July 2023 – The Programme Reaches a Key Stage – and time waits for no one.
By John Davies MBA
Chief Operating Officer, COMPASS-Ghana
“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills” are famous, melodic, soulful lines spoken by Karen Blixen through Meryl Streep. The words resonate as a panoramic view of Africa transforms you into another continent into another time. “Out of Africa” is the title of a book and film, written in 1937 and released in 1985. It depicts the earlier life of Karen Blixen (the author) as she lived in British East Africa now Kenya from 1913 from the age of 28. First published in 1937, it recounts events of the seventeen years during which Karen Blixen made Kenya her home.
If we had any illusion that our venture into Ghana, one that has now started in real earnest, would in any way reflect those impressions created in the comfort of a cinematic auditorium; then I am mistaken.
Time is an interesting phenomenon. This is now my third visit to Ghana in two years and the second for my courageous partner Katie. Courageous as she has given up her job, put her friendships on hold and left her home to support a venture transforming a dream into a reality. It is certainly not for the faint hearted. Our Marmite and Marmalade – our two desert island treasures, survived the journey. Rationing prevents me from joining the spread on a single piece of toast. It is either one or the other.
Sometimes I used to wish time away, the days to go until the holidays, the end of a military tour, the start of a new job, the exam. Now each moment is full, each second resonates, time just moves so fast, more so for the dying.
Heathrow, Accra, Kumasi were transient stops on our way to Patasi our home for the next four months. Patasi is a suburb of Kumasi. It is certainly not a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills. It lies a fifteen-minute taxi drive – from the centre Adum where the main teaching hospital Komfo Anokye, sits. It is from here, over the next four months, that we will seek to influence and support their work of Palliative and End of Life Care. Kumasi is busy, chaotic, noisy, and dirty. Life, business, traders live and intermingle with the streets and the traffic. It is the second largest city in Ghana. It is the home of the Ashanti people, courageous, sophisticated with a noble royal family.
Patasi is on the western side of Kumasi – seven o’clock, if one thought of Kumasi as a clock face. It sits either side of the ring road and as such enjoys more than its fair share of traffic. There is no formal public transport infrastructure. Certainly, no bicycles to be seen…common sense rather than laziness – the traffic, the condition of the roads and the fumes are significant barriers both to health and to safety. If I return to Bradford on Avon I will enjoy the D1 bus and their time table, even if it is regularly inaccurate. If there is a highway code, then survival is the dominant code. Not because the driving is exceedingly fast or irresponsible, but the only way to get from A to B is to sound one’s horn and move. Of course, directional momentum is beneficial as time is precious, but it seems movement in any event, in any direction is key. The horn here has a sense of urgency and a language of its own, but clearly understood by everyone. After all there is an abundance of garages should one collide with another. Add a little wet seasonal torrential rain, it becomes interesting.
In Out of Africa the sunset emerges, with it comes a warmth and a glow. Here in Patasi one’s restless body, that has only just found sleep is trying to deny time. Ghanian music is very vibrant, entertaining, uplifting, and exceedingly loud. It seems to die down late in the early hours. One’s fatigued and restless body aches relief but is rudely and inconsiderately awoken by the cockerel’s crow – rising just before the dawn. This tuneless cacophony denies anyone the timeless cinematic opportunity of gazing out to a rising dawn. The roster continues to patrol the perimeter of his flock. I suspect we live in hope that we will grow accustomed to this awakening and the fatigued body and mind will in time ignore it, but sadly that is an illusion. Further sleep is deemed impossible as the children and their parents rise for work and school as dawn breaks through the window! The bed sheet – protecting one from the “chill” and battle-hardened mosquitos, provides no sound proofing. Coffee and English tea, laced with evaporated milk, warms the heart. The latter is a little hard to drink. We have much to accustom ourselves to. Our emotions are high, our memories short, this capture of our feelings so important.
Our three-bedroom bungalow sits between two Pentecostal churches, a school, and a police training depot. It is a popular and safe area. Outside our compound wall is the school football field. It is surprising how quickly one can make a home and Katie is a wonderful homemaker. The Internet, the echo and apple box means we are linked to the world. Radio 2 is an hour ahead and the rain has stopped Test Match Special. But our focus is on Ghana and Ghana’s news, it is certainly different and there is a great appetite for religion and politics. At times difficult to separate the two, but both are very entertaining, we are not entirely sure the positions of either or, but time will tell.
Neither of us miss British politics, a welcome relief and there is a frankness here which is both honest and refreshing. There is certainly no sense of Low Emission Zones, although the recent resignation of Cecilia Abena Daapaah – The Minister of Sanitation and Water Resources due to “the theft (according to newspaper reports) from under her bed of $1 million, 300,000 euros and millions of local cedis – allegedly stolen from her home, by her staff. The story sparked outrage against the minister particularly across all the social media channels. Calls for her resignation, raised a few eyebrows. She resigned – an interesting letter. Maybe Thames Water is not that bad after all!
But I do think, how did people manage in the past. Cut off from all communication other than letter or telegram. My great great cousin “Jamie” died and was buried at sea, he was a junior officer in the Merchant Navy – aged 26 of some horrible illness – but the letters that were kept including a lock of bright red hair, the same colour as my two sons – tells a story of communication between mother and son that can only be imagined. “Thank you, mother, for your letter which I received in Cape Town” “Thank you my Dear son for your letter dated xxx from…” How did that all work? And what was time then?
My mother wrote the most amazing letters. When I was in the Army, we would receive “Blueys” a light blue, light weight air-mail paper. It folded on itself, so opening a letter was an art, particularly if one wanted a sequential read. My mother could make hanging the washing on the line an event, one could smell the soap and feel the wind, without mother even writing about it. She knew how to tell a story and make you live.
Before we came to Ghana we spoke, Katie and I of the need to learn to live with one another, not just live, but to live to share time together in a way we have never done before. Last night there was a power-cut, in our week here there have been five. Normally for a few minutes – last night it ran for over two hours. Head torches on, we cooked a mean chicken and salad and talked, it was blissful it is an art form that should not be forgotten.
But I digress, today is Sunday so the “tactical” location of our dwelling has meant that from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon there has been un-orchestrated sound. Some respite with the power cut as speakers were silenced. But the gospel music, the preaching and the football league provides a backdrop of colour, vibrancy and sheer energy and passion (average length of a church service 2 to 4 hours) that is difficult to convey. I now forgive Father O’Sullivan and his 30-minute rants at St Raphels – Kingston upon Thames. But where has the Sunday best gone – the suit and tie, the best dress and hat, the obligatory dress here for church. It matters here and as they emerge in their Sunday finery there is a deep sense of pride and humility in equal measure. There is not a mobile phone to be seen.
So, we went on walk about – fatigued but interested, beyond curious. We love Ghanaians. They smile, they greet, they laugh, they live life to the full. They are stoic and they do not complain. They wear colourful clothes.
The football is amazing – how can anyone be so sure footed or brave. Maybe not quite Messi for Inter Miami, but equally as passionate and skilful in their own way. We stopped at a local restaurant/take away they do both. We ate lunch of beef fried rice and fresh vegetables, delicious and spoke to the chef of her children at university. A normal day. We are still learning and absorbing this complex culture.
There is much to do and a heavy responsibility to deliver against our promises and the kindness of our donors, whom we acknowledge and thank.
The charities are established, and they will be here long after we have gone, but if I have anxiety and I do, can we make a difference, can we help those most in need? Can we deliver what we have promised to so many?
We have a house and the programme has reached a Key Stage, time waits for no one.