Ghana Get Through This

Last week, I completed the first leg of my trip around West Africa by arriving in Accra in some style – on a lime green double-decker with fully functioning fans and footrests (and with a distinct lack of raucous poultry on board). This week, my race was well and truly run…

Day 29 – Accra, Ghana

Accra. My home for the next five days or so and the scene of what could either be a surprising success OR a breath-taking blunder. The central reason I had chosen to backpack West Africa on this occasion (as opposed to hiking the Andes or coracling the Cothi) was to take part in the A.I.M – the Accra International Marathon. Whilst its grand title evokes images of London or Paris or Boston, they average less than thirty runners a year so I doubt that queues at the food stations will be an issue (if they have any food stations that is).

I settled into my Ghanaian home, meeting my gracious hosts Rasta and Gordon, before arranging an Uber (oh lord how I have missed you) to the Embassy of Burkina Faso. My penultimate visa, despite quadrupling in price since I last checked, was straightforward to organise and could be picked up the following day. What was of more interest was my inquiry into the likelihood of getting kidnapped and held to ransom on the bus to Burkina from neighbouring Niger (which would probably raise my captors all of £5.30). As you probably know, my French is more ‘Allo ‘Allo than Marcel Proust but even I could gather that this would be a pretty risky move. A change of route may be required…

Day 30 – Accra, Ghana

Two days until the race and I’ve decided to take things extremely easily (my excuse for barely lifting a leg). Not that I have been training like Mo Farah for the London Olympics anyway. My last ‘training run’ was in Swansea about two months ago, when I cramped up after five kilometres and almost had to be stretchered to the morgue. As I collected my dazzlingly orange AIM running vest from the pick-up point, one of the race organisers burst out laughing when I told him I was doing the full marathon (shorter distances were possible). Do I not look like an athlete at the peak of their powers?

A month into my trip and I had thus far managed to avoid all forms of restaurant chains, supermarkets or shopping malls (not that the Guinean jungle occupied too many). However, with supplies needed for the run, I was forced to re-join civilisation and headed to the biggest shopping centre in the capital. It was horrific. Hordes of avaricious consumers crowded the festively decorated stores, filling their vacuous carts with all manner of pointless junk. Despite the high likelihood of getting mugged, I would have taken Conakry market over this any day. I hastily purchased a fanny pack and some salted caramel running gels and headed for the exit. Phew.

Day 31 – Accra, Ghana

Over breakfast of pancakes and an assortment of breads, I inquisitively checked the internet for what I should be doing the twenty-four hours before a marathon – and planned my day accordingly. I tried on my complete outfit (checking for possible chaffing zones and taping the back of the drawing pins), trimmed my toenails (for this you must know), packed and laid out everything I needed for the morn (in perfectly folded stacks) and kept well carbed and hydrated throughout.

For dinner, I merely sought a simple meal of Jollof rice (West Africa’s most common dish) with any sort of protein – it should have been an easy task. However, hostel Gordon (oh Gordon) insisted on taking me out to one of his favourite Ghanaian restaurants. Given that my alarm was set for 2:45 am for the following morn, I begrudgingly accepted. Well, we walked for about forty minutes before finding the establishment closed (permanently by the looks of things) and continued through the busiest market in the city to another of Gordon’s clandestine selections. Given that the streets were littered with open drains and obstacles aplenty (and with motorbikes flying past at the speed of sound) I was slightly concerned about procuring a very avoidable injury.

Thankfully, it was only my lungs that were permanently damaged (from exhaust fumes) and we made it back to the hostel, well-fed, just in time for me not to be able to sleep a wink. I lay under my fragrant mosquito net for hour upon hour, unable to rest or even shut my eyes before jolting upright again and again. I think my body already knows what torture awaits it tomorrow and is desperately trying to tell me to not bother. I hope it’s bloody wrong…

Day 32 – Accra, Ghana

Marathon day. Zero sleep. Not ideal preparation but the hell with it. Sunscreen and Vaseline were the order of the morning, as I copiously applied both to every part of my torso. I then donned my fanny pack, thrust my lucky Ghanaian hat upon my head, and hailed a taxi to the race. I arrived at the Labadi Beach Hotel at a quite ridiculous four in the morning and awaited the minibus that would take us weary runners to the start line.

Well, I presumed they would be weary. Runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania started turning up as if it were Tokyo 2020, looking staggeringly more prepared than I. I found one other terrified beginner from Dorset and we mutually shared our fear about what we were about to endure. As we drove through the night our little minibus kept going on, and on, and on, and I despairingly realised that I would shortly have to ‘run’ the interminable return route. We were greeted warmly at the start by a vociferous group of traditional drummers and the cycling team that would accompany us along Accra’s hectic and unclosed roads. I, and only twenty-two others, awaited the starting pistol… But it broke. Instead, a man shouted “run”, and we were off.

Well, the first ten kilometres or so went swimmingly. The sun remained behind a perfectly placed cloud, my legs felt in reasonable condition and I was mentally prepared for the five-hour haul. It was then that my saviour-cloud dissipated, and we were all left in the full glare of the African rays. Everything came quickly crashing down. From confident of finishing to confident of perishing happened in a matter of kilometres and it was upon reaching the halfway point that my accompanying cyclist stopped me as I started to sway… like a feather in a hurricane.

I was absolutely shattered when I realised that I would not be able to finish. I had always felt that, as long as my mind was set, I would be able to complete the race – despite my staggering lack of preparation. But towards the end, it started to feel as though I was running inside of a kiln, blinded by sweat and unable to keep it straight. I was given the once over in an ambulance and pathetically driven to the finish line, which I couldn’t cross. I received a medal for completing the half marathon distance before I made my disheartened way back home. Deep sigh.

Day 33 – Accra, Ghana

A full night’s repose allowed me time to contemplate yesterday’s events and some monk-like reflection has resulted in me being slightly more satisfied with my achievements. Had I entered the half marathon to begin with, which I absolutely should have done, I would have been overjoyed with the result. Over thirteen miles in sub-Saharan Africa is no joke (along with the small amount raised for MSF). For this, I am contented.

Well, as it was the scorching heat rather than my legs that let me down yesterday, I wasn’t feeling too paralysed this morn and considered myself more than capable of visiting one or two of Accra’s tourist sights (which I had neglected thus far). I began at Black Star Square, an enormous Tiananmen-style plaza with Independence Arch at one end and a bloody great gate at the other. Indeed Ghana (or the Gold Coast as it was known in 1957) was one of the first African nations to gain independence from their colonial subjugators. Thus, kick-starting an era of great optimism and expectation all over the continent. Sadly, it didn’t last for long.

Symbols of that subjugation can be seen all over Jamestown, the area of ‘Old Accra’ in which I was staying. Unfortunately, the historic and dilapidated James Fort (astonishingly used as a prison until 2008) was shut for the day and the infamous Jamestown Lighthouse was impossible to appreciate without being swarmed upon by local ‘guides’ and hustlers. In addition, photos were not allowed without paying a fee (one of my pet peeves), so I waited until almost out of sight before shnapping a shly shot.

Day 34 – Accra, Ghana to Cape Coast, Ghana

For the first time on my West African adventure, I have enough time to spare to undertake a small detour from my primary eastwardly route. I decided to head back towards Cote d’Ivoire to visit a city with a remarkably dark past (of which I will discover tomorrow). Cape Coast, once the capital of the nation, is now a fairly sleepy fishing town with several stunning beaches and countless miniature bars. So as soon as my bags were dropped at my hillside accommodation, I decided to start at a particularly picturesque one, and see how far I could get.

Another first for the trip (well, at least since Dakar) was the opportunity to explore with a fellow traveller: teaching volunteer Pam from Utrecht. After spending the afternoon watching the locals (including dogs) performing rugby drills on the beach, a route back to the hotel via numerous diminutive saloons was formed and many, many Club’s (Ghana’s Carling) were consumed. The miniature tavernas reminded me of those in Japan, with just enough room for five depressed businessmen, and an angry cat.

Day 35 – Cape Coast, Ghana

If you were unaware, the entirety of West Africa was a very different place around three hundred years ago. No area was immune to the scourge of slavery, brought upon the natives by numerous European empires. Cape Coast Castle was one of the first ‘slave forts’ built in the region and was responsible for the export of an uncountable number of slaves during occupation by the Portuguese, British and Dutch. The living conditions inside the dungeons was horrifying, “spaces of terror, death, and blackness” as our guide put it, where diseases ran rampant and the chances of escape were zero.

Indeed, the eerie feeling I sensed upon entering one of the most inhospitable cells (where the most headstrong prisoners were kept and almost always died within twenty-four hours) was akin to that of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. At the section of the castle closest to the ocean lies ‘The Door of No Return’, where the slaves were loaded on ships for the Americas – never to return to their homeland (with many more perishing in sickening conditions onboard).

The visit, although not a pleasant way to end the week, serves as an important reminder of humanity’s capacity to be extraordinarily discriminatory and downright evil – which should never be underestimated. Mercifully, the days of loading ships with people bound in chains are over, but modern slavery still exists in many rural West African communities (and around the world for that matter) – with hereditary servitude still an ongoing plague. It certainly puts my silly run around Accra into perspective. On to Togo.

J

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