A Summary of my Hawai’i Experience

My own country did a whole “Year of Return” thing, and did I choose to return? No. Where did I run away to instead? Hawai’i. The irony? I spent a lot of time comparing my tourist experience in Hawai’i to what I assume to be the tourist experience in Ghana. Spoiler alert: Hawai’i won out on almost everything.

The reason I was in Hawai’i at all is because I decided to crash a family vacation my aunt had planned for her nuclear family. My uncle couldn’t make the vacation dates and I calmly inserted myself in his place because when there’s an opportunity to take a vacation on someone else’s money, you bloody take it.

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Me & my cousins. 🙂

My experience of Hawai’i was actually very limited. It was only about 5 days long, and we never left the island of O’ahu at all, barely even left Waikiki. I want to say that I could count the number of native Hawaiians I encountered in Honolulu without running out of fingers and although this is an exaggeration, it felt true. Maybe I felt a kind of relief because I couldn’t quite come up with any region or city in Ghana where a non-native tourist wouldn’t consistently encounter native Ghanaians. (This is the only place where Ghana won out over Hawai’i.) On the other hand, what made me the most uncomfortable during my trip was how, every time I encountered a native Hawaiian, they were serving me in some way.

But you know which demographic flocked in their hundreds? Japanese folks. As a matter of fact, it seems to me I experienced Honolulu in English, but with Japanese subtitles. This is both a figure of speech and quite literal. Almost everything was written in two languages: English and Japanese. I didn’t see text in the Hawaiian language even a quarter as much as I saw Japanese. Directory signboards, shop names, products sold, offerings on menus, available brands of tea, free brochures… It all reflected the primary tourist demographic.

I have a few hypotheses for how come Honolulu was full of Japanese people. One is the geographical proximity. There’s almost nothing but sea between Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, making it possibly a prime vacation destination. But my second hypothesis feels stronger: Hawai’i is bloody expensive, and those Japanese tourists were rich AF.

Walking along the streets of Waikiki was a designer experience. Walk out of the hotel and a Louis Vuitton store is staring you in the face. But right beside that LV store is a Gucci store, and right beside that, oh look, Balenciaga!

In many ways, Honolulu reminded me of Cape Town, in that both seemed to want to cater to tourists so much that the indigenous culture was smothered by the foreignness. It seems even harder to find Hawaiianness in Honolulu than it was to find South Africanness in Cape Town. But then again, I was only in O’ahu for 5 days, so who knows what’s out there?F6D119FD-D8E4-46DB-87A4-24551BFFC3E1

I don’t know about the rest of the Hawaiian state and its islands but affordable, Waikiki was definitely not. I got a couple of ice cream cones and I considered that a splurge. By the way, if you ever go to Hawai’i, I highly, highly recommend getting Kona flavored ice cream. I don’t know what makes Hawai’i’s Kona coffee different from any other types of coffee, I just know that the stuff was fire, and unexpectedly bomb in ice cream. Speaking of Hawaiian specialties, I don’t think I knew before I went there that they have a thing with pineapples. Once, the family was at breakfast, and my aunt ordered a fruity drink in mango flavor, and the waiter said something droll like, “You’re in Hawai’i, we don’t have mango. You’re getting it in pineapple.” I thought it was hilarious.

 

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There’s nothing particularly Hawaiian about this breakfast, but it was nice. 🙂

I found out how expensive Hawai’i was the very night that I arrived. My aunt had planned for a shuttle to take me to the hotel. I got into the shuttle, the driver mentioned the name of my hotel and asked me to confirm, and I did. I was the last shuttle passenger to be dropped off. I can’t say my destination didn’t look a little shady to me in the first place. What kind of hotel did my auntie book? I wondered to myself. There wasn’t even a car park. It lowkey looked like some abandoned warehouse. The shuttle driver tried to give me instructions on how to get into the actual hotel from the dark and confusing outside, but the instructions itself were complicated.

I let my cousin know that I’d arrived, and she ran around the whole hotel ground floor looking for me and never found me, even though I was “right there.” She stubbed her toe quite badly in the process. (This stubbed toe was brought up many times throughout our Hawai’i stay. By her.) Long story short, we were at completely different hotels. They had the same name, except for one word. I was at the Hilton Village hotel, when I should have been at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. No kidding.

Shout-out to technology, because after wasting a lot of time trying to describe my position in the lobby to my poor cousin, some location-sharing features told me exactly what I needed to know. The shuttle driver was long gone by then, I was a tourist in an unfamiliar US colony-I-mean-state, and it was late at night. I had to Uber. The right hotel was a mile away from the wrong hotel. The Uber trip was sixteen dollars. For a trip that was less than ten minutes. SIXTEEN DOLLARS. So that’s that on that for prices in Waikiki.

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My aunt took this photo of me… at the *right* hotel, the next day. 

Having already established the extraordinarily large Japanese presence, you might perhaps find it a little less ironic that one of the highlights of my Honolulu experience was lunch in a hibachi-style restaurant. It was my first ever teppanyaki meal, and before this, the closest I had ever come to having a meal that doubled as a performance event was at a sushi place in Accra. (Clearly, Japanese folks are killin’ it at the dining experience thing.) Picture a stand-up comedian who’s delivering his entire routine… but while frying rice, vegetables, meat and shrimp. That’s essentially what a teppanyaki chef is, and however much they get paid, I’m almost certain they don’t get paid enough. The food was good, but the experience was excellent. My personal favorite highlight was our chef’s onion volcano light show.

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In O’ahu, there were beaches, but beaches are not quite that remarkable. There were shops, but shops are also not that remarkable. Some of the most fun I hE903BB65-F928-4906-8AAC-5B670C54ECA4ad just casually playing is when my cousin took advantage of happy hour to get us both drinks. I drank mine way too fast because I wanted to get wet and they wouldn’t let me bring alcohol near the sea or lagoon. So, I got quite astonishingly tipsy and frolicked with fish in a lagoon that I still don’t know whether it was natural or artificial. It was so much fun. By the time I got out of the water, I had to lie down for at least half an hour by the pool, because the whole world was spinning and standing up felt like falling down. Regrets? None.

 

I think the highlight of my experience was the most touristy thing we did, which was spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Although it’s located on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, it’s a center that represents six main Pacific Island territories: Hawai’i, Tahiti, Aotearoa (or, New Zealand), Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The Polynesian Cultural Center, in particular, is where I saw that Hawaiians have nailed this tourism business, got the science down to a T. Ghana could make a fortune if it organized itself even a quarter as well as Hawai’i is doing.

The Center itself is a fascinating maze of “islands” with a waterbody snaking through the middle of the property. Several events occur on repeated, regular schedules in different pockets of the Center, and once you have a map, it’s very easy to self-direct your own tour and participate in small 15-minute events for hours on end. For example, I attended a drumming lesson in “Fiji,” a marriage ceremony in “Tonga,” threw some spears in “Tahiti” and learned how to do a Tahitian dance called ’otea’a, attended what amounted to a cooking show in “Samoa,” a Haka performance in “Aotearoa,” and ironically can’t quite remember doing anything in “Hawai’i.”

Sometime near the middle of the day, all the individual island activities are paused so that everyone can participate in a grand event along the river. The experience of this was both beautiful and terrible.

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Apologies for the grainy quality, but this is a screenshot from a video, since I took no photos. Haha.

The event is essentially a theater performance staged on canoes, whose storyline is the history of the Polynesian islands from its mythological beginnings—starting with the creation of the known human world by Maui, which you may recognize from Disney’s Moana—to the present. The beautiful part is that the performance, the narration, the props, the acting, singing, dancing, costumes, etc. are all so spectacular and entertaining! The terrible part comes as the content approaches the present. At this point, the narrators speak of how the Pacific Islands fell very nearly into deep destitution after colonization, and the only thing that saved them from that is exploiting the tourism industry. They put it in a really benign way that was supposed to make the audience feel great for contributing to the salvation of the islands or whatever, but to me it felt tragic. (I’m an Africana Studies major. With all the theory in my head, there’s no way hearing things like this won’t seem dead awful to me.)

 

One thing that I thought was also either very cool or tragic about the Polynesian Cultural Center is that about 80% of the staff at the Center—from the vendors to the performers to the activity facilitators—were undergrad students studying in Hawaiian universities. The beautiful part was how I got to interact with some Polynesians and Asians (a lot of Japanese students too, not just tourists, I discovered), while they made some money! The tragic part was when I considered that some of these students honestly might not be at all able to afford to go to school unless they got jobs at the Polynesian Cultural Center. From what I witnessed, working there is a high-energy, high-investment, high-maintenance affair. It surely can’t be at all easy to do this work while being a full-time student. So, with my limited knowledge of what my peers in Hawaii go through, I felt many different types of ways about their situations.

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Did you know that Polynesians from Fiji are like… Black? Because I didn’t, until this day.

The engaging but exhausting day-long experience was capped off with a theater performance called “Ha! The Breath of Life,” which was another sort of dramatization representing all six of the previously mentioned territories, via allegory. But I must say, it was extremely easy to tune out of whatever was happening on stage… until the fire dancing! I wish I had videos or photos, but they were strictly prohibited. The fire performances were certainly an excellent way to end the night, though.

Anyway, a few random extra things: I discovered I really like saying the word “Aotearoa,” and that my favorite greeting from all six represented territories is the Aotearoa 0ne: “kia ora.” They both sound so musical and beautiful. Maybe I should move there and learn their Māori language, because e dey bee me waa.

My tourist tip for anyone going to Honolulu is this: if you want to experience Hawaii with Hawaiians, you should make it a point to talk to the people who are serving you and pay attention to what they say about what they do or where they go. The people driving you, taking your food orders, giving you tours etc., they all work in the tourist industry and return to their non-tourist worlds once they’re off the clock. I’ve observed from experience that some tend to be reluctant with giving recommendations because they think tourists always want the spectacular touristy things they don’t know about and that tourists wouldn’t be interested in the quotidian Hawaiian experiences that they’re familiar with. But once they see you’re genuinely interested, they’ll dish out the info. Persist!

-Akotz

SA Journal 3: Reflections on African Tourism

One of my professors here said, in the very first lecture—and I paraphrase only slightly—when white people landed on the shores of Africa, they did not see people. They saw resources, they saw nature, they saw land, all free for the taking. They chose not to recognize that real, legitimate human beings already inhabited this continent; if they had, history would have been a completely different story.

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I thought about African tourism a lot, my first couple of weeks here, particularly within the South African context, and even more specifically, within the context of Cape Town. Naturally, a few touristy things have been part of my introductory experience to this city. But personally, speaking as an African from one of the most important countries on the continent when it comes to slave history and colonialism, I have been processing some of my experiences rather differently from many of my American counterparts who are also on this study abroad program.

In the first week, one of my RA’s led a walking tour through Cape Town city. For context, he is both South African and Black. I think he is a truly wonderful human being, and that he gave an effective and comprehensible summary of Cape Town’s history, as well as the explanations for some of the things we saw and places we passed through. I learned things like where festivals happen, where the Muslim population is concentrated, why South Africa has three capitals—random things like that. Since I was neither writing nor taking many pictures, a lot of it has flown out of my head through my ear. There are, however, a couple of things about his tone and diction at certain times that have lingered in my mind for a while.

A handful of times, he would say variations of the sentence, “It’s very, very difficult to talk about the history of Cape Town without talking about [race/colonialism/slavery].” These felt like apologetic disclaimers, which he gave in specific areas—like in front of the Iziko Slave Lodge or something—right before he would give us context about the place. Every time he said that, I wanted, but didn’t dare, to interject. I would have otherwise liked to tell him to speak the history as it is, without preamble, disclaimer, or apology, and especially not with repeated ones. I wanted to remind him that anybody else’s discomfort would not be his responsibility. Of course, I believe the reason the disclaimers even made an appearance is because the majority of this tour group was comprised of (white) Americans on the African continent for the first time. I can’t imagine that the statements could have been directed at anyone else. But, I mean, if we had all come to Cape Town to learn about the city, the country or the continent it’s in, then allow the learning to happen, even if (or, especially if) it would make most of us “tourists” highly uncomfortable. We should have been left to hold ourselves responsible for our own responses, without the need for him to mince words.

On at least three different occasions, he used the word “discovered” as he was speaking. Once upon a time, the Portuguese “discovered” the city, or the British “discovered” gold, or the Afrikaners “discovered” something or the other. For me, at least, it’s not like being presented with African history through this lens is a new experience; my colonized Ghanaian primary school education gave me enough of that to last me a lifetime, thank you very much—but all of us on the program were at least halfway through college. I would call us adults, if even very loosely. Surely, that calls for a far more critical mode of presentation than this?

I zoned out several times just reflecting on the semantics of “discovery.” I suppose, in a sense, according to the most literal definition of the word, it would be contextually accurate. However, that doesn’t automatically make it contextually appropriate. True, to discover is not to invent; it is to literally come into consciousness of something that is already there. But using the word does beg this question: To whom exactly was the newly “discovered” thing previously “covered”? Because if the answer isn’t “everyone,” we ought to think twice about centering the people it was previously covered to—as though the history of a place only began when They arrived. And so, we are back to the essence of this post’s first paragraph: when They came, were there or weren’t there already people here?

Touring an African city is great and all, but I would like to be presented information from the point of view of the not-colonizer, especially if the words are coming out of a native person’s mouth. Framework is important. Because, you see, whenever I hear “[European person/people] discovered…,” I translate it automatically to “[European person/people] saw a new opportunity to exploit/steal/colonize/manipulate…” Which is what I think tour guides should be saying. But I suppose the impartation of these words is usually a job guides are trying to get paid for, and employers might not think my proposed readjustment of the framework is very good for business.

This begs yet another question of centrality, given that African tourism is indeed a business. Which people are being centered as the users? Who exactly is the content (not the economic gains, although that too) of the tourism meant to serve? Because I suspect African tourism would look very different if it were being directed towards, for instance, other Africans. To an African, it is not necessary to explain what Africa is from scratch, babying your listeners; tourism might then be more like reading a paragraph aloud to someone than introducing them to an entirely new alphabet. So, I wondered, as I was listening to my RA speak, if or how his delivery might have changed if the tour group was made up of non-South African Africans, rather than majority-white Americans.

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Also in my first week here, I went on a deeply disappointing peninsula tour, during which I spent most of the time sitting in a bus and listening to a bona fide Englishman drone on and on about Cape Town’s history. Yes, you read right: an Englishman. At first, I thought he might be an Afrikaner/white South African—which would have come with its own set of problems too—but then I know what an English accent sounds like. My suspicions were confirmed when he began passing comments such as: “Back in my part of the world…” or “When I first came to South Africa…” Ah, I just want someone to tell me how (I’m lying, o, I don’t want to know) an Englishman ends up being hired as a tour guide for, of all places in the world, a South African city?

As if his existence and presence weren’t problematic enough, during the tour, he said several, several things that made me stop and go, “Ah.” Most of his monologues were facts about Cape Town’s natural environment, or about the colonizers’ activities within Cape Town’s natural environment. We’re back to the first paragraph of this post again. When They came, were there people here or nah?! On the few occasions that native Capetonians came up, his comments would either be inherently inappropriate, or delivered in ridiculously insensitive ways.

“There was a shipwreck here,” he would say. “All the British sailors survived, and all the slaves perished.” And then he would continue like what he said hadn’t meant a thing.

“The Hottentots used to inhabit this area,” he would say, and I would think Oh thank God, we’re about to learn something about actual Africans. Then he would continue, “Unfortunately, they were exterminated.” That one really hit me in the chest. Is extermination a world you use for rodents, or is it a word you truly believe is an appropriate way to refer to the genocides your race committed? Trying to regulate my blood pressure can be a struggle as uphill as climbing Devil’s Peak. (Which I haven’t done yet, by the way. Eventually, chale.)

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What, I think, bothers me the most about Cape Town tourism—and most attempts to sell or teach about Africa—is its willingness to center anything but Africans themselves. I know for a fact that there’s a lot to say about how Africans interacted with their own physical spaces, and that for no legitimate reason, these were things I was simply not being told. (The reason I know many things now is through the South African history class that I’m taking.) Passing by or through a Cape Town brewery, for instance, I expect to be told—in addition to how essential beer is to the Capetonian industry or whatever—about how local beer brewing culture was pioneered by African women in some of the tensest political periods of the nation. But, like, nah. My “tourism” of Cape Town hasn’t meant finding out about South African people, it’s meant going up Table Mountain, or learning about all the great Safari trips I could take—you know, if I actually had sika. I imagine, if I were someone other than myself, I might have been very comfortable with having spent a week in “Africa” and, upon going home, knowing that all I have to show for it are selfies of me with a baboon, me in a cable car, and my new knowledge of what a freakin’ dassie is.

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The concept of tourism is itself very strange to me, primarily because it’s a business. African tourism makes me uncomfortable because it truly feels, sometimes, like voyeurism; European tourism makes me uncomfortable because it feels like paying colonizers money to be presented with the results of their massive exploitation of other people, which are being passed off as legitimate European accomplishments; American tourism makes me uncomfortable just because of globalization/Amercanization, and sheer capitalism. I’ve never experienced Asian tourism, but I know that at this point, I just sound like a dissenter who’s entirely unsatisfied with anything she comes across in life. So that’s great.

More journal entries forthcoming!

-Akotowaa

Akotz’ Volta Trip Jan ’18 (Part 3 of 4: Tafi Atome, Sacred Ewe Monkeys, & Our Government’s Apparent Indifference)

[Links to Part 1 and Part 2, even though you don’t have to have read them before this.]

After Agortime-Kpetoe, we made our way to Tafi Atome to frolic with some protected monkeys.

It doesn’t appear to be common knowledge, but there is a Monkey Sanctuary in Tafi Atome. Seven different monkey clans live and move around in this protected, U-shaped forest, which curves around the human-inhabited village.

Before coming to the monkeys themselves, there was one intriguing stop we made during our trek deeper into the forest. We came upon a two-in-one tree. I’ve forgotten what type of tree the legit tree was, because it wasn’t my point of interest. I was more concerned with the tree covering it.
 

This was my first time seeing a Ficus aurea tree. It’s a kind of life-sucking, parasitical plant that grows around another tree. The Ficus itself is incapable of self-sustenance, so it only grows and survives by feeding on a different tree’s life force: the one it’s wrapped around. But the Ficus, in doing this, kills the original tree, and when that’s dead, since the Ficus has no more life to suck, it dies too. Isn’t this a morbid story? The teenage tour guide told us it was a metaphor for life, about how you can help your neighbor to survive and that same neighbor can eventually turn around and hurt, betray or kill you. It’s supposed to be one of those proverbial, philosophical distins the elders tell you about life, validated through nature.

I love forests, but two things get in my way of enjoying them. One is the fact that I wear glasses. The other is that I am deathly afraid of snakes. So it really doesn’t help when you’re walking through a thick forest, and the people in front of you start screaming, and then you’re hearing rustling sounds in the leaves and trees but can’t see where they’re coming from and you suddenly start remembering all the stories your grandfather told you about his primary school struggles, walking miles and miles barefoot and always having to be on guard since the most common afflictions in his community were snakebites on the heel and… I’m sure you get the picture.

We eventually got to a clan of monkeys, and the tour guide finally put my mind at ease by informing our party of how the snakes in the forest never bothered anyone when the monkeys were present. (Now I know that if I ever decide to live in the Volta Region, best believe I’mma have a couple pet monkeys with me.)

The monkey specie is known as Mona. Apparently, it’s the only specie in the Tafi Atome forest.

The little rascals were playful and greedy. Our tour guide showed us the proper way to feed them bananas and make the feeding game drag out for as long as possible. You peeled a tiny fraction off the top of the banana, then squatted and held it out firmly. The monkeys would cautiously come over, break off the exposed piece of banana, then run away to eat it. They were strong, with firm grips, so you slack noor, they’ve snatched the entire banana from you and run beyond reach, leaving you befuddled.

I don’t quite know how to describe the sounds the monkeys made. The most accurate I can get is calling it a three-way intersection between a human clearing their throat, a high-pitched cat mewl, and the caw of a crow. I do know, however, that when I heard a louder, deeper version of the same sound, I actually got scared. It turned out that it was being made by the Alpha Male, who had come out to join the fun. The Alpha Male was the only male in the clan – and I learnt this was the same in all the other clans – and it was much larger and more serious than all the other monkeys.

The Alpha Male’s dominance and aggression was fascinating to me; whenever he was eating, he wouldn’t allow any of the females to eat, until he was done. Nevertheless, some of the females just didn’t respect, and tried to grab some bananas from us anyway.  The pissed Alpha Male with the bruised ego always fought them until they gave it up.

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Here’s a peculiarity about the Tafi Atome monkey: Nobody has ever found a dead monkey’s carcass in the forest. The only time a dead monkey has been found in the history of the village (at least since the sanctuary’s inception) is once, when an Alpha Male was trying to cross the street and a car hit and killed it. Aside that, nada. This, apparently, is not a normal monkey thing. In other sanctuaries in other parts of the country, the human employees and caretakers construct special cemeteries in which to bury dead monkeys. I’m sure Tafi Atome could have had one if they needed to, but it seems they don’t. Either the monkeys are immortal gods (which is a strange conclusion, since several of the females were pregnant and reproducing, yet the forest was never over-populated), or they have secret burial rituals that they understandably never want humans to be privy to. Super cool!

Our tour guide told us that presently, about 95% (or did he say 98%?) of the Tafi Atome population was made up of “Christians”, and that the remaining 5% (or 2%) were still “traditionalists”. Although I don’t know who exactly these traditionalists are, I imagine them to be old folks who are going to die soon. This makes me sad, particularly because in the Ewe context, one of the main reasons these monkeys are being protected is that they are considered to be messengers of the gods. It’s all connected to Tafian origin migration history, which, as is the case with much African history, is at least partly magical. The spiritual aspect is immensely important, especially considering why the sanctuary exists in the first place. Here’s the story, paraphrased from how our guide gave it to us:

When the European missionaries first came to Tafi Atome, they brought with them – as all the stories of “civilizing missions” seem to go – lots of violence. It seemed there was a rather specific violence directed towards the Mona monkeys. (I presume it was because the Europeans’ aim was to spread Christianity, and these sacred “messengers of the gods” were getting in their way because of how tied they were to local belief systems.) So, they apparently had to go. The monkeys were killed and their habitat was shrunk to accommodate for all the things the Europeans wanted to use the land to build. Understandably, this caused an ultimate monkey-human rivalry. In a community where, apparently, the humans and the monkeys used to live in perfect harmony – aside from the occasional theft from humans’ farms, which still happens – now the monkeys grew fearful and hateful of the humans and began reciprocating the violence. So, that’s the part about the role European missionaries played, which is my least favorite part of the story.

Next comes my second least-favorite part: the Americans. It appears, somewhere very late in the twentieth century, maybe eighties or nineties (my memory is shot, and I don’t seem to have enough sense to write important details down as soon as I hear them), some Americans from Peace Corps showed up in Eweland, and they were environmentalists, conservationists, all the -ists, and they were completely appalled by what was happening to the forest and the monkeys. It was these American activists that put a restriction on the Christian monkey massacre and established the sanctuary and made the protective laws currently being enforced. And get this: to this day, the government still has no part in the maintenance and governance of the sanctuary. Annually, some more Americans come to Tafi Atome to do maintenance and administrative stuff. For some unknown reason, however, none of them showed up in 2017.

Related: Things as simple as the provision of benches in the forest for tourists to just take a break from standing and trekking, are all left up to the Americans as well. The benches closest to us, when we got the farthest we would go, were ridden with termites, and my octogenarian grandfather could not sit down. Best believe he wasn’t one to blow off a chance to vocally highlight this problem. Granted, our teenage guide was not to blame for the termites. In fact, on his part, he was even trying. It turns out that the appointed Face of Tourism for the Volta Region had no clue the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary existed, and our guide himself had to call her up and inform her. The government has apparently been actively ignoring the sanctuary’s existence, and refusing to claim any worthwhile responsibility – monetarily, legislatively, everything-ly – and thus contributing to the sanctuary’s continued dependency on abrokyirefoɔ. Headache.

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-Akotowaa