daybreak africa.

Friday 20th March, The Dream Hotel, Kokrobite  

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 instructor to see if he’s not too hungover for  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. I need to ask the manager about this arrangement, as it’s not clear if they get fed or exactly whose pets they are. 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.

Giddipass ‘spot’, Tamale

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. Some spots can be very comfortable, run by the most hospitable proprietor and serving only the coldest Savanna Dry to its valued customers. Others are just loud and smelly, open to shady patrons who help themselves to your refreshments without asking.

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.

Ghana Map

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.

Butre Beach, Western Region
Butre Beach, Western Region

I begin to look back over my time in the Western Region at the primary surfing destination of Busua. It was there that I volunteered for half a year on the production of a music festival. Apart from now feeling slightly ignored, and even a little bit resented, by the production team due to the amount of disputes that come from organising such an event, I have made my peace with our troubled relationship and start to see that what we achieved in bringing a lot of attention to a deprived part of the world, and sharing so much of Busuan life and values in doing that, is exactly what any festival should aim for. Is it something that could be re-created, in somewhere like Kokrobite perhaps?   

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.

Litter Tree
Littered tree, Kokrobite, Greater Accra

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.

When I was beaten and mugged on a night out, it wasn’t the robbers I deplored (it’s worth remembering that, outside the festival goers and fuel company execs, a quarter of Ghana’s people live below the poverty line and, with the ebola scare turning much needed investments away, times are desperate), it’s the failings of the government that’s to blame. Unsympathetic to the needs of the young and the poor, corruption is rife among political officials.

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.


garden party.

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 apartment.  One was a local called Freedom (not his real name), I had met him a few times now but was always wary of what I’d seen in 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.

Never assume anything.

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 drunk I must have been 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 shit about two timid white boys shuffling after their mate. Once Freedom plied us with joints – most of mine spilled on the floor while trying to roll it, fingers shaking nervously in the dark – he gave me a quick briefing of ‘Bukom Garden’; his old stomping ground before making the move to the 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 box.” 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 Bamnku’s footsteps since taking home bronze at the All-Africa Games at the age of 19.

Bukom Garden

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 a hostile place for a white man to tread. The Garden is a breeding ground for talent, and home to the aspirations of a thousand young West Africans.