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.
To Mole National Park
I had read of Mole National Park, but was slightly put off by the expense of the lodge and the apparent difficulty in getting there. Both these concerns were easily overcome. The first was solved by talking to people at the bus station. It seemed that the only problem would come in returning from Mole when visitors expect to be picked up by a bus passing Mole entrance. Buses only depart from their origin when they are full which means that the only way passengers are picked up en route is when a passenger gets off. The solution is simply to get to a local bus station. The accommodation was solved by striking up a deal on arrival. Although not quite the delights of a Kenyan safari as I was to discover later, my few days there were a real pleasure. The highlight was when an elephant came to bath in the pool below the lodge. Meeting an African elephant on foot is an awesome experience.
On the way to Mole is an intriguing mosque. The style is somewhat disparagingly referred to as ‘stick and mud’; being essentially, mud bricks and timber. The imam was said to be well over 100 years old.
The journey also involved meeting a beautifully dressed group of women going to a wedding.
Journeying north to Bolgatanga
Bolgatanga did not seem to be well equipped for tourism. There is a tourist office; somewhat unhelpful. After persuading the officer not to shut up shop at a little after 4.00 pm, standing next to a sign indicating it closes at 5.00, I realised his main concern was to get me a car a driver. This apparent lack of enthusiasm for tourists is a great pity. It’s the most northerly city and has a very different feel to those in the south. It has a drier climate, the majority religion is Muslim, and the countryside around contains many traditional villages with unique religious and other practices.
The border with Bukina Faso
I was slightly frustrated by the Ghanaian consulate in London by being refused a multiple entry visa. It was only when I collected the visa that I found they were not issued on the first application. I had hoped to be able to travel into Bukina Faso and Togo. Nevertheless I decided to travel from Bolgatanga to Paga to take a peep at the border.
The border itself is interesting as an important trading route from the north to south of Africa. Most trucks seemed to be carrying cattle, and certainly it was trucks, with virtually no other vehicles. The once popular traveller route down the western side of Africa seems to have faded away, probably because of the difficulties of travel in a number of the sub Saharan countries..
Near the borer at Paga is a pool of crocodiles; a sacred pool of sacred crocodiles. These crocodiles are famed for their total disinterest in feeding on human beings to the point that a tourist attraction was to drag a crocodile from the pool and hold it by its tail. In the absence of tourists, it seemed more a potential tourist attraction.
Nearby a man claiming to be a tourist officer took me on his motorbike to a number of surrounding villages for a small fee. In this area there are a small number of Mossi people who live manly in Burkino Faso. Their lifestyle contrasts strongly with the more traditional local lifestyles which I was to see later.
This was an area of intense slave activity. Little remains of the slave camp buitl in the 16th century, except for mass grave markers, punishment sites, and strange bowls carved in the rocks from which the slaves were made to eat.
The Tonga Hills
The most interesting aspect of the area around Bolgatanga are the Tonga Hills and the Tengzung shrines. It seemed impossible to get into this area without the expense of a tour and driver. My experience from the Mossi people left me uncomfortable about being taken to places. In my experience, walking and meeting people as you go gives a much better opportunity to interact in an open and honest manner.
By chance, one of the young girls working in the hotel was planning to go home for her mother to do her hair. She happened to live in Tongo. We could share the taxi costs and the taxi driver could take me the 4 extra kilometres to Tengzung.
Arriving at Tengzung I was told I must see the chief to get permission to visit the village. The man sits on of a sort of throne, seemingly doing little more than listening to the radio. I was shown round the village, a fine example of a walled African village of the Tallensi people. The slave trade features strongly in the traditions of this area. Unlike the more open villages of other parts of Africa, where hedges serve as boundaries to keep out wild animals and keep cattle in, these villages are walled in an attempt to keep out slave traders, often groups of men from different tribes.
The village consist of tightly packed round houses with round stores and ancestral shrines. The remains of chicken can be seen on what appear to be sacrificial altars. Women worked preparing food and children ran around excited by the visitor.
I was taken to one of the shrines in the hillside behind the village. The way up was a scramble over boulders, passing a number of seemingly lesser shrines festooned with animal skulls. We waited near the opening of the cave which formed the main shrine. A number of important village men led the way in. Somewhat bizarrely, a bare chest and bare knees were required before entering. My beloved camera was not allowed. Inside it was dark with only shafts of light penetrating. A man dressed in an animal skin sat amongst animal bones, chicken feathers and blood stained rocks. What it all meant I do not know, but such activities do cause one to reflect on traditions closer to home. Church services conducted by men in gowns and tall hats waving smoking vessels, or screaming babies being doused with cold water are equally mystifying.
The Ghana Coast
The coastline is steeped in history; a dark history, the history of the slave trade. Forts which in most other parts of the world would represent defence against invading armies, in Ghana represent mustering grounds for slaves brought from the African interior. While in the interior the trade is constantly in the background, on the coast it starkly confronts. The sheer scale of the operation, not just in the associated infrastructure but in the vast numbers who suffered and the vast numbers who plundered human labour becomes apparent. As a westerner, I have long been conscious of the involvement of the European colonial powers, hungry for human labour for the sugar plantations, but I was not aware of the scale of Arab and fellow African involvement.
Yet the coastline is also stunningly beautiful. The smaller fishing towns and villages centre on harbours with brightly coloured boats, and are backed by lush green hills, some still retaining mighty forest hardwoods.
While the major fort towns are the main haunts of tourists, some of the smaller communities offer beautiful coastal walks with opportunities to hike to coastal villages where fishing is the main income. They are colourful places, but generally marred by a lack of infrastructure and concern for the environment. The opportunities for tourism are all present and some have picked up on the prospect of surfing.
One interesting situation cropped up in one of the villages. I was descended on by villagers and politely yet firmly told not to photograph. This is usually about the sensitivity of the people, and I’ll live with that. In this case, however, the demand was not to photograph anything. The locals were insistent that this was the order of the chief and it was clear that the people I was speaking to were not going to want to or be able to change this. I wanted to get to the bottom of it. The village was in a stunning setting, a sandy bay, brightly coloured boats, all backed with verdant forest. Eventually, I persuaded a local man to take me to meet the chief. With the help of an interpreter, we met and had a constructive discussion. I was shocked at where his concern originated. Many of the children play naked on the beach. Whether as a result of incidents or reputation, he was concerned that tourists would want to photograph the children. We discussed it at some length, with me suggesting that the issues should be tackled with the individual suspects rather than blocking off all potential tourists from seeing this beautiful area of Ghana. What he had not seen was how photos on the internet act as a resource for people seeking beautiful resorts. Whoever is right, he was happy for me to take pictures of this stunning area.