Historically, Ghana has been pillaged, colonized, and liberated.
It has fought, surrendered, freed itself – and today – it stretches and moves with the ebb and flow of a country that is very much burdened with a history of colonialism and empowered by a desire for change and development.
It has been explored, defined and redefined by the Western world and – in the face of scrutiny – naturally, some Ghanaians are going to be protective of its secrets.
A few weeks ago I climbed a rounding hill not far from James Town in Accra.
Centuries ago James Town was a hub of activity supporting James Fort, which was a docking point for British and European colonialists sailing to the Gold Coast for fortune and slave trade.
These days it remains one of Accra’s oldest districts in the city’s east end – a fishing community worn down by poverty, weathered by neglect and lacking the dignity of grandur akin to many historical sites in Europe.
The ancestors of these men and women were slaves, not kings.
I was promised that this hill that I was climbing would plateau at the top and offer me a view that would take my breath away. It was going to be majestic and magical – a panoramic picture of the sea.
A veil of grey mist hid the early morning sun. My poor choice of open-toe style footwear dug into the damp ground, which absorbed my feet with each step. To my left, I could see a poorly manicured soccer field a few yards away. The cool weather and weighty, ominous clouds didn’t deter a group of young men from playfully kicking a soccer ball about.
I chatted with my friend and guide, Adam.
He’s a Ghanaian-born, Russian raised man, back home in his country of birth and proud to show me the lay of the land.
“When we reach the top you’ll see the Gulf of Guinea,” he told my colleague and I.
When we got there I saw a heard of pigs traipsing about a few yards in front of us. To my right was a common sight – a multi-coloured mountain of waste – cans, bottles, black plastic bags.
The prevalence of such a sight – while shocked my system upon first arrival to the city– has become somewhat normalized for me at this point. Not forgotten or ignored, but acknowledged and given it’s own time and place for discussion.
Ghana is a beautiful country, and that’s what I wanted to see on this particular morning.
In the distance in front of me, the strong waves of the Gulf heaved themselves towards the shore.
Pictures. Sound. I pulled out my gear so that I could capture the moment.
The clumsy snap of Adam’s cigarette lighter clicked beside me, while the sound of cracking twigs indicated the approach of people quickly coming up the hill behind us.
“What are you doing, my brother?!”
It wasn’t the friendliest welcome, albeit, but I like to pick my battles.
“Yes. What do you want?” replied my guide – a little too confidently for my liking.
“What are you doing here? Why did you bring THEM here?” yelled one of the three men encroaching on us. My white skin felt exposed. It was a red flag, if you will.
“Is there a law that says that we can’t walk here? Don’t disturb us,” snapped Adam.
“Please don’t say that, ” I whispered.
“What? This is a free country. He has no right to tell us where we can or cannot walk.”
“Don’t be worried,” replied our unwanted company. “We’re just talking.” His quick shift to a gentle tone was off putting, but comforting.
The man eyed my camera and I tucked it back into my bag. No pictures taken. Recorder off. No sound captured.
I nodded my head, acknowledging his discomfort with my gear.
“My brother. Why did you bring these foreigners here? So they can see this? Don’t you see that guy shitting over there? They do their business here, my brother! What do you think these foreigners are going to say about us when they go home? After they see this?” boomed the man.
People urinating and defecating in the gutters lining the streets of Accra is no secret. It’s a reflection of a city not mandated to have public toilets in homes and businesses. It’s telling of greater infrastructure and sanitation issues, but it’s not breaking news.
At this point, knowing there was a man reliving himself just a few yards away in this open-field of a toilet didn’t shock me. For the men obstructing my view, however, this was a sight for their eyes only.
“These are our secrets, my brother! You should not have taken them here. You should know better.”
He was a community leader in this area and An unofficial protector of its secrets.
I sympathized with his concerns.
When people come over to your house and you don’t have time to clean, sometimes you put your mess in the closet.
Same is true in Ghana, as it is in Canada, as it is anywhere in the world.
Tourists and media parachute in to Africa on short stints. The bulk of their exported content is framed in the context of decay and poverty. We paint pictures of how the face of this continent is wrinkled, bruised and tired after years of domestic abuse, yet we often – not always, but often – neglect to include stories of triumph and success.
The Gulf of Guinea continued to crash onto the beach and I left the hill feeling a little like a trespasser.
Since my arrival seven weeks ago this was not the first time that I’ve been questioned about what I thought about this country. It was not the first time I was approached with a tone of mild contempt and asked what I knew of Africa before I came.
There is a continent of people – maybe not all, but many – who are offended by Western reports of their homeland.
Of course, Westerners are also guilty of the same. We consume sexy stories that scandalize and damn our own nations.
But here I am, being handed a mirror on top of a hill in the middle of Ghana and realizing that this very moment is one that I should hold on to. It’s one that I will need carry with me for the next few months of my journey.