Monday 21 September 2009

Old Friends and Witches 16th September Accra, Ghana

The waves are enormous and dumping violently, the ocean looks reckless and dangerous the beach is dirty and the spray from  the surf prohibits the horizon. Welcome to Labala beach resort Accra. I am never keen to swim near a city but with an afternoon spare and a desire to wash off the previous night's journey I decide to risk it. Just half an hours taxi ride and here I am the only bloke on the beach about to go for a swim, a guy comes up saying he is going to lifeguard me I think I'm being hussled and say not to worry, he says it's his job and that he would anyway. I am actualy  a little relieved because it does look pretty merciless out there, he showed me where it was safe to go in up to my chest and where not to go because of whirlpools.

No shock of cold in this sea no numbing and loss of sensation, I ignore the black bags that float like jellyfish all around, put the pollution prospect out of my mind and just enjoy the waves.In the same way that an ice cream cone can turn the most threatening of characters into a child,playing in the waves makes me ageless, I have the same sensations and fun as I did when I was twenty. Diving through the breakers for the jacuzzi effect, over for the dolphin feeling, under for escape and riding the wave in  for  the joy.  I emerge from the surf feeling baptised and forgiven and walk back to drink a beer with Isaac the taxi driver at a beach bar.

It's not sunny but it is warm and there are a few locals on the beach eating and drinking, some with small children with suicidal tendencies driving them towards the danger of the surf. There is of course the standard beautiful rasta boy and the besoted European girl, him red eyed and bored listening to her iPod that she will no doubt leave behind for him and her living a fantasy that will end with  a boarding card. There is also the solitary slightly overweight  german youth enjoying a plateful of food and the company of some girls and the pair of American business men with gorgeous top end prostitutes who gaze blankly out to sea.

Moving between the assortment of worn chairs , tatty sunshades and sunloungers are guys weighed down with the paraphanalia of beach side trade; trinkets, CDs, carvings, rolled up paintings and gaudy African print clothing that will only look good here.

A young dread comes up to our table and gives the line of I know you, you were here before? I reply that I have been before but how would we have met.There is something familiar about him, it could simply be the beach bum chic of salt faded shorts, vest and little dreads but four years ago Jo Duchense and I came here to film and met a young aspiring rapper who we took out for a couple of nights he was talented and desperate like so many youth. I ask if he is a rapper and If I was with a woman and he remembers Jo's name and where we went, amazing this is Isaac four years on, still rapping still moving up and down the beach strip. It's a good moment and even Isaac the taxi is excited by the coincidence.Sadly things have not gone well for young Isaac his mother died this year, he has no money for rent and  is sleeping on the beach in just the clothes he stands in, he says he recorded a cd but has to find a way of releasing it. The poor boy is looking tired his eyes are dulled though stoned red and his dreads are not looking well kept and understandably  he seem low energy the verve and burning ambition has been extinquished. We sit and chat for a while , he seems genuinely glad with the news of jo having two pickney and sent her love. Walking back to the taxi I slip him some cash, swap emails and say our goodbyes we may meet next week if I can get to the beach as  I fly in and fly out on the same day.

As our car joins the stodge that is the traffic flow of this city to crawl it's way back to my hotel I am forced to think once again of the luck of the draw that is this life, why is my life so blessed and Isaac's so tough ? I fear for the poets and philosohers in this world as there is no rhyme or reason.

The world makes it's daily revolution and I find myself 880 km north from Isaac on the beach, in Bolgatonga, north east Ghana. It's very different up here much less tropical and much poorer than the south. In the dry season it's almost desert but now towards the end of the short four month rain season it is absurdly green and densely humid.

I have met up with Afrikids and despite a 4:30am start from Accra have managed a long days filming. Director Nick Kumai and his team help street kids and orphans by offering schooling, training, clothing,love and care, to those the most vunerable and least likely to make it over the cattle grid of success. They bring kids back north who have fallen into the trap of going to bigger towns in the south to make money. They give them training, offer micro finance to their families and even give them a goat so they can generate a little cash rearing and selling more. Again I am confronted with both the saddest and most heart warming of stories and am amazed by these kids' strength , perseverence and ability to cope.

Last stop of the day is an orphanage Set up by Mama Laada who  was an orphan herself and has given her life to childen that are in the same position as her. I am totally shattered and just want to go back to my guesthouse to sleep but get lifted when  20 or 30 kids are  singing a greeting to me at the Orphanage gates. Ranging between 2 and 14 they are singing in perfect harmony being led by Mama Laada herself. She is younger than she looks with eyes behind glasses that magnify their compassion, she exudes peace and love yet commands respect,she appears  frail but I know she is strong.  Her headscarf and clothes make her look like a nun but she has a freedom of spirit about her that can't be contained in a convent,her humility is attractive.

 Nick and David from Afrikids know all the kids here by name and they play with them and chat as If they were their own. The children are a delight and it is hard to think that they have come from some terrible situations. I am introduced to a few and they talk bravely to me and the camera, orphans, runaways from remarried mothers,child labourers rescued from mining communities all manner of tragic backgrounds. Then I am called to film a little 2 year old, Mercy who is sitting on Nick's lap, she is singing softly but perfectly the greeting song ... "Afrikids we thank you, afrikids we will never forget you" - it is intensely sweet and  leaves everyone wet eyed.  I switch the camera off knowing I have the end of my film. Mercy is extraordinarily aware and articulate she speaks really good English and knows my name already, yet she is so young I can't but help thinking she will do well in life.   We all go inside for a  glass of perfect water while the kids eat their supper. I ask about little Mercy's circumstances. Mercy was found by Mama Laadi when she was just 2 months old.  Her mother has been accused  of being a witch and had been beaten to death by a mob and lynched on a tree outside her house.Her grandmother suffered the same sickening fate.    Mercy had been locked in her  house and left to perish so as to extinguish the blood line of witches.She has been brought up in the orphanage since then and has grown into this bright  and exceptional little girl.

I am left cold and shocked and even scared, to think that below the surface of this benign simple society such horrific possibilities lurked. I knew that children were blamed for mothers dying in child birth or rejected for having deformities but a mob lynching of two women who are accused of turning people into lizards and consuming their souls is beyond imagination. It is like the witch hunts in medieval Europe except here people use mobiles and  cars. The local juju men even make up potions that suspected spirit children are forced to drink, if it kills them they are indeed possessed and if it just leaves them with severe poisoning they are innocent.Later at an afrikids centre devoted to spirit children I am shown photographs of kids they have saved with all manner of conditions from encepholitis to simply being dumb or slow to learn, all of them persecuted for being spirit children. As if life isn't hard enough here with the lack of work, food and money the most unfortunate of the disadvantaged get persecuted as well. As well as witch doctors it is also  quack christian pastors that spread rumours of bewitching they prey on ignorant minds and it is little more than institutionalised evil.

We leave Mama Ladi's orphanage and step out into the thick night air, an  electric storm is approaching and the world is sporadically  revealed by flashes that leave an image burnt in the retina. The power behind the storm is unfathomable and the thunder lingers long after the initial clap as a low sub bass rumble that rolls around the heavens. So much bigger than us it puts our human existence in perspective and just as lightning strikes   so randomly so does our luck sometimes with equally devastating results. The  amazing gift of being human though is that we can react to our luck or to other people's luck. We can care and show mercy. I wonder if little Mercy will ever be told what happenned to her mother and why she grew up where she did and I wonder If she will be able to forgrgive and will be moved to help others like Mama Laada is.We move off into the paparazzi flashes of the storm I undestand that there is not  soul in Hollywood that can claim to be as big a star as Mama Laadi and her team and the hype and pomp of international celebrity worship is just thunder without lightning whilst the real strikes happen silently elsewhere where as unknown people are giving of themselves to help others. These are the conductors  of humanity and the lubricants of change that I have been lucky enough to have been close to in the last few weeks and I am thankful for that because I am sure caring is contagious .

Sent on the move

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