Thursday, July 19, 2012

A disordered report of an epic tour, Part II (Week 5-6)


Akosombo -  Asougyaman - Atimapoku

Banana farm
The fruit I definitely consume the most of at home is and has always been the banana. I am sure this also applies to many of my friends. I want to see myself as a relatively conscious consumer (no fundamentalist though, even a bit failed), but I have to plead guilty to not always giving too much thought to the flows, structures and processes responsible for providing to me this particular after-work-out snack that is fun to eat, costs virtually nothing and tastes delicious. In Asougyaman, we got to get to know the grass-roots level production of some everyday products of ours. Honestly, a banana farm offers few surprises for a visitor. Bananas grow in banana trees and are collected at a predetermined point in time. They are washed in big pools of water, stored in a cool space, packaged and exported.

Exported… A striking 99% of the production on the farm we visited is exported, mainly to Europe. The remaining per cent is what is deemed below standards. This is sold locally to be consumed as it is instead of processed in any way (A lot of fruit juice is imported to Ghana). The obvious reason for the perverse ratio is the huge differences in prices that will be paid for the bananas in Europe compared to in Atimpoku or elsewhere in Ghana. This is an embodiment of the neocolonial relationships based on near-complete extraction of raw material to be processed elsewhere that is so often the object of complaint in development discussion. Surprisingly and a bit disappointingly, I heard no criticism of those relations either from the guides or workers on the farm or the smart and educated locals I’m travelling with (who often like to criticize the west, France, Sarkozy of just that: trying to controlling progress and development in Africa).

Mango farm
Our visit to the banana farm (Which, yes, was in sphere of the fair trade program and where, no, the workers did not seem to work under subhuman conditions or be particularly unhappy) was followed by, naturally, a visit to a mango farm. What was notable here was the impressive level of organization, a feature not often heard in descriptions of African agricultural activity. The owner and director of the farm very much emphasized the importance of applying for and receiving certificates of appropriate conduct. He further maintained that the whole system is very much characterized by transparency and accountability, concepts usually met only in plans and advice concerning Africa. In short, I got the impression of the mango farming community in Asougyaman as being very professional and well organized. Be this an exception in the big picture or not, it seems to be a more genuine way of developing the agricultural sector than the top-down structures of, for instance, the fair-trade movement.

Party Boat
The day was rounded up by a boat ride on the Volta. In Finland, the only word to describe the experience would be yuppie. The boat ride was organized on shiny new boats by a shiny, expensive high-class beach resort owned and led by the prototype of a Dutch businessman (Which was very evident in everything in the resort). Ironically, those most excited about the boat ride were the Africans, who insisted that everybody dance and shake it to the R&B playing of big loudspeakers on board, just like on MTV… I guess this is one of the places where rich Europeans could come to behave like rich Europeans in a non-European climate and environment. The resort, like all in the region, was virtually deserted apart from the staff and the Dutchman working hard to make us stay and enjoy for some more time. Some did, some didn’t.


Asougyaman - Mt. Afadjato - Wli Agumatsa 

View from Mt. Afadjato
View from Mt. Afadjato
The day was dedicated to hiking. Naturally, this was in addition to the normal hours spent on the bus. The plan was to climb the highest mountain in Ghana, Mt. Afadjato. A staggering 885 meters high, we had to prepare to an exhausting half-hour climb. The hike represented nothing of what is generally perceived to be climbing a mountain. The climb doesn’t offer breathtaking views or steep cliffs to fall off. The path is all the way more like a tunnel in the impenetrable forest, and you will have more use of a torch rather than sunglasses, regardless of the time of the day. Reaching the top of the mountain is actually a nice experience, though. After all, the climb is fairly rough and you will be sweaty and out of breath when emerging from the bush on a small deforested flat area. The view is dominated by the deep green, flat plateau on one side, dotted by nameless small villages that look like brown and red islands in a green ocean. On one side, there are a few more mountains and you can spot a rare birds-eye view of a high waterfall to the east. The top is pretty crowded, and you will be left longing for some silence. You will be a bit disappointed by one of the neighboring summits, which may or may not actually within the borders of Ghana, being clearly higher than the one you’re standing on. Beyond that is Togo.

Wli Agumatsa
The next walk was a half-hour one through more forest, this time on a flat path criss-crossing with a minimal river and leading to a truly spectacular place. It starts raining. It gets cold. It gets noisy. After bending one more corner, you find yourself at the feet of an 80-meter pillar of white roar, the lower one of the Wli Agumatsa twin waterfalls, the highest in West Africa. It is the first place in Sub-Saharan Africa where I’ve honestly felt cold. For one reason or another, the water in the small pool created by the waterfall and hanging in the air is very cold. Getting into the water is a breathtaking, refreshing and in the long run not a very pleasant experience. The closer you get to the waterfall, the more the air feels like being full of invisible, flying, cold needles. I almost expected to be ripped into microscopic pieces and simply disappearing. You have to approach the waterfall backwards, not for any traditional or religious reason. Turn your look at it and I assume you will go blind. Turn your look upwards and you will find thousands of huge fruit bats circling high above you, adding to the supernatural and a bit scary experience. Take out the flocking tourists and stands serving everything to them and the place would have been somewhere to stay for a while.


Atimpoku - Kumasi - Tamale – Paga

The following day consisted of the longest bus ride of our trip, taking us all the way from the southern end of the Volta Lake past Kumasi and Tamale to the northernmost region of Ghana. Analogous of the general north-south division of all of West Africa, the ride saw the vegetation gradually change from tropical forest to savannah; the mosques get more common and the simple brick houses be substituted by the iconic mud huts depicted in older books I’ve read. Beyond here is Sahel and the notorious famine, the closets I’ve gotten so far to the miserable Africa covered with some exaggeration by our media. This transition parallels very much the dichotomy between a moist, Christian and developed south on the one hand and a dry, Islamic and developing north on the other, often presented in simplified (geography) literature discussing West Africa, from Senegal to Sudan, as a singular region.

On the road, more specifically somewhere on the main road between Accra and Kumasi, I got a taste of the Ghanaian version of fast food. Similarly to McDonalds, you have a queue, at the end of which you get to make your order (out of one or two options, in this case jollof rice with fried chicken or fish or banku with fried chicken or fish) and pay. But in this case, you won’t get your meal yet. Instead, you get a coupon indicating what you have ordered and paid for. You continue to another queue (one for rice, one for banku), where you present your coupon in exchange of the food. A third queue will take you to the counter where drinks are served. I had a weird, short (ending to a) conversation with the man (Let’s call him Jarkko) at the end of the first of these queues:

-          Me: Some jollof rice [rice with a touch of tomato, chili etc)], please.
-          Jarkko: With chicken?
-          M: Yeah… Actually, what are the options?
-          J: Chicken or tilapia [a local fish].
-          M: Ok, with tilapia.
-          J: Sir, that will be seven cedis instead of three…
-          M: Oh, then let’s go with chicken, I’m not that rich [as if it was really that expensive]…
-          J: [Laughter] I hear you… You’re a very handsome man!
-          M: Thank you, you too!

It only struck me right after the conversation that this might be a very odd exchange of words in a country (and a continent for that matter) where homosexuality is illegal. Or is this just a way where Ghanaians are a bit more confident than Finns in expressing their thoughts and opinions about other people, without too much thought on what you’re saying to whom?

Tamale is the main city of the Northern Region of Ghana. It is evident everywhere that you are getting closer to the Sahel and the Sahara. The city (Population 350 000) can concisely (and based on an extremely short time spent there) be described as dry, flat and dusty, populated more visibly by goats than human beings. It can’t be said to be especially beautiful. As was already noted, you will cross upon mosques (which can be found anywhere in Ghana) a lot more frequently than in Kumasi or the coast, so Islam must be prevailing to a relatively large extent in Tamale. What I can’t find an obvious explanation (Bad roads? Shortage of money? Less rain?) to, however, is the popularity of motorbikes in this part of the country. Those are almost non-existent in the south.

After some time spent lost in the next town (Maybe name Bolgatanga...) and finally finding the hostel, we celebrated the birthday of Claire, a French lady in our company and some of us tried to get some sleep before an early morning of heading further up north, towards Burkina Faso.


Paga - Dakoma – Mole

Ryszard Kapuściński writes in Imprium about the impact of borders on human beings. Borders between land and water are where human populations have always thrived, but otherwise borderlands seem to have a negative impact on man. Like Kapuściński says, borderlands (especially those decided and imposed by man himself!) make men restless, anxious and paranoid. They are places characterized by weaponry, fences, walls, barbed wire… They are often the reason and result of conflict and misery. This applies also to some natural borders, a good example being Sahel, the borderland between lush tropical forest and savannah on the one hand and forbidding desert on the other. People seem to be very much on the edge at borders. Even crossing borders in the Schengen area, where borders are being made more or less irrelevant, there is always some excitement in the air. It is easy to presume that the problems and conflicts are intensified when borders are imposed somewhere from above without much consideration of local physical features, ethnic composition or the perceptions of the people affected by the border. That has certainly in many cases in African history been very true.

With the above in mind, the crossing place between Paga and Dakoma, between Ghana and Burkina Faso, is a controversial place. On the one hand the restlessness, anxiety and paranoia are evident. There are weapons, fence and barbed wire. Pull out your camera, and someone will pull out a gun, almost. We stopped and got out of the bus. After just minutes of the normal waiting and standing around, a security guard called me over to question me about our reasons for being there. Smiles get fewer or less genuine and the need for explaining yourself grows.

On the other hand, there is a remarkable strive to live as if there is no border. On the Burkina Faso- side, a normal village of mud huts is virtually leaning on the wall marking the beginning of a narrow slice of no-man’s land. The small towns of Paga and Dakoma have basically grown together. I can imagine the people (known to be generally mobile in these regions) crossing the border several times a day. As in many other national borders in Africa imposed by colonial rule, not much changes (besides the European language spoken) when crossing the border. After all the formal rigidity and rules, I had (with the help of Kwakye’s negotiation skills) not much problems crossing the border even though my passport was still in Accra waiting for a visa extension.

Earlier that day we had visited the Crocodile Park in Paga. It is a remnant of an old, traditional community that basically lived (lives?) in symbiosis with the crocodiles. They believe that the crocs are reincarnations of the forefathers and should and will therefore not be harmed for they are a vital part of the community. Also the legend goes that the crocodiles will not attack fishers or children from that particular community in and around the water. Today this has been tuned to be a tourism attraction. The crocodiles (in a fenced area) are actually pretty tame and even phlegmatic. You can photograph them, sit on them and lift their tail without a reason to be afraid. There is a beautiful history but a sad present. Of course this is necessitated by the need for incomes and the limited presence of tourists.


Mole National Park - Monkey Sanctuary – Kumasi

In Mole National Park, the guide asked us a simple question: From where did democracy come? Greece. No!

Father of democracy?
One of the most common animals in the park, the baboon, has according to the local wisdom in many ways set an example for humans. Humans learned to carry their infants on the back from baboons. More importantly, we learned democracy from then. When there is a big argument within a baboon community (Just imagine the sticks and stones flying, the jumping and screaming…), they resolve it as follows: The leaders of the two (or more) sides of the argument settle in two different big trees. Thereafter all individuals in the group choose their side by choosing which tree to climb up in. When done, I would expect the groups to go their different ways. But no, the smaller group(s) will follow the bigger one whatever it chooses to do. Does this sound like the western voting system? Does this sound like western democracy?

As a travel destination, Mole National Park is definitely worth a visit or even a stay of a couple of days, regardless of being pretty remote and not well accessible (The road itself can be classified as an experience). It is a classical African national park with great surroundings and views where you can easily spot lots of elephants, baboons, warthogs and a species of antelope. You can choose between walking safaris or jeep safaris with smart, informative and armed guides. A stay both educating and refreshing!

After an in African standards short stop in a monkey sanctuary (Village in symbiosis with, this time around, cute monkeys eating from your hand, photos, monkey graveyard…) on the way, we finally returned to Kwamo and to routine.

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