I had a spare week between a meeting in Accra and an assignment in Lomé (three hours’ drive away), so rather than flying back to Dakar in-between, I decided to take some of the compensatory leave I was due (for weekend working and travelling) and spend the time seeing the coast of Ghana.
It is rainy season, and I spent my first evening sitting in a beach-side restaurant watching the most impressive lightning show I have ever seen. It lasted for well over an hour, with jagged streaks zig-zagging down to the water and arcing across the sky between the clouds. It is also lobster season – three halves of grilled lobster with chips for $10…
I had started my trip three hours east of Accra at Cape Coast. This was the British capital of the then Gold Coast for 211 years, until it was moved to Accra in 1876. The castle where the British were based is now a museum. You can visit the former slave dungeons, the tunnel from the dungeons to the “door of no return”, and the cell where misbehaving slaves were thrown – and left, without food, water or light, to die.
Thankfully the guide made no attempt to blame slavery on the Europeans. In fact he gave a very balanced account of the history, referring to slavery as business between two parties, balancing supply (the African middlemen) and demand (the Europeans). When I saw on the news that same day that an escaped slave in Niger was taking her government to court for not implementing laws to outlaw the practice, I even felt some pride in my country’s history as the first to ban slavery.
Whilst in Cape Coast I also did a side trip to Kakum National Park, to experience the famous walkway slung between trees, high up in the forest canopy. It was nice, though more notable for the multitude of insects than anything else. & I don’t mean beautiful, or interesting, insects – just the type that buzz around your ears and keep flying into your eyes.
The journey there though was a slice of real Ghana. My taxi driver had a sticker on his dashboard, reading “I am covered with the blood of Jesus” – the type of slogan that is very common in this highly religious country. He initially turned his radio to some cheerful ‘hi-life’ music, but then re-tuned it, and “Good morning Jesus, good morning love” blasted out. Worse, he then decided to join in, loudly and tunelessly. Everywhere you go there are churches, and people soon ask you about the extent of your religious beliefs. I don’t know whether they were more shocked by my atheism or my childlessness…
Elmina, just along the coast, had an even prettier castle, overlooked by a fort. The castle was built in 1482 by the Portuguese – and Christopher Columbus visited it before he discovered the Americas! The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the coast of West Africa, and soon established themselves in the Gold Coast. In fact the Ghanaians couldn’t keep up with the demand of the Portuguese for gold, so between 1485 and 1540 the latter imported some 12,000 slaves, purchased in Benin and sold to Ghanaian and Malian gold merchants to help with work such as porterage. Eventually, with the colonisation in South America, the US and the Caribbean, more labour was needed to work in the plantations established in those places and so the intercontinental slave trade began.
I had a real stroke of luck during my week, meeting up with an English couple who have purchased a 25-year lease on the 17th century Fort Metal Cross in Dixcove. They invited me to stay – thankfully not in one of the dank old slave dungeons, but in a room upstairs where the soldiers used to stay. It was fantastic, with the sound of the waves breaking onto the rocks below, and a cautious walk along the unlit ramparts in the night to find my way to the steps down to the bathroom. Not to mention the luxuries of a hot shower and a full English breakfast!
I later visited the forts at Axim and Beyin too, and took a trip to a stilt village built over the side of a lagoon. I also watched plenty of fishermen hauling in their nets, and mending them between trips, though sadly I also saw a group of them hacking away at an enormous turtle they had just caught. They cut off the limbs first, while the turtle waved its head from side to side - I hope just in some sort of post-death reflex, but I fear the poor thing was still alive and no doubt in a lot of pain. Travelling in Africa can be quite difficult for a nature-lover, as you do see quite a lot of cruelty to animals, as well as a general lack of respect for the environment (people defecating on beautiful beaches, and throwing empty plastic bags into the bushes).
Generally though it was a most relaxing week, and I finally felt that I had beaten that cold/temperature/sore throat that had been hanging around me for so long.