Over half term I was part of a group of Norfolk headteachers and teachers who visited schools in Ghana to share good practice. Here’s how it went.
We weren’t particularly impressed to see the driver superglueing the bus together before we set off. It was half past eight in the morning and the sun was already pounding down out of the cloudless African sky – 30 degrees at least and enough to send most of the party shuffling into the shade. We were standing outside our hotel in Accra, barely twelve hours after completing the six hour flight from Heathrow, and about to embark on another six hour journey, this time along the rough Ghanaian roads to the second city, Kumasi. A few minutes earlier we had watched our suitcases been strapped to the roof of the bus and then covered in a plastic sheet. It all looked a bit precarious.
In 1982, at the age of 15, I was taken on a school cricket tour. Our intrepid teacher, Mr Lake, loaded us into the school minibus and drove us (on his own) to Somerset where we played three or four fixtures during the week in places like Chard and Yeovil. It was great, but as we were driving back, my friend Simon Cook’s suitcase suddenly flew off the roof and landed on the A34 behind us. Second or third bounce, the case opened and the poor lad’s cricket whites and the rest of his clothes started flying around between the cars behind. I couldn’t help thinking back to that incident as I watched our driver clambering around on the roof last week. This wasn’t going to end well.
As if to add to the sense of concern, he then set about glueing down all the stray bits of plastic, rubber and chrome which were sticking out or hanging off. Perhaps he had knocked them with his feet when he climbed up. It wasn’t the strangest thing we saw that day.
The backstreets of Accra were teaming with people and it seemed to take hours to reach the outskirts and then, finally, the countryside. Sprawling shanty towns gave way to an ever-thickening jungle of palm trees and banana trees. Set amongst them were rough buildings made of wood or breeze blocks with corrugated iron rooves. They weren’t all people’s houses, some were business or shops, or churches or mosques. It seemed that many of these ramshackle buildings were sporting satellite dishes when their front doors opened on to bare earth. Many of these villages had mobile phone masts, and yet they also had a community water pump, usually in constant use by women with buckets and bowls. I suppose the question is, if you suddenly had access to everything the 21st century has to offer, in what order would you have it all? Would you have pavements first, or satellite TV? Running water or a mobile phone? We had all these things in a certain order thanks to our forefathers, but that doesn’t mean it was the right order. If you’re running a small business selling produce, then a mobile phone is far more use than a tap in your kitchen. Especially when there is a perfectly good water pump in the village.
The provenance of all that fruit and veg is interesting. There appears to be almost no cultivation – the countryside throughout our journey was thick with trees and bushes, apart from a few rice fields as we approached Kumasi. And yet almost the entire route was lined with people selling plantains, limes, avacados, yams, cassava, huge bottles of palm oil and various other stuff I couldn’t identify. All of this has presumably been harvested from the wilderness around rather than grown in fields or orchards. Same goes for protein; getting enough is a big challenge for most rural Ghanaians, so the solution is to find it in the countryside around them. Giant African land snails, still alive and writhing around in bowls beside the road, are popular, but by far the most grotesque meat source is an animal called a Grasscutter. This is a giant rodent, about the size of a badger, and it can be seen hanging up in stalls by the side of the road, either fully formed or skinned and smoked. Enough to make your toes curl.
All this produce is on view everywhere along the route between Accra and Kumasi – either on stalls beside the road or carried serenely on the heads of the traders. When you first see someone carrying goods in this way, you can’t help blurting out: “Look, the woman’s carrying something on her head!” And the more you see it, the more remarkable it becomes. Firstly there’s balance – some are aided by a little cloth cap which creates a flat surface, but just as many have nothing. Then there is the incredible core strength which must be required to hold what is often a considerable weight aloft. But the thought I couldn’t escape was what a good idea it seemed; such a practical and logical solution to carrying things that I can’t see why we all don’t do it. Items I saw carried on people’s heads (young men’s and young women’s) included: bowls of fruit and vegetables; sacks of grain and powder; tupperware boxes of ice lollies; an eight-foot length of firewood; packets of fried plantain crisps (they were nice); a 3.5kg bag of washing powder; a car battery. Much of this was carried in huge metal bowls which fitted neatly into the little cloth hats. At Kumasi market, one girl had set her bowl down in the shade, curled up in it and gone to sleep.
God is everywhere. Not just in the countless churches of many denominations or the surprisingly large number of mosques, nor solely in the vast billboards advertising conferences – perhaps performances – hosted by smiling local superstar evangelists with smart suits and perfect teeth. No, His presence is evident in the most unlikely places, most surprisingly being used to promote private business interests. One sign read: God Loves You – Drink Coke. Another business was called By His Grace Welding Services. Then there was God First Electricals and Batteries. Perhaps He should check His image rights.
At times on the journey there were huge numbers of people beside the road. They were either engaged in buying and selling, or they were walking purposefully from somewhere to somewhere else. As we approached Kumasi, the intensity rose; thousands poured in either direction through the narrow walkways in the streets and markets. These people were often very well dressed, both in the cities and the countryside. They were either wearing smart western clothes, or the spectacular, vibrant colours of traditional Ghanaian costume. Even in t-shirts and jeans, most Ghanaians are well turned out. But there was one guy who stood apart from all of this. He was walking alone beside the main road north of Accra, way out in the countryside where there were no market stalls. And he was wearing the most brilliant white three-piece suit. It was dazzling, reflecting the bright African sun, and he was walking along swinging his arms freely by his sides and sporting a huge smile. I still can’t imagine why he was dressed like that, or what he was looking so pleased about. If I had been driving, I would have turned back and asked him.
Four hours into this gruelling, fascinating, mind-blowing journey, we thumped over the umpteenth huge pothole in the road and a loud sound echoed from the roof above. We turned to see the suitcase belonging to the headteacher of St William’s Primary School bouncing down the road behind us. Told you so, I thought. At least it stayed zipped up.