Pages

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ghana & Cote d’Ivoire (TWC’s 150th country): Along the Coasts of Gold and Ivory, & on to the Blood Diamond Lands

Ghana & Cote d’Ivoire (TWC’s 150th country): Along the Coasts of Gold and Ivory, & on to the Blood Diamond Lands


Dear All,

Greetings from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire (formerly known as Ivory Coast, which means the same). This is also the 150th Country/Political Entity and 120th UN Member I have visited.

Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast: these are stretches of West African coasts whose names were drawn from centuries of trade in ivory tusks, exuberant tribal carvings, precious minerals and human slaves. These lands continue to evoke imagery of tropical exoticism, mystical voodoo sacrifices and brutality today.

Together with Gordon, old friend and Australian veteran traveler from my London days, I began my journey in Ghana, once known as the Gold Coast and renowned for the gold carvings of its tribes. The Europeans arrived here in the 15th century looking for precious metals and ivory but soon found the trade in human slaves more lucrative instead. This evil trade began when the Portuguese brought fifteen young African men to Portugal to train as priests. These trainees also worked in the fields and mines in order to pay for their upkeep. They worked too hard, which convinced the Portuguese that these young men were better kept as slaves than to be trained as priests.

And so began the trade in human in West Africa which during its entire course from 15th to 19th century, an estimated 15 to 25 million Africans were shipped to the Americas, Caribbean and Europe. For every slave that reached the New World, another died in the long ship journey, either from disease and illness suffered in the crowded, ill-ventilated ship hold. There were others who jumped overbroad to escape from the misery of having fallen into slavery.

From Accra, Ghana’s capital, we explored Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, two of the 50 castles built by European slaving powers, including the UK, Portugal, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia-Brandenburg. Yes – even the nowadays do-good-do-no-evil Scandinavians were slave traders – the Caribbean US Virgin island of St Thomas I visited last year was once a Danish slave centre. Captives were taken by African slave-traders, often from war, raids, or even direct from debt courts, marched many weeks through deserts, savannah or tropical jungles to the coast, where they were sold to European traders in these fortresses. The slaves were kept in pathetic conditions in dungeons, where fasces and vomit piled as high as half a meter on the dungeon floor, until the slave ship came to bring them to the New World, through a low door known as the Door of No Return.

It is also interesting to note that people of those days had used the bible to justify slavery, just as they used the bible to justify racial segregation in the American South and Apartheid in South Africa, and as some continue to justify homophobia and discrimination against sexual minorities in many countries. This, to me, is no different from Islamic fundamentalists who use obscure sections of the Quran to justify killing of the innocent in their eternal jihad to turn the world Muslim. People everywhere must be alert of fundamentalists of all kinds and defend secular nature of their countries and societies.

Coconut palms swayed to the Atlantic breeze, with white sandy beaches and picturesque fishing boats in the foreground. This idyllic scene masked the atrocious deeds that went on in these monumental castles during that cruel era. These castles must be terribly haunted, and indeed, it was said that Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, often had sleepless nights in the government headquarters at former Danish trading fort, Christianborg Castle (now Osu Castle), due to strange noises in the rooms and frightened barks of his pet dog.

---

Ghana was the first of the English-speaking states to gain independence from Britain and at that time in 1957, held greater promise due to its relatively high literacy rate, fertile soil and abundant gold and other minerals. However, Kwame Nkrumah, its charismatic first leader, was more interested in the rhetoric of “Nkrumahism”, African liberation, Pan-Africanism, African unification, Non-aligned Movement and other lofty ideas than the more mundane and perhaps boring stuff of building a new nation and developing its economy. Before long, misguided socialism, corruption and mismanagement bankrupted the country, and Nkrumah himself was overthrown by the military in 1966. Mobs ransacked the capital and decapitated Nkrumah’s bronze statue in Accra.

Ghana then came under a series of military rulers, one more corrupt than the rest. Even the two decade rule by Jerry Rawlings, a charismatic half-Scottish air force pilot who staged not one but two coups and gained popularity by execution of a few past military rulers, was riddled by corruption and severe economic decline especially after Rawlings implementation of populist left wing policies. The country only began to grow again after drastic policy reversals following directives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Rawlings’ rule was also marked by massive human rights abuses. Brandon, our taxi driver for a few days, said, “I will never forget the killing of my aunt, who was beaten to death when Rawlings’ soldiers found a spare tire and accused her of smuggling and hoarding goods. They killed many people and yet they still walk around freely.”

Since 2000, Ghana has been governed by President Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party, after defeating Rawlings’ nominated successor. The country has been growing rapidly by African standards and has once again become the poster boy of growth and prosperity.

The Ghanaian people are friendly and easy-going. Brandon claimed that the Ghanaians are the friendliest of the West Africans. Referring to the people of the French-speaking African countries, Brandon said, “The French are rude, nasty and cheats. They would lie and take everything from you if you are not careful.” But he reserved his worst criticisms for the Nigerians, “They are all criminals. They would pretend to be nice and then murder you. They rob Ghanaians who visit Nigeria, and also rob Ghanaians when they (the Nigerians) visit Ghana. Beware of them!” Sounds like an Eastern European describing his neighbours – They all hate one another!

Ghana is a poor country. Quite a few people had asked for tips and bribes albeit in a friendly, subdued manner. In fact, the immigration officer I met when I arrived in Accra Airport was the first of the lot, when he asked for “something to buy a coca cola.” I gave him US$1. And as I departed from Ghana a week later at Accra Airport, another immigration officer asked for a bribe too, to which I feigned ignorance and he merely smiled and returned me my passport.

While visiting some of Ghana’s impressive castles, we also took enormous pains applying for visas for neighbouring African countries, and after paying a fair amount of exorbitant visa fees as well as bribes (AGAIN!), secured visas for Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We had to bribe one particular embassy TWICE before the visa was issued! Now I understand why Africa is the world’s most backward region and why many African states are poorer than they were at independence, whilst other developing nations in Asia and Latin America have moved far ahead in the last five decades.

---

We arrived in a Ghana hot with football fever. The country was hosting the African Nations Cup. All the downtown hotels had doubled their prices and were completely full. We had to stay in the dusty suburb of Darkuman in North Accra, where lively rap music blared through nearby tin-roof sheds and huts. For me, merely weeks after a Caribbean trip, I found the mood and atmosphere, even the accent of the Ghanaians, surprisingly Caribbean. “No, it’s the Caribbean that feels West African,” said Gordon. He is right. The Afro-Caribbean people are descendants of slaves brought over from West Africa, and they had brought with them the cuisine, music, dances, dialects and religions of West Africa, mixed them all up, and sprinkled them with bits of European and Amerindian culture. The end result is the exotic, explosive baroque of the Caribbean.

---

Accra is a medium sized city of 2.5 million people, yet its atrociously gridlocked traffic made it felt like a city of 12.5 million with traffic problems of mega proportions. Years of poor or perhaps non-existent urban planning made road travel not only in Accra, but Ghana in general, unbearable. Accra does not feel like a city at all – it looks more like a sprawling collection of one-storey buildings, tin sheds and huts all coated with layers of brownish-red dust and spread far into the horizon. Streets were narrow and sometimes unpaved, and miles of vehicles were often stuck at poorly designed road junctions. Downtown Accra was very pedestrian-unfriendly. Buildings were built far apart, with little shelter from the oppressive sun and humidity. It was like a tropical New Delhi minus the monuments and the shopping experience of Connaught Square.

We also visited the village of Teshie, famous for its amazing coffin designs. The local Ga people made coffins which are often related to the deceased’s occupation or aspirations. For instance, a fisherman’s coffin would be in the shape of a fish, and a boatman’s coffin in the shape of a boat. Apparently, all this began when a local man dreamed of his just-deceased aunt who asked him to build a beautiful coffin for her, and thus began a whole new custom`and cottage industry. Today, the coffin craftsmen of Teshie not only made coffins for the local villagers, but also for museums and collectors overseas, that display samples of this amazing living art in their galleries.

---

Cote d’Ivoire, where I arrived yesterday, was once a West African miracle story due to an abundance of cocoa and some petroleum, but succumbed to coup d’etats and subsequent civil war after 1999, mainly a racially driven struggle between the Muslim north and Christian/animist south of the country. The country has since been divided into two with government forces controlling the southern half and rebel forces the north. Peace talks have been taking place with intermittent fighting.The latest peace agreement was signed in March 2007 as a result of which 36 year old rebel leader Soro became prime minister of a government of National Unity. It remains to be seen if peace will hold in the long term.

Unstable politics and years of civil war aside, coming from Ghana, Abidjan appears to be a shockingly modern city, with skyscrapers and relatively clean streets. Even its airport looks stunningly French and modern, and its immigration officers, unusually uncorrupt by African standards, had not suggested that we pay bribes. The six-lane highway from the airport to the city centre was initially lined with coconut palms and later huge hypermarts and skyscrapers. This was a dramatic contrast to the messiness and horrendous traffic of embarrassingly unplanned Accra, which was a dusty, dirty huge village masquerading as a capital city.

Even then, like any country with a failed economy and unstable politics, young men loitered around in downtown Abidjan, touting for various errands and assorted goods. Abidjan is notorious for the lack of safety. We splurged to stay at an international chain hotel in the CBD of Abidjan, where a night cost as much as what we spent for one week’s accommodation in Accra plus dinner every night at that place.

On Friday night, we will fly to Monrovia, capital of Liberia, notorious for its brutal 14 years’ civil war which only ended in 2003. This bitter conflict, like that of nearby Sierra Leone, was largely driven by the greed to control the nation’s diamond mines, hence the term and movie “Blood Diamond”. From Monrovia, we will go on to Sierra Leone and then Guinea.

OK, that’s the state of affairs in brief. Wish me LOTS of luck as I travel through West Africa’s Blood Diamond lands and other failed states.


Regards,

Wee Cheng

No comments: