awnings three times each, instead of approaching the whole thing with logic. It was the old white man who ended up showing this herd of cats how to put the frames together as they struggled without direction.

I found dear Gladys in her kitchen at some point this evening about to cook a different rice for me and prepare a cabbage salad. There is enough food round this house tonight to feed the five thousand, yet she felt she had to make special food for her white brother. I put her right and ate sticky rice balls (well, a quarter of one; less than children of five years eat here) and groundnut soup. I quietly passed the intestines to Wechiga’s plate – he had turned up by then and I knew my teeth weren’t up to it, even if my adaptable stomach could cope.

*

Early in the evening a surprise deputation turned up: Perry, his wife and youngest son, Edward, with Anutua (Paschale) his eldest child, with her five month old son. Paschale was about five when I first knew her. Sometimes I feel a bit old in Africa. We all imagined Perry to be in England, but he cancelled his trip – one never knows why with Perry – and travelled up by car early this morning. Later Wechiga arrived and also Rhoda and ‘Becca. It’s a big gathering of the family clan already, with more to come tomorrow. An event like this is all about mutual support and not just the extended family but the very extended family gathers.

It’s 9.00 now and the compound is quietening down a bit. The cooking is ending – there’s still a glow beneath a huge cauldron, probably of unidentified cow bits that I’d really rather not know about. People have dispersed around the dark yard on plastic chairs and soon many of them will begin to doss down on the floors of the house. I feel somewhat guilty, in a three bedroomed house, to still have a whole bedroom to myself while many women and babies will camp out on tiled floors throughout the house. But in a way I am guest of honour I suppose, and probably I would make the same gesture at home.

It is still stiflingly hot and the house will be far worse. Frank has insisted that convention be served and gone out and bought a big wooden bed for about £100. Honestly, I was more comfortable on the mattress on the floor! Now I knock my elbows on the bed sides and my feet on the end. I am large and move about a lot on these hot nights.

Wechiga and his two cousins have gone off to an old friend’s house to sleep. That’s the habit on these occasions. Perry and family have put up in a nearby hotel. But the floors of this house will be full tonight. Just as well Ghanaians are so adept at sleeping on hard surfaces. I have watched Wechiga fall asleep lying on top of a six inch wide concrete block wall many a time.

Inevitably, in crowds like this, I feel somewhat excluded by the language. You have to develop a lot of patience. Right now I have recourse to my iPad to write, the backlit screen a great advantage. I shall probably retire to bed very shortly – with ear plugs – and try to get at least some unsettled sleep through this extraordinarily hot and torrid night. I feel I shall need all my energy tomorrow!

2015 – GHANA WEST AFRICA – 3 – THE WEDDING

DAY 19. SATURDAY MAY 2nd 2015. TAMALE, GHANA – WEDDING DAY

Hearing and later watching the hectic activity that began around four this morning I am more than grateful that my position has accorded me a room to myself in this house in which so many dossed down on mats on the floors. I had a bed and fan to myself for the hot sweat-tossing night.

By the time I emerged, somewhat worn already, at 6.30 the yard was busy with the Christian Mothers again at their catering, more than a factory. It occurred to me that if global warming and cutting down all the trees doesn’t get Africa, plastic will. Every portion has been packaged within two plastic bags and a styrofoam container. Thousands of plastic bags will be used during this wedding. Many of them will end up decorating the landscape somewhere or other. Maybe we should just adjust our aesthetic judgements to accept all the shreds on the trees and fields as scenic? In Africa, you certainly have to accept them as part of the scene…

Women were making ‘tea’ like a canteen. Tea is often either weak Lipton Yellow Label or the evil Nestle Corporation’s Milo, a sweetened chocolatey drink. Served with doorsteps of soggy white bread, the worst manifestation of the British Empire in Africa – over the borders in French West Africa one gets delicious, fresh French bread sticks every morning – here we get sweet glue worse even than Mother’s Pride (one of the most mis-named products on the market!). This constituted breakfast for most people. I forewent the bread… It’s ironic, after my initially succumbing to the brief dose of the runs that for the rest of my time here I get – as always – completely constipated by the constant diet of white bread, white rice, eggs, plantain and generally gluey foods, plus dehydration, no roughage, no green vegetables and no fruit. I have been trying boxes of fruit juice to provide some fruit and vegetable but in the end I always resort to laxatives. This in a land where most white people are so wary of the food! I even tried drinking warm pito, notorious as a natural laxative in Navrongo, the home brewed, sour millet beer. But in the end it takes chemicals! This may be why my shits pills had an expiry date of 2005…

Later this morning (it’s 8.40 now) I shall have to endure an endless catholic mass – none of which I shall meet very easily. Probably a couple of hours, I am informed, ritualistic stuff and nonsense that will make me irritated at every announcement, I expect. I guess I shall just have to pretend I am on a tro-tro and detach myself into a meditative state and let it all run by. It’s not easy being the only atheist in so many millions! Every announcement is suffixed with “God is WONderful!”; every exclamation by “by his grace”. Still, one lone voice isn’t going to change much or encourage much rationality in this land gripped by religious fervour. Churches, even the huge ones, are now pronounced too small. Pity we can’t export a few from Europe. I was pleased to hear that I now live in the most secular country in Europe where 53% admit to no religion and 13% actually embrace atheism. In Ghana I have met one professed atheist, an elderly doctor friend of Perry’s (who is said to be planning to build a church on one of the bits of land left on the family compound in Navrongo) who ranted volubly about the damage done by religious narrowness and the power of the churches in Ghana. And there are churches in every corner and of every inventive and crazed ideology. It’s very big business; and I mean business.

I just had a very funny ‘conversation’ with Kadua. Kadua is Perry, Wechiga and Gladys’s half sister by another father, Akay’s first husband. Kadua is the only surviving child of that marriage and nine pregnancies. The humour of our conversations is that neither of us speaks a word of the other’s tongue! She is married to a Moslem and lives in the southern forests, where we have been to visit on two or three very memorable occasions, all of them involving a wonderful walk through the remaining rain forest along the old railway tracks. I remember arriving for the first time, long before we could send any warning by phone. Wechiga and I walked out of the forest, about an eight mile walk that is one of my best memories of all my visits in Ghana, to the incredulous welcome of Kadua and family, for whom a walk of eight miles was an unimaginable feat for a white man and honour for the family. We stayed in a rather mosquito-ridden thatched hut that night to the amazement of Buabin, Kadua’s village, having paid our respects to her chief. On another occasion we took Dennis along too, for I have shown him quite a bit of his own country during my visits: his first view of the ocean, first ships, Akasombo Dam, the coastal castles and a lot more besides. But the walks to Buabin stand out.

*

Later… THE WEDDING

Well, where to start! What a day! A lot of fun and a grand wedding day. I was proud of my son. It’s been colourful, noisy, tuneful, interesting, amusing and rather impressive. It can’t be said to have been the ‘modest’ affair that I was advising – but then, I am not of this culture.

Just before ten we all decamped to the church, many in a decrepit tro-tro, rented to make a couple of runs, some of we ‘executives’ in Perry’s Merc. Already hundreds were gathering, dressed in their finest and most colourful, elaborate bright, frilled costumes full of furbelows for the women; many of the men in traditional smocks, since this was a wedding between two northern tribes. I was happy to be in my smock, not that the only white skin in the gathering would in any way disappear in the crowd. Holy Cross is a big church, well attended. It’s an ugly triangular structure of steel beams and perforated block, a squared semi-circular sort of shape with seating for several hundred. Fans whirled and the music was beginning to set the cheerful African tone. I must say, if I have to be trapped in a church for two hours and twenty six minutes for a catholic mass, I’d much rather it be in Ghana than Italy (the last time was with my young girlfriend Elena in Rome and I descended into a terrible bad temper at all the pompous theatricals!). Today the music was wonderful! Rich African beats and those exhilarating high-pitched vocal tones so characteristic of African voices. Frequently throughout the service we had interludes of happy music: a drum set, African drums, harmonium and many various rattles and shakers. The choir danced as they sang, music running right through their bodies. It’s impossible to stay still. Your feet begin to tap and before you know it you are swaying with the rest of them – a little more restrained maybe, but still on the move with the fast, rhythmic, excitingly cheerful music.

The wedding proceedings took place first. Emmanuella was brought forward by her brother, representing the family, for her mother is a widow. Beneath an arch of balloons, she looked pretty in her slim white dress and veil, white gloves and sparkly jewellery. She was attended by her maid of honour in bright lime green, the colour chosen for the wedding: groom and best man’s neckties, dresses and table decorations. An elder of her family clan introduced her to the congregation while the groom waited in front of us all before the altar steps.

I suppose the marriage service took roughly traditional lines but it was a noisy affair. We all shuffled forward to the offertory boxes in each side of the altar and greeted bride and groom amidst some terrific, throat-lumping music. As I passed Dennis, he leapt up to embrace me enthusiastically, happily enjoying the big day in his neat black suit and lime green tie and extreme winkle-pickers, the rage this year.

The priest kept his – (looong!) – sermon surprisingly light-hearted and then came the vows and finally Dennis, showman that he is, made a drama of lifting the veil to kiss his wife to ecstatic cheers and ululations from the crowd.

*

So far so good. I was enjoying it all. Then came the mass of course, with all its ritual and symbolism and theatricality that I find so difficult to take. Thank goodness for the music from the happy band and choirs. Later we were encouraged to give again, a collection this time for the bride and groom, called ‘Wedding Solidarity’. I’d put a token in the first collection for the catholic church (richest organisation in the world – with generally poorest adherents), now I put in a tenner!

There was, at least, an attractive informality about the proceedings. People were trotting forward with ubiquitous phone cameras all through the service and many of the congregation swung along with the music.

Finally, wedding documents signed, last homilies delivered, announcements made, it was over and we were dismissed. The reception was taking place in the yard outside, fortunately with trees to add shade to the canopies we erected yesterday. It was a chaotic next half hour as everyone tried to get photos, greeted old friends and generally ignored the MC’s attempts to get us all to the next part of the proceedings – getting seated for the speeches and other formalities. I was on the top table near the bride and groom and the other close families and special guests. Half a dozen bottles of fizzy wine were uncorked in a lively fashion, food was served – rice, beans, bits of cow, a dash of coleslaw and a sprinkling of cold baked beans (always popularly added to make meals in West Africa more exotic). Speeches were made; a toast offered; a lively Kassena/ Nankani tribal dance took place; prayers were said and both the families made symbolic traditional gifts to the bride and groom – hoes for farming, bowls for cooking, utensils for carrying water, cloths for dresses – all such that the wife could look after the husband and vice versa.

The photography continued chaotically. It was much easier before almost every member of the wedding party – who must have numbered about 300 or 400 – had camera phones! But at last all the gods of all the cameras were pacified and we were able to begin to get home. It was three o’clock, with sun beating down…

*

Back at the house closer friends and tribesmen could be entertained less expensively, for the reception sensibly involved only soft drinks. Giving alcohol to all those people would have been impossible. Even the fruit juices cost well over £100. The comings and goings of the party in the yard has continued long into the evening. Well, it feels long, but looking at the top of my iPad as I am thinking strongly about bed, I see that it is all of 8.35!

I am exhausted, quite exhausted. Poor Gladys is dead on her feet, driven right and left, up and down the whole day. Despite her obvious condition, Frank sits and calls her to fetch and carry for the guests. I don’t mean to be particularly critical of him, he is an African man, typical of them all. I sincerely hope the new generation behaves differently. Women in Africa do ninety per cent of the work. No men would accept the conditions they wish upon their wives – the majority of whom still accept the situation… As I was about to slip away to bed I heard the call go up from a plastic chair that ‘we need water in case of lights off in the morning’, so Gladys, almost hobbling from tiredness, is expected to walk with her women friends (who have been working since four a.m) several hundred yards to a kiosk down the street and carry back 20 kilos of water in bags – while seven men lounge deep in their chairs. I went with them and shouldered back a bag, to the astonishment and slightly scandalised horror of the kiosk owner. “I am angry!” I said. “African men are SO damned lazy! They do nothing but sit and command! You have to change this! Look, my sister works all day like her husband. They are equal wage earners now. They should begin to share the work too.” Actually, Frank is retired now, so even that’s not true.

On the day of a marriage it is interesting that I end up concentrating on one of the most shameful aspects of African life: men’s treatment of women. I just hope Dennis has taken note of some of my lectures on the subject!

Well, it’s been fun to be part of my African son’s big day. He has treated me with much fondness and respect. My fascination for Ghanaian life may be waning but this relationship comes closer year by year. I am happy for this odd direction in my life!