Crossing into Ghana it was immediately apparent that we had arrived in a much more developed country. The last 5 countries we had visited; Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’ivoire are amongst the 20 poorest in the world, Ghana meanwhile sits somewhere around the middle of the Human Development Index. For one thing the roads were much busier, filled with cars that didn’t look like they were held together with prayers, duct tape and some dodgy welding, an indication of Ghana’s much bigger middle class. Also, and for the first time since crossing into West Africa, we saw the signs of big industry; the shiny headquarters of multinational corporations, vast, dust covered trucks heading from Ghana’s mines, factories for cocoa processing, shipbuilding, car, timber and cement manufacturing. But despite improved living conditions for many, Ghana is not without it’s problems. One of my first impressions of the country was of the high numbers of people with mental illness living in appalling conditions on the streets. On our first day alone we passed a young woman, filthy and naked from the waist up, a dishevelled and completely naked man, shouting incoherently and an elderly women sat in the road, staring vacantly at the cars that drove around her. In a country where the majority of people believe in witchcraft and the supernatural (89% according to one study) mental illness is highly stigmatised and often believed to be a punishment from God or caused by evil spirits or demons.
Another early encounter for us in Ghana was with a gang we later dubbed ‘the pothole mafia’ (see my previous posts on other mafias of West Africa). We were passing through a small but busy town when we found ourselves in a line of stationary traffic, the cause of which turned out to be a group of guys standing in the middle of the road with a wheelbarrow and a couple of pick axes. Confusingly they didn’t seem to be doing anything other than shouting at stationary cars. We attempted to go around them but the next thing we knew a guy with the pick axe was screaming at us and waving it threateningly in the air. Leon (perhaps somewhat unwisely given the pick axe) shouted back, fortunately we didn’t have to wait for his response as the road in front of us cleared and we sped off, just as the guy aimed a halfhearted kick at the bike. At the time we were completely bemused, but by the third or fourth similar encounter we had the measure of things. Essentially a few blokes would arm themselves with spades and pickaxes and, usually on a stretch of road which had more potholes than tarmac, they would pick a couple to fill in with some loose dirt. They would then spend the rest of the day trying to stop any passing traffic to aggressively demand money for their (extremely meagre) efforts. During the entire time we were in Ghana we did not see anyone give them a penny and I couldn’t help but think if they spent even a fraction of the time they did demanding money on actually fixing the road, they may have met with a more obliging response!
Pothole mafias aside, we loved Ghana. Our first stop was Ezile Bay, on the South East coast. The final 30km to the beach was a dirt track full of muddy and waterlogged sections, a challenge especially when our tyres had virtually no tread left. In the middle of a particularly deep puddle we lost all traction and the engine suddenly stalled. When we restarted the engine the tyres just span, digging us deeper into the mud. I jumped off and ran around the back to push. My error in positioning myself directly behind the bike quickly became apparent when I was sprayed from head to toe in a thick later of mud. But we were out! When we reached the next village they were aghast at our muddy appearance and even more aghast by the fact we appeared to be having a great time.
Ezile bay itself was picture postcard pretty, a beautiful and secluded bay, connected by a narrow sandy buff to a tiny, densely wooded island. Best of all we had the entire place to ourselves.
From Ezile we took a long and winding gravel track through palm plantations to the small fishing village of Butre. We arrived in the early afternoon and found a collection of brightly painted concrete huts, nestled amongst palm trees and presided over from a hilltop by the ruins of a Fort Batenstein (built by the Dutch in 1656). From across the otherwise deserted street a woman studied us carefully, taking in our protective clothing and the thick layer of mud that still covered us and the bike. She was clearly troubled; what were we doing there and why were we covered in so much mud?? At long last an answer came to her and she beckoned us over – ‘are you miners?’ After explaining that no, we were not miners, just very muddy tourists, she (still somewhat suspiciously) led us to a tiny hut where a wizened old man in mirrored sunglasses sold us tickets to climb up the hill to visit the fort.
From Butre we continued along the coast. Ghana’s coastline is dotted with the remnants of the slave trade, ancient castles and forts built by the colonial occupiers, the most infamous of which are St. George’s castle in Elmina and the Cape Coast castle. We visited the castles over 2 consecutive days during which the normally blue skies were replaced with dark grey storm clouds, almost as if the weather was trying to match the bleakness of the history. During the transatlantic slave trade an estimated 12 million people were transported from Africa to the new world. Many of them would pass through the castles at Elmina and Cape coast, where they were held for between 1-3 months before being herded through the door of no return onto the awaiting ships.
Tours of both of the castles are done in groups. It was jarring after spending so long in seldom visited countries to be suddenly surrounded by people on 2 week package holidays, but my general annoyance at the constant selfies being taken around me, didn’t stop it being a powerful and moving experience. One particular moment that stays with me was when our guide led us into the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle; a series of 3 underground chambers in which approximately 700 slaves would be held at a time. The chambers were small and dark, our group consisted of around 25 people, 1 tenth of the amount it was designed to hold, but even so the heat and the crowding felt oppressive. Apart from the open door we had entered through, the only source of light and fresh air was from 3 tiny barred windows high up in the wall.
In the first chamber the floor, like the walls, was cobbled. As we made our way into the second chamber our guide pointed out that the floor was covered in a smooth layer of black dirt, which was over a metre deep. The first room had once looked the same but it had been excavated by archaeologists who had taken the dirt away to be examined. They discovered that the dirt was comprised entirely of human waste; urine, faeces, blood, sweat, vomit and tears. I was struck by the physicality of it all; all the complexities of human lives, reduced to byproducts. The slaves held in these chambers had once been people with plans, with families, with duties and ambitions, but that had been stolen from them. And now all that was left of these people who had lived and loved and dreamed and feared was this layer of blood, shit and tears upon which we were now standing.