Wednesday, July 11, 2012

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


Kumasi - Cape Coast - Beku

Bouncing in a pitch dark bus, I must have dosed of for a moment since there suddenly was light. Then again, that's just one more feature that characterizes tropical regions more than is generally noted. The day arrives, as well as leaves, in a hurry. The time between is one of impenetrable darkness of a much more intense kind than the Scandinavian night, thanks to the absence of an exaggerated electricity supply that is replaced by a widespread presence of dark, dense vegetation that seems to swallow all light. 

I woke up to the sunrise about an hour into an eight-hour bumpy bus ride southward that was to begin our tour around the country. The route took us through rarely changing views of dense tropical forest dotted by small townships and villages, one being very similar to the next (As probably is the case with small rural settlements anywhere in the world). Here the houses consist of walls made of big mud bricks, grey or rusty roofs of corrugated iron and an occasional Mama pottering around outside. You will also find the standard hawkers, vendors and stands selling agricultural produce, pastries and other small meals as well as pre-paid credit for cell phone subscriptions.
Beyin Beach

Several weeks of time spent in the inland city of Kumasi had had an effect on all of us. When we finally reached the ocean on the outskirts of Cape Coast at 9.30 am, the bus exploded in applauds, exclamations and other displays of joy. Suddenly everyone seemed awake and very much alive. Regardless of cultural background, it seems to be an almost universal aspect of human nature to appreciate the proximity of the sea and other bodies of water. The beaches on the Ghanaian coast will, when it comes to natural beauty, stand comparison to most places in the world. They stretch as far as one can see and are bordered just some steps in, by a towering forest of coconut palms. In Beyin, our target and final stop for the day, they are also in a relatively pristine condition, not ravaged by western, "modern" facilities such as restrooms and showers. Tearing down on the perfect image of a tropical-beach-experience was also the fact of the rainy season which provided us with that ever-important cloud cover and in fact probably saved us from a lot of sunburns.

Beyin does however have the most basic tourism-related infrastructure in place. In addition to the actual beach, there are western style hotels offering western-style food, pool tables, swimming pools etc. Also the basic plan of the township follows that of some more established beach resorts I've visited. This includes a road (a potential boulevard) parallel to the beach, supported by several narrow roads or mere alleys leading to the beach. All in all Beyin has some notable potential for developing at least a small scale tourism industry. I will not here touch upon whether that's a good or a bad idea because everyone can surely make up her/his own mind about exclusive tourism development in the third world.

This is the point where Joan joined our fellowship. He is from Barcelona, the uncontested Mecca of the contemporary football-world and arrived the day after Spain ravaged Italy in the Euro 2012 final. He doesn’t follow football.


Beku - Nzulezo - Takoradi - Cape Coast 

None of the above is an actual reason to bother coming to Beyin particularly. The following morning, we again got up at sunrise, ready for an hour-long paddle along a short canal and on Lake Amansuri. On the way we came upon a weird embodiment of the interplay between local culture and the colonial experience in the form of local schoolgirls canoeing to school in traditional canoes but wearing perfectly European, identical school uniforms.

Our goal was to reach Nzulezo (meaning "surface of water"), the village on stilts, constructed entirely on water by Malian immigrants in the 14th and 15th centuries. These were people escaping conflict and violence over scarce resources back home, a classical example of migration caused by population pressure. When they reached the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, they again ran into conflict with locals. This is when the wondrous human creativity, evident in Ghana in many minor and major examples, kicked in. The immigrants decided that if there was no land for them, they need to live on the water. According to the legend this order was given to them by one of their gods, a snail. Today the population of the village lies around 500, and contains shops, small joints, a community house and an elementary school. No teachers have yet agreed to teach at the school, though.


Elmina - Cape Coast - Accra  

I have to admit I was secretly embarrassed for how much I felt at home in and enjoyed the cities of Elmina and Cape Coast. Naturally, a big reason to come to Ghana is to see something different from Europe and appreciate all things African. But honestly, what makes Elmina and Cape Coast so pleasant is that they were mostly designed and built by Europeans, more specifically the Portuguese who seem to have been the first to arrive everywhere. Both cities are characterized by narrow streets and in the Ghanaian context relatively high-rise and clear architecture. Most dominating buildings are painted in white. This gives the old central spaces a sense of unity. There are certain spots where you can almost imagine being in Lissabon, Mindelo or some other city with a Portuguese past. Both cities also supply a number of western-style beach resorts which is one more reason why you will find a lot of westerners here. Maybe me enjoying myself there is an expression of some home-sickness…

Cape Coast
Of course, both Elmina and Cape Coast have a strong African touch regardless of the architecture. This touch is provided by the population. Physical treats of the people aside, both cities are cramped with hawkers, vendors, tro-tros and other distinct parts of African culture. In short, Elmina and Cape Coast are today two of the places in the world where connections between different cultures have created something out of the ordinary (apart from both of these cultures), something worth a visit.

Elmina Castle
The vibrant atmosphere of today is however shadowed by a darker history of the very same connections. The Elmina castle and the Cape Coast castle were built by the Portuguese and the British respectively. Elmina was first used mainly for trade in other products, but both forts soon became important centers of slave trade. Both had a door of no return. Today the castles are sites of reflection of the darker side of humanity. Similar sites can be found anywhere in the world, and the message seems to be the same in Elmina, Ile de Gorée, Tarrafal, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz-Birkenau and so on: Never again.

Knowing I would have an interest in it, Robert mentioned that whereas the British built the Cape Coast castle as we now know it, there was a fort at the site even earlier. That one was built by a not well known colonial power: the Swedes. It turns out that quite a part of the little known Swedish colonial history took place in Ghana, back then obviously called the Swedish Gold Coast. The fort was called Fort Carlsborg and was just one out of six Swedish forts on the Gold Coast.

The Swedish theme continued in Accra, where we used our small window of time for gathering first impressions on the capital at a reggae party on something called, very suspiciously, Pleasure Beach. There I met Jermaine, a Ghanaian who got abnormally excited when I told him where I'm from. It turns out he visited Helsinki when he was studying in Sweden. Where in Sweden? Lund? Stockholm? Uppsala? No, Blekinge.

Cape Coast Castle
Where the effects of an infant tourism industry are most pronounced, in a negative sense, would be the cultural center in Accra. The name promises a lot, such as a possibility to get to know Ghanaian cultural handicrafts and traditional products. First, you will notice that there's no quietly getting to know. You are violently pulled in to a whirlwind of shopkeepers that force you into one shop after the other in the narrow paths criss-crossing the area. Most of them sell the same wooden masks and decorations, t-shirts, jewelry and so on. Everyone knows you're from England or Germany. Everyone has a cousin or a good friend in Finland, the country of Nokia. The forbidding aggressive marketing of the vendors is understandable in that westerners without a doubt possess the money to make purchases (nothing there can be described as expensive) and the competition is intense. This, I think is the main problem of the cultural center and other corresponding places. I swear there were more vendors than customers in the place. Moreover, they sell a surprisingly narrow range of standard souvenir products. This drives the vendors to vicious competition over the few foreign customers, which in fact works to repel the customers. Even our dinner, in a closed restaurant area, was disturbed by hawkers constantly sneaking in and hanging over the law stone wall, forcing products upon us in the middle of eating. Credit has to be given to the waiter who persistently kept the bloodthirsty salesmen away. Behavior forced upon them by circumstances or not, it is probable that the activities of the vendors in the cultural center work to harm more than benefit the wider selling community.


Accra -  Akosombo

The first thing we did when arriving at the Volta Lake was to visit the Akosombo dam. A bit worn down from the previous night's Reggea Nite gone late, everyone was happy to get off the bus, air conditioned or not.

The dam was built under the rule of Kwame Nkrumah in only (!) four years and finished in 1965 mostly by the means of foreign aid. Supplying none less than 60% of the nation's electricity, and given the problematic international structures and relationships of trade in energy, it is today of immense importance for the general development of Ghana. This is very much evident in the rigorously regimented, jealous and even paranoid prohibition of taking any photographs anywhere near the dam, were they to present the dam or the nature around it.

The all-important relative energy-independence did not come without costs. Damming up the river Volta created, in a very quick manner, this largest artificial lake in the world. This forced some 80 000 people inhibiting around 700 villages to move to higher ground. This fact is not being covered up by the authorities and claims are made that the evacuates received substantial compensation.  Some personal energy will be required to make deeper investigations into these issues, but I'm skeptical about the amount of real compensation that an African government in the  1960’s have had the resources to meet.

The main thought that comes to mind when talking about the Akosombo dam is however that huge scale infrastructure projects like this always come with costs and sacrifices. Regardless of how big a supporter of human rights and rights to choose residence one is, you have to admit that in the long run at least this particular project has been of immeasurable value to Ghana as a whole in the long run. Beyond doubt, this includes the communities that initially suffered from the undertaking.
River Volta

Aside from, economical, social and other aspects of the lake, the river, the dam and the energy they produce, the Volta region is astoundingly beautiful. The area seems to be relatively densely populated, which is evident in the high number of small wooden canoes calmly gliding on the lake and the river. This adds an important human touch to the environment of calm waters surrounded in every direction by dark green hills. The lake itself is a maze of small, narrow inlets and spits, which gives it a wide presence in the region similar to that of the Saimaa Lake back in Finland.

The natural beauty has not avoided being picked up by the radar of the tourism industry. The riverside around Atimpoku is dotted by beach resorts small and big, one claiming to be more luxurious that the other. They offer swimming pools, sports facilities and activities both on land and in water, bars, restaurants etc. In the beginning of July, all of them seemed to be virtually empty, save for the staff.

What is a bit amusing is that the locals seemed to be very suspicious about swimming in the river or the lake. One of my local friends, a smart university student, commented that it is not safe to swim because the water is too deep. A security guard told us that swimming was not culturally accepted and would offend the local population, which later turned out to be nothing more than a white lie. Part of this surely is a result of the fact that most people here, quite surprisingly, simply cannot swim and therefore fear immersing themselves in water.

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