Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Cruelest Cut of All

Some people might dismiss what is euphemistically called 'female circumcision' as a custom of other cultures that we in the UK should accept as their right; a 'social norm' we should not judge or condemn.

However if a sweet, innocent, adorable little toddler was wandering down the street, laughing and playing and was suddenly grabbed by a gang of thugs, dragged into the bushes, held down, and had her legs forced apart and her genitals sliced up, you would consider this a crime, the worst possible crime imaginable. 

This violence against children is legislated as a crime in most countries.

Yet this is what is happening to 8000 little girls every day, almost three million girls a year, justified as a custom, a tradition, in the name of religion, which outsiders must not interfere in!

The United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that worldwide 150 million women and girls are currently living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation. A further 30 million girls are at risk of being cut in the next decade across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and other countries. However, this figure underestimates the real number of girls affected. Even in the UK, a new report estimates that 170,000 women are living with FGM and 65,000 girls are at risk of being mutilated right here in the 'civilised' UK when migrants and refugees bring this entrenched custom with them.

This atrocity, this unspeakable brutality, is not done by Whites to Blacks. It is done by Blacks to Blacks; specifically by black women on behalf of black men against little black girls, their own daughters. These mothers do not hate their daughters. They believe the cutting is an "act of love" to ensure their daughters are "clean" and marriageable.

It is the mother who holds down the toddler while an old woman with a rusty razor blade, a knife, scissors or piece of glass cuts into the delicate flesh of the terrified, screaming child, with no anaesthetic, causing agonising pain and emotional trauma.

Many girls die of blood loss, shock and infection. If she survives, the traumatised child will be left with a raw wound where the clitoris and lips of her vagina have been cut off and in the case of 'infibulation', she has been sewn up leaving only a tiny hole.

The reason for this barbarous cruelty? To preserve her virginity for marriage and to obliterate her sexual desires and the risk of infidelity to her future husband; to keep her pure, to ensure she experiences not pleasure, but abject pain with sexual intercourse, after she is cut open by the groom on her wedding night. 

In many poor communities circumcised daughters command a high 'bride price' as mutilation and infibulation is meant to ensure virginity.

Ultimately FGM is about power and control over female sexuality, which has become entrenched as a social norm in countless communities for generations.

For this enforced control, she will suffer health problems and pain her whole life. And emotional and psychological damage.

The African woman is condemned to a lifetime of suffering every time she urinates and during menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth.

The mutilation of her genitals means she has a high risk of complications when giving birth and is likely to suffer obstetric fistula. This horrendous condition occurs during childbirth when the narrow birth canal is torn leaving a hole in the wall of the vagina between the bladder or rectum which means the woman will suffer leakage, leading to a life of shame and ostracism from her community.

Unlike male circumcision which cuts off loose skin on the penis, female circumcision cuts off flesh and removes part of the clitoris, a vital body organ, filled with highly sensitive nerve endings. Female circumcision is really female castration. And castration is disempowering in every way. 

How can African women ever be empowered to pursue education and work to transform communities alongside men, if they are maimed and suffer incapacitating pain their whole lives?

How can women enjoy satisfying, loving sex lives with their husbands if they suffer pain, fear and shame with intercourse? How can she feel self-esteem and pride in being a sexual woman?  

I watched the brilliant movie Long Walk To Freedom about the extraordinary life of revered leader, Nelson Mandela and the struggle of the South African people for freedom, equality and democracy. And yet for all the freedom fighting, sacrifice of lives and ultimate political victory, the atrocity of FGM against innocent children continues in the continent of Africa, (and other countries), tacitly sanctioned as a generational custom, with authorities turning a blind eye, even in countries where it is illegal.

In these days of easy access to information through the global reach of the internet, people around the world must be informed and take a stand against this widespread crime against children. 

FGM is a specialised form of child abuse, a human rights abuse, a violation of humanity of the worst kind, and must be stopped urgently. Caring women and men around the world must help save the lives of millions of girls and stop the cruelest cut of all; stop Female Genital Mutilation NOW. We must also offer help to the 150 million victims of FGM - reparative surgery and emotional support to reclaim their empowerment. 

Take action. Read Waris Dirie’s inspirational books Desert Flower, Desert Dawn and Desert Children and watch the movies Desert Flower, My Daughter, Dry Your Tears and Africa Rising. Join the Desert Flower Foundation, Equality NowForward, The Orchid Project and my group of Wise Women, Making A Difference to stop FGM.   

February 6 is International Day against FGM. Let's join minds, hearts and hands around the world with wisdom, compassion and courage to stop the cruelest cut of all.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Shia Bliss of Reviving the Cocoa Industry in Ghana

I am sitting in the tropical home of Justus Avudzivi. I have come a long way, eagerly clutching my trusty little silver recorder, for this face-to-face interview with the respected village elder. To be precise, I’ve journeyed six hour on a flight, 3158 miles from London to Accra followed by another four-hour, 160 miles rough ride in a crowded tro-tro, sweating and bouncing, to this remote, impoverished village of Shia, in the orange dirt Volta region of Ghana, Africa.

This is as authentic as it gets for a mildly intrepid reporter. No skype call for me. I’m here on the ground, meeting the distinguished man in the flesh. And Justus, with the gravitas of his 77 years, is a man with a vision, a compelling grand plan that will transform this poor village where he was born and bestow a lasting legacy of real substance.

What’s on his mind is chocolate! Not just a common mid-afternoon craving. Justus wants to revive the once-flourishing cocoa industry to create a sustainable income stream for some 500 farmers and their families for generations to come. 

Justus was a teenager when the cocoa industry was thriving in a golden era in the late 40s and 50s. His father, a successful cocoa farmer, could afford to send seven children to good schools and universities.

A solid education set up Justus for a distinguished career as a top corporate accountant and internal auditor with Shell and Texaco based in Accra and travelling widely. After ‘retirement’ he built a thriving consultancy and then ventured into a dynamic transport business before returning to his home village of Shia in 2000 and embracing the challenge of horticulture. 

He explains: “My father was a cocoa farmer. This cocoa farm I have now I inherited from my own father. He started the farm in 1915. I went to school because of my father’s hard work and all my brothers and cousins went to school because of our family’s cocoa farms. One cousin became an ambassador to the United States. My generation, born in 1935, is the cream of the crop thanks to the cocoa industry.”

The sense of gratitude in Justus is deep. “I owe my success to my father’s farm. After the war in 1945, we enjoyed the benefits of that prosperity. But tragically that industry, the hope of these villages, has declined and we want to bring it back to life for future generations.”

When fires ravaged and destroyed hundreds of cocoa farms in 1983, the demoralised farmers never recovered. They lacked the cash and emotional resilience to replant their crops. Their small plots languished for more than 20 years and the villages slumped into entrenched poverty … until 2005 that is.

Seven years ago, Justus was consumed with a vision and heartfelt passion to revive the cocoa industry so that future generations could also reap the benefits he had enjoyed growing up: education, jobs, income and community prosperity.

And now in June 2012, I am interviewing Justus, as a guest in his tropical home set in the vibrant main street of Shia. My trip has been organised through Madventurer, a not-for-profit travel company dedicated to encouraging UK people, young and old, to volunteer and contribute to charitable projects in developing countries.

As this articulate elderly gentleman tells his story I am mesmerised and drawn in to share his optimistic but realistic dream.

The small village of Shia, with a population of 3000, is one of 12 villages, with populations totaling 30,000, in the Norvisi Development Union (NORDU) in the Volta region in eastern Ghana, on the border of Togo.

Set deep in the Volta Basin, a lush tropical paradise cradled by mountains, Lake Volta and the Volta River, the NORDU district is ideal for growing cocoa plantations.

Justus says: “The conditions here are idyllic with rich soil and high rainfall. Cocoa trees just thrive. Each tree grows as high as six meters and produces around 60 pods each harvest. And there are three harvests each year. Cocoa growing has the potential to once again become a booming industry here.”

However the farmers faced almost insurmountable problems when working their small plots in isolation. So Justus, using his eloquent powers of persuasion at countless public meetings, has formed the Cocoa Farmers Association bringing together up to 500 humble farmers to forge collective strength.

To jump-start the farms, Justus underwent rigorous training in propagation and started growing his own seedlings. From 2007 he produced a staggering 10,000 seedlings a year, and when the farmers couldn’t afford to buy them he generously gave away batches for free.

Right now Justus needs help to subsidise 250,000 seedlings to get the plantations underway and the MAD (Make A Difference) Foundation has set up the Shia Bliss Chocolate Project.
Founder of the MAD Foundation, John Lawler says: "We hope that someone out there, be it an individual looking to give back, or a group looking to adopt this Project, will contact us so we can help Justus and the rest of the NORDU communities make this income-generation dream a reality."  

In his grand plan, Justus aims to oversee bumper harvests over the next three years with the goal of establishing a factory to convert the beans into cocoa powder.

He says if the farmers could export cocoa powder, rather than sell raw beans to the Cocoa Board at fixed prices, they could maximise income for the growers and their communities.

“We need a foreign investor with the right kind of heart to help build a factory to enable this industry to flourish for the benefit of the farmers and their families, “ says Justus.

Cocoa growing is an ethical and worthwhile enterprise. After all pure cocoa is being lauded as the ‘Food of the Gods’ and a trendy ‘Super Food’ across the UK, Europe and US. Packed full of nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamins, good fats and feel-good stimulants, what is not to love about quality dark chocolate?

Flourishing cocoa farms is a realistic dream in this idyllic lush paradise with the perfect climate and conditions to produce highly nutritious, top grade cocoa.

Justus says: “Who knows, a humble cocoa powder factory may develop to become a full-scale cocoa products factory - churning out products like chocolate, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor - you name it. This will integrate NORDU into the thriving eco-tourism industry in the Volta Region."

If anyone can revive the cocoa industry, Justus can. As a respected elder in Shia and well connected throughout Ghana and abroad through his distinguished career in finance and business, he can make it happen in partnership with an investor who shares his vision.

As father of six, grandfather of nine and mentor to countless young people in his village, Justus is determined to leave a legacy that will transform life for future generations. Clearly, reviving the cocoa growers’ glory days of the past is the way of the future for this blessed region of Ghana.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

20 Accra: Soul Searching on Leaving Ghana

 Today is Friday, the final day of my stay in Ghana and I’m soul-searching. What has been my motivation for spending and tipping freely, giving gifts, for volunteering, in making on-going commitment to projects and taking on personal cases?

If I’m honest with myself I admit I want to be liked. I’ve long been approval-seeking and a people-pleaser. And it sure is easy to win approval when you’re the one with cash to splash amongst people who are scrambling to survive day to day.  It’s easy to play the Big Shot. 

But coming into maturity I now realise that trying to be liked by others is not necessarily the right motivation. I want to like myself. Like all human beings, I have to live with myself and it feels good to be kind, compassionate and generous. This is how I want to be; living every moment in my core values. 

I want to be a practical Christian, following the scriptural teaching in Matthew 25 when Jesus instructed us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, give shelter to the homeless and clothes to the shivering, help the sick and visit those in prison.

However sporadic handouts by well-meaning tourists like me are not a lasting solution. We who live in the privileged part of the world must assist those living in poverty to solve the problems of food production, clean water, housing and infrastructure, education and employment in sustainable ways.

Redressing the balance requires scrutinising the underlying causes of inequality, facing the uncomfortable reality that our high standard of living in developed countries comes at the expense of people in poor countries, exploited by governments and corporations for their resources and labour. 

‘Sickness’ is a broad term covering emotional and mental heartache and despair as much as physical illness and injury. Caring for the sick means embracing the world as one family, accepting we are responsible for mums and dads, brothers and sisters and children in other countries as much as those in our own families and neighbourhoods.

I believe ‘imprisonment’ includes the entrapment of millions of people globally who are robbed of their safety and freedom through abuse and violations of human rights and the immoral business of war. ‘Visiting those in prison’ means the recovery, rehabilitation and redemption of those traumatised by war and abuse. 

I believe in the power of compassionate people working together to end war and abuse, poverty and social injustice.

So my three-week experience in Ghana has come to an end and I cap off the trip with a delightful visit to Pastor Charles’ beloved mother. Big brother Arnold collects me from the Paloma hotel and takes me to meet Ma Anita, an inspirational, beautiful, intelligent lady.

A legendary cook, Ma Anita has made fresh chilled watermelon, pineapple and mango juice, a scrumptious healthy salad, creamy beans and the best deep fried plantain I’ve eaten in Ghana! We sit outside in her tranquil tropical garden.

With her twinkling eyes and smooth skin, Ma looks much younger than her 82 years. She is the dignified matriarch of a large high-achieving family of two sons and two daughters and numerous grandchildren. She raised her family on her own, putting her children through university by working in insurance then turning to baking bread and running a store.

Well-travelled and well-read, Ma has a vast general knowledge, sharp intellect and, I’m told, a lovely singing voice and she is still active in her church where Arnold is pastor. It is a great honour to meet her and Arnold and enjoy their company for a few hours on my final day here.

Ma shows me the family photo albums, we have an entertaining skype call with Charles and Theresa and Ma gives me an exquisite Ashanti hand woven shawl which I will treasure.

Meeting this well-educated, accomplished family has given me another insight into Ghanaian society. Clearly, education is the key to succeeding in any culture. Ma Anita gave her children that life-changing opportunity and now her grandchildren are all university educated with high-powered careers ahead of them and the strong desire to make a difference.

Hope for positive change lies with new generations of clever, creative and compassionate young people.

Arnold and his lovely wife Elizabeth kindly battle peak hour city traffic to drop me at the airport. We hug goodbye knowing we have bonded as friends.

So here I sit in the departure lounge, waiting to board the 10.45 pm overnight flight with British Airways that will whisk me back to my regular life in a three-storey terrace in West Ealing on the Piccadilly Line.

I suspect I will experience culture shock in reverse as I re-enter normality. My values have been subjected to a major tweaking. I know I will be less consumeristic and less complaining, more appreciative of my privileged lifestyle, education and job opportunities, creature comforts, good toilets, electricity, air conditioning, safe water and nutritious food, and more grateful than ever for my loving, supportive family and friends.

I have directly touched the lives of hundreds of Ghanaians and they have deeply touched my heart. I have given a few little tokens but received immeasurably more intangible gifts of the heart I will cherish forever.

I will honour my promises to those whose dreams I now carry beyond the constraints imposed by poverty into the developed world of opportunities. And I will continue to strive to make a difference for my new friends, their families and communities.

So now I will sign off and say Goodbye Ghana. May God bless you and keep you in peace, kindness and faith and throw in a dash of prosperity too. Thanks you for your warmth and friendship and adventures.   

Friday, July 6, 2012

19 Cape Coast: Discovery of African Talent

Last night when I ventured out in the pitch black to collect my name bracelets from Koby’s mate, who should be waiting in the beer garden for me than the Reggae muso with the bountiful dreadlocks?

In some cosmic coincidence, Kingdom (yes that’s his name) just bumped into me! We walk together to the corner and who should we bump into (another miracle!) but his musician friend Wonder Boy (yes, that’s his name!)

Actually I think the boys are calling and texting each other with tip-offs as to my movements and ambush me, in a very nice way of course!

Another BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) handsome young Kingdom was not chatting me up for my voluptuous body after all! He sees in me a potential UK promoter and publicist for their band!  

If Kingdom is shy and mysterious, Wonder Boy is not reticent in launching into the hard sell on his group of African drummers and dancers. I’m intrigued and, after collecting my bracelets, the three of us wander back to the beer garden for an impromptu business meeting.

The group of three drummers and two dancers (and sometimes Wonder Boy’s sister also dances) is called African Dance Theatre. The talented performers, who’ve been playing since childhood, are a sensation at festivals and gigs up and down Cape Coast with shows that include dramatic fire tricks and acrobatics. And the dynamic team also teach workshops in drumming, dancing and singing to school students and adults.

Like musicians everywhere they yearn to be discovered and get that elusive lucky break. The boys have been praying night and day for years for someone to come along. And you guessed it! I am the answer to their prayers, Heaven sent, direct delivery! Divine Appointment!

I am instantly hired as their International Manager and adopted as Mummy yet again! My mind is racing with ideas. This unexpected discovery, as an accidental talent scout, has triggered my latent fantasy of being a promoter! My networking instinct kicks in, as I mentally list all the people I know who could help the guys in a grand cross-cultural collaboration!

This is crazy and a little bit MAD, but Making A Difference often means suspending common sense and going with the flow. I say goodnight to the boys with a plan to meet them on the beach bright and early for a photo shoot.

So here I am at 8 am in the beer garden, slightly dumbstruck, with camera in hand and the boys show up, Kingdom and Wonder Boy and three others; Antonio, Patrick and Joseph, all with stunning physiques, dazzling smiles and heads exploding with thick black dreadlocks!

Just as planned, we hit the beach with the rising sun in perfect position and the boys strut their stuff, performing with power and passion for the camera. I effortlessly snap the most remarkably beautiful shots and take some footage of the boys drumming, singing and dancing. It is an enthralling spectacle that brings tourists and locals running to watch.

Our spontaneous photo shoot is surreal and could not be better if carefully planned and stage-managed! These talented guys really are naturals! They could take the world by storm! 

Over a big breakfast, they enthuse about their dreams and ambitions to extend beyond Ghana. I am fast getting caught up in their vision of global success!

The excited boys tell me how the newly elected US President Obama came to town in 2009 in the biggest event that’s even happened on the Cape Coast; how everyone across Ghana converged, celebrating with parades and festivals, how powerful jets blew the roofs off shacks, security soldiers swarmed the streets and how Ghana’s President, the village Queen Mothers and King Fathers and all the local chiefs laid on the pomp and ceremony and even built a ‘palace’ for the glamorous couple to stay.

The euphoric celebrations I suspect were not so much adulation for Barrack personally as rejoicing for the inspiring example that a once-disadvantaged black man could rise to a position of greatness through “the audacity of hope.”

All five smiling boys escort me along Obama Street, tracing the famous route, embracing the spirit of possibility, as they direct me to the depot and put me on a bus for Accra. I give them motherly hugs, heavy with a serious sense of responsibility that I am now carrying the hopes and dreams of these young performers.

I’m travelling on a big bus today, not a 15-seat tro tro, but it’s just as cramped as the wide-shouldered man next to me is solid as a rock and not giving an inch! I sit hunched for two and half hours and finally, bone weary and scruffy, end up at the fancy, air-conditioned Paloma Hotel.

No prizes for guessing what comes next: the hot shower, washing my hair, the lashings of skin cream and I’m civilised again. I spot a veggie burger on the Room Service menu. How did I miss that last time?

Now I am coming down the earth, not so much crash landing, as floating on a parachute, as I reflect on the whirlwind two days at Cape Coast. Apparently I am now the Manager of the African Dance Theatre!

If you happen to be bored and stuck in a rut, might I suggest a trip to Africa! Your life will never be dull again!  

18 Cape Coast: Beautiful Fishermen, Scary Canopy Walk and Living in Hope

Unlike yesterday’s 4 am start, I’ve overslept and wake with a fright at 7.40 remembering I’m meeting cabbie Abraham at 9 am.

I could take a cheap tro tro to the rainforest but I struck a deal with Abraham to drive me the one-hour, 33 km rough road trip, wait around, and then return me to the Oasis for the grand sum of 40 cedis (£13). The door-to-door, personalised service is convenient and comfortable and I’m happy to give this devoted family man a jackpot fare.

The cabbies in these poor coastal towns rely on the occasional tourist with deep pockets to compensate for endless standing around and squabbling with hoards of cabbies who compete for passengers in their customised yellow-cornered mean machines.

I strap on my heavy hiking boots hauled all the way from home for this starring moment. But first breakfast!
Suddenly dozens of fishermen are swarming the beach, hauling on ropes attached to a net, prancing and chanting, their melodious deep voices filling the air. The German couple and I rush with cameras swinging on our wrists, lured by their siren song, captivated by the spectacle of beautiful men at work.

The camaraderie of the beach fishermen is delightful and they appear to be elated as they harmonise and haul ashore their catch of small silver fish, flapping and flashing in the morning sun.
Later Abraham tells me boat fishermen chug further out to sea in motorised canoes chasing bigger fish. My late father, a fearless deep ocean game fisherman would be impressed!

Kakum National Park, sporting a sensational canopy walk, is a major international tourist attraction. The esteemed Bradt travel guide on Ghana devotes two enthusiastic pages of evocative description to the canopy walk, unique across the whole of Africa.

Built to protect and promote the rainforest in 1995 with US aid dollars, the series of seven wood and rope bridges extend 350 metres through the dense forest, towering up to 40 metres above the lush treetops. Tackling the daring walk is not for the faint-hearted or height phobic.

There’s no turning back if you lose your nerve and if you happen to drop your sunnies or camera, well you can say goodbye to them and expect some lucky monkey will be wearing your shades and snapping pictures, the envy of all the forest inhabitants.

Well I’m up for it! This is my very own extreme sports challenge, as adventurous as I get, as bungee jumping, climbing Kilimanjaro and running marathons are out of the question! I am pouring buckets of sweat in the close to 100 per cent humidity when I join a group of garrulous American tourists from Colorado and college students from Virginia.

Our conscientious guide extols the therapeutic virtues of special trees before we climb the steep steps to the viewing platform at the start of first bridge. I follow the others in single file as we wobble and sway with each step on the narrow plank, white-knuckled hands gripping the ropes on each side. Feeling like a baby elephant on a tight rope, I am slightly scared, imagining losing my foothold and slipping off the plank or somehow plummeting headfirst over the ropes.

By the fourth bridge I’m telling myself to trust my feet and look up. The tranquil, vivid greenery is soothing and I stride along, chatting casually, high above the leafy canopy, with the friendly college students who are curious about my career in journalism and why I’m travelling alone at my mature age!

By the time we return to the park entrance, the leaden sky is teeming with rain and we are all saturated like half-drowned furry mammals, having an authentic rainforest experience!

The canopy walk costs an exorbitant 30 cedis for non-Ghanaians. With the promised cash for Abraham folded neatly in my purse, I’m skint and forced to pass on visiting the nearby Monkey Forest Resort, a sanctuary for orphaned and injured animals. I’m disappointed but commit to seeing the wildlife when I travel in Kenya and Uganda, hopefully with Andrew.

We hit the road, cruising past poor villages of broken down huts and bustling markets, which by now are familiar sights. I’m no longer shocked by the ever-present poverty and no longer reaching for my camera. However I am shocked by an impressive mansion, perched brazenly on a hill, emerging from the surrounding slums like a mirage.

Abraham, himself a devout Christian, explains the gleaming new million dollar mansion is a Born-Again church! I can’t help feeling annoyed at such distorted priorities when villagers, who can barely buy food, donate their meagre finances to such an elaborate building. But Abraham accepts the paradox in this fervently religious country.

Nervous to go anywhere near the corner where the hustling lads are lurking, I steel myself to be strong and say NO to their irresistible offers, especially since I don’t possess two coins to rub together! But I will have to return, cashed-up after an emergency withdrawal at the ATM, and I’m sure the razor sharp lads can sniff the fresh supply of money. 

With royal waves and cheery ‘Helloooo’s’ to my endless young male ‘admirers’ (please indulge my delusions, I realise they are only interested in the contents of my purse!) who appear our of nowhere, I have survived the risky stroll to the cash machine and flopped, hungry and thirsty at the Moringa vegetarian café.

I order an exotic selection of yam balls, tofu kebab and ‘Black Beauty’ (battered aubergine) with spicy sauce and coconut-mango-lime juice. A group of Irish girls are venting about their travel hardships and when we start talking I discover they have been volunteering as teachers in Ghana for six months. Jaded and homesick, they are ready to jump on a plane back to Ireland.

Three sweet, innocent little kids approach me asking for donations for they Christian Union Youth Camp. I am now highly suspicious of these donation forms. I have a hunch the ‘official’ forms are printed by a racketeer paying the kids a small percentage of takings from gullible tourists. That’s my theory having been conned several times now. I give the big-eyed kids a cedi each anyway!

Confession! Rounding the corner, almost back safely in my hut, I have succumbed to Koby’s relentless charm and ordered seven more name bracelets from his clever friend and one ‘gold’ bracelet engraved by Koby himself with the symbol for ‘hope’. Is there any hope for me? Probably not, when it comes to sweet-talking, handsome boys. But with such talented entrepreneurs there is indeed hope for Ghana.           

17 Cape Coast: Chatted Up in Hippy Heaven

I have time-travelled back to the Hippy Era of the 1960s to a circular rendered brick and thatched roof beach hut with zany patchwork curtains, wild mosaic floor tiles, bamboo furniture and a concrete framed bed! Very trippy! Very cool! Far-out, Dude! Welcome to the budget-priced Oasis Beach Resort on the time-warped Cape Coast of Ghana! 

I can hear the roar of the roiling grey ocean and finally that mangy dog on a chain has jumped down from the fence and is now biting fleas off his hind leg under the shade of a palm tree.

Not sure what to do next? Go into town and find a cash machine, a late breakfast, an internet café? Abraham, the cabbie delivered me to this exotic ‘resort’ this morning, just a short 15-minute drive from Elmina along the scrubby coastline.

Oh ecstasy, euphoria, elation! I found a vegetarian café! A funky little healthy eatery called Moringa run by a German charity, the Boabab Children’s Foundation. Leisurely reading a political magazine and watching the activity, I devour a fresh salad drenched in delicious oil with…wait for it…avocado and tofu! Manna from Heaven!

I sip on a divine coconut and pineapple smoothie! Coconuts, like pure cocoa, are now being ‘discovered’ (they were under our noses all the time) by the western world. Re-branded a ‘super food’, for centuries the health benefits of coconuts have been know to indigenous cultures; a source of omega oils for the brain, assorted nutrients and instant rehydration that no amount of straight water can match. Arrhhhh! Now I feel better!

Yes I found a cash machine and yes, I found a pokey internet café tucked away in a narrow laneway. I had to turn sideways to squeeze through, now twice my usual size after mountains of carbs. I fire off a few rushed emails and facebook messages and I’m back on the street armed with cash and dangerous. (Warning to Husband: Do Not Read This Bit)

I did some impulse shopping, the best kind! A cornucopia of stalls selling irresistible colourful clothing suddenly springs up out of nowhere in this historic seaside town. I single-handedly boost the local economy buying African apparel for the whole family! I wonder how the wild new outfits will translate in London?

Running the gauntlet of the sweet-talking boys hustling for business, I land back in my groovy beach shack. The more I hang out here, the more I like the peace and solitude and view of the tumultuous waves from my window. I have a cup of tea, thank you very much, and a coconut cake from the veggie café, my laptop and my mythical readers and I am truly content in this sublime moment.  

Some people tell me they suffer inner conflict; that they are constantly arguing with themself! However I have discovered on this trip that I get along with myself very well! I’m enjoying my own company.

One of the pleasures of travelling alone is being free to make my own observations on people and places without absorbing fellow travellers’ views. This is why professional writers, photographers, artists and musicians relish wandering through foreign cultures alone. Creative souls can interpret their surroundings with indisputable subjectively. I’m channelling Vincent Van Gough, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen… did someone slip Magic Mushrooms in my salad?

Better clear my head with a wistful walk on the overcast beach (missing exuberant Labrador Bonny.) The forlorn dog on the chain is standing on the fence again. Maybe I can free him for a romp on the sand?

His owner says ‘No, he bites people,’ which is hard to believe! I saunter off with only my camera as company and get my baggy white pants wet misjudging the reach of the frothy waves. Teenagers are joyfully playing football, fishermen are meticulously tending their boats and three little pigs are foraging on the beach. Three little pigs on the beach? I’m not hallucinating, honestly! 
Nothing surprises me anymore in this easy-going country!

I suddenly remember why I’m tired. I was awake at 4 am, illuminated with light bulb ideas and writing frantically. This attack of creativity is wearing me out! And then I had an in-depth conversation over breakfast with an American nurse who volunteers in a clinic up north and her Ghanaian husband who supports the village through exporting crafts. We shared our enthusiasm for volunteering and agreed that the benefits are mutual.

Tonight at the Oasis beachside restaurant under the stars, I must confess I am tempted to eat fish. Tired of rice, spaghetti, yams and bean stew, I fancy a different taste and a good serve of protein and this being a fishing village, the catch is ultra fresh. In my pre-vegetarian days I did enjoy the succulent snapper and mackerel caught by dad and cooked by mum. I come ever so close but then opted for the ever-reliable veggie pizza.

And another confession! I do believe a Reggae musician with faulty eyesight is chatting me up! When he enquires why I am on my own I explain my husband is home in London missing me and that my son is older than he is. This is the reality check and wake-up call that sends him scurrying into the dark night! Being chatted up by a sexy black man half my age? Flattering, unnerving, actually, quite weird.    

16 Elmina: The Shame of Slavery, the Hope of Escape

When I step out the door of the Brick House I am wearing a flashing neon sign attached to my head reading Dumb Tourist Easy Target.

Ambitious young Andrew is the first to spot me and pounce. We marvel at the coincidence of ‘Andrew’ also being my husband’s name, then he asks my name and the business transaction begins!

Andrew’s clever friend, George weaves name bracelets with his own dextrous fingers using the colours of Ghana’s flag, green, yellow, red and black. I am hooked! Within minutes I’ve notched up 21 names of family and friends for George to create in his ‘studio’ corner by the castle gate. At three cedis each, he’s having a bumper day! Don’t be too alarmed for me! C3 = £1, so divide C63 by 3 = £21 and I haggled for a whopping C3 bulk discount!

But fast-talking Andrew’s not finished with me yet. There’s his soccer club that needs jerseys and boots. Wait a minute, isn’t this a case of déjà vu? I’ve been down this road before with young Clinton and Felix in Shia! And I know how it ends, with me shaking my empty purse!

But I’m a sucker for a good cause and I donate C10 to his club, all signed for officially on a special sponsorship form, and C5 to his mate’s club and a further C10 for Andrew to buy himself an English dictionary.

The other jewellery hawkers want a piece of the action. You can guess how this scene is played out. A beguiling teenage boy with a lovely smile sells me seven bracelets for C20. A bargain! A gentle woman called Comfort moves in and scores C5 for more bracelets.

I break free and make my way to the Elmina Castle with young Andrew in hot pursuit. He gives me a shell with a hand written message and a friendship necklace. I suspect our dealings are not over yet.

Aptly, today is Republic Day, a national holiday celebrating 55 years since Ghana became a Republic in 1957 when they politely asked the British to leave! Being also terribly polite, the British did just that. Ghana has proudly enjoyed democratic elections ever since.

At the entrance I face another obstacle to negotiate. Entry is a small charge for Ghanaians and students but sticky-nose tourists are charged C11 (a reasonable way to redress the balance ever so slightly). But read the fine print! It costs tourists C20 to take photos! Hooley Dooley. That’s a touch unfair! You could knock me down with a feather! This is a first! Not even the Vatican Museum charges for photos!

Having been fleeced already, I opt to refrain from taking photos. It’s like a drug addict promising to abstain! Being a holiday, the grim tourist attraction is over-run with school kids and extra visitors so I tag along with Phillip, the guide, and a school group in lime green polo shirts and a Danish couple.

Phillip explains how the once-grandiose castle was originally built by the Portuguese 530 years ago as a fort to protect missionaries and traders. But interest shifted from gold to human cargo in the 17th century when
innocent Africans from throughout the continent were rounded up and captured and brought to Elmina Castle, ingloriously converted to horrendously cruel dungeons.

Up to 1000 African people (600 men and 400 women) were held in the dungeons until slaving ships came to transport them in appalling and treacherous conditions.

Soldiers sexually abused female captives. Many got pregnant and countless women died in shame and agony. Men convicted for being Freedom Fighters against slavery were incarcerated in suffocating cells with no food or water. Surviving captives were herded through the Door of No Return to be transported to numerous complicit countries and condemned to lives of immense suffering and hardship.

Between 12 and 20 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic from the late 17th to the early 19th century. We like to naively believe that slavery ended back then but human trafficking is still rampant today.

Our guide, Phillip tells us that the British and Dutch attempted to abolish slavery in 1807 but illegal trade continued until 1860 when finally, not so much on humane grounds as the fact machines could now do the job of slaves, the disgraceful practice came to end at Elmina.

A sombre plaque at Elmina Castle reads: ‘In Everlasting Memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this.’

Looking around the soul-chilling dungeons and reflecting on the despicable crimes committed against the African people is a disturbing experience and I head back to the guesthouse for a breather.

Later in the afternoon I emerge to collect my handmade name bracelets from George. My new best friend, young Andrew invites me to the holiday football match so I agree to meet him later.

Young Andrew collects me and steers me through the chaos of stalls and mud and rubbish to the red dirt field where thousands of spectators, all black, are hyped up for the Big Game. Yet again I stand out like a snowman at a Black Panther Convention. People watch me suspiciously, or is it with curiosity, as young Andrew leads me to an ideal vantage point.

We watch the action for half an hour or so and see the home team score a goal to a rapturous response from the crowd! Then I notice the mossies circling me, planning their strategy, ready to launch an attack, and I realise I’ve forgotten to apply the super strength repellent. I’d rather not contract malaria if I can avoid so I inform Andrew I’m going back to the guesthouse and he insists on escorting me. 

Andrew has upped the ante, telling me about his large family of three brothers and three sisters and his parents who are unemployed and struggle to pay the rent and buy food and how they cry with despair.

At the aspirational age of 25, he burns with ambition to study computer technology in the UK and dreams of landing a good job and supporting his family. I’m overcome with compassion and wish I could help him escape this poverty trap through an education and job opportunities.  

I have no idea how the UK immigration system works in regard to visas for Ghanaian people but I tell hopeful young Andrew I will do the research. And I will. I have now “adopted” two young men to help educate and get jobs. Two young lives out of millions. It’s a start.