Africa Dispatch: Ghana

Ghana cell: +233-245831859
Thuraya Sat phone: +88216-51071135
me@christophbangert.com

Dear all,

Let’s face it. I’m not really in the mood for writing.
I’m walking up and down in the living room. I enter the kitchen in search for food. I’m looking Chiho over the shoulder while she is editing our latest video, which will be online by the time you read this. (http://africablog.christophbangert.com/) Back to the computer. There’s no escape.

We are in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Our friend Jane, who has been living and working as a freelance photographer here for the last six months (http://www.janehahn.com/), arranged for us to stay at a place of a friend who is currently out of town. It’s a lovely little house with a safe driveway for the Land Rover in front of it. Yesterday night we slept in a real bed for the first time since we left Dakar about one and a half months ago. I never thought I could enjoy a hot shower so much.
Chiho and I both like camping with our vehicle a lot, but we were also reminded that there is an actual reason why people generally live in houses and not in cars. It’s far more comfortable. After having experienced great hospitality in Dakar, our buds were saved for a second time by a fellow photographer and we are grateful to be able to stay here for three days while we work on our computers and run errands in the city like stocking up on food and supplies, getting visas and doing some repairs on the Land Rover.

From Bamako, the capital of Mali, from where I sent my last dispatch, we drove along the great Niger River to Segou and Djenne, a small but historically important town and the home of a spectacular mosque, the largest mud brick structure in the world. Each year after the end of the rainy season a festival is held where thousands of men volunteer to remodel the building and coat it with a fresh layer of dark brown mud. When we visited the town the rainy season was still in full swing, though, and we were wading through ankle deep mud and puddles of water and sewage. Despite Djenne’s attractions and sights, my memory of the place is slightly overshadowed by impressions of feverish, sleepless nights and exhausting days spend commuting between the whole-in-the-ground toilet and the cod in the back of the Land Rover. Somewhere along the way I had caught a bacteria or virus that seemed to be determined to make me loose all my bodily fluids and about 10 per cent of my weight within hours. It was a miserable experience.
Four days, an endless flow of a special salt and sugar emulsion with a funny strawberry taste and a serious antibiotic treatment later, I started to feel a little better and was even able to slowly return to eating solid food.
A phone examination by my father, who is a doctor, saved me again, like so many times before. Not having to face these troubles alone, but with Chiho at my side providing me with tea, white rice and toilet paper (quickly!!), made a huge difference. Individuality, stubbornness and the determination to do things alone are great things, but man, I was happy not to be alone in Djenne.

Although I was still a little weak, we were in good spirits and happy to be on the move again, when we drove on to Mopti and a village called Bandiagara. There we hired a local guide for two days who showed us around several villages of the Falaise de Bandiagara, a fascinating rock formation that stretches over about 150 Kilometers through the dry and generally flat plains of the Sahel. The villages that are lined up like a string of pearls along the base of this escarpment are inhabited by the Dogon people, one of the better known African tribes, who’s members until very recently lived a traditional way of life only minimally influenced by the outside world. Today Coca Cola, Motorola and Adidas are just as present here as they are everywhere else in Africa and the world. And although the Dogon people are still mainly living in traditional mud huts, are tending their fields like they did generations ago, are not connected to the electricity grid, and keep their traditions alive, like mask dances for example, that they are regularly performing for tourist groups and at local festivities, the days of the great African tribes are over. Education, tourism, the introduction of money as a means to trade goods and the wide availability of western and Chinese made products have reached even the remotest corners of our planet. It is sometimes hard to tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing in my opinion. It is a historical event and it results in both, terrible losses and great improvements. Who am I to judge.
After our visit of the Dogon people we continued on a great tarmac road to a town called Duenza, from where we embarked on a 250 Km off-road journey following a rough piste to the North, all the way to Timbuktu.
The landscape gradually got dryer and increasingly barren as we approached this once famous and legendary city on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
About 20 Kilometers before reaching Timbuktu we crossed the spectacular Niger River by ferry boat. Dark, almost black rain clouds formed over our heads and together with the setting sun and the surreal landscape of sand dunes that surround the banks of the river created a stunning, and unforgettable scenery.
In Timbuktu, now a sleepy and dusty town, we visited the houses of several foreigners who were the first outsiders to visit this formerly thriving and culturally as well as religiously immensely important city only in the mid 19th century. Several of them died trying to reach Timbuktu, or were murdered shortly after their departure. This and the city’s significant role in the trans Sahara trade contributed to build its legend, which made the name Timbuktu a synonym for inaccessibility, mystery and unimaginable wealth.
For Chiho and me it turned out to be harder to leave Timbuktu than to reach it. Although the road we used to come here was rough and had cost us a flat tire, it was very easy to navigate on it and highly frequented by local traffic. Because there are few things I dislike more than having to go back the same way that I came from, we decided to try to follow a rarely used and extraordinarily sandy track that roughly runs along the northern shore of the Niger River for about 450 Kilometers through the desert and northern Sahel to a large city in eastern Mali called Gao. After reading reports about banditry on this route we were hiding most of our cash and valuables in remote corners of our vehicle and discussed the situation with local drivers, who assured us that although the track is hard to find at times and rarely used, no security incidents had occurred lately. But then, how can there be incidents when nobody is using the track…
Prepared to face hordes of bandits with knifes between their teeth and with sand boards and shovel at the ready we left Timbuktu and headed east. It had taken us as all morning though, to track down the manager of the hostel in which’s driveway we were camping in order to pay him, change some money at a local bank, a one and a half hour procedure, and find our way out of the mud brick labyrinth of the outskirts of Timbuktu.
For two long days we drove through an equally impressive and barren landscape, partly consisting of the typical scrubs and thorny bushes of the Sahel and partly of great sand dunes and endless gravel fields of the Sahara desert. The only security incident we had to report as we safely reached Gao was a lost yellow plastic bowl that we used to wash our dishes in and that was forcefully taken from us by an impressively forceful sand storm hat surprised us when we camped out in the desert and were just about ready to boil our daily ration of pasta. Like scared chicken we fled into the Land Rover while throwing kitchen utensils randomly into the vehicle. The yellow bowl was left behind and in the morning, as the storm finally had settled, an hour-long rescue operation remained without result. I am not ashamed to admit that the loss of my plastic bowel hit me hard, as I inherited the piece, which had been in my family’s possession for decades, from my mother and it had served me well and without complaint throughout my journey through South America. Mom, I lost the bowl.
From Goa we started off on a long drive that led us south to Niamey, the capital of Niger, where we stayed three nights and treated ourselves to a pizza dinner and a fast wireless internet connection.
The most significant memory of Niamey will probably be me spending half an hour late at night at the side of the road in the center of the city taking half of the Land Rover’s dashboard apart in order to reach and examine a broken light switch that resulted in the cars headlights to stop working. Only minutes after the light broke the problem attracted the attention of a grim looking Nigerien traffic cop who, with a dramatic gesture and angry blows into his little referee whistle made me stop at the side of the street. The glare of money in his eyes.
After a short discussion, obviously the policeman was in a far better position as I in fact had been driving at night without headlights, which is against the rules probably in any country, but is to my defense a common phenomenon on African roads, I began to search for the cause of the problem. Luckily I was able to find the defunct light switch very quickly and bypassed it by rewiring some cables.
Visibly impressed by my work, the policeman glanced at me but nevertheless had the nerve to tell me while looking at his cheap plastic watch: “Well, normally a simple problem like this should only take 15 minutes to repair. How come it took you 20 minutes…?”
He was not joking. Bloody male pride.
I managed to stumble something like, well, I’m sure a Nigerien mechanic would have done a much better job (I was not joking either…), which he apparently liked as he gave me a dramaturgically flawless verbal warning for my braking the laws of the Republic of Niger and let me and Chiho, who was still covered in piles of tools and parts of the dashboard, drive on.

From Niamey we moved on to Ouagadougou, one of the lesser-known capitals of the world. Can you guess it? Well, the corresponding country is Burkina Faso, a nation that impressed us with wonderful people, maybe the most helpful and friendly we met so far, and a certain feeling of liveliness and business sense.
After only a short stay we proceeded south to Ghana, where we visited the Mole National Park and had our first encounter with wild elephants, monkeys, gazelles, and ground hogs.
One of the monkeys, a large baboon, helped us to rearrange the interior of the Land Rover, but luckily did not figure out how to use our precious mosquito repellent. I should have closed that window.
The dry and barren Sahelian landscape, that dominated our travels through Senegal, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso gradually changed and got greener and more densely populated as we slowly proceeded south through Ghana, until we finally reached tropical climate and banana and palm trees began lining the road. The north of Ghana had seen major flooding in the past weeks, but the rains had ceased as we traveled through the area and the apparently significant damage on crops and infrastructure wasn’t really visible in the areas we visited.
After a stop in Kumasi, the second largest Ghanaian city, we spent some days camping on a breathtakingly beautiful and remote beach near a fishing village called Dixcove. We were reading books, planning our onward travels and walking on the beach. And of course I spent hours doing what I love to do the most apart from driving: working on my Land Rover. I admit it’s more like fiddling around. I’m rearranging things, checking something here and fixing something there. I can do this for days on end and completely forget about everything.
We made a serious effort to take a deep breath and relax a little, which wasn’t as easy as it might sound as it can be hard to slow down after many weeks of restless travel.
After four days our little vacation was over and we drove along the Ghanaian coast eastwards, heading to Accra. On the way we visited the famous coastal forts of Elmina and Cape Coast, which were built along with 35 other such castles along the coastline of what was once known as the Gold Coast and today is called Ghana. The forts, large, white washed stone structures, were built by various European powers in the 17th century to serve as trading posts. The Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, Danes, Swedes, French and British were competing heavily on the Gold Coast, trading ivory, gold, spices and later mainly slaves. Between 12 and 25 million people were forcefully displaced from Africa during this era, most of them were brought to European colonies in the Americas, many dying on the way from exhaustion, cruel treatment, torture and abuse. A large percentage of these slaves came from West Africa. We had a moving and thoughtful visit to the forts, but preferred the excellent museum in the fort in Cape Coast over the overly dramatized and inaccurate guided tour we took in Elmina. Growing up in Japan and Germany and being endlessly confronted in history lessons with both our countries sad histories of mass murder and torture, I guess we have a more sober, maybe a more realistic idea about what horrendous atrocities human beings are capable of committing. So the tour guide only managed to make one or two of the American visitors on the tour cry, but not us. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. The guy knew every trick in the book, but Chiho and I just couldn’t get past his inaccuracy and propaganda.

Accra greeted us with seemingly endless traffic jams. We managed to get visas to Nigeria and Benin, and finally found a great mechanic who helped us to fix a persistent problem with the front axle, which would uncontrollably start to shake and vibrate at a certain speed. Daniel, the mechanic, moved to Ghana from Germany about two years ago to pursue his dream of building his own cars. He just completed his second prototype that he designed and built from scratch. A soft spoken and quiet man, who with a mixture of southern German stubbornness and geniality refuses to give up his dream.

For somebody who didn’t feel like writing I ended up writing far too much.
Several more things I’d like to mention, though:
A map of our travels can be found here, for those who still don’t know were Ouagadougou is. (like myself two months ago…)
http://web.mac.com/chihochiho/iWeb/Africa/Map.html

Chiho is almost daily writing a little blog about our travels, which can be found here:
http://web.mac.com/chihochiho/

Don’t forget to watch the newest video and check out our still images here:
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/

My new photo book about Iraq is already available online on Amazon, fresh from the press, so to speak. Links to different Amazon pages can be found here:
http://www.iraq.christophbangert.com/

Let us know how you like the book. Chiho and I will only be able to see it after our return to the US next month. The book presentation and show opening will take place in New York on November 15, just one day after a public lecture at the International Center of Photography that I was invited to speak at on Wednesday, November 14. Please save the dates, an invitation for both events will follow. Of course.

My next dispatch will hopefully reach you from Cameroon in roughly one month. We will have to interrupt our great journey through Africa there again for about four weeks and are still looking for a safe place to park the Land Rover in or around Douala. Every suggestion would be highly appreciated.

It got very late. Chiho fell asleep on the couch next to me a long time ago. Good night everybody.

Christoph.

Christoph Bangert
-photojournalist-
currently in Ghana
on the way to South Africa
Ghana cell: +233-245831859
Thuraya Sat phone:+88216-51071135
me@christophbangert.com
http://www.christophbangert.com/
http://www.iraq.christophbangert.com/
http://www.travelnotes.christophbangert.com/
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/
http://www.laif.de/

One thought on “Africa Dispatch: Ghana

  1. Siggi

    Chris!
    Great, great, update! Good work, you two. I’ll see about your new book, now that it’s finally available. (On-line, you say? Amazon.) Definitely getting the word out about November 15th – may even look into the 14th, if it doesn’t cost a second mortgage on my life to attend. (Sorry. Native New Yorker. ICP is definitely for “out-of-towners” with deep pockets. [snicker!]) Relieved herr Doktor Bangert is keeping his boy healthy via satelite…or something. In brief: Sorry about the yellow bowl. Read, “Ordinary Men”. Speak to someone at the German or Japanese embassey about parking. Enough? I’m gone… Stay well!

Leave a Reply