Tuesday, 25 February 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Accra'

Accra, Ghana - 24th Feb, 2014

First light: 0614 hrs
Time start: 0610 hrs
Time finish: 0702 hrs
Weather: 28C Humidity 89% (dry season)
Circumstances: Monday morning, business day

Captain Kirk spoke of space as the final frontier. On earth... the final frontier? Africa. Probably the last place of untapped growth. Where better to witness this than Ghana. A country with a GDP x10 of Sierra Leone, which I departed yesterday. Ghana's widely considered a regional model for political and economic reform. A stable democracy for more than 20 years.

Africa is the world's poorest continent. But, has the largest growth? This growth is uneven. You can't eat GDP. Jobs. Life Security. Electricity. Water. Internet. Schools. Hospitals. Roads. Rail. Seaports. Airports. Telecoms. That's what most Africans want. Ghana is fortunate. Sure some needs improving. The 21st century could belong to Africa.

Hemingway said always do the weather. In the words of Robin Williams, "I've just looked out the car window, it's damn hot." Hotter than a snakes bum... humidity right up there, this won't be fast or pleasurable.

Take a taxi from my accommodation in Greater Accra (Charleston Hotel in Tesano) to the start point in Independence Square. Tesano is a district. Further west is Sodom & Gomorrah the biblical cities destroyed by fire and brimstone. Taxi takes about 15 mins. Given it's not yet 0600 hrs the amount of people already on the move is staggering.

Samuel and I drive at high speed down George Bush Highway. Money for this project was donated by the US when George Bush 2 was President, hence the name. The road is solid and simple...

Taking a taxi means a fanny pack (US & Canada), or a bum bag (UK) - which is worse, bums or fannies? I have money, smartphone, room key (with an oversized slate attached) and map. Samuel was my airport shuttle last night. Samuel, happy 49th birthday.

We talk football. You can't go wrong. Africa loves it. They love the Premier League. Moreover, this is World Cup year. My opening line, "Suarez the cheating git." For those who don't follow football, Luis Suarez cheated Ghana from being the first African team to reach the semi finals in 2010. How Ghana lost that game remains a travesty.

The dying seconds of extra-time. Suarez was sent off for stopping a certain goal with his hands, goalkeeper style. He'd already cleared off the line legally with his knee. Ghana had laid siege to the Uruguayan goal. The airport lounge in Frankfurt, where I watched the game, was at fever pitch willing the Africans to win. After 120 minutes 'The Black Stars' had the resulting penalty kick to win the game. They hit the crossbar. Unbelievable. Then followed the drama of the penalty shoot-out. Uruguay won 4-2. Ghana went home.

Where was I? Oh yes, "Suarez the cheating git." Samuel laughs and believes the Lord will make it right with Ghana this time around. Drawn in a group containing Germany, Portugal & USA they might well need that divine intervention.

We arrive at Independence Square. Backdrop is the Gulf of Guinea to the southern side of this huge parade ground. There's army trucks and buses discharging Ghanian soldiers and bandsmen. They are busy rehearsing for Independence Day on 06th March. The Gold Coast achieved independence from the UK in 1957, becoming the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so from European Colonialism. Ghana (meaning Warrior King)... happy 57th Birthday.

I set off slowly and run past Independence Arch and head north towards the national stadium, where 'The Black Stars' play. It's hot and humid. I continue north up Liberia Road. The roads are wide. Neat trees either side provide a boulevard feel.

I'm running at the centre of the earth this morning. Ghana is geographically closest to the centre of the world. The notional centre, (0°, 0°) is in the Atlantic Ocean 600 kms south of Accra. Another thought goes through my mind. I'm totally surrounded by the French: Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Imagine being surrounded by the French?

A general knowledge question. The capital of Burkina Faso? I once dreamt this was the final question on Millionaire. The only lifeline left is 'phone a friend'. 4 options. Pick correctly and win the million pounds. (a) Timbuktu (b) Nouakchott (c) Ouagadougou (d) Yaounde. Answer bottom of the page...

I'm seeing plenty of ministries and various departments and agencies of government. The National Theatre on my left is impressive and distinct. Across the road is the Movenpick Hotel. A big hotel with big prices at $400 a night. Move onto Independence Avenue heading northeast. Been going only 15 mins and feel drained. Pace slowing. A long slow drag up past the Nigerian Embassy. Next door the Canadian Embassy. Fortunately Team Canada won the Hockey Gold Medal yesterday so the flag isn't half mast. Congratulations Arthur. Congratulations Canada.

Southeast onto Ring Road. Just want this finished. I'm running like an eighty year old. Reminds me, how do you get a sweet little 80-year-old granny to say the F word? Get another sweet little 80-year-old lady to yell *BINGO*. This run isn't so funny. 30 mins in, think about taking a taxi back to my taxi...

Where am I? Sun behind me, keep taking roads west, or head south and hit the ocean. Never been affected by humidity like this before. I see the floodlights high above the National Stadium in the middle distance. Thankfully. No finishing kick on this run. Just survival...

Circle the stadium, back through the Arch and over the road. Soldiers are marching up and down. The band is playing. Brings back memories. Samuel is waving, probably wondering where I'd got to. 52 mins. Sweating heavily. Glad Samuel has leather seats. Samuel is pleased to see me. We drive back to the hotel.

A 10-day break in UK begins Sunday. The next run will be a complete contrast. London. The next African run will be in Conakry, Guinea.

Finish with a namecheck. You're stuck in an elevator in Accra with a Lion, a Black Mamba and a lawyer (JC - for you, see you next week). You have a gun with only 2 bullets. What do you do? We all know it's shoot the lawyer twice.

Answer (c) Ouagadougou.

Monday, 10 February 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Tokeh, Sierra Leone'

First light: 0711 hrs
Time start: 0725 hrs
Time finish: 0807 hrs
Weather: 26C Humidity 83% (dry season)
Circumstances: Sunday morning beach run

Desmond Tutu to open the third post in the series. When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.

Sierra Leoneans own this land. Body & soul. What a piece of real estate it is.

0700 hrs. Alarm on my phone sounds. Awake to a bugle call for reveille. Today is special. As Shakespeare nearly wrote, once more onto the beach...

The trip out to Tokeh's around 30 kms. Takes just under an hour. The road is improving all the time. Some tarmac, some graded and some rough track. Probably even thirds, but it's getting better and quicker to come. The wet season, which takes hold in July is another matter. Make the most of these weekends while they last. When the rains come they don't finish until November. It can rain for a week or more.

There are a number of villages to pass through. The one that always raises a smile is 'I Don't Care'. Great name for a village. I see a fellow here on a motorbike with 4 huge barracudas' tied on the back. He doesn't care.

This area of Sierra Leone is quite staggering in its natural beauty. Some of the world’s most spectacular beaches. A well kept secret. Maybe too well kept. In 2012 the country had just 4,000 international visitors compared to 100,000 in nearby Gambia. Tourism would really help Sierra Leone. Spoil it in equal measure? What about the jobs it would bring? This country has massive youth unemployment.

I set off heading east from the 'Tokeh Beach Resort'. A shout out to Issa & Joe who run this fine establishment. It has 18 rooms, employs nearly 60 people from the local community (Tokeh) and sources nearly everything locally. Where else in the world can you have lobster dinner for Le90,000 - under $20. The fish is amazing; crab, barracuda, shrimp, marlin, grouper...straight from the sea to your plate. These lobsters are the daddies of lobster. This is lobster season.

The sunrise over the hills to the east is breathtaking. There are not many countries where the mountains meet the ocean. This is one of them. Few people moving around this time of the morning, though everyone is out of bed. This is Africa. The people I see all wave and smile and offer cheery greetings. I skirt around Tokeh village before heading south on the tarmac on an undulating road up to the telecom masts. I have the mountains on my left side and the ocean to my right.

I see mostly women and children, they are carrying stuff on their heads. Massive bowls of fruit and huge bundles of firewood mostly. There is no electricity here. The wood is for cooking. I make it up to the masts. Time to head down a few tracks heading west to the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. I arrive at the northern end of Tokeh Beach. What a glorious sight. Mesmerising.

If I could buy any house in the world, this is the one. At the tip of Tokeh Beach. It sits beautifully on the peninsular, great views and a secluded enclave with rocky outcrops shaping what in effect is a private beach. I scramble over the rocks onto the main sands. Time to open up the pace. The tide is out. The beach is firm. There's no camber. The scenery and backdrop make you run faster. On these runs you don't even look at your watch.

Tokeh is Gold 1. This is an old habit of coding everything, giving nicknames and call-signs. A full career in Her Majesty's Army does this to one. The next beach River No 2 is Gold 2, and the one at Sussex is Gold 3. These beaches are just 3 in nearly 400 kms of unspoilt coastline. People of a certain age may remember an advert on UK television. It was the setting for a Bounty bar 'taste of paradise' advert in the 1970s. This was filmed at Gold 2.

This is a coastline without western brand names. It's unspoilt by tourism with not a Gregg's the Bakers (who are in the most ridiculous places), Costa Coffee or a Holland & Barrett in sight.

As the Canadians might say, 'who's all there?'. Expat wise, it's the classic 3 M's of Africa. Missionaries, Mercenaries & Misfits. Suffice to say only the last group are any fun. The best Misfits I’ve ever met, anywhere on my travels, are in Sierra Leone. Mercenaries are here for the money in one form or another. Missionaries want to make a difference and have personal growth & adventure, and are often young NGO's. Misfits (mostly male), are quite often running towards something, or perhaps running away from something. This could be failed relationships, a string of broken marriages, perhaps they drink too much (understatement). They can be very colourful charismatic characters who just no longer fit in at home. In the hotel this weekend it's nearly all missionaries. Just different ones to those Mr. Tutu means.

I'm up on my toes. Nothing beats running on a hard flat beach at the edge of the ocean. I count 15 local fishing boats anchored up. Numerous more on the beach. The 'Good Lord', 'Sweet Jesus' (wasn't this was a taxi in Monrovia?), 'Bessie', and 'Sea Broom' are among them. The first catch of the day is already in. The fishermen are taking care of their nets and the last of the fish divided up. People are walking away with a few fish each. Fish is hugely important to these small local communities. Around 70% Sierra Leonens get their protein from fish.

The finish is at the new jetty at Gold 1. A good burst and the run's over. Really enjoyed it. 42 mins, not bad. I have a little walk on the jetty to the helipad to cool down. I look back towards the hotel and start to think about eggs and coffee.

Back in the day, and before the war, a French investor developed a 600 room resort here, with a golf course, nightclub, ocean liner, and helicopter transport to this very helipad. Through the 80s and early 90s it became a highly regarded international tourist destination, with many dignitaries, celebrities and jet set bathing on the white sands.

The resort was a victim of being in the right place at the wrong time. War broke out in the early 90s. It became impossible to continue the resort by the middle of 1995. Everyone was evacuated. With no presence to secure the resort, slowly at first, then with ever increasing scale and organisation it was pulled apart piece by piece. It's on the way back. I wish Gold 1 well.

Looking forward, well that's Sierra Leone done for now. Hopefully more visitors will come. Please spread the word. The next run will be at the end of Feb in one of Africa's fastest growing economies. It's Accra, the capital of Ghana, formerly known as The Gold Coast. Gold 4 perhaps. See you there.

Oh, and a couple of people have asked about being guest runners. The first one will be call-sign 'Wing Woman', at some point in the future. Although Canadian she has the same name as a previous landlady in the Rovers Return a few years back. The call-sign works better. On the subject of Canadians, how do you get 43 drunk Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, please leave the pool...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Freetown'

First light: 0705 hrs
Time start: 0705 hrs
Time finish: 0747 hrs
Weather: 23C Humidity 74% (dry season)
Circumstances: Downtown Tuesday morning

This run is different. I live and work in Freetown. I've lived here over 2 years. Steph, you wanted it for your morning coffee - here it is.

Arriving back from Monrovia last week was eventful. On the boat across the estuary to Freetown we struck a hidden sandbank. From 20 knots to stationary in a nano second. So sudden was the stop most pax ended up sat 3 rows further forward than their original seats. Fortunately I was tightly wedged in by a rather plump African lady. I had the joy of watching fellow passengers fly past me. The boat then tilted to one side and pandemonium ensued. Many Africans have a primal fear of water due to the fact that most can't swim. After 45 minutes of shouting and chaos we were rescued and arrived safely into Aberdeen jetty.

This is Aberdeen, Sierra Leone. Not be confused with the other, and better known Aberdeen, beloved to so many oil workers. One is a place where the people are really happy, all smiles, brightly dressed, and reasonably tall. The other is in Scotland.

I'm setting off this morning from the National Stadium. Last February I was fortunate to attend President Koroma's second term inauguration here. It's my first time back since. Whilst an honour to attend, it was also the longest day of my life. As one wag said (could have well been me), the ceremony you thought would never start, once started you thought would never end. Nine hours later, I could wring out my tie and probably my shoes. I sat all day next to a gentleman well into his 70's, his fortitude and stamina were amazing. As the ceremony drew to the close I suggested we leave, he said he'd wait for the national anthem. I was outta there...I'd rather have sat through a Celine Dion concert twice in the same night. Mr Timbo, I salute you...

Sierra Leone. This is a beautiful country. Diamonds were first discovered here in the 1930s. The country is a hidden gem in many respects. As I begin heading south away from the stadium the backdrop of the hills surrounding Freetown is truly impressive. I turn east along Saunders St which merges into Siaka Stevens St. He is a former President, not to be confused with a 1980s UK pop singer of a similar name.

Freetown is awake. The streets are already busy. There's a haze over the city. The people here are more animated than Monrovia. Plenty shouts of, "white man, well done, well done, well done." I'm running along Siaka Stevens towards the Cotton Tree. This giant tree is over 200 years old and the landmark of Freetown. It was here in the late 1700s a group of African American slaves landed on the shoreline and gathered around the tree. They prayed and sung hymns to thank God for deliverance to a free land. They were free, this place would be called Freetown.

This area is the oldest part. I do a circuit of the Cotton Tree and run past the Supreme Court, an impressive old colonial building. I glance up the hill towards State House, towards Parliament and gradually pick up the pace running past the only post office in Freetown on my left. Although around 1.5 million people live here it has the feel of a village. Everyone is connected, related, everyone knows everyone and everything. A true village, complete with its one post office.

I don't want to romanticise what I'm seeing. As in Monrovia there is plenty of poverty. Many people are scratching a living in any way they can. They are extremely resourceful. They have to be. The reality here is the lack of life security means people die sooner, work harder, eat less, get ill, essentially the shitty end of the stick. Oh, and despite everything, it's also one of the happiest places in the world...

It's already hot. I once read that Sierra Leone has never recorded a daily temperature under 19C. The run feels special this morning. I am running with a smile on my face. I'm sweating, breathing hard, but it feels good. I head west on Wilberforce St. This will be my finish point later, I want to finish at the Crowne Bakery for breakfast. It opens at 0800 hrs. I have a clean shirt tied around my waist.

The city is getting ready for another day. The well worn taxi's are busy moving people around. The okadas (bike taxi's) are active. Everyday in the city around 40 newspapers are printed. The young boys are already selling them. The fruit sellers are arranging their wares. You can buy ground nuts everywhere. Coconuts are bagged and ready to distribute. I sometimes have a 'half young' after my run. Coconut water is natures isotonic drink. The disabled & amputees are beginning to move to their usual patches.

I'm joined by a local jogger. His name is Abdul. He wants to run with me. He wants to look after me. I pat him on the shoulder in greeting. He asks, "how d body?" My Krio isn't great but I can handle this one. "I is well". He smiles. The true answer, my left knee is sore, my achilles is still playing up from time to time. I don't know the Krio for this.

It's time to head into some of the side streets that join Pademba and Siaka Stevens, the main roads into the Cotton Tree and the heart of town. I run down Henry St, Charles St, there's even a Charlotte St - that's my youngsters covered. The side streets are full of life. Fuller figured, brightly dressed Salone ladies sweeping out their front yards. Stray dogs roaming to pick up titbits. Abdul stays on my shoulder. I've had worse, I've had young kids in flip flops keep up with me. One time upcountry, going up a hill, a women in flip flops with a baby wrapped on her back went shoulder to shoulder for a mile - now that was embarrassing.

I say my farewells to Abdul (so I can slow down), who's hardly out of breath. Back at the Crowne there's a group of disabled and amputees who essentially beg outside this establishment. It's not in your face begging; they have dignity, are polite and generally well-behaved. This is a crew. This is their patch. No-one else can come here. They are democratic. They are well organised. They have a Chairman, a deputy Chairman and so on. In this crew donations are shared equally and sustain around 50 - 60 people. I like the Chairman, he's never happy and always tries for more. Who can blame him.

I provide them with a big bag of 'Uncle Joes' rice every month. It costs $30. They're pleased with the rice, but it would taste better with some sauce for the cassava. The Chairman is never happy.

Freetown is a vibrant colourful city. It's noisy, it's smelly, it's hot, sticky and humid, it drains you, you see some unpleasant things, the infra-structure is creaking, but it's real and has tremendous heart. SL is a country on the up.

Looking forward, the third in this series will be a run at Tokeh Beach. A stunning beach around 75 mins southeast out of town along the Peninsular. Another side of this hidden gem. I'm there at the weekend. It will be a different run entirely.

If you're sat at home reading this in the storms of the UK, frozen Western Canada, or elsewhere - and have the spirit of adventure, don't obsess about creature comforts, not worried about the odd sandbank, then pack your anti malarial tablets and visit Sierra Leone. If you're considering Gambia (which is Africa light), pick up a copy of 'Heart of the Matter' and book for here instead (by the way, brush over the references to 'White Man's Graveyard'). If you're not convinced wait for the beach run. In any event come, the Chairman will be pleased to see you.

P.S. Many thanks for all of the positive emails following the first blog. A namecheck for Bev in Calgary who had a tough 2013. I'm thinking of you and know that 2014 will be much better. I had to look up vicariously...