Monday, 22 August 2011

Grass is greener

Ten days ago, the Off-Spring and I fled the London Riots, travelling to join Mr Springgirl in Accra, Ghana. A typically warm and friendly welcome awaited us as we landed at 4am in a deserted airport and a silent city. For the first time in the 13 years I have been visiting Ghana, the streets were empty, traffic was light and not a single person approached the car to offer wares for sale. It was disconcerting to be out and about and not have the opportunity to buy ones staples - toilet paper, chocolate, razors, car mats, peanuts, batteries, belts or DVDs - from the comfort of the vehicle... Thankfully the respite was shortlived and the teeming hustle and bustle of an African city was soon to be ours to explore.

And so began a wonderful and relaxing vacation.

This trip has offered, as it never fails to do, a fresh perspective on modern life. Ghana is a democratic and modern nation, rich in natural resources such as cocoa, gold, fruit, oil and natural gas. And yet despite the plenty that abounds and which ensures that the famine of East Africa is at most only the remotest of possibilities here, there is abject poverty too. This creates for me - an Australian - a confronting conundrum. For I come from a nation rich in natural resources too. My home is also hot and dry and teeming with friendly and welcoming souls. Yet, the similarities stop there.

Smarter and better informed minds than mine will no doubt have answers to my questions and solutions to the problems. All I can do is paint a picture with my words and convey, I hope, a sense of the richness of culture, the depth of community and the spirit of hospitality and humour that transcends daily life.

Imagine a place where everyone who greets you does so with a smiling: "You are welcome". Imagine reading psalms and theological wisdom on the back windows of dusty 20 year old vans (tro-tros) packed full of people, luggage, supplies for market and livestock. Contemplate a high street choked with honking taxis and hawkers all roasting together under an equatorial sun burnished with the aroma of fried fish and boiling palm oil melded with the heady scents of diesel oil, raw sewerage and salt air. This is Accra.

Five minutes from the melee is a tranquil oasis of green and bougainvillea blossoms where behind high walls, lush lawns are tended and German cars are polished, satellite tv is watched and the latest in modern convenience and comfort is enjoyed. This is Accra.

Meanwhile, in a village less than 50 miles from here, we were welcomed by the incumbent King and his Queen Mother and court. The Chief in his palace accepted our visit, arranged by our friend his cousin and explained the role of the chief. He described the ceremonial as well as day to day meaning of his post. Negotiator and lobbyist, philanthropist and judge, arbiter and father to his people. It was poignant for us used to a diet of Grazia and Tatler, The Telegraph and Hello, to see real royalty at work. The Off-Spring were a little concerned at the absence of chandeliers in the palace - a simple house and courtyard set back from the street. But the King sat on a carved wooden throne, wearing special cloth and surrounded by his advisors - his linguists, his philosopher, his wife. The warmth of their welcome and their interest and delight in meeting the visitors from Australia and London was unforgettable. The value placed on family, ancestors and tradition is clear. So too, the ties with the land, the ceremonies and key events of life (naming events, engagements, funerals, memorials). While all around there seems a hustle and bustle, a clog of cars and a thronging of people, there is also order and structure, process and protocol, purpose and productivity.

Against this backdrop of unwritten rules and modes of conduct, expats (and I too, now) joke about "Ghana time". This means come late, stay long, take your time. But it also means - in good time, in God's time and in a word - "chill".

Leaving a city torn apart by looting and rampaging thieves and muggers - albeit only briefly and in disparate areas - to come here, is a journey filled with irony. For here, living on a few dollars a day, dollars made through hard and hot labour, thousands still smile and hope for more. Not rioting for trainers and TVs. yet who would blame them if they turned to violence to secure running water, a toilet or a pension, or to protest for basic healthcare, immunisations or electricity. Church, family, prayer and the belief that "By God's Grace" all is well, seems, miraculously, to be enough. Which is not to suggest a simplicity or lack of sophistication. Ghana is a safe haven in West Africa and as such a beacon, an example and a destination in its own right.


But how is this of interest to you? Perhaps it is not...

Perhaps as a mere travelogue? If so, I will continue.

Mr Springgirl. on our arrival, typically likes to take us for a drive with the windows down to help us acclimatise to the smells and the humidity. The senses are assaulted all day in a way that they rarely are elsewhere. From the rooster crowing and the wind in the leaves to the burnt out and obsolete mufflers roaring on the dusty and potholed roads beneath the roar of departing planes flying over the house, we are confronted by noise. Bats squeak in the mango trees. I awaken to the sounds of switch brooms at work and the gardener clearing his throat - with vigour. While English is the official language, hundreds of dialects are spoken proficiently and fluently. The language is musical but to me, unlearnable, with idiomatic expressions that leave me staggered. For example, at Christmas the locals in what sounds like five words proffer a wish "that the year will go out and come back to greet you".

And that is just the sense of hearing.

Visually the strong contrast between the red dust and the dark green of the trees and the steely blue grey of the ocean is dramatic. There are no rolling patchwork hills here, nor azure seas or cornflower skies. Yet the haze belies lush plantations of bananas and palms, seaside coconuts and hills of cocoa. And the local tie dyed fabrics and woven kente cloth offer the fullest of spectrum for the eye to savour. Choosing a table cloth can take all morning such is the choice of pattern and colour.

Meanwhile the olfactory sense is taking its own beating. Not one to miss a day's exercise I was keen this trip to take to the streets to maintain my fitness (such as it is) - the weather being milder and more permissive. However, even if I could manage the absence of pavement and the constant beeping of taxis alerting me to their presence in the strongest of terms (white lady should not be running around the streets like this - here take a ride), I could not endure any real distance in the humidity. Even in the cool weeks it takes one's breath away. The sweat literally pours off one if attempting outdoor exercise in daylight! And the smells? Well, given one's own sweat production levels (ditch the Dukan diet and come here to detox, I say) and the more than occasional pedestrian relieving himself roadside, the freely grazing sheep and goats, the oozing gutters and scant supply of rubbish bins, one is assured of a very rich and "ripe" running (let's be honest, strolling) experience.

But it's not always so. Picking a pathway across a nearby field, over a small stream in which goodness knows what flows to the Atlantic, to watch a local sharecropper tend his rocket and spring onions, I enjoyed a brief diversion. Under a tree off the track was a small soiree of locals enjoying their own crop - one they could smoke. The citronella lanterns and candles offer a sweet respite and the ripe mangoes, pineapples and bananas at the Fruit Lady's stall never smell this good in Tesco (or Waitrose!).

The senses of taste and touch also get a good going over in Ghana. Tantalising tropical fruit, seafood galore and tomato and nut based stews abound. Anything savoury - from beans to rice - is laced with pepper. Though the newly arrived KFC chain may provide an alternative for the western palate... As an aside, the eldest Off-Spring is convinced all the chicken shops (the only non-local form of "fast food" here) portray the chooks looking terrifically, and indeed, unnaturally, happy as they march to the counter to be eaten.

I should also note that my skin has never looked better. The humidity seems to remove all trace of wrinkles and fine lines (my Ghanaian mother-in-law looked younger at 70 then I did when I first got off that plane all those years ago to meet her). The tropical formula DEET (mozzy cream) is working wonders on my limbs - very moisturising. Indeed, who would bother bringing cosmetics here at all, given one is covered in repellent all day for fear of malaria, even with the daily dose of anti-malarial. The mosquitoes are prolific and bite anything not covered, despite screens, nets and sprays.

My only complaint would be the dearth of book stores. Hardly a problem in this era of e-books though, as I discovered to my delight - the new Andrea Camilleri Montalbano Mystery is waiting for me on this very laptop at a fraction of what I would pay in Waterstones! And it took me coming to Ghana to give up the so-coveted tactile experience of reading an "actual" book.

Speaking of which, I have made good headway on my new novel. There is something about holidays in Ghana, but one always finds the time and space to think here. Could be the large garden full of hammocks and balls entertaining the Off-Spring, the charming husband and staff tending to the chores (freeing one from all domestic responsibility), or maybe there is something in the (non-potable) water...

I swear this is the only place to holiday. If only one could provide sanitation, health care and a basic wage for the population by doing so...

Failing that you might enjoy some of what Ghana has to showcase...

Trashy Bags
Global Mamas

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