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Friday, 25 March 2011

Prostitutes, Slaves and Seamstresses

Sign above prison for condemned convicted guards and soldiers

This post is long overdue, but better this than blog written but project deadlines unmet. Last weekend began what I now think of as the Great Ghana Experience, and it included all characters from all three categories in the post's title.Thursday night is the new Friday in my opinion, and I like to celebrate with a toast to the week with Amanda. This Thursday we were lucky to be able to dine with a new friend and colleague I've met through CARE who happened to be in Accra to act as facilitator on a week-long training program. We met at the Shangri-la hotel, which is nothing like the chain hotels it shares a name with.

Bywel's bar

Outside near the large pool we sit in the outside dining area surrounded by packs of small, predatory cats. Their small size makes them more disconcerting if anything, as they look stunted and the hungrier for their petite forms. Around our legs they miaow at us whilst we eat our houmous and spring roll (!) combination of appetisers, as if they've never been fed. It's not the best advertisement for an eaterie, but the food at this strange mix of African, Chinese and western cultured hotel is actually not too bad, and it's great to have a chance to catch up with friends.

St George Castle, Cape Coast

Onwards at around 10 Amanda and I head to Bywel's, a bar I haven't heard of so far. We almost don't go as both of us are shattered from another week of hard work, but when we turn up we're glad that we did. An outdoor bar hidden among a quiet suburban street in Osu, Accra, Bywel's is a real den of iniquity, or probably would be, given half a chance. Loud Afro-beat and local music is played live by a menagerie of musicians, and before them on the small dance floor men and women of all ages and nationalities move their bodies to the casual rhythms. I'm struck by the prevalence of white middle aged men, and lovely black young women. And gradually I realise why this combination has more significance. I'm here to meet Vince, a friend of a friend from home. Unfortunately I have no idea what he looks like, he has no idea what I look like, and since I know he's "coming with friends at 10.30" I worry that 10.30 = 10.30 Ghana time. Which could pretty much be any time before the same time next week.

After my first embarrassing query of 'Are you Vince?' is met in the negative I try a different tack and start asking people for the time instead. When a German or French accent replies, I know I'm still no closer to finding Vince. And luckily these punters are much more interested in the females for hire than the random white woman who needs to buy a watch. I finally strike gold - literally - when I spot a man with a wedding ring and he turns out to be Vince, and we spend an hour or so soaking up the music, night sky and courtship (or courtesan) rituals around us. This bar doesn't care for high class glamour, cocktails or neon lights. (If you don't believe me, risk a visit to the women's toilet. Actually perhaps it's not worth it...) The music's loud, the beer's cold. The women are pretty and the chat is good. Cheers Accra.

Cape Coast from Prospect Place Hotel

On Friday Amanda and I have decided to head west for the weekend to the Cape Coast, another Ghana 'must-see'. This was the original capital of The Gold Coast, and its two main towns Cape Coast and Elmina are sites of former trading posts, first in goods and later human traffic. Getting out of Accra on a Friday night, with the incessant traffic seething down every narrow road, proves a challenge and we arrive around eight on Friday night after a three hour drive. Everywhere in Cape Coast town is open for business, though and we navigate through very narrow streets heaving with merchants and the locals selling, buying and chatting - seemingly all at the same time.

Our hotel Prospect Place lives up to its name, and in the morning when we rise early to start our sight seeing tour we can see Fort William on the hill ahead, one of a large number of look out posts in this part of Ghana, now used as a lighthouse. Cape Coast is quite hilly in general, good for spying the mix of corrugated iron roofs over the simple shacks, in among the sleeker cream-painted business buildings and the crumbling ruins of centuries past. As we head out of the town farther to the west, again the town is heaving at 8 in the morning as people go about their business - a boy brushes his teeth and spits into the sewer; a woman carries freshly smoked fish, beautifully arranged on a wide flat circular platter, on her head; children run among the cars, half dressed and women lay out their small market stalls side by side by side.

'London Bridge' in Cape Coast

First to Kakum national park to take on the canopy walk, some 40 metres above the rain forest. This was fun, even for someone as frightened of heights as me. Being hemmed in by the entwined ropes helped, and we were kept moving by the classes of uniformed school children waiting to follow us out. Not much wildlife to be seen. Apart from the children! But stunning to see the density of trees and shrubs humming in the heat of the day.

School traffic on the canopy walk

On from the green forest to the white walls of Elmina and St George Castle, our first experience of historical Ghana other than the museum. Learning the torture, rape and starvation slaves endured within the castles' walls was very harrowing, particularly at St George Castle, which was run by the British. Two thirds of the slaves being held prior to transportation died before they ever entered the 'Door of No Return' and the waiting boats. Through the door of no return only one slave could pass at a time, shackled with heavy chains to the others.

The female slaves who became pregnant after being raped by the guards at the castles were the luckier ones. In Elmina they often escaped transportation, and after giving birth in the town rather than in captivity, their children were raised locally and they became domestic slaves. Those in St George Castle also gave birth outside of the castle, but then were brought back to complete their original purpose as transported slaves.

At Kakum on the canopy walk

From the stark white walls and blazing heat we hit the road again early on Sunday and returned to Accra, just in time to avoid the traffic for one of the many popular football matches taking place at the stadium. Time for a long sleep before Monday's work came around once more, with the faint cries of thousands of football fanatics humming in the distance.

The door of no return, Elmina

I at last got around to buying fabric for more lovely clothes, made by Lydia, the local seamstress whose tiny purple hut is situated across the road from the CARE office. Lydia seems to work miracles with clothes. Not only did she produce stunning Ghanaian outfits for us, but she can copy clothes and make replicas in different fabrics for you, so I just couldn't say no. For 10 cedis (£4) you can have a brand new Reiss dress in a Ghanaian print, with the only additional cost of the fabric (about another £6-7!) BARGAIN! Hoping to post pictures in future posts when I've collected my new African wardrobe. Watch this space.

Lydia the dress maker and me with my shiniest forehead yet

Friday, 11 March 2011

Coastal Hashing and International Women's Day

Morning walk along the beach, Mankoadze

On Saturday morning Amanda and I set out on our adventure up the coast to the hash weekend, beginning, naturally with some lunch to set us up for the journey. We're heading up the coast for this once-a-month weekend away, which we're able to enjoy all the more since it's Independence Day in Ghana on Sunday, and everyone is taking a public holiday to celebrate 54 years of independence.

At Asanka Local, Chop Bar

Asanka Local is a 'chop' (food) bar in central Osu, a massive dance hall-like place with a very high ceiling and simple wooden tables and chairs. It seems it's a local institution, mainly for lunch, and fills up on Saturdays with a mixed crowd of couples out on a date, construction work men taking a break, and of course, the token white travellers. We are here to meet Neil, hash name Sleepy Dick(!) who is a Canadian-born farmer living in Accra, where he and his Ghanaian wife have a farm. Within the open kitchen we saw massive stainless steel bowls filled with dark red stews. They look very similar to me - in colour at any rate - but we're asked to choose between goat, chicken or tilapia, pepper sauce or soups and banku, fufu or rice, so in fact there are many different choices available.

Banku is a dense maize-based pattie shaped like a fat beef burger. With your right hand, you break off a piece of this and dip it into your bowl of sauce, soup and meat to scoop up some of the liquid and eat with some meat. Rather like the Ethiopian injera, the custom is to eat with your right hand and leave your left hand dry; unlike injera, however, the sauces accompanying the banku are runny in consistency, and only a Ghanaian old hand (no pun intended) would be able to eat this without getting sauce everywhere. Wearing a white t-shirt, I decided to opt for a safer option of redred with plantains, which I ate with a fork, but I tasted the banku and sauces, which were spicy and tasty. Most Ghanaians eat this sort of meal for lunch or late afternoon, as the density of banku will challenge the digestive system (and put even the most caffeinated individual to sleep for the rest of the day).

"Sleepy" drives us through Accra to the outskirts, where we sit in traffic jam after jam. Driving, incidentally, is not quite a blood sport in Ghana, but certainly an adventure in playing chicken. Lanes are poorly demarcated, if at all, and one needs to drive with a derring-do attitude that any Londoner would respect. Driving at cars or buses seems to be a necessity if one wants to change lanes or come off at a roundabout turning, in the hope that the cars threatened by this manoeuvre will be valued at a higher price by their drivers than being one space ahead in the endless stream of crawling cars.

The shore, Mankoadze on the second hash run

The outskirts of Accra seem endless; the newly constructed road leading all the way to Takoradi (some 200km away) and beyond has created new business opportunities along the way, and so we pass by a steady number of shops and buildings on our way, lining the street. Beyond them, back from the road, there are rarely more than a handful of houses. The life and industry of these suburban outposts is on the highway, where the vendors sell their fruits, packets of super glue and water bottles to the traffic-jammed travelers, or perhaps fix a flat tyre or provide a cold beer to those staying for a little longer.

Keke's Beach Resort, Makoadze

We head through Winneba to reach Makoadze, a town named originally 'Windy Bay' which then loosened by the Ghanaian accent morphed into Winneba. It's a university town, the buildings of which contrast with the simple roadside huts and grey concrete houses with their manicured lawns and fresh cream-painted stone and glass exteriors. On through this, though, we turn off the road some 10km farther, into the red-dust road leading to Mankoadze and Keke's, our weekend destination.

Setting out on the first hash run

The hashers are already kitted out for the first run when we arrive, so quickly into our trainers and down to meet them and we're suddenly running along the beach, 'On on!' along the hash trail. It's 4pm so the heat has died down from a temperature that could melt glass to one that might mere singe one's hair, and luckily the sea breeze takes the edge off. Over the next two days on the three runs that we do I develop an impressive range of scratches, mosquito bites and sporadic sun burn by running like the mad English woman that I am through the beautiful countryside. Thankfully at the end of every run there's hash circle time where stories and jokes are shared, and beers and ground nuts available in plentiful supply, and we can also run for a dip in the sea, still in running garb, to cool down a bit. Then food, time to chat and relax and read for the rest of the weekend, whilst the gigantic presence sea roars softly in the background. The photographs of Keke's speak for themselves.

Second hash run, where we pass boys paddling furiously out to sea to catch fish

On our final run we have a checkpoint (a chance for the walkers and runners to group together before running off on the next part of the trail) at a skeleton beach cottage a few hundred yards from our hotel. This is actually a cottage begun by none other than child star and sometime political candidate Shirley Temple, who was US ambassador to the Republic of Ghana, I learn, from 1974-1976. Unfortunately given the short length of her tenure, this little cottage was never completed and is probably one of the only reminders of her time spent in Ghana nearly four decades ago.

STC - Shirley Temple's Cottage by the sea

Refreshed after our holiday weekend, it's back to work in the office. Tuesday is International Women's day and the women of CARE Ghana's office have decided to 'warm the seats' of their superiors - most of whom are men - by taking over the desks of their line managers for the morning, whilst wearing traditional Ghanaian dress. Amanda and I have been primed for this activity and are escorted to buy fabric from Oxford Street in Osu, and then to a local dress-maker who keeps a tiny metal hut only a street away from our office, so that she can measure us for our outfits.

Modeling my traditional Ghanaian outfit

The dressmaker is a tiny woman, deafening herself with the religious pop hymns blaring out from her ancient stereo as she churns out vibrant-coloured garments for her clientele. We select our styles from a poster where a variety of styles and fabrics are modeled, and it's as simple as that. Returning from the weekend away to a quiet Monday afternoon, only four days after our first meeting with the dressmaker and our colourful outfits are ready to wear! After practising our walking - the skirts are cut tight traditionally, restricting movement - we head into the office decked out like peacocks for our day celebrating the women of the world. It feels great to be in Ghana contributing to CARE's strategic mission to lift 10 million women and girls out of poverty by 2015 on this day.

Celebrating International Women's Day

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Exploring Accra

Oxford Street, Osu - quite quiet, for once, on a Sunday

Arriving back from Ethiopia, the temperature in Accra seemed even hotter than before, if that was even possible, and I spent most of the week in a jet-lagged haze. Waking up at 4.30 I would have about 2 hours' worth of buzzing energy...sadly not sustainable into work...and thus requiring a large quantity of caffeine, and then a larger quantity of sleep to get through each day.

This sleepiness and heat goes well with sitting around doing not very much, and this seems to be a favourite pastime. In the neighbourhood where we live, for example, there are security guards outside a few of the buildings. The walls around are high, with metal gates hiding the houses or offices for the most part, so it's hard to tell what's going on - if anything - behind. The guards, if they are indeed guards rather than men of ages ranging from between 20 to 60 just hanging out and playing cards, also seem engulfed in the sleepiness of the heat. It really is just too hot to move much. The greatest movements to be seen come from the occasional thrust of a playing card down in a winning move. Or the lizards, darting out from underneath a shrub and quickly skittering into hiding again across the grass.
A lizard out for a stroll

Only a few streets away the life of the city deafens every passer by. "The street is a roadway delineated on both sides by an open sewer. There are no sidewalks. Cars mingle with the crowds. Everything moves in concert - pedestrians, automobiles, bicycles, carts, cows and goats." So writes Kapuscinski describing Accra. In the late fifties and sixties. Apart from slightly fewer goats and cows to be seen, very little has changed as you walk down Oxford Street in Osu.

On Saturday afternoon Amanda and I venture out to explore Accra culture. We plan to visit the national museum and two galleries in the Asylum Down area of Accra, and take a taxi to the museum to get us over to that side of town. The museum is a two storey plastered building, where, if you wanted to perform Bikram yoga or take a free sauna, I can highly recommend as a place to spend some time. I have no photos of the inside of the museum, as it cost an extra two cedis for the privilege to take them, and apart from a few fragments of excavations and some samples of Ghanaian patterns there actually wasn't much to photograph. Oh, and my camera battery has run down, my 'universal charger' seems to be universally broken and my iphone isn't letting me download pictures to my PC. So no photos for this blog post - until I sort it out.

The most interesting part of the museum describes aspects of the slave trade, dating the history back to the first influx of travellers from Europe, and then more, Portuguese, Danes and English to name but three. Looking at the buildings where slaves were held, and also held before transportation out of Africa, I begin to understand that the castles and forts here in Accra, for example Osu castle, are remnants - and reminders - of this time.

Unfortunately the sleepiness of Accra appeared to have been infectious, and we missed out on both galleries as we were too late for one and the other was closed. We wandered through the main streets of Asylum Down towards the ringway road, instead looking at the exhibitions of local stallholders - very much awake and touting for business by the roadsides. You can buy anything by the road - eggs, bread, phone cards. We even spotted an enterprising young man selling massive, DJ-style headphones in among the plantain chip vendors. Everyone is out and about on Saturday travelling around in the tro-tro shared buses looking for a bargain or catching up.

We finished our walk at Champ's sports bar, evidently an ex-pat haven as we suddenly found ourselves watching Man U with a smattering of other white folks in this heavily air conditioned bar. The highlight of this day came following the match, though, when suddenly a silver haired woman approached our table, and asked, "Amanda and Jessica?". No, we're not wanted for any series of crimes here in Accra. Instead this turned out to be Brenda - better known in hash circles as Highland Fling - whom I had contacted by email the week before to figure out where the running (and beer) action was in Accra. "I thought, there are two white girls who look like they're new to town, so perhaps it could be Amanda and Jessica," Brenda tells us when she joins us for a drink. A retired teacher who has lived in Ghana for 38 years, Brenda is 'a character' alright.

Apparently Accra - which still has the open sewers mentioned above, by the way - is now 'too comfortable' as you can get everything. Plus the traffic is dreadful. Spending time with Brenda could be the best 'exhibition' of the day - we're learning about the culture, the people and the life with a beer to hand. Perfection.

We're off this weekend to join other hashers on a trip slightly up the coast to a beach-side hotel for more running, beer and talk with Brenda. I'm pretty sure she'll be featuring in posts to come!