Catching up

We arrived in Ghana around dusk just over two weeks ago, after a luxury flight from Frankfurt with personal video screens and a wide selection of movies we hadn’t seen. ActionMan wasn’t happy with the glare on his screen so we swapped seats. I was happy with this arrangement as it meant I got the window seat, and to enjoy the extraordinary experience of seeing the Shara from 10 k’s above. It’s like flying over the ocean, in that all you can see is colour without depth, except when there are clouds – huge, bright white cloud castles floating above a bottomless, sandy haze. In the distance, a layer of cloud marks a border between sand and sky. What a gift to be able to see this sight.

From the ethereal to the earthly. If in the clouds I could imagine heaven, our arrival in Ghana brought an abrupt stop to the sense of unreality that haunted the trip until now. Ghana is real. After years of saving, months of planning, hours of doubt and moments of pure fear, we have reached the goal right on schedule. And there, after we finally make it outside customs and immigration (having meanwhile dealt with another lost suitcase), are DadaK and Obapaa waving & calling to us. It’s an emotional reunion, even without the children, who’ve had to stay in Kumasi and wait for us.

ActionMan’s jaw dropped from the moment we hailed a taxi, and the driver nearly ran into the gutter (they’re often almost a metre deep in Ghana). It remained dropped for several days. When he got into the taxi and discovered there was no seatbelt, he said to me “I suddenly feel very vulnerable”, but was quickly distracted when his father started haggling with the driver over the price (finally reduced to $6), and abused him for being too old and needing to be pensioned off. He was also astonished, once we left the relative respectability of the airport zone, that there were goats on the road, fires beside it, cars stopped in the middle of it and no-one obeying the traffic rules. If you want to turn across oncoming traffic you wave at them and just do it. If pedestrians are in the way, you “horn”. Well, it works.

ActionMan laughed and exclaimed the whole way to our destination. To top things off, the driver nearly ran into the gutter again when we arrived. AM was still so shocked that a week later when he rang a friend back home, the taxi, and apparent lack of road rules, was the first thing he mentioned. From what I overheard of the conversation, his friends are probably all now thoroughly alarmed, because he went on to list everything else he found shocking or difficult. Don’t worry, it’s not all bad.

In Accra we stayed at the house of Dada Finn, the patriarch of Obapaa’s family, an uncle who lives in Britain and like many expatriate Ghanaians has built a nice house back home for one of his daughters and a niece. His niece, Naomi, cooked delicious Fante meals for us, the most memorable being a stew with onions, tomatoes, chillies and fresh fish cooked in deep orange palm oil (abe) & eaten with banku (cornmeal dumplings). Aaah, palm oil, how I’ve missed you! In Ghana, home of palm oil cuisine, people can afford to be lavish with this special, addictive taste-sensation ingredient.

We stayed in Accra until we’d farewelled Obaapa, who was leaving for Australia the day after we arrived, and had retrieved our lost luggage. Fortunately the piece that went missing for twenty four hours didn’t have any essential clothes or toiletries, so I didn’t lose much sleep over it, even though it was the bag with the Milo. We killed time with an early birthday party for Obaapa and a visit to the Accra markets to buy cloth, a dress for a niece who’s been named after me, and more umbrellas. Yes, it rained again while we were having fun, but the gaggle of girls in the dress & umbrella shop were more than happy to have us obruni (foreigners) shelter there for a while, especially ActionMan. I promised to bring him back in five years for the proprietor; I foresee I could make a tidy profit out of having such a handsome son. Heheh.

It’s probably just as well the rain stopped us shopping; we’d got confused about the currency and could have ended up regretting it. In the past year the Ghana Cedi has been re-valued, but everyone still seems to be confused about it, even DadaK. Almost everyone still talks in terms of “thousands” and “millions”, but there is no longer any such thing, at least at street level. A 500 ml plastic bag of water used to cost 5,000 cedis but now costs 5 pesewas. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 Aussie cents, although I still only have DadaK’s estimate for the exchange rate, so I won’t be convinced until I see my Visa statements. One of the lengths of tie-dyed cloth ActionMan bought me as a delayed birthday present cost 35,000 Cedis, or GHC3.50, or AUD $3.50ish.

The next day we picked our bag up from the airport and started the next leg of the journey to Kumasi: a short bus ride to Koforidua. This was easily one of the most scenic drives we’ve had in Ghana; we drove north-east over the hills past Aburi, which is famous for its botanical gardens.

Obaapa’s family live in Koforidua. The idea was to meet them early on our trip so we didn’t have to rush back, also we were traveling with Obaapa’s brother Acheampong and he was keen to go there first. In fact I’m not sure he’s really a brother in the Australian sense of the word, but he’s related somehow. We traveled with an entourage – Acheampong and DadaK’s brother-in-law Akonta – who carried and protected our luggage, bought our tickets, haggled with taxis etc. Acheampong has also been roped in, or perhaps volunteered, to be our guide when we do our tour of Ghana in a few weeks.

I think this is fairly normal for travellers, and not just special obruni treatment, because they all went to the airport to help Obaapa leave. With her overweight bags stuffed full of hair extensions she’d bought cheap in Togo, they had to get there early to bribe the small bosses before the big bosses arrived, according to DadaK. It worked, but she then got searched by Australian Customs. This is possibly related to the fact that in the past Ghanaians have tried to smuggle in foods that would wreak havoc with our primary industries, such as dried fish and live giant snails. (Though I, personally would think twice about putting snails in my undies and I think Ghanaian women would too!). The price you pay for good hair.

In Koforidua we stayed overnight with Obaapa’s eldest sister, Sisi, and visited one of her (same-mother/same-father) brothers, Kwadwo, who teaches at a private boarding school there. We got a tour of the school in the evening. In spite of old, weather stained buildings and fairly basic facilities, it was one of the nicer schools I’ve seen, laid out in lush, shady grounds. The students had lovely colourful uniforms. The boys wore shirts with a bright leafy green pattern on cream background, and the school crest in emerald green, tucked into long khaki shorts; the girls wore the same fabric in fitted dresses. I thought they looked great, tho I can’t see them being very popular in inner Sydney – way too bright & light for most Aussie teens I know.

It was lovely to meet Sisi, she’s a warm, friendly & hospitable woman and she looks so much like Obaapa. I always enjoy meeting people’s relatives because I love observing family resemblances – both the ordinary physical ones and the mannerisms and tones of voice. Sisi was a nurse in London until she retired a few years ago, and late 2007 she came back to be with her mother, who died earlier this year. Again, we were staying in a house built by an expat, and it was very comfortable and easy, compared to previous trips where I’ve been mostly in the village. Mosquito nets on windows! Lights! Fans! Fridges! Soft couches! Cake! Flush toilets! Except the toilets didn’t work because the water supply had been turned off. “This is one of the things I hate about Ghana!”exclaimed Sisi when she found out. “They turn the water off, they turn the power off, you never know when!”

I met two more brothers and another sister in Koforidua, and quite a few other relations, including an adult daughter of Akonta’s that I didn’t know existed. As usual in Ghana, there were lots of people to shake hands with, and it was hard to remember them all.

We only stayed overnight, we were all keen to get to Kumasi. We’ll be back, anyway. Fortunately DadaK did not, as threatened, rouse us at 4.00am for the government bus, we had a more leisurely start and caught a regular bus. When I learned that Government buses don’t have seatbelts either, I wasn’t entirely sure what the advantage was in catching them. Faster perhaps? Softer seats maybe? Assurance of immediate, rather than lingering death in case of accident? I guess I’ll find out sooner or later.

Before we left Koforidua I had the gratification of confirming that Obaapa is indeed an adinkra symbol. (Incidentally, I’ve been spelling it wrong, I’ll correct it later). In one of my first posts to this blog I explained that Obaapa means good woman and there is an adinkra symbol bearing the name. But when I checked adinkra sites and googled it, I couldn’t find it. I’ve decided Google is inadequate when it comes to Ghana. But when I came out of the house wearing a dress made from the cloth I’d bought when here in ’98, one of the women exclaimed “obaapa!” and I knew now that it wasn’t a story made up for tourists, a mistake, or my imagination. Obaapa exists!

Sorry it’s taken so long to get even this up to date – various complications which I’ll tell you about at a later date. But mostly, all is well.

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