Taking the wee while legless in Ghana
Andrew Eames digs deep on West Africa's Gold Coast and unearths a heady mix of crocodiles, shrinking genitalia, superstitious fishermen and sad reminders of the age of the slave trade
Sunday 07 September 1997
I was about to turn away when a figure slipped out of the shadows and introduced himself, decorously, as Edgar, "a life-saver". This ebony-skinned Edgar proceeded to offer, most courteously, everything from the services of his younger sister to the "best wee in the country". (Marijuana, but I only discovered that later).
"I'm sorry," I said lamely, the damp sea air glued to my face like an airline hot towel, "but I've only just arrived." If he thought this a poor excuse for not wanting sex, drugs, or a drink at the bar he was too polite to mention it. Welcome to his country, he said. And if ever my life needed saving I was just to ask for Edgar.
You get mixed messages from Ghana. This nation of charmers on the surging seaboard of West Africa is the land of "God Gives Electronics", "My God Is Able Plumbing" and "In God We Trust Foreign Exchange". This is the land where a gentleman rejoicing in the name of Ebenezer Tetty Tackie begins his letter to the newspaper with "your esteemed organ..." while elsewhere the same organ reports how fear of shrinking genitalia has sparked another spree of killings.
I hadn't been prepared for all the God stuff, let alone the shrinking genitalia. If you asked me to write what I knew about Ghana on the back of an envelope, I'd ask you to hand me a postage stamp. Good, long-distance runners, perhaps?
The little bumpf there is - this nation hasn't really discovered bumpf or even got into the concept of tourist offices - mentions ancient castles, endless beaches, cocoa and gold. Ghana is, according to ministry spokesman Joseph Aprekes, playing a cool hand when it comes to attracting mass tourism, because mass tourism brings degeneration and prostitution.
It was true, I thought, looking up from my rapidly warming pint of Bubra to survey the faces in Dolly's bar, there certainly wasn't enough trade to keep the prostitutes entertained. Most of them were from Nigeria, and they had all the come-on of sulky bloodhounds.
I was there to see Jacob, the break dancer - literally. Jacob had lost a leg in a car accident, but he hadn't let that hold him back. His job at Dolly's (tips rather than wages) was to attract visitors. I've rarely seen an image more deserving of a pop video than Jacob, electrified by Bubra and soda, doing somersaults on crutches.
I had trouble with my tros-tros as soon as I left Accra. Tros-tros are minibuses, their passengers jammed on pews and their windscreens a mosaic of cracks and stains that wouldn't look out of place above an altar. Sadly, they faded away the closer I got to Kokrobite. So I hitched a lift to Wendy's Homestead with a sand lorry, lurching down the beat-up track towards the sea, the cab booming with Tina Turner.
Wendy turned out to be pure north London. She'd swapped a restaurant in Camden for a patch of bush with coconuts, and she was steadily adding more bungalows. It wasn't easy doing business in Ghana, she said, but "stress in the sun has to be more bearable". She had space for up to 30, at a full-board price - including three meals a day - of pounds 35 per week. That's a cheaper deal than the DSS - in much more scenic surroundings.
Next day I thumbed a ride back to the main road from a man in a battered Nissan wearing khaki. Some kind of local official, I supposed. "I'll close them down," he kept saying. "Sand lorries ruin the road. I'll close them down." And later: "Farmers use all the water, I'll close them down."
My Lariam was due. This particularly potent anti-malarial drug is used to combat the butch mosquitoes of West Africa, but it has a reputation for occasionally sending its takers doolally. Thing is, you don't know how it's going to affect you until you take the second pill.
By the time we reached the main road my man in khaki was virtually doing a Queen-of-Hearts impression and screaming: "Off with his head". So I decided to postpone my second Lariam until the world seemed a little more... normal.
The Gold Coast swiftly turned smelly. The market at Kasua reeked of peanut butter, snails, roasted bat and red crabs and piles of smoked fish. The fish came from just down the road, said the stall holder, so down the road I went. Nyanyano's pungent halo was rising from what looked like termite mounds in-between the huts. Down at the seafront, the fishermen sat astride massive dugouts mending their nets. Each dugout took up to 15 crew and was daubed with God slogans and animist symbols, for double insurance. Why is it always fishermen who are superstitious? They took no notice of the Sabbath, said one captain, just back from his lucky haircut, but Tuesday - woe betide any boat that went out on a Tuesday. And no, none of them could swim.
Up on the hill I found Wendy's German equivalent. Susanna Stemann-Acheampong had created an eco-resort she called Kasapa, with clay buildings, solar power, reed bed sewerage, and three hours' drum tuition a day. There was no need to ask where her market lay: only the Germans would cross Africa for four weeks of drumming and compost toilets.
At Cape Coast the Gold Coast swapped gilt for guilt. The town looked like a film set created for Joseph Conrad. With half-closed eyes the ochre architecture piled up the hills could have belonged to somewhere south of Naples - although its decay was far too far advanced for Europe. Until 1876 this was the British capital, and a key location in the slave trade.
I met my first slaves in Cape Coast Castle. They were disguised as American tourists, and they'd put on an obscene amount of weight, but they were still slaves, they said. It was bizarre, seeing these loud, indelicate blobs alongside the bony dignity of the locals. They took people-photographs in a brash, obtrusive way that I certainly could not, but who am I to complain? We British played the lead role in the export of 15-20 million slaves from West Africa.
Outside, I toyed with yam and palaver sauce in the Hut de Eric cafeteria, but it did little to remove a nasty aftertaste. The castle dungeons had made my body hair prickle, even without 5,000 gleaming
bodies dying in the dark.
The slaves had gone mainly to the Caribbean, from where many had continued on to mainland America, but many had also later been attracted to the UK to work on buses and trains. Somewhere along the line their temperament had abandoned the easy Ghanaian charm - but after the slave treatment, who can blame them?
For that evening's rest I chose the Hans Cottage Botel, because it sounded odd - and so it was. The main buildings were built on stilts over a crocodile pool, but only three crocs were in residence. Where were the other ten? I expected to hear that they had been turned into handbags. But no, said the receptionist. It was the time of year for the croc walkabout. I showered well that night, not wanting to give off any odours that might confuse a free-range, randy crocodile.
Not far west the coastal town of Elmina repeats the Cape Coast experience, with more dignity. Colonial architecture in crumbling ochre, fleets of dugouts in vibrant yellow, reds and greens, and a dramatically sited 500- year-old fort, built by the Portuguese. Again, the guided tour was made up of roots-seekers from America, and again they were in no shape to go climbing steps. Here, however, the guide let me off the hook. The British, he said, had been otherwise engaged; it was the Dutch who carried on the trade in humans from Elmina.
Elmina was where I ran out of time. I had a beer in the Gramsdel J Bar above the beach, and watched the fort fade into evening haze. I was the only customer, so Charlotte, the bar girl, turned on the telly: it was football and Wimbledon v QPR. She had her curlers in. Her clientele, she said, were "high- ups", and they never came till after dark.
The following evening, back in Accra, I had time to spare before my flight, so I returned to the hotel where I had started for a swim in the pool.
The raffish team of polo players who'd been on my flight out were still trying to chat up the airline stewardesses. I compared notes with an American goldminer taking a dip in the hotel pool. He'd been upcountry, he said, and it'd been unforgivingly hot. "You should try the coast," I said, and pointed to the wicket gate. "It was... interesting."
I'd finally taken my second Lariam, and that, combined with the Bubra drunk by the pool, rendered the taxi journey to the airport rather indistinct. I remember wondering whether Edgar the lifesaver had met the goldminer beyond the wicket gate, and I remember the taxi driver, in answer to my polite question about his day, replying: "I tip my mast at six o'clock."
My most vivid memory, though, is of two juxtaposed scraps of roadside graffiti, which combined to make the ultimate in Ghanaian mixed messages: "Smoke wee". And: "Don't urinate on the wall".
GHANA is about the same size as the UK, with a population of 14 million, made up of several main tribes. The getting there choice is Ghana Airways or BA, and returns can be had from pounds 400 with Ghana Airways. The advantage of Ghana is that it is on exactly the same time as the UK, so no jet lag, and the official language is English. Visitors must have yellow fever inoculations, and Lariam is recommended for malaria. Living costs are pretty cheap. The best time to visit is between July and November when the rains are over and the bush green. It's hot all year, but not oppressively so. The Ghana High Commission has limited tourist information (tel: 0181 342 8686). Visas are, of course, required. There's no need to book hotels in advance, other than if you want to stay in Accra's best, the five-star Labadi Beach (tel: 00 233 21 772501, fax: 00 233 21 772520). Or go on a drumming holiday to Kasapa: contact Susanna Stemann-Acheampong (tel: 00 49 551 56713) or Horst Hoelscher (tel: 00 49 228 661239, fax: 00 49 228 661181). Wendy Lubin of Wendy's Homestead is contactable via: PO Box 11167, Accra/North, Ghana.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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