On the Ghana beat
Where better to practice the drum beats of Africa, than on the continent itself?
Kath Beattie, Dunedin 2017
'Ghana?' most said. 'Where is it'? So it was surprising to most that Ghana is the size of a squashed-up NZ with a population of 28 million or so.
Greater Accra the modern capital, has four million plus residents; universities, banks, stadiums, schools, hospitals and all the trimmings of any world city, modern housing suburbs, and some very exclusive opulent homes. It also has Nima the enormous shanty town, with narrow streets and open sewers. It is one of the most successful democracies in Africa, resource rich and famous for its cocoa exports. All the same, much commerce is traded from red dusty roadside stalls that line the highway and byway. City, town or village women balance wares on their heads, babies on their backs selling bread, mango, household goods or rice.
Sometimes Koffie (our drumming teacher and one of our leaders) or Bismark (our dancing teacher), leaned from the bus window, cedi changed hands and we'd be treated to a local peanut sweet, baked yam or something unidentifiable. Goat?
Fourteen of us were travelling through Ghana on a drumming and dance tour arranged by Akuma Adventures, a Palmerston North travel company. During our 16 days, we learned two African dances and two drumming pieces and we performed them at the Community Youth Cultural Centre, in Accra, along with a couple of local dance and drum-teams. We were told we were amazing and Bismark our dancing instructor was bursting with pride: it was true we were enthusiastic and surprisingly energetic in the mid-30s temperatures, heavy with humidity, but when we watched the locals we were we had performed first.
Our days began before 6.30am when we were expected to be in the courtyard at the Agoo hostel (in Accra) ready for practise. No mucking about, we were put through stretches and exercises that most rugby players would baulk at. I tried and variously achieved most contortions despite the nearly four score years.
At Beyin in the far west, we did our thing on the vast greenery under the coconut palms, which I later learned are imports to Ghana, though ubiquitous now, 20 metres from the Atlantic ocean where halfway through the routine we were called to the beach to watch leather-back turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean.
At Cape Coast where we dubbed our hotel, “The Marigold”, we danced on the lawn by the gazebo trying to keep away from teeming red ants, and unseen silent mosquitoes. At Aylos Bay hotel on the shores of Lake Volta, the manager had staff slice a few branches so we could fit on the lawn and at the Wli Falls resort where the electricity blew out occasionally, we searched about for bits of shade to meet drummer Sam's strict expectations. 'You must keep yourself fit', he lectured me. 'I am 34 and look at me!' Mmmmm.
Apart from the dancing and drumming there was adventure each day. In the far west the Canopy walk at Kakum National Park – until recently the longest and highest in the world – stretched across the top of the jungle giants. Butterflies abounded, while below umbrella trees appeared like miniatures.
One of the more sobering tours was to the St George's Castle at Elmina (Cape Coast). Built originally by the Portuguese in 1482, it was a major trading post and port for gold and ivory and later the Atlantic slave trade; the latter first to supply plantation workers to Brazil and the Carribean. In 1637 the Portuguese surrendered the castle to the Dutch and they continued the trade until it was outlawed in the early 1800s when the British took over. In total some 13 million slaves viewed as “goods” were “exported” via 54,200 voyages from the West African coasts, though some 2 million died en-route.
It was difficult not to sob as we walked into areas marked, “Male”, or “Female”, “Slaves Dungeon” and “Slave Exit to Waiting Boats”.
Much more peaceful and beautiful was the hour walk through the jungle at Wli Falls in the north-east near the Togo border. We saw cocoa fruit – the one that produces the cocoa powder we use in chocolate or as a drink. Locals suck the seeds which have a mildly sweet taste. We had nine bridges to cross as we walked the steamy heat, were pleased to finally flop into the pool at the bottom of the tall cascade, delighting in viewing hundreds of bats above us and revelling in the coolness and the abundance of water.
Ghana is not short of water. It has the third largest man-made reservoir in the world, Lake Volta. Originally set up to supply electricity to an aluminium smelter, it now mostly supplies industrial and domestic electricity to Ghana and Togo and Benin.
Roads range from modern multi-lane smooth stretches to bush tracks. Eric, our driver was adept at weaving from left to right and back. On-coming traffic was likewise, so sometimes a crash looked imminent.
In the West, at Beyin we canoed over wetland and lake to Nzulezo, a stilt village, a collection of dwelling shacks, work-areas, a school and a very pink up-market church built on piles above the water in a type of hash key formation.
Food was plentiful, consisting of pulses, rice, chicken, fish, very occasionally meat and exceptionally spicy. It was referred to as 'soup' but we might call is casserole. No sweets were served, though fruit was provided..
The tiny rare Mona monkeys at the Tafi Atome monkey park were almost killed to extinction by the missionaries in the 1800s but are now protected. Still wild, they will come out of the trees and foliage to eat bananas from your hand. They do not bite or scratch but rather with their soft fingers will peel your firmly held banana and break pieces off before leaping to safety.
Religion is omnipresent. Almost every faith is represented – Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Gospellers, Methodists et al., each village under the auspices of one or several. The Muslim faith has a growing influence and the muezzin could be heard at 4am each morning in Accra.. To the West 'God' seemed to be running everything – “In Him is Life Hardware”; “With God Everything is Possible Hair Salon”; “God is Alive Licensed Chemical Seller”; “God's Four Food Joint”...
Every child born in Ghana bears the name of the day they were born. I am a Wednesday birth so have been named Akua (my male counterpart is Kwaku). Kofi (Koffie) represents a Friday birth.
All too soon our time disappeared, what with the full programme of performances, hair-braiding, batik making, visits to the Osu and Art markets, an afternoon and welcome to Koffie's home village … even the flight mix-up as we departed didn't flatten our spirits. We were freely accommodated in luxury and enjoyed the swimming pool and other amenities.
Ghana was vibrant, welcoming and so friendly. On a still night I can still hear the drums calling.