Saturday, November 05, 2005

Going to Find Africa...Part One

Thursday was a school holiday, so we all jumped in the car with Duke (our driver) and left Accra for the great unknown countryside of Ghana. We decided on the Volta region, partly because it isn't very popular with tourists (unaccountably in our opinion) and partly because there was a pottery place we wanted to go to there.

We headed north and east out of Accra, and first thing we got waved over by a police checkpoint. These aren't too uncommon, and we were still in Accra, on a road we drive every day, but apparently pickings were slim since it was a holiday. A fat policeman in a standard dark blue uniform with a standard neon green vest leaned his corrupt self into Ted's passenger side window and, rubbing his fingers together, suggested a small "something for the boys" which translates as, "You are a rich white man, I'm able to stop your car and ask for money, so I will." Duke did an end run around the guy and gave him ¢10,000 (about a buck) - we paid him back later, but it was important to Duke that the guy not get money from us, so we let him pay. To be fair, that is the first time in five months we have been shaken down by the cops here. This pumpkin headed guy was an exception rather than the rule. We passed through another half dozen checkpoints that day, and not a single one made us even stop longer than it took to see that we were just sightseers having a holiday.

It's strange and wonderful riding through the Ghanaian countryside. The houses quickly gave way to mud huts with thatched roofs. They were very sturdy houses though- well built and neatly kept up. We both tried snapping pictures but there were always people very near the houses and we didn't want to be rude, so we never managed to get a shot. As we passed one of the village groups of huts, we saw a woman taking a shower in her thatched bathing hut. It was round and about four or five feet through the middle. The thatch covered her from her ankles to her shoulders and she was standing inside, unconcerned about people and cars passing by about 10 feet away, pouring water over her head and soaping up. I REALLY wanted a picture of that hut, and frankly, to take a shower in it, but neither could have happened without some serious rudeness, so no dice.

Occasionally as we drove along, I'd be watching out the car window and think, "this looks like Wisconsin" or "that could be California hills" and then some cool thing would pop up (a woman carrying a mountain of firewood on her head, or a herd of cattle making their way slowly up the road towards us) and I'd remember that I truly wasn't in Wisconsin or California.

One of the first stops we made was the bridge (see the picture at the top of this page) over the southern end of Lake Volta that is shown on a two thousand cedi bill- like the Lincoln Memorial it was cool to be someplace that you've seen a lot on your money.

From there we headed to Kpandu (Pan-doo) to find the Pottery Women. They make all kinds of pottery from fetishes to bowls to platters, and only women make it. They make all their stuff by hand, smoothing the exterior of each item with stones. They let it air-dry, then the pieces are open fired and rolled in sawdust which makes them a black color. So we get to Kpandu and whiz past the sign for the "Pottery Shed" but I see enough of it to think maybe that's it. Two hundred feet later when we run out of town, u-turn and head back for the little sign. We turn up a grass/dirt road and follow it to the top of a hill where we find some closed and empty buildings with some thatched shade roofs in the courtyards.

We sit for a minute, lamenting that they are probably closed for the holiday after we drove 150 miles to find them, and Duke spots a guy walking nearby. He whistles him over and asks him about the Pottery Women, when suddenly, a Pottery Woman in the flesh pops up out of nowhere and says, in a different dialect than Twi (the Ashanti language that Duke and most of Accra speaks), that she will take us. Thankfully, our Duke understood her (we suspect he understands all women, no matter what their native language). She starts walking, and we follow in the car.
The road disappears and becomes grass only. Then she walks down a trail that disappears into the trees and is little more than a gully for rainwater. A nervous titter runs through the car as we slowly follow this woman (who is on foot) in our stupid car, down, down, down into the forest. Suddenly, after about 100 yards, we pop out into a clearing with a large building dead ahead, and a bunch of women with small children around.

We get out and are welcomed to the pottery shed, where they open a set of large doors at one end and wave us into a room filled with every kind of pottery item your heart could desire- bowls, plates, candle holders, masks, animal fetishes, bottles, cups, you name it- they make it. The three of us just wandered around slack jawed picking things up and setting them back down, brains seizing up from all the choices.
In the end, Ted and I decided on a turtle, an elephant, a large serving bowl, a mask, two small dishes and a tiny fist sized pitcher/pot with a lid. Cooper chose a pig, and really gross man/goat head with spiral horns that only a thirteen year old boy or witch doctor could appreciate. We got it all for ¢200,000 cedi (about $21). We don't know if we were supposed to negotiate the price, but we didn't even try- 200K seemed more than fair, even if it was only their opening gambit. We are the planet's worst bargainers. ;-)

Once we gave them the items we wanted, they went to work wrapping them in newspaper for us and I wandered over to make friends with a squealing baby who was sitting on the floor. Duke asked her mother if we could mess with the baby, and she said yes, so Duke picked her up and we took turns making her laugh. She was so cute- not a tooth in her head yet and she could apparently tell that Duke had a baby of his own at home because after a few minutes she put her head on his chest and her hand on his face and zoned out. Meanwhile, I had been brought their visitor book to sign, and filled that out while Ted paid for our pottery.

After that we were off again. We didn't have time to head for the waterfalls we thought we might like to see- it was necessary to get back to Accra by dark, which is six o'clock around here. The one thing you don't want is to be caught outside the city after dark- the roads are far too dangerous and the accounts of nasty accidents are an almost weekly occurrence even on the divided motorway that runs near our house coming from the Togo border.
So we headed south again, on a different road, going to a fairly large town called Ho in search of lunch. Missed a couple of turns and ended up not getting to Ho until 2pm, but we stopped for a nice lunch in an open air restaurant just outside town. The rest of our day was just as much fun, but only in retrospect, tune in later this week for Part Two: There's No Place Like Home. :-)