TOM PALMER'S GHANA DIARY July 2009

Children's author, Tom Palmer, has been on a trip of a life time to Ghana researching for his new book, Off Side. Tom sent us a fantastic diary about his travels and the people he met in Accra, Kumasi and Akomadan cocoa farming village. Enjoy reading about his incredible adventure!


TOM'S DIARY

Friday 17 July, 4pm
I am above the Sahara Desert on my way to Ghana, travelling there to research a novel for children. Off Side will be about football, people trafficking and fair trade chocolate. The Sahara goes on for hours, even in a plane. Hours of sand and heat and nothingness.
In 1998 I walked through the Sahara. Some of it, anyway. I was doing a charity walk for Macmillan Cancer Support. Raising money for the charity that had helped look after my parents when they were dying. I met my wife on that walk. And my wife is behind me being out here again. On this plane.
To give you more detail about the book I’m writing... Off Side is about a Ghanaian boy who dreams of being a footballer at one of Europe’s top clubs. But he is cheated by an unscrupulous football agent and finds himself in England with no place at a football club and no way of getting home. But, because of my wife, the book is going to be about more than that.
We were sat in a cafe. The Bear, a fair trade cafe in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. My wife was reading the wrapper of a Divine bar that we were scoffing. ‘Your book is about the unfair trade in wannabe footballers,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you talk to Divine too? About fair trade chocolate? That would make the story even better.’ So she called Divine and they kindly invited me to go to see them.

Friday 17 July, 8pm
It is dark over the Sahara. In fact, we’re probably not over the Sahara anymore. The plane is bouncing about, so we could be over the cocoa farms. Only an hour from Accra, the capital of Ghana.
I went to meet Divine at their offices in London, accepting their kind invitation. A walk over Tower Bridge, under a bridge and up a narrow lane. Deepest London. And they were lovely. Charlotte, Sara and Tom. They also liked the idea of my novel. They knew I was interested in including fair trade in the story, so they offered to take me to some of the Kuapa Cocoa farms in Ghana. I couldn’t believe it. They were going to take me to meet cocoa farmers, to talk to their children in a school and to find out how Kuapa Cocoa works. First hand.
Kuapa Cocoa farmers own their company. It’s a cooperative. They get paid fair prices for their cocoa beans and for every tonne they harvest they get more money paid into their community to help them with their children’s schooling and many other things. That means when you buy a Divine bar – or a Dubble bar – you know that the money is going to the right people and that no one is being abused in the making of it. Some chocolate is farmed and dispatched by slaves who are treated abysmally. But not Divine or Dubble chocolate. They also gave me a stack of chocolate to take to Ghana.

Saturday 18 July, 4pm

I arrived in Accra late last night, checked in at a hotel and grabbed a few hours sleep. This morning I was taken to a boys’ football tournament in Accra. Teams of boys under twelve, under fourteen and under seventeen. I was with the coaches from the Right to Dream academy, run by Englishman, Tom Vernon.
It was fantastic. The games were played on the campus of Accra University, surrounded by eight foot high corn and trees, under a cloudy sky, vultures hanging overhead. The players were very good. In fact, the under sixteens had just won the African championship and will go on to represent their continent in a tournament in Manchester in August.
This is nothing to do with fair trade chocolate. Or is it?
Off Side is, as you know, partly about chocolate, partly about football. So the trip to see the cocoa farmers on Monday came to mind as I watched the football.
The players at Right to Dream are taken on and attend an academy in Ghana. They are coached in football, true. And some of their players have been invited to train with the likes of Man U. But the main purpose behind the academy seems to me to be their education. These boys are prepared for scholarships at universities in the US, UK and elsewhere. Many will go on to play professional football in Europe. But more go on for scholarships.
All the boys said, when I asked them what their dreams were, ‘I want to do the best I can.’ And they meant more than just football.
Some talented footballers in Ghana get taken on by unscrupulous agents and treated badly, sometimes cheated out of money and left alone in a foreign country. Right to Dream gives them the chance to take control of their dreams and to build a life that is not based on exploitation. Fair trade in football.

Saturday 18 July, 8pm
I have a suitcase full of Dubble bars and Dubble Speckled Eggs. Literally full. They are for the children on the cocoa farms. From Divine.
Most of the kids on the farms have not tasted the chocolate from the cocoa they farm. Divine gave me the chocolate to give to them.
In the UK Dubble bar eaters can become Dubble Agents. They sign up at www.dubble.co.uk and get a pack, which helps them know more about fair trade chocolate, and a sheet they can give to shop keepers who don’t stock fair trade chocolate, to help persuade them to offer that option. In fact, one of the characters in Off Side will be doing just that throughout the book.

Sunday 19 July, 7pm
I went to a live football game today. The decider for the Ghanaian Premier League. Hearts of Oak v Sporting Mirren. The stadium was good. For 40,000 or so. Very modern. And the fans were amazing. Packing into the stadium with flags, horns and drums. Running round the perimeter of the pitch.
One of my hosts filled me in on the game. It’s probably decided before kick off, he said. The Sporting Mirren players will have been bought off to lose, so Hearts can win the title. And the referee. And the linesmen. And, they added, it is possible another team had paid the Hearts players to lose the game. Who knows?
The match was poor. And there were a lot of off sides and free kicks that were dubious. But who knows? Hearts won 2-0 and were crowned champions. The fans filled the streets with flags flying from the back of motorbikes, fans hanging from the back of pick ups and jay walkers shaking hands with drivers.

Monday 20 July, 11am
Erica and Kwabena who work for Kuapa Kokoo picked me up at Kumasi airport at 10am. I’d flown up from Accra that morning, watching the light and red brown roads cutting through the dense deep green vegetation below. This was the highlight of my trip: the chance to meet children of cocoa farmers in a school and to see a cocoa farm itself.
We drove north out of Kumasi. The streets were lined with people selling things. Small shops that unfolded from crates at the side of the road or great yards filled with car parts. Women carrying large bowls of nuts and water sachets on their heads. Everyone was wearing bright colours. Many of them European football shirts. Barcelona. AC Milan. Bayern Munich. Real.
We drove for two hours through trees and shrubs and fields of corn, the road sometimes tarmac, other times just hard earth. The countryside was beautiful, the smell of burning fields occasionally wafting into the car.

Monday 20 July, 11am
I sat next to Raphael in the car. He was very kind to offer to carry my bag, then insist he have it on his knee during the long hot trip. Raphael has been to the UK to talk about Kuapa Kokoo and fair trade. He was there for a fortnight two years ago. I had been feeling increasingly struck by how Ghana is different to the UK, so I asked him what he thought about the UK.

People walk too fast, he said. In London. They are almost running. They never have time to talk to each other. But it is a beautiful country, he went on. He liked the houses and the Premier Inn hotels, where he stayed.
Off Side has a sixteen year Ghanaian old boy in it. It was wonderful to have the chance to talk to Raphael about what he thought of the UK. I am going to do some more work on my character because of what Raphael told me.

Monday 20 July, 1pm
I was introduced to the head of the school first.
‘Have you brought me any money?’ he asked.
I said not, but then gave him the chocolate and books for his school. The books had been donated by families at my daughter's school, The Gleddings. He seemed pleased.
Then we went to talk to the children. Sixty kids aged 9 to 14 crammed into a classroom. I could have done my usual talk about my books, but I wasn’t sure it would be right. So I gave a brief introduction to myself and asked if they had questions. No one did. But we stuck at it and eventually they started to ask me things.
What team do you support?
Leeds United, I said.
No one had heard of them.
Who is your favourite player?
I told them it is Tony Yeboah, the Ghanaian who played for Leeds.
They liked that. They all knew Yeboah.
What is your wife called?
How old is your daughter?
Why do you support Leeds?
And then, out of the blue, what is your greatest fear?
Flying, I said.
At the end we gave out the Dubble bars Divine had sent with me. The children liked them. A lot. Especially the Dubble Agents among them who have been talking to children in Wales via video link about being Dubble Agents.

Monday 20 July, 3pm

The last call of the day was a cocoa farm. We had to drive away from the village for this. First back down the road, then along a couple of miles of uneven track. The car came to a halt just before some burning fields. We walked alongside the field, the heat of flames inches away adding to the heat of the sun. Then we ducked under some trees to head into the bush. But they were not just any trees. They were cocoa trees. Some of the cocoa pods – that just grow out of the trunk and branches, shaped like small pointed rugby balls - were diseased, so the farmer lopped them off with one of two machetes he was carrying.
We reached the farm and saw the ripened beans drying on a huge grass table. Then the farmer found ripe pod and hacked it open. We ate the sweet beans raw. They were nice. But to become chocolate they have to be fermented in banana leaves and dried out.
The farm – of about 12 acres – produces up to 10 bags of beans a year. The farmers get about £200 for them, which is a good wage in Ghana. The best thing about the beans is that as well as the farmers’ money, each bag earns the community some more money. The school we had just visited had been paid for through that levy.

Monday 20 July, 8pm
I am in the Joyflux hotel, Kumasi. Just down the road from the Kumasi football stadium. I couldn’t resist heading over there to have a look. Very impressive.
But now I should sum up. What has this trip done for me?
It has helped me develop a major character for one of my books. It is vital to me that my books are as realistic as possible. I couldn’t write about a Ghanaian boy in Ghana without meeting some. Hopefully this will help. Also, I have met cocoa farmers and seen their farms. This will help me get the settings right for the books. But these past few days have mostly given me a better understanding of the cocoa farmers and their families. And for Kuapa Kokoo and Divine. I think it is so important that we support farmers like these.
I vow never to buy any chocolate that is not Fairtrade again. And I buy a lot of chocolate. At least 365 bars a year. Most of them in the Bear Cafe, Todmorden, where I shall be spending much of August, writing about Ghana and eating their chocolate.
dubble.co.uk