Going places with Kofi Akpabli: 'Have you no rivers in your own country?

BY: Enoch Darfah Frimpong

The Riverfest is to create awareness on the need to protect and preserve water bodiesAll too soon, I am back on the block from a very nice little break. This means I can’t wait to be back on the road.  A thousand thanks to dear readers for the e-mails and messages of encouragement.

Also, join me to say ‘ayeeko’ to every one of our distinguished guest writers who graced this page. Together, they have enriched the world with insightful and entertaining narratives of their travel experiences across Ghana.  Manasseh Azure Awuni, Otor Plahar, Nana Damoah, Hannah Awadzi, and Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, to each of you I say ‘may the ink in your pen never run dry.’

It feels good to be back and before we hit the road next week, let us use today’s discussion session on something conceptually relevant. It has to do with our attitude to this enterprise called tourism travel.

It is also about the great, great, great grandfather of modern travel- the explorations.

While I was enjoying my break, I took time to dig up the archives of a historical personality  the whole world knows - Mungo Park. This man from Scotland was a restless, adventurous explorer who trekked across Africa to understand the geography of the continent.

The travels of Mungo Park which took place 200 years ago makes interesting reading. Indeed, today’s title above, ‘Have you no rivers in your own country?’ is  a quote from one of his encounters. But before we deal with the import of the question, lets talk a bit more about the man himself.  

Mungo Park lived from 1771 to 1806.  That means he lived about the same time as General Nelson (hero of Trafalgar Square), Duke Wellington (conquered Napoleon and freed Europe from French rule) and William Wilberforce (fought to abolish slave trade).

Mungo Park’s book, Travels In The Interior Districts Of Africa was a success because it detailed what he observed, what he survived, and the people he encountered. His honest descriptions set a standard for future travel writers to follow. This gave Europeans a glimpse of what Africa was really like.

Mungo Park was actually a medical doctor who became an explorer when he got the chance to sail on a vessel to the West Indies and immediately caught the travel bug. He loved the experience of seeing new places, new climates  and new lifestyles . He also studied the plants and creatures.

As it happened, a society in Britain called the African Association was looking for someone to go to West Africa to find out about the River Niger. Those were the days when there were no detailed maps as it were, just landmarks.

Mungo Park accepted the challenge and sailed from Portsmouth in England to The Gambia. In those days what they did was to settle at a base, learn the native language, recruit a couple of locals before embarking on an expedition. In his case, he studied the Mandingo dialect.

If you look at today’s map it meant that he marched across Senegal, climbed up Mali, traversed Niger before coasting southwards in Nigeria. It was far from a leisure cruise. Mungo Park encountered violent locals as well as unfamiliar weather. At a point, Mungo Park lost all his possessions except a compass which helped him find his bearing.

Initially, he thought the Niger joined into the Nile. Seven months after leaving The Gambia, Mungo Park saw the River Niger. It was at a place in Nigeria called Segu. One can imagine his excitement. He was surprised to notice that it flowed eastwards instead of westwards.

To learn more, he had wanted to cross to the other side of the river. So he asked the local chief to lend him a boat. (He had lost his own boat).

The local chief was not the least amused about this whole business of a river search. He was not at all impressed. ‘What is wrong with these strange Whiteman?’, I am sure he wondered.

The more Mungo Park pleaded for a boat, the more the chief became confused and stubborn. This led to the chief’s famous statement:

‘Have you no rivers in your own country, and is not one river like the other?’

This particular episode ended with Mungo Park being refused his request. Unable to cross, he decided to trek along the Niger to discover its mouth.

After 120 kilometres (equivalent Accra to Elmina)  he realised he couldn’t continue because he was running short on logistics. Wisely, the explorer decided to trek back up and rather document details of the Niger River.

Of course, Mungo Park’s travails are nowhere near what we go through in  tourism travel today. We are worlds apart. My objective is to link this to our participation, in tourism within our own country.

While government is trying to develop the sector, a large number of Ghanaians still think that  tourism is what white people come and do and go back. Our willingness to travel even within our own region is suspect. If we travel at all, it is for two obligatory reasons to work and for funerals.

I have highlighted the 200 year-old question of the Segu chief because it sheds light on the mentality that many of us still have today-stay put, stay content and let things be. Because, after all, ‘is not one river like another?’

I recall my own encounter when I had just started work as a bright-eyed, eager university graduate.  I was stationed at the Paga Border post and a couple of men had driven to the border in a Landcruiser vehicle. They got down and walked to have a feel of Burkina Faso.

Their driver, who stayed back, was livid with disappointment. The guy was talking to himself gesticulating and pointing after them. Curious, I approached him to chat. He was almost in tears.

What was his problem? He rendered it in a local language.

‘There is nothing there!  There is nothing there!’ He pointed to Burkina Faso, ‘I have been there before and I have told them that there is nothing there!’

If there is nothing there why don’t you let them stroll and find out for themselves?, I asked him.

This ‘there is nothing there’ will take our nation nowhere. These last couple of weeks we have seen how our guest writers have left their comfort zones to experience other parts of Ghana.

May you be anointed to do same (Did I hear Amen?). And while you are out there discovering,  I pray that no ignorant fellow ever asks you. ‘Have you no rivers in your own country?’
Catch you somewhere interesting next week!

Dedicated to Prof. Nkunu Akyea

Writen by Kofi Akpabli 

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The writer is a communications specialist and a consultant at TREC, a tourism and culture research group.