Wednesday, Sept. 3
Dixcove, Ghana

Now I understand why Ghana has been dubbed, “Africa for beginners.”

Everything here is easier, nicer, cleaner, cheaper and less frustrating than it was in Senegal, Mali and Burkina. The bargaining system isn’t nearly as cut-throat. Fewer trash piles take over streets. Air-conditioned buses — and name tags for luggage! and rest stops! — are available for long-distance travel. Most toilets are western-style instead of the squat variety.

Trees hundreds of years old tower over the landscape, meters and meters taller than any I saw in other West African countries. There, the timber would have been cut down ages ago.

Ghanaians, many of whom speak English, are friendly and happy. Kids yell “Abrouni” — that’s the word for “white person” here — when I pass, not because they’re about to beg for cash, just so I’ll wave hello and smile.

Far more foreign non-governmental organizations work here, and signs about their projects dot the roadsides. Hoards of university students from America and England are preparing now to return home after spending their summers here volunteering.

Perhaps because of that, the tourism industry in Ghana, though still lackluster, is far more developed than in the other countries I’ve visited. They’ve got at least a dozen eco-tourism centers, including formal systems for charging people to experience them.

Kakum National Park, for example, offers a series of rope bridges high above the forest. My legs shook as I walked across:

Canopy walk at Kakum National Park.

Canopy walk at Kakum National Park.

Ghana also is obviously richer than Mali and Burkina (Senegal wasn’t quite as poor). Order chicken here in a restaurant and there’s actually meat on the bone. Ghanaians listen to MP3 players on the bus. More men here seem to be working instead of lounging in the shade, although — and I hate to make this generalization, but I think it has merit — I believe that lounging is tied to Islamic culture, and Ghana is largely Christian.

Of course, Ghana is still West Africa, full both of culture and problems.

Green Turtle beach in the rain...

Green Turtle beach in the rain...

I temporarily forgot about the latter because I’ve been at the Green Turtle, a backpackers’ resort on the beach in southwestern Ghana (Click here to see where I am on a map). The only real hint of Africa here — aside from the local staff and Ghanaian cuisine — is the villagers who walk past the place carrying food and wood on their heads, making their way across the sand to nearby towns.

This morning, a friend and I took advantage of the first bit of sunshine we’ve had to take our own walk on the beach. It was largely deserted, aside from a few villagers. Waves crashed loudly, but no garbage washed ashore. No shells, either. Just footprints in sand.

... and Green Turtle in the sun!

... and Green Turtle in the sun!

Signs created by an environmental group read, “Don’t chop turtles,” referring to the sea turtles that lay eggs on the beach this time of year.

How lovely, I thought, to live in such a perfect place, where walking to market means crossing the sand, where sea turtles emerge during night-time strolls, where waves hitting the beach drown out the sound of rusty cars’ rap music. This was pristine Africa.

Then there it was: shit in the sand. Feces. My friend nearly stepped in it. Then another pile of human waste, followed by litter, more litter and the smell of urine that is all-too familiar in West Africa. We were approaching a village.

We navigated our bare feet through the trash and entered the village, walking in just a few feet to ask when a tro-tro — the generic name for every form of crammed public transportation here — might leave town that day. And then we turned around and left the way we had come, again watching our step until we reached clean sand.

Even now, even in my fourth African country, I’m disappointed. They’ve got perfect beach. Perfect sand, perfect waves, perfect turtles. And what do the Africans do? They shit on it.