Some tourists research their destinations extensively, planning every detail, reading massive volumes of history about a country beforehand, creating precise agendas with print-outs of maps and admission prices to museums. On my Five Stans trips, one of my fellow travellers, a retired librarian which explains a lot, prepared beforehand day-to-day descriptions of every single item on the itinerary, along with introductions to each country. She said this made it easier to travel because then all she had to do was take the necessary photo at the appointed place and put printed copies in her already assembled scrapbook.
Whatever tendency I may previously have had to travel this way, it is long gone. Today, my destinations are principally determined based on a lack of snow, convenient flight connections or someone, somewhere, telling me that such and such a place was interesting. My pre-arrival investigations are similarly erratic, having adopted a “surprise me” attitude when I travel to new places.
Thus I arrived in Accra, Ghana with low expectations and little knowledge, but the promise of much needed hot weather after suffering through a month of freezing cold in Toronto and Ottawa and a 6 hour non-stop flight from London. But I knew Ghana had a fascinating history, with a powerful tribal kingdom, gruesome connections to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and one of the most democratic, safest and richest sub-Saharan African countries. I arranged a private tour to take me around to 3 highlights, the capital city, Accra, Kumasi where the Assante tribe and kingdom is centered and Elmina, the slave-trade castle on the Atlantic coast, but beyond these facts, I knew nothing about the country.
My weather app promised 6 days of glorious weather, with temperatures ranging from 29 to 34, sunny and 0 percent chance of rain. So it was a disappointment when I stepped outside on my first day with my guide Emmanuel, to complete haze, a white wall of fug making visibility beyond the street impossible. I asked if it would clear by noon, but Emmanuel shook his head and said:
“No, it will be here for a while I think.”
“What? Is it pollution?
“No, it is the Harmattan. It is a dry, sandy wind blowing across the Sahara. It comes every year and stays for a week or so”
With that, my hopes of bright sunny days were dashed. The haze remained throughout my visit, the air in Accra dry and dusty. Photos of clear skies were impossible, so apologies in advance about their quality. Perhaps the librarian on my prior tour would have researched it and known better than to book a trip to Ghana in February, but I didn’t.
Back to Accra. I asked Emmanuel where we would stop first and he replied “the William Du Bois’ centre.” Pardon my ignorance, but I had never heard of Mr. Du Bois . Fortunately, the situation was quickly remedied by the tour guide at his former house. Mr. Du Bois was an American scholar and historian and the first black recipient of a doctorate from Harvard. His focus was on empowering blacks. In 1945, he met the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, at a Pan-African conference in Manchester, who invited him to Ghana. Disillusioned with the US after being targeted for his pro-communist leanings (he believed capitalism was the major cause of racism), he moved to Accra where he continued to lobby for Pan-Africanism (to some the idea of a unified Africa) and wrote the Encyclopedia Africa, one of the first and still foremost tomes on Africa’s history. All new information to me.
We next drove to Jamestown, a former British enclave with a colonial style Post Office, a red and white lighthouse and a shantytown with a population of 17,000. Located on the Atlantic coast, most of the residents earn their living from the ocean. Long wooden boats set out every morning, returning with their catch nightly. The women smoke the fish (herring, cassava, barracuda) and shell crabs.
The shanties are single room wood plank structures with corrugated metal roofs. Everyone has electricity, but water is pumped from a communal well.
A large swath of land has recently been cleared; its inhabitants removed and resettled far away with a pittance for compensation. The Chinese have agreed to construct a port on the land, lending the government funds to construct the port which would be built by imported, Chinese labourers and likely forever indebting the Ghanian government to China.
Our next stop was the mausoleum of Kwame Nkrumah. Born during the British colonial period, he was a teacher, educated both in the Gold Coast as it was then called, and the US. He was arrested and imprisoned by the British for his anti-colonial/pro-independence activities. Released in 1948, he formed a political party acceptable to the British, who eventually, peacefully, turned over power to him and granted Ghana independence in 1957. A communist and a Pan-Africanist, he ruled until 1966, when the military overthrew him in a coup d’état. He lived the rest of his life in nearby Guinea. He is revered in Ghana as a liberator, for bringing mass education to the country and for building the dam on the Volta River, which still today supplies all of Ghana and a fair bit of Nigeria with electricity.
Christiansborg Castle was our final stop in Accra. Built by the Danes during their 17th century foray here as colonial masters (at various times, the Portuguese, French and British also laid claim to Ghana), the castle played host to numerous dignitaries over the years, including Queen Elizabeth (Ghana is still part of the Commonwealth), but is more infamous for its converted storerooms where dozens of future slaves were held until they could be put on ships a couple of miles offshore. Positioning the ships off-shore was deliberate. Any slave considered disruptive or infirm was shot before boarding and their body dumped into the sea. To this day, fisherman refuse to fish in the area where the slave ships moored, out of respect for all those who were killed there.
After an informative first day, the second was a bit of a letdown. A botanical garden stocked with non-native plants, a factory where beads were made from recycled glass and a boat ride down the Volta River to the Volta dam, all completely ensconced in the Harmattan haze. Not much more to say about the day.
On our third day, we drove to Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and home to the Assante people. Mid-way, we stopped at the Akaa Waterfalls on the Volta River. A 15 minute hike took us to the cusp of the waterfalls, where I was greeted by the following:
No, this isn’t a mistake. The waterfalls were missing water. It is the dry season after all and the Harmattan is blowing.
I resolve to try and embrace the Harmattan. It brings with it lots of pluses – the haze blocks the sun, reducing the temperature from a mind-boggling 40 to a comfortable 30. I don’t need sunglasses, sunscreen or a hat most of the time. As long as I have chapstick and a bottle of water, all is good. But not great for pictures or airplanes. In nearby Lagos, the runway has no instrument landing system, so all the flights were diverted to Accra, leading to long line ups at Immigration when I arrived and lots of angry passengers who have been stranded in Accra for 3 days. But I digress…
The Assante tribe ruled a mighty empire stretching across Ghana to Burkina Faso in the north and Nigeria to the east in the 17th century. Their wealth came from gold (Ghana is rich in gold mines), spices and the slave trade. Oral history has preserved the exploits of 14 kings, a descendant rules today. Each of Ghana’s regions has a king or chief who rule over their people although they are not officially allowed to take part in government. Assante succession is matriarchal; the king is chosen by the Queen Mother (a woman who must be past menopause) from her family and never the son of the king.
Much of the Assante architecture has disappeared; a major disadvantage of building with mud. Nonetheless, an Assante museum located in the king’s former palace showcases their culture and heritage. I learn about the legend of the golden stool, given to a famous Assante priest by the Gods whose current location is known only to the current king. When the British tried to remove it in an effort to thwart Assante power, they were given a fake one. When they discovered the treachery, they exiled the king in 1897 to the Seychelles. He was allowed to return 24 years later, but only in a ceremonial role.
It was Sunday when we toured Kumasi. Ghanaians are fairly religious; about 75% are Christians with the remainder Muslims. Churches are typically the largest, most ornate buildings in town and seem to be on every corner, While some follow mainstream lines: Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, most are “charismatic” where the founder/pastor decides the agenda, the sermons and the rituals to be followed. Most businesses close on Sunday, a day of worship and funerals.
However, the open air markets were operating normally and I walked through one. Colourful and noisy, everything one could want is for sale, although the clothes were mostly secondhand and the electronics outdated. Cellphones are ubiquitous, payment is made with Mobile Money but wares are carried the old-fashioned way, on giant baskets balanced atop a cloth on the head:
Pineapples, bananas, oranges and avocados were the fruits and vegetables of choice. Ghanaians follow a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, chicken and fish, all cooked in palm oil and heavily spiced. Dairy products- milk, cheese and butter – are not common, nor are beef, pork, lamb or coffee. The drinks of choice are tea and a cocoa mixture.
We ended our tour of the Assante heritage on hospital grounds, where the Okomkye Anokye sword lays firmly in the ground. Like Excalibur, legend has it that it was cemented into the earth not to chose a ruler but as a symbol of the unity of the Akan tribes against the aggressors. The only way to defeat them was by banding together, which they did under the Assante king.
Our fourth day saw us driving west, and toward the coast. The enslavement of an estimated 60 million Africans and their migration to the new worlds would dominate the next few days. Ghana was the centre of the slave trade and an estimated 40 forts were built to accommodate the Europeans, house the slaves awaiting transport and serving as slave markets.
A bit of history. Europeans first became interested in Africa in the mid-13th century, inspired by a desire to break the Arab monopoly in the Mediterranean and their trade in gold, salt and spices from Africa. Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, was the first European to circumnavigate Africa, followed in short order by the Dutch, the Danes, the English and French. When the new world started to be populated by Europeans, a labour shortage developed there. American indigenous people were considered poor slaves, too prone to European diseases, so Africans, more tolerant of disease and hot weather, were imported to work as slaves.
How much local Africans assisted in the slave trade is somewhat controversial. Three of 4 guides I had explained that slavery had long been a part of African history, with prisoners of war routinely enslaved. In the early years, most of the Africans shipped to the new world were prisoners of war or other undesirables in the communities- criminals etc. It was hundreds of years later, when the European appetite became voracious that non- prisoners were captured and enslaved. My 4th guide insisted no blacks were involved in the slave trade, but this seems at odds with the majority view. In 1996, the national house of Ghanaian tribes apologized for their role in the slave trade.
About 30 forts remain, 2 of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. The Gold Coast Castle, on the Gold Coast, was built originally by the Portuguese and, at times, occupied by the Portuguese, Swedes, Danes and British. A tour guide led us, about 15 tourists, around. We began with the European quarters, well ventilated, light and airy, comprised of bedrooms, a kitchen, meeting halls and a church.
Below the church and scattered underground were the slave dungeons, separate ones for men and women. They were dark, lacked ventilation and sewers; just big black dark holes where the slaves were held for up to 3 months, chained together, before being led out through cave-like tunnels to the beach, where they were put aboard ships bound for the new world. These tunnels were known as the gates of no return; but now returnees refer to them as the gates of the return.
Most of the Africans didn’t make it to the beach. Millions died on marches of hundreds of miles to the forts, others died when they were branded with red-hot irons. Those who rebelled in the dungeons were chained, 20-30 together, and placed in tiny, blackened cells called the Condemned Room, without food or water and left to die.
The women were routinely raped as the Europeans were discouraged from bringing wives to West Africa. But the mulatto children borne from this violence were generally well cared for. Given European names and educated in European type schools, they became some of the first West Africans to read and write.
Over the course of 6 days, I visited 2 additional European castle/forts, including Elmina, The living conditions were the same – whites above ground in relative luxury while below the Africans lived in dark, squalid dungeons.
Most of my the people on my tour groups were black, either Americans on a Year of Return pilgrimage (a large tourist promotion in 2019) or visitors from neighboring Ivory Coast and Nigeria. I felt slightly out of place; while the North Americans were reliving the horrors their ancestors endured, I could only shake my head sadly at the in humane conditions the Africans lived in and the fate that awaited them.
Even though I was often the only white person in the hotel or market or on the street, I never felt threatened or uncomfortable in Ghana. As African countries go, it is one of the safest. I walked around without hassles, everyone spole English (it is the lingua franca and the language used in universities) and all were welcoming. As governments go, it is democratic, relatively uncorrupt and allows freedom of speech. The country has never been invaded (except by the Europeans) or suffered a civil war and compared to other African nations visited, like Ethiopia or Mali, wealthy with universal health care, education and pensions. It is not without problems, high unemployment, lack of manufacturing, Chinese investment and overfishing, but it seems to cope well.
My final surprise in Ghana came from driving on the highways where we were frequently stopped by police in check stops. Police are paid a decent wage here, but they would always ask the driver for money. My driver always said “no” and with that, the policemen waved us along and wished us a “good day and safe drive.” I asked my driver why police kept stopping cars if it was so easy to say “no.” He told me that not everyone says “no.” If they had a good day at work or are celebrating an important event, drivers give policemen money. It’s just the way it is in this country.