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Ghana – Fattening the Soul

By Colyn Alcock

Allow me to pose a question for you to ponder. When was the last time that you took a major life decision that wasn’t based on a need to further your career, improve your lifestyle, develop or deepen the quality of the close relations you have? Take this situation. I run a business that is thriving to say the least, live in a fairly gorgeous house, in a pretty gorgeous town, with a nice group of caring friends, and yet I’m leaving all that behind for the summer and heading for Ghana.

OK, basic history/geography/cultural question -where’s Ghana? Hands up! Africa, good, west Africa – very good; specifically it’s on the lower part of the “bump” on the left where north Africa exhales, wedged between the Ivory Coast and a country that you’d wear to a fancy dress party (Togo). Population, 18 million, capital Accra (about 2 million). Enlightened scholars amongst you will know that it used to be a British colony, known as the Gold Coast, until it became the first African country to gain independence, in 1957, led by Joshua Nkrumah. The latter, by all accounts, was a typical benevolent African despot – one popular expression there was “Ghana stands for ‘God Heeds All Nkrumah Advises.” He was overthrown in 1979 by a charismatic, half-Scottish, air force lieutenant called Jerry Rawlings, who ran the country till the late 1990’s, when he resigned from power, and then – amazingly for Africa – democratic elections were held, some other chap got elected and no-one got massacred. History only talks to us about dates and leaders’ names, which is like describing a friend solely by his name and birthday. In order to paint in the face, put the flesh on the bones of the country, I’m going to spend the summer teaching and travelling there, which I hope to be able to share with you. I get the sense; I just get the sense, that this could be one of the quirkiest, most beautiful countries on the planet.

A few random second hand anecdotes to help us in joining the dots up. Ghana runs on GMT, popularly known as “Ghana Maybe Time”, which tells you something about punctuality and the pace of life there. Buses leave, nominally on schedule, realistically ‘when the bus fills up.’ Meetings happen ‘when everyone turns up.’ (Annoying? Frustrating? Or maybe we could a different look at our northern hemisphere perspective on time.) This is a country where there are at least 46 tribal languages. Apparently, most people speak 6, plus English, yet only two in three children receive formal education. Where funerals last for 3 days and are advertised in advance in the local paper, being held at the end of the month when friends and relatives have the money to pay for them. Where the deceased is sometimes buried in a coffin that is constructed in an image that represents his life – in the shape of a plane if he was a pilot, in the form of a beer bottle for a boozer. Where a whopping 60% of the population are practicing Christians – the old-fashioned type who actually do go to church on Sundays and yet, as the “Accra Mail” recently reported, a “man of questionable character” was arrested for stealing 100 bibles. Where one of the popular soft drinks is reputed to be ‘Pee Cola’ (I mean really, I reckon someone in the marketing department lost his job over that one!). Where one of Accra’s garage is called the “It’s Not Ready Yet Garage” (imagine you phone them up to inquire about your car, and they answer the phone “It’s Not Ready Yet”!). Where, as the refrain goes, if Ghanaians didn’t have ears, their smiles would go right the way round their heads.

Fairly frivolous hearsay indeed. Am I trivializing the country before setting foot in it? Possibly. Romanticizing it? Certainly. A couple of stark facts to counter-balance these whimsical observations: 1 person in 20 in Ghana has AIDS, and most of the population lives on less than $3 a day – in the currency most of us speak, that’s the price of one decent beer a day. When I start getting my head round the everyday reality of those facts, I’ll let you know.

These stories are just nuggets to fuel expectations, and in a way, perhaps its better to arrive without many preconceptions, or at least as few as possible. That way, as Bill Bryson said in talking about travelling in an unknown land in “Neither Here Nor There” – “Suddenly you are five years old again, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross the road without endangering your life. Your whole experience becomes a series of interesting guesses.” More ornately, Paolo Coelho describes travelling as an ‘act of re-birth.’ Maybe, as a traveller, I’m looking to fulfil a yearning, released from my safe European womb – to endure hardships and overcome them. There’s certainly an element of wanderlust involved from my point of view. That’s best summed up by another quote I picked up from a travel web site – “By pining, we are already there; we have already cast our hopes, like an anchor, on that coast. I sing of somewhere else, not of here, for I sing with my heart, not my flesh.” George Santayana describes the fulfilling of this yearning as follow: “we need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to be compelled to work desperately for a moment, no matter what.”

Working desperately for a moment sounds like hard work to me George. I get
the feeling that just by spending my time in the place I’m visiting, the moment will somehow find me, just by everyday existence in a new strange culture. Just to take one example, relating to the prevalence of street hawkers in Accra – there’s another Ghanaian urban myth about a man who leaves his house naked every day and with an empty stomach, because he knows that by the time he arrives at his office, he will be fully-clothed and well-fed. Not that I’m inclined to walk naked out into the street, although as Anais Nin says “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”. I guess that’s the spirit in which I’m taking this trip.Not that I haven’t taken precautions – I’ve had so many vaccinations I feel like a pin-cushion, along with my anti-mosquito pills, mozzie net and spray gun for the little blighters. Apparently, the mozzies have evolved the ability to infect you despite certain pills (for the record, and not so amusing, 1 million Africans a year still die of malaria), so I’ve packed the super-strength variety of Larium. The Bradt Guide Book recommends sleeping with a fan on to combat them, but then again casually states: “some mosquitoes have also evolved the capacity to fly through turbulent air”. Those doodlebugs deserve to get through!

Talking of precautions, yes for those concerned, I am packing prophylactic
ones. Not that my aim is to mix high expectations and low morals – I’m off
to teach and get some good karma after all, but the effect of the AIDS rate
is crippling Ghana. It means, FYI, since the majority of cases are female,
as observes:“Women make up roughly 85 per cent of the wholesale and retail trading industries, and about two-thirds of manufacturing… women bear prime responsibility for child-rearing, cooking, washing and collecting fuel-wood and water”. What happens to a society if a lot of these women, mothers and wives, are dying?

I kind of anticipate being surrounded by cute black kiddies shouting “obruni”
(white person), and asking for money, so let’s see what happens when I reply
“bibini” (black person) back to them!. There’s a whole issue of facing 3rd
world poverty on the street, and I’m packing balloons, badges, key rings,
etc to hand out to the charming brats who pester me. But is that the right
course of action? Does giving out gifts encourage the children to beg from
more obrunis in the future? In his most recent book, Dark Star Safari, Paul
Theroux – one writer I whole-heartedly recommend – commented “People in the
West have an unquenchable urge to help. Is this really a condescension? An
inherent ethnocentrism? [An attitude of… ]. By giving, I’m helping you to live like me”. Perhaps, Mr. Theroux. I’ll let you all know how ethnocentric I feel and behave on the streets of Accra.

And of course, it will be bleeding hot and sticky. Ninety-degree heat I’m used to: ninety-degree humidity sounds like walking around in soup to me, but then again I could lose a few pounds. Hopefully you’ll all see me at the end of the summer with a slimmer waistline and a fatter soul.

I guess, if you’ll forgive me one last quote (George Kimble) “The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.”.By pitching myself into the
middle of Ghanaian life, I hope to shed a little light on it for you.