When? July/August 2006,
How? Car, Local planes
Who? Voluntary work for a charity and travelling
Still down at the bank one hour before I’m due to leave for Heathrow. And I have a horrible feeling I don’t have half the things I need. I’m meeting Georgie the very gorgeous young and confident founder and director of Afrikids. I’ve said I’ll come out and see whether I can do anything to help in the schools that they work with. I don’t know too much about the organisation. I’ve been too busy to find out. My sister Catherine’s firm are major sponsors and that was how I got to hear about their work initially. Minor panic as Georgie doesn’t appear to be waiting at the aeroplane gate. I wonder if I could possibly have got the wrong date in all my rush? But she arrives on the plane together with Andy, very young enthusiastic whizz kid and new strategic manager. The flight is uneventful. Accra is typically tropical, steamy and musty. I fall asleep, the room resonating to the sound of a croaking bull frog chorus.
Well, we booked flights north to Tamale on the Citylink website but someone forgot to tell the website that they don’t fly on Wednesdays anymore. Fortunately, Amtrak can fit us in along with the Norwegian Rescue Mission contingent who are mainly from Liberia. The Afrikids pick up and a beaming driver, Dremani, waiting to take us the last stretch to Bolga (short for Bolgatanga), the hub of the Afrikids projects. Northern rural Ghana is flat lush bush, wet season velvet green. Countless introductions: Nich the Ghanaian director and operations manager at his office in the new Afrikids Academy, Sebastian the academy manager and teacher at the ICT suite there, (The roof has only just been replaced after the recent storms blew it off), Freddy/Felix (everyone has an English name and an African name) the manager of the Next Generation Children’s Home (NGH) for orphans and street children, (abandoned, sick, abused, raped and other horrific stories, a menagerie of children grinning and anxious to say hello, dragging me off on a tour of their dormitories, round faced Timothy who’s 16, struggling to read but desperate to try and Mamma Laadi presiding proudly over another home. She is now in her third house, brand new and beautifully sited with amazing views over farmland. She was originally found in one room with 14 children she had taken off the street sick. She now has 30. As we arrive they all shove gently, wanting to be the ones to take our bags and show us round. Little doe eyed Joseph is uncharacteristically quiet today. He’s recovering from another bout of malaria.
Bolga sprawls unexpectedly like an American frontier town. It seems that everywhere there are painted signs announcing different missions and charities and projects. Georgie and Andy are staying at the “in” place in town “Comme ci Comme ca” lives up to its name and dinner takes an hour to arrive. Small red snappers and rice. They don’t have a room for me; a party of missionaries are in town. I can hear their very loud very American, very sanctimonious voices at the next table. My lodgings, however, are the best in town. Hot water and patterned sheets, top and bottom. But they are out in the sticks and the manager is very surly. I decide I probably won’t stay long, but am wasting my time deliberating. The Minster of Health is coming to town and has commandeered the house. Playing the King in four and twenty blackbirds, peering over his stacks of cash, Surly informs that I’m to be evicted in two days anyway.
Dremani has changed me some money – a hundred pounds. At 16,500 cedis to the pound I’m handed fat wads so large I have to get a carrier bag to transport them. Then to my first school, Bright Academy. It’s even more primitive than I had expected. Open classrooms, another roof being replaced, canes and cauldrons, wooden benches, bare concrete walls and floors and painted blackboards. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice meets David Copperfield. The children are delightful, a mix of fee payers and street children. Beautifully behaved, they wear purple check pinafores and sing “We are happy to see you”. The excited headteachers are an unusual partnership called Moses and Timothy.
In the afternoon we tour a number of projects. Fresh starts for girls who have been rescued from various indescribably awful situations. Some have depicted their previous lives on poignant videos. Now they are apprentice hairdressers and sewing machinists. There is also a micro finance project – a homestead in round mud huts near the soft green hills of Tongo. Goats are important. One goat will buy a year of schooling for a child. Three calves will buy a wife. Then dinner at Laadi’s. Everyone loves her cooking. Rice balls, chicken and spicy groundnut sauce (they call it soup here).
Next, another project, evening classes for the street children. They have been begging or working in the streets all day. Diminutive, ragged and rheumy they recite the alphabet and spell orally, their backs to the board to test their memory. The one flickering fluorescent tube is dim and they are tired, but they all concentrate amazingly. There is a debate over what to call the newly formed school. It has been christened The School of Hard Knocks but we all think that something more optimistic is called for. Georgie wants an animal name so that the children will remember it. but the suggested owls are not deemed wise in Africa. Rabbits are the clever animals it seems, so the school is rebranded as The School of Night Rabbits. A bucket of round green oranges comes round. David, a medic and volunteer attends to the children’s many sores. They sit patiently, enjoying the attention and not even flinching when the purple iodine goes on. Then they troop off, back to the streets to sleep where they can.
We set off to spend this day at Zuarangu School. Georgie and Andy are sitting on my bags in the back of the pick up, whilst they await a home. This school is right out in the rural area and is surrounded by a number of small projects. Families are granted loans or gifts to breed goats, or produce shea butter from peanuts. The homesteads are afloat with millet drying, guinea fowl and chicks racing in tiny flocks round tin pots. The homesteaders are grateful and keen to talk and demonstrate what they can do. The children rush out of school to pose for pictures in doorways. Catherine has sponsored two sisters called Cynthia and Cecilia. They are extracted from their classes to say hello and topple out, shy, bewildered and beautiful.
I have been round to see all the classes. Nich wants me to train all the teachers together but I’m beginning to feel incredibly daunted. They work so hard and have so little. There are a few battered text books and the children write in tatty exercise books. Some classes sit on the floor. Some of the younger ones just use fibreboard slates. Anything they practice reading has to be copied. The children are very polite and can hardly be heard even when they answer questions. The teachers’ knowledge is variable. Many English words are spelled incorrectly. One guy is teaching fractions totally wrong. He gets to set the exam paper so perhaps it doesn’t matter? The gap between teaching here and in the UK is just huge. How to begin without demoralising everyone utterly?
Then yet more projects. The Single Mothers Association is pitching for cash. I’m beginning to think that Afrikids is linked to every single project I’ve seen advertised in Bolga. Georgie and Andy are very impressive in action. Very focussed, very objective driven, whilst still very compassionate.
Nich has found me a room at the Christian Mission. No he hasn’t. The occupants are still there. And so I end up at the other end of town. Estate Country, in the Balungu Princess (Annexe)
Admiring my new room. The toilet seat has come apart and the mattress is disappearing into the floor. Well it’s home, but not for long. At breakfast the owner tells me that the house is fully booked from Monday.
I wander into town, attempting to get my bearings at last. There are countless small grimy booths and little braziers carrying scorched maize cobs on the litter strewn streets, brilliant bright basket stalls and the most amazing inside out conical straw hats. The people are wretchedly poor and desperate to sell. Goats are ubiquitous and each brazier has one chewing at the discarded husks. Their kids frisk around on the roads bleating loudly. Each business has its own hand painted sign. Never be the same again haircuts. My Way and Sons Enterprises. The people have huge friendly eyes and strong high cheek bones. Most carry tribal razor slashes. Their costumes are cheerful eye catching headscarves, kaftans and sarongs. Nearly everyone has a smile and a greeting as I walk past.
Nich takes me out in the pick up to look for somewhere else to stay. We view an endless assortment of shabby little rooms. Some are gloomy and depressing. Hot water is non existent. All are full in any case. There are numerous conventions on – missionaries, doctors. Nich finally remembers a “hotel” near the centre of town. Hallelujah! They have rooms and I am promised one for Monday.
Back at the Next Generation Home I hear Timothy read. A small group gathers to watch. He doesn’t seem to mind. And then the rain starts again. It’s so noisy as it clatters on to the tin roof that I can hardly hear him speak. Its six o clock and I realise I haven’t had lunch yet. The rain has stopped cascading off the roof in waterfalls and turned into “English rain” as the locals call it. I venture out trying to leap over the newly formed rivers and cascades that are swirling through the red mud of the streets. I buy a large black plastic bag and tear a hole to put over my head. It covers me and my bag nicely to the amusement of the few brave folk outside. A quick dinner in the All People’s Canteen. Though I’m the solitary diner tonight. Ground rice balls, spicy groundnut sauce and roast guinea fowl. Only lukewarm, but tasty and good value at about 80p. Now it’s dark and there are no street lights. My place is a mile out of town and I’m told it’s safe to walk alone. I collide with a large moving shape. It’s a pig frolicking. They emerge from the sewers, their usual home, to enjoy their favourite weather. Then I find a very large puddle, up to my knees. At least I hope it’s a puddle. I eventually arrive drenched. The kind owners boil me up big pails of hot water “to stop me shivering”. It’s thirty five degrees. But it’s great to wash my hair and to have a welcome cup of tea.
I sleep fitfully. The air con has given up and the fan has five speeds that are all supersonic. It’s like camping in a hurricane. The foam mattress is leaning crazily at forty degrees. Outside they have been sweeping up water till late. The dogs have been joining in. Early in the morning they meet for a smoke and a discussion outside my window. This is succeeded by the strains of the Gospel Choir shepherding in Sunday. Thirty percent of the population here are Christian.
With Mark, the caretaker from the NGH to visit Paga, a town on the border with Burkino Faso. We travel luxuriously by taxi. The windscreen is a spidersweb of cracks. The driver navigates by one wing mirror and the exhaust continuously threatens to part company with the car. White Woman in Town is quickly joined by a host of would be guides. We see an “ancient village” full of archaeological finds and some distinctive geometric black and white patterned walls. Then a slave fort complete with drumming on the entertainment rocks and punishment demonstrations. I nearly fall out of a tree trying to get up to the look out rock to do a lion king impersonation. The countryside spreads out for miles beyond, flat, pea green and bestrewn with rusty rocks. The highlight is a visit to the chief’s crocodile pond. Tame (ish) Nile crocodiles are tempted out of the water with dead chickens. Laughing Ghanaians tweak their tails and pose for the camera. I bravely take the pictures.
More projects in Sirigu, another northerly village famed for its art and pottery. Recklessly I travel in the back of the pick up. The work experience boys have woven bright pink plastic patterned seats to bounce on, my head clearing the metal roof frame by a fraction. Dremani expertly weaves in and out of the potholes and I get an instant face lift as we tear up the road.
The homesteaders here are again pitifully poor. Their cylindrical grain stores are perched over a slurry of mud pools. A pair of grizzled patriarchs wearing hand tanned skins and wielding huge rusty machetes appear for yet more pictures. There are two small babies with moonfaced unceasing grins. They are triplets; their sister was too small and died. Afrikids is supplying millet porridge as basic food. Still they insist on presenting us with a large dish of guinea fowl eggs.
The market is an amazing whirl of activity, dotted with beneficiaries of Afrikids. Two small boys in checked shirts pursue us stealthily, their heads peeking into the corner of every photo we take. Rows of beans balanced in rosy Jenga like towers, brown shredded puti, (essential for the local liquor), round balls of goat droppings, (prized for adding flavour to the local soups) and wedges of tobacco. This is a new enterprise for the concoctions doctor, a sort of local pharmacist, his major occupation previously was murdering children judged to be inhabited by spirits.
Lunch is chicken in a tomato spicy soup (I search carefully for signs of droppings). The fowl were provided by Joe, the Sirigu project manager. These are less tough than most and the flesh can be hacked off the bones. And every meal so far has featured oily red tomato paste in some form. Not good when you are allergic to tomatoes.
Finally, a women’s basket weavers collective. Another riot of colour and gentle camaraderie. I’m trying to talk to Nich about the planned teacher training. It’s on Wednesday. How will it be organised? What do they want? Nich says he won’t be there on Wednesday, do what I like.
So back to my next dwelling. Moving down the AA scale the Azonsolum is maybe a minus one star. I’m not looking too closely. There’s definitely no hot water and what there is, is very brown. I’m in number 18. Another door in my room is labelled 19. A suite? No it’s the balcony. The manager tells me I’m lucky my phone works. When I want to change the channel on the TV I can phone down and tell them and they’ll alter it for me from Reception. I wonder how I’ll know what’s on so I can choose, but no problem. They can’t get any of the channels at the moment.
I decide a Gordon’s Spark on my balcony is called for. Reminiscent of Aquavit but gin laced and pretty potent. A jolly good 50p worth.
A head banger of a morning spent talking to the proprietors of Zuarangu School and the Bright Academy. Each school has a proprietor and a headteacher- American system. I had arranged with Nich to see Pastor Charles of ZS at 10. He was to be asked to come over to the Bright Academy. He arrives at my lodging at 8.30. We discuss training. Georgie had told me that the teachers are very keen for training and will happily give up their holidays if necessary. Nich said that school finishes in mid August. They both say it is now school exam week and it will be easy to release teachers. I say this is very different to the UK where teachers are tired at the end of term, have reports to write and just want a holiday. They say it is.
Pastor Charles tells me that term finishes on August 3rd. After that the teachers go home. Many will not be able to train as they have to stay at home and help on the land. That gives us eight days. He says maybe three or four of those, but transport will be a problem. Only if they can resolve transport. Headteacher Timotei is unwell. He’s not sure where he is or when he’s coming back. Maybe malaria. Charles tells me he is the ‘assemble man’, he’s been voted to lead the whole community. Status seems to be a major incentive for Charles. Ok, status. I tell him all about my job and how important it is and exaggerate all the money I earn.
“Ah” he says. “Rather like a consultant.”
“I am a consultant”
“Well in that case we are blessed to have you”
Pastor Thomas is not at Bright Academy. No-one has told him I’m coming. He and headteacher Moses were expecting training during the holidays. Maybe one day a week? It is very difficult to release the teachers during the day. They have to teach. They have to mark the test papers. They have to fill in report cards. They are very tired. Only three teachers are staying anyway. Well, maybe the ones who are leaving can cover whilst we just train those three? No we’re not telling them they’re leaving till the end of term. We’re interviewing now. Will they get certificates? There is more incentive if they get certificates. Maybe four days on afternoons next week.
The teachers straight from high school are totally untrained. The report cards are small single side tick box affairs. The test papers are full of grammatical errors and inaccurate information. The teachers eat jollof rice (tomato paste risotto) from bowls in the nursery whilst the children mill around. The youngest loll on their benches. The food is cooked in an empty classroom over a hastily constructed charcoal fire. The cauldron is carried into the playground. The nursery teacher hands out bowls and they eat with their fingers.
I head of in search of my own jollof lunch. No jollof in the hotel kitchen (two fires here). Instead fried plantain and beans and more cold leathery chicken in tomato paste. Too early for a Gordon’s Spark?
There’s a staff dinner in the evening, a buffet: all the different types of tomato paste and leather chicken at one sitting, spicy fish and sweet yam balls. Some of the men are wearing dress clothes, great thick woven kaftan tops that flare out in whirls like mini dervishes as they walk. Georgie weaves her magic, aided by a large dose of directorial authority. Moses and Thomas demand to see me “in private”.
“Sue we will work with you all day every day. Sue we appreciate you so much. Sue we love you.”
Moses has been drinking the local tipple. Malta Guinness spiked with strawberry liqueur.
Back inside Dremani is disappointed that I won’t marry him. He wants to love a white lady. But will I go dancing with him anyway?
Up at the academy to watch Sebastian teach computing. But Sebastian sneaks off and I’m left taking the class instead. I have never used the Paint programme before am diving into Help, hoping the students can’t see me. I write a report on Sebastian’s teaching using my laptop. Just as I finish there is a power cut and I lose the lot.
And I’ve actually unpacked for the first time. I have finally moved into Comme Ci and am assured I can stay here till I leave. The missionaries have gone. Another lot have arrived but I’ve squeaked in alongside them. Another lunch and another hour’s wait for it. I have just realised that the drink mats aren’t mats at all. They’re to put on top of the glasses to stop the flies falling in.
My hot water idyll didn’t last long. I hopped into the shower to find there was a distinct lack of wetness. The woman next door got my water instead. All over her bedroom floor. The guy on hotel reception won’t get it repaired. He’s sulking because I told him I won’t take him to England with me. I’ve lost count of my marriage proposals now. A student with a scooter keeps popping up to give me lifts round town.
As usual when I travel my hotel room has become a veritable menagerie. There’s a huge vicious looking millipede undulating across the floor and the whining mosquitoes are ever present, waiting their chance. A tiny gecko is hiding behind the wardrobe. I can just see five scaly pressure pad fingers twitching. A pair of purple and orange agama lizards are doing press-ups on the wall outside the bathroom. Weaver birds are warning me away from their basket nests. Little iridescent blue birds are cautiously curious and a gorgeous scarlet version of a sparrow swoops by. Over in the compound the buzzards are pacing as if they were waiting outside an operating theatre. A discreet distance from them the goats enjoy scattering the guinea fowl and hens. Swallowtails and amber dragonflies shimmer in and out of the scene.
Training with Moses and Thomas. They’ve actually got some pretty good monitoring going on. They tell me that they and the teachers all get paid the same amount. Thirteen pounds sterling a month.
Then to investigate Bolga market day. It’s a moveable feast and takes place every three days, a maze of stalls and bodies, women balancing huge metal bowls on their heads with poise and elegance. The bowls contain everything from sewing machines to precarious castles of guinea fowl eggs. The women are casually confident and rarely even use their arms to steady their loads. More goat droppings and some evil smelling piles of dried fish. Really nice flip flops at 50p a pair. And I buy rather too many of the gorgeous hats and baskets. I’m not sure how on earth I’m going to get them all home.
Up to the NGH to hear Timothy read again. (My scooter man appeared in the nick of time.) When I arrive Timothy’s busy helping to skin a cow. The carcase is draped on the ground and all the boys are hacking at it. He goes to wash the blood off his hands before he can read.
Back to Comme Ci in the pitch black. I have decided it’s too hairy walking at night. A torch was one of the many things I forgot to bring. It’s bad enough during the day trying to dodge all the bikes, goats, pigs, donkeys, chickens and taxis. At night the only illumination is the scattering of smouldering oil lamps on the street stalls. There are great swathes of rural land between blocks of buildings and these are eerily quiet. Not many of the bikes have lamps and the roads are lined with open sewers. I’m terrified I shall disappear into one. Guys in bars hiss to attract attention, so it’s red alert the whole way. Where is my motor bike student when I need him?
Back in my room I decide to try the TV. There are seventy or so channels but I can only find the same two programmes repeated whatever the channel number. One is a documentary on the slave trade. The other is a succession of excruciatingly bad Nigerian soap operas. No wonder the English in the schools isn’t so hot. Nerinda Looses Love (sic). Each one has a sponsorship logo so large it covers half the screen. Shocko!
Pastor Charles and I are drawing up school plans. They are very excited about a planned computer suite. But they haven’t got electricity yet. There is another thunderstorm and the sky is so black I can’t see what I’m writing. Playing a scene straight out of Dandy a teacher is pursuing a child round the courtyard swishing at him with a cane. Later the head teacher, Timotei turns up. He has been suffering with malaria and looks as if he should still be in bed. The children have notes to take home telling their parents how to prevent and treat bilharzia. Most of them have it already.
They are taking their tests here too. At least they are running around screwing up bits of paper. I cause a Mexican wave as I walk round, as pupils rise to say good morning every time I go by. The nursery children all chorus “happy to see you, happy to meet you” relentlessly. Their teacher is working hard, lying on a bench with a blanket round her. I take an impromptu science lesson but the chalk won’t work.
We go to visit Cynthia and Cecilia in their homestead. Catherine has sent frilly white tops for them. They look gorgeous but they don’t have skirts and I try to focus on their top halves as they pose for pictures in their knickers.
See Burkina Faso
I’m back – and my TV is down to one programme.
A little apprehensive today… I’m finally going to do some training this afternoon. I’m not sure how many people are attending, how it will be organised or worst of all, whether they will be able to understand me. My stomach is twitching. It’s been a little graunchy ever since I arrived but some sort of fight has been taking place in my gut this weekend. It’s not really surprising considering the washing up arrangements. Plates are rinsed in cold water and little washing up liquid if you’re lucky. The same goes for cutlery. Because everyone eats with their fingers it’s traditional to perch a small washing up bowl and a bottle of liquid detergent on each table. And however religiously I scrub my palms I can guarantee that as soon as I step out the door someone will be enthusiastically greeting and wanting to shake hands.
Africa is feeling like hard work at the moment. Everything happens at the last minute. I arrange my own chairs. Sebastian finds notebooks. Pens, though ordered do not appear. “The teachers will have to manage” they say.
The training goes quite well. The 30 teachers are very well behaved compared to English teachers. The Ghana local education officer is there. All and sundry say they will drop in to get some tips. They all demand handouts. And certificates. The register is completed twice. Once with the names they use every day and once when they realise that the list is for the certificates and they should use their official names. They have trouble with my accent and the rain pelting on the roof doesn’t help. I spend most of the time shouting about how to manage good discipline. I’m trying to convince them to abandon the cane but Moses jumps up and interrupts.
“We only use it to frighten them with, so it’s okay”.
I fetch the refreshment Fanta drinks from the fridge but it turns out these are not ours. Sebastian was “waiting” to go and buy them. First come first served I say. I have learned.
I wander back past the many brightly coloured statues of saints and biblical figures surrounding much of the town. No-one knows why Moses (the statue that is) is sporting a pair of horns.
I’ve sampled most of the menu at Comme Ci now. Garlic chicken with rice sounds reasonable. It turns up – smothered in tomato paste.
Day 2 of the training. No rain today but instead a radio blaring from the little village next door. The teachers did really well considering how much they knew before. Assessment for learning is now alive and kicking in Africa. Cultural differences are awkward for me to grapple with. I’ve remembered to avoid owls but Task Teddies don’t go down well either. “What’s a teddy?” Rabbits are again the preferred option though rabbit tasks doesn’t have quite the same ring or connotations. And I demonstrate using the task of writing instructions as I always do in England. Except that here making a cup of tea begins with the direction “first set the fire” Have been trying to show how to write specific simple learning objectives. “It isn’t easy being easy!” says one guy.
A minor complaint that the teachers were hungry as they had not had time for lunch. I have asked Nich to get them meat pies tomorrow. And I’m not sure where they’re going to the toilet. There isn’t one at the Academy. I nip round the corner and five minutes away to the local church. I think they must be using the village maize patch as no-one seems to disappear for very long.
I have decided to leave on Saturday. School term finishes on Thursday and it’s not the most exciting social life I’ve ever had. Me and the Ghana TV or the man selling hats at Comme Ci. I’ve managed to book myself some hotels found on the internet and a bit of travel to the coast. I hope the weather behaves, I think the rainy season has finished in the south.
I am still a beginner when it comes to drinking water out of sachets. I wish I could master the art of biting the corner off without getting totally splattered.
My last chance to visit Bolga market. I buy two skirts for Cynthia and Cecilia for a pound each and four packets of biscuits for the teachers for £1.50. The grain areas are really interesting, full of women endlessly raining basins into one other from on high. Although I have been warned that they won’t like photos, after a while they are jostling to have their pictures taken, striking poses for me and giggling.
I have a little pile of addresses on torn bits of paper now. Every child wants to be my friend and every adult my sister. Autograph hunting or a desperate wish to find a way to the UK?
Training day 3. Everyone’s still turning up but they’re beginning to feel tired now. I get them doing some mime and lighter stuff. Not meat pies but cream crackers. And my sweet biscuits go down well. I’m Not sure if folk are hungry or just plain selfish but I have to prevent them taking too many. They don’t seem to care if there’s none left for anyone else. And yes they are using the maize patch. I start to take photos and end up like the school photographer doing the whole class. I have promised to send everyone a print.
After not speaking to me for 3 days Dremani is suddenly rushing around offering to help and everything is “a pleasure”.
And the best thing on TV tonight is an old World Cup soccer match – Netherlands v Cote D’Ivoire from Stuttgart. It says ‘live’ at the top of the screen.
The final training day. I realise that it isn’t a lot of different women turning up each day but the same women wearing different wigs. I present certificates to everyone and they have their photos taken again receiving their certificates. It’s going to take forever to print all this off when I get back. They also have their photos taken altogether inside and outside, patting their own backs and giving thumbs up signs. I have my photo taken putting on the blue stripey kaftan they gave me at every stage of dressing and undressing. Fortunately, over the top of what I am wearing. They all write really lovely evaluations and that is it. Quite emotional really.
I give Sebastian money for the schools to have copies of my ring bindered book as they are anxious that the colour copy won’t get shared equitably. Worryingly, given any budget issue the schools’ attitudes seem always to be” who will give us the money?” rather than “how can we earn it?”
Last day in Bolga. A whimper rather than a bang. A final meeting with the gang from the Bright Academy. They promise to try to become more self financing and to stop using the cane. A last walk up to the Afrikids Academy. I donate my shoes to a lady in a shop who asks for them. They’re only old black slip ons. The streets are very quiet now all the children are on holiday.
So back to Comme Ci and half an hour with my receptionist friend who can’t add up the bill properly. All the while my stomach is going ballistic. The teachers kept giving me little titbits to eat yesterday. It’s hard to refuse. Pastor Charles was coming for a final meeting at three but he hasn’t shown up. At least I can lie down. But not for long. I spend the rest of the evening vomiting.
And now I really have seen everything. Nigerian Big Brother- they seem to have missed the point rather. It isn’t really about how they get on with each other at all, but more about very complex individual competitive tasks. And they have visitors in the house-TV stars. At 8 o’clock Pastor Charles arrives, only 5 hours late. And I’m still chucking up. It’s definitely a whimpering day. Peter Lilley is making a flying visit to the projects on Sunday and will stay in my room. Good luck to him!
I’m still feeling awful but decide to still travel, which turns out not to be one of my better decisions. I have to pay six times as much as everyone else to get my luggage stowed away. The air-conditioned minibus is driven by an accelerate/brake merchant. The air conditioning has broken down. I sit next to a guy who seems determined to get two seats worth for his money. Behind me is a toddler who wiles away his boredom by trying to work out how many ways he can strangle me with my seat belt.
The bush gradually gives way to rainforest, and bananas and pom poms on tall knitting needles signal the first palm trees. Mud huts are now square mud with tin roofs. there are hoardings: Goat Flavour Stock Cubes, Two Seater Water Closets Made Here, St Anthony’s Catholic School, Oxford., Funeral Dressing Here, Cadbury’s Choco. On the radio there’s a sports round up. It’s all about Chelsea and Arsenal and the Number 1 Accra team -Hearts of Oak. The road seems to be under the course of construction most of the journey. Or has it just disappeared? It’s red and slippery. The toilets on our one stop are close contenders for worst in the world (the winners are in China). After six hours I’m a queasy quivering wreck. Another taxi driver who thinks I’m beautiful and wants to visit me in England. It doesn’t stop him overcharging me. My hotel seems a contrasting haven of tranquillity. The rooms are clean and large. There’s a swimming pool and a large computer room. The staff are delightfully friendly and helpful and send out to the pharmacy for a rattle of pills for me.
I suppose technically this isn’t really a Bolga diary anymore. Still feeling pretty groggy. And my trousers are definitely a more relaxed fit . Ghana has to be better than a Health Farm if you want to lose weight. I gird my loins and go out in a taxi to buy a bus ticket for tomorrow’s journey to the coast. Kumasi is spread over several hills. The roads are still under construction here too. This taxi driver circumnavigates by driving off road and on pavements where possible. There are no bus tickets to be had. I negotiate with the taxi driver. He says he will take me for 600,000 cedis. The receptionist is shocked. She thinks it’s daylight robbery but it’s the same price as a taxi to Gatwick from home. And at least I can stop it if I feel sick. I’m too shaky to wander around and most of the town is closed today anyway (I’m not sure there’s actually much I want to see).
I have read all my books and the hotel has none. The internet is so slow I run two PCs at the same time on different tasks. Although there is a satellite magazine there is actually only one tolerably visible channel. I watch an amazing Nigerian movie (its Nollywood here) called A Serious Mistake about a guy who goes to Europe to make his fortune. It’s complete with cavorting witch doctors who help his brother steal all the money he sends home. Eventually, the hero returns wearing a snappy suit and sunglasses and all is well.
More blistering speed trials as my taxi thunders to Elmina. Streets stacked with huge rusty truck engines, heaps of not exactly shining wheels, stalls loaded with taxi sign prisms and miles of cocoa plantations. This is the home of Cadbury’s chocolate. Flat scenery at last becomes typically equatorial fringed velvet hills. Tin roofs give way to palm thatch. And my head is finally beginning to clear. The sun comes out and I glimpse glistening waves in the distance. Africa is redeeming herself.
The south is more prosperous and has fewer potholes. There are road signs, place names, directions and even some tourists. Coconut Grove Resort has manicured gardens, a swimming pool and assorted servants waiting to do my bidding (though they have to be summoned from the snooker table to do so). One of the servants, bids a lesser servant fetch me a coconut. Straight off the tree of course. The beach, if not white, is beautiful, suitably lined by the mandatory swaying palms and there is Atlantic surf thundering on rocks. The garden abounds with the usual wildlife, though the lawn mowing goats are accompanied by three horses.
My room has a shower cubicle that’s big enough to hold an orgy. (I should be so lucky).
Jojo is my hire car driver. He has a really smart car with an intact windscreen. So far Jojo has driven carefully, been very polite, not put forward any matrimonial proposals and not made any demands at all for extra money. In fact he has been grateful for what I have given him. I keep resisting the urge to pinch him to make sure he’s real. Today he takes me to see the slave forts at Elmina and Cape Coast. The buildings are amongst the oldest in Africa and are amazingly photogenic. Whitewashed, criss-crossed by palms and surrounded by frenetic fishing harbours. Their stories though are gruesome and the depressingly dark images of humanity evoke emotions reminiscent of visits to Birkenau, Saigon and Hiroshima.
The colonial towns are picturesque and bustling with magnetic fishing communities along the harbours. Ants’ nests of painted boats scattered with myriad bright rags of flags and heaps of spiders’ web nets. Kilns and latticed smokers full of small shrivelled silver blobs. Tented huts, bubbling pots, still more foraging goats, and babies in their slings, peeping round their mothers’ shoulders, toes pointing to the sky. All scattered along the mud and slurried rivulets of the lagoon. Decorated boats glide in carnival procession to unload wriggling baskets and the quay is ankle deep in slithering clay coloured life of all kinds. The button on my camera is working harder than it ever has before. Magic.
Seeking out reading matter I forage in the local bookshops. There is very little to choose from. Biblical tracts and school text books. I say I would like a story book. Then the girl unearths a battered copy of Julius Caesar. “Have you read this one?”
Lobster, garlic butter and rice for supper. Tomato paste is offered. And even the TV has upgraded. B list American movies are on offer.
A very long day trip to the border with Cote D’Ivoire. A string of classic picture postcard beaches and a sea of rubber plantations and a lazy trip through rainforest backwaters in a dug out canoe. Well, a leaking rowboat that is paddled. We have to bail out with half a plastic basin. But it is still idyllic. Warm (the sun has stayed with me ever since I hit the south), tranquil. Green lily pads dotted with white spiky heads and dragonflies bobbing. Skimming across a lagoon to the stilt village of Nzulezu. The occupants are mainly sprawled across the decking “sleeping”. The chief “answers our questions” but is clearly only interested in “donations for the school”. The school is in much better shape than the ones in Bolga. The blackboard has paint on it.
I’m beginning to think that the tourist industry in Ghana might be worth developing, but Africa is consistently ready to shoot itself in the foot. A series of police barricades, the officials blatantly seeking bribes as they discover or manufacture minor driving offences. Jojo is allowed through all morning but one officer, unbeknownst to me, confiscates his photocopied driving licence. On the return journey we are twice detained. In the first instance I feign a lack of understanding as a smiling face asks if we are carrying “refreshments for our trip”. After a few minutes he gives up and lets us go. The second instance is much more serious as the policeman is giving a prison warder impersonation. At first I leave Jojo to deal with it, but he clearly cannot and is becoming distraught. He is being threatened with court, simply because he does not have his licence. The policeman keeps disappearing with his documents threatening to “process him”. He clearly wants money but I am damned if I’m coughing up to this po faced bully. Waiting it out isn’t working and Jojo is beside himself, so I pursue the guy with my pen and notepad, catch him actually counting his bounty from the last victim and request his name and number. “Why do you want it?” his accomplice asks. “To give to my friends in Accra” I improvise wildly. He stomps to his “office”. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.” Their hut door bangs shut. Then it opens again and the documents emerge. I tell Jojo to get the car out of there–quick. He is very impressed. So am I. And a bit shaken. For all I know they could have carted us off and locked us up.
There are hundreds of weaver bird nests suspended from the palm sky scrapers. When I walk down to breakfast the birds swarm out frantically cheeping, though the waiting buzzards perched on the fronds above are surely much more of a threat. Every day the grass is littered with fallen baskets.
All day on a sunbed by the pool watching solitary Africans balancing loads along the edge of the crashing surf.
Every night one of the guys brings a flower to my room “to help me sleep well”. As he departs he inquires “is there anything else I can do for you?”
Much as yesterday, still sunny. The lizards and I are basking together. I abstain from press-ups though. The monsoon clouds are sitting just to the north of us all the time while the sky over the sea stays blue. Very clever.
Nothing else to report except that the TV, whilst promising much, has given up the ghost, except for CNN, so I am now an expert on liquid explosives.
My last night at Coconut Grove so I decide to reprise the lobster. Lobster is finished. Oh well. Gordon’s Spark then.
To Accra. The pyramids of produce piled by the road still changing, green oranges to yams to coconuts to pineapples. Baskets of eggs are flourished hopefully. The prosperous roads in the south turn out to be a blip around Cape Coast and potholes and road construction are the order of the day till we hit the traffic jams of Accra. On the way we meet a procession trailing car engine parts and beating on drums. They all wear football strip and are dribbling balls. it’s the funeral of a football player.
Jojo’s halo slips a little. He has brought his business plan and is plainly disappointed by his tip even, though according to his business plan, I have already given him double his monthly salary in extras this week.
The Shangri La is plusher than I remember. Maybe it’s just the comparison with everywhere else in Ghana. The frogs are out in force again. They sing along to the band and there is even a small one nestled on my doorstep.
Yes it’s definitely amazing how much better this hotel is compared to last time I was here! The staff are still pretty rude though. The blue sky is playing hide and seek. It’s just about warm enough to sit by the swimming pool. Ten cats wait hopefully under the table while I eat. And so the Bolga diary comes to an end.