Stating in my last blog how trouble-free my trip had been so far turned out, just the very next day, to be the kiss of death. After crossing the miserable border with Ghana in the pouring rain, we found ourselves being hectored by some local equivalent of a hillbilly. He was cross-eyed from booze or genetic mutation or both and could barely speak either French or English. We managed to work out that he wanted a 1000 Franc tip for helping us across the border (which he hadn’t done) and that we would get into trouble at a checkpoint later on if we didn’t pay him another 5000 Francs (also complete nonsense).
Even after we’d climbed into a minibus bound for Accra, he continued waving his finger and shouting at us. I managed to control my temper all the way up to when he started to dig his finger into C-A’s shoulder and say some horrible things to her in broken French that even now she refuses to translate for me. I clenched my fist at him, shouted ‘Arrete’ in his face and informed the other passengers – all of whom spoke good English – that I was now going to either call the police or smash the guy’s stupid fucking face in. Of course I had absolutely no intention of taking the latter course of action, but it seemed – momentarily – to work because the guy backed off… Except all he did was creep around the van and start haranguing us from another angle.
“Can’t you just give him 1000?” said the old granny in front of me. “Then we will be rid of him for good.”
“But if I do that,” I replied, “it will show him that bullying and intimidation wins, that it gets results.”
The guy kept on at us, his voice going hoarse. I started to wonder how desperate his situation must be that he would go this far for a sum of money that, even in this part of the world, just about buys two croissants.
The other passengers turned to me and chorused: “Please would you just give him 1000?”
“But I don’t owe him anything,” I protested. “And he has basically assaulted us. Why should I reward that?”
“Please,” they said. “Then he will leave us in peace.”
I took a note out of my pocket and the man suddenly stopped shouting. He smiled pathetically and brought his hands together in a prayer-like gesture.
“Tu es desolee?” [probably sic; you know how bad my French is. But whether it was as bad as the hillbilly’s, I don’t know] I growled at him. “Are you sorry?”
He stuck out his lower lip like a naughty kid.
I pointed to C-A who had covered her face with her hands, probably wondering what on earth she was doing in a situation like this with a crazy white man like me. “Tu es desolee?” I said louder. “Are you sorry? Say sorry to her.”
He muttered something that I didn’t hear.
“I can’t hear you! Ecoute pas!”
The granny said, “He’s sorry. I heard him say it.”
I screwed the note up and flung it at him. He caught it and said, “God bless you sir.”
“Non non non,” I replied. “Don’t think that bringing fucking God into it makes everything better. Tu es le diable. Now fuck off.”
And off he fucked, at last. Some of my fellow passengers turned to me with scowls on their faces. I had forgotten that a recent poll found Ghana to be the most religious country in the world.
I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I’m not proud of my behaviour, but at the same time, everyone has their breaking point. And saying what I said was infinitely preferable to some kind of physical confrontation which, being a total weakling, I probably would have lost.
I spent the drive to Accra in silence, no longer angry with the guy, just depressed about how he was prepared to do anything for money probably because he had to in order to survive. This at least made him better than stockbrokers or arms dealers.
True to the poll’s results, almost every building I saw in south Ghana – whether its function was directly religious or not – bore some reference to Christianity: “Lamb of God Cosmetics”, “Risen Lord Catering Services”, “Christian Wound Centre” are but three examples. Perhaps if I had visited “Christ the Redeemer: Battery Specialist” I’d have got a scoop on what Jesus has been doing since he returned to Earth. On Sunday mornings reggae hymns blare from taxi radios and churches boom with gospel music and preachers who sound distinctly like James Brown.
It was in Accra that C-A and I decided to part company, at least for the time being. It was all very amicable. One reason for our split has been politics. In an ironic inversion of what some might regard as the natural order of things, she – as a trained accountant and former owner of a women’s accessories business – is a firm believer that the free market will save her continent whereas I am – and always have been – a devout Third World liberationist. While in Accra, I insisted on spending more time than might be healthy at the brutalist tomb of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and self-styled “African Lenin”. Nkrumah oversaw Ghana’s rapid industrialisation, founded a welfare state and worked (in vain) to establish a socialistic “United States of Africa”. All this was far too godless and commie for the Americans, so they backed a military coup which deposed him in 1966. On display near the tomb is this unflattering statue of Nkrumah, which was beheaded during the coup:
He counted such black radicals as CLR James, WEB Dubois, Nelson Mandela, Frantz Fanon and Muhammad Ali as personal friends. He also, according to one of the more surreal photos in the tomb, danced with our current Queen and managed to tolerate the Duke of Edinburgh for longer than an hour.
But now Nkrumah must be turning in his tomb, given that, since Ghana’s embrace of global capitalism, his countrymen can be seen starving on the street not a hundred yards away from his resting place and his famous phrase ‘Pan-Africanism’ has since been appropriated by Africa’s biggest investment bank. Later that day, I got talking to an intelligent young politics graduate (and part-time rock-gospel singer) who told me that successive governments had slowly destroyed Nkrumah’s welfare reforms and public spending initiatives. How had this affected the graduate? He’d been looking for a job for the last six months while sleeping on his uncle’s floor.
On Marcel’s say-so, I got in touch with the University for Development Studies, talked to a very pleasant Serbian woman called Gordana and agreed to write a story about UDS’s good work (they run all kinds of projects ranging from literacy to well-digging in the underdeveloped north of the country). In return, they offered me accommodation and transport to their three campuses.
The north is very different to the south. It’s hotter and dustier, and has crimson dirt tracks instead of proper highways. The ancient mud-and-stick mosques and large numbers of young women in hijabs riding on scooters reminded me more of the Middle East or North India than anywhere else in Africa I’ve so far seen.
Next episode: more about the UDS gig, seeing the King of the Ashanti tribespeople, getting up close and personal with an elephant and a “visiting lecturer” post I’ve been offered at a language school that helps Francophone Africans integrate into Ghanaian society.