Abroad Thoughts from Home

Yours trulyutside the Rain Forest Lodge

Well, now I’ve been back from Ghana for some weeks and have had time to reflect on my time there.

It’s taken me longer to get to this final installment than I had intended, but as usual, certain aspects of everyday life just got in the way. This has given me a little time to reflect and to get my impressions in some sort of order.

I can’t by any means claim to be an expert on the place after such a short time – Hell, I can’t claim to be an expert on the USA and I’ve lived here over ten years now. What’s more, I’ve tried deliberately to limit my research on the background of the things I saw in Ghana, so that I’m presenting my own impressions as a traveler, rather than some sort of guide book or text book. For the most part, I deliberately haven’t named restaurants and hotels, for example – rather I’ve tried to express a general (and more personal) impression. In the 21st century there are plenty of sites that will tell you about such things on the internet. I’ve added some links below for anyone who’s contemplating a visit.

With those boundaries in place, what did I think of Ghana?

I thought it was a fascinating place. The people were friendly, cheerful, and welcoming. Even those who didn’t fit this description were in no way hostile or threatening. One thing which I admired hugely about the country was that, although many people have very little, they were more likely to be singing praises for the good fortune in what they do have than moaning about their lot and what they don’t have. A lesson which many of us could take to heart sometimes. It seems to me though that this is the positive side of a coin, the other side of which is one of the country’s problems. People in general seem to take whatever life hands them without resentment or struggle. Phrases such as “God Willing”, or “By His mercy” are heard everywhere (even, as we’ve seen, in the names of the shops and enterprises). It’s not that this is a defeatist attitude, far from it – but in circumstances where many people would feel impelled to do something, to try to take matters into their own hands in however small a way, people just seem to accept their lot or perhaps to pray, rather than trying to make things better.

Ghana has a lot of advantages – it should be way more successful than it is. It has lots of people, many well-educated, it has a huge number of resources – mineral and agricultural, for example. Unlike some countries, the different tribes don’t seem to be hugely hostile to each other, they have a road system which is usable if not great, there's access to the Atlantic Ocean, the climate is livable, I could go on. What is getting in the way of their success? An opinion held by many locals is that there is a lack of leadership, specifically political leadership. Corruption also runs deep in the culture of the country, so that resources which could be doing something useful are instead lining pockets – by all accounts this is true at various levels, from the petty to the major. Maybe the problems of leadership and corruption will change with the relatively new government – certainly the local news was full of promises from the new people, and tales of money disappearing under the previous administration were rife.

But there is also a problem which It's difficult to put a name to – there is a general lack of organization, of follow-through. I previously mentioned “International“ clocks which had stopped, and the hole gouged through the lovely ceiling rose to add the wires for the lighting. These are not isolated instances. My impression is that many things are either not well planned-out in advance, or not followed through once the plan is designed. Hence the many unfinished buildings, for example. At the Kukum site, I encountered something which seemed to encapsulate exactly this type of problem.

The rainforest center did for once have public toilets. In the room was a notice on the wall (sorry for the poor quality of the picture, the light wasn’t working) – “Please put the tissue in the dustbin”. This was on a paper towel dispenser. That’s good, you might think. But there was no bin. And no towels.

I guess at the end of the day the common thread to many of these problems is a lack of organization.

So do I think you should visit Ghana? Well, I found it fascinating and I’m very glad I went – but I don’ t think it’s for everybody. The new government says that it’s going to be promoting Ghana as a tourist destination, which would of course bring them some much-needed revenue. But right now it’s not particularly tourist-friendly. Before they can attract the sort of tourists who spend noticeable amounts of money, there are a number of things which need some serious attention. The roads for a start – even in Accra, most of the roads are in poor condition, and there's little in the way of walkways. And out by Lake Bosomtwe, for example (which ought to be a prime tourist destination), they were appalling. I wouldn’t want to tackle them in the average hire car, especially at night.

Ghana ranks second in Africa for “OD” as it is known, that is Open Defecation, (i.e. people crapping on the ground wherever and whenever). The lack of public sanitary facilities is a way of life for the locals, and in places over 70% of homes have no sanitary facilities – but the average US or European tourist wants safe, hygenic, public restrooms and would be appalled by anything less. Wandering around just to see what you can see (which is one of my favourite pastimes when in a new place) is hampered by this problem – “where’s the nearest loo?” becomes a pressing question. For Ghanaians this “OD” is a problem for another reason – this is one of the causes of widespread typhoid fever and other diseases. Piles of poo = increase in disease. There are for example tens of thousands of cases of Cholera every year, and hundreds of deaths.

The litter problem too would put off people coming to see the sights – the sights are often obscured by mounds of rubbish. There is far too much rubbish just everywhere. I was going to say that the concept of recycling is unknown in Ghana, but when I think about it, that’s not right. Wherever the people think that something is still useful it will be cleaned, repaired, tarted up, and sold. There were shops selling nothing but reconditioned car exhausts, or tyres, or petrol-driven lawnmowers, or fridges, cookers, etc. If someone decided that the paper waste which abounds could be recycled and sold, the problem would disappear immediately. And if all the plastic bags and bottles could be recycled into some sort of plastic gravel for example then the road surface problem could be attacked at the same time.

Reasons not to visit Ghana would include being disabled in any way – it would be a nightmare to negotiate the streets of Accra, for example, if you were in a wheelchair, or blind. Also, if you’re gay, I suspect that not being too open about that would be an extremely good idea – attitudes here are not by any means modern and liberal on this.

There are other things that you have to accept if you visit: power cuts, water and gas running out, restaurants not having the foods you want, most food being mediocre, and other things.

Right now it’s a place to visit if you like to see new places and cultures, not if you want a relaxing stress-free holiday. (I’ve not said much about museums, monuments, and so forth which you can find out about from any travel site). There will be a few pictures when I add the galleries.

It is a place also where it can be difficult to find entertainment – in the capital there are apparently clubs and dance places, which I hear are pretty lively in the early hours of the morning, but they are not on the other hand places which a local woman could frequent and be considered “proper”. And they’re not by all accounts all that sophisiticated. Bars, or at least the ones that I visited, are very basic too. Many of the ones I didn’t visit are even more basic. Public parks are sparse, and have a litter problem again. I guess that tourism will be more likely if some of Ghana’s problems are tackled, and when touristy hotels are more common outside the capital, and perhaps some touristy resorts. I do think that such things would, ironically, take away some of the country’s charm and uniqueness though.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful sights to be seen, everything (well, almost everything) seems very inexpensive to US/European visitors, and the people are welcoming.

One last thing: I mention the History of Ghana. Several people have asked for more details on the book. It’s simply called “A History of Ghana”, and it’s by F K Buah. I have a paperback edition from Macmillan,. The first edition was published in 1980, and this edition is revised, from 1996. I don’t know if there have been any subsequent updates. As with any history book, you have to be aware of the author’s stance. I was unimpressed by the fact that, in the opening chapter “Prehistory”, the author seems to get the bronze age and the iron age the wrong way around, and then manages to wedge in a comment on the idea that the theory of evolution “cannot replace the Bible”. For the most part, the Asante seem to get a far more sympathetic treatment by the author than anyone else.

Well, that’s all on my journey to Ghana. I will be posting more about my future travels. I’ll also be adding one or more picture galleries both of some of the stuff I’ve talked about in these entries, and some touristy things that I didn’t go into. In the meanwhile, inspired by my own remarks at the beginning of this entry, I’m working on some thoughts about how the UK and US are “divided by a common language”, to quote George Bernard Shaw, which I’ll post when I’m happy with it. Add your name to the mailing list to be sure you get these updates when I make them. Someday I’ll have to tell you how I became George Bernard Shaw for a whole weekend…

Some sites for reading and for touristy information.... I'm sure you'll easily find many more.