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Pan-African Lucozade (Ghana 06/08/13)

6 Aug

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.)

Christ the Redeemer: Battery Specialist (Ghana 27/07/13)

27 Jul

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).

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sharp Suits and Natural Socialism (Cote d’Ivoire 13/07/13)

13 Jul

On Saturday morning we squeezed into a minivan bound for Grand Bassam. Outside the window, women in tribal headdresses were selling Barbie doll magazines and men in Cote d’Ivoire football shirts were holding tiny puppies in the palms of their hands. C-A told me that the puppies cost about £20 each.

As we left the city, I noticed two white jeeps with “UN” painted on them and light machine-guns pointing out of their rear doors.

‘Are you sure there isn’t perhaps still just a tiny little bit of a civil war going on?’ I asked C-A.

Nooooon,’ she replied. ‘Not still happening. These are just here to keep the peace.’

‘So are there still parts of Abidjan where rebels hang out?’

‘Shhh,’ she said, putting her index finger over my lips. ‘Best not talk politics here.’

All this – UN jeeps, peace-keeping, the risk of talking about politics in public – may sound scary, but so far I’ve had an extremely pleasant and comfortable time in Cote d’Ivoire. I find it hard to believe that, just a few years ago, C-A could hear gunfire from her bedroom. So far I haven’t seen any craters in the ground or holes in buildings, nor any hint of enmity between individual people. Indeed Ivorians are unfailingly polite, saying ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Bonsoir’ to each other at every opportunity and, like the British, apologising far too often, especially when they bump into each other in the street. They are also incredibly tolerant and patient of outsiders like me, as I must seem like a rare breed of idiot to them, what with my decent French accent (I can pronounce my “rs” like the sound of a motorbike revving), yet limited vocabulary (only so often can you pick a pretentious or archaic English word and hope that it means roughly the same in French) and truly abysmal grammar. In fact things have been going so well that I’m a little disappointed, because, whenever I travel, a very small and perverse part of me hopes for something to go disastrously wrong so that I’ll gain a more profound experience and, therefore, a better story. Irresponsible, I know, especially when there are loved ones at home who might be worrying about me.

We alighted on a long stretch of dusty road outside the International University of Grand Bassam. I called Marcel, the Dean of Studies, and he appeared a moment later in a faded Nike T-shirt and a pair of shorts. I like people who laugh a lot and Marcel definitely falls into that category. He was even able to laugh – and I was able to keep liking him – as he told me that, unfortunately, it was almost the end of term and there was so little teaching left to do that it wasn’t really worth me bothering. I’m not sure who had misunderstood who in the discussions leading up to my trip, but it doesn’t really matter because I have enough writing work to do anyway and Marcel has kindly invited us to stay at his house for as long as we want (the student digs originally offered are, he believes, no place for a lady). Furthermore, if I want to go to Ghana, Marcel has some contacts at universities there who may be foolhardy enough to let me loose in their lecture theatres.

Grand Bassam is a town I could happily stay in for a long long time. We took a stroll in La Quartier Coloniale (The Colonial Quarter), the site of the original French settlement on the west coast of Africa. Built between the 1880s and 1920s, the grand pastel-coloured mansions remind me of Gone With the Wind, their vast verandahs and gatehouses crawling with umbrella-like papaya trees and fan-shaped banana leaves.

On our first night, Marcel insisted on taking us out to what is reputed to be the biggest nightclub in West Africa, just a street away from his house. The evening was a crash course in modern African music, and it was a great help having two African music aficionados beside me to explain which Francophone country a given artist came from, which of the numerous sub-genres a particular song belonged to and what various lyrics meant in English. My pick was a Congolese band called Extra Musica, whose breakneck guitar arpeggios and galloping beats gave me the kind of thrill I used to get from drum ‘n’ bass back in the delirious day. A Gabonese chanteuse – who was also once the first lady of that country – very nearly got me moving my conspicuously pale, overweight and ungainly body. Had I sunk many more Flag beers I might have actually moved aforesaid body. Also impressive were a Martinique (so not strictly African) jazz band called Kassav and another Congolese artist called Rumba Koffi Olomide.

Perhaps the most intriguing figure in Ivorian music is Lougah Francois. His overnight success brought him fabulous riches which he promptly blew on sharp suits, curvaceous women and a deluxe suite at the Hotel Ivoire. He also donated a great deal of his Francs to young, struggling Ivorian artists. Lougah’s profligacy has spawned a proverb that every Ivorian knows: “You’re spending your money like Lougah Francois”. Check out this link to find out how much of a dude he was. I have decided that, when I get to the age of forty, I will model myself on him.

That evening in the club Marcel told me a little about himself. He was the first black student to earn a first-class degree in mathematics at London Metropolitan University (then North London Polytechnic). In a wide-ranging career he has worked in the London Stock Exchange and for the EU as an advisor on pollution. While he was doing his PhD, he was head chef at Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant, regularly rubbing shoulders with Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton.

In 2008 he moved back to Cote d’Ivoire to take up his current post at the university. He has recently bought the land on which to build a brand new university devoted to awarding scholarships to poor yet bright youngsters: a project that has never been tried before in Cote d’Ivoire.

When I mentioned that I’d seen the UN jeeps in Abidjan he laughed and waved his hands. ‘Total and utter waste of time. The UN has done nothing here for two years. Nothing for two years. Even during the war all they did was evacuate all the Europeans.’ He went on to tell me that the best thing the international community can do for Africa is leave it alone and let it develop by itself. ‘Africans have a different idea of democracy to Westerners,’ he said. ‘We have to mix it with traditional power structures such as our tribes and our religions. This is what Westerners find hard to understand.’ He also told me that he was a socialist and that all Africans are, he believed, ‘natural socialists, but we do it our own way on a community level by sharing with our family members, friends and neighbours. For example, I was recently helping a friend of mine who fell on hard times. I bought him a sack of rice every week until he was able to support himself again.’ I could talk to Marcel and C-A all day about their country. So far they show no signs of boredom with my incessant questioning.

OK, my menthe au lait is almost finished and my internet time up. Having realised that my Cote d’Ivoire visa is in fact multi-entry (even though this is not what I applied for in the UK), we have decided to go tomorrow morning to Ghana to check out Marcel’s universities. I’ll tell you all about it in the next few days.

Love, peace, solidarity, etc.

The Pristine Village (Cote d’Ivoire, 06/07/13)

6 Jul

Greetings from the Hotel Ivoire, one of the grand projects of Cote d’Ivoire’s 1960s coffee-and-cocoa boom. I am on the balcony of our red-and-white minimalist room looking out over the lights of Blockauss, a village on the southern bank of Abidjan’s great lagoon. Blockauss is popularly believed to be sacred territory, protected by a magical tree that was once the property of an ancient king. In the recent civil war, neither side dared go near the village for fear of enraging a higher force. While all around it buildings were levelled or looted, Blockauss remained pristine.

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A belief in a different kind of magic – the power of symbolism – is evident in almost every corner of the Hotel Ivoire. A tortoise-shaped building reflects the slow but sure progress of the nation since independence. A giant sculpture of a telephone is supposed to help Ivorians “contact” and understand the future when the present seems uncertain, such was the claim of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first president of the nation who, since his death in 1993, has attained demigod status in the eyes of most Ivorians. In and around the hotel are tribal masks from every region of the country, representing the ethnic and cultural diversity that was also part of Boigny’s vision.

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Forty-eight hours earlier, my thoughts had been far from Boigny and magic symbols. I was sat in the back of an old Citroen taxi, C-A by my side (laughing at my pidgin French), trying to decide what kind of city – socially, economically, aesthetically – Abidjan was. While its barefoot street vendors and houses wrapped in barbed wire remind me of Southeast Asia, its relatively sane traffic and jungley tendrils creeping over all the roofs do not.

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The French influence is obvious enough from the Canal + billboards, hypermarches and patisseries on almost every main street, although I was surprised to find that such influence runs so deep that many Ivorians (especially middle-class ones) speak French fluently but have never learned any indigenous African language. For similar reasons it has been hard to find African food, though not impossible: at a maquis (open-air restaurant) last night, during a power cut, we ate attieke (cassava couscous), alloco (fried plantains) and – falling partly under the Gallic shadow – snail kebabs. And very nice it was too.

Tomorrow we are off to Grand Bassam, the beach where I am to teach.

(Photos by C.A.R.)