Ghana an underrated gem
Ghana is regarded as one of the most visitor friendly countries of West Africa. For me, there were two highlights; the coastal fringe, colourful, vibrant but with a dark history, and the far north, much of which remains centred on village and small towns with strong traditions. There is also a divide in terms of religion, with the south being predominantly Christian, and the north predominantly Muslim.
As with most people, I started and ended my journey in Accra. The city does not stand out as a great tourist attraction despite being the ‘Gold Coast's’ de facto capital during the early part of the 20th century. The locals will give you the stadium and the theatre as ‘must sees’, and there are some prime examples of soviet style architecture. But give it time; wander the streets, round the markets, and down to the sea front and a vibrant character soon emerges.
The most fascinating part of the town centres on the fishing harbour below the lighthouse. Initially, I found my way down avoiding the touts who ply the slipway by the lighthouse claiming variously that it’s not safe without a guide, that a ticket is required, or that permission is required from the chief. On later visits, a smile and a joke seemed to suffice. Wandering alone led to pleasant interactions with boatbuilders fishermen, women smoking fish over barrels of charcoal and men repairing nets.
Nearby, is the only one remaining fort open to the public, fort Usher. When I say open to the public, it took several returns to find anyone to open it up and then a great deal of banging on bars to wake him up. This is where Nkruma was locked away during his days attempting to remove the colonial masters. It’s an interesting legacy of British colonial rule, and a stark contrast to the touristed homestay of Nelson Mandella. Nkruma was to become head of the first independent former colony in Africa.
But as my time in Accra and Ghana increased, so did my fascination with the very welcoming people and their markets.
My journey took me north to Kumasi, a major commercial centre and centre of the Ashanti region. There are few tourist sites, although the military museum gives quite an insight into colonial days and the Ashanti wars.
One rather peculiar artefact is the ‘sword in the stone’. The legend attached to this is strangely similar to the British legend associated with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A sword is embedded in a stone. In this case, however, there really is a sword set in a stone, and rather than waiting for someone to remove it, while it remains there the Ashanti kingdom will stay unities. Despite its fame in Ashanti history it was not easy to locate (let alone remove from the stone.)
Kumasi is also the home to Kejetia market, reputedly the largest market in West Africa. I was warned that photography would be quite impossible. Initially, the crush of humanity, the seemingly aggressive sales pitches and the sense of total loss of direction left me loath to bring out a camera. But quite quickly, the unfamiliar becomes the familiar. A few jibes with local traders, the offers of totally impractical souvenirs from vast fruits to new shoes, and the warmth of the market is revealed. With the camera ready, the reluctance continues. But as usual there is one extrovert. The first few picture need to be good, as then everyone wants to see the result.
‘What? How can you possibly want to see her picture when you wouldn’t allow one of you?’
At this point there’s a clamour to have a picture!
Lake Botsumwi is a delightful spot to spend a few days relaxing. It’s an enormous circular lake, at one time believed to be volcanic, but now thought to be the result of a meteor strike. It makes for pleasant walks in the surrounding villages
On to Tamale
The bus journey to Tamale was not easy, or more accurately, finding a bus was not easy. If I had been prepared to get up early and take the bus at 6.00 am all would have been simple, or so it seemed. This was never tested. What was tested was taking a later bus of which ‘there are plenty’. I blame it all on my relaxed state of mind. It was too far to walk to the bus station so I took a taxi. There was the bus to Tamale.
‘When does the bus leave?’ I innocently enquired.
‘When it’s full.’ came the answer.
‘When do you think that might be?’
‘This afternoon, or maybe tomorrow morning.’
On closer examination of the seats, and counting the bags on them indicating ownership, I realised the bus had only three firm passengers. At best this bus would be a night bus. I enquired about alternatives, assuming there were other buses at this bus station. That was not to be and I headed off to a bus station some minutes drive away.
Several bus stations later the correct approach dawned on me. ‘If I were to buy a ticket to Tamale, what number ticket would it be?’ Only if the answer is greater than 50 should one buy the ticket.
Eventually, with ticket number 52 and crammed in the back seat, my view obscured by mattress owned by a young woman starting a teaching job near Tamale, I set off.
This was my first experience of the odd mix of an avid adherence to Christianity with an entrepreneurial spirit. A preacher arrived on the bus with what seemed to be stories from the bible. Sitting at the back, I found it hard to decipher exactly what the stories were. My discreet questioning of my neighbour was met with disapproval. This was a serious matter not to be interrupted. The bus compliment was in rapt attention to the story. But then a strange thing happened. He brought out a small tin containing a powder. This seemed to be the elixir of life. It would cure everything from constipation to infertility, from rheumatism to TB. I asked whether it would correct my baldness. ‘Oh yes,’ I was seriously assured. Having sold several tins and other items, the preacher, job done, took his bag and left. Needless to say, I did not test its efficacy for baldness.
After a dreadful first night in Tamale, in a grubby soulless hotel with a dubious water supply, I moved across the road to a Catholic establishment which seems to be the home of all NGOs and other expats. Nothing like a clean room and good food to raise the spirit. The ‘feel’ of Tamale is very different to the other Ghana towns I had so far experienced; dry and dusty, with little high rise, or even low rise development. Ethnically, it’s very different too and spiritually, largely Muslim, rather than the largely Christian south.