Words: uplifting or degrading

Oumou-Sangare

During the Copenhagen jazz festival in July we went to see Oumou Sangaré performing with her band at the Concert House. Oumou Sangaré is known as the diva of Malian music. She has a very strong voice and her songs reverberate with thoughts about love and its complications, often sung through dialogue with the other musicians on the stage while waving her arms and gesturing at the audience. It was a spectacular show; the kora player, the guitarist and the two accompanying dancers excelled and the sounds built to dramatic peaks of intensity.

I thought about words while she sang. Her lyrics are in Bambara, a West African language, interspersed with some French exclamations. It is perfectly possible to listen to the music and enjoy the instruments and voices while not understanding a single word.

The world is overflowing with words, in countless languages. Our little house is full of books and there’s always a pile of magazines in the corner. The papers I have drafted and edited over the years from a thesis to various reports and study notes are filed haphazardly. Like millions of people I have become semi-addicted to flows of information on my mobile ’phone.

One of the difficulties I encounter when trying to write is a fear that all the words are useless. Sometimes I’m concerned about overdosing on reading matter. I doubt the purpose of creating more texts although for 40-50 years I’ve been actively contributing to the surfeit. Like many others I am afflicted by a strong urge to capture my thoughts on digital ”paper”…

Perhaps singing is the answer! Our grandchild aged two and a half is an enthusiastic singer; doing his best to reproduce the pronunciation of the words he has learnt at the nursery and from his musical parents. A young child’s discovery of language is a wondrous process, an uplifting dimension of grand parenting!

We went to a concert with Oumou Sangaré around 22 years ago in the Maison du Peuple on the main avenue in Ouagadougou. I remember being blown away by the thunderous drums and soaring voices. We enjoyed many opportunities to hear West African music during our two years living in the city. But often we didn’t understand the words…

Repressive Saudi Arab ideology has permeated West Africa since the 1990s. The words of the holy Quran are used to spread hatred and mistrust around the region. Musical traditions have been attacked as “unclean” and musicians have been stoned and silenced. It is hard to comprehend the mentality of those who rage against the beauty of the kora and drums.

Something scary is happening to language in these dark times. Abuse, lies and distorted trashy stories spout from the twitter accounts of the powerful, debasing the currencies of communication until we are left with… hollow men, dead men, faint echoes of humanity…

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The people of Hong Kong and Istanbul show the way

The rise and rise of authoritarians surrounded by mixtures of dirty money and fawning cronies in the media seems to have been a worldwide phenomenon in the last five years. From Brazil to India, from the USA to Russia, recent elections have been won by old men who dream of getting rid of elections altogether, as well as dismantling the checks and balances of the rule of law and democratic processes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey has been a particularly successful autocrat, rewriting the constitution to centralise power while curtailing parliamentary oversight, as well as appointing members of his family to influential positions (such as Minister of Finance). In addition to the disturbing list of ”what might soon be ex-democracies” is the People’s Republic of China, where the Communist Party (CCP) – firmly in power since 1949 – exerts ever more spectacular efforts to keep the people subservient.

However, there are limits to this madness as large numbers of people in Hong Kong and Istanbul – two global cities – have shown in the last few weeks. Perhaps their protests will mark the beginning of the end for authoritarians delighting in the techniques of political repression. Perhaps not…[1]

Since British colonial rule ended in 1997 Hong Kong (with 7.5 million inhabitants) has been a special administrative region (SAR) of China; not an independent country, but with its own government, a multi-party parliament and a ”chief executive” at the top. But when the latest incumbent Ms. Carrie Lee, bowed to CCP pressure and proposed legislation to allow extradition of suspected criminals to the People’s Republic, the citizens of the ex-colony took to the streets. The upshot of the mass mobilisation was a vicious attack on demonstrators by the police, followed by even larger protests culminating in withdrawal of the legislation. Not surprisingly Hong Kong’s (relatively free) citizens do not wish to run the risk of finding themselves at the mercy of the Chinese legal system, where people’s rights are limited to those allowed by the all-powerful Party. But the struggle isn’t over yet.

Thousands of kilometres to the west, recent local government elections in Turkey provided an opportunity for people to voice their opinions about Erdogan and his AK movement, which have seemed increasingly unassailable. The man himself rose to power in the 1990s as mayor of Istanbul, a city of over 15 million inhabitants. When the opposition CHP narrowly won the election in the city in March, the President did everything he could to undermine the result. In the end he forced the Turkish electoral commission to agree that there would be a re-run. The CHP rallied around their candidate Mr. Ekrem İmamoğlu, mobilising millions of voters in the city. The result was an increased majority for the CHP with 54 per cent of the votes cast, indicating that the days of the AK and Erdogan’s dominance may be numbered. Huge crowds danced and celebrated on the streets of the vast city.

Thus, the people of Hong Kong and Istanbul have shown that authoritarians can be pushed back, using mass mobilisation through both street protests and the ballot box. These impressive displays of non-violent opposition are important steps towards re-asserting the necessity of democratic governance. However, there’s little doubt that the dangerous autocrats in numerous other countries have been observing these confrontations and drawing their own conclusions about how use repressive instruments and fear in order to remain in power. From Hungary to Thailand, from Nicaragua to Sudan, the struggle against corruption and authoritarianism has a long way to go.

[1] As I completed this little essay, the Observer newspaper published an editorial underlining the same concerns, assessing the disgusting performance of Vlad the Bootin at the recent G20 summit of world leaders. Of the twenty heads of government at the meeting, I guess at least eight could be characterised as full-scale authoritarians, willing to resort to brutality – such as murdering journalists – and condoning violence against opponents. At the same time, several of these so-called leaders are busy tearing up arms agreements so that they can accelerate the over-militarisation of the planet. See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/30/the-observer-view-on-vladimir-putin-and-defence-of-liberal-values

Fresh perspectives, green midsummer dreams!

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In many ways the world is still turning in the well-worn early 21st Century tracks of ugly short-sightedness and fear of others, exemplified by Trumpet’s obsession with Walls, the Brexiteer’s obsession with Brussels, the Chinese Communist Party’s obsession with anything that resembles dissent and a host of dictators obsessed with terrorising the masses with machine guns. There are trade wars, verbal threats, phoney wars and sabre rattling all over the five continents. The United Nations looks increasingly ineffectual, as does the European Union, the latter despite the enthusiastic turnout and broadly positive outcomes of the Parliamentary elections at the end of May.

In searching for fresh perspectives suddenly the Danish government seems to have something to offer. After almost 20 years of miserably failing to debate almost anything apart from the downsides of immigration, foreigners, Muslims and refugees too close to home, the shift to the centre-left at the elections in early June appears at last to be ushering in renewal in the policy making sphere. Perhaps Danes had simply overdosed on the daily diet of media-driven hatred, thrust down everybody’s throats by a clique of extremists whose dreams of Aryan purity had begun to smell more and more like the smoke that drifted across Poland in the 1940s.

After lengthy negotiations a minority social democratic government is being formed, based on an agreement with two “red-green” parties on the left together with the radical liberals (a centre party) who made considerable gains in the elections. Happily, top items on the agenda for the new government aren’t how to abuse minorities, abandon international commitments and cut public spending on everything, which were the dominant concerns of the strangely unwieldy liberal alliance with the nationalists, in power since 2015. Suddenly the fate of nature and the impact of climate change have become the main priorities; to the extent that the government plans to introduce measures targeting a 70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Maybe the grass will be greener soon… Underlining the urgency of new policies a massive heat wave has crossed Central and Southern Europe in the midsummer season with temperatures above 45 degrees celsius in France. It surely is time to help the planet cool down!

IMG_3562Demonstration for climate change action now in Copenhagen at the end of May

Mao: gone! forgotten?

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is long gone, but if you subscribe to the main message in Julia Lovell’s recently published assessment of “global Maoism” (Bodley Head, 2019), in some ways he is still with us; through his long term impact on assorted liberation movements and people’s struggles around the planet as well as through power politics in the People’s Republic (PRC). It’s an interesting thesis. As the rest of the world commemorates the massacre of thousands of students on the Square of Heavenly Peace in Beijing on the 4th June 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains firmly in control with a good grip on Mao’s legacy too; apparently the budget for domestic surveillance and censorship in China exceeds the total national defence budget.

Lovell, a professor of Chinese history at Birkbeck University in London, argues that the core concepts of Maoism can be summarised in several slogans which guided the turbulent pathway of the CCP from the 1930s until Mao’s death and then beyond. These include:

  • Power comes out of the barrel of a gun…
  • … in a very short time, several hundred million peasants in China’s central, southern and northern provinces will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power however great will be able to suppress it… Revolution is not a dinner party.
  • Practice is the sole criterion of truth.
  • Women can hold up half the sky.
  • Expose errors and criticise shortcomings.
  • Imperialism is a paper tiger.
  • To rebel is justified.
  • On contradiction: the struggle of opposites is ceaseless.

Some or all of these essentials of Maoism can be identified in numerous political struggles, particularly in the second half of the 20th Century. The global story starts with the emergence of the CCP in the 1930s and proceeds through the defeat of the nationalists in 1949, the catastrophic Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s during which at least 30 million people died of famine and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) during which the “Great Helmsman” encouraged young communists to revolt against both capitalists and the party. Subsequently many ideas and tactics of Maoism surfaced in conflicts around the world: in Indonesia before the 1965 massacres, in various African independence struggles, in the wars fought in Vietnam and Cambodia, in European and American youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in the guerrilla war led by Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) in Peru, in the Indian Naxalite rebellions and finally in the Maoist’s transition to power in Nepal after a long civil war (1996-2006). Various revolutionary comrades who had studied and trained in China as well as leaders who had been under the influence of Mao played major roles in these revolts and uprisings.

As I read the story of global Maoism I began to think about how my life has unfolded under the indirect influence of the Chairman and his thoughts. The winds of disruptive change blowing from the East were very strong in the 1960s and 1970s as I recall. They were the decades of anti-colonial struggles, independence and non-aligned movements, youth rebellions, the rejection of conservative social codes, etc. There was peace and love, but also war and revolution. Searching through my memory files I can identify at least four images.

There’s a photo of my family gathered in the back garden of our house in Cambridge, probably dating from 1966 or 1967. I am in school uniform, waving Mao’s little red book! I guess I was trying to annoy my parents. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing at the time and scary stories reached across the globe, particularly when a journalist called Anthony Grey was held under house arrest for many months and the British embassy in Beijing was attacked and burned by the Red Guards (young Maoists). I didn’t understand much about the goings on, but was impressed… and although I’ve moved many times since the 1960s I still have my original copy of the little red book to put on the bookshelf…

A few years later I was one of a large crowd marching in protest against the war in Viet Nam. I remember that some of the demonstrators had made a model canon, which they carried on their shoulders. Like thousands of other young people in the west, we were disgusted and angered by the relentless violence of the war and by regular TV reports of rural communities watching as the American soldiers and bombs destroyed their country. We chanted: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh and I’ve no doubt that the Maoists were on the streets with us. The fury of those years culminated in Richard Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Ha Noi in 1972 and – finally – peace negotiations in Paris, which led to the American withdrawal (defeat…) and to the North Vietnamese Army’s tanks arriving in Saigon in April 1975.[1]

In 1976 I slept for a few hours at the railway station in a town called Makambako in south-western Tanzania. Travelling with a small group, we had been unable to get precise information about the schedules, so we had a long wait. When it finally rolled in, the train was Chinese and had only recently begun to operate on the famous TanZam railway. This huge “friendship project” had been donated by the People’s Republic to link the Indian Ocean and the Zambian copper mines. The then president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was a minor African Maoist and his village collectivisation and self-sufficiency programme (called ujamaa in Swahili) was a major fiasco. We went from the Southern Highlands to Dar es Salaam and then to Nairobi before flying back to Europe. Somewhere in my old paper files I have kept the front page of the Kenyan Daily Nation with the announcement of Mao’s death.

In a leftist bookshop in Oxford in 1977 I found a paperback published by Zed Press called the Wealth of Some Nations. A Scottish specialist in the politics and economics of South-East Asia called Malcolm Caldwell was the author and I became very curious to know more about one of his main subjects: Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia). Without going into lengthy explanation, Caldwell essentially gathered arguments to support an agrarian and peasant revolution in true Maoist style, finding that the example of rural collectivisation in Cambodia was a model for the way forward. The countryside had encircled the cities! As it turned out Mao himself felt the same way about the Cambodian “experiment”, when according to Julia Lovell he met Ieng Sary and Pol Pot (the leaders of the Khmer Rouge) during their trip to Beijing in June 1975, only a few months before he died. One of the translators who took part in the meeting reported that Mao congratulated the Khmer Rouge leaders on their successful revolution and observed: “what we wanted to do, you are achieving” (p. 241).[2]

Much later, when the chairman had passed on to the great commune in the sky and I thought I’d completely forgotten about the impact of Mao Zedong thought, his disturbing legacy reappeared as I travelled around the globe. Several of the countries in which I have worked over the years were exposed to the full force of Maoism at different times since the 1960s, including some of those examined by Lovell in her wide-ranging analysis: Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. The brutality of uprisings, collectivisation and suppression of dissent have taken their toll in these and other countries. But since 2010 the rise of President Xi and active Chinese overseas investment strategies have bought the spectre of Mao back onto the world stage…

Lovell’s observations about the persistence of Maoism are not only based on the continued adulation of the Helmsman by leaders of the CCP, but also on the fact that the party is still in power after 70 years (like NATO this year). Training guns on the students in 1989 was a dramatic demonstration of Mao’s fundamental theory of power! What’s more, despite periods of criticism, the CCP has been able to manage the image of Mao to ensure that the downsides of his despotic rule have been largely wiped from the public memory (in true Orwellian style).

Furthermore, the Chinese are in full swing exporting a highly successful economic development model around the world through the new Silk Roads (which they’ve given an ugly title: the Belt and Road Initiative). In short, as many analysts of globalisation have recognised, the centre of political gravity is shifting to the east. According to the Birkbeck professor this means that we’ll have to “get used to the contradictions of Maoism. It looks as they will be with us for some time yet” (p. 465).

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The chairman lives on in Andy Warhol images, here accompanied by my grandson Carl

[1] Gathering my thoughts on these matters, I re-read James Fenton’s classic essay on the ”Fall of Saigon”, published by Granta in 1985. He describes both the exhilaration of the end of the war and the disappointing aftermath of re-education camps and communist repression.

[2] The achievements were horrendous and cost the lives of at least 2 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot’s bloody revolution has been extensively documented by inter alia: David Chandler in Brother Number One – a political biography of Pol Pot (Westview Press, Boulder, 1999). Malcolm Caldwell died in mysterious circumstances in Phnom Penh in December 1978 a few hours after a meeting with Pol Pot and a few days before the Vietnamese military swept into Cambodia “to teach the Maoists a lesson.” The Chinese then launched an attack on Viet Nam, to teach the Soviet backed government a lesson… So much for fraternal communist relations…

Some spring scenes and associated reflections

The storyteller Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) was an enthusiastic traveller. One of his famous observations was that ”to travel is to live”, which has inspired thousands of Danes to follow his example and zoom around the globe (apparently oblivious to their carbon footprints…). By contrast his philosopher contemporary Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was content to do serious thinking while wandering the streets of Copenhagen. Sometimes he went to northern Sjælland. On a trip to the coastal region we stopped to take a look at a large stone with an inscription in Kierkegaard’s honour, close to the footpath west of the fishing village called Gilleleje, which was one of his favourite out of town haunts.[1] After admiring the stone on a windless afternoon in early April, we returned to our accommodation and en route I photographed a boat almost becalmed on the Kattegat.

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Later in April we travelled to northern Jutland to stay with some friends near the town of Thisted in Thy. During our visit we went for a walk across sand dunes and beaches with them and their Labrador. It was fun to throw sticks into the waves and watch the fearless animal dive to grab them; even long and heavy ones.

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We also checked out a landing site on the North Sea coast, which is a protected historical monument in the Thy National Park.[2] Nowadays the fishing industry is mostly concentrated in a few larger harbours, but there are still one or two small settlements where boats are dragged onto the beach and the catch is sold directly. Unfortunately we choose the wrong time to inspect the boats at Stenbjerg as there was no commercial activity in the early morning. But they are photogenic anyway!

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Further east near Århus we stayed for a night at a farmhouse bed and breakfast. The main purpose of our stopover was to spend some hours at the nearby Moesgaard ethnographic and historical museum, which turned out to be bursting with things to see, including the building itself.[3] Before leaving the farm I took a picture of the yard in the seasonal sunshine.

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Spring in Denmark is an attractive time to be on the road. The colours explode after the long grey winter. Near Moesgaard are an old water mill and some shady paths. The bright green colour of the new beech leaves lasts for about ten days and then fades into summer hues.

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As we strolled through the woodland near the old mill, I was surprised to see a couple of sculpted wolves in the undergrowth! The reappearance of wolves in Denmark has been a bit controversial. Some people are afraid that their kids are at risk of being savaged. Others welcome the revival of wildlife in the landscape. A debate rages in the public domain![4]

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During the trip to Jutland I reflected a little on the “x factor” in Danish economic and cultural life called the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. In contrast to eastern Denmark where the links to Sweden are readily apparent – the hinterland of Copenhagen airport is as much Swedish as Danish and there’s a massive flow of goods and people across the Öresund – the west of the country is under considerable German influence. So much so that it almost seems like a foreign country, an impression underlined when using the express catamaran service to travel west across the Great Belt.

Relatively large-scale coastal tourism in Jutland is geared to German holidaymakers and the roads are crowded with cars and trucks from south of the border. German newspapers are prominent in supermarket kiosks and some knowledge of the language is clearly required for those whose livelihood depends on commerce, particularly during the summer season. Danish exports to Germany amount to 14-15 per cent of the total goods and services leaving the country, while the Danish crown is tied at a fixed exchange rate with the euro. Thus, although the Danes are proudly Scandinavian and highly patriotic, their economic well-being is deeply entangled in the affairs of the giant EU neighbour.

Looking back to the era of Andersen and Kierkegaard it is remarkable that around a quarter of Copenhagen’s citizens were German speakers in the 1850s. Then the Prussians got out of hand for a hundred years or so, culminating in the 1940-45 occupation. The post-war recovery resulted in many Europeans becoming uneasy about the dominance of an economic powerhouse. Nonetheless, 30 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell most Danes welcomed the end of the cold war and the reunification of Germany a year later; such that in the 21st Century there’s a pragmatic sense of common interests and “cooperation.” In particular as instability caused by the Brexit fiasco in the UK and the rise of fundamentalists in the United States – not to mention Russian aggression – combine to force substantial re-thinking of international relations in a small open economy on the European periphery.

A Dutch late 18th Century map of Denmark

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[1] The text carved on Kierkegaard’s stone reads: “Hvad er sandhed andet end en leven for en idé”, which I guess can be translated as: what is truth other than living for an idea.

[2] See: https://eng.nationalparkthy.dk

[3] Amongst the many interesting exhibits are the 2000 year-old remains of Grauballe man, who was sacrificed and dumped into a bog, which preserved his body intact until it was dug up in 1952. The museum website has all the info: https://www.moesgaardmuseum.dk/en/

[4] There’s also been some controversy about the construction of an ”anti-wild boar fence” along the border between Denmark and Germany. Concern about the catastrophic consequences of an outbreak of swine fever on the Danish pork industry resulted in a proposal to put up a fence to stop wild boar from central Europe getting into the country. However since there have to be gaps in the fence to allow other species (and people) to cross, the project has been considered a colossal waste of money. Of course the nationalists in the Danish People’s Party (DF) are jubilant about building fences.

Wasters: a blues

Lowell George, the lead singer and guitarist with the American band called Little Feat, died aged 34 in 1979. One of his last songs was called ”twenty million things to do.” I thought of these words as well as his mournful voice and short life, when the latest twist in the Brexit divorce resulted in an extension of the deadline for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). As the pathetic performances of British politicians have underlined, there are still twenty million things to do, most of which are of far greater importance than leaving the EU.

What an incredible waste of time and energy!

Many analyses of the 2016 referendum results suggested that the protesting voters – particularly many of the English – said no to David Cameron’s deal, not as a way of objecting to the (imagined excessive) power of the institutions based in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, but to the uselessness of the government and parliament in Westminster. In other words, the vote to exit from the EU was mostly about the neglect of many English regions and about the impact of austerity, notably in terms of deteriorating living standards, poverty and unemployment rates, etc. To which a very vocal group of opportunistic populists added immigration and the free movement of labour as phoney explanations for the fall from “greatness.”

In short, given a chance to voice their anger, a large number of English people said no, let’s leave the EU and find a green and pleasant paradise somewhere else, thereby totally ignoring any geographical imperative.[1] Subsequently and amongst the many ironies of the past couple of years, politicians in the House of Commons have been unable to agree on a way forward – either as leavers or remainers – which has confirmed the skepticism of the average voter. The British ruling class has turned out to be catastrophically unable to rule!

But tragically Brexit is really a gigantic red herring.[2] Instead of wasting energies on endless negotiations with other Europeans about a deal or a no deal, the British government could have been reinforcing the peace process in Northern Ireland, devising new measures to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, improving health services, making better provisions for taking care of old people, introducing vocational training schemes, legislating against pollution, finding ways to improve education, reforming world trade arrangements (through the WTO…) for the benefit of the poor in developing countries, etc., etc. Indeed these are matters of high priority for all European governments. There are twenty million things to do!

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, many American politicians (and voters) apparently continue to back a compulsive liar, racist, gangster and tax evader as their ”supreme commander.” It’s hard to understand, but it sure gives me the blues…

PS Then I remembered another Lowell George composition from the album Sailin’ Shoes (1972) called “A apolitical blues”, which includes the following: “my telephone was ringing/ and they told me it was chairman Mao/ you got to tell him anything/ ‘cos I just don’t want to talk to him now!” In conclusion: “the apolitical blues is the meanest blues of all…”

[1] There’s a good assessment of the impossibility of having the Brexit cake and eating it in a recent article explaining why the three options of an open Irish border, the ”territorial integrity” of the UK and the ”freedom” to do trade deals are incompatible. See https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-impossibility-triangle-by-emily-jones-and-calum-miller-2019-04

[2] The Danish newspaper ”Information” describes the process beyond April 2019 as ”Brexit for zombies”, with 27 other EU member states forced to deploy teams of skilled negotiators in order to seek agreement with an irresponsible bunch of deluded, amateur politicians trapped in a time warp.

The Gulf of Guinea

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I undertook research in the Sahelian ”landlocked” region of West Africa. In connection with my studies and later consultant assignments I also got to know some of the towns and cities along the Atlantic coast known as the Gulf of Guinea. The most dramatic adventure of my West African career happened on the coast in 1996, when I was hospitalised and operated for suspected appendicitis at a small clinic in the Togolese capital, Lomé. I can remember walking painfully through the gardens of the Hotel du Bénin overlooking the sea, wondering what was wrong with my insides and plucking up courage to go to a doctor… As a result, instead of heading westwards from Togo through Ghana on a tour of the coastal castles, I was flown back to Copenhagen for further checks at Rigshospital before recuperating in a cottage close to the Kattegat.

The largest city in Benin is Cotonou, sprawling on often-flooded lowlands between the Gulf coast and several large lagoons. Many people live in wooden houses built on stilts above the water. There are pirogues (canoes) all over. Not far to the east is the town of Porto Novo, which was a major Portuguese trading post. There’s an ethnographic museum in the town with many sculpted figures and masks illustrating the powerful influence of voodoo in this region of West Africa. I visited during an assignment in Benin at the beginning of 1998 and was intrigued by the strength of animist beliefs in the mysterious spirits from beyond, which have a grip on the modern populace too.

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Then ensued a very long absence from the Gulf coast, which I didn’t visit at all from 1998 to 2010. For over ten years I was involved in assignments in Southern Africa, Central America and South-East Asia, where I also admired many coastal landscapes around the world’s great oceans as well as glimpses of the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal, the Java Sea, etc. In particular, living in Managua for three years provided many opportunities to be beside the seaside, both on the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts which we found time to explore between 2002 and 2005.

The Gulf of Guinea reappeared on my radar when I participated in a review of a forest conservation and management scheme associated with the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation.[1] There are still some relatively pristine rain forests in the region. Having failed to cross the border from Togo in 1996, my first visit to Ghana was at the end of 2010 and included an excursion to the tropical forests in the Western region with a stopover at the beautiful Busua beach resort. However, although we had time to walk around the edge of the Kakum national park, my guides didn’t introduce me to the castles, which have made the Ghanaian coast particularly infamous.

Cape Coast and Elmina are amongst the sheltered landing sites along the Gulf of Guinea through which tens of thousands if not millions of slaves passed between the 1520s and the mid 19th Century. The castles were built by the European slave traders and housed the governors of the British, Danish, Dutch, French and Portuguese enclaves. Slaves were shackled in dungeons beneath the towers and battlements until they were ready for what was known as the “middle passage” across the ocean. The ships that left from these harbours were loaded with miserable, half starved and terrorised men, women and children, many of whom didn’t survive the journey to the New World. The grim stories of the castles and the mistreatment of human cargoes are on display in a little museum at Cape Coast; well worth a visit, despite the horror. Even 150 years after the last shipments the sense of evil is in the air.

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In the early 21st Century the coastal towns are bustling with fishermen and their boats. I visited the region in March 2019 with a team of researchers at the Coastal Management Centre set up by environmentalists at Cape Coast University.[2] It is estimated that around ten per cent of Ghana’s population is involved in fishing in one form or another, catching, loading and transporting, selling and processing. A significant share of protein and nutrients is derived from the consumption of fish. But the harvest of the seas has reached the limits and attempts are being made to stop overfishing. At the same time pollution is an increasingly serious blight, both from offshore oil and gas installations and due to runoff from rivers that have become toxic with waste from illegal small-scale mining of gold and other minerals. It is time for a clean up, as we could see from inspection of the water quality around the harbours.

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Further to the east along the coast lies the port of Tema. The city grew up on the edge of Accra when the giant Akosombo Dam on the Volta River was opened in the early 1960s; the construction of an aluminium plant and hydro-electric turbine generators required major investment in harbour facilities. As the Ghanaian economy has grown, so has the port.

Danish interests associated with global container shipping are evident in Tema; the huge Maersk company is heavily involved in the region. The roads around the port are choked with heavy goods vehicles bringing cocoa for export and trucking all manner of mostly Chinese goods throughout Ghana and northwards to the landlocked countries, Burkina Faso and Niger. There is also considerable expansion going on. Projections of increased incomes in West Africa have underpinned decisions to invest in new berths and terminals in Tema.

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But there are dark clouds around the harbour too. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is another manifestation of the lawlessness plaguing West Africa. Boko Haram terrorists in north-eastern Nigeria and the neighbouring countries have encouraged further militarisation as government forces and their allies attempt to regain control. Beefing up the navies in the Gulf is also on the agenda as pirate attacks and kidnappings are on the increase. Heavily armed criminal enterprises are responsible for creating widespread insecurity at sea.[3] Thus, trading and seafaring in the region are once again associated with violence.

[1] Ghana has been in the forefront of global efforts to design and introduce programmes and policies aiming to reduce GHG emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). A thorough critical assessment of the REDD+ processes in Ghana and Nigeria by Adeniyi Asiyanbi et al (2017) can be found in the journal called Forests (volume 8-78).

[2] The research is described at: http://www.hotspot-ghana.net

[3] See: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/imb-gulf-of-guinea-led-the-world-for-piracy-in-2018