Sunday, November 28, 2010

back to Ghana 45 years later

This post is a bit long,but some of you might find it interesting. It is a diary entry by someone who was in the Peace Corps in Ghana 45 years ago.

Monday Aug 23. I meet Dorothy at JFK who I have not seen in 45 years. This is the 39th wedding anniversary for Dorothy and her husband Dave. What an great way to celebrate as we start our excellent adventure back to Ghana.

Tue, Wed Aug 24, 25 Accra
Tuesday The Accra airport is totally changed. No surprise, after all 45 years have passed. We are met by our diver, Ellis, who Dorothy has hired. Immigration is easy and Ellis takes us to our hotel, the Penta, in the Osu district of Accra. Dorothy and Elaine had warned me about the traffic, but seeing is believing. The roads that I remember as 2 lanes are now 4, there are street lights, (rare in '63), pedestrian overpasses, and driving is a constant game of chicken. The streets are filled with peoples, walking up and down between traffic lanes selling everything imaginable, such as phone cards, food, handkerchiefs, etc. And there are huge billboards every where advertising everything imaginable. No road beautification programs as yet.

Some landmarks that I remembered are gone. In particular, I remember a traffic circle, with three spires that we knew as the Ghana, Guinea, Mali circle. In the cold war days of 63 - 65 when America and the Soviet Union were vying for influence in developing countries, we used to joke that if you stood in the East, the spires leaned to the right, and if you stood in the West, the spires leaned to the left. This I finally learned has been renamed the Danquah circle and has a statue of J.B. Danquah. the Ghanaian Jurist who was jailed by the Nkrumah government in early 64 and died in Nswam prison later that year. I remember, Danquah personally as he lived just off on Kwame Nkrumah circle very near to where I lived with two other volunteers back in '63. He used to stand on his upper porch and wave to the people below.

After hotel check in, Ellis takes us to a phone store where I learn that my unlocked phone that I used in Italy will not work in Ghana and I must purchase a new one. (still wondering about the truth of that one). At any rate, a new phone and 10 Ghana Cedis (GC) of phone time will only cost 40 GC. About $US. 30.00. Ten Cedis of phone time, get you a lot in Ghana. It all I spend 30 GC for phone time during the entire trip. This allowed me to call the US manyl times for at least a 30 min each time as well as numerous calls to Dorothy, Ellis and others in Ghana. General Impression of Accra: it is a much bigger city, much more prosperous, crowded and bursting with vitality and life

Dorothy and Dave's two children, Emmett and Margaret arrive in the early afternoon. Jet lags forces an early dinner and early to bed. I sleep well this night, but there is a rooster that lives below my window, who decides to start crowing around 3 a.m. I thought roosters were suppose to wait till dawn to start their racket! The mattresses available in Ghana today deserve a few comments. They are a type of Temperpedic knock-off and are a firm but very comfortable memory foam. I found this type of mattress at almost every place I stayed. I saw many signs in the Accra area for Ghana Foam for sale. I must conclude that they are now made in Ghana and are quite affordable.

Breakfast at the Penta was a reunion in many ways. Dorothy's former student, Agnes Bissah and her 25 year old daughter Abigail reunited with Dorothy. Elaine Folkers (also Ghana PC) reunited with both Dorothy and myself. By an amazing coincidence, Elaine was in Ghana at the same time and our trips overlapped by a few days. The thee of us, Dorothy, Elaine and I were frequent travel companions in our PC days. Elaine and I traveled together for 5 months in Africa in '65 after separation from the PC. Elaine and I have kept up with each other over the years, but E and D had not seen each other in 38 years. What a wonderful reunion! After breakfast, (by now we are 8 people plus Ellis the driver) we set off for Bonsu, 2 hours north of Accra to have lunch at the home of Agnes' other daughter Matilde and see the Ghana Plant Genetics Research Institute where Matilda and her husband work.

The distance is not far, but it is a hard trip. The road is under re-construction and it is, quite simply in horrible condition. The roads around Accra are undergoing major reconstruction and driving is slow, crowded and the roads are not good, mostly laterite soil in many places. You have to travel in the tropics to appreciate laterite soil. Laterite, high in iron oxide, it is a red clay composed of fine particles that bake as hard as a brick. In many parts the road is an open field free for all where cars and trucks race at top speed. The accident rate is high and we get lots of adrenaline rushes as Ellis competes for lane dominance with the other drivers. Much of the time he wins and we get to Bonsu in record time.

There, Dorothy's friends have prepared a feast. What generosity from people who have so little. I have gifts for the two sisters, the cross stitch towels I frequently make as gifts. Dorothy has gifts for 9 month old baby girl Adjowa (this is the Akan name for a girl born on Monday) and the two sisters Matilda and Abigail. After lunch we visit the Bonsu Arboretum and Ghana Plant Genetics Institute, where Matilda and her husband work.

Th, Fri - Aug 26, 27 - Elmina
Thursday All 10 of us, The Sopers (4), the Bissahs (4), the driver leave for Cape Coast and Elmina. The road is much better than the one to Bonsu and we are in Cape Coast in time for lunch at a seaside hotel and check in to the Coconut Grove Beach Resort by late afternoon. This is quite a nice place to stay. One can not swim in the ocean here (too many rocks) but the beach is beautiful.

Friday, we made the trip to St George's Castle in Elmina. This is not the slave fort that President Obama toured last year (that was Cape Coast) when he went to Ghana but it is similar. FYI, the last three presidents, Obama, Bush, and Clinton have visited Ghana, an indication of the importance the US places on this fairly small, but stable African country. I had never visited Elmina when I was in the Peace Corps; I suspect it was not developed for tourism back then. This is invariably a grim visit as so many Africans were shipped to slavery to the US and other places from these old forts. You can stand in the rooms where literally hundreds of captured men and women were held in places with NO sanitation. The mortality rate was enormous. In one room, not a big one, over 400 women were held. The room has been left untouched and you can still smell the excrement, menses and urine despite the fact that no one has been held in the room for 200 years. Many of the women were raped by their captors. They had little choice in their fate. Submit or be killed. The "Door of No Return" is also visible and you can pass through it. A very sobering reminder of a dark period of history.

Sat - Tue, Aug 28 through Aug 31 - Nguna (near Accra)
Saturday, The Sopers head for Asenkengra while Matilda, baby Adjowa and I return to Accra. We take an STS bus. Very comfortable, air conditioned and plenty of leg room even for this 6 foot tall frame. Much more comfortable that most of the buses I have ridden in either the US or Europe. STS buses are now widely used in Ghana. They are a major upgrade over the transportation we PC types used back in the 60's. Back then we traveled in Peugeot vans that were nicknamed flying coffins (no joke).

For the next 4 days I am staying at a place called Aba house in Nguna, a coastal town east of Accra. You can find out more about Aba house here:

This turned out to be an excellent place to stay. It is operated by an American woman from Brookline, Ma, Ellie Shimelman. Ellie lives just 2 blocks away from where I lived when in Grad school. Small world. She has been going to Ghana several times a year since 1978. She is a one woman Peace Corps herself, operating a nonprofit and directing the proceeds into purchasing school supplies for the local children. Ellie arranges for a driver for me for the next three days, Sunday - Tuesday. Ellie is a fountain of knowledge about Ghana as it is currently, but she is impressed to learn that I once sailed and swam in Tema harbor (can't get near the place today due to security) and once met Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana (he posed for a brief photo with our PC group at the end of our tour).

Sunday- Today I search for some of my old haunts in Accra. I lived in two places in Accra while in the PC. One house was quite close to Nkrumah circle and the other was in Kotobabi near the first PC hostel. To my complete delight, I am able to locate one of these houses. Unoccupied and changed architecturally but still there. We also stopped at Labadi beach - an old haunt for Accra beach lovers. Labadi is still there and more active than ever. Still traders selling souvenirs, men riding horses along the beach offering (selling) rides to young children, still the place to be on a Sunday afternoon.

Monday - Today I visit my old school. Thanks to Matilda Bissah, I have been in touch with the current headmistress (first female head of this school in the 60+ years of its existence). Lady Queen, the head mistress have corresponded via, snail mail, e-mail and even the telephone over the last 3 months so my visit is expected and planned for. Although school is not in session, a number of the teachers are on campus. I taught at West Africa Secondary School (WASS) which was then located in Accra proper. It has since relocated north of Accra to Legon where the University of Ghana is located. . A wonderful visit. There are no longer any PC teachers or even expatriate teachers at my old school. I suspect this is fairly common and is a sign that Ghana now produces enough graduates teachers that this kind of aid is no longer needed. One of the signs of Peace Corps success is that you work your way out of a job. There are still PC teachers in Ghana but mostly in rural areas. There are no volunteers in Accra, that was not the case when I was there 45 years ago.

This day I visit the Volta River Dam at Aksombo, which was under construction back in the 60's. The Volta River Lake is the largest man made lake in the world covering 28% of the land area of Ghana. It generates power for Ghana and many of the neighboring countries. It is also a source of fresh water and food from the fishing industry. The dam is one of the most successful foreign aid projects ever accomplished in Ghana. The trip is about 2 hours, the road is good and there is not much traffic. On the way home we saw three baboons by the side of the road! On the roads around Tema and up to the dam I saw many places selling large over stuffed furniture. The furniture is on display in the open, No such thing as a furniture store here. It is on site, lots of small businesses. This is just another sign of greater prosperity. I never noticed furniture on display and for sale back in my PC days.

Wed - Sat Sept 1 - Sept 4 - Kumasi
Wednesday I rejoin the Sopers in Kumsai, the second largest city in Ghana and the heart of the Ashanti nation. The bus park in Accra is a mad house, crowded and frantic. After lots of shouting by the men in the park directing my taxi, I am finally settled on the most comfortable bus I have ever been on in my life. If the bus had been a plane, it would have been the first class section. Plenty of leg room, (even for me), reclining seats with leg rests, air conditioned, a huge flat screen tv, and dark curtains to keep out the hot sun. I could not have had a more comfortable trip. The bus does not leave until it is full so we have a long wait which allows me to watch one Ghanaian soap opera and two Nigerian made movies. The soap opera was very amusing as the villainess of the story was named Saundra! The movie was interesting to me as it was basically a morality play tuned to Ghanaian audiences. Once we leave, an itinerant preacher begins a sermon at the top of his lungs that lasts for over an hour. Amazing, I would have lost my voice. At some point we are all asked to make a charitable donation for the poor and I become the focus of the entire bus!. I offer a one Cedi note and the young lady next to me tells me to blow on the bill and make a wish. I do so and take a tip from Mr Spock on Star Trek and wish everyone on the bus to "Live long and prosper". At some point I fell asleep and the preacher left, thank goodness.

Thursday, Friday are spend sight seeing in Kumasi. This is the heart of Ashanti and there is much to see in the area. Just a bit of what we did. A visit to Kiumasi Fort (involvement of Ghanian armed forces in WW 2 and UN peace keeping operations in Africa), Okomfo Acoche Hospital and sword (even Cassium Clay couldn't move it) The National Cultural Center (many artisans at work), Kente weaving and a village that makes Adinkra( Ashanti symbols with spiritual meaning.
We return to Accra as the younger Soper's retkurn the US tonight. Abigail also departs as she has to prepare to go back to work, one last visit with Matilda and baby Adjowa. .

Sun, Mon Sept 5 and 6 - Accra
We are now down to 3 people (Dorothy, Dave and I) Sunday and Monday we are sight seers in Accra visiting the Cultural Center, the Artists alliance, and once more Labadi beach. That evening we meet with An associate of Aba House, Ben Adipah (a minister of education who has developed the arts program for the Ghanaian educational system). Ben is very generous. He has a gift for Dorothy and also offers us with a choice of hand made glass beads. Ben a Krobo, a people who live in eastern Ghana. Historically the Krobo's and the Ashanti's have been less than friends. Because of the huge size of the Ashanti people, the history of the Krobo people is often overlooked. Ben spends some time telling us about his people and the role that Krobo hand made beads have played in traditional society. Somewhere in the conversation Ben realizes that we were PCV's and Ben mentions one of his favorite teachers who was also PC. This teacher was a member of our PC group and I knew him well. Of course all this time, I am under the impression that Ben is somewhat elderly. Good comeuppance for me to realize that he could have been one of my students! ;-)

Monday our final day Madam Agee, the wife of the chief of Dorothy's village (Asankrangwa) is in Accra and invites us to lunch at her home. What an interesting lady. Her husband, the chief (more like a mayor) was one of the Ghanaian leaders to request that the US send Peace Corps Volunteers to their town back in 1961, when the Peace Corps first began. Madam Agree described in very moving words the need he felt for his people to experience more than their small village. "He wanted to open their eyes to the world". Her husband proudly displays letters from both Sargent Shriver and President Kennedy in the palace in Asankrangwa. Madam Agee told many stories of the PC that have worked in her village over the years. She is has been to the US and is a very articulate and moving advocate for her people.

Tue Sept 7 Back to the US and to reality. I managed to break a toe on the last day but the trip was so wonderful, more than I had hoped for. Unlike so many sub Saharan African nations, Ghana has prospered. There are still problems with infrastructure, public health conditions could stand improvement and the people are poor. But Ghana is at peace with its neighbors, is politically stable and has a healthy entrepreneurial business community. Lots of reasons for optimism.

I am seriously contemplating another trip next year. Aba house runs several trips a year in Ghana and surrounding countries. I want to see the north of Ghana.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I found a new toy

Google Earth is addictive. You can download it for free.
Go to FLY TO: and type in Nungua,Ghana and the map takes you right there.
Then in the list click on ABA HOUSE.

Monday, November 1, 2010

African Memories: Textile Workshop

This is a photo of an asafo flag. Around Cape Coast (in Ghana) villages used to go to war against each other and someone would be at the head of the group "dancing the flag" and encouraging the men as they went into battle.

Each summer we offer a workshop at Aba House that teaches African textile techniques in the context of their history.

Here are the details for summer 2011.

Learn from Ghanaian artisans: asafo-batik-tie & dye-adinkra-kente...visit galleries-museums-outdoor markets and traditional villages

August 2 - 15 at Aba House in Ghana
$2400.00 includes: airport pickup-accommodations-breakfast-dinner-transportation in Ghana- workshop materials and participation

First deposit of $ 1200.00 due by April 5, 2011 & balance due by June 5,2011

Send a deposit by Jan. 1, 2011 & we will give you a $200.00 discount
get a friend to sign up & you'll both get 2 extra free days at Aba House

If you'd like to apply, let us know at and we'll send an application.