18 August 2009

Ghana: Top Ten

It might sound strange, but my fascination with Ghana started with a 5th grade Cub Scout project. My den (Indian Nations Council) introduced us to a pen pal organization and we were assigned addresses to write to. The project turned into a kind of competition to see who could get the most number of people to write back, and at one point I was writing to 25 pen pals from all over the world. My first one, however, was from Sunyani, Ghana. That pen pal relationship lasted for over a decade, and as a kid I remember getting cuts of kente cloth, leather goods, and cedi bank notes in the mail. Ghana always seemed like an impossible place to get to, and even from within Africa it took a fair bit of planning. But it was worth it.

Without any more babble, my top ten from Ghana:

Built by the Swedes (who knew the Swedes were building castles in Africa???) and later occupied by the British, the castle’s started as a post in the gold trade but became a symbol of the slave trade. The dungeons where slaves were kept prior to leaving the “door of no return” left me speechless. President Obama visited here last month – many of the slaves that came through this castle went to the United States.

The castle in Elmina (20km down the road) is the oldest European-built structure in sub-Saharan Africa still standing. Started by the Portuguese and then occupied by the Dutch I thought it was even more interesting than Cape Coast Castle. The Posuban Shrines (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/travel/09ghana.html?_r=1) and the Dutch cemetery were also worth visits. Don’t believe the neighborhood kids when they try to charge you to take pictures!

Not your everyday shrine:

This is definitely not the most comfortable way to get around, but absolutely the cheapest. I went 40km for about 75 cents. You have to wait for the vans to fill up before they leave, but depending on the route this usually doesn’t take long. The commercial activity surrounding the vans while you wait is excellent entertainment anyway. Tro-tros have their own slogans too – the best I saw was “If you don’t get into heaven, don’t blame Jesus.”

Pick your seat strategically:

Yogurt vendor while waiting for a ride to Kumasi:

I arrived at the chaotic scene at dusk and a Ghanaian woman that had been on my tro-tro from Cape Coast for the previous 4 hours took me by the hand and led me through the maze. She said that people related to the chiefs would try to steal me. I later realized she probably meant steal “from me”, but I couldn’t get the thought of being kidnapped out of my mind. I wasn’t scared but took her advice and followed her to a safer place to get a taxi to my hotel. Only to find out that we had basically walked right past it and that I didn’t need a taxi anyway…

Please don't steal me:

The 10-acre market in Kumasi is theoretically west-Africa’s largest. I had reserved an entire morning to explore it, only to have selected the day that a big chunk of it burned down. Instead of browsing I started taking pictures of the aftermath. What struck me was how nonchalant most people were about the tragedy. Many people had come to see what happened and carried on laughing and joking like they were going to see a soccer game or something, others were going about their business trying to sell whatever they could in the streets in the true market spirit…

The lady at the market stall in Sunyani was laughing at me, but I just couldn’t believe the size of the snails she was selling. They were literally the size of my hand. She offered to cook one for me if I bought it, but somehow the thought of a snail that size just wasn’t appetizing. Cute little escargot in garlic butter is one thing, but that satisfying squishy sensation didn’t seem so appetizing writ large. They were fun to look at though…

You'd need a special escargot pan to cook these suckers:

I decided I was going to buy fabric and have a local tailor make some African shirts for me. The trip to the market was fun in itself, and I picked out three patterns (I can’t trust my taste so I was trying to hedge my bets). I had asked a local what the price for fabric was so I knew if I was getting ripped off, and remarkably nobody tried to. The price to sew a shirt was cheap enough, so instead of picking one piece of fabric I had the tailor make shirts with all three designs I had bought. The grand total for the fabric and tailoring for all three shirts: $18. I was kicking myself afterwards that I didn’t buy some plain blue cloth to make more shirts – the style is very comfortable in the humid climate. Something to keep in mind for the next visit.

This is sort of in the “you have to see it to believe it” file, but I really liked the spirit of the novelty coffin shops. Film projectors, Mercedes-Benzes, airplanes, chili peppers, elephants, crabs, soda cans, wrenches – you name it. I left thinking that being buried in a novelty coffin is sort of like getting in one last laugh at death, and I have to say I like the idea. I’m not sure it will convince me to change my preference for cremation, but it definitely had me thinking. It’s about $700 for each hand-carved and painted coffin, but you have to figure out the shipping. Apparently that doesn’t stop some people - the shop owner I talked to said he gets orders from the US all the time.

I was expecting this to be kind of gimmicky, but actually it was pretty cool. I was stuck between a couple from Holland and an evangelical family from the US that had moved to Ghana. The patriarch from the latter group tried to chat me up and I ran away as quickly and tactfully as possible. My escape allowed me to focus on the perspective the canopy walk offers. It was obvious a lot of the surrounding forest had been cut down, but what was left was still impressive.

Hang on!

One thing that struck me the most about Ghana was its entrepreneurial spirit. There are lots of small shops each with their own personality that speaks to a savvy marketing sense. Religious themes were the most common, often with humorous results. I'll post separately, because there are just too many to choose from and this is already a long post...

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