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Friday, 25 March 2011

Prostitutes, Slaves and Seamstresses

Sign above prison for condemned convicted guards and soldiers

This post is long overdue, but better this than blog written but project deadlines unmet. Last weekend began what I now think of as the Great Ghana Experience, and it included all characters from all three categories in the post's title.Thursday night is the new Friday in my opinion, and I like to celebrate with a toast to the week with Amanda. This Thursday we were lucky to be able to dine with a new friend and colleague I've met through CARE who happened to be in Accra to act as facilitator on a week-long training program. We met at the Shangri-la hotel, which is nothing like the chain hotels it shares a name with.

Bywel's bar

Outside near the large pool we sit in the outside dining area surrounded by packs of small, predatory cats. Their small size makes them more disconcerting if anything, as they look stunted and the hungrier for their petite forms. Around our legs they miaow at us whilst we eat our houmous and spring roll (!) combination of appetisers, as if they've never been fed. It's not the best advertisement for an eaterie, but the food at this strange mix of African, Chinese and western cultured hotel is actually not too bad, and it's great to have a chance to catch up with friends.

St George Castle, Cape Coast

Onwards at around 10 Amanda and I head to Bywel's, a bar I haven't heard of so far. We almost don't go as both of us are shattered from another week of hard work, but when we turn up we're glad that we did. An outdoor bar hidden among a quiet suburban street in Osu, Accra, Bywel's is a real den of iniquity, or probably would be, given half a chance. Loud Afro-beat and local music is played live by a menagerie of musicians, and before them on the small dance floor men and women of all ages and nationalities move their bodies to the casual rhythms. I'm struck by the prevalence of white middle aged men, and lovely black young women. And gradually I realise why this combination has more significance. I'm here to meet Vince, a friend of a friend from home. Unfortunately I have no idea what he looks like, he has no idea what I look like, and since I know he's "coming with friends at 10.30" I worry that 10.30 = 10.30 Ghana time. Which could pretty much be any time before the same time next week.

After my first embarrassing query of 'Are you Vince?' is met in the negative I try a different tack and start asking people for the time instead. When a German or French accent replies, I know I'm still no closer to finding Vince. And luckily these punters are much more interested in the females for hire than the random white woman who needs to buy a watch. I finally strike gold - literally - when I spot a man with a wedding ring and he turns out to be Vince, and we spend an hour or so soaking up the music, night sky and courtship (or courtesan) rituals around us. This bar doesn't care for high class glamour, cocktails or neon lights. (If you don't believe me, risk a visit to the women's toilet. Actually perhaps it's not worth it...) The music's loud, the beer's cold. The women are pretty and the chat is good. Cheers Accra.

Cape Coast from Prospect Place Hotel

On Friday Amanda and I have decided to head west for the weekend to the Cape Coast, another Ghana 'must-see'. This was the original capital of The Gold Coast, and its two main towns Cape Coast and Elmina are sites of former trading posts, first in goods and later human traffic. Getting out of Accra on a Friday night, with the incessant traffic seething down every narrow road, proves a challenge and we arrive around eight on Friday night after a three hour drive. Everywhere in Cape Coast town is open for business, though and we navigate through very narrow streets heaving with merchants and the locals selling, buying and chatting - seemingly all at the same time.

Our hotel Prospect Place lives up to its name, and in the morning when we rise early to start our sight seeing tour we can see Fort William on the hill ahead, one of a large number of look out posts in this part of Ghana, now used as a lighthouse. Cape Coast is quite hilly in general, good for spying the mix of corrugated iron roofs over the simple shacks, in among the sleeker cream-painted business buildings and the crumbling ruins of centuries past. As we head out of the town farther to the west, again the town is heaving at 8 in the morning as people go about their business - a boy brushes his teeth and spits into the sewer; a woman carries freshly smoked fish, beautifully arranged on a wide flat circular platter, on her head; children run among the cars, half dressed and women lay out their small market stalls side by side by side.

'London Bridge' in Cape Coast

First to Kakum national park to take on the canopy walk, some 40 metres above the rain forest. This was fun, even for someone as frightened of heights as me. Being hemmed in by the entwined ropes helped, and we were kept moving by the classes of uniformed school children waiting to follow us out. Not much wildlife to be seen. Apart from the children! But stunning to see the density of trees and shrubs humming in the heat of the day.

School traffic on the canopy walk

On from the green forest to the white walls of Elmina and St George Castle, our first experience of historical Ghana other than the museum. Learning the torture, rape and starvation slaves endured within the castles' walls was very harrowing, particularly at St George Castle, which was run by the British. Two thirds of the slaves being held prior to transportation died before they ever entered the 'Door of No Return' and the waiting boats. Through the door of no return only one slave could pass at a time, shackled with heavy chains to the others.

The female slaves who became pregnant after being raped by the guards at the castles were the luckier ones. In Elmina they often escaped transportation, and after giving birth in the town rather than in captivity, their children were raised locally and they became domestic slaves. Those in St George Castle also gave birth outside of the castle, but then were brought back to complete their original purpose as transported slaves.

At Kakum on the canopy walk

From the stark white walls and blazing heat we hit the road again early on Sunday and returned to Accra, just in time to avoid the traffic for one of the many popular football matches taking place at the stadium. Time for a long sleep before Monday's work came around once more, with the faint cries of thousands of football fanatics humming in the distance.

The door of no return, Elmina

I at last got around to buying fabric for more lovely clothes, made by Lydia, the local seamstress whose tiny purple hut is situated across the road from the CARE office. Lydia seems to work miracles with clothes. Not only did she produce stunning Ghanaian outfits for us, but she can copy clothes and make replicas in different fabrics for you, so I just couldn't say no. For 10 cedis (£4) you can have a brand new Reiss dress in a Ghanaian print, with the only additional cost of the fabric (about another £6-7!) BARGAIN! Hoping to post pictures in future posts when I've collected my new African wardrobe. Watch this space.

Lydia the dress maker and me with my shiniest forehead yet

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