November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Ghana/Travel

 


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Everything I Knew

A visit to Ghana turns the imagined world

 into something unimaginable, and real


Photos and Article by Roscoe Betsill and Steven Keith

Roscoe: Even though I read everything I could get my hands on prior to our trip to Ghana, it was clear, shortly after landing in Accra and approaching customs, that somehow everything I knew was different. There was one line for Ghanaians, another for residents of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and a third much slower moving queue for the All Others – a designation that we as Americans are not accustomed to. Right out of the gate, we were greeted by hawkers offering a wide assortment of wares and services. We were traveling with our host, a very self-possessed Ghanaian woman, who now lives in the states. Pearlene assured all of those vying for our attention that we did not need any of what they had to offer.

It was actually because of Pearlene, that my husband, Steven, and I decided to spend our Christmas holiday in Ghana. She was my late mother’s (extremely over-qualified) home care professional and became a true friend to her and to me. Mom, who passed away a few months ago, had traveled extensively. One of her most memorable and life changing trips was to Ghana, nearly 20 years ago. Traveling to Ghana seemed a good way to spend the holidays and to honor her.

Before heading to Pearlene’s house on the outskirts of Accra in the village of Gbawe, we stopped to check out two hotels that we were considering for later in the week. Even though it was a fairly short distance, because of heavy traffic, it took an hour and a half to get to the other side of town, where we were to spend our first several days. This was by no means a boring voyage. We ended up taking it many times and each time we were thoroughly entertained by the constant parade of vendors, who took full advantage of the slow moving traffic. There were folks selling drinking water, handkerchiefs, homemade plantain chips, peanut butter brittle, pastries, hair care and beauty products, soccer balls, hammers and hatchets, telephones, flashlights, batteries, shoes and shoe brushes almost always piled on trays or on platforms or in small cases – sometimes with doors and glass windows – and these perched and balanced ever so perfectly on the vendor’s heads. I would love to have the posture, not to mention the stamina, to perform such a feat. The street vendors work long hours in the equatorial heat of the day. Because we were there during the holidays, we also saw folks dressed in elaborate costumes and intricately detailed wire mesh masks collecting donations for either charity or next year’s costumes, depending on whom you asked.

Steven: Pearlene’s family compound measures about 40 by 60 meters. When you enter the compound, after enduring the dusty and bumpy ride of the “rough road”, all becomes clean and calm again. The 3-meter high wall on the right is nicely decorated on the inside with small trees set in well-swept red earth. The first of these is half white and half green, the result Pearlene said, of two trees that just happened to collide and soon were inseparable. The ground underneath the car is paved in a smooth mix of rocks and concrete, also swept clean.

Directly ahead was the house boy’s house but we were transfixed by the main house on our left, which was also stucco and featured a wide and deep front porch of cream and tan terrazzo flooring, wide curved steps, and two neo-classical columns. An orange dog had been lying on the cool terrazzo but jumped up as soon as we entered and made her way back toward the house boy’s house. I remembered hearing, on some cable TV dog program, that if all dogs in the world were left to breed on their own, then soon all dogs would be the sort of medium-sized brown dog commonly found in Africa. And here she was! We soon realized that almost all the dogs in Accra looked just like this one. All week we tried to sweet-talk this beautiful bitch into letting us touch her and, while she was intrigued, she never accepted our offer.

Roscoe: Ghanaians are very religious, whether Christian, Moslem or Animist. In the capital, Accra, they tend to be Christian and every manner of business is a means of expressing this. Taxis, hair salons, hardware stores and markets were likely to have names like By His Grace or The Lord’s Venture. Several people we met had names with religious or poetic significance – The pious Delali (there will be a savior), the sweet Sedena (word of God) and the radiantly smiling Sunrise.

When, by the grace of God we finally reached the house, which turned out to be a compound actually, we were seated in the main room and offered glasses of cool water, which is a standard and much appreciated welcoming gesture (it was about 95 degrees, inside and out). We met a number of members of the immediate and extended family, including relatives we  met previously in Ohio and the twin brother, Atsu, we had heard so much about. It was a large house and filled with lovely and generous folks. We had taken Pearlene at her word when she said that there was plenty of room and that we would not be an imposition, but I started to wonder. We were then shown to our quarters, which turned out to be a separate house behind the main house with it’s own kitchen, bath, sitting room and a large porch.

 

 

Steven: The space between the blazing blue sky above and the orange red-clay ground below was teeming with color, colors of all sorts, but often red, gold, yellow, and green, bright blue, blinding white, and orange, brown, and purple (sometimes all in one jazzy patterned shirt). There was little black or gray to be found, except for the proudly displayed Black Star, found on Ghanaian flags, soccer shirts, and beer bottles. The national colors – gold red, and green – were well represented, such is the real pride the citizens of Ghana take in their 50-year old nation. Large and small adverts for cell phone services, soul-saving churches, promising politicians, and thirst-quenching drinks were all around, hiding the trees and demanding a future. The streets were lined with wooden open-front shops that were filled with everything that one might need or want, including handkerchiefs, snacks, sandals, hand tools, head wraps, light bulbs, disco balls, toilet paper, and small plastic bags that each contained one shot of gin or rum. “Cold Stores” sold water, fruit juices, soda, and beer.

Roscoe: We were fortunate enough to be able to get tickets for the 25th Anniversary concert of the famous High-Life musician Abrantie Amakye Dede. High-Life music fuses traditional African sounds with jazz and soul influences. All of Accra seemed to be there, dressed in its very fine finery, including the former President, John Kufuor. It would have been well worth the price of admission to see this even had there not been performances by several of the nation’s top entertainers.

Steven: We decided to do the most obvious site-seeing first: a visit to the mausoleum of the founding father of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. In fact there were five more of these founders, who with Nkrumah were called the Big Six; all of them appear on the paper money (cedi notes) in Ghana.

The mausoleum museum was in rather bad shape, having had its maintenance funds slashed by the current free-market-oriented government. This was told to us by the young adults working there as guides; they encouraged us to make donations for the upkeep of this final resting place of their Marxist hero. History is very much alive in Ghana and is being made every day. Perhaps most notable at the Nkrumah Museum, besides the carefully preserved (plastic draped) dormitory furniture used by the great man at Lincoln University, is a bronze statue outside of Nkrumah, which is missing its head and one arm, vandalized during a military coup that ousted him in 1966. While we were there, it was announced that Konadu Rawlings, the wife of the murderous Jerry Rawlings (President from 1981 to 2002) planned to run in the next Presidential election. Upon hearing this, one friend of ours said, “over my dead body”, and this expression seemed more real to us than ever before.

Roscoe: I woke up very early on Christmas morning. There were on-going services at two nearby open-air churches, which I heard clearly from my room. The singing at one was harmonious and a pleasure to listen to (the other service was a bit rough but nonetheless sincere). Roosters crowed and other birds, some singing harmoniously (others less so) always started their songs well before dawn. I walked out into the courtyard where I met Achu, who asked me if I’d ever seen a goat killed.

What a way to start the day. The throat slitting and blood letting was every bit as graphic as you might imagine. I helped with the scraping off of the coat, once it had been sufficiently scorched by the open fire. A lot of the cooking that day was done in the courtyard, where there were a number of braziers set up for a variety of preparations. There was a hearty goat stew that consisted of innards cooked in blood and there was the more appealing -to my taste – goat light soup, tender goat meat simmered in a flavorful broth that was the perfect accompaniment to fufu- cassava and plantain pounded into a paste. I had never managed to taste this staple of West African cuisine. The first mouthful felt very odd, but once I gave in to the texture and coated it with pepper sauce, I was able to enjoy it.

Steven: After the coup, Nkrumah went to live in exile in Guinea, where he was revered not only for his nation-building but also and especially for promoting Pan-Africanism as the only successful way forward for the people of sub-Saharan Africa and of the African Diaspora. Similarly, the great American scholar WEB Du Bois spent his last years in Ghana, a guest of the government. So, off we went to the Du Bois Memorial Centre. A much more modest version of the Nkrumah Mausoleum, this one included an Ashante-style wood pavilion for the tomb and the preservation of Du Bois’ last home. The library there was particularly compelling, with wood louvered shutters on the window and wood shelves filled with books by African writers from all over the world, including Du Bois’ extraordinary Encyclopedia Africana, which he was working on when he died. The young man working there, a scholar himself, earnestly recited one of Du Bois’ most famous speeches at the gravesite and it was hard to imagine a similar heartfelt performance by an American college student.

 

Roscoe: We considered taking a long and potentially uncomfortable bus ride to the coastal towns of Cape Coast and Elmina, each featuring a fort at which many thousands of people, who were captured and enslaved, were held captive awaiting their journey to the new world. At Pearlene’s suggestion we hired a car and driver and with the charming company of her daughter Ama and friend Sara, we were able to make much better use of our time. On the way, we visited the splendid tropical rainforest Kakum National Park.  It was breathtaking to take the canopy walk, a network of wood and rope bridges suspended between trees at a height of 40 meters above the forest floor. Being able to drink the juice of a freshly macheted coconut was a fitting recompense for having completed the journey. We went on to Cape Coast and had a delicious lunch of freshly grilled tilapia, snapper and lobster with banku, a fermented cassava and corn meal mixture steamed in a banana leaf that I found irresistible, at the Mighty Victory Hotel. By now we were accustomed to the fact that in Ghanaian restaurants everything is prepared to order.  We were well rewarded for our patience.

On to the coast of this fishing village there were fisherman untangling nets, vendors and a bustle of activity that one might have seen a century or 2 or 3 ago. The Cape Coast Fort above was a foreboding structure with canons perched along its perimeter. It was not until we arrived there that I realized that one of my Mom’s favorite photos from her trip to Ghana, of her with her arms around 2 young boys, was taken there. I shuddered a bit, but shuddered more as I experienced being in the dungeon with only the slightest glimmer of light coming in, and again as I passed through the ‘door of no return’. I had a moment of prayerful meditation for ancestors who passed through these gates. I am extremely grateful to have had this experience, painful though it was.

We spent our last few days at The Golden Tulip, in a fancy hotel in the center of town.  I enjoyed the swimming pool each morning, up to the point that I found it occupied by carpenters who constructed an impromptu fashion runway and dance floor over the pool for what was to be a spectacular New Years Eve bash. At the splashy bash, we wore shirts that Pearlene’s sister-in-law’s tailor had made for us, after surreptitiously sizing us up when we had gone to her house for a visit.

The people we shared our time with in Ghana were extremely generous with us – giving of their time, their knowledge, their kindness and their good humor.  I have rarely felt more welcome – anywhere. Weeks later, I am still feeling the glow.

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Better to drink gin …

Yes, one needs to be very careful with the water. We only drank bottled water and we were careful about eating salads or any uncooked food, likely to be washed in water unsafe for foreigners. Our hostess made her ice cubes from bottled water. And the hotel had potable water throughout. But out at a bar or restaurant, one is advised to just avoid ice. Most places serve juices, soda, and mixers from bottles straight out of the fridge, so ice is not needed anyway.

The locals drink ‘purified’ water that is sold in sealed plastic bags (see photo). Our Ghanaians friends advised us against drinking it, as some of these bags were likely to have been filled up from the tap at home. As it is hot most days, some people enjoy a nice cold beer in the afternoon, bought from a Cold Store. There were also these nifty little one shot plastic bags of booze – gin or rum – that sold for about 25 cents!

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About the travelers:

Roscoe Betsill (left) is a New York-based  food stylist, recipe developer and writer.  His clients include The New York Times, Bon Appetit, O (the Oprah Magazine), and Field and Stream. His web site is: www.roscoebetsill.com

Steven Keith is an architect and political activist. He’s been married to Roscoe for one-and-a-half years, but has known him for over 19 years.

They have a red dog named Ruby, and divide their time between New York City and the Hudson Valley.

 

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