Archive | January, 2012

Visiting the Land of the Cocoa Tree — Impressions of GHANA.

21 Jan

When I was 7 years old, I received a cardboard cocoa-pod through the post from Cadbury’s of Bournville. It was to be part of my school project about how chocolate is made. When I opened it, I could see the rows of beans that, after drying in the sun and mixed with sugar and milk, would eventually be turned into chocolate or cocoa. The accompanying notes stated that one of the main producers of cocoa beans was the Gold Coast in West Africa. Shortly after in 1957, it broke away from the shackles of British colonial rule, and was renamed Ghana. For most of the next 40 plus years, Ghana remained a remote, exotic country that I never visited or imagined visiting. Then, in my early 60’s I suddenly visited it twice in 2 years  — my first ever trips to sub-Saharan Africa. What led to this unpredictable turn of events?

The story began in the early 90’s in Tyneside. It was my son, Ian’s turn to choose where we would go for our main holiday. ( if affordable.) He was about 12 at the time and not quite out of the ” I want to go to Disneyland” phase. So we ended up in Florida, staying in Orlando for the famous theme parks and Fort Lauderdale for the ocean. While at the latter place we made 2 fascinating day trips to the city of Miami, despite being warned by the Thompson’s Holiday Rep that it was too dangerous to visit!  It was an exciting place with its soaring skyscrapers, cruise ships, art-deco hotels by the beach and Cuban/Latin  influenced culture. We had a great time. It must have planted a seed in Ian’s mind, for a few years later, when he was reading American Studies at Leicester University, he chose The University of Miami as his base for a year’s study in the States. It was quite a wrench seeing off my youngest child at the station, knowing that he would be soon flying off to the other side of the world for the best part of a year. I consoled myself however, with the thought that I might get another holiday in the USA out of it! Little did I know that it would lead to my totally unexpected trips to West Africa less than a decade later. You see, it was while in Miami that Ian met Nanayaa, the lovely Ghanaian girl he later got engaged to and then married. I went out to Ghana for the “Knocking Ceremony” and coming together of the families in 2009, and then the wedding itself at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. In fact there were 2 weddings — a colourful and spectacular cultural one complete with drumming and dancing, and then a more traditional church ceremony and hotel reception 2 days later. It proved to be a very special family event. On both occasions I was accompanied by my wife Chris.

So what were our impressions of Ghana? The first thing we noticed was that large numbers of people carried just about everything on their heads. We even saw a woman walking perfectly normally, balancing a broom on top of her head. The second noticeable thing was that Ghanaians are overtly religious.In the north Islam domintes while the south is strongly Christian. Shop signs and even taxis have religious motifs such as: “God Rules Enterprises”, “The Lord Is My Shepherd Spare Parts” and “Jesus Saves — Taxis”. Services can last for hours with much dancing, clapping and singing. It looks more fun than the miserable Methodist services that I had to attend as a child. A strange third observation was that nobody in Ghana seemed to smoke.( I don’t know whether this is true or not.) A couple of western tourists puffing away by the side of a pool, stick out like a sore thumb.

Chris and I also noticed many people with deep scars on their cheeks. At first I thought these were tribal markings, but I was later informed that they were the result of a superstition. People, especially of the older generation, believe(d) that if their children are too beautiful and unblemished, then an evil spirit would want to steal them away. So, to avoid this happening, some have disfigured their children with facial scars. ( NB- I’m not sure whether is still happening or is now a thing of the past.) Another not so nice aspect of Ghana is it’s zero tolerance of what it calls “sexual deviance” This quite rightly includes paedophiles but also includes homosexuals. Thus visiting Ghana and some other African countries such as Cameroon and Uganda is a bit like being in Britain before homosexual practices between consenting adults were legalised in 1967. I saw a stern notice about this at Accra airport while waiting to have my passport and visa checked, my photograph taken and my fingerprints electronically recorded. This heavy handed official ” welcome” to Ghana is a total contrast to the friendliness and generosity of the ordinary people once the uniformed officials let you in.

We arrived and spent much of our 2 visits in the capital Accra .It is not a very easy city to live in or to visit because of the horrendous traffic jams. At junctions no driver is willing to give an inch as this will be seen as a sign of weakness. So some very complex and frustrating snarl-ups can be created. Drivers get impatient and take crazy risks to push into the smallest of spaces to gain a mere metre or two. Road accidents are rife in Ghana and are second only to malaria as a cause of death. The jams of Accra are particularly bad. What in theory is a 4 minute journey round a couple of corners, can become a 40 minute endurance test. We were privileged to be in an air-conditioned 4 by 4 or a taxi. We could hardly imagine what it must be like to be stuck in a stuffy, crowded Tro-Tro ( old mini bus) without a proper cooling system.

However, the traffic queus at the busiest junctions are also a wonderful source of entertainment and interest. Crowds of street sellers mingle with the stationary traffic, carrying their wares — sachets of water, chocolate, newspapers, phone cards, paintings and local crafts – mostly on trays balanced on their heads. It is amusing to see how the sellers, many of them women and children, juggle goods and money whilst darting in and out of the cars and buses, trying to complete a sale before the traffic moves on. On our second visit we had the bizarre experience of people dressed as circus clowns staring through the vehicle window at us while we waited for the red light to change. When we went out for a walk through the local area, we encountered a whole host of these sellers by the side of the road, hanging about all day in the hot sunshine in the hope of making a bit of money. The first man tried to sell me a large clock! The second one had a big hologram picture of Jesus. At one angle it showed the Nativity scene, but twist it just a little and it depicted the crucifixion.

As in many countries, including Britain, there is a wide gulf between the rich and the poor in Ghana. Off the main thoroughfares, the roads become narrow, pot-holed, unsurfaced tracks. Thay are flanked by lines of little shacks which are both peoples’ homes and places of business. Children, dogs, chickens and the occasional goat run around not far from open drains. Once we saw someone washing himself in public in the street. We also spotted people pounding dough or porridge in a wooden tub with a pole. In towns and villages, people sit around in tiny cafes chatting. After sunset, they sit almost completely in darkness, just briefly illuminated by the sweep of our headlamps. One evening in the build up to the wedding celebration, we drove across Accra after dark, passing many of these shanty towns of roughly built shacks. Nearby however, in sharp contrast, were the palacious,”Dallas-like” mansions of the rich, set in spacious grounds, surrounded by high walls and tall gates and guarded by security men. Once through the gate, we swapped dirt and dust for green topiary and lush, finely manicured lawns.  It was as if the two sets of people existed on different planets.

Chris and I experienced wonderful hospitality in Ghana from everyone we encountered irrespective of their wealth or station. I was informed by my son’s new mother-in-law that Ghanaians never ask their visiters when they intend leaving. In their culture this would be regarded as very rude. The friendliness and kindness of the Ghanaian people is very noticeable and a definite plus for any visiter to the country. I suspect that this applies to many other African countries as well. Someone told me that once you have been to Africa and experienced the warmth of the welcome, you will always yearn to go back.

I could go on and on about our experiences in Ghana which had many memorable highlights. We visited historical castles, a spectacular waterfall, beautiful beaches, interesting architecture, exotic wild-life, luxuriant vegetation and so on. The country is full of bright colours with its red earth, blue sea and sky, green forests and yellow sun. Then there are the vibrant colours and geometric or chequered patterns of the traditional kente cloth worn by the people on special occasions and displayed in the markets.

However this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide book or extensive travelogue. It’s merely a few fleeting impressions of a fascinating country which I ended up visiting because of a chance series of encounters. I can also confirm that Cadburys were right when they identified Ghana, as the land of the cocoa tree. We sheltered from the sun under one in the garden that was the venue for my son’s cultural wedding. The pods were just like the cardboard replica sent to me through the post many moons ago.