Having agreed to write a story about the University for Development Studies, I was driven to all three of their northern campuses to take pictures and interview important people. The Director, a friendly and fast-talking Serb called Gordana Kranjac-Berisaljevic, told me about the challenges facing the rural communities UDS supports. Flooding, bad sanitation, child labour, disease and illiteracy are just some of the problems that have been caused by north Ghana’s historic underdevelopment by both colonial and post-colonial governments. Until now, the political class hasn’t much cared about the plight of northerners because the country’s natural wealth – oil, gold, coffee, cocoa – has always been located in the south.
At Nyampala, a campus deep in the savannah that is essentially an extension to a village that UDS is trying to lift out of poverty, I interviewed an earnest PhD student who was advising farmers not to use human faeces for fertiliser and “grey water” (sewage) to grow their vegetables. Nyampala also has its own slaughterhouse and meat factory which, mercifully, I wasn’t obliged to see in action.
After I’d done the necessary research, a Professor of Agrobusiness kindly drove me to Mole National Park. If I were to tell you that I had been on a “walking safari” in an environment where dangerous animals roam free, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d lost my mind. However, at Mole, most of the dangerous animals are also quite tame, but if they turn out not to be, your guide is armed with an old Lee Enfield rifle, so you at least have a sporting chance of not getting eaten, poisoned or crushed. Thus I was able to get relatively up close and personal to an elephant, six buffalo (a record this year, I’m told), and various baboons, antelopes and bush bucks.
From Mole I took the bus to Kumasi, the leafy capital of the Ashanti region. By sheer fluke, when I went to the palace of the King of the Ashantis, I saw the King of the Ashantis himself, being carried around in his throne while men played the bongos and this fine-sounding bassy instrument whose name I haven’t been able to find out:
The King’s subjects queued up to give him tributes of sheep, cake and bottles of Schnapps, a custom that goes back to the earliest European interactions with the tribe. I became quite intimidated as the speed and volume of the music rose and the enthusiasm of the crowd turned almost aggressive. After all, they regard their king as a kind of deity. Although there were other Westerners present, I got the sense that this was a private ritual to which outsiders were not really invited and were not expected to understand.
That evening I went to a “spot” or open-air bar. I was approached by Richard, an Ashanti tribesman who was swigging from a can of Lucozade. (Lucozade, baked beans and white sliced bread seem to be the abiding legacies of British colonialism in Ghana).
‘I saw you at the palace,’ said Richard, giving me an African handshake. This is not a euphemism for anything salacious but a handshake as you would recognise it followed by a click of the thumb and middle finger. ‘Did you pay your respects to my king?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘But I saw the ceremony.’
‘It is important for white men like you to understand Ashanti culture,’ said Richard. ‘It will stop you being racist.’
‘Actually I’m not racist,’ I said, a little uncomfortable. ‘And nor are all white people.’
Richard shook his head. ‘But I have seen on TV your football matches when the crowds do the monkey chants. So it is important that you know that we are good people and that family, tradition and loyalty are at the heart of Ashanti culture.’
‘I understand,’ I said, wondering if his insistent pride about his roots and his fear of what outsiders thought of them might come from the fact that the Ashantis, ancient and august people that they are, have often been repressed. The British repressed them in the early 1900s and the Ghanaian state has repressed them ever since independence.
Richard patted me on the shoulder. ‘And I think you should marry one of my sisters so that you can understand Ashanti culture even better.’
I didn’t take him up on his offer, even though it sounded quite alluring about an hour later, when I’d had quite a lot more beer. Instead I went next morning to the Cape Coast where, for three centuries, millions of West Africans were captured, enslaved and shipped to the Americas. It is quite a sobering experience to be shut inside Cape Coast Castle’s “punishment cell” and stand on the very spot where up to 1500 slaves would be imprisoned until the last one died of starvation or disease. The museum does a good job of analysing the economics behind the Atlantic Slave Trade – and how so many entrepreneurs in the West did so well out of it – while explaining how this crime against humanity inspired Pan-Africanism: a movement intended to “unify and uplift” Africans across the world.
At around this time, C-A and I had begun to realise that we missed each other. I was just about to return to Cote d’Ivoire to see her when I was offered a job as a visiting lecturer at the Eagle Vision Institute in Accra, best described as an adult education institute that helps Francophone Africans learn English. In return for my “BBC voice” and pronunciation and creative writing classes they’re putting me up in a nice hotel, paying for my transport and giving me a decent wage by local standards. Despite her reservations about the Lucozade and baked beans diet, C-A has returned to Ghana to be with me, and we’re getting on famously again.
Last night I lucked out once again. The National Theatre was hosting the finale of Panafest, Ghana’s festival of Pan-Africanism that happens about every two years. I saw the National Dance Company perform a narrative routine about colonisation: the arrival of a European wearing a scary V for Vendetta-style mask, his introducing of alcohol to Africans (which makes them promptly fight amongst themselves) and his eventual enslavement of them. The energetic fight routines and intricate dance moves were accompanied by bombastic tribal drumming. Later on, Ras Caleb Appiah Levi, perhaps the country’s most famous Rastafarian musician and owner of the smoothest voice since Barry White, headbanged his dreadlocks through a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’.
Throughout the proceedings, the MC David Dontoh discussed the history and meaning of Pan-Africanism, at one point quoting Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President and devoted African nationalist, on how Africans must become self-reliant and take responsibility for their own fates. “And have we achieved this, ladies and gentlemen?” asked Dontoh. Uncertain laughter rippled through the auditorium.
(Photos by C.A.R.)