From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



It was not quite as dramatic as crossing the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but the change was huge and significant.  Today we travelled from one world into another, from Francophone West Africa where we have been for the last few weeks, into Anglophone West Africa (Ghana).

For the past few weeks, I have been conversing in French with minimal effort, paradoxically finding it far, far easier to converse here with West Africans speaking French than I ever found it to be with native French speaking people from France when I was working in Houston (where almost 40% of my teaching staff were French).  Maybe it is because they use simpler grammar here (like I do), maybe they speak a little more slowly, maybe it’s because they finish one thought before veering off to another, maybe it’s because they use fewer idioms and speak the way I learnt French at school, maybe it’s because they speak clearly and don’t mumble like many people from France.  The one exception was in Ouagadougou, where my conversations in French were tougher – they tend to mumble more there, and they do it quickly.  Anyway, whatever the reason, it has been a joy to converse freely and happily in French for the past few weeks.

The drive from our hotel in Lomé west to the Ghanaian border took just three minutes.  We had to exit Togo as the first step.  As we approached the border our car was surrounded by men running and shouting through the window.  Some were wanting to sell us SIM cards, some to exchange money, while others were competing to be our helper through customs and immigration.  Several were trying to direct us to ‘their’ parking spots, which was entrepreneurial if a bit intimidating.  As we have found at previous border crossings in West Africa, there is a total absence of signage, perhaps to allow the growth industry of local people showing confused foreigners through the labyrinth of non-sequential officialdom.  Or, if you were cynical, perhaps you might suggest that it is to encourage mistakes and omissions so that the foreigner has to pay a small fee to correct the ‘problem’.

In contrast to the street hassles, the official part of the Togolese exit was fairly simple and straightforward, although I thought the policeman sitting while holding a begging bowl for tips with a machine gun across his lap was an interesting touch.  We then crossed to the Ghanaian side, to be greeted in English by smiling immigration officials for the first time in quite a while.  The smiles, the English and the good humour were not the only differences; they processed our immigration using scanners attached to old Dell computers – very different from the laborious process of writing all our details by hand multiple times in several large bound tomes.

However, that was where the joy of entering Ghana started to diminish.  The processes with the car seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, even allowing for the fact that Harouna had to obtain an international driving licence to enter Ghana.  Having arrived at 8:10 am, we didn’t get away until three and a half hours later (at 11:40 am) – a long while to stand around in a hot, humid, dusty, parking area with no shade, fending off CD salesmen, shoe polishers and repairers, beggars, and an entourage of eight hangers-on who stood around doing nothing whatsoever later demanded payment for their time and ‘services’.

It was interesting to listen in to the conversations (in French) between the hangers-on and others while we were waiting.  One conversation was quite animated, along the lines that Ghanaians are such a wealthy people that they have become arrogant and continually victimise Francophone people.  One comment was that Ghana has good roads, which shows they have so much money they don’t know what to spend it on.  There certainly seems to be little love between the French speakers of Togo and the English speakers in Ghana; the sense of victimisation felt by the Francophones was palpable and at times a bit frightening.

Another change at the border was the currency to be used.  Throughout Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin and Togo, I had been using CFA Francs (commonly called the “cifa”.  In use since 1945, CFA Francs were the first multi-country currency, pre-dating the Euro (to which it is now pegged) by several decades.  Ghana uses its own currency, the cedi (pronounced CD), and I needed to exchange money at the border.  According to the official rate on, the 100,000 CFA francs I had should have converted to 496 cedis.  No money changer would deviate from the agreed rate of 400 cedis, and, as I guessed correctly, the cifas were almost impossible to convert away from the border (and I didn’t want to left with useless banknotes).  I eventually found one converter who reluctantly agreed to 410 cedis provided none of the others was told… all of which raises an interesting question – if the only place you can convert cifas to cedis offers a certain rate, but claims the rate is different from that, how can have any meaning in the real world?

Eventually we were on our way.  After an initial short rough dirt road, the highway became an excellent sealed road, easily the best we have seen so far in West Africa with wide lanes, smooth edges and no potholes.  Unfortunately, the air conditioning that had worked so well for the three minute drive to the border refused to work for the rest of the day, so we had to drive at speeds of 100 to 120 kilometres per hour with the windows down.  The wind was hot and the car was so noisy that we had to shout to communicate with each other.  Worse, the car was periodically filled with black, greasy exhaust fumes from badly tuned diesel trucks and buses which, when mixed with the dust and smoke in the air from the many grass and cooking fires, created an acrid mix that made the eyes sting and provoked more than a few coughing fits.  It was not the most pleasant drive of the trip.

There was surprisingly little to see on today’s drive, and combined with the fact we were driving into the sun through clouds of exhaust and smoke for most of the day, this explains the small number of photos illustrating today’s diary.  I did, however, enjoy noting down the names of some of the Christian-themed business names that I spotted on today’s drive: Divine Glory Hair Salon, God’s Way Chemist, the With God Cold Meat Store (do animals go to heaven?), Blood of Jesus Takeway Food and Drinks, God’s Elect Plywood, and the Pray for God’s Miracle Medical Clinic.  There is another example in the last photo to the bottom right.

We did make one stop on the way for Harouna to pay a police ‘fine’ (i.e. no receipt) for allegedly failing to stop at a sign, which gave us the opportunity to buy some bread and cool drinks for our light lunch.  It also gave me the opportunity to shoot this short video of the vendors running to the sides of other cars and minibuses that were stopping.

Ghana has clearly reached a level of economic development that is above any of the other countries we have visited so far on this trip.  This can be seen in such clear observational factors as the quality of the roads (such as the George W Bush Motorway which shirts the northern perimeter of Accra), the cars, houses, factories, shops, advertising for consumer goods (including luxury goods), as well as the considerably higher prices for everything and the vastly greater quantities of noxious air pollution.

After a long drive, we reached our hotel at Elmina at about 6:00 pm, well before sunset but long after the sun had disappeared into the thick, murky layer of heavy smoke that overlies this part of Ghana.  Our hotel, the Elmina Beach Resort, is the highest standard hotel we have stayed in on this trip.  Located right on the coast where we can hear the sound of the crashing waves outside, I am really looking forward to exploring it tomorrow when there is daylight.


22 January 2014

Day 26 - Lomé to Elmina, Ghana