Oware – Checking in to Get Out

 If you want to read the first post in Oware, Click here.

We drove up to the Shangri La and I had another good meal in Ghana  – Accra was a great place to eat.  He scared me half to death with stories of Ghana Airways.  I joked with him, but my tension was still rising.  I was so close to getting out and yet there was a big obstacle in my way – my hatred of airports.

 Accra was the worst airport I had come across for bureaucracy.  I was first checked that I had a ticket, then second searched by airport security.  Third I checked myself in at the desk, then fourth hand my boarding card to a man standing right behind the desk to see that I had been checked in.  Fifth was to pay for Airport tax, and a sixth a man standing right by to check that I had a stamp on the back of my boarding card saying that I had paid my airport tax.  I then went up a long escalator to the passport control.  Seven was the passport control, relatively easy now I had an extended visa.  Then eight was someone checking my passport had been controlled.  Nine was a man checking that my currency exchange had been checked.  Ten was further security X-ray machine at the entrance to the gate, and eleven was a man who asked me whether I had any scissors in my hand luggage.  I struggled for a few moment s as I extracted a pair of nail scissors from the deepest recesses, at which he tutted and waved me through.  Twelve was the gate desk asking me for my ticket and thirteen was a further passport check.  Fourteen was the woman at the end of the hall way who saw our boarding passes.

My usual paranoia about airports had been stretched to the limit, and once sitting in the gate with all the other passengers, I just wanted to get on the flight and go.  We waited in the hot humid atmosphere for so long.  Then an announcement to start boarding.  I was at the front and near run down the stairs, only to be pushed back by a stewardess.  “She has made a false announcement”.  This happened once more.

I wanted to go home now badly, and each pause was painful.  Eventually they loaded us onto the plane.  This is usually where I relax and enjoy the real pleasures of aircraft and flying, but this time we waited, and waited, and waited.  The Air conditioning worked intermittently and there was a further wait.  Eventually we were told that we were waiting for a British Airways passenger who had deposited her bags in the airport in the morning but had failed to turn up for her flight.  They were trying to contact her hotel.  We waited.  Still no passenger.  Eventually they announced that they would have to offload her bags.  This would take two hours as they were at the back of the aircraft, having been loaded first.  They did it faster than that (the first time in Ghana something had happened faster than someone anticipated), but we still didn’t take off till near one in the morning.  I wanted to sleep but they insisted on serving us dinner.  I drank several large gin and tonics and tried to sleep.  At last I let a smile creep across my lips and a thought I had pushed to the back of my mind bubbled up to the surface.

I’d got out.

Oware – Good job I read the paper

Ghana had one more kick to give me.  On the way out of Accra, I had more experiences which made me begin to believe I was never going to leave the country.  I had a couple of days work in Accra.  I was due out on a late night British Airways Flight direct to London.  I busied myself trying to locate some aerial photos and visiting a software company in the suburbs.  I came back for a sandwich at the North Ridge and a Sprite.  While I waited, I bought a newspaper from the receptionist and sat on the terrace.  The water from the atmosphere condensed quickly on the outside of my glass and I kept having to wipe it on the soggy napkin I had.  I turned the pages, not really concentrating on the usual stories about strikes, ruin in the maize harvest and more deaths on the roads.  Then I found a full page advert from British Airways.  Due to Industrial Action by Cabin crew staff, many flights are cancelled on Wednesday, including Accra to London – the flight I had intended to take.  Alternative arrangements will be made where necessary.

 I rang the number in the paper (the Accra office I had already visited twice without getting any service).  This time they came up trumps.  They said that there were three options.  Take a Ghana Airways tonight, take a KLM via Amsterdam the next day or wait for the next BA flight in three days time.  Knowing the reputation of Ghana Airways and my reluctance for staying in Ghana any more time, I thought I was given a choice between cutting my throat or hanging myself.  I decided that I could live with blood on my collar and booked myself in on the evening Ghana flight.  It actually took off slightly earlier than the original BA one.

 Then there was the taxi on the way to the airport.  One good thing about Accra is you can check your luggage in hours before your flight.  I had already settled up at the Northridge hotel so called a taxi man over.  It was very much a wreck and the suitcase wouldn’t go in the small boot (I doubt the boot would have taken the weight either).   I asked to go to the airport and haggled him down to 3000 Cedis.  We got in and drove out to the main road.  We got about a mile from the hotel , when his beaten up taxi stopped, he had run out of fuel.  I was a bit suspicious, we were on a fast road, but close to a set of squatter huts.  He told me to call another taxi.  One drew up.  I was still quite wary, but he lurched my suitcase out of the back seat and into the other taxi.  I felt confident so tried to negotiate a lower rate from this taxi man, but they were both in the union and they agreed that they would split the original 3000 fee.  I got to the airport and checked the luggage in.  Then I tried to get back to the hotel.  I was collared as soon as I walked out of the terminal building.

 “Here sir”, a small man with a smile larger than his face” Taxi sir.  Where you go”

“The North Ridge”

“Ah, only 10000 Cedis, sir, very good price.”

 I suppose I was a bit rude as I laughed directly into his face.  He had seen me come into the airport and come out again.  What a cheek.  I took him down to 3000 again.  I was sick of being duped in this country.  I got back and read by the pool.  Then Lawrence came back from the University of Ghana where he was working and we went out in his little project car, a small sky blue Datsun owned by ODA, and to prove it a small stick on Union Jack was in the centre of the bonnet.

Oware – More Disappointment

 I could barely conceal my glee as we went down the stairs together.  QS thought it was a shock and a shame, like he did about everything in Ghana that went wrong.  Like he did that night as he drove Kingsley and me back from IRNR when the wild students from Katanga Hall walked naked through the compound; mooning and waggling their private parts in his car beam.

“These guys are animals,” he kept repeating.

Kingsley tried to defend them (him being based in Katanga Hall himself). “They are just having fun”

“No, that isn’t acceptable behaviours. If I was the Vice Chancellor I would expel them all, no questions asked” QS went on. “This is what is wrong with this country.”

 Thank you , Oware, the only thing in Ghana that kept me alive.  The only relaxation I got during my stay, the only time I felt challenged, the only time I felt part of the community.  And all down to a bunch of beans and twelve holes gouged into a piece of wood.

The day after I retrieved my passport, I was to head for Accra.  Even now the inertia of Kumasi was trying to drag me down.  I was supposed to go with QS.  Instead he was delayed by a meeting.  I waited and waited.  I was all packed, my suitcase was in the office waiting to go.  And still I waited.  Various people popped into the Institute and said “Are you still here”.  Eventually, QS told me to take a driver with the black pickup and at last I was on my way,  we headed east and south.  I was looking forward to meeting up with David Poston, the blacksmith consultant who had become a good dining colleague during those distant days when I first arrived in Ghana.  The relief of finding a friendly face who I could talk to kept me going all the way on the journey down.  I got into the North Ridge Hotel, to the curious little reception area with its wooden features, and found a message from David – “Sorry Alan, been called down to Cape Coast for a few days and won’t be back till your gone.”  I was gutted.  I now faced another three days in Accra with no-one to let off steam to.  I dejectedly went into the dining room and looked up at another NRI colleague who had just arrived that day.  I have never been more grateful to meet a fellow colleague anywhere. Lawrence Kenyon, a small, quietly spoken man, was a saviour for the rest of that week, he heard me off-load my frustrations of the past few weeks, he lent me books to read, he had access to an ODA car, which meant we could go around the restaurants in the Cantonments district.  I was back amongst the living.

Oware – Come back tomorrow

 I couldn’t believe it.  My passport was now lost in an African Administrative system.  I went back to UST totally dejected.  My struggle with Kumasi was near an end but I was being thwarted on my way out.  I had four days left (a busy time with several demonstrations to give and final reports to write) and I had to try and get back my passport.

 I went back the next day as bid.  The place was an administrative unit for a lot of different ministries, and the immigration office was on the third floor.  My driver parked next to a puddle and proceeded to busy himself with a cigarette.  I walked up the three flights of steps, trying to look as bouncy and unconcerned as possible.  I walked along, sure that they would hand over the passport.  However, I was concerned that I hadn’t even got a receipt out of them.  How had I been that stupid? I kept asking.  I can never be sure why I didn’t get a receipt.  I assumed when I handed over the passport that I would have had a small stamp put in the right page and that would be it.  I never assumed they would have to take the passport away.  Still, here I was, I had to leave for Accra in three days, they couldn’t possibly leave it another day?

   “Come back tomorrow”, I was told.  I said I was leaving in three days for Accra and really would like to have my passport back.  “There is nothing I can do, the district commissioner is out of town and he has to sign the documents.”

“When will he be back”

“In four days time”

My heart raced “But I am leaving in three days.  I cannot stay in Kumasi another day”(I didn’t say why I couldn’t stay).

“The commissioner has to sign the papers”

“Is there no-one who can sign the papers when he is out of town”

“Only the District Commissioner can sign the papers”

“What am I to do ?”

“Come back tomorrow”

“But will you be able to give me the passport tomorrow, if the district Commissioner is not back till Friday?”

“Come back tomorrow”

I passed a woman on the stairs in uniform.  She was large and bored, but was very well presented in her green starched uniform.  I asked her whether she could help.  I said about my passport.  She said she would have a word with the officer, and that I was to come back tomorrow.

 I went and talked to Quashi Sam.  I persuaded him that I needed his personal presence there.  He was after all about six foot five and built like a small army tank.  He was also a well respected member of Kumasi life, and I hoped he could give the necessary leverage.

 I still felt ashamed that I couldn’t have dealt with this on my own, but glad that I hadn’t had to resort to “being British” and asking Nina to help out.  I’m sure she would have laughed me off the face of the earth for not being able to deal with the Ghanaian system.  Never mind.  Quashi Sam and I drove down early next morning to the office and went upstairs.  I let him do all the talking.  He asked about my passport.  The guard recognised me and knew my case inside out.  The official was sitting in a near empty room behind a small desk.  There was nothing on it apart from something looking like a budget sheet.  The guy was so outsize for the desk that he looked faintly comical behind it.  Of course I would never had said anything about it when my freedom from Ghana was at stake.

 “I can’t release the papers and passport until the District Commissioner has seen everything.

“When is the District Commissioner coming back”

“In two days”

“But this guy leaves in two days, how does he know he can get his passport back”

“What can I do?  The District Commissioner must see all the papers”

Quashi Sam started to use his influence and wile.

“My friend, this guy is here working on an important project for Kumasi” (I still wonder how true this is, and even how much QS thought this true) “and he is our guest.  You know, if you help me now, we can have you up at UST soon.”  I didn’t understand this at the time at all, but QS explained to me later that it was a fairly heavy threat.  It was meant to show that he was being offered co-operation from the university, but if things didn’t happen they could make his life extremely uncomfortable.  I also found out later that QS was using the most offensive, aggressive definition of the word friend that has ever been known to man, but this huge man did it with such subtly that I completely missed the point.

 The man sat there thoughtfully for a second or two.  He then reached to his left, opened the small drawer and slapped my passport on the table.  He then reached inside it for a chitty which he made me sign for receipt.  It was already stamped and the receipt was made out three days earlier.

Oware – End of the day out and Visa trouble

 The throng that passed through with the young man dispersed; it had been exhilarating to see such a mass of people moving pugnaciously in one direction; I was glad I was on the sidelines.  I continued to watch the party while we waited.  Gradually each owner was found and they manoeuvred their vehicles to one side – since there was no space left anywhere down by the village end, I was amazed how they managed to wiggle these cars out from their logjam.  One car they never found the owner, so ten men picked it up and bodily moved it to one side.  We finally were able to ease our way out, going back and forth several times to come out of the space, and then backing up a good half mile through the crowds and cars to a point where we could turn and face our road.  It was the most interesting day I ever had in Ghana, but it did not leave me satisfied.

 I’ve described almost everything that was good about Ghana in the last couple of posts.  Most of the time was tedious and frustrating.  Rarely was I actually shown any bureaucratic hostility, normally it was just the general sluggishness of progress that sapped my energy. There were a few occasions, though, where the system tried to work against me.

 The most testing of these came when I had to extend my passport visa on the way out of the country.  I suppose I should say it was my own fault, but I always hold back from blaming myself when I can lay my hands on a couple of other scapegoats.

 The problem started back in the UK when I had applied for my visa.  I knew exactly when I was supposed to travel and when I was supposed to come back.  I had the air ticket in my hands and applied for a six week visa.  My passport disappeared into the system for a week or two and came back, with a one month visa, five days short.  I only had a week or two available to me before I left, and decided to chance it.  I’d been told that it wasn’t a problem to get an extension out there.  I even thought it was worth taking the chance and when you got to Accra airport on the way out, you say “well, my visa ran out, but I’m going anyway so just expel me from the country on this lovely Jumbo Jet which happens to be parked on your tarmac”.  Others had sucked through their teeth and said “Oh, I wouldn’t try it”.  The reason for not giving me the total length of stay originally was obvious; Ghana wanted more money from my visit.

 I left it, and turned up at Gatwick for my flight, but even in Britain I was thwarted.  The BA stewardess wouldn’t let me on the plane without changing my ticket back to before my visa ended.  She told me I could get another ticket sorted out in Accra when I got there.

 I travelled, already wary of the bureaucratic trouble I had got into.  I spent a couple of afternoons trying to get my ticket changed at the BA office in the centre of Accra.  Accra had some of the worst traffic jams I had ever seen and it took over an hour to drive down from my hotel on North Ridge to the centre of the town.  When I got there, a lightning strike from one of the many thunderstorms at that time had outed the computers, so they couldn’t change my ticket.  The second time I went, again with a long journey from the suburbs, they were inexplicably shut.

 I was told there was a BA office in Kumasi, a fact I found incredibly surprising because it was not served by any BA flights.  On the dual carriageway into town stood a small office with the old dark blue and red BA logo.  Next door was a Forex and a KLM office.  I wandered in and had my ticket changed very easily.  That was a relief, but I still debated with several people about my visas.  In the end, since so much else had been an issue in Ghana, I decided to be legal and I went down to the Administrative block near the Military museum that had the passport office.  I went in and asked for a visa renewal.  I was given a form to fill in and told to hand it back to the office with an official letter from my employer in Kumasi.  I went back, wrote a letter for Quashi Sam to sign and filled in the form.  I took it back.  I handed over form, letter, money and passport.  I expected it to be stamped immediately then and there.  They counted the money from behind a metal grill and then said “Come back tomorrow for your passport”.

Oware – Lunch by the Lake

 Eventually we were off, but rather than show the sights off on the way (granted there weren’t many but I am always interested in what places are like) we dashed along a main highway towards Bosumtwi.  Beyond the city and the peri-urban areas, we entered a sylvan agricultural landscape.  Between medium sized fields of corn and maize were a few bushed and some enormous buttressed trees, the remnants of the jungle which once carpeted the whole region.  We started climbing a high ridge, the gateway to the crater, but were stopped at the top.  Three burly men were selling tickets for people wishing to descend the other side of the ridge into the crater – about three dollars per car.  Two of the guys were larger than anyone I had ever seen – at least seven feet tall, as wide and with muscles that a bull steer would be proud of.  There was no way we were going to argue with them.  We saw why there was some control on the cars going in, the numbers of trotros (minibuses), cars and bikes which were descending into the lake was incredible.

On the lake

On the lake

  There was only one road in, which descended about six hundred feet for three miles to a single village on the shores of the lake.  The trotros were parked on one side of the narrow road, we drove down the other and anything coming up the hill would have to manoeuvre into a gutter or a backyard before they could get past us.  Abulla insisted on getting down into the village before we stopped and we secured a parking space just a few feet from the end of the road.  Looking back up the hill we could see hundreds of other vehicles still coming down.

Bosumtwi

Bosumtwi

 We walked between a few trees to the gravel shores of the lake and walked only a few feet along the shoreline before making camp.  We sat and chatted about like while the kids played.  Dad spent a long time blowing up a rubber dinghy that the two girls hardly used.  We ate our meal, like home cooking anywhere one of the best meals I had in Ghana.

Picnic Site

Picnic Site

  Although it had many of the ingredients of chop they were of better quality and better put together.  I was frustrated though because we spent about two hours on the beach, didn’t go for a single walk, didn’t do anything much, before Abulla said it was time to come home.  It was only two o’clock.  The prospect of returning to UST open prison was too hard to contemplate at this time.  But I was premature in worrying about heading back.  Since we had arrived, about four hundred more cars and vans had poured into the village, and Abulla’s car was jammed in about four cars deep from the free bit of tarmac.  People were milling around all over the place but all the owners of the cars blocking the way were nowhere to be seen.  We weren’t the only ones wanting to move, and another angry car owner went off to try and get some help.  Abulla just smiled in that “well, this is Africa” kind of way and we leant against the bonnet to watch what was going on.

 A bank of woofers and tweeters were hammering out beats from one side of the village, a few hundred people were dancing away.  More were watching, drinking heavily, chatting up their women, preening themselves with make up or shouting animatedly at each other on no particular subject.  More people were still swarming in from above, snaking their way between the parked cars.  A few, like us, were trying to get out.  We sat there for nearly an hour, when there was some hubbub down on the shore.  Lots of dancers and others went through the trees to find out what was going on and there was a lot of shrieking.  Young kids came rushing back from the beach followed by some young men running and shouting.  One of them turned and started to fight another, the others tried to pull him off.  There was a moment’s stand off, then they ran further into the village and started fighting again.  The young kids were going in amongst the people remaining on the road telling them what was happening.

Bosumtwi (2)

Bosumtwi (2)

Apparently a young woman had been out trying to swim in the lake and got herself into difficulty.  It appeared she had nearly drowned and she was now on the shore being resuscitated by highly excitable and drunk helpers.  The man we had seen fighting was a boyfriend or brother or something and was trying to get some professional help, rather than leave it up to the mob to bring her back to life.

 Abulla looked rather impassively upon this scene and then tut – tutted. “ This kind of thing happens always, every year we have a holiday.  It is like these people are not used to water, they come down here on a holiday and go swimming, but the water is so cold compared to the air, and they freeze, seize up, get cramps and then this happens.  Every year… every year.”

Oware – A Bad Night Out and No Day Out At All

 Unfortunately, it turned into one of the scariest nights ever in Africa.  On the way to another bar, a lorry drove past Sam’s car, packed with people.  Something hit the window next to her and the glass shattered.  After we recovered from the initial shock, Sam drove off to find the lorry.  She seemed to intuitively know where it was heading, a small lorry park next to the entrance of UST.  We stopped in the badly lit place and she approached a group of people next to a brazier.  She asked whether a lorry had come in, and then started accusing people of covering up for them, and that they knew why she was asking.  She was quite drunk, so was I, and the rashness of our bold actions was beginning to come home to me.  The group of people that surrounded us looked threatening in the dark, but I suppose they were mainly inquisitive.  Sam shouted several times and started being abusive.  Three young well-dressed guys tried to calm her and offered to go looking for the lorry.  I remember little of our drive through some reasonable looking housing estates, apart from the terrible effect of the road on Sam’s car’s tiny springs.  At one point we approached a lorry, which may or may not have been the one which had driven past us, and some more questions were asked, with little conclusion.  At this point one of the guys disappeared, and we drove on with the others  back to the lorry park.  As we stopped, Sam was going to offer the guys a few Cedis for their trouble.  She had placed her purse in between my and her seat.  It was not there.  She was incensed and started accusing the two guys who had helped us of being in collusion.  She thought it must be the third guy.  The two men, hurt at being accused of stealing, agreed to go and find the men, so off we drove again into the houses.  We never found them.  In the end Sam tired and told the guys to get out.  Acrimoniously, they agreed, they still felt angry that they were being accused, but realised Sam was in no state to be reasoned with.  We drove back into the campus, shards of glass glistening in the occasional street light.  It was a depressing end to what had been a reasonable night.  I could offer no solace to Sam, and indeed we never had an explanation for what happened.  Had she left the wallet at the bar, had those two guys been genuine, had the third anything to do with the incident?  We just never knew.  It was just a sorry mess.

Bosumtwi - Google Earth

Bosumtwi – Google Earth

The only time I went further than a few miles from Kumasi was one holiday Monday.  To escape from the city was more difficult than I could ever imagine.  Before setting off for Ghana, I had talked to a woman I knew in the UK who had spent some time in Ghana working at the Cocoa Research Institute and had had a fabulous time.  She gave me the name of a lecturer in UST’s Agriculture Department that she had become good friends with, and after a few days of being in Ghana, I went over to the Department to look him up.  Abulla was not there, he was at the agricultural research station.  On asking where that was, I was told it was miles away.  I left a message in his pigeon hole.  A few days later, I went into Kumasi for a quick shop and on my return was told this Abulla had called around.  I went over to Agriculture but again missed him.  It took four more back and forths and about two more weeks before I finally met him, he poked his face around the door of my office in IRNR.  We chatted for a short while before he told me he would be away for a week.  But then we decided that when it was the holiday, he would take me with his family to Lake Bosumtwi.  About twenty miles south east of Kumasi, this lake appeared completely round on all maps.  It was hardly surprising – it was formed by a huge meteorite that threw up a set of hills around the crater.  I was picked up early in the morning and sat around the family house for what seemed like an age while Abulla’s wife prepared gargantuan amounts of food.  Abulla had two very young daughters who kept wandering in and out showing me their toys.

Oware – Kumasi and its culture

 The project I was working on at the time was trying to see how people who lived neither in the heart of the city, nor in the true countryside, but in the fast expanding twilight zone in between, were adapting to their changing fortunes.  There was an obvious switch from agricultural practices to city work, there were changing population structures – older people were being left in the small villages while young workers were finding more opportunity in the city.  But there was a more serious environmental problem.  Traditionally, cities are founded close to where food can be supplied to them, often on good agricultural lands.  However, as the city expanded, those lands would be built on, and the agriculture would be pushed to more marginal lands.  As the size of the city expands, the hinterland within which food and material could be supplied would grow, and in Kumasi some claim was made that goods in the market could come as far away as Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.  The land that was formerly good agricultural land close by was becoming less used.

 The picture was more complex than this, as we found that this so-called peri urban area had become an incredible mix of housing types and small scale, high intensity farming, often producing vegetables, salads and fruits for the dinner table, as well as keeping pigs and chickens.

 The biggest threat to these areas though, was pollution from the very reason they were dragged there in the first place; Kumasi.  With the enormous expansion in population (both from natural increase and immigration), services such as water supply, electricity and sewerage had failed to keep pace, and subsequently, much of the pollution was heading straight into watercourses unchecked.  For many villages, these rivers were the only source of water, and people were having to drink in a soup of dangerous chemicals and diseases.

 I think it was when all this became obvious from the three years of research that a whole team of people worked on, I softened my opinion of Kumasi and felt that despite these dreadful environmental and social disasters that were part of day to day life in and around the city, that people were not only coping with them but managing to celebrate their culture as well.  There was no drabness in the clothes they wore, and the smallest amount of change towards a western style of dress.  Large Ghanaian men in their full regalia were a powerful sight, and women wrapped in Kente cloth from their massive turbans to their flowing robes were even more astounding.  The music was great too, one of my few nights out with an Australian lecturer there taught me several different dance styles.  I had heard of High Life, but that was too showy, too high class, too Accra for people here.  She showed me the simple steps of one style.  It took me a while to get it.  I am used to Scottish Country Dancing where most of your body is inactive while your feet move around in various steps and patterns.  In Kumasi, I was shown how to moderate my foot movements, a simple one two step forward and one two back, and concentrate on smoothly wiggling your hips and gyrating the torso in time with the music.  Once in to it, it was quite therapeutic (the bottles of Star helped) and I had one of the best evenings of my time there with Sam.

Oware – a transect of Kumasi

 The stay in the BC would often be less than twenty minutes, but it was enough.  I would be happy coming down the stairs of the office, passing by the entrance to the BC library below and back to the Land Rover in the central square.  Across from me was a grand old statue, like you would find in any English market town, and beyond was the Barclays Bank and the first ATM machine I had ever seen in Africa.  I savoured the little journey back and forth to Nina’s haven.  On the way back to UST, we would stop at a small supermarket at the top of the hill.  I would pick up a few provisions, coveting a bottle of Ribena which counted as a luxury, and head back east on the main road to Accra.  It was a wide dual carriageway built with aid money and cut a swathe through the city.  Beyond the relative quiet of the old colonial centre of town was the main market, one of the truly outstanding sites of Africa.  Kumasi market was enormous, sitting in a wide shallow valley packed with stalls.  It sold everything from every part of Ghana.,  Kumasi lay at the crossroads of the country – the capital may be off to the south east on the coast, but much of the country still lay to the north, gradually drying from the tropical rainforest to semi arid scrub, the Sahel and, just over the border, the true Sahara Desert.  As well as all the plastic tubs, children’s toys, hardware items, tyres, pencils, paper, hooks, springs, car parts and the like, which would be found anywhere in the world, there were exotic fruits and vegetables sold by women working for the market queens.  Huge ladies in vibrant wraps would sit astride bulging bags or barrels of fresh produce.  Although there were male chiefs in the Ashanti region around Kumasi, the largest kingdom of the modern country, the line of succession passed through the females.  The women were incredibly important in the community, particularly in sustaining tradition and continuity in the society.  The market queens ruled over sectors of Kumasi market.  In a similar way, there were a host of queen mothers in every village, who had to be consulted whenever anything happened, particularly if a bunch of foreign researchers started snooping around asking intrusive questions.

 The sheer throb of humanity in the market was impressive, I only dabbled around the edges in my time in Kumasi.  On one of the circles, or roundabouts, to the south end of the market place, hundreds of buses and taxis thronged, bringing people from all over the country into the true centre of the city, so different from the near deserted colonial centre on the hill.  It would often take ten minutes for our Land Rover to inch around the circle and head out along the main road.  Progress was faster once we were on it, the driver tooting his horn every two seconds, to warn people of his approach, to say hi to his friends, to give pleasure at being alive.  We undulated through the suburbs, most of the way along was lined with workshops and offices.  At one set of lights, large carpentry workshops were set up.  Kumasi, once at the centre of the rainforest (before it was all cut down) became skilled at making heavy, durable and quite attractive furniture.  Their wooden shacks kept the worst of the rain off them as they lathed and cut and planed.  Examples of their handy work were lined up along the roadside, in various stages of build, unstained, unvarnished.  And the shacks themselves sat upon the tailings of their work, a thick mat of sawdust.  When seen from the nearby riverside, the pile of shavings were ten feet high.  These carpentries had been here for over a hundred years at the same location.

 At another point was where all the motor mechanics had grouped.  A similar wealth of experience was hacking away at engines and tyres and body work.  The ground was black with motor oil and grease, piles of rotting metalwork were strewn everywhere and leaching away into the watercourses of the city.  Added to this was the raw sewage of about a million souls all heading into the rivers.  And here lay a serious problem with Kumasi.  When I was at school learning geography, we were drawn maps of hypothetical cities and shown how many sat on rivers, where clean water would come in and be used for drinking and dirty water would be sent downriver, to somehow miraculously cleanse itself before it reached the next town, or be dumped out at sea.  Many cities around the world are like this.  Kumasi was not.  It had no major river feeding it, it was more like Birmingham.  It sat astride a watershed, the point where water falling on either side will go off in opposite directions.  Kumasi’s clean water fell from the skies, all the rivers heading off in all directions were carrying the waste products from the woodshapers, the metalworkers and the residents out to the surrounding countryside.

Sprawling Kumasi - Copyright Google Earth

Sprawling Kumasi – Copyright Google Earth

Oware – an oasis of Britain

 I talk often at the number of chance occurrences that have happened during my time abroad; one day you are contemplating passing another weekend with a good book or more work, when someone turns up at your door and takes you to the beach, or walking, or lion safari, or sailing, and the whole weekend becomes an adventure.  It never happened in Ghana once I left Accra.  And it seemed that any attempts I had to make entertainment for myself were doomed to failure.  There was a promise to take me up to the national park to the west of Kumasi.  There was the promise of a weekend in the Cocoa Research Institute to the south of the city.  There was the chance to mix with a bunch of people who met up at the Sir Max Hotel in town on a Sunday, swim in their pool and unwind.  None of them ever happened.

 One of the times I looked forward to the most was my weekly visit to the British Council office in the centre of the old town.   I had tried for a couple of weeks to send and receive email through the UST system.  Quashie Sam had a terminal set up in his spacious office and I got a connection through and emailed NRI’s connection several times.  Only one of the messages ever reached and none of their’s ever got back.  The only way I knew this was that faxes were sent to the Vice Chancellors office and I might get a message about four days after they were sent.  This was no good.  Email was still in its infancy then amongst most people, and its existence in Africa was incredibly novel.  So novel it never really worked.  Nina Chachu, who ran the British Council office in Kumasi, had offered us her email and other services if we needed it.  In the good old days when NRI had been part of the UK government, people were able to use the Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates to send things back and forth with the regular diplomatic bags that kept the Foreign Office in touch with their outposts.  There were some hitches in this process, some officious FO staff would refuse to send some items of personal nature, demand a lot of paperwork to be done or just try to wield the little bit of power they had as hard as possible to feel good.  One particularly obnoxious lady in an African country was so obstreperous that she was known by the local aid workers as a diplomatic bag herself.  Now NRI had been privatised and came under the auspices of a humble university, these services were not open to us, and we had to use Fedex, DHL or any other carrier to expensively transfer goods around.  Fortunately the British Council came to our rescue and in many countries became a useful business centre to help us communicate back home.

 Nina Chachu was a lovely lady, rather large, round and wearing the typical flowery flowing dresses one would expect of an expat, she was like the country school headmistress, rather formidable at first sight, she turned out to be incredibly accommodating,  but you knew if you crossed the wrong lines you were going to be in trouble.  She ran the office with incredible efficiency, the like of which I saw nowhere else in Ghana.  Her upstairs rooms were clean, cool and tidy, new computer and photocopying equipment was everywhere, plugged in and working.  Her staff were courteous, knowledgeable and helpful.  I was embarrassed to have to keep using the facility but it was the only chance I got to check the email and return messages.  It was here I learnt that a month after my return to UK I was to go out to Sri Lanka, a thought which cheered me up no end (although in the back of my mind, I was wondering whether I ever wanted to go abroad again after this trip).