Ghana: Heading home

An index to this series appears at the first post.

October 21, 2018

When my alarm sounded at 5:00 AM, I was able to roll out of bed pretty easily, despite my legs. I was downstairs in the lobby with all my things around 5:40 AM, and the desk attendant headed out to the street to negotiate a taxi. Happily, the short run to the airport would cost me only 15 cedis ($3 USD). In the rush to get my things into the taxi, I realized belatedly that I had not returned my keycard for the room. I am grateful that those are disposable!

The taxi driver was taciturn, and that was just fine with me. My view out the windscreen was a bit occluded; it bore the remnants of a large sticker (perhaps a metropolitan parking penalty?) and some smaller ones, plus the right wiper blade was permanently lodged in the middle of my line of sight. The radio played some sort of religious programming. Rather suddenly, it switched over to a nice recording of the hymn “All things bright and beautiful.” He continued driving, imperturbably, but I sang along (albeit at a whisper). I enjoyed memories of an obscure Monty Python song.

When I arrived at the airport, I saw that the boarding pass desks would not open for my flight until 6:30. At 6:40 I was still waiting, since the security people were having a bit of a discussion. Soon enough, though, the queue began moving forward (I was at the head). I was again grateful to have brought my yellow fever immunization card. I was asked three times before I made it through security, and they checked for the card again before I boarded the flight!

It was odd seeing the flight from Dulles to Accre pulling up to the gate. Previously I have been one of the people aboard that ten-hour flight, but now I was just picking up SAA 210 for the six-hour leg to Johannesburg. I was on the aisle seat for the journey.

Sadly, the movie screen controls were quite troublesome. Occasionally I could make the touchscreen respond, but the remote was completely out of juice. I held out a fond hope that I could watch “Black Panther” or “Infinity Wars” or “Solo,” but I was out of luck once again. Instead I watched “Ocean’s 8” (lots of fun), “Miss Sloane” (gripping and decidedly naughty), and the first half of “Red Sparrow” (but how does it end?).

Our flight was late into Johannesburg, and the immigration line was very, very long. By the time I emerged from the baggage claim to re-check my bags, I had less than half an hour remaining to board my flight. I couldn’t jog, but I did manage to shuffle my legs along a bit more quickly. I boarded the bus from the gate to my plane, letting Natasha know I would be on board the plane. With just two more hours of flying time, I was back in my baby’s arms!

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Ghana: Injured Dave behaves badly in Accra

An index to this series appears at the first post.

[I don’t think of myself as a drama queen, but I believe my behavior qualified for this title on my last full day in Ghana.  The nation is full of extremely polite people, and my incandescent rage at the hotel in Accra caused several people to act embarrassed on my behalf, as though I had noisily released gas.]

October 20, 2018

Intermittent black-outs and brown-outs had inactivated the wifi access from the KCCR guesthouse from the time I arrived after class on October 19th. I was very grateful when my host, Dr. Kwarteng, came by the guesthouse to bid me farewell on the morning of the 20th.  Emmanuel came to pick me up just a half hour later, and soon we were en route to the VIP bus terminal.

VIP bus from Kumasi to Accra

Upon arriving, a would-be porter tried to grab my larger backpack from the car, but I intervened repeatedly until he went away. When I paid my bus fare, the clerk said he didn’t have my five cedi change from a 50 cedi note, despite a fistful of money. I went back to the baggage compartment, and when he asked me for the 5 cedi charge, I shrugged and pointed to the ticket seller.  My bag made it onto the bus.

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Premium bus service requires premium decorations!

My bus seat was all the way in the back row this time (I had been in the front on the way to Kumasi). The seats had interesting red gingham / solid fuchsia covers on them, and the tinted windows had some sort of valance hanging above them. My seat had reclining and foot rest options, and the seat belt worked just fine. Once again, I appeared to be the only one using one.

As the bus pulled from the terminal at 8:30 AM. I groaned quietly as a pastor wasted no time in rising from his seat to regale us with tales of hellfire and damnation. He had schooled his voice to produce the maximal televangelist tone. I recorded a minute or two, but mostly I just tried to sleep. After thirty minutes, he wound down his donation collection and exited the bus.

On the run from Kumasi down to Accra, we had one refreshment stop in the middle at the Paradise VIP terminal. It offered not only full bathrooms but also lots of food options. That is not to say that people never peed otherwise. On a couple of occasions, I saw a passenger walk up to the driver for a quiet word, and then the bus would pull to a stop. One of the dudes simply walked into somebody’s front yard, about twenty yards from the bus door, turned his back on the bus, and let loose. I guess it would be preferable to live a bit away from the bus route.

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I am pretty sure we did not take the route passing through Saltpond!

The entertainment for this road trip was supplied by a telenovella titled “Enye Me Saa” (another passenger translated this as roughly, “don’t do this to me”). The story line centered on a married couple that was struggling to produce a pregnancy (I’ve read that many Ghanaians perceive a marriage that does not produce children to be deficient). The story line became very dark, very quickly, as people broke into their home and raped the woman. When she became pregnant, the husband became verbally and then physically abusive toward his wife. Meanwhile some relative of hers sought solace increasingly in the evangelical church, but eventually her top-of-the-lung casting out of demons ran afoul of others living in the home. It was really very hard to watch several hours of this unfolding, but I couldn’t really sleep with all the yelling from the characters.

Two taxis make bad life decisions

When we arrived at “Circle,” the major exchange on Kwame Nkrumah Ave, the taxi drivers seemed to have piled in a bunch to reach me at the same time. After collecting my bag, I turned my back on them and marched for the street. They shouted “white man, come back!” and I simply ignored them. Even if I’m supposed to “be nice,” I don’t have to put up with being treated like a cash machine with legs.

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Having my biases confirmed about taxis wasn’t not a good welcome to Accra.

I did hire a cab who was pointed in the right direction, though. I asked him before I got into his car what the rate to Oxford Street in Osu would be and he replied 30 cedis. I got in, and after he drove a kilometer he told me it would be 50. I made him drive me direct to my hotel for the 50. It just wasn’t worth arguing further; I had become accustomed to an altogether different level of service from taxi drivers Kofi in Cape Coast and Emmanuel in Kumasi.

What I didn’t realize is that the hotel had a nasty surprise waiting for me. I had secured a reservation via Booking.com at the “At Home Boutique,” the same place I had stayed when I first arrived in Accra. They told me that they were full, though, and they had decided to host me at another hotel they owned, something starting with a “C”. I replied that this was inappropriate, and they just said, “we don’t want you to be disappointed.” They piled me into my third taxi of the day, paying the driver to take me to the other location.

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Just a little bit of communication could have made this so much better!

He drove north, closer to the airport, coming quite close to the WEB Du Bois Centre that I had visited before. Eventually he drove into the driveway of a very fancy hotel, the Tang Palace Hotel. I asked him to check that we were in the right place, and he declared that this is where we were supposed to be. I walked into the lounge of this four-star resort and checked at the desk. Of course, they had no idea who I was. I turned, and the taxi was gone.

I become a problem to others while trying to solve my own problems

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In limbo at the Tang Palace, with a giraffe skin on the wall

Naturally I asked the front desk to call the At Home Boutique, and they attempted to do so several times. At Home found it convenient to leave their front desk unattended, so we never reached them. I am grateful that the Tang Palace gave me access to the network so I could figure out a plan. Staying at Tang was not a real option; their lower-cost weekend rate was $200 a night. Just the same, the sparkling swimming pool in their inner courtyard caught my eye. My attention kept drifting, though, to a full-size giraffe pelt mounted flat on the far wall of the two-story lobby. My stomach turned. I worked the problem over in my head for about a half hour.

Google Maps saved my bacon. In a close examination of the neighborhood, I found the (two-star) “Congress Hotel” just 800 meters away, and I realized this is the one that the At Home Boutique had mentioned in passing. Despite my aching heel and knees, I shouldered the two backpacks and started marching over there. The taxis passing by could not believe that a white man with an obvious load preferred to walk rather than to ride with them. There was never a chance that I would get in their cars. Soon I had compounded the odd look by balancing the large backpack (filled with dirty clothes, at this point) atop my head, for all the world like the roadside sellers I’ve seen everywhere during the last two weeks. North on Bostal I marched, coming down the hill. Back up the hill I marched east on Ridge. I turned further up the hill by walking north on Patrice Lumumba.

I had arrived, and I’m afraid I let the staff have it with both barrels. When the busboy guided me up three flights of stairs (no elevator) on my throbbing heel, I tried to do my best. The staff comped me a Guinness Malta. I am afraid I exuded “imperious full professor in a bad mood.” Nonetheless, I had reached my hotel room, and after checking in with family, I limped into the shower to cool myself off. The water seemed a bit colored by its passage through the pipes. I am renowned for my insensitive nose, but some smell was vexing my nostrils at the room.

Seeking comfort in food

After such a frustrating day, I was hungry; recall that I was trying to figure out where I would stay tonight when I should have been eating my lunch! I decided to treat myself to dinner at a proper restaurant. Google Maps pointed me to the Imperial Peking Chinese Restaurant, apparently just down the street! I asked the manager about it, and she mentioned something I didn’t catch about getting there. I started walking north-east. It was a really pleasant place to be, even thought the sun was already down (the restaurant doesn’t open before 6:30 PM). I realized that I was in a very wealthy part of town. Many of the complexes have adopted the gated security structure that is so familiar in Cape Town. To illustrate just how exceptional this area is, many new sidewalks and curbs are being constructed. I passed a team of guys who had been pulling branches out of the road as a tree-felling team cut them down. This obstacle on the curb ended up costing me an ankle twist or two as I retraced this route (more below). I was pleased to see several bank branches had ATMs nearby!

As the road began its curl to the right, I saw an eatery at the oddly-named Koala Shopping Centre. I asked a security person for help reaching the Chinese restaurant, and he pointed me to someone else, who waved me into the centre’s private driveway (no taxis allowed except those carrying customers!). In no time I had found a beautifully appointed Chinese restaurant, with all the flourishes one might expect of P.F. Chang’s. I decided I had better look at the prices on the menu before going ahead. Well, they were not so very different from what I might have seen at P.F. Chang’s, too! Helpfully, though, the restaurant took Mastercard, so I was in luck– my pitiful currency collection would live through another cost!

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Nom nom nom

I am always carrying a book with me when I come to a restaurant solo, and yet this may have been the first time that the Maitre d’ asked to borrow it! The tome in question was The History of Ghana, and I’ve been really surprised by how many people here are curious about it, not even realizing that such books exist! I saw her thumbing through it, right up to when my food (chicken with cashew nuts and green tea) arrived at the table. Oh, it was delicious. I was surprised by one of the vegetables in that plate (or fruit: was it avocado?), and one of the waiters asked his manager for its identity. Surprisingly, he said it was bok choy, but I do not remember relishing this vegetable so in the past! Happily the Maitre d’ was willing to part with my book so I could read a bit during my dinner.

When the bill arrived, I saw that I owed 130 cedis ($26). I added a 10% tip to call it 143 cedis. In retrospect, I realized that my tip alone would have paid for the two dishes of red-red I enjoyed with the artist near the sports stadium in Accra. I trudged a bit more slowly back to the hotel.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire

In my food-bliss, I may have attempted to go too far. I explained that since I was leaving in the morning for my 9AM flight, I needed to get the shuttle at 6AM. They replied as though no shuttle existed, even though this is obviously an airport hotel. Perhaps the shuttle driver enjoys sleeping in? I told them to do a taxi, if that’s what was required, and that I wanted them to contract the rate because I am sick of being overbilled for that service.

And then I tried to pay my bill. I remember ensuring that the hotel took credit cards when I arrived this afternoon, and I believe the manager replied that yes, they did. Now the desk attendant told me that they do not take cards due to some vague bank error. I explained that this was at variance with what I had learned earlier. He called the manager, and she told him to tell me that she had told me no cards earlier. I replied that her words were at variance with the truth, because I would have exploded in a cloud of bile had she told me that this afternoon.

I asked what the bill was (204 cedis ~ $40.80), wondering just what the manager had meant by “maximum discount.” My reservation at the other hotel had been booked at $46.75 USD, so I appear to have received a 13% discount. In any case, I didn’t have that many cedis. I told the desk that because of their prevarication this afternoon, I was likely to injure my legs retracing my steps to the restaurant where I hoped to find an ATM taking MasterCard.

Oh, I bitched a nasty bitch as I trudged back up and back down Lumumba St. Taxis that paused to attract my attention mostly got verbal cues to go away, but my naughty fingers were just itching to come out. I am grateful that the shiny, new First Atlantic Bank took my card and spat out an additional 200 cedis. As I passed the fallen branches for my fourth time, I partially tripped and felt my ankle begin to give way. I slowed my pace and became aware that I was trembling (rage? stress? fever?).

When I came to the desk, I apologized for my behavior and handed my money over. The attendant said he needed a moment to get my change, and he had me sit down because I was clearly unsteady. A full fifteen minutes later, my change arrived. I asked about a bottle of water. He took six cedis ($1.20) back and vanished out the door. He returned with a cold half-liter. For reference, I have been paying three cedis for a bottle three times this size. I said nothing but began climbing the three flights of stairs back to my room, obviously hobbling.

When I reached my door, I carded in and the lock flashed green. I turned the handle and nothing happened. I carded in again and the lock flashed green. I turned the handle and put some weight into it. The door did not give way, but my knee did, and I spilled onto the tile floor. “Fine,” I said to myself. “I’ll just lie here.” I certainly had no energy or faith in my legs to do the stair cycle again. I texted Natasha, who was already asleep, but she rallied awake to keep me company. I tried the door again, and sometimes the lock went green, but sometimes it did not respond, and sometimes it turned red! At no time did it budge, no matter how I timed pulling the handle down.

After approximately twenty minutes, a guest from down the hall came back to his room and found me lying there. Good Samaritan that he was, he ran back down the stairs to notify them that they had a guest lying in the hallway. The young fellow came up, and the guest and he carried me between them into my room. The attendant showed that this door latch requires a lift rather than a push down to open. It seems counter-intuitive to me, but that’s how things go.

This day, gratefully, is about to end!

Ghana: the price for neglecting the schnapps at the Asante shrines

An index to this series appears at the first post.

October 17, 2018

With the afternoon tutorial complete, I ran for the exit. Emmanuel had returned in his taxi, and we stopped only for me to drop off my laptop at the guest house before we sprinted out of town, heading east. Our goal was to see one of only two World Heritage Sites in Ghana: the Asante Shrine at Besease (say “bay-see-ah-see”)! The N6 highway led east to a town named Ejisu. Ejisu was really dynamic when we passed through; they were enjoying a market day, and throngs of shoppers passed among market stalls in every available space.

I was glad to see Ejisu for another reason: Yaa Asantewaa was the queen mother from Ejisu. Asante rulers are chosen matrilineally. The current king names a woman as the queen mother, and her son becomes the current king’s successor. Sometimes the king chooses his own relative (such as his sister) for this role! Yaa Asantewaa (1840-1921) played a key role in resistance to the British. When the British deported her grandson, who was the king of Ejisu, she shamed the remaining leaders of the Asante into a rebellion that laid siege to the British fort in Kumasi (I had seen it only the day before!). The war between the Asante and the British raged from 1900 to 1902. In the aftermath, Yaa was exiled to the Seychelles, and the Asante Empire was annexed to the Gold Coast Colony.

The Asante shrine at Besease

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The high thatched roof is one of the most recognizable features of the shrine.

I blinked, and so I missed the gap between Ejisu and Besease. We turned off the highway at a church, and immediately thereafter we saw the shrine. Rather than being isolated in the middle of a mystic glade, the Asante shrine at Besease sits next to a dusty road in a neighborhood of concrete structures. The white walls have picked up some of the red clay dust of the environment. The thatch roof is probably the feature that would most make the shrine stand out from its environment.

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The symbols are not just decoration; they are a message.

The structure is more impressive from the inside, since the four chambers all open on a central courtyard. Why would World Heritage have identified this shrine as a critical structure? Well, one of the reasons that the Asante were so determined to “draw the line” when Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson was exiled was that the British had burned Kumasi to the ground in 1874. In its Asante Empire heyday, Kumasi was recognized as one of the prized capitals of Africa, with many beautiful building with adinkra symbols modeled in masonry on their facades. This architectural form now exists in only a handful of buildings, mainly nearly-ruined shrines to the east of Kumasi. Only one of these shrines was restored in 1998 to the condition it enjoyed during its heyday (complete with thatched roof): the one at Besease. As far as we can tell, the current structure dates from 1850.

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Schnapps bottles lie below the god’s tree, and the chief’s chair appears in the alcove behind it.

An attendant in a torn apron offered to explain the interior of the building. He demonstrated a pair of talking drums (although his drumsticks had long since broken). He explained that the tree growing in the courtyard was “god’s tree,” and the pile of schnapps bottles below reflected the number of special requests that have been made at this temple. The temple is apparently visited every forty days for special sacred ceremonies, and when the local chief visits, he has a special chair, chased in metal. We saw a rope of sheep vertebrae hanging from the sacred alcove and asked about them. Apparently women who request help getting pregnant will be given one of the vertebrae. When they successfully give birth, they return to the shrine with a sheep.

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I definitely sought permission before sitting on one of these stools!

I was delighted beyond measure when the attendant agreed that I could sit on one of the (insignificant) stools at the temple. I had been dying to sit on one since I had arrived in the country. The attendant also helped me fit into a woven skirt occasionally won by the priest. I was glad that we could get photos of the interior and in these photo opportunities, even if I felt a bit silly. Since many tourist sites in Ghana block the use of cameras, the free use at the shrine felt a little naughty. As we asked how much we owed for the tour, the attendant explained that we owed 10 cedis for admission and 2 cedis for each photograph!

Stores stocked full of kente in Bonwire

Feeling that we had seen something special, Emmanuel and I headed back to Ejisu to catch a road heading north to Bonwire (pronounced a bit like “bunn-ray”). It is one of the chief centers in Ghana for the production of kente cloth. The triple-head designs for the loom produce a very rich fabric that was originally reserved for the kings of the Ashanti. Today, however, the fabric is produced in a fabulous diversity of patterns and color palettes. Bonwire is ground zero for acquiring kente and seeing the cloth produced at its weaving centre.

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Store after store in Bonwire could boast a kente selection like this!

My experience there was a bit equivocal. Seeing such an amazing stock of this cloth was a bit shocking; the shops could have easily swallowed a horde of tourists. I was the only “obroni” walking around, though, in the off season. Over the course of my second week in Ghana, I have more frequently heard this word as children walk by, shyly waving. Against all experience, seeing a white person is thought to be lucky by the children here! Our arrival brought salespeople from the six kente shops on our street to the booth where we began our search. They all listened attentively as I explained that my wife’s beautiful red hair may not match well to the gold colors, and so I was looking for fabrics emphasizing the reds, blues, and greens. Cue the madness! At that point, salesmen ran back and forth across the street showing me weaves that I would surely like. We asked about some of the traditional patterns that are associated with Kente, such as “My Heart’s Desire,” but I rapidly got the impression that the pattern names have been repurposed for almost any potential pattern.

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The color palettes are quite diverse!

One should definitely arrive in Bonwire with a pocket full of 50-cedi notes, because the “triple weave” kente is rather expensive. The salesmen kept urging me to buy a bag of three sheets, with each sheet something like a meter wide and two meters long. Sadly, the price of a bag was frequently quoted in the neighborhood of 1000 cedis, which is $200 USD! Of course, they would happily sell an individual sheet, but I believe the least expensive triple weave one I found was 250 cedis ($50 USD). Eventually I found a green design in their scrap bag that really appealed to me, and they offered to sell it for 10 cedi; they no longer sold that design.

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Stoles like these are stitched together to produce larger sheets.

Speaking quietly to Emmanuel, I recommended that we get around the corner, out of sight of that street. The sales agents kept acting like sharks, with blood in the water! We entered a couple more of the stores on the main street, and we found a complete strip (approximately five inches wide) in a blue design that I liked for only 20 cedis. My best find, though, was a red, orange, and yellow fabric that was the right size for a lap blanket. Encouraged by Emmanuel, I countered 60 cedis to their price of 80 cedis, and now I have a blanket!

Dave injures his legs

Having arrived back at my housing at KCCR, I realized I needed to retrieve some money from my room to pay the taxi fare.  I darted around my room to find the money and then dashed back down the hall to the brightly-lit entrance.  I hurried over to Emmanuel’s taxi, failing to notice in the darkness that the two foot deep concrete culvert separating the sidewalk from the asphalt was uncovered on this side. My left foot fell right to the bottom, and I twisted my knees quite badly as I spun and fell onto my back, catching a lot of my weight on the heel of my left hand and index finger.  I screamed something loud and vulgar.

In the first moments, I felt sure that this much pain could only mean I had blown apart a knee.  Emmanuel moved my kente cloth-stuffed backpack under my head so I could rest more comfortably.  Gingerly I moved my legs back atop the sidewalk from the culvert.  My aching hand did not seem too traumatized, though I had some broken blood vessels below my skin.  My knees were a mess, with inflammation, abrasion, and scrapes piled atop each other.  I mistrusted my left heel, though it did not look badly abused; perhaps I had only a sprain?

After a few minutes, I tried to return to my feet.  It certainly did not feel great, but I was very pleased that my knees, ankles, and heel would support my weight.  Emmanuel helped me limp / shuffle down the hall, back to my room, and I thought he had headed out to his taxi again.  I maneuvered (slowly!) into the shower to clean up the mess.  When I got back out, I heard Emmanuel calling through the door to see if I didn’t want to go to the hospital after all.  He had waited all that time just to check on me!  He is a good guy.

I went to bed, unsure of how I would feel when I awoke!

[Epilogue: after getting injured on Wednesday evening, I was able to visit my doctor in Cape Town on Monday afternoon.  He sent me to the hospital for X-rays, which confirmed that my bones were intact, with no chips and breaks!]

Ghana: the legacy of the Asante in Kumasi

An index to this series appears at the first post.

October 16, 2018

After my afternoon tutorial was complete, I was pleased that Dr. Kwarteng had scheduled some tourism time for me! His friend Emmanuel operates a taxi service, so Alex asked him to to squire me around some of the cultural sites of Kumasi.

Kumasi is a distinctive city in West Africa because it served as the capital for the Asante Empire. (While the region surrounding Kumasi is called “Ashanti,” the group of people is generally called the “Asante.”) For a long time, the Denkyira were the dominant group in the “Gold Coast” because they controlled the gold mines in this region. The fort at Elmina (1482) is concrete evidence that the Portuguese were delighted to find a group to whom they could trade guns for gold! When the Denkyirahene (king of the Dinkyira) died after a reign of 40 years in 1694, his successor increased his demands of tribute from lesser kings in the area. He also worked his own people harder, leading to discontent. Osei Tutu, leader of the Kwaman, convinced other minor kings to band together to make war against the Denkyira, aided by fetish priest Okomfo Anokye, who pledged to swell the forces under Tutu with members drawn from the Denkyira. In 1701, the forces of the Denkyira met those of the Tutu coalition in battle at Feyiase. The Denkyirahene was killed, and the coalition under Osei Tutu became the masters of the gold mines and the trade connections to the coast. According to tradition, Anokye the priest called forth a golden stool from the heavens on which Osei Tutu was enstooled to become the first king of the Asante.

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This fort would not seem a comfortable place to wait out a siege!

We visited several sites that represent the pride the citizens of Kumasi feel in the Asante tradition. Ironically, the first place we reached was the Armed Forces Museum. Some parts of this British fort date back to 1820, but most of it corresponds to the structure of the fort as completed in 1897. Three years later, it sustained a siege during the war between the Asante and British. The Queen Mother of Ejisu, who had inspired some of the violence, was imprisoned at the fort, then sequestered at Elmina Castle, then shipped to exile in the Seychelles.

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The priest Anokye is very central to the founding of the Asante Empire!

I was very glad to get a closer look at the epic statue of Okomfo Anokye at Bantama Circle, next to the hospital. I could not find the name of its creator, but the sense of motion and elation in the figure is unmistakable. I danced between taxis struggling round the circle to reach it on foot. It was not a very comfortable option, because a homeless person was sleeping at the foot of the statue, and an elderly gentleman really wanted a donation. I was, however, able to snap a couple images of the statue that do not include the electrical wires running close by.

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This Adinkra symbol represents a sacred place for rituals.

Our next stop was the National Cultural Centre. In happier times, the Centre has been a beehive of activity, filled with tourists buying knick-knacks or dancing to the famous Asante talking drums. At 4:00 PM on an October Tuesday, the site was considerably more restrained, with many shopkeepers giving up on any more sales, and the loud drum music piping from speakers but largely unheeded. Emmanuel my taxi driver was discouraged by what he saw compared to past visits. I looked at a couple of shops that sold cloth in hopes of finding a good price on kente cloth (which represents one of the most decadent fabrics of the Asante), but the prices seemed premium. I looked at paintings, but none seemed particularly distinctive.

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This model from the National Museum of Ghana at Accra shows the typical structure of Asante buildings, with four sections opening on a central courtyard.

I was very grateful that Emmanuel pointed me down to the Prempeh II Jubilee Museum. How does a kingdom maintain momentum when political power devolves to a colonizer (the British, in this case) or to a secular government (Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana)? The forty years during which Prempeh II ruled the Asante (1931-1970) were relatively free of tension between the Asante and either of the two governments that ruled during this time (though a certain World War had effects even in West Africa). The small museum, consisting of four chambers of artifacts in an Asante-style structure (albeit with metal roof), does contain some special treasures. The “royal cask” is an elephant-skin bag that was sealed up by Anokye approximately 300 years ago. He charged that it never be opened to avoid disaster for the Asante Empire. I was wowed by a large brass pan and captured chieftan’s stool that dated to the Battle of Feyiase, in 1701. The idea that any king would expect enough gold dust to fill that pan as tribute was pretty astonishing! Once the Asante and British were at war, the latter placed quite a lot of attention on breaking the spirit of the Ashanti by capturing the golden stool on which the king’s authority rested. Eventually they were given a fake stool, manufactured from copper. The real deal appears in public only once in a very long while.

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The eight clans of the Akkan people: Dog, Buffalo, Parrot, Eagle, Leopard, Bat, Pied Crow, and Vulture

I really liked some animal staff heads that represented each of the eight clans within the Ashanti. The guide allowed me to capture a photo of those. She also described the leopard drums carried to battle by the Ashanti. She reported that they sounded like leopards. I thought that sounded ridiculous, but then she pulled out a mallet to play them, dragging the edge across the drum head sounded very menacing, indeed! I was grateful for an audio recording.

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I could get no closer to the Asante “Sword in the Stone!”

One more Asante artifact fell in this neighborhood– the sword that Anokye reputedly thrust into the ground to mark the spot where the golden stool descended. The sword has a little hut built around it on the campus of the Anokye Hospital. Sadly, we arrived after closing time, so I missed my chance to see it. We merged into the traffic heading out of downtown around 18:20, but the road seemed to move just a few feet at a time. It seems that Kumasi’s traffic jams are not just legendary; they’re quite real!

Ghana: teaching the Week of Bioinformatics

An index to this series appears at the first post.

October 15, 2018

I awoke before my alarm sounded at 6:30 AM. The first-day nerves must have been jangling! At 8:00 AM, Dr. Alexander Kwarteng picked me up from the guest house lobby. Happily, I was all set before time, and off we ran to the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. An impromptu meeting with Head of Department Prof. Peter Twumasi revealed his excitement for the topic of bioinformatics. He was blown away by the strong response to our week-long program. “Everyone in biology needs skills in bioinformatics,” he said. I couldn’t have said it better!

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Head of Department, Prof. Peter Twumasi

As showtime approached (I will be lecturing each morning at 9:00 AM with a lecture split to two segments), I paused for some tea in the departmental lounge, and I took a monster-sized mug to the lecture hall. I learned that I’d be presenting from a raised dais to a room full of lab benches (complete with gas spigots). The students gave me guarded smiles as I came in the room. I was grateful that my friend Samuel Ahuno was willing to take some photographs of the event.

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Samuel Ahuno has been a regular participant in DARA programming workshops throughout Africa.

It is always hard to aim at the right level of scientific background when preparing a tutorial for an audience of unknown composition. I built the five talks I’ll deliver from six of eight lectures that I created for B.Sc. Honours students in my home division at Stellenbosch University (the students have completed B.Sc. degrees spanning three rather than four years). As the day progressed, though, I learned that the students ranged from second-year undergraduates to graduate students. In the younger years, these students are accustomed to coursework rather than research benchwork.

I decided to spend more time on each slide (I had included 28 of them). When I spotted a vocabulary term in the title, I tried to take the time to ask the students question to pin down those terms. I know that the material was pretty rough going for some of the students, though, and I hope that they will be okay knowing that more of it will make sense in time. At lunch, Dr. Kwarteng suggested that future versions of this course could start at the most basic point: “What is bioinformatics?” While I’ve made slides to that question before, I don’t feel that they really advance student understanding as much as I would like. I am encouraged, though, that the department feels that this course is something to repeat in later years!

We had encountered a problem even before lunch that occupied my mind as we ate. The wifi reception in the lecture hall was pretty weak, and even when I could get a steady eduroam connection in place, webservers in Europe and North America responded with a lot of latency. Dr. Kwarteng had some tricks up his sleeve, but my practical exercises depended on the use of several web-servers. I began working toward a backup plan, one in which I would teach the students the basics of the R programming language. As we came back to the classroom, we began attempting to connect all the students to the web using KNUST wifi services as well as a cellular modem and router that Dr. Kwarteng had charged up for the occasion. Ultimately, many of the students were online, but when they tried to use the network all at once, the network services blinked out. I activated the fallback. With whatever machines could still use the web, we downloaded the R or R Studio installer. We copied the installer to USB flash drives. We then swapped those drives around the room until everybody had R in place.

I drew a deep breath, and asked, “what language is the best choice for getting started in bioinformatics?” In the remaining 45 minutes, we began covering some basics, such as the assignment and addition operator, some differences between numeric and text variable types, the use of vectors, and the use of factors. Tomorrow I hope to have a tighter organization in mind!

Dr. Kwarteng took me by a shopping strip on the way back to housing to acquire a box of cereal, milk, bread, honey, local bananas, and peanut butter. I have a wealth of options!

October 16, 2018

To lead a day of tutorials and then throw all remaining energy into being a tourist can be a bit of a challenge! Today I introduced the students to the informatics required to assemble and annotate a novel genome. It’s a complex lecture, with a lot of moving parts, but the students seemed to like this one better than yesterday’s topic: genome-wide association studies and nsSNV (gene variant) characterization.

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If you give me a mobile microphone, I will wander with it!

I felt better prepared to deliver some basics in R, as well. I followed the format of a blog post that covers the essentials well. We still had some time available at the end, so I reused some code I had on hand to discuss the differences between males and females and between South Africans and American in height (all the demonstration code is available from my Google Drive). I felt that the demo went pretty well, but I think that the modeling aspect of the height comparison was a step too far for many of the students. (Rather than ask whether two cohorts have different average values, we were asking whether our four cohorts showed a difference either on sex or on nationality.) I need to ensure that the students receive the information in advance for tomorrow’s demo in gene expression; it will be easier for them to follow along, if they have all the materials in hand.

October 17, 2018

On a day when I had some tourism excitement planned, I needed to focus on my teaching. When I framed my lecture on gene expression for a bioinformatics tutorial in the University of Malawi, I greatly strengthened some sections of the talk that seemed underwhelming before. The challenge this introduced, however, was that my number of slides was rising with each of the first three days of the Week of Bioinformatics (28 on Monday, 35 on Tuesday, and 49(!) on Wednesday). The students seemed grateful for the intermission when it arrived, and yet they seemed focused all the way through the section on finding differential genes and multiple testing correction. I call the morning lecture a success! I celebrated by eating some lovely jollof with chicken takeaway from a restaurant just outside KNUST.

The afternoon tutorial in the R language gave mixed results. I started out with very approachable material. If we run the Welch T Test on data with known mean difference and known variance, how frequently do we reject the null hypothesis on ten trials with three replicates, with five replicates, with seven replicates, and with nine replicates? I think the students felt a little unhappy at the notion that their ability to get a p-value below 0.05 could be a matter of chance. The second part of the R tutorial had the students loading two text files from the disk with the “read.table()” function, and predictably the chief challenge was getting the working directly set successfully! So far, so good.

I included the third part of the tutorial because I wanted the students to see what a fuller program looks like, not just four or five lines. I also liked the fact that many of the elements I had discussed in the lecture were in my script, showing them how to implement these ideas programmatically. Helpfully, my simulation of a gene expression data analysis required no external libraries, so we were able to execute the code all the way through to producing a volcano plot (using base graphics). Understanding the code, however, was hardly a success. Rather than following my usual instincts to compute the T tests and log fold changes inside a for loop that runs through all the rows, one by one, I opted to use the “apply” function in R. The code is arguably more in line with what a real R programmer would do, but it is considerably harder to understand for a novice. My students were dumbfounded by seeing the full script, and yet I am glad that they have this code to examine if they need to write something of greater complexity in the future. I must remember to explain to them that all programmers get stuck from time to time, and we all have our little ways to find help!

October 18, 2018

[On the night of the 17th, I injured my knees and ankles.  I will chronicle the accident in an upcoming blog post.]

For the first time in a long time, I slept solely lying on my back. Putting one leg atop the other seemed like a recipe for pain, and getting biofluids from my nasty knees on the sheets worried me, too. When the birds woke me in the morning, I still had a few moments before my alarm went off. I am lucky that I got an early start because Dr. Kwarteng came to check on me about a half hour before I expected pickup. I was able to limp stiffly to his car, with Kobla “Atsu” Amewu graciously carrying my backpack for me. When I settled onto the couch in Alex’s office, Samuel Ahuno ran to the faculty lounge to get me my extra-tall cup of tea.

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Atsu Amewu worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make the Week of Bioinformatics a success.

Together, we talked about how to adjust the course now that I was no longer at 100%. We decided on a relatively minor change. I had not planned out content for the Friday afternoon R tutorial, so we decided to cancel that. As a result, some students attending the workshop from Cape Coast and from Accra might be able to get home a day earlier.

Because relatively few students were in the room at the official 9AM start time, I decided to talk through some of the issues associated with becoming an international graduate student outside their home nation.  The students had become very interested in an international graduate student opportunity offered by DARA Big Data (Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy).  We hope to have a new round of M.Sc. bursaries available in early 2019.  Of course, living away from one’s home country can bee daunting for many young people, and being able to afford this option without outside funding is quite a challenge.

I spoke of the value of establishing communications with a particular professor, explaining that it requires that they understand what the researcher is trying to accomplish and discerning how their skill set will be useful to those goals (in order to qualify for a research grant funding their efforts). I also talked about the delights of SAQA, a ratings body for South Africa that evaluates whether a degree earned in a foreign nation is equivalent to the degree of the same name granted by South African universities. I hope that these students are able to benefit from this information!

I had scheduled my favorite topic, proteome informatics (identification, quantitation, and structure), for this Thursday morning. Although I had slightly fewer slides than for Wednesday, I ran even longer. The students were lucky that I was able to wrap up by 11:45 AM. Perhaps they were humoring me because I was obviously hindered by my body. This is the first day that they saw me wearing anything other than slacks and dress shoes. To move all the way to shorts and flip-flops was a bit of a surprise!

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Jollof with pulled chicken from a restaurant just outside the KNUST boundary

For lunch, I ate the leftovers from yesterday’s lunch, a yummy jollof. As Atsu had commented, yesterday’s jollof is frequently even tastier than our first experience!

As I munched, I decided that I should revise my afternoon R tutorial a bit. The gene expression example from yesterday had left the students flummoxed, I think largely because I used the R-standard “apply” approach rather than writing it out as a loop. I decided we would revisit that code before we talked about principal components analysis. During the afternoon, I saw that “unrolling” the apply calls into a “for” loop made a lot of the elements clearer, even if the code was quite verbose afterwards. I talked about creating a vector of “NAs” in which to store the p-values and log fold changes as well as setting up the “for” loop to start at the first gene, continue to the second, and so on. By the end, I think at least some of the students who had been flummoxed came to understand how this code worked. I patted myself on the back.

With the lecture and tutorial out of the way, Atsu placed a call to Emmanuel to pick me up for a ride back to the guest house. He was so delighted to see that I was able to walk that he waved away any fare for the ride! He’s a good guy. I spent the next few hours with my legs resting on the desk, higher than the rest of my body on the bed. I think I’ll be feeling more normal tomorrow!

October 19, 2018

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We started with the hope for 30 students, but in the end, more than 60 students took part!

The final day of class came just in time, as my energy supply from being away from home for so long came to a close. When I arrived at the university, I found a magnificent pile of participation certificates to sign, courtesy of talented graphic designer Atsu Amewu (he also created the fabulous poster to publicize the Week of Bioinformatics event). I sat down at a desk to sign them all, and Samuel brought me the all-critical tall cup of tea.

Arriving in the lecture hall, however, brought on some new challenges; we had been compelled to shift to an adjoining hall because of a pre-scheduled event in our usual room. Unfortunately, the speaker system took a while to wake up, and the screen projector gave us fits! Eventually we connected an alternative VGA cable and powered up the screen, but the picture quality was definitely diminished because the VGA wire was not transmitting the red signal. With all the technical delays and another wait for certificate signing, we were delayed by around thirty minutes. (I should note that the technical challenges on this day continued as multiple power outages took place on campus, and the wifi network access faded into nonexistence as the day proceeded.)

I was pleased, though, with the students’ attention in the last lecture. The subject of biological pathways and networks is an interesting one, and they asked good questions in the course of the discussion. I added a couple silly stories along the way. I enjoyed talking about Trey Ideker, the genius behind the Cytoscape project. I noted that when you get to graduate school, you might be accustomed to being top dog, but you might well encounter somebody who has a much clearer vision of where they want to go than you do!

As we drew to a close, the head of the department, Prof. Peter Twumasi gave the students a rousing booster speech, declaring that bioinformatics is so important that he wants to see students regularly completing M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees at KNUST Department of Biotechnology! I was delighted to see his enthusiasm kindling the students.

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We mustered forty-nine faces on the final day of the workshop!

From there, we all assembled in a courtyard for the building, where a photographer captured an image of the whole group. When we came back inside, a great many of the students stopped for “selfies” with me. I might have been sleepy, but I found the energy to show my happiness. At first, I thought that I would have enough drive to go into Kumasi for a look at the palace, but ultimately I decided I needed to get off my feet. I retired to the KCCR guest house, and soon I was sound asleep.

Ghana: reaching Kumasi by Plan B

An index to this series appears at the first post.

October 14th, 2018

My plan to reach Kumasi was straightforward, but I was forced to set it aside immediately. I awoke before my 5AM alarm, and I was dressed and packed at 5:20 AM. The hotel restaurant was not open at that hour, so I hopped in the taxi without any breakfast. Kofi had arisen early to ensure I made it to the Ford bus station before 6AM.  I had been assured that the Ford service, using twelve-passenger vans, was the safest plan for making the long drive to Ghana’s biggest inland city (around 2 million citizens).

Unfortunately, the driver for the Sunday morning bus to Kumasi had decided not enough people used this route, so no Ford bus would be making this run today. I took a deep breath and recommended that we drive over to the Metro Mass terminal in Cape Coast. I had been warned that I was likely to be stuck with an older bus that lacked seat belts if I went with Metro Mass and that the trip would take much longer. The next fallback, though, was to take a very expensive taxi ride with Kofi all the way to Kumasi (probably more than 500 cedis ~ $100 USD).

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This shiny red beauty was a welcome substitute for the older orange models!

Metro Mass seems to use a similar strategy to the “tro tros” for departures. A bus doesn’t leave until it has filled its roster. As I arrived, the first bus of the day was just about to depart, which meant all the seats had already been sold. I joined a queue of people organized not into a line but rather into a set of consecutive seats in a covered shed. Twenty minutes or so after the first bus had left, a ticket agent worked from person to person to sell tickets. The cost was ridiculously low, just 26 cedis. The ticket agent accepted 31 cedis from me and did not give me change, pointing to the overstuffed backpack I would stow in luggage. My receipt, however, read 26 cedis. I took another deep breath.

When the bus began accepting passengers on board, I waited by the cargo area. A support worker decided something sticky had spilled on the last load and mopped it out before any new bags were tossed in there. Another person began taking money for loading bags (5 cedis apiece). When he asked me, I explained that I’d already paid. He gave me a receipt for 5 cedi(!) and put my bag in the compartment without further comment. I took my seat in the front of the bus so I could follow our progress. The bus was a really new model, and I was grateful for a lap and shoulder belt! A minister-in-training sat beside me (he consistently referred to his chosen career as “man of God”). Our bus lurched into motion at 7:15. My seatmate advised me that we must now pray.

The driver immediately popped a CD into the player, and I was enchanted by it. It was poppy and fun, and I heard some of the other passengers sing along. I learned that the artist’s name is Mama Esther. It seems a lot of her music follows Christian devotional themes.

Suddenly my attention was drawn to the window, where I saw motion. A massive, black mosquito had appeared! I kept a weather eye on the flying bit of evil. When he temporarily paused on the seat in front of me, I struck! My seat-mate considerately handed me a washcloth to wipe the spot of blood away.

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Leave plenty of time for the drive between cities!

After a couple of CDs, we paused at a roadside stand that offered local food for sale, but it lacked public bathrooms. I moved outside to munch some biscuits I had tucked into my backpack. I think some of the men, at least, moved into the bushes for a bathroom break. Soon enough, though, we all piled back into the bus. Once we were back in motion, the driver started a comedy/action movie. It was about a crack team of Taiwanese mercenaries trying to rescue civilians from an evil Chinese colonel in the Golden Triangle. From the very beginning, it seemed to be going for laughs by the humorous ways in which the bad guys were dispatched, and it used violence against women to show just how bad the bad guys were. It was clumsy and I wish it had been over faster. The second movie was a Paul Walker vehicle titled “Brick Mansions,” though oddly it had been dubbed into French. Happily he shut down the movies as we entered the outskirts of Kumasi. The bus dropped off passengers at several spots as we approached the city’s downtown area.

I was delighted that we drove past some statues I’d wanted to see in town. The first was a statue of Osei Tutu II, current king of the Asante, at the airport roundabout. It’s an impressive piece of work. I had already added to my list the statue of Okomfo Anokya (pronounced “ah-noché”), and we encountered it just before reaching the Metro Mass station. Okomfo Anokya was the Merlin to the original Osei Tutu’s Arthur. The statue depicts the priest receiving the golden stool from the heavens; this was the throne on which Osei Tutu was enstooled at the start of the 1700s.

At 11:45 AM, we had arrived! Four and a half hours seemed long enough. I reacquired my bag and pulled open my laptop to get the phone number for my host at KNUST, Dr. Alex Kwarteng. Since my phone uses a SIM specific to South Africa, I asked one of the Metro Mass employees for help. I eventually could tell Alex was on the phone, but I had a lot of difficulty hearing him over the din of the bus terminal. Eventually I came to understand that I should take a taxi to the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research on the KNUST campus.  I would be staying in the guest house of KCCR.

I asked my helper who would be a reliable taxi driver, and they referred me to an older gentleman. Aggressiveness in taxi drivers really turns me off! I was a little chafed when he led me to an ancient car in less than stellar condition. I have mentioned I prefer working seat belts, right? Actually, the car distinctly reminded me of Thingamachinga, wheezing in second gear on hill ascents. My taxi driver required a fare of 50 cedis ($10 USD). People with experience of Ghana will know that’s a rip-off, but I knew that Kumasi has pretty poor traffic conditions, and the distance was not small.

My driver was able to get us to KNUST with no problems. Within that campus, though, he was pretty lost. He stopped to ask probably six different people where the KCCR was located, and he gave up on the road leading to KCCR about two stop lights too early. He turned up a hill but then decided he was going in the wrong direction. He switched off the engine and ran after a couple of people to ask them where he should be. When he came back to the car, he reversed us back down the hill without starting the car engine. When he tried to get us moving forward again, the car was unable to produce enough torque to go into first gear on the hill and stalled out twice in back-to-back tries.

The driver then flagged down another taxi, adding me to the other guy’s passenger load. He told me to give the other driver ten cedis, and then I gave him the other forty cedis. He begged for more money. I tossed him a couple of ones and twos. The other driver had me to KCCR in no time, and Alex was there to help me check into my suite (with kitchenette!).

We had a great lunch at a restaurant on campus.  Alex told me that we had received so many applications to attend the Week of Bioinformatics program that he’s had to turn many away (or allowing them attend lectures but not the practical). The team started with a maximum of 30 students for the course, but they increased it to 50, given the demand. This is going to be a very fulfilling week, I think!

Ghana: the transformation of Elmina Castle

An index to this series appears at the first post.

October 13, 2018

Even though I was excited about visiting Elmina Castle, I lingered over breakfast overlooking the beach this morning. A church choir was working through some rehearsal exercises just 20 meters away! After finishing my omelet, I joined the baritone section as the choir leader finished a homily about the importance of sharing with each other. Then I introduced myself. They wanted to hear me sing, so I belted out the first bars of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and some of the men joined in!

With that, I headed for the road, where I encountered Kofi, my taxi driver from the day before. Of course he was willing to drive me to Elmina (just fifteen minutes away). He was not familiar, however, with the Elmina Java Museum, and when we arrived (after a quick reroute), I still needed to wait thirty minutes before it opened! He was a little edgy about leaving me there, but I reassured him that I had my map. I walked a bit toward the more populous parts of town and paused at a shop selling Guinness Malta. As you can imagine, I spent the next fifteen minutes perched on a plastic chair at the shop, talking with Enoch, a young man who has become a professional sailor. After a cruise up to Europe and over to Asia, he still likes calling Elmina home. When I finished my bottle, he collected it, and I returned to the museum. Though the gate was locked, the yard was still accessible over their partially demolished barbed wire fence. I decided to wait on the front steps.

Elmina Java Museum

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The compact but informative Elmina Java Museum

Lucy let me into the building quite soon. My guide was Ghanian by birth, though she spent many years in the Gambia, a country barely wider than the river it encompasses. The Elmina Java Museum, founded in 2003, traces all the links that formed between Ghana and Java due to the recruitment of 3080 local men as soldiers (often called the “Black Dutchmen“) in the East Indies during the period from 1831-1872. At first, the Dutch tried to hire men from the Fanti community, but very few were willing to take up this service. They hoped that contracting with Nan Kwaku Duah I of the Asante would give them access to his warriors, renowned for their ferocity, but Asante soldiers were loyal to their king and would not split that loyalty. The Asante king offered a third way: Asante prisoners of war and criminals would be offered as Dutch soldiers. The Asante king also sent two young male relatives to Holland for education and training: Kwesi Boakye and Kwame Opoku. The contracted soldiers served for sixteen years (!) of military service, much longer than the contracts Dutch men were offered (6 years). This arrangement came to an end in 1872 because the British gained control over the “Gold Coast.” Soldiers were permitted one of three options: become Dutch citizens, return to Elmina, or remain in Java (where many had developed families). As for the two princes, well, they had uncomfortable lives. The heir to the throne returned to Ghana but was never crowned because he spoke Dutch and not Twi. The son of the king trained as an engineer but opted for farming in his later years. Their tale was told by Arthur Japin in his book “The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi.”

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If you wonder how batik works, the museum offers this demonstration.

The Dutch links to Java involved more than the transfer of soldiers, though. The museum also includes a fair bit of information about the adoption of batik print from East Asia, particularly from the pen of Ineke van Kessel. Batik uses patterns of wax to prevent parts of the fabric from accepting dye, with multiple dye phases to incorporate multiple colors. Some of the early attempts to replicate this process in Europe led to incomplete resistance of dye by the wax, leading to bonus lines of dye. The Europeans sniffed at this attempt to recreate batik, but Ghanaians were still enthusiastic about the resulting complex patterns. In 1966, the Dutch company Vlisco developed machine techniques for batik printing. The company divested these capabilities to African partners during 2017.

Posubans: monuments of civic pride

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Just because two European powers come to an agreement does not mean the people in affected countries accept the decision!

My path to Elmina Castle was a bit of a hike (a bit more than a mile), but I chose a meandering course that would lead me past the Methodist Church, the Cathedral Square, and no less than four posubans! I was less than enthusiastic when a soft drizzle started, but it did not cause major problems. Cathedral Square does not contain a cathedral, by the way. Instead, a statue of Nana Kobina Gyan I, enstooled king in 1868, holds court. He was noted for his balking at the sale of Elmina Castle by the Dutch to the British, and they exiled him for twenty-five years to Sierra Leone in response! The mud surrounding the pedestal of the statue showed symbols that looked like intentional writing. I saw that two lines that jag back and forth to form little diamonds may represent the Adinkra symbol “Ani bere,” signifying defiance and self-possession in difficult times. In Ghana, people may be making a point without using letters!

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Adam and Eve Posuban, Elmina

My experience of the four posubans ran afoul of two barriers. First, when I reached the “Adam and Eve” posuban (1966, Asafo #4), the rain became heavy enough that I worried about my camera, and the red bars surrounding the property did not make it easy to photograph! The oldest of the posubans in town (Asafo #1, undated) is in less-than-great condition, which is odd since the oldest posuban seems to be the place where paramount chiefs are enstooled. Second, the people who live near these sites have learned that tourists can be milked for money. To have an angry four-year-old on my case with tactics and expression more appropriate to a dodgy 30-year-old was not cool.

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Many of the posubans have fallen into disrepair.

I put my back to the posubans and headed for the lagoon bridge. The original settlement at this location came about because the lagoon was a great place to manufacture salt. This salt could be traded to the inland populations who had mined gold (yes, salt was once certainly that valuable). Today, the lagoon is a riot of different colors since villagers use very distinctive colors and designs for their fishing boats. I walked across the automobile bridge rather than the pedestrian bridge because I did not realize the latter was there!

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The Elmina lagoon supports fishing rather than salt-making today.

Elmina Castle

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Elmina shows a powerful face, even from the land approach.

As I reached the grounds of Elmina Castle, I steeled myself since the guidebook cautioned against a number of different strategies people use to part tourists from their money. As I walked away from the fifth or sixth question “where are you from?” I heard him calling, “Hey, you have to be nice! You’re not being nice!” I guess I didn’t read his rule book for clueless marks.

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The Portuguese church sits in a courtyard surrounded by high walls on all sides.

Once I entered the St. George Castle (the formal name dating from the Portuguese: Sao Jaogo), the atmosphere changed completely (the flacks don’t want to pay the entrance fee just to be thrown out by security). I would have gone to the museum, but the first tour group of the day was starting. Since I was hungry after the tour, I forgot to see the museum inside the Portuguese Church! I really would have liked to see that space because it is one of the only structures remaining from the original Portuguese Castle (one can spot early structure in Elmina because the Portuguese used red bricks). This is believed to be the earliest European building in Africa, dating from 1482! The castle was visited in its first year by Christopher Columbus, in fact. In 1637, the Dutch were able to conquer this castle by assaulting it with cannon from an inland hill. Their construction work is distinguished by the use of yellow bricks (“clinkers”), often used as ballast in the ships.  The Dutch crowned that hill with Ft. Jago to prevent anyone else from trying the same trick.

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A stitched panorama of Elmina, with St. Jago at center

In 1872, the fort changed hands to the British in the aftermath of the Scramble for Africa. The British, however, preferred to keep their principal operations at the Cape Coast Castle, though they did use St. George for a special prisoners such as Prempeh I of the Ashanti and a Queen Mother, Yaa Kyiaa, from Ejisu, both of whom were exiled to the Seychelles.

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Apparently the commandant wanted cheerful colors around himself.

St. George may not have been designed explicitly for slavery, but the Dutch certainly found ways to repurpose it for this crime. Men and women captives (up to 600 of the former and 400 of the latter) were kept in ground-floor chambers, refitted with iron bars and chains. Groups of their descendants, in recent years, have attempted to empathize with this experience by sleeping a night in the same chambers. The women’s quarters at St. George Castle had a particularly nasty touch; the governor’s apartments offered a balcony to look down to a courtyard adjoining the women slave chambers. A selected woman would be brought up a rickety set of stairs and through a trap door to endure the added indignity of rape. His private rooms are painted a particularly cheerful hue of yellow.

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Cells for disobedient slaves and unruly soldiers, side by side

The tour guides, of course, used the worn trick of escorting the tour group into the prison holding cells and then closing the door. The St. George version has two cells, side by side. The room for soldiers who misbehaved allowed more light through, and of course they could expect food and water along with the prospect of eventual freedom. The slave punishment room, on the other hand, has a sculpted skull over the door, and in some cases they would simply be left to die in the darkness.

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The other side of the inner courtyard gives access to the upper floors and the slave quartering areas of the castle.

The Cape Coast tour focuses a lot on the “Door of no Return,” but the St. George tour seems to apply the same concept in a variety of ways: the stairs of no return, the route of no return, and finally the door of no return. Both castle tours, though, seemed to suggest without saying that being in contact with the soil of Africa is particularly important to Africans. I appreciate that so long as a slave escaped within Africa it would be easier (not easy) to return home, and certainly a great many slaves died in passage. I wonder, though, if people captured from Asia would not find it just as horrific to be shipped away from Asia (I read The Good Earth). The same would seem to be true of medieval Europeans taken as slaves by the Ottomans, for example. Having taken two slave castle tours in the last three days may have made me more cynical about the emotive language they add to what is already a very emotionally-charged site.

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A handsome beast caught some sun on the steps.

Once the tour was complete, I took a moment to poke around the castle. My Bradt travel guide highlighted the book store on the southern corner of the building on the first (not the ground) floor. This was excellent advice! I acquired a 250-page history of Ghana, and I was elated to find a book explaining the Adinkra symbols (such as Sankofa and the diamond pattern I saw below the statue in Cathedral Square). Soon I spotted a pair of lizards enjoying a moment in the sun. A staff member explained that the variably colored one was a male in display.

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The castle looks quite different from the sea than from the land.

I thought it might be helpful to photograph the castle from several perspectives, and a long jetty of rocks into the ocean seemed like a good opportunity for that. Leaving the castle, I skittered across a ditch, and the smell made it clear to me that people use the space for personal reasons long before I saw the graffito reading “Please stop bathing here. Be warn.” Just the same, I was glad to see some of the different faces of the building. From the ocean, it certainly looks impregnable. It is not surprising that the Dutch opted to bombard St. George from the nearby hill rather than attempting those walls from ship-based cannon!

As I trudged back to the main shore road, I spotted a very unlikely T-shirt. I saw a T-shirt reading “VIC-20” along with a slightly wrong logo for the Commodore Company flag. I learned programming skills on the VIC-20 in 1981. I would never have expected to see this logo 37 years later on the other side of the planet.

Once I was approaching the outer town, I flagged a taxi heading in the right direction. It already had two passengers, though, and the driver asked if I’d be willing to wait for the others. Of course! As we drove from Elmina to Cape Coast, he waved at almost every other passing taxi. He is a man with a lot of friends! I returned to the Baobab Guesthouse for my third(!) plate of “red-red.” I encountered an American named Mary who now lives in Accra. Like me, she has started a blog, called “The In Between.” After an interesting conversation, I slumped back to my hotel. I felt game to look at other gift possibilities, and I looked through innumerable paintings in hopes of finding something to my taste. In the end, I just acquired another bottle of water and came back to my hotel room. If I may paraphrase Tom Clancy, I give this adage: “If you’re not peeing, you’re not drinking enough water!”