Log Cabin Chronicles


A Canuck discovers Ghana: Journey to Navrongo

ACCRA | I have been in Ghana's famous capital for several days, awaiting the arrival of some friends who will accompany me, my wife Hetty, and our two-year-old daughter Phoebe to Navrongo in the Upper East region. It's a an 850 km trek to this, my wife's hometown, near the Burkina Fasso border and how long it takes to get there is entirely dependent on the current state of the roads and construction delays.

Case in point: Hetty has been in Africa for a month and been to Navrongo and back. Her journey up north took seventeen hours by transport bus, Ghana's version of the Greyhound.

Now, even though that bus will have stopped numerous times for passengers in a dozen towns along the way to Navrongo, I think it is safe to say no one is looking forward to a half-day plus journey on roads most of us have never seen but hear can be "quite long." One good point is we have hired a mini-van and a driver for the sum of US$150 per day to get us there, on the suggestion of our good friend and host Nana who basically told us trying to get there by renting a vehicle and doing our own driving would be folly due to the road conditions and our unfamiliarity with the roads and so on.

For any westerner who drives, this might sound counter-intuitive: why hire a driver when you could drive yourself with a map or GPS? Trust me when I tell you this was the single best decision this whole trip. In a land where road signs are, shall we say, infrequent and many basic rules of the road are mere suggestions you really don't want to subject yourself to driving any vehicle if you don't have to. Also, GPS systems are spotty at best here.

On the road

We started out at 6 a.m, hoping to do the journey in twelve hours without having to drive after sundown, which is always around 6:30 p.m. (we're near the equator here in Western Africa). The trip got broken down this way: About 250 kms to Kumasi, then about 250 kms to Kintempo, and the last leg of 350 kms to Navrongo.

They are rebuilding the northwestern highway from Accra to Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city and busiest route, so our driver Emanuel went by the eastern route, snaking his way through Accra then up through the hilly Koforidua and up on through many small towns such as Oyoko, Tafo, and Nkawkaw. The going was pretty slow(traffic and the roads) and the main feature of this first portion of the drive, besides the lush foliage of sub-Saharan Africa, were the ubiquitous roadside shanties that dot the route literally for hundreds of miles, almost without interruption.

A typical roadside sell in Kumasi -- shoes. Pretty much anything you can think of including food, clothes, furniture, art and maps are sold in this fashion. Notice the Vodafone sign in red painted on the building: We saw literally hundreds of buildings and shacks painted with corporate logos like these. Apparently, the owners take the free paint job in exchange for being an immovable billboard.

It is here where you really see the divide between the developing world and our so called developed world: Millions upon millions of Ghanaians subsist daily on less money than we spend on a double-double from Tim Hortons.

Quebec businessman meets street vendor in Ghana

Our travel friends, the Fisher family, comprise of my old friend Bobby, his wife Nancy (who is also Hetty's buddy and godmother of our daughter) and their two sons Hunter, 10, and Morgan, 8. We were all amazed to see how people in this part of the world lived and earned money for their families each day -- it reinforced the fact that we are truly blessed in Canada on so many levels.

Paradoxically perhaps, the attachment to God, in various forms, is amazingly strong in Ghana. You cannot go more than a few seconds on a crowded road or in any town without seeing a window poster, roadside signal or bumper sticker proclaiming something religious such as "By His Grace" "Jesus in the boat" or "Praise the Lord." When you hear talk in the news about the next Pope being an African, it is not hard to look around Ghana and see why -- the faithful really do live here.

Another less religious but more practical tradition in Ghana is free ranging (open defecation), or basically relieving yourself wherever possible when necessary. I think it is safe to say Western women find squatting openly in public more distressing than the men, but when it is truly necessary, like when you are running (the Ghanaian term for having the runs or diarrhea) shame is thrown to the wind and you just grin and bear it. That being said, you learn to always make sure someone in the party brings toilet paper.

There is plenty of indoor plumbing in many cities and towns in Africa, but the smaller the town or alongside many roadways (even in Accra) the better the chance people (including you) will be free ranging.

This provided quite a moment on the way to Kumasi: Bobby was sitting in the front passenger seat and as we sped along the highway, we came upon a large African lady standing next to her car free ranging in plain view of all who passed her. When Bobby turned around to the rest of us in the back with eyes wide and eyebrows raised, we all laughed heartily for several minutes -- free ranging definitely takes some getting used to.

The Ashanti Region

We traveled on all morning, finally entering the Ashanti region (aka Kingdom), home of the famous Akan tribe of the same name who claim Kumasi as their ancestral seat of power. We were just passing through this city of two million on our way up north, but you could easily spend a week there seeing some of the sites in what our Ghanaian family doctor Ni Kwo calls the "cultural heartland of Ghana." The Ashanti settled this area of central Ghana about 300 years ago and are quite famous for being the only tribe that actually defeated the British in a battle on African soil (they had several famous battles spanning more than 100 years) and their king, the Asantehene, is revered by Ghanaians and West Africans alike.

They even have their own flag which includes the "golden stool" which they believe descended from the heavens to lead them to independence from another Akan tribe in the 1700s. The Golden Stool is sacred to the Ashanti, as it is believed that it contains the 'Sunsum' -- spirit or soul of the Ashanti people. Just as man cannot live without a soul, so the Ashanti would cease to exist if the Golden Stool were to be taken from them.

Many wars have been fought over the stool and the Ashante have often given up their lives in its defense. Few have ever seen the stool and even the king cannot sit on it as it is a sacred symbol. Some famous Ashantis are former United nations Secretary General Kofi Anan and Ghana's former president John Kofuor. Today they are renowned for their dances, crafts (including stools), and the colourful kente cloth seen everywhere in Ghana.

As for us, the closest we came to monarchial greatness was a stop at the aptly-named Jofel Restaurant in Kumasi (for its two owners, the husband-wife team of Joseph and Felicia). As I ordered my favourite West African dish (talapia fish with jollof rice), the waiter pointed out to me that the Asantehene often comes into the restaurant and orders the very same thing.

The King and I already had something in common. I regally wolfed down my meal and then boarded the mini-van for the next part of our journey to Tamale.

Roadside sellers on overpass near the Volta River.

To be continued

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Leo Gervais teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. He can be reached at: gervaislj at gmail.com
Accra, Ghana
Posted 08.11.10

Copyright © 2010 Leo Gervais/Log Cabin Chronicles/87.10