The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on earth, but colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest, historian Dan Snow writes..
"The world's bloodiest conflict since World War II is still rumbling on today.
It is a war in which more than five million people have died, millions more have been driven to the brink by starvation and disease and several million women and girls have been raped.
The Great War of Africa, a conflagration that has sucked in soldiers and civilians from nine nations and countless armed rebel groups, has been fought almost entirely inside the borders of one unfortunate country - the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is a place seemingly blessed with every type of mineral, yet consistently rated lowest on the UN Human Development Index, where even the more fortunate live in grinding poverty.
I went to the Congo this summer to find out what it was about the country's past that had delivered it into the hands of unimaginable violence and anarchy.
The journey that I went on, through the Congo's abusive history, while travelling across its war-torn present, was the most disturbing experience of my career
I met rape victims, rebels, bloated politicians and haunted citizens of a country that has ceased to function - people who struggle to survive in a place cursed by a past that defies description, a history that will not release them from its death-like grip.
The Congo's apocalyptic present is a direct product of decisions and actions taken over the past five centuries.
In the late 15th Century an empire known as the Kingdom of Kongo dominated the western portion of the Congo, and bits of other modern states such as Angola.
It was sophisticated, had its own aristocracy and an impressive civil service.
When Portuguese traders arrived from Europe in the 1480s, they realised they had stumbled upon a land of vast natural wealth, rich in resources - particularly human flesh.
The Congo was home to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of strong, disease-resistant slaves. The Portuguese quickly found this supply would be easier to tap if the interior of the continent was in a state of anarchy.
They did their utmost to destroy any indigenous political force capable of curtailing their slaving or trading interests.
Money and modern weapons were sent to rebels, Kongolese armies were defeated, kings were murdered, elites slaughtered and secession was encouraged.
By the 1600s, the once-mighty kingdom had disintegrated into a leaderless, anarchy of mini-states locked in endemic civil war. Slaves, victims of this fighting, flowed to the coast and were carried to the Americas.
About four million people were forcibly embarked at the mouth of the Congo River. English ships were at the heart of the trade. British cities and merchants grew rich on the back of Congolese resources they would never see.
This first engagement with Europeans set the tone for the rest of the Congo's history.
Development has been stifled, government has been weak and the rule of law non-existent. This was not through any innate fault of the Congolese, but because it has been in the interests of the powerful to destroy, suppress and prevent any strong, stable, legitimate government. That would interfere - as the Kongolese had threatened to interfere before - with the easy extraction of the nation's resources. The Congo has been utterly cursed by its natural wealth.
Limitless water, from the world's second-largest river, the Congo, a benign climate and rich soil make it fertile, beneath the soil abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, coltan and oil are just some of the minerals that should make it one of the world's richest countries.
Instead it is the world's most hopeless.
The interior of the Congo was opened up in the late 19th Century by the British-born explorer Henry Morton Stanley, his dreams of free trading associations with communities he met were shattered by the infamous King of the Belgians, Leopold, who hacked out a vast private empire.
The world's largest supply of rubber was found at a time when bicycle and automobile tyres, and electrical insulation, had made it a vital commodity in the West.
The late Victorian bicycle craze was enabled by Congolese rubber collected by slave labourers.
To tap it, Congolese men were rounded up by a brutal Belgian-officered security force, their wives were interned to ensure compliance and were brutalised during their captivity. The men were then forced to go into the jungle and harvest the rubber.
Disobedience or resistance was met by immediate punishment - flogging, severing of hands, and death. Millions perished.
Tribal leaders capable of resisting were murdered, indigenous society decimated, proper education denied.
A culture of rapacious, barbaric rule by a Belgian elite who had absolutely no interest in developing the country or population was created, and it has endured.
In a move supposed to end the brutality, Belgium eventually annexed the Congo outright, but the problems in its former colony remained.
Mining boomed, workers suffered in appalling conditions, producing the materials that fired industrial production in Europe and America.
In World War I men on the Western Front and elsewhere did the dying, but it was Congo's minerals that did the killing.
The brass casings of allied shells fired at Passchendaele and the Somme were 75% Congolese copper.
In World War II, the uranium for the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from a mine in south-east Congo.
Western freedoms were defended with Congo's resources while black Congolese were denied the right to vote, or form unions and political associations. They were denied anything beyond the most basic of educations.
They were kept at an infantile level of development that suited the rulers and mine owners but made sure that when independence came there was no home-grown elite who could run the country.
Independence in 1960 was, therefore, predictably disastrous.
Bits of the vast country immediately attempted to break away, the army mutinied against its Belgian officers and within weeks the Belgian elite who ran the state evacuated leaving nobody with the skills to run the government or economy.
Of 5,000 government jobs pre-independence, just three were held by Congolese and there was not a single Congolese lawyer, doctor, economist or engineer.
Chaos threatened to engulf the region. The Cold War superpowers moved to prevent the other gaining the upper hand.
Sucked into these rivalries, the struggling Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba, was horrifically beaten and executed by Western-backed rebels. A military strongman, Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who had a few years before been a sergeant in the colonial police force, took over.
Mobutu became a tyrant. In 1972 he changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, meaning "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake".
The West tolerated him as long as the minerals flowed and the Congo was kept out of the Soviet orbit.
He, his family and friends bled the country of billions of dollars, a $100m palace was built in the most remote jungle at Gbadolite, an ultra-long airstrip next to it was designed to take Concorde, which was duly chartered for shopping trips to Paris.
Mobutu, pictured with Jacques Chirac, was courted by the West for decades
Dissidents were tortured or bought off, ministers stole entire budgets, government atrophied. The West allowed his regime to borrow billions, which was then stolen and today's Congo is still expected to pay the bill.
In 1997 an alliance of neighbouring African states, led by Rwanda - which was furious Mobutu's Congo was sheltering many of those responsible for the 1994 genocide - invaded, after deciding to get rid of Mobutu.
A Congolese exile, Laurent Kabila, was dredged up in East Africa to act as a figurehead. Mobutu's cash-starved army imploded, its leaders, incompetent cronies of the president, abandoning their men in a mad dash to escape.
Mobutu took off one last time from his jungle Versailles, his aircraft packed with valuables, his own unpaid soldiers firing at the plane as it lumbered into the air.
Rwanda had effectively conquered its titanic neighbour with spectacular ease. Once installed however, Kabila, Rwanda's puppet, refused to do as he was told.
Again Rwanda invaded, but this time they were just halted by her erstwhile African allies who now turned on each other and plunged Congo into a terrible war.
Foreign armies clashed deep inside the Congo as the paper-thin state collapsed totally and anarchy spread.
Hundreds of armed groups carried out atrocities, millions died.
Ethnic and linguistic differences fanned the ferocity of the violence, while control of Congo's stunning natural wealth added a terrible urgency to the fighting.
Forcibly conscripted child soldiers corralled armies of slaves to dig for minerals such as coltan, a key component in mobile phones, the latest obsession in the developed world, while annihilating enemy communities, raping women and driving survivors into the jungle to die of starvation and disease.
A deeply flawed, partial peace was patched together a decade ago. In the far east of the Congo, there is once again a shooting war as a complex web of domestic and international rivalries see rebel groups clash with the army and the UN, while tiny community militias add to the general instability.
The country has collapsed, roads no longer link the main cities, healthcare depends on aid and charity. The new regime is as grasping as its predecessors.
I rode on one of the trainloads of copper that go straight from foreign-owned mines to the border, and on to the Far East, rumbling past shanty towns of displaced, poverty-stricken Congolese.
The Portuguese, Belgians, Mobutu and the present government have all deliberately stifled the development of a strong state, army, judiciary and education system, because it interferes with their primary focus, making money from what lies under the Earth.
The billions of pounds those minerals have generated have brought nothing but misery and death to the very people who live on top of them, while enriching a microscopic elite in the Congo and their foreign backers, and underpinning our technological revolution in the developed world.
The Congo is a land far away, yet our histories are so closely linked. We have thrived from a lopsided relationship, yet we are utterly blind to it. The price of that myopia has been human suffering on an unimaginable scale.
I've really enjoyed spending the last few weeks in Kenya. I like Nairobi a lot and going forward, this is a place I intend to visit as often as I can. My holiday is coming to its end, and in a few hours I should be on an aeroplane ferrying me back to Europe; first to Paris, France and then onward to London; back to the drudgery of life in England, the stony and expressionless faces of the people you encounter on your daily commute; that cold, dull and dreary weather. Whatever one says about Africa, it remains the case that in the overall, people in Africa are happy; and certainly happier than people in Europe! I will miss Kenya and Nairobi in particular. But of course there are other things that have to be said, issues that I have found particularly unpleasant. Class, is more of an issue in Kenya than it is anywhere else I've been to, except Brazil. With Brazil's history though, the wideness of the gap in the social hierarchy is explainable with a measure of rationality. Much less so with Kenya.There simply is no reason (save for greed and selfishness) why, for example, one kilometre from the splendid, clean and well maintained Central Business District (CBD) of Nairobi, is located Africa's largest slum, Kibera, where more than 2 million of Nairobi's inhabitants live, a significant proportion of the city's population. Kibera is only one of several slum areas in the city. Indeed much of Nairobi is slummy, even those other areas such as Eastleigh, Juja Road and other such places that are not officially designated as slums. Its particularly bad because these slummy areas are largely neglected, almost as if the inhabitants (usually the poorer lower classes) are insignificant and irrelevant. Street cleaning, for instance, takes place only in the CBD and in those plush highbrow parts of town where well-to-do Nairobians live. Poor people, it seems, are not worthy of having their streets cleaned. 200 metres outside the CBD and every street corner is piled high with rubbish (garbage as my American friends will say), because, of course, there are no upper-class people resident in the vicinity. I have found it deplorable. The society's sharp class distinction also means that there is much resentment between the classes. Being class-neutral myself, I have found it easy to hold conversations with all kinds of people. Indeed, the most interesting chats I've had since I've been in Kenya, have been with two separate individuals; one, Simba, a security guard and the other Moses, a bus conductor. Its interesting to see how truly insightful some of these so called "lower-class" people can be. But its the deep resentment that I observed which has touched me the most. In the aftermath of the Westgate Mall tragedy, I got the distinct feeling that there were quite a few among the lower classes who have little sympathy for the unfortunate victims of the terrorists. "Only well-to-do upper-class people could afford to visit Westage after all, so what did it matter if they died?" Quite troubling, I thought.. — in Nairobi, Kenya.
A valuable record of Nigeria's political history, good mainly for its factual accuracy, but perhaps less so for some judgements made by the film's maker. Nevertheless, this film is definitely worth watching and I was transfixed for the hour and a half it took to watch it from start to finish.
few days in Ghana
were spent in Accra,
but not before I had undertaken what I can only still think of as a difficult
road journey to get there from Sunyani. The journey was difficult mainly
because of the state of the roads in segments of the route. Stopping over for a
while (and for a second time) in the city of Kumasi,
my impression of the city as being the least attractive of the cities that I
was privileged to visit in Ghana
was only reinforced. Whoever it is that is charged with the responsibility for
keeping the city’s streets clean deserves to lose their job, or their contract,
because they are doing a very poor job indeed. Driving through the city centre
was a nightmare not only because the area was overcrowded and the traffic was
horrendous, but this was quite easily the dirtiest place that I encountered
throughout my stay in Ghana.
I couldn't get out of the city fast enough.
once again Ghana
redeemed herself when the coach in which we were travelling (George and me)
pulled into a petrol station on the outskirts of Kumasi
for a rest stop and the passengers all filed out in orderly fashion to use the
spotless and very well maintained toilet facilities that were laid on for our
use. It was difficult to make a connection between these excellent toilets and
those ones that I had complained so vociferously about in my last update.
However this reprieve wasn't to last long, for it was only a short while
later and only a few kilometres down the Kumasi
to Konongo-Odumase road that our coach came to an abrupt halt. And we remained
stationary for nearly two hours too, apparently because some serious accident
had occurred up the road ahead of us. No information was passed on to us, no
explanation for the delay was provided and it seemed to me that none of the
other passengers on the coach even realised that they were actually
entitled to an explanation for the delay, or to be told the reason why they
were being held up. Eventually, though, this information trickled down.
heavy-duty articulated vehicle had toppled over on its side in the middle of
the road and having spewed all of its contents unto the road, made it
impossible for traffic in either direction to progress until the debris had
been cleared off the road surface and the wrecked vehicle moved to one side.
Needless to say, all of this took several hours, for there was at least a
one-kilometre-long queue of stalled traffic in front of us before we had even
arrived at the scene. Even when we started to move, it was at a crawl, for
several miles. And as if this unpleasant episode wasn't bad enough, we still
had to contend with the stretch of very bad road around the town of Suhum about an hour
later, that went on for miles and miles, which made an already difficult
journey even more tedious than it needed to be. Finally and quite exhausted,
(its amazing that we were so tired since we'd only been sitting in a coach), we
arrived in Accra and fought our way through the city's very heavy traffic to
the location where we were to stay for the next couple of days.
flies when you have so much you want to see and do, yet so little time to see
and do them. There was so much more I had wanted to see in Ghana, for starters all those touristy
places like for example, the Elmina
Castle. I didn't even get
to see the sights in Accra
itself, save for a brief visit to the Labadi beach. By the way, it was annoying
that one was required to pay an entry fee to enter the beach area, and more so
when there was nothing of any particular significance at the beach to justify
having to pay just to be there. My flight back to England
was only hours away and the appalling traffic conditions in Accra meant that it took hours just to get
from one point in the city to another.
could accomplish therefore during my brief stay in the city was limited, but I
have resolved to return to Ghana
sometime in the not too distant future, specifically to visit and spend time in
simply haven't seen enough of the place yet. There are people in Accra that I was looking
forward to meeting too, whom I never had the chance to meet because I didn't
have the time. And I feel really bad about that. But please guys do accept my
apologies, I'll make up for it the next time I come. So with the awful
traffic conditions in mind, I made sure to set out for the airport a good 5
hours before my flight. This was one flight I was not going to miss.
The trip home - A person can only enter into the Departures area of
the Accra airport
terminal building by presenting both a passport and a ticket as proof that
whosoever enters the building is a legitimate traveller. And although I
understand the reasoning behind this strict policy, I cant but think of it as
anything other than mean and unkind, because you are forced to bid only a
perfunctory farewell to a loved one who was seeing you off at the airport, with
whom you might have wished instead to share a lingering hug, (or perhaps even a
kiss), as you parted from each other. And even so, you have no choice but to
part under the watchful gaze of stern looking airport security personnel.
Its even worse when you have several hours of waiting alone at the airport to
do before your flight, since you've arrived early, hours which could easily
have been spent enjoying the company of your loved one. So you get the picture
of what actually happened to me when I found myself suddenly all alone in the
departures lounge, clearing immigration and going through the usual security
procedures. Thank goodness for mobile telephony, because although physically
alone I was still able to keep in touch with George, who insisted on remaining
behind outside the airport for a while after I had left him and entered the
And so my visit to Ghana
ended and I made it onto the aircraft bound for Amsterdam. A quick phone call to say my
goodbyes and settling into my seat for what was a night flight, I thought
little of the rumbling in my stomach (and ignored it), as the aeroplane
thundered down the runway, lifted into the air and the night lights of Accra
spread out beneath us. But it was not long before that stomach rumble declared
its malevolent intentions. It was not to be ignored!
If you know of no one who has had diarrhoea while travelling on a 7-hour flight
in a fully-loaded aeroplane with every seat occupied, look no further. It was
absolutely horrendous having to trundle down the aisle every few minutes or so
to use the toilet in the plane, cursing under my breath; wondering what the
heck I'd had to eat on my last day in Accra that had landed me in this
appalling situation; receiving those funny looks from fellow
passengers and the plane's cabin crew; hoping desperately that there wouldn't
be a queue for the toilet when I reached it, because after all there were close
to 300 people on this aircraft, with perhaps six toilets between us. Thankfully
this was at night and most people did eventually fall asleep in their seats. So
there were visits I made to the toilet that went mostly unobserved.
After a few hours into the flight the diarrhoea did settle down a bit, albeit
temporarily, because shortly after touchdown in Amsterdam, while negotiating my
route through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to reach my departure gate for my
connecting flight to London, (for which I had to wait in Amsterdam for another
four or more hours), the diarrhoea flared up again. So even while at the
airport in Amsterdam,
it was in and out of the toilet again, until I could bear it no longer and
demanded to be shown to the airport's medical centre. Once there, I was
promptly handed a high dosage of powerful anti-diarrhoeal medication by a very
polite, black, Dutch lady doctor, who spoke halting English. Then I received a
bill of just over 40 Euros, which I was informed included the fee for the
doctor's consultation. The doctor assured me that I would feel better after
taking the medication. And I did too, at least until I reached London and made my way home, but I didn't
fully recover until at least after the second day after my arrival.
It was not a pleasant end to what had been a very interesting and enjoyable
holiday, but it is the enjoyable parts of the holiday that I will focus on and
which will remain embedded in my memory forever. In my mind I've already
started toying with the idea of going off again to another interesting
location. But will I visit Ghana
again? Most definitely! I totally loved the place
Unplanned development is as prevalent in Ghana as it is in Nigeria, save for the scale of it, in which case Nigeria's may perhaps be greater than Ghana's. Nevertheless, even in Ghana, it is the case that most newly built homes are put up in areas where proper roads do not exist, nor is there any pipe-borne water to be connected to. And by the haphazard nature of the positioning of the electricity poles, it is possible to detect that even the electricity has been hurriedly connected to the locality.
In several of the areas that I have visited, houses (of questionable build-quality) have been constructed with seemingly no guidance whatsoever from any civic planning/building regulatory regime, nor with any regard to, or consideration for, things like safety, or access, as for example, access for the emergency services in the event of an emergency.
Houses seem to be built for two main reasons. Firstly, a house is built to fulfill what is seen as a requirement in the life of a truly successful person, to have his/her own home built from scratch. Secondly, much of the home building seems to be done for the purpose of exploiting what is in fact a severe housing deficit, by building substandard homes to be rented to hapless tenants, given the shortage of housing in general and the dearth of decent housing in particular.
The fact is that an inordinately large number of Ghanaians still live in housing that can best be described as inadequate. However, it must be said that there are also some very nice and well built homes, although often times these are located in places where you might wish you were wearing hiking boots (due to the awful state in which what passes for a road is in), as you navigated the terrain to reach such homes.
Water in many areas I have visited is not pipe-borne and is almost always supplied from a well dug at the time the building is constructed. In the more well-to-do households, the water from the well is pumped by an electric pump into an overhead tank, from which it is then distributed through the home assisted by gravity. The hope always is for the electricity supply to remain uninterrupted, for when it is interrupted, which happens often, its becomes impossible for the water to be pumped into the tank. As for what obtains in the less well-off homes, well, let me leave that to your imagination.
Toilets - I do not understand why all of my neighbours need to know about it every time I go to use the toilet. But apparently some feel differently about this, since this is precisely what happens in large parts of Ghana, where the idea of public toilets appears to have been embraced with a degree of enthusiasm that many of us living in the modern world would be unfamiliar with.
I heard an alarming statistic the other day on Ghanaian television, when some wise person while lamenting the generally poor sanitary conditions in the said public toilets, made the comment that 5 million Ghanaians do not have a toilet in their homes. Gosh, how shocking is that?! Strolling through the village to have a poo on the other side of town seems to be the reality, a fact of life, for many people here. It seems that many here can see nothing wrong with having to do this and don't seem to know any reason why they should have a toilet in their homes for their own private and exclusive use.
But then if public toilets is the way to go and if this is what you want to do, isn't ensuring that those public toilets are carefully maintained and kept scrupulously clean the only way to justify their existence?
I think there's a desperate need for legislation in Ghana making it compulsory for every home, and especially every newly built home, to have a toilet of its own. In my humble opinion, the culture of relying so heavily on public toilet facilities is outmoded and outdated and ought to have no place in the 21st century. It is even worse when you have to pay to use a public toilet that is merely a pit latrine, is filthy and offers only bits of old newspaper in place of toilet paper. Phew, that needed to be said, so there!
Transportation - Getting from place to place within a Ghanaian city isn't that difficult, what with the tidy and orderly row of taxis at the various designated points, each row for a specific destination. For example, taxis destined for say, Dumasua, line up in a row with the taxi at the very front bearing a DUMASUA sign on its roof, which indicates to the would-be passenger that this is the taxi to be boarded. It is a shared taxi that carries four passengers, but I understand that the taxis are also available to be chartered for exclusive use. Anyway, as soon as the shared taxi has filled all of its seats and destination sign is moved on to the roof of the taxi immediately following it in the row, it sets out (often being driven incredibly dangerously) on its rickety, bone-jarring, wobbly way, with not a seat belt in sight. From the very first day I arrived in this country, I've wondered everyday why there aren't more accidents on the roads..
And the taxis in Sunyani, the city where I've been for much of my stay in Ghana, are mostly old Opel and Vauxhall models, a fact that itself was a bit of a surprise to me. Even more surprising was when Kofi, the talkative taxi driver with whom I'd struck up something of a friendship, explained that almost all of the commercial vehicles in Ghana have been converted to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), yes, the same gas used for cooking, (or is it liquefied petroleum gas LPG? I'm not entirely sure what the difference is). Anyway, this gas is said to be considerably less expensive than petrol and runs just as well as petrol, therefore its use makes commercial sense. Kofi, who showed me the tank for the gas that had been fitted into his taxi's boot, went on to explain how the conversion from petrol to gas is carried out. I thought this a wonderful idea and was quite impressed, but not having much knowledge about public transportation myself, wondered if this technology is being adopted more widely worldwide. And if not, why not?
Getting around the city may be easy, but getting around Ghana the country, from city to city, certainly is not. More about this in the next update, as I make my way through Ghana to Accra to catch my flight back home..
I should start this update with an astonishing set of statistics. I see this is an addendum to my previous update, when I drew the comparison between Ghana and Nigeria on the percentages of their respective populations that are living below the international poverty line.
According to the CIA's World Fact Book , the percentage of people in Ghana living in poverty in 2007 was 28.5% and according to World Bank figures, 28.59% in 2006. By contrast, the figures for Nigeria in 2010 were 67.98% living on less than $1.25 per day and 84.49% of the population living on less than $2 per day.
I thought this quite shocking for several reasons, but especially so given that Nigeria's oil export earnings alone amount to over $45 billion a year. Nigeria is the largest oil and gas producer in sub Saharan Africa and the country has been a major oil producer for more than fifty years. Its even more disturbing when one sees that only very few other countries have a higher percentage of their populations still living in poverty today, such countries as East Timor, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Madagascar. And Nigeria conspicuously, albeit incongruously, has been placed by the numbers among and alongside these 'poorest countries in the world'. You can't but wonder whether policy makers in Nigeria are aware of these shameful statistics, or even if they were aware, if they care at all.
But lest I forget, this is an update about my visit to the country Ghana. Therefore, I must resist the urge to embark on a literary rampage, pouring out my frustrations about my homeland Nigeria and the state in which the country is. So back to Ghana it is then.
Its now week three in Ghana and I've realised that my distinctly western style and manner has worked to my disadvantage many times in my deep desire to go completely native. So I've made the conscious decision to ditch the RayBan-style, light-sensitive reactions specs, which look like really cool sunglasses, (when the reality is that they're actually prescription spectacles with thick lenses without which I could barely see a thing).
Thank goodness for the "get a second pair free" deal that the opticians Specsavers were doing in London, which I seized upon shortly before I embarked on my trip to Africa. So yes, I do have a second, non-trendy pair that make me look straight-laced, plain and schoolteacher-ish. (No disrespect to schoolteachers intended :)). And then the clothing. I've dumped fancy t-shirts and shorts for the fetching, brightly coloured shirts, made of locally produced cloth, sewn by local tailors and commonly worn proudly by many locals. Jeans are truly universal and mine have stayed, but the sum effect of the transformation in my appearance is to make me blend in more readily, although there's still the problem with the local language, of which I have been able only to acquire a few words. Twi is not an easy language to learn.
Fufu Bar - I had never heard of a 'fufu bar' until i arrived in Ghana a few weeks ago. The fufu bar is akin to what in Nigeria would be referred to as a 'pepper-soup joint'. To be more accurate though, I'd have to describe the fufu bar as a cross between a pepper-soup joint and a 'buka' or 'mama-put'. Well, you'd know what I was talking about if you were already familiar with Nigeria, but for those who aren't, I shall describe my experiences at the fufu bar and draw comparisons as I go along with the Nigerian establishments that I mentioned. But then this of course is about Ghana, not Nigeria and we must not lose sight of that.
Now 'Twi" the language of the Akan people of the part of Ghana where I currently am, is a language which just like 'Yoruba' its Nigerian cousin, seemingly may only be spoken by shouting. In other words, it appears to me, the onlooker, that anything spoken or said in the Twi language (and indeed the Yoruba language for that matter), must be shouted in order for it to be understood. I've only made this observation or remark so as to set the backdrop for the sound (or noise) at the fufu bar, where Twi was the only language being spoken (shouted) in communications between patrons and bar staff and amongst the patrons themselves. It didn't help matters (in fact it energised the already very noisy chatter), that Ghana's national soccer team the Black Stars, were billed to play a major qualifying match against the Malawi national side later that day.
And in the middle of all of this was seated poor little me, not comprehending a single word of what was being said (or shouted) all around me, save for when the familiar name of a famous footballer was uttered. But then there was George, seated beside me, all the time at my side as he had been since I'd stepped off the aeroplane and out through the 'arrivals' gate at the airport weeks ago, his attention constantly focused on me, watching for and responding to every facial expression, answering every question my curious and inquisitive mind could throw at him, meeting my every need, offering me a place of safety from all that uncertainty, a place of warmth and comfort even during those violent night-time tropical thunderstorms that have characterised my stay here thus far..
Then finally the fufu arrives and is served in a large earthenware bowl, which I am kindly informed is known in the local language as potayua. The fufu itself looks a bit like the pounded yam of Nigeria, which I enjoy so very much when well prepared and served with a tasty, leafy sauce such as egusi or edikang ikong. But at this fufu bar, the fufu sat in what can best be described as a pool of 'light soup'. I'd heard of light soup long before I ever saw or tasted it and I'd always been curious to know what it was. But as it turned out, light soup is the same thing as what is known as pepper-soup in Nigeria. Indeed, light soup is what I'd always had (and enjoyed immensely) at that Ghanaian restaurant in Dalston, London, although I'd thought that it was pepper-soup that I was having. So you see, there's little difference between pepper-soup and light soup.
The only difference if at all, is the way each is eaten in Ghana and in Nigeria respectively. In Ghana, light soup is eaten in the way that in Nigeria the more substantial sauces such as egusi are eaten. In Nigeria, pepper-soup is eaten with a spoon and can be sipped like tea. Indeed, pepper-soup is often slurped when its hot, much in the same way that a person who doesn't know better slurps his tea from his cup. Please can you imagine having pounded yam with pepper-soup? Or to describe it more vividly, just imagine your lump of pounded yam sitting in the middle bowl of pepper soup? I couldn't do it and had to give up on the fufu in the end. But I sipped (and drank) the light soup as best as I could. The 'bush meat' that came with the soup was an absolute delight though and between George and I, not a single piece of it was left behind.
This report on the fufu bar would be incomplete without a comment or two on the assortment of drinks on offer, all alcoholic and all locally produced. First of all, there was something called kasapreko that looked a bit like a stout, but which I'm reliably informed is consumed in copious quantities and used by the bar's patrons to boost their appetites. Then there was "Alomo Bitters'. It must be bitter, I thought, so "no, thank you very much". And then the usual suspects, akpeteshie and burukutu, homemade gin and homemade brew (beer) respectively. But just in case you've started wondering, I had only a glass of water to wash down the light soup and bush meat.
In the next update I'll be discussing my thoughts on more substantial issues like housing, roads and yes, the toilets in Ghana. :)
The vibe in Ghana is of peace and stability. Stability here is so consistent, it almost can be taken for granted and life can become predictable. And just as I do when I'm in England, I do feel very safe here.
On the news yesterday was the report about the two dozen or so students murdered in cold blood by "unknown gunmen" in Nigeria, and it was easy for me to see immediately that such an incident could hardly occur in Ghana, where issues surrounding upholding the rule of law and maintaining law and order seem to have been worked out exquisitely.
First off, the Ghana policeman is the best looking policeman on the African continent by a mile. Gosh, you can't but admire him in his ultra smart uniform! But the Ghana Police Service does not only have the smartest uniforms, it is also one of the more well disciplined and effective police forces in Africa, and certainly more so than their Nigerian counterpart.I make comparisons with Nigeria because of the similar histories both countries share; sister countries with much in common.
Then there is also the fact that in Ghana, things are better organised generally. I watched and listened to what was a very impressive parliamentary debate yesterday, relating to the creation of additional constituencies in the run-up to the country's forthcoming elections in December. The arguments put forward by the MPs for and against were not only compelling, they were extremely well articulated as well, such that it was impossible to come away from from viewing this without feeling that in Ghana they are bang on target and have really got the fundamentals and basics perfectly right. They have developed a system of democratic government that actually works and they seem to have put in place a solid foundation for a prosperous and successful future, with revenues from oil soon to be pouring in too.
The outcomes are in the figures and the numbers. As of 2011, in the UNDP's Human Development Index (HDI) Ghana was classed as a Medium Human Development country, in the same category with countries such as Botswana, Egypt, South Africa and India. Nigeria on the other hand and despite her immense wealth, languishes in the Low Human Development country category, in the same category with countries like Chad, Liberia and Mali. Even when expressed as a percentage of the population, in Nigeria there are significantly more people living below the international poverty line (which is roughly about $1.25 per day, as revised by the World Bank in 2008), than there are in Ghana. This is a clear indication that Ghana manages her resources more carefully and much better than Nigeria does, given that Nigeria is the significantly wealthier of the two. And this all said, I know which of the two countries I would think of as being safer to invest my hard earned resources, meagre though they might be, if faced with having to make that choice.
Before I end this update, I will just add that for the last three days the electricity power supply to the place where I am located was shut off. Only this morning, after two hellish, sweaty nights without the joys of having a fan to lull you to sleep, has the power been restored.
Yes I know its been all serious and full of praise for Ghana in this update, but no, what I have on my mind concerning Ghana is certainly not just praise. More updates to come.
Its nice to be awoken in the early morning by the sound of a cock crowing. Its refreshing and remarkably earthy and reminds you of just how close to nature you've been in the last few days. It becomes even nicer when you realise shortly after you wake, that the cockerel was only performing a brief solo and that he's in fact the lead singer in an orchestra of birds, as you hear and listen to the amazing dawn chorus of the birds in full flow.
Its not that pleasant however when you are brought round prematurely from your afternoon nap by the loud "Thud", "Thud" of next door's lady-of-the-house pounding foofoo with a mortar and pestle, with gusto, almost as if the taste of the foofoo depends upon just how vigorously it is pounded in the mortar!
Another thing, I'm pretty glad that I gave up smoking, because had I still been a smoker I'd be tearing out my hair in frustration by now. I have not seen a single person with a cigarette in their hand since I arrived in Ghana last week, neither have I seen a single cigarette being sold in any shop or store. I've even gone so far as to search with my eyes for discarded cigarette butts by the roadside, but have not discovered a single butt as yet. Oh of course I know that there must be some people here who do smoke, but they must be very few indeed, next to being almost completely unnoticeable, invisible.
What a far cry from Europe, a continent where the smell of tobacco smoke hangs heavily over entire city districts; where housewives hang out of windows in high rise apartment buildings puffing away at a cigarette held daintily in one hand, mobile phone clutched to ear with the other, (for the gossip must continue, even while making the effort to spare the toddler in the flat the burden of second-hand smoke inhalation); a continent where workers routinely skive off their duty posts when at work, to go for that "crafty fag".
I've been located in a place that thinks of itself as a suburb of a regional capital city, but which in reality is little more than a small, rural village that just happens to be geographically located a few miles from the regional capital city. The thought that came to my mind immediately upon my arrival here was of the similarity of this place to my ancestral home village of Twon Brass in far away Bayelsa State, Nigeria. The pervasive smell hanging in the air in both places is the aroma of woodsmoke, from the open-air wood fires commonly used for cooking. Unlike in Twon Brass where the woodsmoke smell is flavoured with the aroma of smoked fish because the prevalent occupation there is fishing, here in this place in Ghana where farming is the main occupation, the woodsmoke is complemented by the musty aroma of milled maize and cassava. The woodsmoke aside, the aroma of the homemade alcoholic spirit akpeteshie, also known as ogogoro, kaikai, (or atuwor in Twon Brass) hangs in the air.
Another point of similarity between the people of the two places is their fondness for a big, noisy, raucous funeral, or "finral" as they say in Ghana.
Let me conclude this update by saying that I have been searching, but in vain, for red peppers since my arrival here. Alarmingly, I was unable even to convince the lady who sold me some fine, large green peppers at the market, that there are in fact peppers of that size and shape but which are red in colour. She was incredulous and said she'd never seen such nor even heard of such peppers. So there I was standing in the middle of the market, confused, bewildered, scratching my head, but am now determined to get to the bottom of this and find out the reason for the absence in Ghana's Brong Ahafo Region of any knowledge of the existence of red peppers. I must now shut down this computer and get myself into town. Later then..