Storytelling in strict chronological order will have to be abandoned in Ghana, or this blog will become unbearably tedious – if it hasn’t already. So brace yourself for an onslaught of overviews. Ghana was unusual for us, because instead of making our way slowly along the coast like we usually do, we zipped 300km from Accra to the most southernmost point of the country and back three times. The first time was to case the joint for my Mom’s arrival – and thank God we did, otherwise we’d have taken her to a series of rave-reviewed poo dumps. The second time was after fetching Nana, as the kids call her, from the airport for her holiday, and the third time was when we were finally on our way after dropping her back for her flight home.
All this to-ing and fro-ing up and down the highway wasn’t particularly edifying. Ghana is more developed than its neighbours, which meant the coast road has very little in the way of the rural picturesque but a great deal of tacky signage, half-finished concrete buildings and piles of rubble. Roadside businesses had some fascinating titles: ‘Rome Was Not Built In A Day’ stall, ‘Thick Mama Kitchen’ and ‘Motorway Mothercare’ were among our favourites. ‘Try and See Motors’ was less inspiring of confidence than ‘The Lord is in Control Motors’, ‘God’s Will Metalworks’ or ‘God is King Razorwire’. Not to mention the ‘Allah is Great Gasfitting Shop’. Sam Plumbing Enterprises also had the immortal pay-off line: ‘Jesus is my CEO’.
“Funny there’s no ‘Satan Is My Master Bank Loans’” remarked Sampson.
There also seems to be big business in selling advertising hordings to pay tribute to recently deceased relatives. The greater the status and reputation, the larger the poster and the greater the age achieved, the larger the font proclaiming it – there were so many of these, at times, it felt like the road was playing bingo: 53, 88, 104!
Educational institutions were similarly ennobled. Highlights were the Candid School, Gloryville and, my absolute fave, the Peculiar International School. You think I’m making these up now don’t you?
We continued to be amazed and horrified by what gets transported on the roof of buses, especially when it was alive. Goats tied on top had ceased to be noteworthy. But a lovely German woman at the charming Stumble Inn backpackers told me about travelling in Burkina Faso and being intrigued by a lock of long hair hanging in the window from above. It was only when warm yellow liquid started running down it onto her shoulder that she realised it was the end of a cow’s tail – there were seven of them strapped on the roof.
This blog is about the first half of Nana’s visit. In Ghana, royalty are respectfully addressed as ‘Nana’ and it seems appropriate that this is where our matriarch Carole a.k.a. The Duchess came to visit us. She was only with us two weeks in late Feb but we packed in a fair bit. Nana doesn’t want me to post many photos because she’s vetoed most of them as “embarrassing”, but let me offer a couple of verbal snapshots.
It was a wonderful break for all of us, not least as once I’d finally realised that it wasn’t Ghana’s internet that was mysteriously down for days on end, but that something had gone horribly wrong with my laptop, I had no choice but to shut it down altogether. When files starting corrupting, I took it as a sign that I had to stop work and concentrate on ‘just breathe, just be’ing with my Mom.
That first night sitting in the carpark of the Hotel Georgia near the airport pulling out the contents of her two enormous suitcases was like Christmas with bells on. Mom arrived bearing more than 50kg of schoolbooks and clothes and medical supplies and Toblerone and Wilson’s toffees – as well as a few too many You mags full of Oscar Pistorious gossip. The oohs and aahs of the children on seeing their new Lego, and Sampson’s on trying out his Skullcandy headphones, were almost as great as mine on feeling the quality of my 100% cotton Woolies pants. On a trip like this, the joy of new knickers cannot be overrated.
Many thanks to Patrick at the Hotel Georgia for his kindness in allowing Mom to leave those empty cases in his office until her return flight – we would have struggled to store them in the truck!
The next day, we whisked her 150km away down the coast to the place that had restored my faith in Ghana’s tourism industry: Anomabu, a beautiful resort of beach bungalows set amidst shady palms (http://anomabo2.digitafrica.com). There was aircon in all the clean, spacious rooms, a wonderful restaurant with breakfast included and a distinct absence of poo. Mom treated Sampson and I to a room next door to hers with a connecting door, so it was like we had a suite. The kids were in heaven, on a double bed each in the truck, and allowed to scoff shamelessly for four days: ginormous breakfasts of sausage, bacon, Spanish omelette and baked beans after cornflakes and rice krispies. I was content with a glass of crimson bissap juice with honey – a delicious start to the day.
With the arrival of her missing books, Ruby had to get stuck into schoolwork – she had five weeks of the first term to make up. Luckily there was always the promise of a swim and a snack to keep her motivated. The sea was warm and bubbly like a jacuzzi, with a tendency to take your feet from under you with a sudden unexpected swell of current that was constantly changing direction. We were used to this from Benin, but it caught Nana out a couple of times. I cherish the memories of her equally bubbling laughter as she came up spluttering. Anomabu was a wonderful place for her to recover from the flight and gently get acclimatised, although predictably the aircon proved too much for me.
We hung out with the proper tourists, all in our smart new clothes, feeling proper holiday vibes. It was weird to see Sampson looking clean in a bright, unfaded T-shirt every night! Chef Mr Sylvester spoiled us with a range of local dishes: jambalaya, a chicken/shrimp/sausage mix which the kids loved; grilled tilapia fish served with banku, corn pap and manioc mashed together in balls to dip into hot pepper sauce; and on our last night, lobster.
On Sunday, we set off for the nearby historic town of Elmina, where a hundred fishing boats cluster in the tiny harbour between the Fort St Jago and St George’s Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest European structures still standing in sub-Saharan Africa. It was built by the Portuguese in 1482 and captured by the Dutch in 1637.
Before embarking on the tour, we first opted for a fortifying repast at Bridge House; copious restaurant meals were one of the many perks of travelling with Nana. Mom and I tucked into Red Red, a scrumptious bean stew with fish, served with fried plantain. The Sampsons went for fish and chips, though I don’t know how they managed to squeeze it in after an Anomabu breakfast.
The St George’s Castle tour guide, Richard, reminded me of the Robben Island guides who are former prisoners – they tell it like it is and don’t sugarcoat it for you. He was quite brutally brilliant at laying out the facts: 600 captured men and 400 women were kept in dungeons here for up to 3 months at a time, waiting for ships to transport them across the Atlantic. There were up to 100 women in one cellar, with no ventilation, toilets or water. Urine, faeces, menstrual blood and vomit would pool on the floor.
The Governor used to look down from his balcony above and chose one of the woman to rape; this was her only chance to get a bath. Afterwards the soldiers of his guard would rape her again on her way back down to the dungeon. If she refused to go up, the punishment was to be left standing in the courtyard in full sun; if she couldn’t lift a 25kg canon ball at the end of the day, her fate was death. The afternoon heat was so fierce, it was a strain just to hold up the umbrella I was using to shade Mom.
The castle’s Door of No Return was the most dread-full I’d seen so far. We stumbled through a dark cobbled passageway under the castle to get there. It was only wide enough for one person, so the slaves could be counted as they passed through to the ships; it was so narrow the average body must have been no more than skeletal already.
Richard then took us to see the punishment cells. The right hand one was where the white prisoners were kept; drunken soldiers perhaps, thrown in the slammer overnight for a misdemeanor. Richard shepherded us all in and shut the door. There were nine of us and it felt quite claustrophobic, but there was a little air and light from the three high windows. The left hand one was where slaves were kept; the troublesome ones, who objected to the conditions or the violence, up to thirty of them at one time. There was no window, only a small grating in the door. This wasn’t for ventilation or view, but to allow the guards to see in: they only opened the door once the last man was dead.
It was at this point that Mom abandoned the tour. It was just too much to bear. Overwhelmed by guilt, compassion and heat, she took herself to the loo for a sob and didn’t come back.
It was a shame she missed the bracing breeze at the top of the battlements, and the slightly leavening story of Prempeh I, the Ashanti king who defied the British, and refused to pay his gold taxes. This heroic leader was imprisoned for 28 years: four in a tiny room in the turret of St George’s Castle in Elmina, one in Sierra Leone and 23 in the Seychelles…
My Mom’s capacity for empathy can be quite debilitating. She had been shaken to her core and was very fragile afterwards. I kept her company that night in her stifling room with a squeaky fan at the Alaska Beach Club in Busua, and we spent a calm restorative next day just doing school and looking at the sea to get over it.
For the rest of her stay, we took her to our top tourism spot in Ghana – which will be the subject for another blog – but on the way back, we were lucky enough to bump into Ras Tony at the Stumble Inn outside Elmina. It was her last day and Mom was in the mood to splash out on some souvenirs, and he obliged by rolling out a spectacular range of trinkets.
There were bracelets recycled from colonial silver forks and spoons, and necklaces of old Ghanaian coins and seaglass washed up on the beach. However, Nana’s most treasured acquisition was a long string of trade beads, also known as slave beads. These colourful millefiori glass beads were made in Europe between 16th-20th century, mostly by Venetians, specifically for trade in Africa. Often they were used as ballast in the hold for the outbound trip, before being replaced with human cargo.
My European Mom was so happy to pay a Ghanaian a decent price to transform them into a memory of something good.
Despite a faulty truck temperature-gauge scare, which delayed us for a while on the journey back, we got to Accra airport perfectly on time for Nana’s flight. The giggly race through the maze of buildings to the international boarding gate, with both children pulling gigantic cases, shielded us from a long-drawn-out goodbye. Afterwards I lay down desolate on the bed in the back of the truck. When will I see her again?