Axim, the Cape Coast, and a long goodbye to Accra
02.24.2008 - 03.05.2008 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.