Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Ghana
Complicated Quest for Maiden West Africa Journey
ACCRA, Ghana – I walk out of the airport and into the city where, like many developing world capitals, you instantly are confronted with street life on steroids.
Scores of taxi drivers plead for you to jump in their nearby cab. “Mr! Mr! Where you go?” My guy, James Mawuli, has been arranged in advance. I see my name on a placard he’s holding. Off we go to my hotel in his well-traveled, sub-compact Nissan.
Vehicles fill the streets, like any big city anywhere. Among the differences, there are few traffic signals so navigating intersections and round-abouts require cunning and courage. As we work our way south toward the sea, an oppressive humidity envelops my body like a wet, hot towel that never cools while noxious fumes from unrestricted gas and diesel engines make every breath an uncomfortable chore.
We stop at a rare traffic light. Peddlers, their goods atop their heads, glide by, hawking water, soft drinks, peanuts, biscuits, sun glasses and fruits. I admire their erect postures. A young, handsome man missing both legs below his knees appears on a flat cart with wheels, grabbing my open window frame to hoist himself upright. Other beggars with similar afflictions hover nearby, waiting to see how this obvious foreigner will react. The scene is as old as time. Always, it’s painful to ignore.
In my hotel parking lot, James and I confer about my gameplan for the week and to negotiate his fee. A warm, friendly man of 52, he briefs me on Ghana’s current economic situation, which is horrific. Inflation last month hit 33.9 percent, the highest in 21 years. Gas is $4 a gallon yet per capita income was only $2,500 last year [compared to $69,000 in the U.S.] From my research, I knew all of this. This was not a time to haggle: It was a brief discussion.
As usual, when I announce a journey to a place less traveled, the question from most family members and friends is: Why? In this case it was a matter of simple deduction. There are three world regions I’ve never visited, excluding Antarctica: the northern area of eastern Europe, central Asia and West Africa. The Ukraine-Russia war nixed Option 1. Anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan and thereabouts eliminated Option 2, leaving West Africa an easy choice.
I am not a stranger to the continent. Over the years, my experiences have been considerable and varied. Among them: I drove across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, much of it desert, in a Volkswagen Beetle; hitchhiked from Djibouti to Somalia in a truck driven by a contraband smuggler; reported from Ethiopia on one of the worst famines in recent history; mentored local journalists at a workshop in Lesotho; and dallied with sharks in the Red Sea off the coast of then Sudan during an epic scuba diving trip.
Ghana promised to be a more sedate experience, befitting the status of this now senior scribe.
The country, formerly known as the Gold Coast for its once rich gold deposits, lies on the Atlantic side of the continent, one of 15 nations that comprise West Africa. Ten of them, each relatively small compared to other African nations, hug the coast, dwarfed by four of their larger neighbors - Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Liberia, Ghana and Gambia are the best known of the 10 in the U.S., partly because of a recent migration of African Americans.
Ghana, about the size of Oregon with eight times as many people – 33.4 million vs 4.2 million - is the most economically developed of the lot. It also has – for Africa - a rare democratic government along with a low crime rate and a reputation as a friendly place for visitors.
So, once I did my homework it was a no- brainer to travel here. I also assumed it would also be a no-brainer to organize the trip. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.
When Lisa Smalley, my AAA travel agent, handed me my airline ticket to Ghana in late July she included a second document about the size of your new phone book.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your visa application,” she said.
I was stunned. For years, visas were required in most countries, often involving a complicated, pre-visit process. Now, there are only 32 countries - out of 195 - that call for visas in advance by visiting Americans. Ghana is one of them.
Once I read through the application form I realized I needed professional help. I recalled using a Washington, D.C. service called Visa Advisors in the early 90s’ when I was spending 24 weeks a year globetrotting to parts unknown [but not writing about food]. Its owner, Elizabeth Wallace, was so skilled in obtaining visas from foreign embassies under the most difficult circumstances, I chronicled her exploits in a long-ago column. Some quick Googling revealed that Visas Advisors was no longer in business. But I found Elizabeth.
Although it had been 30 years since we spoke, we quickly resumed our friendship. She sold her business in 2004. Given her skill set, it did not surprise me Elizabeth became an educator of children on space travel, a career she has since retired from as well. Still spunky and ambitious at 69, her latest challenge is running for city council in Takoma Park, Md.
Elizabeth told me she’d come out of retirement to help me with my visa. So, in mid-August, for the first time in 18 years, she set off on a recon mission to the Ghana embassy on International Drive, a place she had visited scores of times. This time was different. A sign posted on a closed gate announced that the embassy was no longer offering in-person visa services. Everything had to be conducted by mail. There was no way in. When we talked later that day, Elizabeth was dejected.
“I felt so ineffective,” she said. “My identity was I could always find a way.”
Despite her perceived failure, Elizabeth managed to put a positive spin on it.
“I never really mourned selling the business, so in a weird way this experience made me realize it’s really over,” she said.
“What now? I asked.
Elizabeth, full of surprises, laid a biggie on me. It turned out that she was once married to a man from Ghana, of all places, who owned a competing business to hers, Duke’s Visas and Passport. Duke Brobby, her ex, no longer owned the place, but she heard that the man who bought it, Guilta Mudzimba, was a competent replacement.
I called Guilta, a Zimbabwe native, and told him my situation.
“No problem,” he said, “overnight your passport and your application. I have access to the embassy.”
I did, but there turned out to be a major issue of my doing, the details of which I won’t bore you with [or embarrass myself]. Over the next few weeks my passport bounced around the country on the FedEx express, putting this trip and a previous one in late August to Canada in jeopardy.
Finally, my passport with the Ghana visa inside arrived at my home on Sept. 9, five days before my departure.
Once, I would have fretted about the all the turmoil. Now, I roll with it but always have a Plan B.
Finding James, crucial to my trip’s success, was almost as difficult as getting the visa. A call to a family friend set the quest in motion. Toledo native Debra Shinners Diaz of Greensboro, N.C., taught at Lincoln Community School in Accra from 2013-17.
She is a big Ghana fan.
“The people there are so kind and loving,” she said, not the first time I’ve heard that sentiment.
She’s also a fan of James, who became almost a full-time driver for Debra and several other teachers during their stay here.
Debra enlisted the help of her friend and fellow Lincoln teacher, Dan Nukala, also of Greensboro, to find James’ contact info. The problem was each number they had no longer was in service. It took almost six weeks, but finally Dan scored a working number, allowing me to connect with James shortly before I left.
* * *
As we sit in his taxi in the parking lot of my hotel, I tell James this story. He provides an answer: A new cell phone is outside his reach so he buys used ones that continuously stop working. New phone, new number is how it works here.
“Do you see what I’m saying?” he asks.
That settled, I say goodbye to James. We’ll begin our search for stories the next day. The who and the what are mostly unknown at this point. But if the next week is anything like the effort it took to get here, it’s going to be one entertaining ride.
Editor’s note: First in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Ghana Sept. 15-22, 2022
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