There's a scene in the second series of 'The Crown' in which the Queen, to the shock of prime minister Harold Macmillan, dances with 'an African,' otherwise known as Ghana's first prime minister (and subsequently first president), Kwame Nkrumah. Although generally historically accurate, the episode overeggs its significance, depicting it as a pivotal moment in cold war relations, serenading Ghana back into the Western fold.
Whatever its impact, there's a black-and-white photograph of the Nkrumah-QEII foxtrot at the former's mausoleum in Accra, part of a rather dusty collection charting his life and times. The museum sits behind the mausoleum itself, a modernist structure housing his tomb. Close by is a statue which used to stand outside Parliament House, although it comes in two parts, the result of an explosion during one of several coups that hobbled Ghana during its 'lost decades.'
Earlier I'd walked through the 'Black Star Gate' in Accra's Independence Square, a more traditional structure marking Ghanaian independence in 1957. In the archway is a plaque 'In honour of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain,' commissioned by Dr Nkrumah on Ghana's Republic Day, 1 July 1961. I noticed a curious gap between 'Elizabeth' and 'II', and indeed it appeared as if 'VI' had been chiselled off – numbering kings and queens can be a confusing business. Queen of Ghana between 1957-60, HM is still in place; Dr Nkrumah, on the other hand, was deposed in 1966 and died in Bucharest six years later. Nevertheless, Ghana was a trailblazer, the first African colony to win independence from one of the (former) European powers, preceding what Macmillan later called the 'wind of change' blowing across the continent.
British influence remains in Ghana's hybrid political system. The legislative branch of government bears all the hallmarks of the Westminster model, even down to its sergeant-at-arms and official Hansard report, though layered on top is a US presidential system, complete with primaries (the printed detritus from a recent party election still covered central Accra). Outside the (closed) National Museum was a royal coat of arms that once adorned the House of Lords in London, gifted, according to a faded notice, to the 'Ghana Museum' in 1959.
The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which sit off the west coast of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, gained their independence from Portugal in 1975, and not after the sort of phased process at which the British Empire specialised, but as a consequence of the 1974 'Carnation revolution,' after which the new Portuguese regime granted independence to most of its territorial possessions (Macau, however, held out until 1999).
My advance preparation had identified São Tomé and Príncipe as the 'safest' country in the region, and this was true. São Tomé City, where I was based for a couple of days, was shambolic and run down, but didn't feel at all unsafe. I'd also learned that it was one of the least visited countries on the planet, although I saw plenty of tourists around, some hitting the waves and others, like me, taking in the sights to the south of the main island.
This was full of picture-postcard palm-lined beaches, most of which were deserted, and, more to my liking, crumbling colonial-era plantation buildings. The driver I'd hired for an afternoon couldn't quite understand my interest in seeing these, but he happily drove up appalling roads to satisfy my curiosity. One of the finest was at Água Izé, on the east coast of São Tomé, just south of its eponymous city, once a centre of coffee and cocoa production in the 19th century. The latter is still produced on a modest scale – I could smell it drying in large greenhouses – but I was there to see what remained of the roça's hospital.
However bad conditions on the plantation might have been in the 1920s, when the hospital was constructed, they were clearly well looked after if in need of care. The building is huge, with several cavernous wards fanning out from the central entrance. Sadly, my driver told me that parts of it had recently been re-inhabited, by local villagers who had nowhere else to shelter.
São Tomé had been a trip within a trip, for after a couple of full days there, I flew back to Accra (on TAP, the Portuguese airline that still serves most of its former colonies) and, once I'd sorted out a visa, headed along the coast to Togo. This involved arranging a 'trotro' (a shared car or minibus) at Accra's chaotic Tudu station. It had just started raining, which seemed to make everything even more fraught, but after making my destination clear and handing over 50 cedes, I was on my way.
En route – it took rather a long time to escape the Ghanaian capital's gridlocked traffic – we passed Angela Merkel's motorcade leaving the airport. She was in town at the invitation of the current president. I attempted to interest my fellow passengers in their distinguished visitor, but they couldn't have cared less. Two-and-a-half hours later and I was deposited close to an unattractive archway welcoming people (in French) to the Togolese capital of Lomé, once known as the 'pearl' of West Africa, but now more like costume jewellery.
For some reason, border crossings make me extremely nervous, even when I know for sure that all my paperwork is in order. I remain convinced that I'm going to be detained or turned away. The apprehension here, at a land border, was even more palpable. Ghanaian immigration was handled by three bored soldiers, one of whom was slouched in an armchair watching WWF on a small television. The Togolese officials were a little friendlier; one assured me the traffic in Lomé was considerably better than that in Accra. Everyone spoke beautiful French, as if I'd crossed the border at Dover or Calais rather than Aflao on the West African coast.
There wasn't a whole lot to do in Lomé, indeed my usual online and printed guides weren't much use. My berth for the night, Hôtel Sarakawa, was a sight in itself, a sprawling modernist building that looked as if it had just landed, clearly built in a flush of post-independence (1960, from France) optimism. Enjoying a continental breakfast in its chintzy lobby felt like being in Paris, just in the 1970s. Otherwise, I spent the following day exploring fetish markets, German-built cathedrals and dilapidated piers (French) and hotels (Togolese).
The highlight, however, came just a few hours before another TAP flight transported me back to post-imperial Lisbon. Maison Des Esclaves, otherwise known as the 'Wood House,' sits half an hour along the coast from Lomé, once home to the Scottish slaver John Henry Wood. Until the mid-19th century, Wood kept slaves from all over West Africa in his cellar, which was so cramped they were unable to stand up. Later, I googled Wood, expecting to find learned articles or, at least, a Wikipedia entry, but there was nothing. Scottish slavers, much like Togo, remain under-explored.
Eileen Reid returns next week