Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ghana Trip

I finally got round to writing this post, after procrastinating for weeks. It's been sitting around in my drafts for a while, but I must warn you though, it's quite a long post.
When my dad suggested to my sisters and I that we should visit Ghana during our holidays, we were all really excited and up for it. I thought it was a great idea because I hadn’t visited any other African country before, and it would give me a chance to meet up with my friend from uni, who was also home in Accra for the Christmas break. Initially, I thought we were going to fly, but my dad suggested we should take the car instead. After some persuasion, I thought it would be fun. The whole journey took us about 12 hours – going from Lagos to Accra, and then another couple of hours to get to Elmina, a historical town along the coast. We stayed in Elmina for two nights and then spent another night in Accra.

Our journey began early in the morning at 7.00am. We wanted to set out of Lagos early so that we could get to Ghana before night. Our first stop was at a petrol station to fill our tank to the brim, then we headed towards Badagry. It took us about two hours to get to Seme, which is the border between Nigeria and Benin Republic. The border was bustling with people, as travellers mingled with traders and hawkers. There was also a brisk trade in currency exchange going on, as people needed different currencies to trade between borders. Crossing the border was relatively smooth. We had to get some documents to take the car out of the country, then customs officials asked to check our luggage and made a few other checks and within thirty minutes, we passed through “no man’s land” (which is the small space between the two official borders) and crossed into Benin Republic.
It was my first time entering another African country and I was curious so I paid attention as the car drove into Cotonou. The first thing I noticed was that there didn’t seem to be as many flashy cars on the road in Benin, compared with Lagos. All the cars we saw were small or moderate cars. We saw the usual mobile phone networks – Glo, MTN and the like – had a big presence in Benin too, with recharge cards sold at road sides. We were surprised when we saw ladies riding bikes! But our driver explained that in Benin, bikes are not just for public transport, people also used motorbikes as their means of private transportation.

The public riders wear a visibility vest to distinguish them from private riders. They also have a lane for bikes on their roads which is really useful, so they don’t run into the path of cars, like the riders do in Lagos. Apart from that, the only other notable difference was the French language. I could take a photo in Cotonou and if you didn’t know, you would not be able to tell that I was outside Nigeria.

We journeyed on, passing through Cotonou and driving towards the other side of the country. We passed a number of small towns and villages on the way. Our journey through Benin was relatively uneventful, we ate snacks we bought at the border and watched the countryside as we drove by. The next border we had to cross was the Benin-Togo border. Again, we had to go through the documentation checks, the driver had to fill out paperwork for the car and so on. While we were waiting, I started to take photos, but I was told that it was illegal to take photos at the border and if an official saw me, my camera would be seized! I promptly put my camera and snap-happy finger away until we had crossed into Togo. Here are some photos I managed to take:
Togo is quite a small country and it took us less than an hour to get across it. We drove mostly along the coastline and we could see the Atlantic ocean and the nice beaches.

We soon got to the Togo-Ghana border and again had to go through a time-consuming process of getting paperwork for the car, then customs checked our luggage again. Eventually we were clear to go and we got into the border town of Aflao. The road was a bit rough for a few miles but it was under constriction so we soon left the bad bit behind and enjoyed a smooth ride into Accra. We passed by several police and customs check points on the way, checking that we had the right documentations, and checking our luggage time and time again. I have to say though, that I thought the police in Ghana had a friendly attitude that Nigerian ones don’t have!

We took a short break before we entered into Accra, stopping at a filling station to stretch our feet and buy a few snacks from the small supermarket. My sister had an MTN sim card, and we had been told it would work in Ghana so we had loaded it with enough credit before we left home. We were glad and surprised to realise that it cost less to call Nigeria from Ghana, than making calls within Nigeria!

Around 7pm we got into Accra, just before it started getting dark. We drove past Accra Mall (the equivalent of Palms Mall in Lagos), the Presidential residence, a busy market (I can’t remember the name) and a few other places of interest. I noticed that the traffic was orderly, the streets of Accra were very clean, all the traffic lights worked, and there were very few bikes on the roads. We didn’t stop because we still had a journey of almost 130 kilometres to cover before we get to Elmina. Some photos of Accra:

We arrived at Elmina around 9pm, by this time it was already dark so we couldn't see much of the coastal town. We went straight to our hotel, where we checked in. We were given the family suite which was really nice. We all had a shower and ordered dinner from the restaurant. The menu was good – we had fried rice with a really nice chicken and vegetable stew, as well as beans and fried plantain. After dinner, my sisters and I started watching a Nollywood movie but before long, we turned it off and went to bed.

The next morning, we got up bright and early and had breakfast in a nice chalet by the beach, which was part of the resort we were staying in. Some photos of the resort:

We left the resort with my dad’s friend who is a tour operator, to see the main attraction in this part of Ghana which is Elmina Castle. It’s one of the many forts built by the Portuguese when they first came to Africa to establish trade links. But in the 17th century it became a depot for the transatlantic slave trade and its dungeons housed many slaves captured from all over West Africa to be shipped to the Americas. (You can read more about the castle and it's history here).

We were taken round the castle by a tour guide. The tour included a history of the castle and its links with the slave trade. It was a very informative experience for me personally because although I had heard a lot about the slave trade, seeing the castle and images in the museum really brought it to life. It seemed almost impossible to believe that such things actually happened but the evidence was right there for us to see.

After the tour at Elmina, we went to the museum to see some of the items and exhibits of the town and the slave trade era. We left Elmina Castle, and took a short drive to Cape Coast to see Cape Coast Castle too. This castle was also purpose built for the slave trade and one fact that the tour guide pointed out to us was that the castle had dungeons for male slaves on one level and a church right above it! In those days, the slave masters still attended church services and called themselves Christians. I was wondering what they did to silence their conscience and perpetuate such wicked acts against their fellow human beings. I spent quite a long time in the museum at Cape Coast castle digesting a lot of information about the slave trade and its impact on Africa and history. There was a lot more information and artifacts at Cape Coast than Elmina Castle, but if anyone is interested in the history, I would recommend a tour of both. Here are some pics I took at Cape Coast:

I won't bore you with all the other grisly details that I saw and heard about during the tour of both castles, but its a trip I would recommend to everyone who wants to know more about Black history. At the end of that day, my sister mentioned that it made her appreciate the presidency of Barack Obama even more.

The rest of our holiday went well, the next day we visited Fort St. Jago before we left Elmina and went to Accra. We had fun in Accra, hanging out with two of our friends who took us to lunch, a short tour of the city and chilled out in a nice bar afterwards. By the time we got back to our hotel it was very late. And because we had to get up early in the morning, we decided to call it a night.

The next morning, we packed our stuff into the car and began the long drive back to Lagos. In all, it was a lovely experience and I would definitely visit Ghana again, but next time I'll fly!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On This Day....

... I watched, along with millions of people around the world as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.

I was glued to CNN all day, from about five hours before the inauguration was due to begin. I watched as the crowds gathered and the mood was jubilant, people were talking about witnessing a historic moment, the CNN reporters were saying they had never seen anything like it, Americans from all over the country, all colours, all ages, rich and poor had come to see their new president take the oath of office. Several people had also come from all over the world - from the UK, Europe, even as far as Australia and the Middle East.

I agree it has been a really great day in history. Obama has made history. For generations to come, thousands of school children will read about him in their history books. College students will research his campaign and quote his speeches in essays. He will be remembered as the first African American to take the position of President of the United States. People will point to him and say "I can achieve the impossible".

For now, we wait and see how his administration will unfold. Personally, I don't envy him one bit. The weight of expectations on his shoulders is immense. He is carrying the hopes of his country and far beyond. He will be scrutinised and criticised at every turn. Already people are saying they were disappointed with his inaugural speech. No doubt he is a strong leader, but at the end of the day, he can't please everyone so some people will be disappointed. I'm not an American, but even I am crossing my fingers for him, willing him to succeed and exceed the expectations of the American people. Tonight the party continues, but tomorrow, Obama and his team will have to roll up their sleeves and get to work, delivering on all those promises he made. But I can bet that the next four years will be anything but dull.

In all this, commentators are saying Obama won because he was able to capture the hearts and minds of the younger generation. He was able to inspire people to trust him for the change they desperately wanted. I'm praying that such a leader will rise in Nigeria too. Obama has taught us that we can expect a whole lot more from our leaders. We should now see that we need leaders who can inspire a whole nation. We need leaders that we can believe in. We need leaders to change the old ways of doing things. And we need leaders who will lead with the interests of their followers at heart. God help us...

So as a new day dawns for the world, I say to everyone witnessing it - congrats! Hope we all take some lessons from these events, from the man and from the moment.

PS: I know I was supposed to do a post on my trip to Ghana but I had been so out of it with blogville. But look! Obama got me blogging again - lol! I'll be back with the update and photos soon, I promise.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Trip Summary and Observations

Hey guys! Hope you've all had a great week and a wonderful start to the year. I think I need something to jolt me back into reality. I've been back from Lagos since last Wednesday but it seems my brain is still in holiday mode. It's been slow to get back into my usual routine, well until yesterday. A friend came to stay the night, so I had to get up and get active.

I've got lots of stuff to do. I feel like I carried over most of my goals from 2008, so I have to step up my gear a bit with accomplishing my targets. I have a few new goals for this year though, one of which is to finally start driving in the UK! Here's hoping I achieve that. I started the process last year but I got distracted towards the end of the year. I also want to take my writing up another notch, aim to finish my first novel this year and start working on a second one. But one thing at a time.... I still have a way to go with catching up on my favourite blogs and entries from the last three weeks, so I'll be back in full mode next week.

I had a great time in Lagos with family and friends. My schedule was really tight so unfortunately I didn't get to meet any bloggers like I did last year. I attended a few sallah parties, two weddings, the Farafina literary event (where I met Chimamanda - yay!!) a friend's bbq, two Christmas parties and organised a get-together with my sisters. Add to that, meeting up with friends, reunions, and a trip to Ghana, all adding up to a busy time. It was lovely though, doing everything in the searing heat of Lagos. As soon as we got off the plane, myself and my fellow passengers didn't waste time in shedding all the coats, sweaters and other layers of clothing. It was a relief to go out of the house without checking the weather report first. I tell you, being back in the cold weather is not fun! Since I got back, I have hardly gone out in the last week, apart from the very necessary trips to the supermarket and post office. Even when I do, I have to wrap up in so many layers. The contrast is so amazing.

Fortunately for me, I didn't have the huge culture shock I experienced in 2007 but sometimes I saw things that struck me as odd about the culture in Nigeria. When I point out something, I get strange looks from people.

One thing that became really obvious to me was the way people in Nigeria regard cars as the ultimate status symbol. I found it strange that in church people give testimonies about how God has just blessed them with a brand new car. Or people count cars as part of their assets, for example, "that man is very rich, he has five cars". Companies also reward their employees with cars as part of their remuneration package. On the roads, scores of new flashy cars abound, and it seemed to me that people would rather drive around a flashy car than eat good food or live in a fine house. Somebody even told me that the kind of car you drive determines the amount of respect you get wherever you go. I found this strange but amusing, because to me, a car is just a vehicle to get you from one place to the other. As long as it works we're good to go. I guess it's a Nigerian thing!

Something else I noticed was when I go into people's houses, the living room is usually very well kept, nicely decorated and tidy. But the kitchen and the loo/bathroom is usually a totally different story! I don't get it. Why would you not want every room in your house to be presentable. It's as if people forget that guests also see other parts of your house, not just your living room. Personally I'm even more particular about my kitchen and bathroom than I am about any other room in the house. But that may just be me.

I was looking forward to attending church again, because I had missed the lively and bubbly praise worship sessions in Pentecostal churches, something I don't get in my church in the UK. But when I went to church I couldn't help but compare the different styles of teachings. After the service I didn't feel inspired or empowered at all. I felt like somebody had just shouted some instructions at me from the bible, with no explanation of how I was supposed to become a better Christian. I felt like I was expected to meet those high standards on my own. I also got the feeling that the leaders of the church carried themselves as if they were a little higher than the members so I could never hope to be one of them unless I attain a certain level of perfection. Now I may be wrong but those were the things that struck me.

Amusingly, I knew what to expect with stuff like making rapid, and I mean rapid telephone calls, NEPA and their frequent power cuts, the traffic in Lagos and the delightful mosquitoes. I just prepared myself mentally before hand. Still, a trip to Nigeria is never without its surprises. I'll talk more about that, and my trip to Ghana in the next post.

Hope you have a really nice weekend.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

I'm back!

Happy New Year 2009 folks! I'm grateful to God for bringing us through year 2008! It was an interesting year and I look forward to a wonderful and exciting 2009! I pray that we all experience peace, joy, perfect health, success in all our endeavours, realise our goals and draw closer to God in 2009.

I had a great time in Nigeria over the last three weeks, I didn't want it to end! But I was missing hubby so I couldn't stay away forever ;) and I arrived back home last night.

My trip was quite eventful, we even managed to squeeze in a four-day trip to Ghana, which was lovely. I'll get down to writing all about it, and sorting out my photos as soon as I'm settled in. Right now I'm reuniting with hubby and acclimatising to the cold weather again. Sigh, Nigeria was so hot! I had been hearing that this has been the worst winter in recent history and I was so dreading it.

I'll be back with a proper update soon, in the meantime I wish you all a very blessed week, month and year!
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