Okay, okay, so I’m not actually touring round Africa. But what else would you call it?
This year I set myself two reading goals: to read some of the classics I didn’t get to when I was at school, and to focus on reading outside the genres I tend to default to. The first book I read was Homegoing, by Ghanaian-born Yaa Gyasi. That was the book that shifted my reading into an unexpected direction, and focused me specifically on authors from the African continent.
One of the characters in Homegoing is a history teacher in Ghana. At one point he cautions his students that the texts they study often reflect only a single perspective. That they should try to find the voices that are silenced in the texts. And I became intensely aware of how few books I had read by authors from Africa. Even more, how few of those that I had read were by authors whose voices had traditionally been marginalized in the publishing industry.
Rather than spending time researching possible books, I posted a question on a Facebook book group. And received more than 75 recommendations of books written by authors based in Africa. From numerous countries. In fact, I have so many books and authors to try that I feel slightly overwhelmed. Which isn’t a bad thing when it comes to books!
So far I’ve read three books, each from a different country.
1 Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi (Ghana)
2 If We Are to Become: A Conversation Taking Us to the Next Level – by Ruramai Sithole (Zimbabwe)
3 The Shadow King – by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia)
I wish I could find a way to track the books I’ve read on a map of Africa, but can’t think of one. It’s one of the few times that my blindness has posed me a challenge I can’t solve without sighted help. That’s just the way it is sometimes.
I know I already have a long list of authors and titles to read. But I’m always keen to learn about great books. So why not let me know a few of your favourite books by African authors. I’d love to hear them!
I’m the first to admit I’m not the most frequent bus traveler. Okay, for two years or so I caught the bus home from school every day – and hated it. Then there were the handful of longer distance bus trips I took – the trips to and from the Grahamstown School Arts Festival and a trip to visit my father in Cape Town when I was living in Durban. Then there was a trip to Wilderness on the Garden Route to attend a rock music festival, which co-incidentally was the only one of these after I lost my sight. But generally bus travel hasn’t been a regular part of my life by any stretch of the imagination.
So the concept of a long-distance bus journey from Accra to Kumasi in Ghana was out of my usual comfort zone, to say the least. Interestingly, I was intrigued by the concept, rather than anxious.
Overall I found the bus trip a fun experience, largely due to the amazing group I was traveling with. Admittedly none of us were thrilled at the hour long wait while our tickets were acquired, but hey, I thought, maybe that was just part of the experience. And the tedium of the long trip was broken by animated conversations with my traveling companions. After all, I could hardly watch the passing scenery, could I?
The trip back to Accra was a little different. We were all tired after a fantastic conference, and we were a smaller group, the three guys who had accompanied us on the trip up having elected to travel back to Accra by air. So there was little animated conversation on the 5-hour trip back.
We were in process of pulling back onto the road after an unscheduled pitstop for someone who felt they couldn’t wait until the next bathroom stop when, without warning, we heard an almighty explosion and the bus ground to a halt – we had a blowout!
We spent the next hour standing in the blazing afternoon sun while the bus driver and assistant replace the tyre with the spare. To be fair, the work was done efficiently and professionally once the wheel was cool enough for them to touch. I was also impressed by how many other buses and trucks pulled over to offer the use of tools and assistance… and not one tried to “steal” the passengers. I was also pleasantly surprised by how patiently the passengers waited for the emergency surgery to be completed – only one person demanded to be found alternative transport and he wasn’t one of our party.
Eventually we disembarked (umm, debussed?) and staggered, hot and tired, into our accommodation for our final night’s stay in Accra. Sadly, our delayed arrival left us no time to go and see more of the city, although three of our group did head off in a taxi to go and investigate… only to land up in a 2-hour traffic jam!
All things considered I’d certainly be willing to contemplate a long-distance bus trip in another country if the opportunity presented itself. As for the unexpected hour long delays– both when buying bus tickets and unscheduled emergency refit stops – well, they certainly kept our journey interesting!
The photo shows the bus driver in process of changing the bus wheel. It was taken by one of our group, a wonderful lady named Lieketseng Ned. Used with permission.
As anyone who’s read my book A Different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an “Ordinary” Life in an Extraordinary Way will know, I often have a somewhat difficult time with bathrooms when travelling.
Mostly it is due to the unpredictable layout and design of each bathroom and its facilities as I struggle to find my way round without sight. If you can’t understand why I feel that way, try closing your eyes next time you visit a restaurant, guest house, or hotel bathroom with your own eyes shut!
Luckily my default reaction when confronted with this kind of challenge is to see the funny side – like the time I was in Charles de Gaule Airport in Paris and couldn’t find the flush mechanism no matter how hard I looked and was forced to ask for help – only to learn there is a button on the wall that you’re meant to press with the toe of your shoe.
Anyway, I guess it’s not surprising to hear that my ever-increasing stock of funny bathroom stories was added to in Ghana. In one of the guest houses the basin in the bathroom had different taps – the cold tap was a mixer tap which would only give cold water and the hot tap was an old-fashioned tap that you had to turn to start the water flowing.
The other guest house had it’s own peculiarities – no plugs in either the hand-basin or the bath, no bathmat, and only one towel despite the fact there were two of us sharing the room… luckily like any good Douglas Adams reader I never travel without a towel (feel free to read Adam’s classic book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” if that statement makes no sense to you).
And did I mention that we accidentally managed to switch off the geyser while trying to work out how to switch off the air-conditioning?
I suppose it could have been a lot worse – one of our travelling companions didn’t know she could turn on the geyser so had cold showers for the duration of her stay. Beyond that, there was a 5 cm gap between the top of the bath and the bottom of the shower curtain so there was no way she could avoid getting water all over the floor. And she didn’t have a bathmat either! So I guess we should count ourselves lucky!
So yes, my stock of bathroom experiences continues to grow as I travel to other countries… and I’m sure I’ll have even more tales after my trip to Greece later this year. After all, it’s all part of the wonderful experience of traveling!
Now I just need to decide whether or not to add a bath plug to the list of items I use when packing for my travels… What do you think?
As you may recall, the reason I was in Ghana in the first place was to speak at the 5th annual AFRINEAD conference on disability.
Sitting in the conference centre at the KWAMA Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, listening to a Star-studded group of dignitaries address the challenges inherent in developing policies, strategies and plans to increase the inclusion of persons with disabilities into society across Africa, I began to seriously rethink the focus of the keynote presentation I would give the following day.
Most of those speaking at the opening ceremony were politicians and academics and, since I’m neither of those, I began to consider what value I could add to the conversation – a message that was uniquely mine and could supplement the work the politicians and academics were doing. While, of course, bearing the theme of the conference – assistive technology- in mind.
And then it struck me – by sharing my own story, my own experiences of how assistive technology has increased what I can accomplish on my own, and also what I’ve learned from talking to HR departments and managers about employment of those with disabilities, I could provide a personal context to highlight the importance of the policies, strategies and plans that were being discussed.
And I’m really glad I did!
Every now and then as a speaker I receive feedback on a fundamental shift that my words and stories have made on a person who was listening to what I was saying; that my message held a particular significance for them as an individual. It’s probably the most powerful reminder of our purpose as speakers… at least, it is for me!
I was granted the gift of such a moment in Ghana. After I spoke one of the delegates approached me and told me my words had redefined his reason for doing the work he does in the field of assisting those with mobility impairments – that my words showed him that he was, in fact, changing people’s lives for the better with what he was doing.
So, apart from the amazing contacts I made at the conference, the wonderful people I met and with whom I shared the experience of travelling to this beautiful country, I’m grateful to the organisers of the AFRINEAD conference for giving me the opportunity of being in the right place, at the right time, to reconnect that delegate with his purpose.
I took an audio recording of my presentation but haven’t had a chance to edit it yet – if it turned out okay I’ll post a link in a future blog so you can listen to what I said.
It’s Wednesday morning and as I sit here listening to the rain pouring down in Cape Town I find myself reflecting back on the week I spent in Ghana… was it really only a few days ago???
My overall impression of Ghana is that of warmth, the warmth and humidity of the weather, the warmth and friendliness of the Ghanaian people I encountered, and the warmth of the experience of spending a week in the company of people I hadn’t previously met but with whom I shared some unforgettable experiences from which I believe long-lasting friendships will develop.
I’ll share some of the specific experiences that made my time in Ghana so special over the course of the coming weeks but perhaps a few initial impressions won’t be amiss here.
I found the Ghanaian people both welcoming and friendly – without a single exception. Now, I know this just isn’t possible – that there must be Ghanaian’s who aren’t friendly, or are simply having a bad day, but I didn’t meet any of them. From the woman who sold me two beautiful Ghanaian dresses, to the bus driver who had just spent an hour changing a tyre after we had a blowout on the journey back from the conference; from the receptionists at the guest houses to the hawkers touting their wares outside the conference venue.
And wow, are the Ghanaian’s creative and entrepreneurial in the way they market their produce. For most of our 6-hour bus journey the sides of the road were lined by small counters selling everything from under-carpet felt to vegetables, from pottery to peanut butter, from metal gates to (and I’m not kidding) coffins. Basically, I’m pretty sure that if you needed an item, someone would be selling it!
It’s obvious that religion is a cornerstone of Ghanaian society. We were amazed at the number of churches we saw – often several on a single street block. Also, most of the songs we heard on radio, both in the bus and at the guest houses, were religious in nature. I don’t know if there is a causal correlation between the prevalence of religion and what I was told about the reduction in crime and occurrences of HIV and AIDS, but certainly religion forms an integral part of everyday life in Ghana.
I also found it curious that most radio and TV I heard was in English. Then I was told that English is the official language of Ghana, which I found interesting in its own right.
A final observation about Ghana that was curious to me. I would have thought that the climate in Ghana would have made it an ideal place to grow almost any and everything. And yet it seems that much is imported – we saw fruit juice from Spain, milk from South Africa (when you could find milk at all), and the most frequent mobile phone outlet we saw was South African – MTN. I’ll freely admit that I missed some of my dietary staples, like cheese, which I didn’t see in Ghana so was craving by the time I returned home.
Those are a few of my general impressions of Ghana – watch out for more articles on specific aspects of my time in Accra and Kumasi in the next few weeks!
It’s finally arrived! By the time you read this I’ll be heading off to Cape Town airport to catch my first flight on my journey to Ghana… Or even sitting in the airport waiting to board the plane.
So, as I sit staring pensively into the middle distance in the airport terminal I think it’s a fair time to reflect on how extraordinarily lucky I am to be heading off on this latest adventure.
I certainly couldn’t have done so without the help of friends and family – Craig was wonderful about helping me gather the documents I needed for the travel visa and generally in supporting me as I’ve prepared for this trip, and my friend Hillary has been not only a fountain of information on what to expect at the AFRINEAD Conference and in Ghana itself, but very generously offered to spare me the trip to get my visa at the Ghanaian High Commission.
I’ve also been overwhelmed by the wonderful support, enthusiasm and well wishes from people who appear to be almost as excited as I am about this amazing adventure I’m embarking on – almost as excited, but not quite!
I’ve pre-written articles to be posted while I’m away as I seriously doubt I’ll have time during the trip to update you on my adventure. Rest assured, I’ll have plenty of stories to share with you about my epic journey when I get back.
Three weeks today I’ll be sitting on a flight winging my way to Accra, in Ghanafor the AFRINEAD Conference. Travel is always exciting and this time I’m really looking forward to the experience of being a blind tourist in a new (for me) country, and for having the opportunity of attending and speaking at the AFRINEAD Conference.
So, rather than posting a long article about what I expect to happen while I’m there, and all that I’m looking forward to, let me just leave this article as it is – I’m going to Ghana and I simply can’t wait!
And I’ll share my experiences with you when I get back.
Now, to figure out where I need to go to get my Yellow Fever inoculation… Hmm…