Ghana makes ready to greet the world
Mark Easton returns to West Africa to chase a story from the past – and finds a country focused on the futureOne of the former slave forts overlooks Elmina harbour Credit: Getty Images/EyeEm
Pothole puddles splash red-ochre streaks onto the black paintwork of the car as we bounce up the hill and recognition stirs. There is the driveway I walked up 23 years ago. And look. At the gates, guarding the memory of his old boss, sits the gardener. Frank Elliot Apaw is my name, he tells me. Frank Elliot Apaw, I say almost in unison. I remember him.
I came to Ghana in 1994 for a BBC report about a man with a double life. The film opened with a distinguished looking chap reading The Daily Telegraph in the orchard of his Shropshire garden. “Jimmy Moxon OBE, the quintessential English gentleman,” the voice of a younger me explained. “Public school, Cambridge, His Majesty’s Colonial Service.”
“But there is another side to this pillar of the local parish,” my commentary teased. “Married to at least six different women, he worships the fairies and, oh, he’s an African chief.”
That was the story. The white Englishman who spent half the year as a retired civil servant in his thatched cottage near Ludlow and the other half as a “fully gazetted” Akan chieftain in the hills of Aburi in southern Ghana.
Frank and I watch my old video together at the gates of Chief Nana Kofi Obonyaa’s residence and he beams at the pictures of Jimmy dancing on his palanquin.
“All around here was full, hundreds of people, chiefs and politicians, the police and fire service,” Frank recalls as we walk through the ruins of the old chief’s house. “It was a massive funeral. People loved him.”
Jimmy died in 1999 and a shrine has been placed in the shadow of the silk cotton tree that gave him his tribal name. He had won the country’s adoration as a British civil servant during the Second World War when he personally visited farmers, encouraging them to switch from cocoa to food crops, a decision that saved countless lives. Beneath a bronze head, a simple plaque reads “a loyal son of the empire and a true son of Ghana”.
I have returned in search of some winter sun. But, of course, my mind turns to the charming Englishman whose career serenely bridged the years from old colony to new nation, from Gold Coast to independent Ghana.
The tour buses are filled with people exploring the gaps in their family stories. Increasingly, they are black Americans tracing the journey of their enslaved ancestors in reverse; across the vast ocean, back through the terrifying “room of no return”, past the haunting dungeons and out into the sunlit forests of mahogany and ebony, the fields of pineapple and cocoa, and the plains of acacia and wild grasses.
Jimmy Moxon as an Akan chieftainCredit: Bettmann Archive
The slave trade branded this new nation just as the merchants branded their human cargo, but Ghana is gathering the confidence to show its scars to the world. The white colonial forts dotted along the coast, now World Heritage Sites, are each stained with the shame of genocide. Peeling paint in the condemned cell at Elmina Castle reveals the scratched markings of slaves counting down the days until they finally succumbed to starvation.
Some three hours from central Accra, in the silence of the female dungeon at Elmina, people have placed wreaths. One names a woman who somehow survived hell to complete the journey to the plantations of the new world and to pass on her DNA. Her descendants have returned to honour her and remember the millions who perished.
The legacy of colonialism is soaked into the patina of this land. The missionaries who came from Britain to save African souls have turned Ghana into a country that fervently believes in miracles. Businesses proclaim their faith: “By His Grace Building Materials”, “Merciful Wigs”, “God Is in Control Windscreens”, “Amazing Love Aluminium”. Evangelical singing drifts on the wind past smiling billboards promising a better tomorrow.
“Forward Ever, Backward Never” was the battle cry of Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah, his statue in Accra pointing at the untapped potential.
The white masters used to play polo on the exact spot where his memorial now stands and where independence from British rule was declared in 1957. Today, neatly symbolising Ghana’s journey, Accra Polo Club has moved closer to the international airport: rich African hedge-fund managers rubbing shoulders with European ex-pats. The club archives include photographs of all-white teams posing with pith helmets and neat moustaches, but on the field and in the bar, Ghana’s new elite cuts across any racial divide.
“I suppose I am most proud of the fact that I have not been controversial,” Jimmy Moxon had told me in his garden in the Aburi hills in 1994 when I asked how he had managed to survive the turmoil that surrounded independence.
His diplomatic skills served Jimmy well, but also stand as a metaphor for the way Ghana has navigated its post-colonial path. There have been obstacles, and challenges remain, but optimism and decency seem to flourish in the tropical climate. “Just come home,” says Catherine Afeku, Ghana’s tourism minister. “We are family.” She has ambitious plans to transform the country’s tourist industry, to encourage the British to see it as a holiday destination.
She imagines charter planes, buzzing south over the Sahara, filled with tourists from the UK, many with ancestral links but also those who fancy an African adventure in a land where the language is familiar, the clocks won’t keep you awake at night and the welcome is warm.
“When you look at the European market, we are truly the centre of the world,” Mrs Afeku tells me with a smile, pointing out that the Greenwich Meridian meets the equator closest to Ghana. There is an irony in this. The meridian was first devised by an 18th-century economist who actively supported the expansion of the slave trade. The Greenwich Meridian, a century later, symbolised the centrality of British imperial power.
Elmina port market placeCredit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty
But such observations tend to be met with a shrug in modern Ghana. “We share a common heritage. After two hundred years you took a break and now we would like you to come back,” the minister says with a laugh, “for short stays this time.”
The idea of a weekend break to the golden beaches on the Gulf of Guinea, or the safari lodges in the northern region, might seem fanciful right now. Visa requirements, yellow-fever inoculations, anti-malaria pills: the white man’s grave of West Africa can seem a daunting destination. But the country’s pro-business government wants to change that perception, stressing how Ghana has had 25 years of stable democracy and is ready to welcome the world through its doors.
The expansion of Accra airport means five million passengers can soon be accommodated each year. The city’s Ambassador Hotel, a gift from the United Kingdom to Ghana at independence in 1957, has been rebuilt as a five-star Mövenpick. An impressive Kempinski hotel has recently opened next to a luxury shopping mall. Walk past the diplomatic limos and saluting chauffeurs into the elegant lobby of the Kempinski and you will hear the unmistakable murmur of deal making.
“A lot of British ex-pats are coming back to invest in tourism,” says Manish Nambiar, the hotel’s urbane general manager. “We see huge opportunity.”
The hotel has a refreshing rooftop swimming pool and will soon open a glamorous spa but, for the moment, the sunloungers are mostly occupied by eager business executives and the aircrew who got them here.
Ghana clearly has huge potential as a holiday destination, although the infrastructure is not yet fully in place. The main road west from Accra is a stationary wall of vehicles much of the time. But with customary resourcefulness, the locals turn the traffic jam into a commercial opportunity. Hawkers weave between the cars with an extraordinary array of products balanced on their heads: cassava, pineapples, eggs, giant snails, board games, pig genitalia, clocks – whatever you might need, it will find you on the Cape Coast Road.
There is a striking creativity about Ghana: in art, music, fashion and food, world-class talent is emerging from often stunning poverty. On the beach at Jamestown, in the shadow of the old Accra slave dungeons, a shanty town of slums grimly defines the challenge. Yet, next door on the sand, there is an inspiring charity school where some of the very poorest street children can get an education. Across the road, is a grassless football pitch where some of Ghana’s best players honed their skills. Slave masters once traded their human wares here; now Premier League scouts come with their chequebooks.
Roads are being improved, tourist attractions opening on the shore line, in the jungle and across the savannah. Ghana is turning a new corner on its journey and travelling without the baggage of post-colonial resentment. Quite the opposite. There is a remarkable generosity of spirit here.
Standing on the veranda of what was once Jimmy’s house, I look out on the country he loved and which so loved him, to Frank’s garden where he and I gave libations to the spirits and he tried to persuade me that southern Ghana was not that different to Shropshire. Chief Nana Kofi Obonyaa would have approved of what this country is trying to do.
Mark Easton is the Home Editor for BBC News