JOSTLING LABYRINTHINE CANOPY
A friend of mine decided to visit a traditional healer in order to remedy an unexplained pain in her finger after conventional medication and clinical diagnosis had not worked. Fascinated, I came with her and some knowledgeable companions to see the healer, who lived in a small isolated community near the village of Anyama. We got to the community at the end of a long and bumpy drive along a pot-holed mud-path. The community was four mud-huts and a large storage shed on top of which gathered hundreds of jostling pigeons and doves, and under which were four wooden chairs on which we sat as we waited for patient and doctor to conclude their meeting. An enormous woman from time to time wandered in and out of the huts with large saucepans looking like mugs in her hands. She stepped daintily around sleeping dogs and cats as she prepared the food. After an hour, patient and doctor came out and shook hands. We got back into the car to go shopping for the prescribed herbs. It turned out that the doctor had warned her that someone, jealous of what she perceived to be her success, seemed to have put a curse on her.
I could not easily have accomplished this trip on my own, as it next featured a wander around the labyrinthine and infernal Abobo market with my asymmetric shopping list – powdered baobab to make baobab juice, ginger, hibiscus flowers to make bissap juice, sweet potatoes, fresh coriander and turmeric, tea towels and a bathmat. My friends added their list: two cow’s feet, two sacks of charcoal, potato leaves and placali (fermented cassava paste). I leave to your imagination how the butcher prepared the cow’s feet.
Stade Ivoirienne, Ebimpe, Cote d’Ivoire, August 2019
On the way back, we passed the site of the new Olympic stadium, rising in glory from scrubland in Ebimpe, and I felt a rush of adrenaline just looking at it (see masthead photo). The building is a stunning sight. I understood how it must feel to be an architect to see a vision become real. My companions said it made them proud to be Ivorian. I understood what they meant, but I have that quasi-patriotic feeling only when I visit Stonehenge or Avebury.
Traditional pharmacy in Abobo, August 2019
It looks like our house in the Alsace is to be sold within weeks (a compromis de vente has now been signed with Swiss purchasers) and with it will end our fifteen-year stay in the Sundgau/Alsace which began when I started working at Syngenta in Basel. That job came to a bitter end in 2012 and from then I had to find jobs wherever and whenever they were offered. It has been this search that latterly took me to the Cote d’Ivoire and has kept me here for three years while Alli has had to cope almost on her own with selling the house and other administrative challenges. The departure of our children to work or study in the UK has convinced us that we had to move back. Work alone dictates where I shall live after this November.
The warning that I would lose considerable holiday entitlement unless I took five days off before the end of August propelled me to devise a mid-month trip to Ghana in an 9-day period that spanned no less than three public holidays, including one Christian and one Muslim. After rejecting the flight option as extortionate, I decided to cross the frontier as a foot passenger and take a bus (known in Cote d’Ivoire as a gbaka and in Ghana as a tro-tro) which cost the equivalent of just ten US dollars for the whole 350 kilometer trip. I am very glad I did. After being helped across the border by a public-spirited Ivorian who made sure I went to all the right places and produced all the right documents, not only did the six-hour bus journey seem to pass quite quickly but I had a front seat to the sights and sounds of Ghana from east to west. I was almost sorry that the journey had to end, although admittedly the hard seat had started to challenge my natural poise. Whenever we stopped, the bus was besieged by women selling snacks from the top of their heads. On the way I wolfed down roasted groundnuts and baked plantains, cassava cakes, corn cobs, and ginger juice. After a long arrival through a serious traffic jam in the Accra suburbs I spent the first night at a nondescript but expensive hotel in central Accra. I did some work the next morning, then visited the huge Balako market and the Arts Centre, a souvenir marketplace full of hostile and aggressive traders. I left somewhat irritated and started to plan my way back to the Cape Coast.
My first visit was to Elmina Castle, the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa, built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a trade settlement, and captured by the Dutch in 1637, by which time the transatlantic slave trade had already become well established. In post-abolition 1872 the Dutch ceded the castle to the British, who used it for colonial administration and police training until Ghana became the first African colony to gain independence, on 6 March 1957 (fun fact – the very day I was born). It is difficult to find the right words for my experience at Elmina and what I learned from the guide. For nearly 400 years the castle traded slaves, maximum 1000 at a time (600 male, 400 female) who were shipped off every few weeks to the Americas after being packed tight into poky and foul dungeons. Those for the women were particularly crowded, dark and damp. Sexual violence was routine. In the evenings the women would be paraded in a closed but roofless courtyard. Some of them were manacled to cannonballs, and the governor would assess them all from a balcony in order to choose those he would direct to have stripped, washed, and brought to him to be raped.
There was also a Catholic chapel within the castle, the first such in Africa, built by the Portuguese, where these Christians, as administrators, soldiers or clerics, professed their love of God while perpetrating or witnessing these crimes against their fellow human beings. The Dutch deconsecrated the chapel and ditched the icons but not the practice. A guide reminded me of the unnecessary detail that Africans too bore their part in the shame by repeatedly selling the captives won in their inter-tribal wars to be included in the evil exports. Elmina is one of several slave castles on the Ghanaian coast, and there are many other sites of shame all over Africa, most with a similar basic horror story. The centuries-long history of slavery must be the worst ever collective crime committed by humans against each other. I came out of the castle unable to speak.
Lionel on the ropes on the canopy walk in Kakoum Forest, Ghana
The rest of my mini-break was easier. I terrified myself on the famous but frankly ropey canopy walk in Ghana’s Kakoum virgin forest; was shocked by the jetsam of used clothes washed up along Ghana’s more picturesque beaches; and hung out in the ultra-cool quasi-Caribbean district of Cape Coast at the Oasis Beach, eating porridge breakfasts and vegan dinners and drinking good beer. For once I had the time and space I needed to read and write copiously. I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion and started The Looting Machine by Andrew Burgis. I wrote articles and blogs to support my new determination to talk less and write more about the problems facing Africa (some of these are linked below). I also started to use Twitter more and have been mortified by the willful, relentless and cynical destruction of the United Kingdom by its shameful new infant-leaders and acolytes. I stood as a Conservative candidate at the European elections of 1994 and realised in so doing that the European cause there was lost. I now fervently and sincerely hope the Conservative Party is smashed to pieces at the next election. I am so glad that my father, Conservative MP between 1970 and 1992, never had the possibility of knowing that such barbarism from the party and its members now grips my country, its democracy and its future by the throat.
Yours in political despair,