MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 10

ACCRA and COTONU

FROM Freetown we flew across Liberia to Accra in the south-east corner of Ghana, where I met two Sisters of the Medical Mission Society, one a Doctor. The previous day they were at Osterley, just outside London! They were going up to the Ashanti country.

We were warmly welcomed at the Mission of the Fathers of the Divine Word, who warned us never to leave our doors unlocked, even though our rooms were upstairs.

"There are some clever thieves in these parts," the Superior said. "Our Brother's room has a barred window which he used to leave open. One night, while he slept, thieves stole his clothes. They used a long pole with a hook on the end."
This sounded promising! " Any other good news? " I asked.

"Well, we had riots, of course. The people expected too much from their independence . . . Some refused to pay for their electricity: they said it now belonged to them, so why should they pay for it? The rioting, at one time, had been pretty serious, but," said the Superior, "we could always go round the town safely in our habit. No missionaries were interfered with during the riots, except one priest who had come in from the Bush on a motor cycle and looked like a civilian."

It was easy to see the town, for private taxis abounded. I held up my hand for one, and three or four shot at us and pulled up with a screech of brakes and a broad inviting smile from each driver. The one we picked told me that he had borrowed the money to buy his taxi and had paid it back in fourteen months. "Now it is all mine," he smiled. These people certainly seemed to have a business instinct. I noticed the advertisement over a hairdresser's window: "Levi Akaba, C.S.C. — Scientific Hairdresser".

Down on the shore we admired the lovely fishing boats, carved out of solid tree trunks. The boatmen skilfully brought them in on the crest of huge waves which kept other boats a long way from the shore. Wherever we went down side streets, into houses and along crowded thoroughfares, the people were all extremely friendly, greeting us with a smile, and I remembered what the Superior at the Mission had said about our Religious habit being a "Passe-partout".

We called on Mr. Allaseni, the Minister of Health.. He is a Catholic and he not only welcomed us warmly, but spent a considerable time arranging an interview for us with the Prime Minister, Mr. Nkrumah. This was not easy, as the Prime Minister was due to leave for London four days later and had his Budget Debate to see through before he left. My Belgian companions were very impressed by the courtesy we were shown.

We visited Bishop Bowers, S.V.D., of Accra. He is a West Indian and very charming. He talked to us of his work and the ideas he had for establishing the Church firmly at Accra. Then we went to see the Cathedral. It was designed by a Swiss Father of the Divine Word and built by the Brothers. I noticed an excellent example of sensible adaptation: The baldaquin over the high altar was in the form of a chief's umbrella, which is the symbol of rank and authority here.

One evening during the weekend we were taken to the open-air cinema where we saw a Russian version of "Othello". It rained, but the show went on and the audience remained: just like a football crowd at home.

On Monday morning we went to a sitting of the Ghana Parliament. It was a picturesque scene that met our eyes. Members of Parliament were standing in little groups chatting — many of them dressed in colourful, flowing toga-like robes. Had the robes and men been white, it could have been a picture of the Senate of Ancient Rome. The Speaker entered, members took their seats, prayers were said and business began. The House of Commons over again! It was small but full of dignity. I wondered how deep it was and whether it could last. It seemed too good to be true.

Our appointment with the Prime Minister had been fixed for the Monday but a messenger came to us with the Prime Minister's deep regrets that after all he would be unable to see us. This was disappointing, but I was impressed by the courtesy of the message. Then the local press interviewed us! They were keen to know who we were, why we had come to Ghana, and what we thought of it.
After lunch, Brother Stephen, Bishop Bower's Secretary, came with a baby Austin to take us to see Archbishop Porter of the Society of African Missions. We drove along a magnificent road and saw several police traps set to catch the overloaded Mammy-wagons. These are usually licensed to carry fifteen passengers but we often saw them with more than that number hanging on to the outside, with no hope of penetrating the solid mass of humanity inside!

We found Archbishop Porter at the town of Cape Coast, the oldest town of Ghana, where the British colonists first settled. The Archbishop centres his hopes for the future Church in Ghana on the people. As an example of what he meant, he said that the Government had proposed to secularise the schools, of which one-third were mission schools, but a storm of protest from the people made them desist. The Government now acknowledges the fact that the mission schools are often run better than Government schools, and are a great asset to the country.

I was struck by the strong, healthy appearance of the people at Cape Coast. The local industry is fishing, but there are many "foreign" traders in the town, and these propagate Islam. There is little Communism at present in Ghana, and, according to Archbishop Porter, this is because the people are very individualistic and are not too easily led by the nose. They have strong family ties and are determined to protect family rights. They are also relatively well off, at least here in the south. Accra itself, struck me as a prosperous town for Africa, clean and without much of a shantytown.

Archbishop Porter, who is over 70 years of age, recently asked and obtained from Rome the appointment of an Auxiliary. He is Monsignor Amissah, D.C.L., a Ghanian whom Archbishop Porter ordained priest only ten years ago. The Archbishop was looking forward with joy to consecrating this spiritual son of his, who had taken as his motto, "Ut manifestentur opera Dei” — “That the works of God be made known". Monsignor is one of thirty-four priests of south Ghana.(Mgr. Amissah is now Archbishop of Cape Coast and Archbishop Porter has retired. ) There are also thirty-four senior seminarists and about a hundred juniors, so that the prospects of a numerous African clergy in that area are very fair. Both the seminaries made an excellent impression, and I was particularly struck by the hard work that appears to be done at St. Teresa's, the Junior Seminary. The boys get up at 5.30 a.m. and night prayers are not until 9.00 p.m. The top form may then go on studying until 10 o'clock.

On our way back to Accra we called at the magnificent school for girls run by the Sisters of the Holy Child. It stands on a hill amid the most lovely gardens and trees I had yet seen in Africa. There were four hundred girls here and at Takoradi the Sisters also had a teachers' training college.

The Holy Child Sisters came to West Africa in I930, and they have made the most remarkable progress. They not only have six fine schools, but also an African Congregation of nuns with some sixty Professed Sisters and Novices. The English and American Provinces combined to make the mission foundation in Ghana.

We were due to leave Ghana next day, and I must say that it was with great regret. We had enjoyed the courteous assistance of officials of the Ghana Government, who gave us the strong impression that they were anxious to co-operate with the Church in helping their people. Fides — the official news agency of the Missions in Rome, wrote that “to a greater degree than possibly any other country, the Ghana Government has recognised the place of religious agencies in the building of that community morale which is so necessary for a truly successful community development programme".

On leaving, we wished God speed to Ghana, to its Government, its missionaries and its people — on their difficult path of newly founded Independence.

It was already June 5th when we flew out of British territory into French territory, to Cotonu on the coast of Dahomey. It is interesting to note on one's travels how each nation abroad manifests the characteristics that one notices in Europe. The British, for instance, had us in line at the airports and more or less marched us here and there as required. The French just left us to wander around and find our own way — sometime if ever — to the Customs and Immigration Officers. The French have a multitude of questions on forms. When you fill in an entry form to go into any of their territories you have told practically the story of your life, and some of its future. And if you can't guess the future or forget the past, they will tell you very kindly, "mais mettez quelque chose". A form with them is indeed a form: that is a matter of form. I had taken some trouble to try to get a visa to one place and was eventually told: "Certainly, you need a visa, but it is impossible to get one in so short a time".

"Well, what must I do?" I asked. The man looked at me pityingly.

"Do? Do? Nothing, just go!" I did and had no trouble.

The missions of Dahomey are in the able hands of the Society of African Missions — or the Peres de Lyons as they are known here. The Fathers gave us a warm welcome and some good food in spite of their being so very busy with various organisations. The heat was terrific but there was a pleasant breeze from the sea, 'for which I was truly grateful as I had a dose of prickly heat. When the rain began to fall we were out visiting a convent. "Fall" is hardly the word. It was hurled down. My companion was out shopping, and when he made a move to leave he was told: "Sorry, you'll have to stay. It's the rainy season — always like this." He saw that he was on an island. But he took off his shoes and stockings and paddled to some dry land and set off for home. When he got to the mission, someone called to him: "Sorry - you cannot get in!" But he paddled home all right, wondering if he would have to swim. Perhaps the rains are so rare they just don't bother about drains.

We hired a little two horsepower car next day. It arrived without a dynamo! One was fitted, and off we went to the amazing town of Ouidah, forty miles away. We found a colony of pagan "convents" and "monasteries". One daughter from each family must serve six to nine months in one of these fetish communities. An old sorceress swoops down on a house from time to time and carries off the girl she wants. No one, of course, would dare to resist and thus incur the anger of the "gods". I went to one of the "convents", and I saw a great fetish that appeared to be nothing but a heap of earth and bits of old iron. Before it sat an old, old sorceress — doing nothing. Amongst the ju-jus hanging round her neck, was a miraculous medal of Our Lady. The old witch had no idea what it was, and I prayed that it would bring her a blessing in good season. A compound of a dozen huts made up this" convent" .The sorceress occupied one of them, compulsory servants another: a third was a store- room, and all over the place in odd comers stood the various fetishes stained with the libations that were poured over them, and before them were small gifts of maize, cloth or beer.

Leaving the sorceress we went to the temple of the serpent, situated just in front of the Catholic cathedral. The keeper of the serpents told us that we could not see the sacred serpents as they had gone out to the town for a walk! Later we visited the biggest and dirtiest fetish I have ever seen. It was called Mahu which means "god". It had its own hut and was "fed" daily with eggs, milk and beer. It looked like a pile of dirt five feet high and had a gaping hole as a mouth-stained yellow from the yolks of eggs. I was told that formerly Mahu was offered human sacrifices, but his diet is milder now.

From this dreadful place we went straight to a real convent. What a refreshing contrast it was! I saw seven serene smiling African nuns. They were in charge of a leper colony which we visited. There were one hundred and fifty patients, many of whom, having come in time, could be cured. It was a happy little village on its own, and many patients, even when cured of leprosy, beg to remain there in peace.

On leaving, the priest, who was my host and guide, suddenly asked: "Would you like to go to Portugal now?" "Portugal," I exclaimed. "Yes — come along."

We were soon ringing the bell at the Portuguese Consulate which is actually on two acres of Portuguese territory. It is a small fortress, with a garden surrounded by a wall with muzzle-loading cannons at each corner. In the bad old days it had served no doubt as a centre for collecting slaves before despatch abroad. After some time the door was opened and there was the Consul — in pyjamas and dressing gown. The poor man had been awakened from his siesta, but showed no annoyance. He excused himself and returned half an hour later, spick and span to do us the honours of Portugal ! His car had no number plate: it was the only car in "Portugal" and so did not need one. What strange things there are in this modern world !

Later in the week, still in our two horsepower car, we went to Calavi. Calavi is a parish on stilts in the middle of a lake and to reach it we needed a boat. The boatman we approached was an optimist. He said it would cost us the equivalent of £12 to hire one of his boats. After a long argument and several feigned departures on our part he agreed to accept ten shillings! Once that was settled, every man in the neighbourhood offered his advice as to which boat we should use. None of them looked very safe. They were dugout canoes mostly half-full of water. We asked for something to sit on and boxes were brought. When we got in, the little boat almost sank. Out we got, and a bigger boat was brought. This was leaking in a dozen places. The boatmen calmly stuffed the holes with cotton wool, put in the boxes, arranged our embarkation and off we went, bailing for our lives.


We reached the village safely, however, and it was well worth our trouble. We sailed down the streets — or rather were punted down them with an enormously long pole, while shoals of children swam and jumped in the water, shrieking and yelling with excitement.

The local chief invited us into his house and gave us a drink . . . nothing stronger than lemonade, since he was a good Moslem. Calavi is quite a town with ten thousand inhabitants, and altogether about thirty-five thousand people live on the lake, where they took refuge long ago from marauding enemy tribes. All the houses are built on stilts and it was fascinating to see the tradesmen paddling their wares from house to house. The most important of their wares was fresh water, for the lake, alas, is salt.

Back at Cotonu in the evening, I met Bishop Gontin who looked quite the youngest Bishop in Africa. He is the Auxiliary to the Bishop of Cotonu, who, being away ill in France, has left a heavy burden on the shoulders of this young Bishop, but he appeared to me, however, quite able to carry it. (Mgr. Gontin was made Bishop of Cotonu in 1959. )

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