A Travellerspoint blog


Ghana revisited

Axim, the Cape Coast, and a long goodbye to Accra

sunny 85 °F

We returned to Accra from the Masai Mara and Nairobi without a strict agenda. After Nairobi, Accra seemed different to us now. Contrasted against the blue sky of Nairobi, the Harmattan seemed less like an interesting and unique Saharan phenomenon and more like stifling smog, simply making Accra feel dusty and a little dirty. The city didn’t feel big anymore. Nairobi had huge skyscrapers and a “real” downtown. Accra just sprawls at 1, 2, or maybe 10 stories at the most, and you always wonder where downtown is. Things that once seemed quaint now seemed a little a bit backward; open sewers, dirt streets, power and water that is as unpredictable as your local weatherman, the traffic, hawkers and beggars at every major intersection. Yes, the thrill of the Africa Cup of Nations had passed, and we were just expats in Accra now. Our lens had changed. What hadn’t changed was our love for the people of Accra and our appreciation of how these people take it all in stride. And our appreciation for Anna and Freddy’s ability to adapt as if they were locals, had bloomed into awe. Whether it’s calling the guy to fix the washer “again”, or getting a truck to actually FILL the water tank on a Sunday afternoon, or turning the generator on at 11:000pm to get the air conditioners to work. They too, take it all in stride.

We had a few chances to visit some Ghanian beaches during those last two weeks as well, which is also part of the “expat in Ghana” experience. One was just west of Accra and one was about 5 hours away near the Ivory Coast border. While we visited these places, we discovered a secret that no one in Ghana wants you to know. The beaches are insanely good. There is great surf for boarding, boogie boarding, and body surfing. The sand is clean and it is relatively critter free. Honestly, there were more bugs and dangerous reptiles in Australia than there were at Ghanian beaches. The people at the beaches are super friendly, and laid. The food is great and the lodging is a great value.

Our favorite beach was in Axim, about 30km from the Ivory Coast Border, where we spent 4 days at the Axim beach resort. We could hear the sound of border gunfire from the local militia as they squared off against the Ivory Coast Army, and we did see the amphibious tanks rolling. Just kidding. Except the part about the amphibious tanks. But seriously, the Axim resort had nice little villas, a couple of nice bars and restaurants, and a great little zip line which the kids (and me) loved. They had wonderful tide pools and a great boogie boarding / body surfing beach that was to die for. We really enjoyed it. Anna and Freddy love this place and they reserved a family villa that had three separate rooms, and a common living area with a gorgeous view. We had some wonderful evening storms while we there which made the view all the more enjoyable. Still, this is Africa, and you simply have to change your expectations about many things, and just let go. When your food will arrive, whether you will have power or hot water, whether your beer will be cold or warm is all up for grabs. Set your western resort expectations aside. This is Africa.

Something that folks rave about when they come to Axim is the trip to the stilt village. We drove within a few km of the Ivory Coast border into a little coastal town Beyin which is the launch point for the stilt village called Nzulezo. We parked the cars near the beach and we couldn’t help but notice a killer sand bar break that was producing super long lefts. Maria Sweasey, you would have been in heaven. It was only about three feet, and as with most of Ghana, the waves went unclaimed, set after set. In and the tour office we met the men that would “pole” us. We were also told that the “elder” of the village would give us the history of the village for a donation of one bottle of local gin – I kid you not. We bought the gin. From here we walked into what feels like a Bayou and climbed into Canoes. Francis and Felix, our two pole-men/tour guides, pushed the boats along with their poles and we rowed when it was deep enough. We made our way through jungle and onto a large and broad river. After a few km or so of paddling, we pulled up to the stilt village. The village was not what we expected. I expected grass and bamboo huts and few signs of western influence. Wrong! First, we were greeted by the bar owner/landing party who was ready to set up beers and sodas for us. I bought a round. We cooled off as much as you can in 85 degree, 95% humidity. From here we walked with Felix and Francis to meet the “elder”. We walked through the village and it was incredibly dirty and it was evident that the people of the village were simply tired of having visitors. They’d rather we not be there. We arrived in the area where the elder would visit with us, and as we expected, he appeared to be hammered, having polished off his last donation. We listened to the history of the village and it was settled by Malis that were fleeing tribal warfare. Here, they were untouchable, and here they had a windless environment versus living on the other side of the village where the farms existed. This trip was fun, but the real fun was in rowing the canoes and seeing the landscape. The village felt a bit like a sideshow to the real event.

On the way home the kids and Carol visited the Cape Coast Castle. I had gone home with Fred a day earlier, in dire need of antibiotics, having ingested something very wrong. The Cape Coast Castle is ominous. That is an understatement. You see, the Cape Coast Castle was built by the Portuguese in the 1500s to hold and transport slaves off to the rest of the world. 12 million slaves passed through this Castle on the way to Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Britain and the America to name a few. 8 million of those slaves died either in the Castle or crossing the water. There were 3 holding cells, each the size of a living room that would hold 150 women. No light. No toilets. Little water. Women stayed in there for months before being transported in a weakened state, only being let out so they could be examined to see who would be cleaned and strengthened so governor could rape them. The men were treated equally badly and there was even a cell that existed simply to starve insubordinate slaves to death. One room called the point of no return was the last room a slave entered before they were loaded on a ship for transport. Here they might see a family member one last time as they were boarded on ships headed to different places. A man might go to Brazil (the most common destination) and his brother to America. If either made it to their destination, which only 33% did. The Cape Coast Castle is an ominous example of man’s inhumanity to man and should be experienced by all visitors to Ghana.

The one thing about Ghanian beaches that we found tough to deal with was driving through one poor village after another to reach a beach that we intended to use as our playground. These people use the beach and the ocean for their subsistence. They may fish in the ocean, they may gather rocks or shells on the beaches. It really hurt our hearts to see hungry people in every town, and folks wearing clothes that they had on for weeks without washing. The real expats who have been here for a long time see through all of it, and don’t notice, but for our family it was really hard to see. We were reminded by expats that these people love their way of life and are happy. Living to our standard wouldn’t make them any more so. We were reminded that only 70 years ago, these areas looked as they did 700 years ago and that what we were seeing was progress and evolution. The advent of cell phones and power is changing many of these lives for the better, and you can see it, albeit inch by inch.

A fitting sendoff to our visit in Ghana was some freaky behavior in the power grid. Ghana power was suffering fits and starts and power out then on then out then on. Freddy and Anna’s generator was failing as well adding to the scene. When we got to the airport, we saw lightning on the horizon, and understood. The airport lost power three times and the Windows ™ start up screen appeared on every monitor in the place. We made our way to the plane and bid Accra and Ghana farewell with a heavy sigh (we’ll miss our family and friends) and perhaps just the slightest feeling of relief.

Posted by Blakei 08:16 Archived in Ghana Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Accra, Ghana

We’re not in Kansas anymore…

semi-overcast 88 °F

The plane arrived in Ghana and we were greeted by a blanket of heat as we descended the stairs to a waiting bus on the tarmac. The heat was less stifling than we expected, thanks to a seasonal phenomena known as the Harmattan, a dry and dusty West African trade wind that blows from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea. It carriers sand and dust that blocks out the sun like a fog. Even with that, it was over 90°, and humid. We grabbed our bags, made our way through customs and to the curb, where our official greeter, “Uncle Freddy” stood by with Dennis, his driver and trusty sidekick. We are here visiting Fred and Anna Adams, Carol’s sister and her husband. Fred works for Chevron in Accra, has been here for two years, and is working on bringing fuels and natural gas to Ghana from Nigeria. Fred and Anna live in the Accra suburb of East Legon in a great house that easily manages all of us, Fred, Anna and the folks that work for them – which is very typical for an expat. In fact, employing local Ghanaians is required by the government for expats.

The contrast in this East Legon neighborhood is something that you wouldn’t see in a developed nation, but is quite typical in Africa. Next to this great house that we are staying in is a tin shack with a family living in it full time. Chickens roam the yard and each morning the family bathes themselves in the yard. Children will be raised to adulthood in this house, and those children could become Doctors or Lawyers. People emerge from these tiny tin shacks dressed, pressed, and starched to the nines, ready to go to work. A similar home is just across the street. This is just the way it is here, and it can be seen all over Accra. It’s not considered strange. It just is. Another thing that “just is” are construction projects that seem to never end. Beautiful homes rise in the neighborhood and then seem to stop making progress. They’ll make progress eventually, just not now. Skeletons of incomplete homes and buildings punctuate the landscape and this isn’t considered at all bizarre. It just is. Another thing that “just is” is fluctuating water and power supply. The power goes out regularly and every large home has a generator to maintain power. The power doesn’t just stop. The lights start to dim, and then eventually the power goes completely. The same thing happens with water. It just runs out and comes back at another time. Folks don’t fret about it. They just make sure their schedule accommodates this kind of thing, and they don’t get upset when it happens. It is expected. It just is.

Another thing that is expected is traffic. There are 2.2 million people in Accra and the roads and infrastructure struggle to accommodate them. Streets are paved, then not. Streets appear to be “through”, and then just stop. Lanes are simply suggestions which are largely ignored by the locals, and traffic lights sit lifelessly, without power, encouraging intersection anarchy. With all that traffic, the stop and go, the near misses, and the stifling heat, people wave to each other calmly as they let drivers squeeze ahead of them into the lane, then patiently waiting for the next five feet of movement. Whether in a car, a cab or a tro-tro (a large shared taxi van) they just patiently wait. You won’t find road rage in Ghana. It takes a long time to go anywhere, or do anything, and people expect it. Man, could LA use a dose of that or what? Something that complicates the traffic situation is the lack of super markets or super stores that might have everything you need. There are no home depots, kmarts, best buys, etc.. If you want to get some nails, you might have to go to the other side of town, which could take more than an hour. We’ve been part of this routine now for over a week. This isn’t a convenient life. Again, in sharp contrast, and Accra is a contrast Anna can walk across the street and buy soap, eggs, salt, and other staples, just by walking to the neighbor's little "shed of commerce" across the street.

Something that the Expats apparently don’t like, but we love are the “hawkers” on the street corners. Every busy intersection is abuzz with vendors walking and running between lanes of cars with goods for sale. Apples, water bags, toilet paper, mops, ice cube trays, chocolates, magazines, snacks, or whatever you can carry on your head. The hawkers negotiate deals with the folks in the cars, send in the goods and then continue to barter for a mutually agreeable price. The hawkers then chase after the cars to either get the cash or get the goods back if a satisfactory price can’t be negotiated. This works pretty efficiently. We picked up three ice cube trays and two power outlet converters just yesterday.

The People
A Ghanaian cab driver in New York once told us that we would see the “sweet face of humanity” in Ghana, and he went on to tell us “A little food, a little music, and a little soccer” is all that Ghanaians need. He wasn’t exactly right, but on the whole, the people of Ghana are wonderful. The people are fun, passionate, hard working, and they love life. They love life just like it is here. They don’t wish for a life that we might have in the states because you can get to your store faster, or have 200 kinds of cheese side by side in the grocery store. They appear to like it just the way it is. Esther and Dennis who run the house for Anna and Freddy are great examples of local Ghanaians. They are quick to smile and love to hear us “try” and use the local language called Twi (pronounced Trwee). Of course they both speak excellent English as well, but they speak Ghanaian around each other and we love to try. Esther’s daughter Gifty (a great name!) and her brother Kwamei are at the house quite often and we’ve been playing cards with them, doing homework with them, listening to music, talking soccer, and just hanging out.

The Africa Cup of Nations
We were very lucky to have our visit coincide with the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. This tournament takes place once every two years, and pits the best teams in Africa against each other. This is Africa’s world cup. This year the tournament was in Ghana, and the semi finals and the finals were being played in Accra. Soccer was everywhere. Anna went on a scalper search for some tickets and at the last minute, we were all able to get tickets to the Ghana vs: Cameroon semi final game. The scalper’s prices were dropping as the game approached and we lucked out. The streets on the way to the semi final were beyond jammed. Hawkers ran between cars selling Ghanaian fan gear; shirts, flags, horns, silly hats, whistles, scarves... The Ghanaian team is called the “Black Stars” and this night, Accra was going Black Star crazy. As we approached the stadium, we had to get out of the car and walk. Traffic just stopped and we were passed by masses of Ghanaians walking the streets, either going to the game or crowding around televisions that glowed in shops fronts. The air was damp and hot, and thick with the smells of smoke and meat cooking over open fires in the parking lot. Dusk was settling in. African rhythms boomed from drums while bands and DJs played fantastic Ghanaian and Cameroonian music. Huge crowds danced and fires burned while the music played. We separated into twos and made way to our entry gates. Parker and I had seats together and we smashed ourselves into the queue to get in. The game was starting and we were still in line. We pushed forward and I swept a pickpockets hand away from my pockets, we saw a south African bloke throw a man to the ground to protect his friends backpack. We were told it might be rough. It was. We made our way to the seats while the game was in full swing, and the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear your own voice. At half time, it was still zero-zero, and they fans were jubilant. About 25 minutes into the second half, Cameroon scored, the collective Ghanaian crowd audibly exhaled, followed by an uneasy silence. The rest of the game was painful to watch as Cameroon dived all over the pitch , feigning injuries. On the way to meet the others, the streets were calm but crowded, and resignation could be read on the face of the locals. Esther was very upset and was holding back tears. She was a good proxy for all Ghanaians. The excitement waned a bit in the city after that evening, but it was still “the cup” and the city was still excited. Freddy and I went to a sports bar for the final, and saw a group of young men from Cameroon jump from the crowd and begin playing with the band in the post game. Cameroon lost to Egypt, but the Cameroonians were partying as if they won, and hearing their rhythms and the ease at which they maneuvered through complex polyrhythmic chanting and drumming absolutely blew my mind.

Golfing in Ghana
Fred and I played a round of golf at the only “grass” course in Accra. I use the term grass rather loosely, because there wasn’t much of it. The greens were like rough, the sand traps were more mud than sand, and the fairways played like a hazard. Shacks lined some holes on the course, while shared TVs glowed with the Ghana cup consolation game, which would eventually establish Ghana as the third place team. Our caddies were awesome, and they steered Fred and I around the course, avoiding army ants and termite mounds. I lost only one ball thanks to a stellar forecaddie. It was unbelievably hot and humid and you could hear Ghana scoring as neighborhoods broke out in shouts at each Ghanaian goal.

The Market Places
Cynthia is one of Anna and Freddy’s gate guards (yes the house has barbed wire and a manned gate), and she has a special talent. She is an incredible seamstress. Anna asked if she would make some clothes for us and she gladly said “Yes!” She asked to see a pair of my pants, and said she could make a new pair just like it. We just had to go shop for fabric. So Esther Dennis, Anna, Carol and I made our way to the market. This is the Ghanaian peoples market where you can buy fabrics in one shop, buttons in another shop, thread in yet another shop, Ghanaian hip hop in another and so on. This market reminded us a bit of the Barkhor in Tibet. Crowded and tight streets, lined with small shops, snaked their way through alleys and walk ways. A few large streets crisscross the market slowly transporting goods in open lorries. We cruised the markets and had an awesome time. The people welcomed us into their shops and dickered with us on prices. Negotiating the deals was half the fun. The other half was walking the market to the shouts of “Abrone!” (meaning foreigner), and shaking hands with Ghanaian shop owners and their friends. People in these markets loved to see us, and you could tell by reactions that it was very novel and unique to have white people in this market. We keep remembering our NYC cab driver telling us “You will see the sweet face of humanity” … indeed I think we did

Posted by Blakei 09:20 Archived in Ghana Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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