Sunday, January 19, 2020

Goodbye from Ghana ♡

Postscript From The Pillion*

Luckily, Simon added a question mark to the title of his 'last post'...

Where we ended up
By the time we arrived here we considered ourselves quite immersed in and familiar with West African culture. But our final country had new things on offer. Two things strike you immediately; Ghana is English-speaking (one of five in West Africa, our first) and is very religious.

Approximately 70% of Ghanaians are Christian, from the traditional to the more charismatic denominations.

This manifests itself in many ways, one of them is in the names of businesses. You'll see shopfronts such as:

• Annointed Hands Manicures
• Trust in God Driving School
• Temptation Burgers
• Endless Praise Beauty Parlour

Finding a taxi or 'three-tyre' driver who actually knows the place his customers want to go remains a challenge and Googlemaps usually saves the day - eventually. This is not for lack of trying on the driver's part, though. He'll stop several times, jump out and ask directions, often receiving conflicting advice.

One of the more outspoken cabbies sucked his teeth several times whilst expounding his views on what's wrong with politics in Ghana; 'We have gold, diamonds, rubber, cocoa - we should be rich, but look at it!' (sweeping hand gesture) 'Where the money gone?'
Tread carefully
If you've ever been to Venice on days when the sea-breeze was unfavourable, you'll remember the waft of sewage. Well, Ghana is pungent too. The open sewers in Accra and Kumasi run parallel to the road. Most of the time they are covered by metal grilles, but occasionally a big hole appears. Sometimes they are fully exposed. You don't want to miss your step or be walking about at night in the dark!

One abiding memory of Ghana and of West Africa is the abundance of colour in their fabrics. It's a feast for the eyes.

Food, glorious food
Some of my favourite dishes are Red-Red, a spicy bean stew often served with caramelized plantain, groundnut soup with whatever vegetables are hanging around the fridge and Jollof rice.

All of the above can be enhanced by pepper sauce if you want to sweat some more.

There seems to be an unannounced competition within West Africa as to which country produces the best Jollof rice - a bit like the pepper sauce competition within the Rampat family.

Top marks for the rice go to Marie-Jocelyn, chef at the Elephant's Nest, C么te d'Ivoire. Dix points!

The carb staples in Ghana are Fufu and Banku. Fufu is a dumpling made from ground and pounded root vegetables (usually cassava) and it sits in your stomach like a stone. Banku, another specimen of the dumpling family, is made from fermented corn or cassava dough. Also an acquired taste!

Unfortunately there is no French influence in Ghana and the bread resembles that of a 1970s Gregg's bakery.

The taste and abundance of fruit is still astonishing and we have discovered plantain crisps. Simon has developed a penchant for them as an accompaniment to his lunchtime beer.

Trip Competition

Trip scorebook
As we approach the end of the trip, we are also finishing our Backgammon tournament. Simon introduced a 4-point handicap for me in an 11-point match to make the games more interesting and to discourage me from reckless acceptance of the cube.

Despite my excellent bar-sitting and intense wishing for timely doubles, I have to report that Simon's won 57% of the matches. (There, I've said it!)

Our last night - at +233 Jazz Club, Accra
What else will stay in my memory?

Music; people breaking into a dirty laugh when you crack a joke; friendly welcomes; banter in the market; haggling with people who think you're a walking ATM; a chaotic, fun-filled Ghanaian-style hostel quiz and a haunting feeling during our visit to Cape Coast castle.

I am reading 'Homegoing' by Ghanaian author Yaa Gyasi, a story that starts in the late 1700s. It is a tale about the impact and fallout of slavery and juxtaposes the lives of two sisters and their descendants. One sister is sold to marry a British slave trader at Cape Coast whilst the other awaits her fate in the dungeons underneath the very same castle.

And so we've come to the end of our trip that took a considerable amount of time, emotional energy and stress - and I'm only talking about the planning stage!

Do I regret it? Absolutely not.

Do I wish we'd had more patience with and tolerance for each other? Yes.

But then, we decided to go on an adventure and that's what we've done.

The Pilot
I will always be appreciative of how seriously Simon took his responsibility for our safety whilst we travelled on the bike. As I've said before, I wouldn't just sit on the back of a bike with any old bloke...

We are not breaking up, but will spend the next few months doing our own thing, possibly in different countries.

The adventure isn't over yet! 馃槈

*And finally, from the Pilot
A last thank you to everyone who followed and encouraged us on our adventure. Your voices and support echoed in our ears along the fjords in the Arctic circle, around the Baltic, across the European plain, between the Atlas mountain ranges, through the desert into sub-Sahel West Africa and almost to the equator.

One thing we discovered is that friends, family, those you care for, those you love, always travel with you. Thanks for coming along.

We met some great people; local folk, guides, fellow travellers, hosts. We'll remember them. We experienced the generosity, unconstrained by poverty, to be found everywhere when you travel in expectation of it. And we saw that ours is not the only way to live.

And you've heard about the stresses and strains on a relationship that a trip like this creates. But you should understand that we both were always looking out for each other.

By the way, see what you can do for the planet. She needs all the help she can get.

Last of all, thanks to Angelika for being my trip-partner and the best riding companion possible.

This has been a privilege.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Last Post?

Kejetia Market, Kumasi, Ghana
Words and photographs
It was a surprise that I found myself taking this blog seriously. Though a record of the journey would be good, I didn't want a 'job' to do while travelling. But I came to realise I wanted to do it well. 

I owned a photography book when my children were young. I've tried to remember the basic tips from it: consider framing, composition and the 'thirds'; look for movement; be aware of light; remember the compositional principles of the filmmaker Ozu. It counselled that a photographer should try to make every photograph special. I only had my phone camera, I would have to try hard with my snaps.

Also, for twenty years I've been telling students how to write. Now I'd have to follow my own advice. Or that of George Orwell.

It seemed more complete when Angelika decided to add her typically warm and frank 'From The Pillion' pieces.

If you have enjoyed some of these posts we're both very happy.

At the Ashanti Palace
The Ashanti
We have been visiting Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region. It is five hours north of Accra by road.

The people here belong to a larger ethnic group, the Akan. Their language, Twi, is the most widely spoken in Ghana. As with Wolof in Senegal, Twi is the lingua Franca of this country.

The Ashanti are warriors. Once they controlled a kingdom that encompassed much of Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso and beyond. They claim to be peace-loving. It seems, though, that the peace must be on their terms and that they are ready to fight if it isn't. Their fighters carried a special sword into battle. It was explicitly for use on their own comrades should they be seen retreating.

They were significant in providing prisoners of war to the British for export to the Americas as slaves.

Eventually they were defeated by another fighting tribe from far away. The Anglo-Saxons were better equipped.

Market scene
Markets have been a theme on our travels. In Kumasi, Kejetia has the largest in West Africa. It's my favourite. 

Journey's end
We are flying home in three days. I've been reflecting on the trip.

It's clear now that my original plan meant riding too far, too quickly. Reaching South Africa may have been possible, but would have been gruelling. Looking through the Noonpics, I'm struck by the intense urgency of our journey through Europe.

We have no regrets, though. We wanted a new experience and we got one.

The Pillion
I'm full of admiration for Angelika's willingness to uproot her life, jump on the back of a motorbike and go exploring. Her 'plucky little Bavarian' persona - when she was the least scared of the two of us - will be one of my abiding memories. Another will be the number of times her fun-loving warmth lit up a room full of fellow travellers or local folk.


In case this is my last post, thanks for coming on the journey with us. Your company has been welcome and the trip has been richer for it. See you soon.

Coming home!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Daniel, Edward and Hamza

Grand-Bassam to Accra

Tropical verges
We travelled from our social sojourn in CI east to Ghana by taxi. Motorcycling is more romantic, that's certain, but four wheels and a driver is less stressful. I'm unable to escape the feeling we've disappointed our biking fans by leaving The Camel behind.

Because, in my imagination, this is the route to Cape Town, I can't stop feeling we're going south. But we're not. Traversing the Gulf of Guinea is definitely an east-west undertaking.

From CI into Ghana (our first road border by foot), to Ezile Bay, Elmina and on to Accra (500km and two resorts en route), the journey was not pleasant. I'd like to tell you of stunning views and beautiful landscapes but that's not how it is.

The road surfaces are constantly interrupted by pot holes and dishearteningly frequent, vicious speed bumps. The latter will destroy a car if not treated with respect. It's therefore impossible to drive with any rhythm. Dirt, dust and intense non-unleaded and diesel fumes create a constant, inescapable, unpleasant fug. Our car was occasionally stopped by police or armed soldiers and routine bribes were paid.


Group meal (photo permission given)
Our untutored but very amenable guide in Elmina gave us another intimate, touching insight into life in foreign parts. He spoke of the difficulty of making a career in a poor, corrupt society, of a harsh upbringing at home and school and the inhibitions this engenders.

He explained, with a little encouragement, that Africans tend to view Europeans as more intelligent, 'better' than them. We tried to disabuse him of this.

There's an instructive sharing ethic in societies here. Those working are often supporting several others. When friends eat together they regularly do so from one bowl. They pass food across the plate to each other.

Daniel arranged for his friend Joseph to chauffeur us in his taxi with no remuneration for himself. I asked why. He told me it was because when he was very ill with tetanus recently, Joseph, learning of it, came and drove him to hospital.

Cape to Cape

Cape Coast Castle
We were taken to see the 'Slave Fort' in Cape Coast. Over 160 years 200-300 captives every week were transported from here to the Americas and the appalling lives that awaited them. The guide insisted on referring to the victims not as slaves, but as 'Africans'.

So we did make it from one cape to another. At this place, it was easy to realise that some things aren't important.

Hausa, Ashanti, Fanti and Ga
In Accra we learned more about the people here from our cab driver, Edward and our tour guide, Hamza.

The Hausa are from the north and are mostly Muslim. They're outnumbered by Christians in Ghana. It's our first African country where this is so.

The Ashanti and Fanti are related groups from the middle regions of the country. They're numerous here. The Ga are the people of Accra. They're a minority here now.

Edward, a proud Ga, says life for working people in the capital is tough. He rents his cab and pays the first 60 cedi of each day's takings to 'the boss'. He routinely works 12-hour days.

His 11-year-old daughter is reaching puberty. He's worried that he won't be able to afford to provide her with the baubles and luxuries that a young woman desires. The fear arises because, in his opinion, it will make her more susceptible to the blandishments of others who can and that she'll end up 'in the family way' as a result.

Hamza is a Hausa Muslim and will take us on a walking tour of his neighbourhood on Monday. On Wednesday will will go with him to the central Ghanaian Ashanti capital of Kumasi for a three-night expedition. It will probably be our final outing.


The Abajo Band
We went to a concert last night. The house band were the best part of the proceedings.

Percussion-heavy, they were good playing alone, less so when they backed the guests. At these moments, their 'enthusiasm' dominated.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

C么te d'Ivoire ♡

From The Pillion

The Old Convent from The Nest
Sometimes a traveller just has to rest up and share stories and experiences.

We found our place at the Elephant's Nest in Grand Bassam, run by the life-force that is Chloe Grant.

Celeb Heads in CI
The Nest is conducive to staying a little longer than just a day or two and we fraternised in the company of a bunch of very interesting people. We sat and chatted, shared meals, played cards and introduced the game of 'celebrity heads' to a West African friend of Chloe's - no idea what he made of it!

I hope we'll meet again.

Next to The Nest is an abandoned convent with an overgrown garden. Blanco, Chloe's eight months' old kitten, was seen jumping over the wall to explore and, sadly, was found dead in the compound a few hours later. We think it was a snakebite.

Going, going...
C么te d'Ivoire was once covered in dense rainforest and bush elephants roamed. Outlawed logging continues and the elephants are disappearing fast.

I'm reading about the EU's plans to become climate-neutral by 2050 and am watching the rainforest disappear in front of my very eyes, literally. Can the two ever be reconciled?

Roof with a view
Just when I thought I've seen all that West African traffic can offer, we drove behind a minibus carrying probably twice the allowed passengers. The roof was loaded with suitcases, buckets, boxes and a live goat strapped to the railings, looking rather serene.

Next up was a rider on a small motorbike transporting a tyre for a lorry. Not that unusual you might think, except the rider was sitting in the middle of the tyre!

A lot of the older vehicles are cobbled together from all sorts of spare parts and it's the triumph of perseverance and hope over technology that they are functioning at all. Sometimes the axle is so misaligned, the cars give the impression of moving sideways when travelling forward. I've dubbed them 'crab cars' (or should that be 'crap cars'?).

Unfortunately we also encountered the ubiquitous fallout of the idiosyncratic and dangerous modes of driving. Overturned, overloaded lorries and minibuses in ditches were a regular reminder.

On our various trips into the de facto capital, Abidjan, to sort out visas and to explore, we encountered its challenges. Skyscrapers overlooking the lagoon and in their shadows, abject poverty. The city sprawls, its different districts connected by dual carriageways.

Abidjan hits you with an assault of traffic, pollution, vibrancy and a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.

All of the above are softened by lush, green vegetation in generous measures.

Ghana and C么te d'Ivoire produce almost 67% of the global supply of cocoa and they want a fairer share of the profits. Let's hope they succeed in obtaining it.

A lot of raw materials from developing countries (DCs) are acquired by large corporations. The DCs are then obliged to import the finished product, seeing very little of the profit.

Ironically, Ivorians aren't even that fond of chocolate!

Market day
Some abiding memories:
• Mangoes and pineapples so sweet, you won't ever want to buy these fruits in Europe again.
• Constant music blasting out everywhere, drowning out the muezzin's call to prayer and computerised churchbells playing Christmas songs.
• Ready smiles, laughter and the verbal expression '茅!', used to denote astonishment (imagine the West Indian 'eh eh').
• Intermittent water and power outages.
• Boulangeries in every town and hamlet - thanks to the former colonial power (which, however, is not held in great esteem).
• Schools and sports arenas financed by the Chinese government, sometimes without the infrastructure of access.
• Pothole galore.
• Geckos on walls.
• Walking slowly (even then you're drenched after a short time!).
• Tasty fish and rice dishes.

The stress-test of the relationship is nearing completion, with early exit polls suggesting that we might be better together by seeing less of each other.

'Small-small' as they say here!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Elephant's Nest

We did something different. In C么te d'Ivoire we based the whole of our stay in one town, one hostel. It was a lucky choice because we got to commune with a particularly sympathetic group.

Chloe, Chris, Michael, Me, Max, Lara, Willow, Pelagie, Quirin, Angelika, Sen
Here's a little about each of our winter-holiday-season companions.

The Irish proprietor of The Nest has featured in earlier posts telling of her charity work. She's also an aviation consultant and self-appointed travel ambassador for West Africa to travellers everywhere. A huge presence and a priceless character.
... and Jacques (with Pelagie)
A French, one-time Hindu monk, he also has been mentioned earlier. He generously delayed his departure to spend a few days talking to me about meditation. He's now in Saly, Senegal staying with a friend while he considers how to redesign his charity mission to teach cultural tolerance to schoolchildren. 

Her new job, researching into the cocoa industry on behalf of Mars, brought Nicole to CI. Interestingly, she paid for herself to come. She visited Chloe's charity and has now returned to her home in the US.

Michael & Kendra
A young, bright Austrailan and his American friend. Michael was my backgammon student for our time together. A chess player, he learned quickly. Kendra flew in to spend a week with him. She's back in Geneva now, where she works in public health. Michael has been travelling for over a year and intends to fly to Mexico. They were great company.

Another Australian, this time on a push bike, his trip is impressive. He'll continue to travel south from Grand-Bassam when his Ghana visa comes through.

A Swiss/Canadian multi-linguist and motorcyclist, Chris has now left to visit Chloe's charity en route to Ghana where he's meeting up with his father. A naturally empathetic young man, he helped bind the group together.

Max on the malaria couch
Another motorcyclist, a German, Max arrived with Chris. They met on the road and seemed to have become temporary riding companions. I got the impression that of the two, Max prefers more challenging terrain. We saw a little less of him due to his malaria. He's an easy-going, quick-to-laugh young man.

Quirin at work
Quirin & Lara
Travelling in an old VW camper-van, this young couple are also from Germany. They're engaging and pleasant. They have an attractive gentleness about them. Quirin speaks French fluently which, they explained, helped them travel this far without parting with bribes. This was a trip objective for them. I had a couple of long talks with Quirin about dyslexia. We may have more. He's a talented mechanic, having worked long and hard on the van prior to setting off.

Although he joined us latterly, Sen made his presence felt in the group. He's of Chinese stock, born in Brazil. A seasoned traveller, he's funding himself through Bitcoin (but don't ask how many he has).
Marie-Jocelyn, Chloe, Pelagie, Angelika, Lara, Ange
The Staff
We were beautifully cared for by the local staff in friendly, idiocratic, relaxed, Ivorian style.

Beers were brought by housekeeper Pelagie or her daughter, Ange. Beautiful meals were cooked by Marie-Jocelyn. Caretaker and odd-job man Yannik, was a breezy presence around the place and Sonata and Aline came in every morning to sweep and clean.

Staying in The Nest was a change of pace. We heard many stories and had an audience for ours. I played and taught backgammon, Angelika organised evening games. We had companions when we needed them and a room to relax is when we wanted solitude.

It was great. 

Other matters
The young girl from the village we offered to help was on a course of antibiotics when we left. She needs more care beyond that and Chloe will try to arrange it. Her requirements were probably greater than we could have provided for, but at least a start has been made. We hope things work out for her

Ezile Bay
We're in Ghana now on a one month visa. We'll return home from here.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Tropical produce and saved souls

Visiting Abengourou
If our 'safari' in Senegal with Moussa was all about wildlife, this trip has been about people and farm produce. And it's been even more profound and insightful.

Kouame (and Kouame) and more produce
In the words of Chloe Grant, our hostess at The Elephant's Nest in Grand-Bassam and now our guide and driver in rural C么te d'Ivoire, this is cocoa country. Angelika and I spent a fascinating few hours yesterday in Kodjinom, a medium-sized village, and I was taken on a three-hour tour of the plantations by Kouame, a farmer there.

To reach our destination I swapped my erstwhile role and became pillion riding on the rear of the motorcycle - a Chinese single-cylinder 125cc affair - piloted by another Kouame. He is the outreach worker for Chloe's NGO charity and was the link between us and the villagers.

Haojin 125 - in Kodjinom
Beforehand, however, we visited the 'reinsertion' centre for 'street and trafficked children' that Chloe founded and runs in Abengourou. Its title is an acronym for the French description of its objectives.

House pet
It is a spartan breeze-block building in a 60x60 mtr compound with no running water and a pet mongoose to keep the cobras away. For the children who pass through it, it's the best chance they've ever had for a decent future and a happy adulthood.

Some of those who are brought here have been sold into servitude in the cocoa industry. Their parents, perhaps unable to afford the basics of life, may believe their offspring will be better off working on a farm or as a domestic servant. They rarely are. Others in the centre are street children.

There are two youngsters there at the moment. They are both around 12 years old. One, Grace, was being regularly beaten by her grandmother, the other, Kouakou - a boy, has developmental problems, a mental age far below his actual and had been abandoned by his family. In the centre they are cared for by Francine, a warm, energetic lady. They are fed regularly and experience kindness, calm and security, perhaps for the first time in their short lives.

They're clearly happy there. We received enthusiastic hugs from them when we arrived.

The existence of the place is a testament to Chloe's humanity and energy. As I've commented before, she is a remarkable woman.

We sat in the car with her yesterday while she engaged with a gaggle of young boys in the town, quizzing them about which attended school. She eventually bought a pair of live cockerel from one, telling him she'd be checking on his school attendance when she next encountered him. They were a little in awe of her. We all are.

Fruit and vegetables
I followed the two Kouames single-file along narrow paths through groves, low-growing meadows, past paddy fields. We were aways within sight of the remnants of the rain forest that originally occupied the land.

Kouame's rubber trees
The richness of the crop diversity is impressive. I saw produce I'd never seen growing before.

There were pineapple (ananas), peanuts (groundnuts), cocoa, rubber trees, manioc, mango, bananas, rice, okra (gumbo), maize, aubergine and guava - and many others.

Seeing the neatly-aligned, tapped rubber trees was exciting. Kouame was rightly proud of his groves.

Cocoa trees
Peanuts, fresh from the ground
Freshly-pulled peanuts have a moist flesh similar in texture to apple. They are delicious.

A lady and her son were working with machetes clearing a patch of ignam, or yam, of weeds. It looked like hard work. With a twinkle in her eye, she offered me her heavy hoe implying the opportunity for me to help. I thanked her politely and refused her kind offer. She laughed.

I was apprehensive about biting things, especially when we walked through the waist-high undergrowth surrounding the banana and guava trees. If there were any there, my repellant worked.

Cocoa-tree nursery

Rice harvest
One of the two young men working in the paddy fields had a sturdy catapult. He uses it to scare off the birds that eat his crop. He had a supply of stones nearby, carefully selected for size.

Cocoa beans before drying
How did someone figure out that the white beans covered in pulpy, cream-coloured goo could be alchemised into chocolate? Anyway, they did, and it's provided this country with a living ever since.

A village visit
This was the kind of day I hoped for at the beginning of our adventure. I'm very happy to have had this opportunity. Angelika was intrigued by our insight into the village life.

Sadly, we saw another dimension to it. A young teenage girl was presented to us with extremely swollen cheeks. It seems that for four or so years she has been suffering from a gradually worsening abscess in her jaw. The cost of treatment is beyond her family. Both Cloe and we are wondering if we can help.

Some days are a privilege.