By Ron Mitchell
I love the angst of arriving in a foreign city around midnight. At least in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, my monolingual skills can decipher the English dialect.
We learn immediately that bargaining over prices is expected after paying too much for a taxi.
The dust, heat and traffic exhaust in Accra burns our eyes. Once we assimilate to the initial shock of poverty, overpopulation and the lack of a comprehensive sewage system, the genuine friendliness of this culture allures us. Smiles abound. The unique Ghanaian handshake -– limp hands ending with a cooperative snap of the middle fingers, welcomes us.
“Where are you from?” a stranger asks.
“The US,” I respond.
He pumps his fists into the air. “Obama! He visited us!”
What a warm feeling for my blue passport to be loved in a foreign country. We can feel hope emanate from the Ghanaians.
A breath of fresh air…
The ease and inexpensive public transportation, from taxis to busses to overcrowded tro-tros (vans), brings us west along the coastline, past Cape Coast to the small “KO-SA” resort. Thatched-roof, clay huts huddle in the sand.
Now we’re talking… sipping a cool drink under palm trees, nibbling on grilled plantain, and taking in the scenery… What better way to relax after a long flight? Plus, the US dollar enjoys a favorable rate in Ghana.
The few tourists we meet are either on holiday from their volunteer commitment, or working on a business project.
They express delight that we have come to Ghana simply to explore, and thank us for supporting the growing tourist industry.
The nearby city of Cape Coast offers anything a person needs. My blonde wife, Mare, walks down the street, where venders line both sides. Numerous men yell, “Ci Ci!”
“Hello.” She waves.
A tall man steps forward. “Hi, my name is Charles.” He makes a dancing movement.
Mare snaps her fingers and wiggles her hips. She inspires laughter in large groups of people. They mimic her movements amongst friendly howls.
The road ends in a cul-de-sac just above the beach, where three young children attempt to play foosball on a decrepit table. Beyond the table, a massive pile of garbage flows into the ocean upon a stream of sewage. Children teach us to be happy with simple things, in any kind of harsh condition.
Cape Coast Castle
Castles are initially built for defense. Then the Cape Coast Castle transforms into a structure for administration and legitimate trade. In 1485 the Portuguese introduce trading of native people for slavery. Ghana’s currency of sea shells no longer interests them.
The horrendous practice of slave trade exists here until about the 1870’s. Slave traders steal an estimated 12 to 25 million people, and sell the survivors.
One plaque offers a breakdown of where the slaves will go: Brazil, one third of all slaves; Caribbean, one third; US and Canada, one third (harshest of work and conditions).
We skip the organized tour of the massive castle, and wander on our own, reading plagues, and visiting various rooms. We enjoy seeing a plaque dedicated by President Obama and First Lady Michelle during their visit to Ghana.
Down in the frightful slave dungeons, we receive a dose of harsh history.
When we walk through massive wooden doors, and see an engraving above the door that reads, “Door of no Return,” I feel a rush… an insight that neither one of us can begin to comprehend.
Relief comes immediately outside, though, where instead of ships prepared to transport chained humans to the new world, we find enthusiastic crowds welcoming fishing boats arriving on shore filled with food and hope.
Head to Ho
The city of Ho has a bustling marketplace, but mostly serves as a transportation hub to the lush Volta region. This area offers hikes, coffee and cocoa plantations, waterfalls, and monkey sanctuaries.
We hop a taxi into the bush, in search of a cooler climate. The driver negotiates muddy roads up a jungle covered mountain. The taxi stalls numerous times. Our driver lifts the hood, removes a gasoline line, sucks it clean, spits, and shoves it back on, where it lasts about fifteen minutes before clogging again.
I think about the difficulty of finding a fuel filter. He seems to read my mind.
“We manage.” He smiles.
Finally we spot a cross towering atop a mountain –- the landmark village of Amedzofe. The Germans are responsible for building that cross in the 1800’s, as well as chapels and schools that still stand strong in the small town.
“Welcome.” A young man holds out his hand. “My name is Solomon and my job is to show you around.” He walks us to the “Akofa Guest House” while sweat pours from us in this tropical rainforest.
Amedzofe marks the highest settlement in Ghana (2600 feet). Views of an enormous valley below display dotted villages that squeeze between mountains and dense forest.
Solomon explains that a movement to provide tourist services is sweeping the country. “We want to work, and ecotourism provides jobs.” He holds out his hand. “Thank you for coming.”
We do the Ghanaian handshake. (My middle finger is getting sore from so much snapping.) Mare asks about the protocol for photos, and why people seem reluctant.
“They think you will make calendars with the pictures, like making fun of them. You’ll make money and they’ll get nothing.” Solomon shrugged. “Or they think that you just want to show other people how poor they are.”
We walk around Amedzofe, where goats, the main source of meat, are trained to run free from four to six o’clock every evening before heading back into their pens.
Of course, if there is a bar, we will find it, and soon we sip Castle Milk Stout, a beer as dark as Guinness, but higher in alcohol content.
Mare, in her enthusiastic manner, convinces folks to let her take their photo. Before long, many villagers pose and giggle when viewing their image on the digital screen.
Back on the guesthouse porch, we watch a tropical storm soar towards us. The rain cools things down while tentacles of lightening treat us to an electrical show.
Georgiana, the woman in charge, holds a bowl on the floor, while Kafui, her friend, uses a large stick to pound a mixture of cassava and plantain, forming fufu. We dunk this dough-like treat into a bowl of spicy, ground nut soup.
Eating with your hands is common in Ghana. A bowl of water and bottle of soap sit alongside common condiments on most tables.
Hike to the Monkeys
The next morning, Solomon guides us through a hike in the tropical forest, which is steaming from the hot sun. Sodden with sweat, we whack weeds that tower above us.
A hunter passes by, who hopes to shoot a “grasscutter,” (a vegetarian rodent). He promises to give us a taste if he bags his prey. The trail twists through thick vegetation down the mountain to the flats.
A few hours later, we feed bananas to wild Mona Monkeys in the Tafi Atome Monkey Preserve, home to five monkey families, about 300 monkeys.
The park guide explains that with the onset of Christianity came a taboo of worshiping animals. Some traditional tribal values died. The people no longer viewed the monkeys as sacred, so they destroyed them to the brink of extinction.
In 1993, John Mason, a Canadian, became director of ecotourism. He convinced the villagers of the economic benefits of protecting the monkeys in a preserve, and charge entry fees for tourism.
The following morning, luck travels with us as we barely catch the only tro-tro of the day. We head back to Ho, about fifteen of us, squeezing shoulders down the rutted forest road.
At the Freedom Hotel in Ho we chill for a few days. The luxury of a pool, a room with an air conditioner, and a bar full of friendly locals entices us to extend our stay.
Sweat pours from my head while enjoying some local fare, like dunking fufu into a spicy goat soup, or red-red (spicy rice and beans) and banku (fermented corn/cassava dough that is boiled) to dunk into okra stew.
We figure that for about $500US monthly, we could live comfortably, eat, drink and bask as long as we wanted in Ghana. But for now, we’re content to remain tourists.