s o u t h w a r d

[ 22:00 sunday 7 january – rosevear , st agnes , isles of scilly ]

since completing the previous chunk i’ve had supper (the remnant of seb’s excellent sugo from last week) , started making two loaves of pumpkin-seed bread and walked down to periglis to phone grandpa since today’s his ninety-fifth birthday (periglis is one of three places on the island where i can get a signal) .

as i write , david owen is on radio four talking about britain’s short-lived social democratic party , of which he was a founder . he comes across well . direct , statesmanlike and entertainingly prickly . the time i spent working with him on balkan odyssey seems distant now . i suppose that was my first proper break .

but on with the show .

my final visit to tamale was a brief one . i arrived in the afternoon and left early the following morning . time for some last goodbyes at the mandela development centre , particularly to the digital workshop team . one of the design trainees , mohammed sumaila , had painted a large canvas for me . i packed up my computer , my saxophone , the digital camera and my tailoring into a large bag and left it with the centre staff to send down to accra . then i said my final goodbyes to iddrisu , isaiah and hadi , who had travelled back from a drumming job to see me off .

i needed to be at the tro-tro station at six in the morning . the previous evening i’d bumped into a young taxi driver i knew so i’d engaged him to pick me up . he promised not to be late but ten minutes after the appointed time there was still no sign of him and i was getting nervous . afu amidu came to my rescue and offered to take me in on his motorbike . i felt a little top-heavy perched there with my huge rucksack on my back and the smaller one clasped between my knees but we got there .

and so i left tamale , just as the sky was lightening , squeezed into a decrepit minibus with perhaps fifty per cent more people than it was design to convey . a fitting departure . we proceeded south for a hundred miles along the worst road i’ve ever travelled . passengers gripped whatever solid fixtures they could find as the vehicle lurched and bounced from one chasm to the next .

eventually we arrived at makongo , a tiny settlement on the east bank of lake volta where fish were laid out in squares on the ground to dry . it was thrilling to be by water for the first time since leaving giglio in the summer . to north and south the vast lake stretched as far as the eye could see . after a while the ferry for which i and most of my fellow passengers were waiting arrived and lowered its ramp . i boarded and soon we set off to cross the seven miles to yeji on the west bank .

yeji was a larger place but notably unprepossessing . i wandered around with a young fellow i’d met on the boat , a son of the atebubu chief . several people invited us to share their lunch (my friend was recognised) but i was feeling tired so i excused myself and found a room where i refreshed myself with a bucket shower and slept for a few hours . i awoke to the sound of a whistle , which i guessed heralded the arrival of the weekly ship from akasombo at the opposite end of lake volta a couple of hundred miles south , my reason for being in yeji .

knowing that the voyage back to akasombo would take twenty-five hours and that the ship had only two cabins with beds (the alternative being a board in an open dormitory or the deck) i proceeded fairly swiftly to don my clothes and remove myself to the waters’ edge . there indeed was the yapei queen , an ugly vessel with a large open foredeck and three decks of superstructure rising behind . i went aboard , across the foredeck and up the companionways to the bridge deck . there i found a man who had the unmistakable air of an official . with my heart in my throat i asked about the cabins . to my great relief one was still available so i handed over the fare and promised i’d be aboard in time to sail at two the following morning .

the rest of the afternoon i spent talking to various people around the town , including the largest group of whiteys i’d encountered since arriving in ghana (seven of them , all tourists , who’d arrived on the ship) . as night fell a sound system started playing in a side street and investigation revealed … a street-dance ! by this stage of my wanderings in ghana i was completely uncontrollable when faced with a function of this kind and in no time i was grooving away . i even managed to persuade a couple of the whiteys to join in (one fellow from bavaria and another from norway , who danced in the manner known only to scandinavians) . oh , it was wonderful . but all too soon the pumpkin hour was upon me and i had to tear myself away , gather my bags and board the ship .

the voyage south was one of the most magical journeys i’ve been on . we stopped at four villages on the way down , mainly to load yams destined for the markets in accra and kumasi . the loading process was entirely unmechanised . farmers from surrounding area had piled their yams into great heaps near the water , each specimen marked with a splash of coloured paint to indicate its provenance . women transfered one bowlful at a time on their heads onto the ship , where they were expertly thrown up to boys who laid them layer upon layer in wooden crates , interspersed with layers of grass . it was not a fast or efficient process but there was no real need for it to be . wherever we stopped i took the opportunity to explore and meet people . different tribes , different aspirations , different problems .

by the time we left keti krachi , the last port of call , we must have been carrying more than a hundred thousand yams . there were also a couple of cows , half a dozen goats , a dozen chickens , a minivan , a sofa , a baboon and a couple of hundred passengers . what you might call a mixed cargo .

at night i stood wide-eyed at the front of the bridge deck for hours as we wove between densely-forested islands , the dark horizon sillhouetted by the menacing glow of huge bushfires .

all too soon the surrounding country grew more mountainous and we were approaching akasombo , with its vast dam and hydro-electric plant . the presidential motor yacht was there , moored somewhat incongruously beside decrepit oilers . we docked . i disembarked and started looking for a tro-tro heading towards accra .

: cH

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