[FYI: English is the official language of Ghana and the Cedi (pronounced C-D) is the country’s currency (GHC) 1 cedi = 100 pesewa.]
‘It is not the destination that makes an adventure but the journey along the way.’
Bags were packed; taxi ordered; farewells said; luggage stowed in my car so as not to wake the family at 02:30 in the morning - it was time to depart on my next adventure. However, the start of this part of the journey was not particularly auspicious. 03:00 came and went and still no taxi, and no answer to frantic calls to landlines or mobile telephones.
Fortunately, the day was saved by Jennifer, who found another, very obliging, taxi service ... glory be!
If you are a travel-novice, especially travel within Africa, Ghana is probably a good place to start. Not only does it share English as its official language and lingua franca; not only is it roughly the same size as the UK; but, it also uses the same 3-pin grounded 13A electrical plug, making a traveller from the UK feel right at home.
One of the many charms of Ghana is its people - welcoming, smiling, friendly, laid-back - and, once you abandon your western expectations of how things should work, there is charm in timetables being nothing more than simple guidelines; tourism being disorganised or non-existent; infrastructures [electricity and water are prime examples] with haphazard operations; and, well-laid plans that don’t know the meaning of ‘clockwork’.
Rather, relax to the rythym that is Africa and you will be captivated by her charisma.
‘Sleepy Hippo’, the hostel where I stayed in Accra, is owned by an Australian guy who married a Ghanaian girl - and it’s her brother, Richard (a helpful and obliging 24-year old), who runs the place.
There being no such thing as a ‘city tour’, Richard organised a couple of his good mates, Israel and Abraham (I kid you not!), to take me in Israel’s airconditioned car (hallelujah!) to visit some of the tourist sites in Accra. To miss the heat of the day, and the beginning of the Saturday traffic, a 9am start was arranged. As it turned out, 1pm seemed to better fit their arrival plans ... C'est la vie!
So, it was to the Perpetual Flame at the Cenotaph in Independence Square (aka Black Star Square) that we first went. ‘Perpetual’ is very much a misnomer, as the flame is only lit on the 6th March each year, in celebration of Ghana’s independence in 1957.
[FYI: At the time of building the square, built in honour of our Queen’s 1961 state visit to Ghana, Independence Square was reputed to be the second largest in the world - second only to Tiananmen Square, Beijing.]
Also in the square is the statue of a lone soldier, standing on a high column (much like Nelson’s Column, but not as high) facing Independence Arch. Taking close-up photographs of this arch is not permitted (heaven only knows why!), but there being nobody around to enforce this ruling meant those few tourists who were there (and I was the only white tourist) went ahead and did what they chose to do ... take photographs.
Across the road from Independence Square is the Black Star Arch, a monument to freedom and justice – mind you, not much of either was meted out by the first government after colonial rule had ended. Within 7 years, President Kwame [pronounced Quah-meh] Nkrumah [pronounced N-(as in nice)-crew-ma] had made himself president for life, thrown more than 3,000 political opponents into prison, abolished politcal parties and created a one-party state, scrapped freedom of speech, and nationalised the press, radio and TV. But, none of this did I learn from Israel or Abraham!
[FYI: Ghana was the first African country to attain independence ... and they rather seem to have set the scene for most other African states!]
Both Israel and Abraham revered the man – in fact, they said it was ‘unfortunate he had died in office and hadn’t finished what he had started’. Their take on Nkrumah seemed to be considerably at odds with his biography, which states: “Overthrown by the military in 1966, he spent his last years in exile, dying in Bucharest, Romania, on 27.4.1972.”
Our next visit was to the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, where Nkrumah and his wife are buried. Within the park, there is also a small museum, housing pieces of furniture, clothing and photographs of Nkrumah’s time in office.
It was sad to see the disappointment in the eyes of those two lovely young men who escorted me around their city. I don’t think they had realised how decrepit everything had become, and were seeing their idol and his memorial through the eyes of an inquisitive old lady.
But, decrepitude is a thread that weaves through the whole fabric of Accra. Not even in the city centre does anything look well-made or pristine. If not decayed and falling apart; if not half finished and abandoned; certainly shabby and very unloved.
Osu Castle would have been quite an adventure to visit, but it was closed ‘indefinitely’, so the guard at the entrance stated. Instead, I looked it up, and Lonely Planet’s website said: “Built by the Danes around 1659 and originally called Christianborg Castle, Osu Castle was the seat of government until 2013, when the president and his office moved to Flagstaff House. It remains closed to visitors for the time being, and photographs are not allowed.”
I wasn’t totally disappointed as I knew, as part of the overland trip, I would be seeing other castles and forts along the coast, but the lads felt let down as they had not visited the castle before - and, as it had been the residence of Nkrumah, they really would have liked to have wandered around. Instead, we went to the beach.
Labadi Beach, aka La Pleasure Beach, is one of Accra’s loveliest beaches. However, beware - there aren’t many toilet facilities and, those that there are, are ones you definitely do not want to visit! That being the case, it wasn’t long before there were sightings of defecation ... which detracted somewhat from what was otherwise a charming, if crumbling, resort.
The following day, several guests from the Sleepy Hippo (Nadine, a French lady, not part of our trip; Val, an Italian lady, doing all three legs of the trip, Accra to Marrakech; Mahesh, an Indian gentleman from London, doing the first two legs of the trip, Accra to Dakar) and I decided to share a taxi and go see the sites.
Our first port of call was Jamestown, to visit two landmarks: the Jamestown fort which gave the area its name (James Fort built in 1673 as a trading post but then used as a prison) and the Jamestown lighthouse (built in 1930).
We found the fort (small, disintegrating, very much on its last legs) and it wasn’t long before we had seen all there was to see. Into the taxi we squeezed and squashed ourselves, when, unexpectedly, the taxi driver took us for a very long drive through many parts of Accra to where he thought we wanted to go ... the headquarters of a Pentecostal church called The Lighthouse!
Back we drove to Jamestown and, within 50m of the fort, there was the lighthouse, looking dilapidated and very sorry for itself. From the outside, it was obvious no maintenance or repair had been carried out for many years, and, from the inside, the staircase to the top of the lighthouse looked particularly rickety. Erring on the side of caution, we decided not to climb to the top to see the view.
Jamestown and Ushertown, once villages but now incorporated into the metropolis by Accra’s super-fast growth, remain fishing communities inhabited by the Ga and Adangbe people. This area is Accra’s poorest ... looks it, smells it, and, regretfully, it’s where we met our first aggressive person in Accra, a Rastafarian who appointed himself our guide.
We hurried away, not knowing what his true intentions were, and, instead, went in search of coffin makers. Our taxi driver, poor man, was rather bemused (and startled) to discover we were interested in coffins. But, it soon became obvious he hadn’t heard about the remarkable and artistic coffins made in Accra, for he took us to see the more traditional-style coffins, built from wood, steel, cement and stone (like sarcophaguses). We never did find the weird and wonderful (or even remotely interesting) coffins – more’s the pity.
The next day we met up with the rest of our fellow travellers: all ages, all nationalities (with two “firsts” for me, Italian and Indian), and an exact 50/50 split of fe/males (another “first” for me) – a nice bunch of people. The crew is made up of Zoë, a Canadian, who is the leader and co-driver, and Jason, an Englishman, who is the driver and mechanic – both seem very obliging and good fun.
[Helen - yes, it is the same Zoë on your Mexico City to Anchorage trip!]
The major part of the day was spent applying for visas for Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea – ie, visiting the Ivory Coast embassy, queuing to have fingerprints done, queuing to have photographs taken, queuing to hand in completed forms, queuing to pay fees, etc, etc, etc. But, the time spent queuing and hanging around was put to good use - an opportunity to start to get to know each other.
And, there it is - the beginning of another African sojourn!
Much love to you all xxx