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Distant neighbors: Vagrants in Ghana

Posted: September 7, 2013 - 11:02pm
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Elmina Castle, Ghana.                                 Photo by Philip Dierking
Photo by Philip Dierking
Elmina Castle, Ghana.

Y ou see, the problem is that you stamped your passport on the Togo side of the border, but not on the Ghana side. So it shows that you legally left Togo, but there is no proof that you legally entered Ghana…”

While the logic of Koffi, the border control agent, was accurate, it still interfered with our travel plans.

“I know what you’re saying, and we meant to stamp our passports, but it was confusing walking across the border and no one told us to do anything differently!” I tried to reason. “Also by the time we make the hour trip back to the border, then come back to Accra, it will be dark, and the roads won’t be safe!”

For the record, all of this was true: we didn’t mean to not get stamped, and it wasn’t until we hit a second border control an hour down the road that we realized our error. After being discovered and told to get out of the van, I tried my best to put on my charm with the cute young border agent who first caught us. However, I am apparently no James Bond, because we were then quickly ushered into the office of her boss. (Note to self: never try and flirt your way out of an illegal entry into a country.)

Koffi shifted uncomfortably in his seat, clearly conflicted with this ethical dilemma. He glanced down at the book he was reading when we were brought in, titled “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and took a deep breath.

“Okay, I can let you go,” he said finally after breathing out a huge sigh, “but just know if you get stopped by any customs agent or police, you may have problems.”

We thanked Koffi profusely, and as we got up to leave he asked: “By the way, what do you guys do?”

“I’m a lawyer,” responded my friend Charlyves.

“And I’m a teacher,” I added. “I teach English teachers in Togo.”

“Oh!” Koffi exclaimed, “Teaching is what I really want to do. But for now I’m trying to be a border agent.”

We stepped out into the warm Ghanaian sun, and were greeted by our bus driver and a couple passengers who had been waiting for us.

“Can you continue?” they asked.

I flashed them a grin and the thumbs-up sign, to which they clapped and shouted, “Oh! We were praying you would be able to come! Never make that mistake again!”

Most stories in the news concerning Africa love to highlight its struggles; and to be fair, there are many. However one country, Ghana, has managed to keep itself out of the instability which has consumed its neighbors and created a reputation for being in the news more for what it has been doing right, and bears a good resume to show for it. It has the fifth largest economy on the Sub-Saharan African continent, which is diversified among several markets, notably the coca production (second in the world), gold, and, since 2011, oil (estimated to be the 25th largest reserves in the world). In fact, the World Bank even ranked Ghana as a Lower-Middle Income Economy, a title shared by few other nations on the continent. Add to that a rich culture and important history in the slave trade and you find one interesting place to watch for in the future.

It was on this premise that Charlyves, my friend visiting from France, and I decided to poke our heads in and see what all the fuss was about.

Amazing Accra

Several hours after our apparently “illegal” entry into Ghana, we finally arrived in Accra, Ghana’s capital and invertible beating heart. Compared to my home in Togo, Accra could have been New York. Solid concrete roads carpeted every street, glittering new skyscrapers lined the downtown blocks, and two shiny shopping malls provided all the modern amenities a homesick expat ever could desire. It was really too much. However, while it was clear that Accra was the center of development in Ghana, it also had its fair share of other extremes: slums sat side to side with fancy neighborhoods, rich right by the poor. It was perhaps this contrast that was most jarring. In fact, we would soon see that once you leave Accra most of Ghana is not much more developed than any other West African country. Apparently, for all the attention Ghana is getting, it seems as though all the development only really happens in the capital. Regardless, Charlyves and I spent our time mostly wandering the streets and saying to ourselves “Wow, this sure looks different than Togo”.

Cape Coast

Charlyves folded his sleeve and stuck out his arm for the shot. However the nurse shook her head and patted her behind.

“Wait, what does that mean?” Charlyves asked me, slightly confused.

“Sorry man, I think you’re going to have to take this shot in the butt” I told him.

“Oh, putain!” he cursed under his breath in French as he undid his belt and walked behind the door.

To be fair, Charlyves had had a rough night. We arrived in Cape Coast from Accra that afternoon, and only hours after he came down with an intense fever, which, like any illness in Africa, is about as much fun as a root canal. Also the public Ghanaian hospital we were in wasn’t exactly a place to soothe your woes. Glancing around the room I counted about a dozen bloody bandages littering the floor, as well about 50 or so odd spiders and ants crawling along the walls. Just minutes before his shot, the nurse was actually trying to break the vial over the edge of a table instead of just inserting needle. We also experienced an old man passing away in a bed right next to us as we were waiting for the doctor.

“If I was sick before getting here” whimpered Charlyves, “I will be even worse by the time I leave!”

Slavery

Besides frequenting hospitals, we spent two days visiting the infamous Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, two of the largest slave trading posts during the height of slavery. Cape Coast in particular holds the distinction of being the principle exporter of slaves to the US, and the castle Obama visited during his 2008 trip to Ghana.

At times it’s truly amazing how horrible humans can be to each other. Slavery was a terrible era, which is not news to anyone. However I never realized what it looked like from the other side of the Atlantic. To be fair, slavery did not start with colonization. In fact most African tribes took slaves from other tribes for centuries. However the commercialization of slavery is what propelled it to new heights. While some European slavers went on their own raids, they more often “outsourced” to tribes already raiding villages and paid them to deliver their prisoners. Once in the Europeans’ possession, slaves were then packed one-to-two hundred at a time into tiny cells in the various slave castles sprinkled along the coast of West Africa.

“Now everyone, look down at the ground. Do you see how some parts of this cell floor ground are smoother than other parts? This area has been tested, and it was found that this ground is made up of urine, blood, and feces of former slaves. This layer of the prison is made of their bodies.”

This comment from our guide at Cape Coast Castle sent a shiver down my spine. When you hear words like “genocide” or “stoning” or “slavery,” you know that it’s terrible. However if you’re like me, it’s impossible to truly understand the gravity of such expressions until you look them (or the remains of them) in the face. I think that’s the best way to describe my reaction to the prisons. Walking on prison floors made from the waste of dead humans, seeing stone walls bearing claw marks from people dying from starvation and desperately trying to escape … well it leaves an impression.

Kakum National Park and cooking lessons

On a more uplifting note, we also went into Kakum National Park, where you can literally walk on top of the rainforest via a network of rope bridges strung up between the trees. It was fascinating, and made all the more entertaining by the 30-person American tourist group from Utah. Besides fitting every major tourist cliché, they spent the entire time chasing down their children who had no qualms sprinting from tree to tree, 120 feet above the ground. That evening, after Charlyves, still sick, passed out in the hotel room, I befriended a Ghanaian working at my hotel who invited me to her home to teach me how to make Ghanaian food. It was neat to see a traditional Ghanaian home, where the entire family basically lives in one big compound. I think her grandmother was a bit fond of me though, because she soon cornered me and made me chat with her for a good hour. (Another note to self: my charms apparently work much better on grandmothers than cute border agents.)

Eventually a trip needs to end, so Charlyves and I boarded a bus to head back. At the border we were greeted by less-than-enthusiastic border control agents, with whom we engaged in a lovely debate about how much to pay for a penalty (bribe) for not getting our passport stamped. Eventually we settled on $20 after the penalty (bribe) went from $15 to $50. Arriving at my home, tired and beat, we got to the door, only to discover we were locked out.

“It’s OK,” Charlyves said. “I actually find this quite a fitting end to the journey”.

Philip Dierking is a former Juneau resident. He is currently living in the West African country of Togo on a US State Department English Language Fellowship. He can be reached at:phil.dierking@gmail.com. This article represents his personal point of view and not that of the Dept. of State.

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