VIGNETTES OF GHANA

[My sister-in-law came to visit me in October. Since she has a writing background I asked her if she would write a guest post on this blog. I hope you enjoy her views of Ghana as much as I did. Check out her photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/46201642@N04/ ]

 In my first glimpse of Accra on the drive from Kotoka International Airport I began to suspect that Ghana must be ruled by four powerful tribal chiefs named Vodafone, Tigo, Zain and MTN. These cell phone companies’ logos are almost everywhere. Their distinctive, bright colors of pink/red, blue, purple and yellow glare from signs, businesses and even in the paint jobs of homes and roadside shacks.

The last few minutes took us through dusty, modestly poor, suburban streets to the beautiful Erata Hotel, a pastel blue-and-white enclosure with gaited walls topped by concertina wire. It’s an upscale place but not really opulent—not by American standards, anyway—but clean and cool. It boasts spacious rooms and two good-sized swimming pools where the manager’s young children frolicked. They were a girl and a boy whose exuberant splashing and diving were a delight to photograph.  These little hams gave an exhibition of Ghanaian kids that endured throughout my visit:  joyful, curious, friendly, chocolate-skinned creatures of pristine beauty.

The evening’s entertainment at the Erata was poolside too, a local, unnamed band with guitars, drums and an electronic keyboard.  I settled in with an excellent rice and vegetable dish and a glass of Merlot (actually a little airplane bottle as wine is fairly scarce here) anticipating intricate Ghanaian melodies. Instead they played American show tunes and pop music, especially Elvis classics. Good thing I didn’t mind these soulful renditions of “Brue Swede Shoes” and “You Ain’t Nothin But a Hun Dug.” Eventually a younger singer took over and enchanted with African and Caribbean rhythms.

Fracturing the English language (Ghana’s official tongue since independence from Britain in 1957 and the only one taught in public schools) is an amusing art form here:  road signs (Overspeeding  Kills. 38 people Died Here!); motel notice (Items that go missing is responsibility of owner. Not the management.); restaurant menu (seaf food, shrimps dinner, mashed hommos); fancy beach resort pamphlet (try our physically challenged facilities), and hotel meals that feature delicious Chinese.

You’ll be intrigued by the linguistic inventiveness of businesspeople.  My favorites are Fast Food Very Good, So Nice Cold Store, Immaculate Conception Drinking Spot, Allah’s Store, Sweet Jesus Supermarket, Wicked Cuts Hair Salon, Capable God Company Limited, and Together Again Vulgarizing Shop.  I suspect they mean vulcanizing but maybe it’s for individuals who are too prissy.

Restaurant service is sometimes excellent but more often fair to dreadful, according to Western expectations.  Food is brought in spasms and there can be as much as one-half hour between serving the first and last person at a table. Serving size is more than ample, although vegetarian choices are limited. Cheese is rarely offered although the goat variety is available. At a marketplace cafe I ordered a salad (made with shredded cabbage as fresh vegetables and fruit are curiously scarce here) and also asked for bread. The lovely, solicitous owner brought a huge salad sandwich made with bread fresh from her oven.  It was delicious.

                                                                        Children

 At another open-air restaurant we were delighted by a precious little girl, maybe three years old, and wearing bright barrettes in her carefully coiffed hair, who insisted on wandering freely among the tables. She would stop beside seated customers to stand silently smiling at our knee level. We eventually lost interest and she meandered off. Ten minutes later her mother appeared to return my heisted purse, an overloaded bag that had been parked on the floor. The woman apologized and returned to her nearby table where the little girl sat squirming on her daddy’s lap.                                           

My tour mate Brian suggested we look around for an Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist’s leader of child thieves and pickpockets.

This charming toddler is clearly a child of affluence but no less beautiful and spontaneous are those in rural villages who, at around age ten, get after-school jobs. You see them everywhere helping shopkeeper parents, peddling food or electronic devices, package carrying, water hauling or rounding up the free ranging goats, sheep, chickens or guinea fowl. They all looked happy and healthy to me with one exception. I was approached by three Muslim cow herders. They looked malnourished, wore dirty, ragged clothes and bore obvious signs of skin disease. They spoke no English, using hand to mouth gestures to ask for food. I couldn’t help giving them cash, even though warned against the promotion of begging.

Later I was told they were probably exempted from public schooling for religious reasons and would spend their days watching over the brahma cows that grazed freely in the fields around the village.

                                                                    Domestic Animals

Goats are considered walking savings accounts and they are as common as pigeons in American cities. They usually run free or lie along roads, even in big cities. Goats generally move away from approaching traffic, by a few feet anyway. Often they must be encouraged to these life-saving maneuvers by swerving vehicles and hectoring horn blowing. The custom when a driver hits one is to find the owner and politely tell of the accident. It is the responsibility of that owner to remove the carcass and dispose of it somehow.  Often at least the skin is saved but Muslims throw the whole thing away because of strict rules regarding slaughter. At least I’m told that is customary.

Much fewer in numbers but presenting a more alarming traffic hazard are the free-range cows that move between and among cars in the clogged traffic of big cities. In Tamale I saw an untended herd of four or five of these large, humped beasts waiting patiently on a traffic island. When the time was right they walked unhurriedly to the other side.

Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, also contains a considerable contingent of goat-sheep-cow citizens who must share the streets with the million-plus human inhabitants, most of whom seem to be bicycling, motorcycling, driving, trucking, taxi riding or walking that moment. I expect that driving licenses are granted on the basis of amazing steering and braking skills. No wonder the Peace Corps absolutely forbids its volunteers to drive in-country.

                                                                     Police

Well armed and uniformed in camouflage blue and grey or black, police are mostly young males who man the frequent roadblocks and toll stations between cities. We found them to be respectful to foreigners but they are believed to be corrupt in penny-ante ways. The job is undemanding physically but poorly paid, I was told, and it’s not unusual to be asked for a “gift” because “we protected you.”  On one occasion we handed over the local equivalence of sixty-five cents each and they seemed satisfied. Later I wished I’d suggested a free donut instead.

Another incidence illustrates my American naiveté more than police corruptibility.

Our tour driver was stopped for speeding (utterly guilty) through a village at school let-out time. His choice was to surrender his license and return tomorrow for adjudication in court or pay a roadside “fine” then and there. While negotiations ensued an Inspector arrived. She chose to question the tourists and allowed us out of the vehicle for polite but stern inquiries. But after discovering her joyful enthusiasm for Barack Obama I asked if she happened to have one of his campaign buttons. “Oh, no,” she said, so I gave her one that I had carried in my luggage to reward some child in this Obama-mad country. She was thrilled. We shook hands and she returned to the discussion between our tour guide and her patrolmen. Immediately our driver hurried back to the Land Rover and we drove off.

He explained the situation, unknown to us before this, and we asked how much money he had to pay them. “Nothing,” he said, “they knew better.”

So.  Some might say I bribed a Ghanaian police officer with a humble campaign button. I prefer to think of the transaction as a culture-sensitive gesture of good will.

                                                                    Pikworo

Our introduction to slave trade, which was centered in Ghana and other regions of the Gold Coast, began with a visit to Pikworo. It is the preserved site of an inland collection point for Africans captured throughout the region and sold to slave merchants. They were brought to this lush savannah to be broken into permanent captivity and sorted out for survival strength. Mostly men, they were shackled and beaten and nearly starved, having to fight among themselves for food and water.

Our site guide, an earnest and well-spoken young man, explained that these prisoners were from many sources: tribal war captives, convicted criminals, mentally impaired outcasts, kidnapped citizens of a neighboring village or just sold by their destitute families. Procuring agents were usually Africans, our guide said. Their favorite currency was liquor and guns. Those enslaved who lived through a few weeks of Pikworo were walked south to the coast where they were kept in slave trade fortresses until shipment under horrific conditions to the Americas. As we learned later from another guide there was never a brighter day for most of these victims. Life always went downhill.

                                                                    Ancestral River Park

This historic place in Assin Manso was another stop on the newly enslaved victims’ trek of tears. Here they were allowed to bathe and were given enough food to enable the last stage of their journey to the coast. It is a well developed site with painted displays of slave trade resisters and abolitionists (including William Garrison and Harriet Tubman among many others) and sandstone crypts of two regional men who were sent to the United States and Jamaica. Their remains are reinterred here. There is also a Memorial Wall of Return with the signatures of visitors whose ancestors traced here.

We met the wonderful Ofori family, who live in the park, and communicated well with their eldest son, Charles.  His English was excellent and he had many questions about Britain and America, where he hopes to study one day. That is typically the biggest dream of smart, young Ghanaians, I’m told.  A younger brother was kicking around a rather pathetic soccer ball when Brian, British aerospace engineer and confessed football fanatic, offered one of the six balls and jerseys he had brought along for distribution to children. The whole family followed us back to the vehicle, where Brian made his presentation.  It’s hard to believe that any child ever received a gift more joyfully than that little boy.

                                                                     Arts & Crafts

The first of many shopping opportunities—and I did my very best to raise Ghana’s GNP a point or two—came at TK Beads. They make traditional glass jewelry, mainly with recycled bottles and jars. These castoffs are pulverized by hand to a fine powder, then dyed and poured into bead moulds. The moulds are baked in wood-fired kilns to fuse the glass powder together, making beads which then may be hand painted and strung together in astonishingly different configurations.

Our demonstrator and soft-sell salesman was Roger, a boy of perhaps 12. Apparently TK’s public relations manager, Roger’s communication skills must thrill his bilingual educators.

Another fascinating artistic experience came with our stop at the Boakye family’s weaving/printing operation in Ntunso. They produce primary- colored Adinkra cloth of intricate designs and imprinted with ancient symbols carved from calabash shells. They make their black dye from boiling Badie tree bark with iron filings. Closely supervised by Peter Boakye, a handsome, graceful artist/manager, we designed and imprinted our own banners with three selected symbols.  Mine were Gye Nyame (omnipotence and immortality), Adinkrahene (king) and Bi-nnka(bite not one another).

Peter is westernized enough to wrap us in yards of this “royal” cloth—like denim but heavier and far more colorful—before urging the purchase of this magnificent finery so obviously being worn by those to the manor born.

                                                                      Historical

Speaking of royalty, we also toured the Prempeh II Jubilee Museum near Kumasi.  (No photographs allowed for reasons commercial, I suspect.) This immaculate complex with sophisticated displays and highly professional guide staff must be seen to appreciate the Ashanti tribe as the biggest and baddest in all Ghana. I especially liked the almost incidental inclusion of a wax figure of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa. She is seated with a rifle on her lap and possesses the steeliest gaze this side of Hilary Clinton. 

Queen Mothers are literally the power behind the throne (or golden stool, as Ashantis call it) in this tribe’s history as they advise the king and get to name his successor. As they usually choose one of their own sons it is a matrilineal lineage.  In 1900 Yaa Asantewaa provoked the country’s War of Independence by reluctant tribal leaders. After shaming them into voting for a siege of the colonial British fortress at Kumasi  she remarked that “the ghost widows in heaven will have husbands tomorrow.”

This uprising failed only when the British brought in several thousand additional troops and artillery. The Queen Mother was captured and exiled for her final twenty years. I imagine her shaking her fist at the English oppressors even on her death bed.

                                                                    Wildlife

Undomesticated animal sightseeing began at the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary where hundreds of Monas and Colobuses live near villagers who protect these sacred charges.  While our elderly sanctuary guide’s accent made him nearly incomprehensible, he conveyed respect, even affection, for the monkeys.  Some of the bolder creatures took bananas from our hands although my offer of processed banana chips was met with rude disdain.

I was most struck with the graveyard these villagers maintain for monkeys found dead.  A funeral ceremony attends each burial, marked by a wooden cross with the animal’s species type, sex and death date. There are no individual names on these little monuments because the monkeys are, after all, wild animals who just happen to share this primitive paradise with humans.

We saw Nile crocodiles warming themselves on the banks of Lake Hanson. They looked like plastic replicas until one opened his mouth slowly to exhaust surplus heat from their solar energy absorption.

At Mole National Park, Ghana’s largest wildlife preserve, we experienced several species close up.  With an experienced, rifle-toting ranger we trudged through a two-hour walking safari. Kob deer and bushbucks froze to stare at us briefly before dashing away.  That was interesting but kind of a letdown, even with our expectations lowered with the revelation that no Big Cat predators existed in this part of Africa. Then, headed back to the park’s motel we were tipped about an elephant nearby in a mud hole.  We walked quietly up to maybe fifty yards of the massive beast who simply ignored us while sucking up muddy water to spray on his back. While shutters clicked and camcorders whirred I sneaked closer when our ranger took an apparently urgent cell phone call. When he turned back to check on his rookie charges he gasped and stage whispered to “get back, slowly, right now.” I obeyed, reluctantly.  The elephant betrayed no sign of noticing the improper intrusion and I got some great pictures.

Avian wildlife prevails at Mole (pronounced mo-lay), especially laughing doves, whose strange cries seem oddly demented. I liked best the crows in Ghana with their white bellies and clerical collars, like tuxedo cats in my home territory.

Most visible around the enclosures at Mole are olive baboons who live in the forest nearby but not close to the people. They generally tolerated our presence but moved away with uneasy grace when their comfort range, about twenty feet, was breached. Patas monkeys like to sit upright on posts with their arms resting on imaginary tables. They seemed to study the human species but don’t invite familiarity.

Undoubtedly the most ubiquitous large animals around the human buildings were warthogs. They are hairy, tusked animals about the size of Labrador Retrievers but with glorious whiskers and knees calloused from grubbing on the ground as they graze. Warthogs keep a few yards distance from us but watch out for dropped or left behind food. My closest observation came by surprise at early dawn one day when I approached the motel swimming pool. There on the deep end was a large, dark shape stretched out on a chaise lounge chair. Close up, I recognized it as a warthog but he was so still I thought him deceased. A few feet closer and he opened an eye. I stepped back, then ran to my room for a camera. But he was gone when I returned. Damn.

                                                                      Coastal Slave Forts

Our excursion along the coast included two of West Africa’s monuments to the 400-year horror that was the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Cape Coast Castle and The Castle at St. George’s .  They are whitewashed stone edifices, well preserved and magnificent in malignant ways. They are embarkation points for the international trade routes that began with gold and spices but expanded to more lucrative cargo in the late 1400s. Arguably the ugliest stain on all human history, the slave trade was run over time by Christian Europeans: Portuguese, Swedes, Danes, Dutch, French, Spaniards and the British for their eager colonists in the Americas.

Our tour mentors calmly explained how hundreds of African captives were crammed into dungeons for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes their food was thrown at them. They had to forage on top of accumulated feces, urine and even corpses.  Water too came from hatches high in the stone walls. The strongest “cupped their hands to drink or suck each others hair,” in the words of a guide book.

Comely women were raped repeatedly. Any children they bore were killed or taken away if they looked biracial enough. These people were allowed to survive and were kept off the ships to become servants and jailors. It was a system that punished its immediate practioners too, sending them to early deaths from disease, insanity and alcohol poisoning.  West Africa became known as the “white man’s grave.”

I heard no bitter denunciations from any Ghanaians of their racial oppressors, only determination to preserve the historical record and recognize that beneficial changes came also from this white intrusion into their ancestors’ lives. They spoke of better government organizations,  new methods of agriculture and construction,  public health institutions,  suppression of brutal tribal conflicts and, especially, the spread of mandatory public education for children. All from contact with Western culture.

Christianity in several forms accumulated a lot of wealth in converts and goods during its spread in Africa, beginning with the slave trade. Western religious influence remains substantial today in Ghana (where sixty-some percent of the populace claims adherence to a Christian church and there’s a large contingent of Muslims) as seen in the parochial schools, clinics and associated businesses. The most seem to be Catholic with many variations of Protestant, particularly Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian. I expect that sectarian lobbies are politically powerful in this country.

[Full disclosure requires me to reveal that I’m a devout agnostic with serious reservations about the net effect of religious organizations on human social evolution.]

                                                                     Sandema

After my 14-day Ashanti Tribal Trek throughout Ghana I flew to the northernmost region for a few days with Vicky Chase, dear sister-in-law, intrepid librarian and Peace Corps teacher. She lives in a cement-block hut with electricity but no running water. It is graced with a bucket-flush toilet, however, so one does not have to go into the bush or use a “squatty potty” provided in less affluent domiciles. Her yard is mostly dirt but local custom requires daily sweeping with a handless broom. Neighbor children sweep Vicky’s yard every morning because, she says, “apparently my sweeping isn’t up to community standards. “

At her workplace, Sandema Senior High and Technical School, I met many eagerly friendly and curious students in this state-run complex. Most are boarders there, filling the classrooms (crowded) and cafeterias (standing only) and dormitories (cramped) in their pastel-colored uniforms like flocks of tropical birds. Their hair is kept closely cut, clothes must be kept clean and they live by an authoritarian system that imposes as much as hierarchical order as is possible with teenagers.

The students I got to know by name seem irrepressible, however. And even the shy ones tend to face newcomers with a smile and a sincere sounding “how ARE you?” At first I thought this was but the borrowed regard they feel for Madam Vicky but when alone I received the same greeting from villagers and strangers. It’s not a black/white thing, I was told, but the Ghanaian custom to be courteous to all, just common human decency. Also, offers of help were frequent, even from strangers. But that may come from my appearance as a markedly clueless obruni in a sea of dark faces.

Interestingly, the term obruni is one I heard a lot from fascinated small children who came running up to stare and smile during village stops.  “Obruni, Obruni!” Thinking it was African code for white devil or something, I asked Yaw, our tour conductor, for exact translation. It means cornflower hair, he said, and implies only a white person designation, not disrespect.

Respect is, in fact, the general attitude of Ghanaians toward others, even those of another stripe. Their cultural cleaving into families, clans and tribes doesn’t foster any xenophobic suspicion of outsiders, it seems. How do they manage that?

 By Melanie Steward

December, 2009

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