Saturday, October 3, 2009

Accra to Lome: 200 kilometers and 24 years

ACCRA, Ghana to LOME, Togo – Today I traveled 200 kilometers and 24 years, from the booming capital of Ghana with its pothole-free roads and growing economy to the decaying capital of Togo, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1983 to 1985, a place and time that holds an affectionate place in my memories.

During the four hours I was on the road, I experienced a jumble of emotions – hope, fear, nostalgia and sadness.

Hope was what I experienced in Ghana, a country whose economy is growing and which recently experienced a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another, despite a close election, something of a rarity in Africa. This is the hope that brought President Obama here in July on his first presidential visit to Africa. We drove out of Accra on a motorway – the likes of which I have seen in Africa only in Abuja, Nigeria and South Africa – and past a blur of gleaming buildings and a new shopping center. It gave me hope that positive change is possible in West Africa.

The fear came from our driver who, like me, had a Biblical name (Isaac) and succeeded in putting the fear of God in me. He tried to keep the speedometer at 140 kilometers per hour (85 mph) as often as possible, including through villages with a posted speed limit of 50 kph. I said a silent prayer for myself, my Togolese companions and any careless pedestrians who wandered into the road.

It was evident that the driver knew the road extremely well as he braked only for speed bumps and police stops (all the police stops had signs sponsored by a bank that warned “It is an offense to bribe a police officer,” something else that gave me hope). And he knew exactly where to brake. As Isaac was slowing in one village, someone along the road yelled at him and Isaac threw a one-cedi note out the window, perhaps repaying an old debt.

I was astounded by the quality of the Ghanaian roads for the first 170 kilometers. I have never seen such excellent roads outside of an African city except in South Africa. It was only because of the quality of these roads that we were able to maintain such high speeds.

But the closer we got to the Togolese border, the worse the roads got and the more the scenery reminded me of the coastal village in Togo where I spent two years. The last few kilometers to Aflao, the last town in Ghana before the border, were terrible, deteriorating from pothole-pocked roads to no pavement at all.

The nostalgia came as the scenery became prettier and prettier, reminding me so much of the Togolese village of Baguida that I will see tomorrow. I also felt gratitude that I had the good fortune to live in such a charming seaside village for two years.

The sadness came when I arrived in Lome and saw that while Ghana has flourished, Togo has deteriorated. More on that in my next post.

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