Headless and legless in Accra

Andrew Donaldson writes on a press junket gone horribly wrong


LAST Tuesday, May 25th, was Africa Day, commemorating the founding in 1963 of the Organisation of African Unity. The solemnity of the occasion was brought home by the news that, two days later, an enraged Julius Malema threatened a Malian MP with violence during a sitting in Midrand of the Pan-African Parliament.

The incident followed acting PAP president Fortune Charumbira’s decision to postpone a session after a staffer had tested positive for Covid-19. Some members felt there was no need for the adjournment as all MPs were cleared and the session should continue. Others, like Malema, wanted the postponement. As arguments erupted, the EFF leader turned on the Malian. “I’ll kill you outside,” he said. “Outside this meeting, I will kill you.”

Many of Malema’s supporters hail such outbursts as signs of exemplary leadership. The man from Bamako perhaps thought otherwise. In the last decade alone, Mali has suffered terrorist and jihadist banditry, a secessionist uprising and two military coups. But all that pales into insignificance when compared to the explosive fury of Juju’s tantrums. Not for nothing do we speak of brat force, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”).

Africa Day usually means little to me. But its 2021 theme, “Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building Africa We Want”, did remind me of my own haphazard exploration of the roots of the pan-African ideal on a “cultural” junket to Ghana that, bizarrely enough, also coincided with one of my weirdest drug experiences. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The weekend of February 24th and 25th, 1995, was a big one in Johannesburg. The Rolling Stones were performing at Ellis Park. I had tickets for both nights. After Friday’s concert, I pulled an all-nighter with friends at Bob’s Bar, a legendary watering hole on the hill in Troyeville. I followed through for the Saturday performance, but wisely managed to grab some shut-eye on the Sunday. 

The government of national unity, meanwhile, was having a minor crisis. The errant arts, culture, science and technology deputy minister, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, had gone awol and was humping the Mungo Parks trail. Officials were said to be scanning aerial photographs of West African markets for telltale glimpses of the Mother of the Nation’s familiar millinery, an activity that would later become a popular board game, Where’s Winnie?

On Monday, I was heading that way myself, off to Accra on a press trip organised by MultiChoice to publicise its Ghanaian operation. Details are now fuzzy, but I believe I may have been included on that freebie at the last moment. Certainly, I was in a ragged state when I arrived at Johannesburg International Airport and where, after checking in and settling down to a stabiliser in the Air Afrique business class lounge, the wheels started to come off.

It was only now that I learnt of my itinerary. There was, to my dismay, a formal event the following evening: a fashion show and performance by Yvonne Chaka Chaka followed by a reception with local dignitaries and government officials. Unaware of this, I hadn’t packed anything suitable to wear. Neither had anyone else. 

“Don’t worry,” said the MultiChoice public relations woman. “It’s taken care of. It’s a moerse surprise.” 

Another surprise: the flight to Abidjan, where we were due to catch a shuttle to Accra, was delayed by two hours. Drinking continued. Then a further two-hour delay was announced. An airline staffer said there had been “difficulty” with passengers in Abidjan and as a result the flight to Johannesburg was late. Word circulated that these passengers were Madikizela-Mandela and her party. She’d been found and ordered to return home immediately.

Our flight got finally got underway. The cabin crew in business class, nerves frazzled by the imperious Madikizela-Mandela and company’s behaviour on the flight down, were in no mood for Picasso-faced journalists. Demands for the customary welcoming fizz and nibbles were given short shrift and there was a lot of unpleasant sniping at passengers in French. But, and happily for me, my colleagues soon passed out and the crew had a relatively easy time of it, taking it in turns to keep the drinks coming my way.

I was in a stupor when we landed in Abidjan in the early hours of Tuesday morning. I was however jolted into consciousness half an hour later when boarding the flight to Accra. There were no designated seats. A melee of passengers with oversized luggage ran across the apron, bounded up the stairs into the aircraft, parking themselves where they could as if boarding a rush hour train. The guy next to me had an enormous cardboard box on his lap. Something moved inside of it, possibly chickens. Everyone smoked. It was the longest 70-minute flight of my life.

After a few hours’ sleep and a hurried hotel breakfast, it was off to MultiChoice’s headquarters. Ghanian folk dropped in to pay their subscriptions. It seemed they had a one village, one satellite decoder system here: everyone chipped in, a trusted functionary was sent to town to hand over a sackful of cedis and the soaps and movies were laid on for another month. We nodded approvingly. But, given the hangovers, not too vigorously.

Then it was off sightseeing. At the time, Ghana was dozily emerging from another episode in an ongoing “monuments war” over memorials to Kwame Nkrumah, the revolutionary who led the country to independence from Britain in 1957. Under Nkrumah’s leadership, Ghana had embarked on primarily socialist and nationalist programmes with requisite pan-Africanist zeal as decolonisation gained momentum. Nkrumah not only became a founding member of the OAU, he set the template for the despotism that would plague the continent in the years to come.

The “heroisation” of Osagyefo (“The Redeemer”) started even before Nkrumah declared independence. So too did opposition to the personality cult. Defying critics, Nkrumah proceeded with plans to erect a statue of himself in the capital, a decision condemned by one newspaper in February 1957 as a “presumptive gesture of self-aggrandisement” while editorial cartoons warned of the fate of Stalin’s memorials. 

Despite this, Nkrumah’s statue was unveiled in front of the Old Parliament House in the capital in 1958 on the eve of the first anniversary of independence. It was severely damaged in a bomb blast in 1961. After the 1966 coup that toppled Nkrumah, it was beheaded and removed altogether as the incoming Joseph Arthur Ankrah set about removing all traces of his predecessor from public view. In addition to schools and government buildings, Nkrumah’s portrait disappeared from coins, banknotes and postage stamps.

The exiled Nkrumah died in April 1972 in Romania, where he was receiving cancer treatment. Ghana was now led by its sixth head of state, General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong. He arranged for Nkrumah’s body to be returned home for burial, re-erected Nkrumah’s damaged statue in the National Museum’s gardens and commissioned a new one to be put up outside the old colonial polo club where Nkrumah had first declared independence. 

That new statue was finally unveiled by president Jerry Rawlings in 1992 in the course of the inauguration of a newly built Nkrumah mausoleum. The bitter feuding over the statues nevertheless continued. [1]

I had wanted to see these monuments, but alas, no. The group opted instead to take in Accra’s bustling Makola market to buy kente cloth hats and other gewgaws. On the plus side, several stalls sold ice-cold beer and I was able to deal with the heat and dust in an effective manner. After a couple of hours chilling at the ruins of a public swimming pool, we returned to the hotel to prepare for the evening’s great culture beano at the Accra International Conference Centre.

A parcel had meanwhile been delivered to my room. This was the “surprise” promised by the MultiChoice people: an oversized lime green dashiki with matching drawstring trousers. The dress code for the reception was “black tie or traditional”. Rather than inform us of this option, the “movie magic” people thought it a bit of a jape if the South Africans all turned up in flapping Ibo chieftain fancy dress. 

To be fair, this was a more innocent age, long before identity politics and cultural appropriation had rendered such behaviour unacceptable. But still, and despite the flowing roominess of the garments, making an absolute arse of myself in a bright green tent was not a comforting prospect.

Then, another shock. Searching for a pack of cigarettes, I patted down my jacket and found, tucked away in an inside pocket, what can be described as the modest remnants of the weekend’s Rolling Stones “party pack”: one battered but still serviceable joint, half a gram of cocaine and, neatly wrapped in foil, a cap of acid. Quite how I’d forgotten about this stash, I cannot say. That there were such “leftovers” at all was perhaps a testimony to the spectacle and force of the Stones’ shows. 

The realisation, however, that I’d drifted through two customs checks in a semi-comatose condition with Class A drugs on my person was unnerving. I clearly needed to get rid of the stuff. Then again, that dashiki … I was going to need a bit of help with something that hideous … one small bump wouldn’t hurt. Big mistake. Instantly emboldened, I did the acid as well, hopped into the shower and got ready for my big night out with the Ghanaian swells.

Something was definitely happening by the time the mini-bus taxi dropped us off at the conference centre. My flowing robes now had an interesting iridescence, its lime green print radiating brief flashes of luminosity of the sort associated with hi-viz emergency gear. Little wonder the heavies here all sported sunglasses. 

The conference centre, built in a vernacular best described as brutalist with African tendencies, was another eye-opener. It was opened in 1991 to host the 10th ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement but was now a white elephant. Its cavernous foyer was dominated by enormous painted panels, the centre-piece of which was a mural of a distinctly odd forest fantasy scene. There were people in the painting and, this may have been due to my fogged-up synapses, but they were climbing out of the trees! 

I stared again. Nope, no mistake. They were definitely emerging from the forest. The harder I stared at these figures, the more they stared back. What’s more, they appeared to be moving. I grabbed a glass of something fizzy from a passing waiter, threw it down my throat and moved to a far corner of the foyer. The figures in the mural were still staring at me. I was aghast. What on earth was the thinking here? Were these people also on drugs? A painting of Africans climbing out of trees? No wonder people stayed away from the conference centre.

Reality had shifted considerably by the time I was seated in an auditorium upstairs. I was definitely in the throes of something strange. An unwellness was imminent. The fashion show was not too startling, nothing as garish as my own outfit. Yvonne Chaka Chaka was a bit lame. She lip-synced her hit, Umqombothi, which was filmed for a TV show. Quite a let down after the Stones. 

A terrible fear now enveloped me. I needed to doctor myself, to somehow maintain and cut the paranoia. I fled the auditorium and did the last of the cocaine in a deserted cloakroom. By the time I returned, the show was over and the reception was underway. I was doing okay, respectfully nursing a beer, until I noticed the bemused staring. The fear was returning. There must have been about 200 Ghanaians in that room. Apart from a handful of women, none were dressed in anything vaguely “traditional”. Certainly, all the men were tarted out in DJs — and all were gawping at the honky in the green robes. 

One of them, a youngish MP, strolled over for a friendly chat. He was intrigued by my outfit. Why was I dressed like this? “Television,” I replied. He didn’t seem to understand and instead babbled on happily about his upcountry constituency. 

Then … horror. There was something very wrong about his jacket, I noticed. It was a white tux that, like Ghana, had seen better days. Its shoulder seams were slightly frayed. Padding was trying to break free from the jacket. Small threads, tiny worm-like forms, were poking ominously through the fabric and unfolding like budding ferns in a stop-frame film. It was fascinating, but also terrifying. Like a David Lynch movie. I was losing my mind. An explosion of paisley-shaped matter seemed imminent…

Mercifully, the MP excused himself, perhaps when he realised he was talking to a mute idiot, and I was able to flee. I have no recollection of the taxi ride back to the hotel where I finished off the dagga in a desperate bid to fall asleep. 

The next morning, our last day, we where whisked off by car to Cape Coast Castle, a departure point for slaves before they were shipped off to the Americas. 

This grim “gate of no return”, literally a sobering experience in my case, lies about 150 kilometres to the west of Accra. The return trip was by helicopter. This was an extraordinary calming flight. Ghana’s shoreline is littered with the wrecks of abandoned ships and the experience was a bit like drifting serenely through Keith Alexander’s surreal paintings of the Skeleton Coast. 

Back in the office, some days later, I was asked if I’d be filing anything. “No,” I said. “The trip was a waste of time.”



[1] In 2007, for example, Ghana’s “anti-Nkrumah” government celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence with the erection of monuments commemorating other political heroes. In 2009, to mark the centenary of his birth, the original bomb-damaged statue was erected behind the Nkrumah mausoleum, a gesture that many of his supporters regarded as an outright attack on the dignity of their hero. In January 2012, a statue of Nkrumah was unveiled outside the headquarters in Addis Ababa of the African Union, which had replaced the OAU a decade earlier. Almost immediately, Ethiopian critics launched a petition, demanding that a statue of emperor Haile Selassie, a “longer-standing supporter of African liberation” and thus the true “father of Africa”, should join the Nkrumah memorial, or that the latter be removed altogether.