The Road to Kintampo

28May10

The day before my next role in Ghana starts, I meet up with my fellow teaching colleagues from the UK at Accra’s Shangri-La hotel. The establishment promises a real African experience and looks like it could be in Orlando, but for our purposes its comfortably convenient for the airport. Mark, Tess and Patrice flew in from London the night before and over breakfast we fill each other in on our progress since I last saw them two weeks ago in Fareham, which was the second time I met with them ahead of this next visit from the UK to the Kintampo Project.

Mark Roberts is a forensic psychiatrist who was a medical lecturer at Kumasi University for two years in the 1980s and has returned to Ghana several times since. He’s the UK lead for the Project, a joint training initiative between the Kintampo Rural Health Training School, Hampshire Partnership NHS Trust and the University of Winchester. Its purpose is to provide further training to Medical Assistants (MAs) in Ghana to specialise in psychiatry and hopefully – after completing their 18 month training – take up posts throughout the country as Medical Assistant Psychiatry [sic] (MAP). The Project aims to increase the number of badly needed middle grade mental health specialists in Ghana and also includes plans to run a 12 month course for community nurses to become Community Mental Health Officers (CMHO). Thus Mark is here to review progress on the content and delivery of the courses with the local tutors, as well as supervise their own personal development so the Project can become self-managing in years to come.

Clinical Psychologist, Tess Maguire and Community Psychiatric Nurse, Patrice Fugah are colleagues from Southampton and like me, this is the first time, they’ll be teaching abroad. Patrice is Ghanaian himself and though he often comes back to Accra since leaving 20 years ago, he’s never worked here and its rare for him to have travelled north of the south coast. Thus, while we have Patrice to thank for his BMW saloon car, its Mark who is our guide on the road to Kintampo.

Because of the nine hour drive, we intend to start early though its close to 10 AM when we’re agreed on the way the trunk should be packed. The road quality in Accra, that I’d seen change rapidly from three-laned highways to uneven dirt tracks without apparent reason had lowered my expectations for what we’d find outside the capital. Similarly the offer of Patrice’s cousin (a direct relation, he confirms) to escort us as far as the road to Kumasi was helpful but didn’t bode well. As it turns out, although the main arterial route to the country’s interior is rarely more than single carriageway, it initially appears reasonably maintained. And while a number of ad hoc tollbooths and customs checkpoints have a similar random quality as to whether its necessary to stop, we drive on.

Along the roads confident women carrying oversized goods, balanced expertly on their head catches Tess’ admiration, while numerous traders sell everything from fruit to fried turkey tails to sterilised 500 ml bags of ‘ice’ water. In the towns, goats and chickens wander across the road free-range, while in the country lone figures on the roadside hold freshly caught fish or wild animals for sale. Passionate Christian slogans, like ‘Christ is Alive’  and ‘God’s will’ are written on the back of any form of transport, while passing businesses like the Joy of Peace Hotel show a similar faith. Meanwhile many of the houses are painted in the now customary red or yellow corporate colours of two rival mobile phone networks, who happily provide such free make-overs should the householder be agreeable to continue promoting their brand.

Five hours into our trip, we pass through Kumasi and Mark points out the University where he lived with his young family. Here he met many of the doctors who now oversee the psychiatry service in Ghana and its through these links that he’s become involved in developing the Kintampo Project. Although I only came on board two months ago, Mark has worked on this for over two years and as we drive through the lush tropical countryside, he continues making revisions to the curriculum on his laptop, ahead of his own busy week.

Driving through Ghana’s second city takes nearly an hour to negotiate its limited marked roads and enormous cluttered market. However, it’s only Sunday, so it could be worse. Stopping for directions, we receive a number of interesting suggestions and are left having to make our own judgement about their validity. Experience has shown that while Ghanaians will happily offer information on request, it’s not always reliable as many are often too polite to say they don’t know. It’s a national trait that we’ll all come to recognise further during the course of our teaching.

Later, I’ll feel similarly short of direct answers when Mark asks me what benefits the Ghanaians want to see achieved though my own project at Pantang. There’s no doubting the wonders and personal benefit of the experience that I’ve had already, though leaving a lasting sustainable difference is another matter altogether. It’s a similar message that I’ve been receiving from my UK supervisor, Peter Hughes, when I can manage to get connected on line. Having shown myself that I can do the work here, working out what is actually sustainable is something I’ll need to work on for when I return to Pantang in a fortnight.

Outside Kumasi, Mark says the roads have improved from his visit last year and while the driving is at times smooth; Tess, now driving, is learning to be aware that overtaking, oncoming cars don’t expect to be put off by traffic in our lane. Similarly, overladen lorries traveling between north and south will regularly park up where they’ve broken down as their driver decides what repairs are required, which may often take days to complete. Occasionally we’ll see outdoor gatherings of people attending traditionally large funerals that last long into the afternoon. I think of Godfried, whose brother’s funeral was the day before and Mr Baah, who will also be traveling today from Accra by public bus.

The road then changes direction without apparent signage and we’re soon driving on unsealed roads. With dusk setting in, we can see even less of the oncoming potholes and only feel confident when there’s a car driving in front to lead the way and provide protection from opposite traveling vehicles that may not have the usual pair of working headlights. Its hard to believe that everything that travels to and from land-locked Burkina Farsa and the sub-Sahara comes down this road or that many people live just yards from its edge and we were fortunate that much of what we’ve travelled on north of Kumasi has been recently sealed.

After 8 PM, Mark confirms that we’re at last approaching Kintampo and all we’ve to do is turn left, which Tess makes to do. As we move forward though, my passenger side of the car slips off the pavement’s edge and then the back wheel is jammed off the road. There’s no moving and in darkness we climb out to inspect the situation that looks like it could be bad. With the assistance of a group of passing boys experienced in such scenes, they (I put down my camera and placed my hands somewhere around under the bumper) manage to lift the car enough for it to drive back onto the road. The Kintampo Falls Guest House is only another 100 yards from where we were temporarily beached.

After showering, a fish meal is sent down for us from the school, which we eat outside with Star beer on the guest house lawns. Tomorrow will be a 7AM start on Monday, for the first teaching day of the first course for the future MAPs of Ghana.

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