Takoradi, 24 February 2009.

While we wait for Arama who is one hour late to our meeting, I set our plans for the rest of the trip : considering the large distances involved and the constraints of human powered mobility, we’ll give the national parks a miss after all and focus on the coastal region between Takoradi and Axim. Back in Takoradi, we’ll then ride to Elmina and Cape Coast, before taking a bus back to Accra. I’ll definitely have to come back to Ghana !

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In the morning from the hotel room’s windows I see hordes of school children in uniform walk up the street while packs of military-looking men run by, chanting and stepping at the exact same cadence. About a thousand children gather around a soccer field nearby, cheering their comrades on the field. So far, soccer seems to be the undisputedly dominant sport in Ghana – wherever you go there is always a game going on somewhere, either kids on the streets, adults in a courtyard, a big team in the stadium or Manchester United on TV. It is school holidays in Ghana, and Arama tells me that the kids on the soccer field are part of a week-long sporting event. All the little girls have their hair cut short – if a girl has her hair cut very short, it most likely is because she is still attending school.

As usual in Ghana, it never takes long before religion emerges in the conversation. Arama and her family are Mormon, a minority religion in Ghana – but with a power quite beyond its size. I ask Arama if she has completed her mission, but she says that it will have to wait until she has completed her studies and civil service in Ghana. By the way, Ghanean missionaries only travel to Africa as too many of them have taken advantage of missions in Europe and North America to never return – and some even joined the church for precisely that purpose.

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We walk to Arama’s home in central Accra – her family owns a four level building and occupies one of the apartments on the lower level, on a little courtyard away from the street. Doors are open during the day and there is a Mediterranean feel about that quiet place. Arama comments her family pictures, and we soon meet her father – a former banker who has also been the voluntary manager of the Mormon employment resources centre in Takoradi for three years.

I chat about the local economy with Arama’s father. Takoradi used to be a major timber export harbour, but there are no trees left outside of the national parks – so the timber exportation infrastructure has long been idle. Nowadays the local resources are essentially manganese and bauxite, with a few factories for the transformation of agricultural products such as cocoa. Manufactured goods are mostly imported from Dubai and China – that explain the Chinese furniture and bathroom equipment at the Akroma Plaza hotel. Takoradi is about as close to Abidjan as it is to Accra. According to Arama, people go to Accra for foodstuffs, but Abidjan is a popular destination for consumer goods.

The major change in Takoradi for the coming years is the discovery of oil near Axim and Cape Three Points. Takoradi’s harbour is going to be the logistical base for the offshore operations. Extraction has not yet begun, but significant reserves have been confirmed. The locals expect a small oil boom and everybody wonders if the Government will ensure equitable allocation of the new resources.

Tithes are still a practical reality of the Mormon church. Funds are sent back to Salt Lake City where they are centrally managed and allocated to local churches who make their demands at the beginning of every year for specific projects and operating expenses. This concentration of financial resources under central command makes the church quite powerful.

While I was chatting with her father, Arama disappeared with Pauline, and later came back with a takeaway dish of chicken and rice. But as everyday in Ghana, spices are a problem for Pauline who is not yet pepper hardened. It seems that every sauce here contains some… I really like this place !

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We head down to the beach with Arama. She warns me not to go swimming. Because of the waves and strong currents ? No, because it is Tuesday, and swimming on Tuesday is bad luck. Even the fishermen don’t go out to sea on Tuesday.

While Arama goes in town for an errand, I walk with Pauline along the beaches and observe marine life. Among the small animals in the tidal ponds we even find coral. The wind is no match for the scorching sun and we are close to overheating. Tomorrow we’ll start at dawn to avoid that heat.

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Arama rejoined us, and on the way back we enjoyed a stroll among the quiet and leafy villas in the most expensive parts of Takoradi – mostly inhabited by foreigners. Ghanaians who build nice villas seldom live in them : they prefer to rent them and stay in a more modest dwelling.

We switched hotels and found the Standard hotel, an almost as nice and secure hotel as the Akroma for 50 GHC instead of 70 GHC. While Arama goes in town with Pauline, I displace the bikes and bags from one hotel to the other and the join them at Arama’s family home. I come across Arama’s father on the way, instantly recognizable in his Mormon attire. At my destination I am introduced to Arama’s mother, her elder sisters Akua and Yaa Serwaah, and their young brother. Like innumerable Ghanaians, Akua spent a few years in London – but she is tired of it and says she is back home for good and hopeful of landing a decent education job in Takoradi to avoid busy Accra.

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On top of english, the girls speak both fanti and twi. Twi is their mother’s language, and fanti is the regional language. And they can utter a few words in French. As often in Africa, impressive multilingualism is considered normal.

A South African channel is playing on TV and we chat cheerfully while their one and a hald years old nephew violently defends his territory against the nonplussed five years old Pauline. While Pauline has a plate of fried plantains just for her, I am served boiled yam with palava sauce. Palava is a leave sauce with white beans taking the place of the ndolé’s fresh groundnut. I am very fond of leave sauces and I feel in heaven while I enjoy such great cooking with such a great family around. To top it we then have pineapple – picked ripe, not artificially matured like what passes for fresh fruit in Europe.

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I have confirmation from the girls that the Ghanaian chocolate sold on the streets does not melt, even under the Ghanaian sun. Looking at the package it contains milk, sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa butter, lecithin, vanilin – with 35% cocoa minimum and 15% milk minimum. Does that leave almost 50% sugar ? Anyway it tastes better than many industrial chocolate I know, and the texture is very nice compared to anything other chocolate-like material in the African heat.

After we salute everyone and leave the poor nephew crying for Pauline who is now his best friend, Arama and Yaa Serwaah walk us back to our hotel under a canopy of stars to the beat of birds and insects in the ideal temperature of a slightly breezy African night. I am really really going to miss Takoradi.