Monday, 9 November 2009


Published in NOW! Jakarta - December 2009

Baroness Widji Von Wienberg on her hastily rustled up palanquin:
here photographed in the hills behind Kumasi, Ghana.

Last month I was invited to Nigeria with my German cousin Baroness Witzi Von Wienberg—the former Miss Hamburg 1968—to take part in a cultural safari through the dense urban jungle of Lagos, and then on to Kumasi in Ghana, the heartland of the Ashanti tribe.

Like all email users I have a fear of Nigeria, which is the source of a thousand scam-spams. The fact that Lagos airport is continually voted the world’s worst airport does not help either.

But our perceptions changed once we pushed through the Lagos Airport immigration hall near midnight one night in late October and were greeted by Madam Charlotte, the Lagos Airport’s V.I.P. Protocol Directress, and her gorgeous aides, Miss Beyonce and Miss Universe.

In a phalanx of flashy fashion and psychedelic-hued hand-phones we were sped through the night—me dragging my wheely-bin of personal items across the gritty asphalt, past dark enclave after dark enclave of big men eating giant shaslicks of red meat—in search of our transport detail.

Nigerian gangsters in fashionable party pyjamas waved huge wads of cash at my cousin but she resisted their advances (“Pink tush drives the African male wild with desire,” she muttered to me, inter-alia).

Soon we were speeding down a long dark highway past crooked lamp-posts to the smart Eko Hotel on Victoria Island, Lagos’ luxury suburb.

A 1930s photograph of the old Ashanti Royal Tombs, Kumasi, Ghana.

An ethereal mosaic on the wall at the entrance to the Lagos Motor Boat Club, Nigeria.

23th October 2009: A taste of real Africa

On my first day in Africa our hosts take us to Lagos Motor Boat Club—an old and still charming colonial institution where oil barons now park giant, black 100 feet cabin cruiser equivalents to the Batmobile. We travel 45 minutes down Badagry Creek in a smart motor launch to a fishing village where a ‘jump-up’ is in progress, to celebrate the impending cremation of a beloved village elder.

On the beach we are met by a welcoming committee comprising one dwarf and three dancing ladies: the Baroness and I are soon writhing and frothing with the best of them.

It is here that we get our first taste of the local fufu (boiled yam) with the distinctive fish stew curry that is a staple in the agricultural community—it is in many ways Nigeria’s answer to Soto Betawi, but with tubs of lard.

Back in the relative safety of the Eko hotel I stand in the lobby watching the miraculous cavalcade of fancy dress.

I like Nigeria. Here they still say “paw-paw” and smoke Rothmans and have Schweppes in glass bottles which is very comforting. As is a surreal sit-com I watch called “Super Story” on the Africa Magic channel (Hair and make-up by Tammy Fae Baker for Shirley Q Liquor-Up-Front). Every time I turn on the T.V. there is a traditionally built African women in metres of lurex on a giant sofa being beaten by an irate husband.

My welcoming committee at the fisherman’s village jump-up, Lagos.

25th October, 2009: To Ghana

My co-traveller the Baroness is itching to find a piece of the real Africa so, after a brief encounter with the tribal arts and lifestyle shops of Victoria Island, we travel, on Day Two, via delightful Virgin Nigeria, to Accra Airport in Ghana. In Accra somebody has straightened up all the light poles and there is not a Shashlik vendor in sight, or much fancy dress.

In fact Nigeria (pop. 160,000,000) and Ghana (pop.16,000,000) are like chalk and cheese.

My Lagos host, an elegant Oxford educated architect, had told me that one in every five Africans is a Nigerian. In Lagos harbour on the way to the airport this morning I observed that one on every 15,000,000 Nigerians was fishing.

Ghana on the other hand seems to be a hive of activity and initiative.

Three porters drag my one bag across the rutted car park between the international airport—where exquisitely carved and painted signs warn of sexual deviants—and the Domestic Airport, where the Antraks Airline offices doubles as a sandwich shop.

(Africans like thick white bread sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise, chunky bits of diced carrots etc., I observed).

Late morning we arrive in Kumasi, Ghana’s answer to Bogor, and are sped, en convoy—one Honda Civic and one Vespa—to the luxury Silicon Hotel opposite the Polytechnic.

We immediately know that the hotel is designed along ‘sustainable’ lines by an award-winning local architect because it looks like a police station.

The hotel has a huge internet cafĂ©—with brocade drapes and plastic peonies in semi-classical, opalescent Madras vases—serving many fufu-friendly dishes.

But the quest is really not for the perfect fufu but for some traditional culture and textile; Kumasi of course famous for its Kente (ikat) and Adinkra (batik cap) clothes.

With our guide Idris—a doe-eyed waiter from the northern regions of Ghana bordering Burkina Faso—we visit the Ashanti Palace Museum.

Large men in Ghanaian togas—fashioned from the distinctive dark Adinkra cloth—are parked on white plastic chairs under a sprawling tree in the car park. Fufu is not far away.

They growl at us when we ask for directions.

We are led down a narrow path adjacent the palace waste bins and relieved of $20 before being told to wait (this is an African welcoming gesture of restrained aggression, Idris tells us).

The Ashanti Museum is in fact the old royal palace: a British colonial style bungalow it was built by the British after they burned down the old palace when the King, the greatest in all Ghana, refused to give up his golden stool.

The real palace is a Pondok Indah style McMansion next door with no garden and lots of Rolls Royces under wraps in the garage.

The museum has a wonderful collection of old photographs of the royal family—many from the late 19th century. One rare 1930 photograph is of the old royal tomb, now tragically restored.

The museum is fascinating and well worth the detour: the Baroness discovers a palanquin and immediately orders a copy for our foray into the hill-lands—in search of Kente and Adinkra cloth—planned for the following day.

We spend the rest of the day exploring Kumasi’s central market—Ghana’s finest—and the shops.

Traditional canoes on the Lagos River.

Frank Sarpong who runs the Bonwire Kente cloth collective in Bonwire village outside Kumasi, Ghana.

LEFT: Peter Boakye, who runs the Adinkra cloth collective.

RIGHT: An altarboy in a church in Kumasi, Ghana.

26th October 2009: A trip into the hills in search of textile treasures

The baroness leads the way on her palanquin passing village after village lined with large lounge sets and Ashanti royal stool shops until, finally, we arrive at Bonwire village which is famous for its hand looms and fufu.

The textiles are extraordinary and the fufu amuses bouche are to die for.

We shop up a storm—for the Baroness ‘Voodoo Lounge Health Spa’ in Bali—and leave Africa with heavy hearts, and stomachs.

Souvenir quality royal Ashanti stools pile up on the footpaths of a craft village near Kumasi.

Africa’s iconic armchair – a source of great pride and comfort.

Stamps used in production of the Adinkra batik cloth.