Ghana: Kumasi

27th November - 10th December 2000


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It was your usual African rush hour at the bus station the next morning, people, luggage, taxis and busses everywhere. Amidst all this chaos I arrived in a battered old taxi, I really didn't fancy the walk from the hotel; even at this early hour of the morning you could feel the temperature rise and the humidity begin to suck you dry. Once back on the road in the safe hands of STC (State Transport Company) and their reassuring corporate logo, 'We'll get you there alive', the journey continued much the same as yesterday. The endless plains dotted with baobab trees seemed to stretch forever. Today though my journey would end in the lush, green tropical forests of southern Ghana. After spending weeks travelling across the grasslands and savannah of West Africa I was looking forward to this welcome change in scenery. I expected the change from grassland to forest to be gradual. I gazed out of the window of the bus and suddenly the landscape began to change; it changed very quickly and within the space of about 15km we were travelling through the tropical forest belt. The weather changed too and clouds appeared in the sky; these were the first clouds I had seen since I started my journey in The Gambia over four weeks ago.

As we approached the centre of Kumasi through the suburbs I had the feeling of arriving in a large busy city. We were constantly stuck in traffic jams as we slowly made our way downtown. We kept stopping to let passengers off; at one stop the driver opened the luggage compartment and a suitcase promptly fell out and straight into an open sewer. I was so glad it wasn't my bag but still felt upset for the poor passenger whose luggage was now covered in black, stinking, slime as the driver fished it out of the sewer. By the time we arrived at the bus station in the centre of town there were not that many passengers left aboard. Of those still on the bus there was one other white traveller, an older man from Norway by the name of Kjell.

We were both planning to stay at the same guesthouse, the legendary Presbyterian Guesthouse, and so walked together the short distance to Mission Road. The guesthouse is in a quite part of town, an old two storey colonial building with wide balconies set in large grounds dotted with palm trees. There was only one double room left so Kjell and I decided to share the room and cut the cost of a night's accommodation to about US$1.50 each.

By the middle of the afternoon I had made myself at home and sat in a chair on the large wooden balcony, which stretched around the whole building, and looked out across the city. Kumasi has a population of about one million and is built over rolling hills, the suburbs sprawling out to the green hills that surround the city. The heart of the city is the huge Kejetia market covering 10 hectares with approximately 10,000 traders. From the hills above it looks like a huge shantytown, a sea of rusting corrugated iron roofs; it is said to be the largest market in West Africa. Kumasi is the ancient capital of the Ashanti kingdom and is today the centre of Ashanti culture and still home of the Ashanti king, the Asantehene.

During the afternoon I walked around the old town. My main task was to cash some travellers cheques at Barclays Bank. The money I had changed at the border was lasting well; I was finding that travelling in this country was very cheap, especially when compared to the costs I encountered in neighbouring CFA countries. I was only spending about half I was in Burkina Faso and Mali. Imagine my surprise then, when at the bank I found the exchange rate was 10,000 cedi to 1-pound sterling and not 6,000 that I had been charged by the moneychangers at the border. That explained the eagerness of the moneychangers to relieve me of my hard currency. I put the border incident down to experience and will hope to learn from it in future (find out the exchange rate before you arrive in the country). I was not disheartened though and left the bank with an even larger pile of banknotes stuffed in every money belt/pocket I had available.

There was an internet cafe above the Shell petrol station further down the road. The room was beautifully air-conditioned and I spent a couple of hours there catching up on my email and news from home while an army of ants marched relentlessly up my desk, past the keyboard and on up the wall.

Since crossing the border yesterday lunchtime, one thing that I could not help but notice, was that it was election time. On my journey to Ghana I had been listening to regular news bulletins from the BBC on my short-wave radio and was aware of the political situation in the country. So far the campaigning had passed off peacefully, bar some sporadic violence in the north of the country. It was a very different story in neighbouring Cote d'Ivorie where election campaigning had become marred by violence, arrests of opposition supporters and intimidation. Several massacres had been reported across the country, including Abidjan; in response the government had imposed a curfew and troops patrolled the streets. Ghana's election campaigning seemed a world away from their neighbours. There was very little violence reported; the majority of rallies passed off peacefully. The press and media were free to report on both the ruling parties campaign, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and that of the opposition parties, the main opposition party being the National Patriotic Party (NPP) lead by John Kufuor.

This election would also be historic as the incumbent president, Jerry Rawlings would not be standing for re-election. Jerry Rawlings first hit the political scene in 1979 when he led a group of military officers in a coup. He sacked the civilian government, which was accused of corruption and embezzlement and stayed in power for three months until fresh elections were held. Hilla Limann won the vote for president and Jerry Rawlings handed over power.

At the end of 1981 the economy was out of control and Jerry Rawlings again staged a military coup; this time he stayed in power. He made the transition from military coup leader to civilian president when he won presidential elections in 1996, which were seen by the outside world as free and fare. Under the new constitution, the president is only allowed two terms in office. This would be an end of an era, 19 years of rule by Jerry Rawlings, the longest serving leader in Ghana. Standing in his place as the NDC candidate for president was the current vice-president John Atta Mills. The presidential election would become a two-horse race between John Atta Mills and John Kufuor and the parliamentary election between their respective parties, the NDC and NPP.

You could not escape the election campaign; all over town posters displayed the faces of the respective candidates along with their party symbol. The main debate over the election, which everyone was talking about on the streets and in the media, was whether to allow voting without ID cards and to allow thumbprints only on the ballot papers. After much debate the electoral commission finally decided to allow the thumbprint on the ballot paper, which seemed to be the decision most welcome by the majority of the population. Polling day was set for 7 December.

There is plenty to do and see in and around Kumasi. Kjell and I set off to do the tourist trail around the city on our first full day. Just about a kilometre from our guesthouse was the old Kumasi fort on Stewart Avenue, which now housed the military museum. The British built the present day fort in 1896 who razed the original structure in 1873 after the fourth Ashanti war. At the gatehouse we hired the services of a guide who took us around the museum explaining the exhibits in great detail, together with the history of the Ashanti kingdom, Ghana and the various wars fought in the past. He was definitely worth his fee of only about a dollar. There were many exhibits in the museum and I found it far more interesting than expected. There was a large collection of old weapons captured during the first and second world wars; also a hall of photos depicting past colonial rulers, the Ashanti royal family and other famous statesmen and visitors to Ghana. The tour lasted almost an hour and finished off at the isolation cells. Our guide asked us to step inside and then closed the door behind us; not a single crack of daylight could be seen from inside the tiny cell, which was not much bigger than a couple of metres square. To add to the effect the walls were also painted black. Prisoners who were held in here were almost blinded when they were at last released, if they did not die in captivity. It's not the kind of place I would have wanted to spend much time.

At the end of the tour we gave our guide a generous tip for giving us such an in-depth and informative tour before hiring a taxi to take us across town to the Manhyia Palace Museum to the north of the Kejetia market. Until 1974 this was the royal palace for the Ashanti Kings, today it is a museum and the King has moved to a new, larger and grander palace next door. The British built the Manhyia Palace in 1925 for the return of King Prempeh I who had been in exile in the Seychelles for the previous twenty-five years. Of course, the palace being built by the British, looked far more like a home-counties mansion than an African palace; it was the least the British could do, after all they blew up the original palace.

We walked through the main gate to the palace. The gardens looked busy, people milling around everywhere; chairs and tables had been set up in the far corner of the garden. We paid for an entrance ticket in the museum shop and were led by a guide to a room to watch the induction video show, before being shown into the palace. The palace was like a time warp, the décor and furniture a reminder of 1950's interior design. I really had the feeling of wandering around somebody's home. One of the prize exhibits in the museum is the television set in the front room - the first television set in Ghana. Our guide, again, was very good and informative, although you could tell that he had done this tour thousands of times before. At a desk, our guide would announce that this is where the King worked; at a dining table, this is the chair the King sat in to dine; this is the Kings gramophone and record collection.

As we walked past the windows we looked out across the gardens at the growing crowd on the lawn and the various dignitaries now arriving. We asked our guide what was going on. He told us that the King was holding an audience with the British High Commissioner at lunchtime on the lawn. We asked if we could meet the King as well or if we could attend the audience but our guide said that only invited guests could attend. We preserved for some time to try and get out onto the lawn to meet the King, hoping that our guide might be able to arrange something with the growing number of security men surrounding the palace. Our efforts were in vain but while we were in an upstairs bedroom, with a grandstand view over the lawns, the King appeared with his entourage. Our guide pointed out the King, wearing his traditional robes made of kente cloth, as he walked across the lawn, shaded from the hot sun by a black parasol carried by a servant. The guests all stood as the King approached and took his position at the middle of the long table; meanwhile Kjell videoed the whole royal procession as it passed below us, at first to the annoyance of our guide who was more eager to finish the tour.

After the excitement of seeing the King we continued looking around the upstairs rooms of the former palace. In one room were waxwork models of the King and his mother. What caught my eye in that room were two large, beautifully decorated urns either side of the fireplace. Pope John Paul had presented them to the King, a photo of the Pope on his visit to Ghana was stuck to the wall behind. Unfortunately one of the urns had met a nasty accident, someone must have knocked it over or dropped it. The many pieces it had broken into had been rather crudely glued back together. It now looked very sad sitting next to its immaculate twin; I could not help but to feel sorry for whomever had accidentally knocked it over. The last room we visited was lined with various gifts that had been presented to the royal family by visiting heads of state and other domestic visitors to the palace. I had often wondered what happened to all those gifts presented during official visits; now here they were gathering dust in a museum.

That concluded our tour and we left, walking along the drive to the gates, passing the British High Commissioner's range-rover, complete with a miniature union jack flying from the bonnet. The day seemed complete after seeing the King, it would have been great if we could have met him officially, but it wasn't to be. We walked back down the road towards the Kejetia market. The market fills a valley between the hill, where the royal palace sits and the old town opposite.. The railway runs into this valley and the station is at the bottom of the old town hill. The tracks loop around from the station into the market forming a boundary, before eventually being swallowed into the mass of stalls stretching across the valley.

We took a bearing for the railway station before descending into the market. It could be easy to get lost along the many alleyways criss-crossing the market. Once in the market you couldn't see far, with crowds of people trying to walk down every alley and traders hanging their wares between the stalls, it was like walking through a tunnel. How the local people find their way around this place was beyond me. We stumbled across the butcher's section, we could smell it before we could see it. I couldn't stay long, the smell of the neat lying out in the hot sun was enough to almost make me gag. Kjell suggested we explore further into the butchers market to see if there was any weird and wonderful protein for sale. I made my excuses and ran to escape from the toxic smell, soon followed by Kjell. I think it was only luck that we eventually materialised at the opposite side of the market, roughly where we intended.

The railway line led us back to the old town. The old town was my favourite part of Kumasi. For the first time on this trip I felt I was in a real African city, or how I imagined an African city to look like. There were narrow streets and main roads lined with both old and new buildings which complemented each other, many in a colonial style with balconies and verandas and red tiled roofs. Everywhere in the city there was life; it was not like some other places that sometimes seemed sterile and nondescript. Being built on hilly ground gave different views across the city as you walked around.

The power and water supply in Ghana is not the worlds most reliable and Kumasi was no exception. Whenever we returned to the guesthouse we would always guess whether we had either no electricity or no water until one evening when we returned and found we had neither. The staff were always very good and kept a large barrel of water filled outside the bathroom by running up and down the stairs and across the grounds to a well filling the barrel two buckets at a time. Most evenings I went to Baboo's Café in the old town for dinner and a cold bottle of beer. The place was very popular with both locals and other travellers and had a varied and tasty menu; I never left hungry or disappointed.

Continue reading this journey: Around Kumasi