Just like the three musketeers and D’Artagnan with their motto “One for all and all for one” there are four of us in West Africa: our driver, common sense and pathfinder Justice, Oskars who oftentimes gets called millionaire by the Latvian mass media as if that was a profession or craftsmanship, the math teacher Jeff who saved me from an attack of wild dogs last year in Cape Coast, and I. We make up a very balanced team, not unified by a noble cause or other nonsense so popular in literature. We have joined forces for one purpose only – to drive around Ghana and explore lesser known regions near the country’s border with Burkinafaso, Ivory Coast and Togo.
In the beginning of January West Africa is hit by the dry season (harmattan), the air is dusty with the Saharan sand and the temperature fluctuates between 33-35C. Which is why, when there, I occasionally struggle with the question – what am I doing here? Especially persistently the question attacks me at night, when I sleep in an overheated bamboo hut near the ocean and am forced to listen to the disco beats from the nearby neighbour. I wake with the rustling sounds of ocean waves – they are so loud that the ocean seems to be on the verge of swallowing me up with the hut to follow. A swim to replace the shower. The water is so warm that I have no wish to go back ashore. But I have to, we have agreed to walk to the nearby village to do some fish shopping for dinner. When there, we give the idea up quickly enough, since the pollution so very visible all around is simply too overwhelming. Instead we listen to the Sunday gospels and return to our base camp. Another refreshing swim and we leave for an oceanside hike, this time in the other direction.
Initially the trail leads uphill where our pathfinder spots a chocolate coloured snake. Realising that I have missed its appearance, Justice dashes off on an enthusiastic chase to catch it and bring it back to me for proper inspection. Only after repeated and insistent pleas he discontinues the pursuit of the reptilian. Once at the summit, we visit a farm where I am introduced to the full production and post-production cycle of the most famous alcoholic drink in Africa – the palm wine. At first the palm is dug out and the trunk is left to ferment for a week. Then the trunk gets heated up to gather the fermented juices. Prior to distillation the juice is fermented again for about three weeks. The final product or the distilled palm wine is called akpeteshie in Ghana. The local bars have set its price at approximately 1.5 euros per 1 litre bottle (beer costs around 1 euro), and its strength can reach an impressive 70% alcohol by volume. This is by far the most popular drink among locals. The production process results in an additional gain – the palm weevils – huge caterpillars that reside in the palm stems and according to our black brothers are considered a delicacy beyond words.
From the farm we follow on to Butre, a tiny fishing village with a bridge that inspires no confidence. The bridge has stood there for decades and reminds me of Kafka’s story “The Bridge”. I have been to Butre times and again but have never visited its fort abandoned by the colonizers. To avoid straying off the route in the jungle I ask for directions in the village. A bunch of kids volunteer to find the path for me. Hurried along with their “come, come” and “please” I almost break into a run and in no time arrive at a slumbering grandpa who takes his time to register my visit in a grease-covered notebook and sells me an entrance ticket. Ticket in hand, we run off again and expediently reach the hilltop with the fort, stopping only to pinch a few small, green bananas. The boys watch me shyly and pilfer handfuls and handfuls of bananas. But, blessed be their generosity, they give me a few as well. The visit inside the fort proceeds at the well established pace of half-run. The key objects of interest are pointed out to me with the unchanging “come, come” and “please”, and there is a certain pride in them when they show me the best climbing spots and secret passageways – just like the ones that we used to love so much in our childhood. Then it is time for an introduction to photography. The boys attempt to play the age-old trick so efficient on “green” white people – they invite me to take photos of them afterwards demanding money. Instead, I give them my camera and invite them to take photos at leisure of whoever and whatever they find interesting. Astonished and amazed they end up taking no snapshots at all, it’s only the camera settings that exhibit their impact later on. In recognition of this weirdly benevolent gesture of mine I get a high five from each one of the smiling rascals.
It is not because of the ocean that I am here, in Ghana, for a third time. Much more than by palm trees and beaches my interest is piqued by gold and its mining processes. I find myself in a true klondike, there are gold miners, illegal buyers, legal and illegal mines, “fool’s gold”, huge tractors and, of course, the Chinese.
Meanwhile, I have to locate a pair of rubber boots to protect me from snakes that, I hear, are frequently present on the way to the mines. Gold mines. There are many of those in Ghana, and they say that there is a lot of gold as well. I cannot know for sure, the gold for now is more present in the conversations than for real.
Prestea, the gold capital of Ghana is wrapped in a reddish brown dust cloud, even the plants have changed their colour. Prior to my trip I read a stack of books about it, watched numerous youtube videos and conducted a few exploratory interviews. Still, I had never imagined that anything like this would still be possible and present in this advanced year of 2020. For environment protection purposes the artisanal small scale gold mining or galamsey as it is called in Ghana was prohibited three years ago. The president attempts to fight this phenomenon by involving the army. I am fairly sceptical about this. I presume it much more likely that he tries to secure his own share of the yield from this collective insanity, since gold mining is present in Ghana under every bush out of the sight from the major highways.
In fear of army raiding, the miners disperse upon the sight of us, strangers. However, using a local go-between, we get to know each other and soon enough they reappear and take pride in showing off their craftsmanship, explain the mining technologies and pose for photos. Frequently they even insist on their photos taken, exhibiting their enviable physical shape.
Today I will test my acting skills by posing as a potential investor to the village chief to be allowed to enter gold mines. My intent is to investigate the mining process, modern slavery and the damage incurred to the landscape, people and nature.
Prestea is a partially closed city, and to enter or leave it you must pass police road blocks. Policemen inquire about the purpose of the visit and only after having fooled them in this respect, do we get permission to enter the Klondike of Ghana.
Modern slavery – I am not certian that this term applies in this situation, since all the miners enter the gold mines of their own free will. However, most of them have never attended school and have been involved in gold mining since childhood, since hereabouts there are no other possibilities to earn the living. Moreover, this industry ensures a much higher income than, say, agriculture. According to our companion, 40-60% of grownups in Ghana are illiterate. The ratio is a bit lower among children, but even there the illiteracy rate is a 2 digit number.
I post the pictures and leave you to be the judge of the working conditions in the gold mines. Just let me add that the most terrible conditions are experienced by the miners who work in the mine shafts 80-120 m underground, in constant heat and dust. The miners I meet keep inviting me to descend the shafts but I politely decline, especially since I harbour no illusions as to the safety standards there.
The damage inflicted to the landscape, nature and people is enormous and very obvious. In the key gold mining regions the digs for a bit of gold are omnipresent everywhere (not even to talk about the big sites with massive topsoil removal). Somebody had even attempted to dig for gold in the school sports grounds in Prestea. This can be partly explained by the fact that the search for gold takes place without any geological trials (as the Ghanians say: geology is expensive), which is why one digs anywhere. For this purpose geologists are much surpassed in popularity by the local sorcerers. Well-paid, they are ready to perform various rites and animal sacrifice rituals to ensure a sufficiently high presence of gold in the rock composition for the gold mining to be worth it.
Several times I witnessed how the gold sand panning is finished off by adding mercury. It is swished around the pan without any protective gear, barehanded, to accumulate the tiny particles of gold. Part of the mercury is then collected and used repeatedly, but a part of it most definitely ends up in the environment together with the panned sand. Mercury is a favourite with the illegal miners, while the industrial gold mining companies use cyanide and other hazardous chemicals that are similarly dangerous, especially if not treated with care. Quite often the chemicals end up in the soil, rivers and lakes (gold panning requires water), poisoning everything within a radius of tens of kilometres, and contaminating the potable water in the villages. Frequently the gain of the day is but a few grams of gold acquired by panning through several cubic metres of sand.
Meanwhile praise be to the internet and smartphones that provide the gold miners with uptodate and precise information on the gold prices in the London Stock Exchange. Consequently the daily scoop is sold at the most current price.
After all of this, we buy a bottle of home-brew and drink it in silence. There is no other way to digest it.
The sun has hardly risen above the horizon, it is still pleasantly cool outside and we depart for savannah. The air smells of hay and strange herbs, at times – of animal dung. We investigate the dung with a passion characteristic of boy scouts, identifying its potential origin and age, to find out what animals roam the present territory. Rustling dry leaves betray the animal hideouts. First we spot a huge troop of baboons up on the slope. Ignoring us they pass by no further than 10-20 metres away. Soon afterwards we notice antelopes, they startle and dash off as soon as they catch the sound of us. In hopes of meeting the African bush elephants we head towards a fairly large waterhole. It is too early for the elephants, but the waters fail to completely cover up a sneaky bask of crocodiles. The ranger warns us against approaching the waterhole if we want to meet the elephants and adds, tongue-in-cheek, that the crocodiles might develop a taste of Latvian meat, so far untried yet. We roam the savannah for a few hours. At times it reminds me of an autumnal Latvia, except for the balmy air. Finally we are in luck and we stumble upon the purpose of the quest – a young elephant bull. Following him we come upon 2 other elephants. Meeting each other, they trumpet scarily and cover each other in sand, then wade into water and bathe there for a few hours. I once read on the internet that the Mole National Park offers the cheapest safaris ever (3.5 euros for a 2-3 hour hike). The price as such is undoubtedly an attractive aspect of this activity, but what I love so much more is the possibility to look into the eyes of Africa here. To be in immediate contact with nature, instead of rattling along in a cross country vehicle and trying your best to spot anything in the bushes.
Children dressed in colourful uniforms, among them some very small indeed, head towards school and there is a moment of silence in the villages. Not all children attend school, some are engaged in shops and sales and perform other tasks, called “learning the trade” here.
In Africa marketplaces tend to be much more interesting than museums, which is why today our destination is Kejetia – the market of Kumasi, the second largest city of Ghana. Kejetia Market is the largest in the whole of Ghana. It has established itself on the remains of the British bilt railroad. The trains have long since stopped running here, and the rails are now used by buyers and sellers who often carry bundles of enormous size and weight on their heads. The market is a huge labyrinth, and anything, be it legal and illegal, is on sale here. I am specifically interested in the wares offered for the rituals of voodoo or as locals call it – juju. There is no lack of these here. The sellers have openly displayed their wares for sale: arrows, needles, wooden voodoo dolls, rings, knives, whips, many and various dried animals (including protected ones) and their parts. For example, according to the sellers a hedgehog coat averts the danger of being stabbed by a knife, while a smelly dried chameleon brings blessing to the household. I also saw a dried crocodile, turtles, monkeys, bats, snakes and various parts of the elephant. Often enough the sellers were unable to explain what exact benefit is ensured by killing the specific animal, since it is in the hands of each village shaman to determine the purpose of application for these items.
Approximately 60% of the dried animals can be used to improve potency, followed by a slightly smaller share helpful in case of various pregnancy related issues. Meanwhile the displayed items of non-animal origin are mostly used in magic rituals to change the conduct of another person to your liking and benefit. Kumasi is a city composed of a Christian and a Muslim community, but when asked how these religions look upon the ongoing voodoo practice, the reply comes swiftly – “no problem at all”. The seller did admit though that Muslims seem to be better customers in this respect.
The stall owners are friendly, do not shy away from the camera and allow pictures of their wares. They also reply to my endless questions, possibly feeling well entertained by my wide-open eyes. Under circumstances where knowledge is limited and medicine – out of reach, for the West African society voodoo still plays a significant role in health care, not infrequently endangering the health and even life of the user.
To break up the long transfer we stop at every appealing village on the way. We talk to the locals, shop or take a few snapshots. In one of the villages we are mistaken for oil company representatives because of the sizable jeep we drive. There the replies are abrupt, the oil company has obviously intimidated the villagers: they do not believe that we are only here to experience the village life. We are brought to the village elderly who subject us to a first interrogation. Afterwards we have to meet the local requirement that the elderly be presented with a gift (should nothing useful be at hand, the alternative is money). From there we head on to the village chief’s “palace”. Though it sounds chic, in truth the palace is but a collection of clay huts at the outskirts of the village. After a bit of a wait a man of undefinable age arrives – he turns out to be the awaited village chief. Jeff represents us in the negotiations, since he is much more likely to speak one of the languages known also to the chief. We follow the process by eavesdropping from behind the door. In a few minutes a widely grinning Jeff returns to announce: “permission granted”. We are provided with an escort and an interpreter to get to know the village better. Though the villagers seem to be kind and amicable, there is a certain tension in the air. On every step we are accompanied by 30-40 nosy kids. They do seem to be genuinely intrigued by us, but they still look scared and the smallest even turn and run if we come too close.
Some of the villages with their rounded clay huts and straw roofs remind me of the animated film “Kirikou and the Sorceress”. Apparently you need four days to construct one of these clay huts, and then it serves you for the lengthy period of 10 years. All of the village lends a hand during the construction. Most of the damage to the huts is inflicted by goats who rub against their walls and scrape veritable dents there, at the lower part. The rainy season also plays its destructive role. Many villages have no electricity, apart from a few solar panels. Some, however, do have electricity and even TVs, and, as a rule, these also have a state-funded school in the vicinity.
In yet another village all the men are dressed in Ghanaian traditional smocks. Our Ghanaian friends request a stop there to go shopping for cheap agricultural produce of good quality. This village is a stark contrast to what we saw before: people are affable and cheerful, show us their village without us asking, and offer us to taste anything that is being cooked at the moment. In a few moments we become part of their community. We love being there so much that it is difficult to leave, but we still have 350km of road ahead of us. This kind of distance in Africa might present a challenge, especially to the driver. Meanwhile the passengers are burdened with the task of entertaining themselves. For this purpose I climb in the back of our pickup truck to film the red dust of the African roads, and quickly become an adept of the joys of such transportation means: the warm African breeze and the hellos and smiles from the passers-by could be loosely compared to the experience of the Pope riding in his popemobile. Even the policemen, in surprise, wave to the pale-faced figure in the back of the jeep. After some 100 km of driving this way, I am all dust-covered like a sandman.
ROAD AND DRIVING
Distances in Africa are huge, and the roads are often substandard. That means that plans need to be adjusted for an hour or two on top of the initial timing. After the dinner, we get into the car to drive to the hotel, but the jeep’s engine fails to respond. Justice who prior to this was showing off the jeep as his at every possibility and flirting with every girl at the petrol stations, suddenly is confused and runs around the car like a headless chicken, witlessly rumbling something to himself. It turns out that he has no idea whatsoever of the intricate working of this noble vehicle. Oskars and I quickly deduct that the battery must be the guilty party here. It is still hot after the day’s drive and the road ruts must have loosened the battery connection straps. The driver ransacks the whole vehicle but finds not a single useful tool, though before leaving Accra I did see him, tools in hand, inspecting the vehicle. The bartender lends us a hand and his set of wrenches. The straps get tightened but no result ensues. We need jumper cables (ironically, these in colloquial Latvian are called crocodiles – and we are in Paga now, so famous for its crocodile ponds). None of the similar vehicles parked nearby have the charger cables, as we quickly discover. The owner of a Toyota Jeep refuses to get involved in the operation ‘Save the White People’ citing car insurance restrictions. Luckily, the owner of a slightly older Toyota Jeep feels differently and drives up to our vehicle as close as possible.
Drumroll! Since there are still no jumper cables to be had, we turn to improvisation! Somewhere in the dark, the bartender has located two cables of different sizes, lengths and structures. I experience a brief moment of doubt as to whether it would be commendable to use these diverse copper and aluminium cables to jump start a car, but in the absence of any other viable alternative I am ready to experiment. Our black brothers repeatedly check and recheck the +|- markings, for some reason distrustful of the marking etched on the battery cover. The innovative solution is spot on and the engine starts!
The next morning we discover that overnight the battery has lost all of its power again and even unlocking the car presents us with difficulty. We call for a mechanic who arrives carrying a huge car battery on his moped. It is to be used to jump start our vehicle again so we can make it to the nearest city with shops of spare parts.
We find a respective stall in a rather sizable city, right amidst the hustle and bustle of its bus station and market. The air carries the loud beat of music characteristic of a European retro radio program, we are surrounded by goats, donkey carts and people carrying huge bundles on their heads. However, to locate a car battery salesman is one thing, quite a different one is to locate the exact battery type suitable for our vehicle. I cannot help noticing a POLO battery carrying a logo not unlike that of Polo Ralph Lauren trademark. Should I be on the lookout for Prada and Versace as well? I have a feeling of living within a film, far apart from my real life. Everything seems surreal. After this car repair experience I understand, though not for the first time, that in Africa you have to be prepared for all kinds of unexpected situations and for similarly unexpected solutions.
POLICE (what do you have for the boys)
Have you ever paid off police officers with a fiver? And what about a banana as the tender? I have. Picture this. We are on the way from the Wli waterfalls towards Accra when we get stopped by the police, because in a true African spirit Justice has not fastened his seat belt. A whole series of standard phrases are exchanged: “hello”, “I like your car” (all of the Ghanians seem to like our car, and in some villages the police even salute us in passing – I have no idea why), Then comes the key phrase: “what do you have for the boys”. Since I am of the firm opinion that I can find other use for my money, I have no plans of sharing it with the police and instead I offer them one of the freshly acquired bananas, causing an unprecedented surprise among the seasoned racketeers. Before they get their bearings I continue by declaring that I would be sad indeed if they should refuse my offering (mind you, it was a single banana, nothing more nothing less). What they do seem to grasp quickly is that a sad me might result in a smaller “gift”. The banana is graciously accepted and the extortion is about to be continued, but we are saved by the approach of the fourth member of the gang – a policewoman. I use the fact and start shaming them for excluding their only female colleague from this lucrative act of collective racketeering. We gradually transition into introductions and shaking hands. I keep on with several naive, borderline stupid questions about the insignia on their uniforms displaying perfect interest in those and we end up receiving the permit to continue.
The situation with the next road patrol is not that lucky; even though we laugh a lot I am still forced to part with 5 Cedi (slightly less than a euro) to be able to continue. Should you refuse to part with the money voluntarily, they always check your technical roadworthiness vignette and the presence of a full first aid kit and two roadside emergency triangles. There is always something missing in such an inspection, thus resulting in a fine, and the fine almost always exceeds the amount of the expected size of the initial ‘offering’.
THE GRAND FINALE
Last day of the expedition, last swim in the ocean, last ice cold beer, last careless conversations with strangers. After two weeks of wandering through the various African nature zones it feels exquisite to plunge into the warm oceanic waters, the occasional plastic bag around your feet notwithstanding. I sit watching the ocean and find it hard to believe that this adventure will be over in seven hours and I will return to Europe with its fundamentally different set of rules. Though life in Africa is far from well-organised, it allows for a certain primeval and very tempting freedom. Leaving all of this behind, I feel like I am reentering a golden cage, and that – of my own free will.
Translated by Dace Rubene