West Africa hasn’t traditionally been high on the vacation hot spot chart, but a one month stay in Ghana in 1971, at the tender age of 15, provided me with an eye-opening experience. After all, how many teens ever get a chance to meet a real King, visit a Juju magic school, look at live cholera bacilli under a microscope and catch a tropical disease?
In 1957, Ghana, then called the Gold Coast, gained independence from Great Britain. The controversial and charismatic Kwame Nkrumah, U.S. educated but fiscally inept, managed to run up a billion dollars in debt before his ouster in a military coup. His legacy was a series of impressive buildings, stadiums and highways that led nowhere.
Nevertheless, the mood in 1971 was optimistic. Oil prices had yet to go through the roof, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River had recently been completed and a new, democratically elected government had just been formed under Dr. Kofi Busia.
At this time a mixed group of high school and university students from Nova Scotia visited Ghana under the auspices of the World Cities Organization. Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia had been paired with the twin cities of Accra and Tema and as a goodwill gesture a group had been gathered to visit the country and assist in a number of aid activities.
Captain Don Dennison and Dr. Ian Maxwell, a pathologist at the Halifax Infirmary, headed the group. Dennison’s experience working at the Canadian embassy in Accra was to prove invaluable to our party.
Our arrival in Ghana was uneventful despite the military presence still evident. The airport was small, the customs officers friendly and we shortly found our way to the Accra YMCA, our home for the subsequent week.
Our preventive health measures included immunizations against cholera, yellow fever and typhoid fever. As well, we took prophylactic medication against malaria. I was later to discover these measures don’t always work.
We spent our first week meeting our local hosts and visiting local functionaries, including a trip to the port city of Tema and lunch with the mayor. Tema is the lifeline for manufactured goods shipped in and agricultural products such as cocoa, and more recently aluminum to be shipped out.
After an initial week of acclimatization, we headed north toward the Sahara in a rented Mercedes mini-bus. The landscape gradually changed from rain forest to veldt-like sub-Saharan terrain. I noted with adolescent interest that the young ladies tended not to bother with tops in some of the rural northern regions.
One not-so-great effect of the Akosombo Dam was that it flooded a good deal of land to the north. In order to reach Tamale, our next destination, we had to cross this new lake by ferry. A long line of vehicles stretched in wait to cross and we were not particularly anxious to spend much time here as the local black flies were known to carry a disease called “river blindness.”
Fortunately we managed to promptly get aboard the ferry, possibly due to a “dash” or tip offered to the captain of the vessel. After safely crossing the lake, assiduously swatting anything that looked like a fly, we reached the other side and drove on northward.
Along our way we stopped the sacred house, groves and streams of the Akonedi Shrine in Larteh Kubease to visit its high priestess Okomfohenna Akua Oparabea. The shrine is home to a school of traditional Juju Magic and healing. The 71 year old high priestess was in the United States and Canada at the time, recruiting students for her shrine, but had left her mother to greet visitors and take over her duties while away.
On approaching the school I felt like I was entering the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Entering the dim chambers of the sacred house we were greeted by the acting high priestess’ interpreter. At all traditional official functions in Ghana, a man, attired in colorful kente cloth robe and holding a golden staff, speaks for the functionary to avoid evil influences or spells.
The high priestess’ mother was a wizened old lady (remember her daughter was 71 at the time) and was the oldest looking individual I had seen in the entire country. She greeted us quite civilly and welcomed us to the shrine, giving us her blessing. She explained that JuJu magic should only be used for positive and beneficial purposes and that those who misused it would be blasted with ten-fold retribution for whatever evil deeds they performed.
As with all official visits, we were offered a liter of potent schnapps, which our group was expected to consume in its entirety at risk of offending our host or hostess. Since only four of our group were of legal drinking age at home, the rules were bent a little and even I pitched in to avoid having our group leaders in a perpetual state of intoxication.
Afterwards we met some of the acolytes of the shrine. Two were New Yorkers planning to return to Harlem after their training.
Pressing on we headed north through Tamale and right up to Bolgatanga near the border with Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). The climate was definitely different here, and we could feel the harmattan, a dry desert wind off the Sahara that would blow through the streets raising dust devils and turning day to semi-twilight. Cheap leather goods abounded here and I picked up a machete and dagger seated in hand tooled and decorated leather sheaths.
Perched right on the border with Burkina Faso, the town of Paga is noted for its sacred crocodiles. There are several stories about this all with the common theme that the crocodile did a local a favor long ago and now they don’t harm the crocs. From Paga we were able to make a brief foray into Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) thanks to a helpful border guard.
It was now time to head south once more and we headed towards the city of Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti tribe. Historically this kingdom was well organized and powerful. When the British attempted to conquer the Ashanti, the Asantehene (or king) hired Prussian officers to drill his troops in modern warfare techniques. The British didn’t manage to defeat the Ashanti until the early 20th century.
We were fortunate while in Kumasi to have a private audience with the reigning Asantehene, the 15th to hold the throne, King Otumfuo Opuku Ware II. We entered his walled palace and were escorted to his audience chamber, which abounded in gorgeous silver and other gifts and awards from accumulated from years of dealing with the British crown. Initially we interacted through an interpreter but afterwards the King dismissed him and we had a more intimate chat with this educated and affable man.
Afterwards Dr. Maxwell, knowing I was interested in a medical career, took me to visit the Kumasi Hospital where I had a chance to see live cholera bacilli under a microscope. This is a very rare experience for most North America physicians, let alone a 15-year-old.
Next on our itinerary was a 20-mile hike to sponsor a water supply for the town of Mpesiduadze. After a very sound sleep (without mosquito netting) I awoke the next morning and prepared for a festival held in our honor for our help in getting the village piped-in water. With the chief and high village officials looking on, a display of dancing in colorful kente cloth costumes and traditional music unfolded in the town’s main square. The chief presented each of us with a bolt of the colorful hand-woven kente cloth for which the country is renowned.
It was here that we got to try a lot of the local foods including kenkey, or fermented maize meal; fufu, a thick paste made from boiling starchy root vegetables; and roast grass cutter, a large rat-like rodent which is considered a rare delicacy. It was delicious served from a communal pot in which chunks of meat are added to fufu and then dipped in peanut sauce.
Next stop was a small village where we spent several days pounding mud bricks to help build a school house. Sleeping and sanitation facilities were a little primitive with the latrine wide open with a view of the soccer field (I guess you wouldn’t need reading material) and corn cobs provided in place of toilet paper.
I was pretty well developed for 15 and one of the villagers appeared to want to play match maker between me and his 19 year old sister. He indicated I was welcome to enjoy “a soft landing” to use the local vernacular. I gave her and her brother Air Canada pins I’d brought with me as give-aways and explained that we were leaving that afternoon.
One afternoon we played hooky and hopped a “mammy wagon” to the sea shore to enjoy Ghana’s golden beaches. We enjoyed a day playing in the surf but were a bit discomfited by the presence of an old slave trading fort nearby. The coast of Ghana is dotted with these memorials of man’s inhumanity toward their own king. Most are now museums or used for other purposes, including ironically, prisons.
By now our tour was drawing to an end. Arrival back to Canada was a bit of a culture shock once again, and I certainly had a new appreciation for what we have in this country.
About two months later I started to develop severe fevers and chills every three days and found out I’d brought home an unwanted souvenir from my trip, malaria. But that’s another story.
Top three photos © George Burden
“Paga Sacred Crocodile Pond” super.heavy @ flickr.com. Creative commons. Some Rights Reserved.