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Monica Dispatch

The People on the Bus Go Up and Down . . .
To Ghana and Burkina Faso

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The view from the bus!

Unfortunately, here in West Africa it is now the rainy season, so the fresh breeze often comes with big fat raindrops that splash your head and arms. A fine red dust from the unpaved road sweeps up into the vehicle, coating my eyes, face, hair and backpack with a pasty thin layer of nasty dirt. The nice white shirt I acquired for my interview with Ian Smith is now a brownish-red.

"You look how I feel," remarks Kevin as we stop for dinner in the far north of Ghana, in a town called Bolgatanga. We both have been travelling under pretty intense conditions.

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Yet another bus...Oh, joy!
Kevin and I left Accra on Wednesday night, after visiting the beach--the last of the ocean that we'll see until Morocco. Our plan to take a mini-bus started out terribly. The bus manager threatened to kill Kevin! You see, everywhere in West Africa there's a set ticket fare, but the luggage fee varies widely, according to whom you speak. The ticket fare from Accra to Kumasi is 7000 cedis each (the currency exchange rate is 2500 Ghana cedis to $1 US), but the bus manager wanted 1000 more cedis for Kevin's backpack, and another 2000 for mine. I admit my backpack is heavy--I'm carrying two computers (Shawn's old one that we're giving to Jasmine and another), an mbira, and many books.
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Our friends from Kumasi, Abigail, Samuel, Isaac, & Bernice
However, Kevin and I thought the luggage fee was unfair and we ended up paying one thousand cedis to the bus conductor, who was wearing a "Size does matter" Godzilla T-shirt. We then gave another attendant, a young man, one thousand cedis for my bag. This infuriated the bus manager. He started yelling at us through the window, saying we still owed him. Our seatmates helped our cause, telling the manager for us that we had carried our own bags, and shouldn't be charged extra. The bus manager ran up the aisle, plucked Kevin's elbow, and told him, "You better watch out" in Kumasi and then threatened him bodily harm. Finally, the minibus drove away.

We arrive in Kumasi, the heart of the Ashanti Empire, We meet with Abigail, Samuel, Isaac, and Bernice, who shyly ask us for our addresses in the street near the statue of a former Ashanti king (you can write them at Box 53, Kumasi, Ghana). The Ashanti are well known for their kente cloth, a type of brightly-colored wax print or handmade material that is sewn into gorgeous dresses and loose-fighting tops and pants. The Ashanti have a history and mythology surrounding a golden stool, which houses the revered spirits of ancestors. In 1900, when the British wanted to crush the Ashanti resistance they demanded this super-sacred stool, but the Ashanti gave them a fake one!

This bus was more comfortable, except for the Afro-pop playing on the loudspeaker full blast for six hours, alternating with Christian rock songs sung in the unique Ghanaian accent. Kevin had a Walkman and could listen to "The Marriage of Figaro" and other opera pieces, but I just shook my head and leaned out the open window. We arrived in Kumasi about 1:00am, and took a taxi (the first driver wanted 5000 cedis to take us just to the center of town, but the second driver quoted a fair price) to the Presbyterian Guest House, where we slept, slapping mosquitoes, until late the next morning.

We began the day with lunch at the Windmill Restaurant. We dined on jollof rice (seasoned with a spicy taste), forowe (a fish stew), and fufu (a type of mashed, cooked manioc shaped into a ball) with a salad for me, and for Kevin, a red sauce with tripe (animal's stomach tissue).

We took some time to catch up on email at the British Consul. Since Ghana is a former British colony, there are many ties to the Commonwealth. Posted on the bulletin board are projects linking school children in the UK with schoolchildren in Ghana and Southern Africa. Afterwards, we took transport through the thriving central market to the boarding place for yet another bus ride, this time to Yeji, in the north. The orange minivan to Yeji groaned under the weight of all the packages, bags, baskets, two speakers for a soccer stadium, and of course, our two big backpacks.

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Here I am in Lake Volta
This ride is truly difficult. There's no pavement, so the bus bumps along a dirt road in the dark, for about nine hours. The women sitting in the back sing a capella for a while to keep our spirits up. At one point everyone was so tired and utterly quiet that I could hear, through Kevin's earphones, the strains of a beautiful tenor aria drifting through the night. Some parts of the road look like the surface of the moon, with giant craters that the driver slowed to a crawl to avoid. When the driver honks at dozens of goats resting in the warm dirt of the road, they get up and saunter away as we pass going only 10 miles/hr. We arrive close to 3 am. in Yeji to find that the bags won't be unpacked until dawn. So I sleep outside, on a spread-out garbage bag (always a good thing to carry!) over the concrete entryway of a nearby store, while Kevin slaps more mosquitoes and shivers in the cold.

It's Friday, August 6th, we awake at dawn and wash a little at a nearby hotel, then eat eggs, bread and coffee at a breakfast hut on the main pathway through the village. We wait until noon on the shores of Lake Volta, a large body of water created by the Akosombo Dam located further south, for a boat ride across. Kevin naps during the forty-five minute boat trip, through dead tree stumps and tepid brownish water. Next to him sits a woman and her baby, who seems terribly ill as she spoons fresh water into its mouth.

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My new friends from the bus!
Landing in Makongo, we take another bus to Tamale, after convincing the driver we really can't pay more than 2000 cedis for both our luggage fees. The road is half-paved and extremely dusty--dust even lodges in my ears and cakes my hair. Children wave as we pass the scenic, traditional African villages. Three hours later, in Tamale, we buy some biscuits and take another minivan four hours to Bolgatanga (luckily, the road is paved). Arriving at nightfall, we eat a decent meal of beef stroganoff and jollof, rice with chicken, at the Black Star Hotel, shower out all the dust, and sleep at the St. Joseph Guest House until late the next day.

I have always wanted to visit Ougadougou, ever since hearing about the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO), a huge cinema fair held every odd year in this sleepy, small capital of Burkina Faso. People like Nelson Mandela and other dignitaries and celebrities descend on Ouga from all over Africa to watch terrific, new African-directed films at this festival. Because I only had time to visit the huge, well-designed market (le Grand Marche) in the city center before leaving for the bus station, I realize that Ouga, and the country of Burkina Faso, is definitely a place to which I could return. Easygoing people, terrific food (you always find terrific food in former French colonies, especially the baguettes!) and a positive atmosphere permeated Ougadougou--pas de probleme (no probleme!

Saturday, August 7th, we have more fufu at Madame Rakia/All People's Cafe before hiring a private car to cross the border into Burkina Faso at 4pm, then head to the small border town of Po. Immediately as we cross the border, the language spoken changes to French. Kevin has a great time asking questions of the local children while I listen and try to remember my high school level French. One charming young man tells us the driver would be coming "tout de suite," immediately, which is the equivalent of "ahora" in Latin America. At one point during the visit, Kevin passes out from the heat and dehydration and possibly the beef stroganoff meal from the night before. So we decide to take a white van and ride four hours into Ougadougou, the capital.

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I even found time to stop at the Grand Marche
Arriving at Fondation Charles Dufour, a hotel that houses street orphans for the night. I ask about rooms ("Est-ce que vous avez des chambres libres?") and luckily there are dorm beds covered in mosquito netting and we again fall into heavy sleep until the next day.

Yet another bus... This is Sunday, August 8th, and we walk around the Grand Marche, the large market in Ouga, and try to take the train, but it is under construction until August 14th. So we wait at the bus station for four hours until the next bus to Bobo-Dioulasso.

Since this was a night trip, no one sitting behind me would let me open the window. "Pouvez-vous fermer la fenetre?" (Could you close the window) they ask, because it is cold. Later it starts to rain outside, which overheats the inside. Argh!

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Travelling is sooo much fun
We arrive in Bobo at 11:30pm, and eventually find another bed, with mosquito netting, where we both crash. This is at "Casa Africa." We think fondly of Latin America, because the bus system here is incredibly more difficult to deal with than the buses we took all throughout Central and South America. Since I am still sick, some of the many French tourists at Casa Africa gave me some amoxicillin. I keep spitting up yellow phlegm and, in general, feel pretty thrashed. Later the next day, we embark on another, twelve-hour, difficult bus ride to our destination, Bamako, Mali, where Jasmine, Abeja, and Kavitha are waiting.


The Team - Let's go to Cameroon, NOT!
Abeja - Next Stop Slavery - A Visit to an African Holding Pen
Jasmine - A San Francisco Treat
Kavitha - Accra . . . or Brooklyn? The African Diaspora
Kevin - It's a Hard Day's Night

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