Basket case got the goat

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
It is remarkable what you can learn when you have to. An old friend who served in the Parachute Field Ambulance during the Second World War was taught emergency surgery, including amputation, in six weeks. Compared with that, pretty much anything else is child's play.

I had just come back to Geneva from Somalia. I did not want to go anywhere but home. But I was bullied, cajoled and bribed into setting off immediately for Ghana in its bad old days.

"We want to know whether rattan in Ghana is suitable for making baskets and whether an export industry could be set up like Botswanabasket."

"But I last made a basket - badly - when I was seven and I haven't the faintest idea even what rattan looks like."

Useless protest. Back on Swissair, this time to Accra.

No one seemed to know I was coming - usual for the UN. I met up with the couple of guys I was to work with and changed $100 on the black market; about enough at 16 times the official rate to keep us all going for a month.

I was once invited to lunch by the High Commissioner, picked up in the official dark-blue Daimler with white covers on the seats and taken to the palatial residence. We dined on deep-fried Spam. (He was one of the few people who had to use the official currency exchange and was living in genteel penury.) Off to the dried plant collection at the university. Imagine the most vicious bramble that ever snared your sleeve, multiply a hundredfold for extra, bigger thorns, make it 100 metres long twining through the forest canopy, and there you have rattan. In Malaysia, they tame it by training it among the neat rows of plantation rubber trees. Grown wild, it would be the very devil to harvest.

Nothing daunted, I set out to discover whether anyone in Ghana knew how to design and make a basket as beautifully as the Botswanans or as cheaply as the Chinese. That is when somebody mentioned Navrongo. I was not sure why.

Navrongo is in the far north, on the edge of the Sahara.

The forest where rattan might grow is between there and the coast, in the Asante country. I got the impression that they might know a thing or two about baskets in Navrongo and, anyway, we would pass through the forest on the way and might be able to see some rattan in its natural habitat.

It took four days to find and do a deal on some of the most raddled old all-terrain tyres you have ever seen, for the equally ancient Land Rover.

They were perished. No sidewall without an ominous bulge or two. But they still had some tread. Food was a problem too. Eventually we lived on bread and avocados for the trip, stomach-churningly bland after the first week.

By and by we got to Navrongo, the last 50 miles hampered somewhat by a broken track rod. It is remarkable how well a Land Rover keeps doing its job with the front wheels held vaguely parallel with a piece of rope.

What Navrongo does have is mud enclosures, beautifully decorated - the possible design for baskets, even though there was not a basket to be seen.

What Navrongo also had were goats. And they were the reason we were really here. My friend John had a complicated family life. Its various elements needed goats to keep the human kids from a diet of bread and avocado. So two wretched goats were hobbled and loaded into the back of the Land Rover with the last of the spare tyres.

"John, you conned me," I said.

Big smile. A few hundred miles, often of dirt road, to travel in the close company of a couple of justifiably miserable goats.

The last tyre blew out in the middle of nowhere one dark, hot night.

Somewhere among the huts a Bob Marley record, "No Woman, No Cry", was playing.

Godfrey the driver was left with the Land Rover. John, David, me and the goats caught the bus. The bus was the usual for country Africa, a truck with wooden benches across the back, and a canvas cover to keep the rainstorms noisily at bay. We got to Accra the following afternoon, delivered the goats to our relief and their doom, and found that if you took a jam jar or a tin can to the brewery, you could buy some beer.

We never did make the basket idea fly, but I did take a previously unknown variety of rattan back to the university. I guess it's in the hortus seccus today, with my name on it.

I also learned more than I cared to about goats. Land Rovers have continued to haunt me and there are now four in the family: "Chelsea tractors" indeed.

That is the thing about learning. You never know where it will take you. My old friend never took a leg off, but he did discover that jumping out of perfectly serviceable aeroplanes was stupid.

David Sherlock is chief inspector at the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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