At first I found it difficult to get a grip on Ghana. As we’d spent the afternoon in the art gallery in Lomé, and it took a while to cross the border, we’d entered Ghana on a Friday about 6pm. In the dark is never ideal, as it blurs first impressions. We ignored the GPS, which was going haywire, and followed our noses down the road out of town between the sea and a lagoon. At first, as is usual around borders, the road was atrocious, but steadily it improved, apart from loads of ridiculously huge speed bumps. After the third set, I caught sight of a warning sign. ‘What’s that?” I said “Beware turtles crossing?” Sampson nearly wet himself laughing. Bit cruel I thought; it was an easy mistake to make, né?
We found a quiet spot opposite a church full of friendly drunken revellers enjoying a late night service and in the morning had a lovely beach walk between big boats watching the fishermen heaving in their catch. Big Reg drove on to Keta in search of surf, following the winding road between the sea and the dried up lagoon right to the end, a perfect spot on tar by the groin, overlooking a tiny peeling wave. Sampson was, as they say in the surf mags, ‘amped’.
It was quite beautiful, but the hordes of kids who appeared from nowhere in a matter of minutes were very wearing, though thankfully the ‘yovo yovo’-ing was over. They were soon joined by a collection of mourners from a large wake happening across the way. The Sampsons were in the sea, and I was trying to work, but it was difficult to concentrate with the throngs jostling at the door and I was feeling a bit like a zoo exhibit. When they finally came in, nice and cold, we shut the door.
Sunday morning, the kids were back there by 6am waiting for us to open up. As Sampson was getting irritated by the too-close audience for his stretching, I took attention off by challenging them to copy me doing T’ai Chi. It turned into a full yoga class. Bless ‘em, they tried so hard!
A wonderful guy called Christiaan who chatted to Sampson yesterday returned with his friend, South African Rose Francis. Rose told me she was a publisher, had recently married a Ghanaian and had come here to escape Jo’burg stress. She neglected to say she used to be a famous model and ‘It girl’ in the 1980s, but I could have guessed from her cheekbones and chutzpah. She did mention that her daughters’ godfather was a Sisulu.
We had a long walk and fascinating talk about the state of our nation; it seems we were both getting a bit jaded with the fading of the ideals of 1994 and needing a break to revive our revolutionary spirits! We echoed each other’s thoughts about the self-obsessed small-mindedness of many South Africans and the need for them to get a wider African perspective. Rose feels Ghana has a lot going for it but needs a kick up the butt – Ghanaians are so pleased with themselves for being the first Africans to gain independence, but have rather sat on their laurels since then. She is full of optimism about the future there, and I wish her much luck with her dream projects (a radio show and building a tented camp on the lagoon).
While I was feeling a wonderful kinship with her, Sampson was bonding with Christiaan and the children ended up playing with the stalker kids. We even gave them a quick magic show before leaving.
In the afternoon, we drove on to other side of Keta. Sampson and Zola went to check the fishermen, while Ruby was working on a wool picture of the four of us and I was working on bloated blog posts about Nigeria.
Suddenly William’s brother Philipe from Benin appeared in the doorway! It was so unlikely, at first I couldn’t believe my eyes. He explained he was back here visiting his Gran in Ada; when he saw the truck, he jumped off his tro-tro (taxi-bus) to come and say hi.
He also gave Ruby his necklace when she mentioned she liked it…
Monday morning, we were late to leave for Accra as Sampson was adjusting the headlights. We were further delayed by the usual pre-city roadblocks along the way. Sampson was smug about his automatic lock on his door when one bloke tried to climb up into the cab. Officials were hassling for a long list of stuff Sampson would produce one by one with a flourish and stymie them: fire extinguisher, triangles (two), international driving licences. It was like they were after a bribe but couldn’t get it together to concentrate for long enough to catch him out. That Ghanaian lackadaisical vibe again. Still it was a relief that we could share the chat duties as we were back in an Anglophone country.
Then there was the stroppy policewoman who interrogated us with a long list of questions that culminated in:
“WHY your son is black?”
“Well, he’s adopted and…”
“WHY you adopted him?”
“WHY is this any of your business?” was what I was tempted to respond, but didn’t. Sampson and I were so incensed by her rudeness, afterwards we amused ourselves imagining that the next time we were so accosted, we would throw up our hands in synchronized mock shock and horror: “He’s BLACK??!”
Zola was getting into the swing of Grade 4 now and I was enjoying teaching him. He got the same mark in his French oral exam as Ruby, which was really very impressive. Ruby was being very cute, but her hormones were up and down, so she was either cursing me or putting her head on my shoulder wanting a cuddle. Often in the same half hour. Sigh. I’m blessed to have this time with them to revel in. Her drop dead withering remarks have us cracking up, and Zola is definitely talking a lot more all of a sudden.
On the outskirts of Accra, we got our MTN sorted relatively easily. We hadn’t bothered to get connected in Togo as we were only there a week. So of course, this was exactly the time my Mom had desperately needed to get hold of me. When I emailed her our new number, she immediately phoned to say her Ghanaian visa application had been turned down, because she didn’t apply from the UK. (She isn’t a permanent resident in SA, as she lives half the year in Spain.) Aarrgh!
We headed into the city, and caught sight of a Shoprite sign! It was the Accra Mall, owned by South Africans, and also showcasing a Game, Mr Price, Truworths and Identity. The kids were so keen to go in, they were literally jumping up and down in the carpark, as excited about a trip to the shops as if we were going to Disneyland. It had been that long.
My enthusiasm wore off after about 10 minutes. I will always prefer a relatively poor selection of produce in an open-air African market, than a comprehensive spread in a soulless supermarket under artificial lights that make me feel ill. There shopping is an interaction, not a chore. Still, it was rather amazing to see bacon again.
Ruby and I went windowshopping. Browsing a vast furniture shop, it felt weird and surreal to be looking at R2000 ornaments suitable for enormous spaces. We treated ourselves to a couple of items each at Mr Price. It was a bit of a shock to see myself in a full-length changing room mirror under bright lights – I looked knackered, my hair was ghastly, and my bum had expanded without me noticing, not to mention the spreading veins down the back of my legs. Another bonus of living in a truck with only a small mirror stuck on the wardrobe in dim light is that you remain cushioned from the facts of aging!
Security allowed us to sleep in the carpark. Zola was throwing up in the morning, but thankfully with no fever. Ruby looked after him tenderly while we nipped in to see the manager of Shoprite. Within 10 minutes, Brett Marshall had sourced us 600L used oil from his and sister stores across Accra! WOW! We were so chuffed, we’d thought we had long days of begging and explaining around hotels and restaurants ahead of us and weeks waiting to collect like at Pointe Noire. THANKS SHOPRITE!
We then headed to the SA High Commission to meet the Counsellor, who turned out to be the lovely Selai Khuele. He introduced us to the supremely capable Jacky Kruger from the Dept of Home Affairs, sat us on a sofa and got more and more enthralled. When they visited the truck, they were just bowled over. A year into his posting here, Selai said he would never again complain about the heat now he’s sees what we’ve been going through without aircon!
They made us feel so proud to be South African – they were both so warm, enthusiastic and supportive; I just can’t imagine British civil servants behaving like that. Jacky assured me her colleague Mr Azuma at the Ghanaian Embassy in Pretoria would sort Mom’s visa problem out sharp sharp. Thanks to her intervention, he promptly did. It was in Mom’s hand within the week. THANKS JACKY, you’re a star!
After collecting visa application forms from Côte d’Ivoire, Liberian and Sierra Leone embassies – averaging $100 each, this month was going to be expensive – we set out down the coast on a recce to find suitable spots for Mom. She turns 70 this year and would rather not kip in the truck… For a week I knew what it was like to work for Lonely Planet. Traipsing in and out of various grubby to gorgeous accommodation options and reviewing their beds and menus. It was exhausting.
In Ghana, tourists abound. We were surprised to see so many clutches of young white female volunteers, who seem to go about in packs, clucking at one another with their heads in the clouds, wearing very short shorts and vacant expressions.
We spent a day at Big Milly’s, the deservedly famous backpackers in Kokrobite, waiting for our washing. Laundryman Ben was an artist of washing architecture, hanging it on roofs, accessed by vertiginous ladders. I found the place rather claustrophobic, hot with hustlers constantly trying to sell you stuff.
I chatted to woman in her 50s from Woolacombe who seemed cool at first but turned out to be a Fast Show character. She was a classic narrow-minded self-satisfied whingeing Pom who thought she and her husband were so rad to be travelling in Africa on tro-tros. She complained about every single place they’d been to and then summed it up with “Three weeks, I’ve really enjoyed it”.
Ruby fulfilled a dream and got her hair braided, paying for it with the fees she’s been charging her Dad for massages! The absent-minded woman plaiting did lots of smiling with her teeth and not her eyes, no doubt bored to death with the excitement of white girls getting an exotic hair-do. The beach hustlers were similarly unforthcoming. The famed Ghanaian ‘mellowness’ seemed mostly stoned-to-cope to me.
I began to feel that Ghana was suffering from our over-optimistic anticipation. Nigeria we were expecting to be a trial, girding ourselves for trouble as soon as we hit the border. So when it was welcoming and relatively easy we were delighted and felt positively towards it. Ghana on the other hand is always described as ‘Africa-lite’ – it’s supposed to be easy and very tourist-friendly. So I found the lack of friendliness we’d experienced in Cameroon and Congo – with people waving spontaneously, apparently happy to see you – a bit disappointing. We had to get over ourselves.
The worst thing was that Ghanaians look at you differently. I couldn’t work out how I felt, but realised I was also struggling to overcome their expectations: that I was an over-privileged asshole of some description, with more money than sense, who always got the best bits of their country at cut price. Once again, the post-colonial situation was making me feel like I was the bad partner in an abusive relationship. It made me feel very uncomfortable, as I felt I was constantly having to prove we weren’t like that, didn’t fit that box.
It was difficult enough to do school in this environment, but it wasn’t helping that Zola was in his stubborn snail mode and Ruby in her race-through-slap-dash mode, a nightmare combination. Meanwhile I still couldn’t get any internet connection at all and was getting very frustrated now as it had been quite fast previously, and I had urgent info to send and receive.
Zola is so quiet he disturbs people, and yet he has this habit of getting very voluble last thing at night, to put off the inevitable bedtime. Around 8pm he likes to have looooong conversations with me about his adoption or the creation of the universe. He also has a tendency to suddenly desperately need to go to the toilet whenever the washing up needs doing. This has led to him being christened the POO-CRASTINATOR.
Now we were expecting Ghana to be touristy, but the increase in the number of tourists did not at first seem matched by an expansion of a tourist-friendly environment. I got increasingly depressed at the state of litter washed up along the coast; it just got worse and worse.
Kokrobite and Winneba were covered in plastic, especially the ubiquitous ‘pure water’ sachets, and the practice of using the beach as a toilet had become more widespread. ‘Stop Poo-crastinating! Don’t mess in your own backyard’ should be Ghana Tourism’s call to arms. The day our morning beach walk had us hopping between poo like land mines, topped with a steaming pile of fresh diarrhoea – mansized – was the last straw, and I was beginning to despair we would ever find anywhere Mom would feel like she was having a proper holiday.
Our worst day that first fortnight was in Gomoa Fetteh. Sampson had heard there was a wave there and my previous research had turned up a promising-looking resort called White Sands, so we went to have a look.
Driving slowly into the village on Friday at around 10am, a tipsy nutter crossing the road at a roundabout decided to stop and strike a haka-type pose in front of the truck. Rather than pulling up with a screech of brakes, as the drunk expected we’d have to do, Sampson was looking right for oncoming traffic and didn’t see him until the last moment, so he had to leap out of the way. We didn’t feel terribly sorry for him.
It was a bad sign when the security at White Sands wouldn’t even let the truck into their huge carpark. Obviously they’d been given directives to keep out the scruffy. I changed into my most you-don’t-know-who-I-am-I might-just-be-an-eccentric-millionaire blouse and swanned into the huge reception boma and asked to see a room. I didn’t flinch when €931 per night was mentioned (even if you could stay 2 months at Big Milly’s for that). A charming young man called Prince showed us around, guiding us across vast and stupidly pristine lawns bigger than a football pitch. Who are these people who drive two hours out of Accra to pay $26 each for the privilege of sitting on some very flat grass, eating overpriced burgers and looking down on the fishermen beyond the infinity pool? Probably the owner’s drug-money-laundering friends if the gossip is anything to go by…
I told Prince there were “too many steps” for my Mom, so we went to look at their sister hotel in town, which I hoped might be cheaper. As we pulled up in front of it, a small man in a belted beige uniform flourishing a massive walkie-talkie immediately started barking at us:
“You can’t park here.”
“Er, good morning, we were just coming to have a…”
“You can’t park here.”
“Erm, but the receptionist at the resort directed us here and…”
“You can’t park here.”
“We’re coming to make a booking for my mother and…”
“You can’t park here.”
Sampson let his actions speak louder than words, turned off the engine, jumped out of the cab and was off down the (public) road to check if the beach break was surfable, leaving me to deal with asshole ‘Mr George’, who shouted after him in vain. This was the only time so far on this trip that my diplomatic skills have failed completely, because George didn’t allow himself to listen to me even for a minute. It was very satisfying that, when he tried to call for backup, his walkie-talkie wasn’t working, so he had to scrabble for his cell phone.
When his young colleague arrived I talked to him, and as Sampson arrived back and climbed into the driving seat, mentioned the Africa Clockwise climate change mission and the website. Mr George continued talking over me:
“I know all that, I’ve seen that. You can’t park here.”
As we reversed and turned to motor back up the road, he carried on gesticulating wildly. I leaned out the window and shouted cheerfully:
“Byeeee, and thanks for all your help!”
Less than 10 minutes later, Sampson was checking the map and I was in the back checking maths corrections when there was an almighty thump on the side of the truck:
“Fuck you, FUCK YOU South Africa!! You tried to kill me, FUCK YOU!!!”
“Erm, what?” Sampson was flummoxed. It was the bloke from the roundabout. I came forward.
Me: “Excuse me, but you jumped in front of the truck.”
Thumper: “FUCK YOU!!”
Sampson: “Will you please stop hitting the door?”
Thumper: “FUCK YOU!! FUCK YOU!! Get down!”
Me: “You shouldn’t have stopped in middle of the road in the first place.”
Sampson: “Are you drunk?”
Thumper: “NO. I am NOT drunk. I was STUPID.”
Thumper: “FUCK YOU!! FUCK YOU!!” (thump, thump)
Sampson: “Will you please stop swearing. My children are in the back.”
Thumper: “FUCK YOU!! FUCK YOU!!”
Ruby, leaning out of the window: “Why are you swearing at my Dad?”
Thumper: “Arghblurbles…” (gobsmacked, shuts up, leaves).
We drove back to the roundabout and bizarrely, a South African in a bakkie jumped out to say hi. As he was telling us he was from Bothasig in Cape Town, Thumper popped up next to him and put his arm around his shoulder calling him Uncle. The Saffa brushed him off with a “Not now George” and carried on chatting. Of course he was called George. George now wanted to shake Sampson’s hand. He declined, pointing to the massive dent in his door. We left.
It’s easy enough to write this up as an amusing incident, but at the time I was shaking from the hatred unleashed in our direction. It’s really sad how one silly negative incident with a nutter can colour your whole experience of a place. I’m so glad we had more time to spend in Ghana, as the Georges nearly put me right off.
Drafted Feb 8th