Kingsley Holgate’s latest bushnote from Ghana:
At the top of the escarpment road that winds down into the Volta river valley, a perplexing sign reads ‘Remain Bottom’. Quite pertinent, I thought, given the state of my bottom after last night’s staple of Red-Red bean stew, ‘fufu’ and plantains fried in palm-nut oil. It takes slow-down hand signals from a mango seller, a few hairpin bends and the wreck of a crashed lorry for us to realise that ‘Remain Bottom’ here in Ghana means ‘engage low gear’.
We’re feeling the pace of the journey and the on-going heat of the Harmattan haze. We eat golden fried tilapia, washed down with local Kasapreko gin and sleep on the banks of the Volta. It’s a challenging evening: an ear-ringing, fierce cacophony of croaking frogs and the early Sunday morning cracked-loudspeaker rantings of a local padre incessantly chanting ‘Praise the Lord – Hallelujah – Amen!’ with attendant keyboard, drums and reggae guitar, has us up early and racing for Akosombo, where the imposing 114m-high dam wall holds back the Volta to form an 8 502Km² lake – nearly 3 000Km² larger than Kariba. Lake Volta accounts for 3.6% of Ghana’s surface area and is said to be the largest man-made lake in the world. But sadly – unlike Kariba – no elephants at sunset.
In previous times and before the dam wall, the gorge provided safety to the Akwamu people, who farmed and fished here relatively undisturbed during the centuries when the Ghanaian interior was ravaged by the coastal slave trade. Today, a sign warns us not to urinate here as we cross the arched metal Adomi bridge, where hawkers sell river shrimps on skewers and dugouts move slowly across the wide river, which rises in distant Burkina Faso and once freed by the sluice gates of Akosombo, flow on to a beautiful stretch of Gulf of Guinea coastline, close to the border with Togo.
The Landy Disco doesn’t miss a beat as we head for Ho (former capital of British Togoland and now part of Ghana), then take a road less travelled to a border post that doesn’t appear on our maps or GPS, but locals tell us, “Sure – you can cross.” We’re the only vehicle: the officials seem delighted at having something to do – their small TV blaring ongoing news of the new President’s inauguration. Bang! Down goes the Ghana exit stamp. Under a mango tree we change Ghanaian Cedis to CFAs and bounce and roll through a dusty no-man’s land. A piece of string with red rags marks our entrance to Togo, where a shack serves as Customs and Immigration and English changes to French. A man on a moped leads us to the closest town to get our ‘Laissez-Passer’ – the vehicle paper that gets us through police roadblocks and down to Lomé – the capital.
SA Rands don’t stretch too far in Francophone West Africa so we sleep in a backstreet fleapit and breakfast is ‘petit dejeuner’ – French for ‘no bacon and eggs’. Dodging swarms of motorbike-taxis, we head past the crowded Grande Marché and east along the 56Km Togolese coast line.
It’s memory lane to a time when in Landys, we followed the outline of Africa through 33 countries and 449 days and in a book called ‘Despatches from the Outside Edge’ wrote these words about the Akodésséwa Voodoo Fetish Market in Lomé: “Voodoo charms are everywhere: dried lizards, chameleons, dog heads, elephant feet, dead owls, porcupine quills, sitatunga hooves, baboon and hyena skulls, dried cat heads and bits of leopard skin. Not good for conservation – but people believe there’s powerful ‘muti’ here and customers come from as far afield as Gabon, the DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Ghana and Nigeria.” We’d bought a clay-sculpted, white-chalk-dusted Voodoo protection fetish and glued it to the dashboard of one of the Defenders: it worked – people shat themselves when they saw it and we lost nothing.
But there’s no time to stop: as part of this journey called ‘Castles, Slaves, Voodoo and the Gate of No Return’, we’re racing for Benin and the Voodoo Festival in Ouidah. Bon Courage! We’ll keep you posted…
Words and photos: Kingsley Holgate Foundation