As you read this, please sneak a quick glance at the person sitting next to you. Is she elderly, going grey and looking stupefied? Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but I recently sat next to a young man on a flight to Ghana, and while pretending to watch a movie, I surreptitiously kept an eye on him as he read my column.
He laughed hysterically in all the right places, proclaiming the piece was the best thing since sliced bread. I wish. Admittedly his reaction wasn’t exactly like that, but after I owned up to being the author, he did a double take, insisting my photograph looked nothing like me. I blushed. How many of us, I wondered, use old snapshots of ourselves? Apparently, I’ve aged quite a lot in the last five years.
It was my first trip to the West African nation dubbed “the Gateway to Africa”, and it proved to be the perfect place to celebrate the 25th Unesco World Press Freedom Day conference in which I was participating. Ghana is ranked number one in Africa in the global press freedom index.
But you know how conferences are. While you while away the hours in fancy hotels, the closest you get to mixing with locals is asking the taxi driver what it’s like to live in his city. After three days, I’d ventured no more than the five minute walk from my five-star abode to the conference centre donning a “power suit” that looked more like a “power flop” by the time I arrived each morning in 35°C heat. Someone eventually took pity on me and handed over a pair of sandals so I could experience a “typical night out” in buzzing Oxford Street.
While not exactly as fancy as its namesake in London, to say the least, there are enough food joints in a one-mile radius to confuse one thoroughly. The fish was excellent, but my main complaint is that next time I’d prefer a restaurant with at least one working light bulb.
The sandals proved to be less of a godsend when I, and a group of journalists from the conference, decided at the last minute to book ourselves on a tour that promised all the country’s highlights in eight hours. I’ll put that down to a lesson well learnt… and never to be repeated.
When you’re in a minibus hurtling at 160km an hour as you try to keep up with a police escort and its screeching sirens through early morning Accra traffic, savouring the sights and sounds of Ghana suddenly seems less attractive. We spent more time on the wrong side of the road squeezed between on-coming traffic at said speed than we spent anywhere else. My travelling companions had covered wars in Iraq and Syria and the consensus was that it would be a shame to meet our fate on a supposedly relaxed trip to West Africa.
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There was also a second lesson: always read the itinerary. Visiting the Kakum rainforest is a lovely idea – but much better with closed shoes and mosquito spray. Established by locals, it is one of only three places in Africa with a 350m-long canopy walkway. The made-in-China and borrowed-in-Ghana sandals were not the ideal shoes in which to trek across seven treetops where I was shaking so severely the suspension bridges must have thought a baby hippopotamus had mistakenly stumbled onto them.
But by far the most important place we visited was a medieval castle, Elmina, on the coast of Ghana. One of about 40 “slave castles”, its white-washed walls were the last place thousands of African slaves saw in their homeland as they were dragged, chained and beaten, into the castle’s dungeons and awaiting ships. During 200 years of slavery, between 10-28 million people were taken from central and western Africa to the Americas and Brazil. May we never forget this terrible chapter in our history.