“They say the city is like an aeroplane,” said my guide, gesturing with one camp, aloof hand. “One neighbourhood here, one there and this road is like the body.” I’m in Brasilia on day nine of my trip. It’s quite a change of pace from Rio, where I have just spent the last week at Carnaval getting drunk on caipirinha and, as a result, confronted by ‘favelados’ – residents of the notorious slums in the mountain valleys.
I am in the second part of my holiday, visiting my friends on the weekend of their wedding ceremony. Much as I have become used to as a solitary traveller in far-flung countries, I have been passed on to friends of friends and am spending the day meandering around shopping malls and plush lobbies in Brasilia’s hotel sector. My guide and his fiancé, along with their vivacious girlfriend, are very accommodating and enjoy teaching me Portuguese phrases which they believe will help me to succeed romantically at tomorrow’s reception.
Brasilia has a reputation amongst the country’s youth as a corporate city, with not much to offer in terms of fun and frolics. Designed by famed communist architect Oscar Niemeyer, the city is beautifully mapped out and divided neatly into sections for banking, politics, shopping, etc. But, it is lacking a certain urban flavour for a national capital – especially a nation so reputed for its party lifestyle.
My local friend referred to it as an ‘artificial’ city before my arrival, and this certainly rings true of the residential areas. It seems everyone who lives in Brasilia does so in gated communities and compounds, guarded by electric fences and security personnel. Inside each one, I am reminded of the Truman Show; all modern housing and perfectly kempt gardens. Artifice is definitely the word. Nonetheless, the people here are still Brazilian, and I am not disappointed as the wedding celebrations commence.
A Brazilian wedding is very similar to those in the UK, with lengthy speeches; overzealous family members who drink too much; inappropriate posturing from youthful groomsmen. What made this ceremony particularly special was the combination of military tradition and Star Wars paraphernalia. Having met at Brasilia’s military academy as teenagers, the couple fell in love over their mutual sci-fi fascinations.
“That’s what I was saying in my speech.” The bride explained to me the next day, “I was saying that the rebel alliance was a symbol of our personal beliefs, and that we fight prejudice together as a team.” This was quite a beautiful analogy. Lost on me, of course, because of the language barrier, and not least because of the open bar.
I wake up to the sound of the threateningly old fan swinging above my head with absolutely no assurance it will stay attached to the ceiling during my last four days in this hotel room. I can’t complain, sporadic national power cuts have recently led the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) to release a schedule of 12 hours of power out of 36 – a regimen that even parliament couldn’t pay its way out of -, so it’s actually a rare privilege to have the poor, rusty fan on to struggle on with me through the humid night. The early morning sun creeps through the leaves of abundant coconut trees silhouetted against the gaudy, Grandmother’s rejects curtains. The room, with its faux-antique furniture, rough wooden shutters and my backpack slung in the corner, makes me feel like a seasoned explorer; I could imagine a 19th Century game hunter rising to the dawn chorus in a similar fashion. Feeling in no other way like an intrepid adventurer, I check the time on my smartphone and think about calling my surf instructorfor a lesson later.
It’s six o’clock on a Friday in March, 2015. I have one really good stretch in bed and get up to throw open the stained drapes. Two red patas monkeys (one adult, one infant) remain locked in a cage outside, each with a scraggly length of rope around their waists. Monkeys are often domesticated to a degree, but these conditions are enough to make anyone raise their eyebrows. The adult looks me in the eye and makes an ‘o’ with its mouth, a sign of aggression. Against my better instincts, I start to worry if the cage won’t hold them until the end of the weekend.
Friday night is party night in Kokrobite, a seaside town less than an hour outside the capital city. Wealthy young professionals flock here from their high-rise offices in Accra to spend the weekend, or even just a Sunday afternoon, sipping on rum cocktails and smoking shisha pipes to the weekly live reggae bands and late night hip-life discos. I have chosen it as my last stop before returning home because of its cultivated style of laid-back beach life mixed with wild nights alongside Ghana’s notorious party animals.
Kokrobite is also the first stopping point for most young volunteers, fresh from Europe and the Americas, looking to party hard before being sent to some obscure rural village in the North for two months where it’s twice as hot, dry as hell and the nightlife surmounts to a crackly speaker system drowning out any pleasant conversation in a local spot.
In Ghanaian-English slang, a ‘spot’ is a bar where cheap plastic chairs are arranged under a tarpaulin roof and a 625ml bottle of beer costs 80p to a pound, or you can pick up a 40ml sachet of whiskey for around 12 pence.
There’s one in the northern capital of Tamale, on a rooftop overlooking the whole city. Serving relatively overpriced Chinese food, it offers one of the best sights in the country of thriving urban activity. Dominated by a mosque, the view from the Giddipass terrace is very distinct from that of any of the coastal towns. Hot and dry due to its proximity to the Sahara, sandstorms are frequent, termite hills litter the countryside and motorcycling makes up the primary transport.
Down south, I tend to frequent Big Milly’s Backyard; the Hilton of Kokrobite’s lodges and bars. The most popular (and probably the priciest) accommodation site in town, Big Milly’s has a longstanding reputation for its raucous weekend-long parties since it opened in 2000. I am guaranteed to bump into some friends there; either a familiar local face, or some newcomers who will no doubt be on to Ghana’s air of openness by now to enter a spirited dialogue about African poverty while taking advantage of the cheap alcohol.
A small portion of today’s conversation at breakfast is dedicated to political tensions in neighbouring Cote D’Ivoire. Just recovering after national riots during the 2010 presidential election, and never really settled after 2002’s civil war, the political referendum later this year could see more upheaval in the republic. My friend’s complaint is that, if this occurs, his Ivorian relatives will land on his doorstep, and when he’s just rid himself of a set of troublesome lodgers. “It’s not easy-oh!” is a common catchphrase in these times of disruption.Having spent most of the morning dealing with the business end of my poor diet, I decide porridge and fruit salad combined will make a nutritious start to the day. Growing lazy towards the end of my six month post, I have given up on the sloppy dishes of fufu (plantain dumplings) and banku (maize dumplings) served with spicy fish soup. Instead, I choose to dine on pizza and burritos in the many many tourist diners.
Washing down my daily anti-malarial pill with a cup of Lipton’s Yellow Tea and Nestle’s powdered milk, the sea beckons. I shed my sun-bleached t-shirt and twisted cheap flip-flops and escape to the rolling waves of the Atlantic ocean for some inspiration.
Many life-sized thoughts go through your mind while suspended in a great expanse of water; there is something distinctly philosophical about being at the mercy of an unruly and unpredictable force. Nature is a great leveller when you consider how deep the sea and how dense the forest, and just how unknown all of it is to any individual scrabbling around the surface of the Earth trying to make sense of it all. My pensive mood is heightened by the accompaniment of whoever is blasting out Bob Marley at this time in the morning from their beachside spot. All along the shore around me tropical plant life weaves amongst fishermen’s corrugated iron shacks backing on to oil merchants’ holiday compounds; an urban jungle with its own unruly forces at play.
My one problem with this beach is the sea itself. Probably quite a major complaint for a holiday resort, but it is almost black in colour and coming out of the water leaves you feeling greasy. Someone once told me it’s because of all the offshore oil drilling, I don’t know about that but certainly, in Ghana, pollution is all too common. Children bathe in lagoons amongst clusters of dangerous, toxic materials while family livestock runs around in open sewers infested with black, bubbling gangrene. Home to the world’s largest electrical goods dumping ground, the Accra district of Agbogloshie was deemed too toxic for a group of environmental students I met when I first arrived.
A short walk along the beach and, sure enough, I haven’t gone far to find a big dump of litter washed up at the foot of a beautiful baobab tree. Someone else told me that the waste is only so offensive because it’s so visible; Western countries produce tons more than Africa, they just hide it well in refuse sites. I think I still prefer a progressive, if ignorant, attitude to littering over blatant disrespect for local greenery.
On turning round after taking a photo of the pile of rubbish, amongst the paused crowd of amused fishermen as to why the hell I wanted one, a man approaches me with a kind smile.
“You want me to take your picture?”
“Oh, no. Thank you though.”
Ghanaians, whatever their behaviour towards sanitation, are among the most genuinely friendly people in the world. West Africans in general can’t be beat for lively conversation, outbursts of humour, and warm greetings. It’s because of that hospitality what makes Ghana such a popular tourist destination, it’s incredibly safe here. Even during recent riots – aimed at ECG for its ridiculous electricity schedule – there has never been a threat of uprising like the rebels next-door.
And it’s top-down too. After expressing disappointment about an apathetic police investigator, someone suggested to me that some ready cash would have helped my case. State bribery is a pretty standard part of life and bureaucracy out here; on crossing a manned traffic barrier, the driver must ‘dash’ one cedi if there is anything wrong with the car while speeding up civil paperwork will cost a lot more. On Wednesday, I expect to pay 200GHS for border control to overlook my missing visa updates in order to board the plane home. Anything to help the flagging economy.
In earnest, as long as global perceptions of this continent are of needy folk, dependent on foreign aid, its leaders will continue to line their pockets from those with an honest interest in realising Africa’s full potential of supporting itself. It will take great lengths to reverse this, and no amount of dancehall and cheap beer or self-interested charity was ever going to make any great shakes.
Large helpings of deep-fried carbohydrates and vegetables on-the-turn, one food industry mogul said of Ghanaians:
“They love quantity, not quality.”
Soup you eat with your hands and dumplings that could break your skull, Ghanaian dining has its own charm unappreciated by most Western stomachs. One palatable country meal, however, is very popular amongst visitors to Ghana; red beans in an oily tomato sauce, served with the sweeter of the two plantain types that gives its name to this dish – red red.
“The white people, they love the red red.”
And then there is West Africa’s darling in the staple food department; Jollof rice. Jamie Oliver recently landed himself in hot water on making the mistake of publishing his take on Joloff rice on his website. The online food community particularly did not like his use of on-the-vine tomatoes instead of the withered, mouldy ones you’ll find in any local Ghanaian kitchen. I have my own opinion on how much fuss is made over what is essentially red-coloured rice with peppers but, whether you like it or not, Jollof means much more than just food to people; it’s a national pride.
I sit outside our once-shared hotel room only an hour ago, reclining on a sun-lounger in the black night. Flicking through your Facebook profile, I see the standard group photos and silly, hatted poses; none of it reveal the true uniqueness of this person to me. In a tree somewhere overhead, a bird makes an almost clinical beeping sound every three-quarters of a second…
Spending an intense four days of friendship in this very beach resort only one month ago, I knew I had made a friend for life in Ryan. At first he had just been a distant acquaintance, but after crashing on his floor on the way through Kumasi, it was Korkrobite where I got to know Ryan well. Sharing a room in the vain hope that only one of us would be needing it that night, we got talking to everyone. Hopping from club to house party, we were the ultimate wing-men.
I have made endless plans to revisit people I have met here, 99% of which were never going to happen in the first place. With Ryan, though, our road trip was the most exciting prospect of them all; if I had to make at least one half-arsed plan work it had to be with someone I knew could half-arse it spectacularly. We would start in his native New York, he was my keen tour guide and first point of contact.
“He really loved you” his best friend said to me over the phone when the news broke. However bad I am feeling right now, I know his group in Kumasi are in another world of heartache. In all the drama of travelling and backpacking in foreign continents, it’s easy to forget that there are real people involved in all of this. That for everyone scripted in what I call ‘the most elaborate theatre in the world’ the show doesn’t always go on; we all meet our final curtain call. Today, Ryan met his, and it was far too soon.
For one moment in time, we really were inseparable. When his flight home was delayed, and we had one more evening together in Accra, there wasn’t any better way to spend that time stretched out in a bar outside the airport and sharing a laugh with his fine company. It was an all too final farewell; it should have come sixty years from now after a life time of scandal and debauchery. It certainly felt like it would.
So now his tiny frame and broad grin return to the ground at his earthly parting on Saturday.
Last night I was offered some local colour unavailable to most visitors to Ghana. Having left a group of friends at a club in Accra, I shared a taxi with two unlikely pals who happened to be staying near my rented room. One was a local called Freedom, I had met him a few times now but was always wary of what I’d seen of his antics; the other was a soppy drunk from Scotland who was difficult to follow from his slurry outbursts but he seemed pretty happy just to be part of the evening. Besides, a taxi ride was never meant to be too much of a risk.
Exercising enough caution to make sure that, if I did get in to trouble, I had enough money tucked down my sock for a second taxi, I let myself be detoured en route through Bukom. Bukom is a notorious neighbourhood in Accra; close to the even more infamous district of Jamestown. After confirming from Freedom we were safe in his ‘hood, I got out of the cab. Bracing the flickering of a hundred eyes that turned towards me and the soppy Scot, I was reminded of how I must have looked when I was assaulted two miles across town just last month.
Doing my best not to look anyone directly in the eye, I began to feel at ease here. There were at least two men, playing chess, who didn’t give a toss about two timid white boys shuffling after their mate. Once Freedom plied us with some marijuana cigarettes, he gave me a quick briefing of ‘Bukom Garden’; his old stomping ground before making the move to the more affluent ex-pat community in Korkrobite. We squeezed between two clay buildings before settling on a wooden plank to smoke.
“Everyone here plays football or boxes.” Freedom explained, with Bukom Banku a particular icon of the rags to riches legacy that flows out from this tiny area. Many world-class boxing champions have followed in Banku’s footsteps since taking home bronze at the All-Africa Games at the age of 19.
Freedom’s short history of the neighbourhood spurred the weary Scot, sucking on his spliff his head bowed between his legs, to intermittently comment on the good quality of sportsmen in poor areas of Africa (I think). Rather impressed with Freedom’s reverence for the place, and the personal efforts made to return to his roots after rising from this poverty, I looked at my surroundings in a totally different way.
Overall feeling grateful for the opportunity to see another part of the country, I understood Bukom to see it’s much more than an impoverished suburb; The Garden is a breeding ground for talent, and home to the aspirations of young Africans.
Today I visit the British High Commision in order to seek advice about my stolen bank card. During the early hours of Monday morning, in the midst of a night of revelry with two other volunteers, I was brutally attacked by three strangers who had been walking through Osu with us.
My first feeling was one of embarrassment; I did everything one shouldn’t do in a foreign country if you want to avoid this very thing. I was drunk, late at night, carrying all my valuables, in a bad area; to say I don’t know what I was thinking would be admitting I was even thinking at all.
I can’t remember what the attack was like, only the aftermath of running after my assailants and then reuniting with the friends who had fled at the first sign of trouble. I alone had been beaten to the ground and kicked in the ribs because I wouldn’t let go of my bag; something else that was later on agreed to be a bad decision. Had the attackers had knives, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about it. After exchanging contacts with a few witnesses, someone gave us a lift back to Teshie.
Waking up was a mixture of sleep deprivation from sharing a dorm room, a stonking hangover which I am pretty used to at this point (still, it never gets easier), and acute pain from the attack. Receiving the only pity I would see all day, someone dressed my open wounds – lending an odd pair of trousers to replace my cheap fabric ones, now in tatters – and three of us made the trip to Osu Police Headquarters. After being chastised for not reporting it last night, we were sent to a room referred to as the ‘complaints department’ where crimes were reported and, to my shock, detainees were lurking in holding cells immediately behind the desk.
Two smartly-dressed women stood in the female cell, staring through me as I pondered what crime they could have committed. The male cell was at maximum capacity with young men pacing around like caged lions, or sleeping on the concrete floor in nothing but underwear to deal with the extreme heat that comes with such a crowded room that had no window or fan. Occasionally the men would receive visitors; furious girlfriends who would yell at them from the other side of the ‘complaints’ desk, clasping bail money in one hand and a toddler’s arm in the other.
All of this was going on while the ‘complaints’ officer flirted in French with my friend from Togo, completely ignoring the rest of us, as we registered our initial ‘complaint’. Spending some time describing our case, we then had to wait outside for no reason. The eventual decision of a man conflicted between his sexual intrigue in a young girl and his lack of interest in the violent crime she had experienced in his precinct, was that we should go to the next building and await, what I expected to be, an equally frustrating process. I was not wrong.
My friend was called in first so I took the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep, surprised at my own patience for the absolute circus that this country calls a criminal justice system. When I woke up, I was ushered in to a chaotic room where two clerks were writing statements for the same woman on desks piled unstably high with paper documents for lack of a single computer. I wrote down my statement myself, describing the value of everything I had lost and what went down in the hour after the incident. The woman in charge then made me read it out so that she could totally ignore me, as well as direct her staff and other victims around the office. She then made me wait outside for an unspecified period of time, for an undisclosed reason and gave no suggestion as to what might happen next.
My position on the couch allowed me visual access to another, slightly more intimate, investigation room where a large older woman was ranting and raving at her electrician for stealing from her. I watched as she told her whole life story via the loose connection that was the tale of a crime; she revealed a plethora of weird and wonderful knick-knacks from her reused shopping bags as illustration of whatever she was harping on about. The three detectives in the room demonstrated considered interest as she carried on in this way, but when it came to the accused’s time to speak, old Mother Goose interrupted with loud animated protests over his version of events. I never really caught on what exactly the argument was, I think some money was missing and the fuse on her fridge had broken.
I went to enquire what would happen now. After refusing my case report to prevent me from making a false insurance claim, Inspector Nonsense said we could go as they didn’t have any more time for us that day; only for her to then appear beside us at the roadside hissing for our attention. She would, in fact, accompany us with one of her equally lazy colleagues to the scene of the crime and talk to witnesses, at our expense.
After a confused retracing of our steps, and an unintelligible phone call with The Rasta, who had actually witnessed the whole thing, we reached the perimeter of Osu Cemetery where the mugging had occurred. Matching our own individual statements, Rasta explained how he had heard some shouting at around 2:00am. But this wasn’t convincing enough for our shrewd justice team:
“What sort of shouting?”
“People can be shouting if they’re singing, or praying.”
“How was the shouting?”
Went their line of inquiry.
I thought of the likelihood of people singing and laughing while being brutally beaten up by a gang. When we brought it to the investigators’ attention that Rasta had identified the criminals as people he knew, and that he was prepared to go with us at any time to areas where he knew they’d be and point them out for us, the policewomen had lost any feigned interest in us and began perusing Rasta’s collection of shoes and bags that were for sale on the roadside.
After this shambolic interrogation was over, we paid for the ladies’ cab back to the station and I was told to return in two days for the insurance information of my apparent elaborate scam to beat this airtight legal system.
“You are in Ghana now, you can’t compare to England.”
That was the advice from my guide, Timotee, as we travelled to Axim; a large fishing town in Ghana’s Western Region. Timotee, which I upheld as a brand of shampoo products first, and the name of a friend second (however I feel like my frame of reference on these things is going to change a lot over the coming months), obviously felt I was talking too much about my home nation and its established way of life. It was only my second day in the once-named Gold Coast, and I had plenty of comparisons to make.
What I read from his response, to what I intended as idle chit-chat as we rode the 40 minute tro-tro journey to our destination, was that Ghanaians don’t want to hear about how things are patently different in Europe compared to life in West Africa. They’ve heard reports of Western wealth and lifestyles; they’ve seen the technological and cultural imports in the big three cities of Accra, Kumasi and nearby Takoradi; but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to show off with great pride the life that is available here.
Maybe I read too much in to this, but what I had already observed in the locals was that they don’t often ask you too directly about your accustomed of life. Believe me, they have gotten over the cultural differences way before you set foot off the plane. Ghanaian people very much live in the moment, never dwelling on or anticipating things too much – and they’re much more interested to hear stories about your family than anything else. In the tro-tro (the main source of public transport, which amassed to a shelled out transit van with old-fashioned iron flippy seats), I asked some basic questions about where we were going and what I could expect from Axim. “You will see with your own two eyes”, came the patient reply.
After three days in the remote beauty-spot of Busua, I have already had many a rich and enlightening conversation with scores of people. Popular topics of conversation include football, music and, most significantly, sex. The best way to make friends, that I have found, is by trying your hand at one of the regional languages, of which there are around 40 over the whole country. Twi is the most widely spoken native language of Ghana, and it is spoken in the state capital of Accra. In Busua, my home for the next six months, lesser-known Ahanta is mixed with the broad coastal tongue of Fante, as well as English, in the veritable cocktail of language they use to communicate with one another. If you learn a single phrase in any one of these and repeat it to a friend, you are guaranteed an excited response.
There is also a unique way of speaking English in Ghana you need to understand to make any headway (of course, for many of these, context is everything):
“How do you feel it?” – Do you like it?
niece/nephew, son/daughter, mother/auntie, cousin/friend, him/her – all interchangeable as there aren’t traditionally have gender pronouns, and everyone seems to be considered family.
“You have to confuse him.” – You have to persuade him (or her).
‘Chop’ – Food, or ‘to eat’. Also ‘to spend (money)’.
“I’m coming.” – I’m leaving shortly, but I’ll be coming back.
“T.I.A.” – This is Africa, as spoken in the movie Blood Diamond but, as I was pleasantly surprised, also a common expression. Said when thinks don’t go quite according to plan.
‘Ok’ – I haven’t understood a word you just said.
It may come as no surprise that Ghanaians are devoutly religious people, the most religious country in the world in fact, and this also has an effect on every day phrasing. This is most exemplified to me from the son of my host family, who has said to me: “If God permit, I will see you tomorrow” and, in response to a enquiry of frequency,: “every blessed day”. Which, in a thick African accent, hasn’t nearly got the same sarcastic attachment to it than if a Brit had said it.
These heartfelt expressions go on. “You are invited” precedes every meal; “you are welcome” is warmly offered on arrival; and in their native languages, there is no word for ‘hello’ always a sincere “how are you?”. This nature of respect makes for the perfect travelling environment. I think I’m going to like it here.