The further we walked, the more shocked and scared I became. I had already been walking around Jamestown, having first visited the Fisherman's Village. The plan was to swing through this festival (AKA giant art sale) and visit the boxing gym to see and photograph the local kids being trained. But these security thugs were not interested. They walked away with my camera and someone said, “go with them”. I had no choice. They marched me to the quadrangle of some old building and they took my camera indoors and upstairs while I was told to wait outside in a quadrangle, surrounded by a crowd of about 20 beefy men with bulging muscles and tight shirts and scowling faces. These were thugs, not security people, despite what it said on some of the tee-shirts. My guide was also clearly disturbed by this and started calling his boss to come and help, and the other guide duly turned up. Lots of shouting in local language. I was nervous and feeling extremely vulnerable. Even the guides were ineffectual at getting my camera back or calming the thugs.
After ten minutes, the first man, tall and threatening with his moustache and posturing body language, came back out and barked questions at me but did not let me answer. He said I must go with him to pay this money and get a permit. After several attempts at asking him to just listen quietly, I managed to tell him who I was, that I was not a commercial photographer, and that I was not interested in permits or commercial arrangements. I just wanted my camera back and to leave, as I was running short of time by now. I was on a three-hour window to explore this area and I didn't want to spend any more time in Chale Wote Festival. I told him my name and workplace and showed him my business card. He made a token attempt to look up my name on the internet but just shouted the strange response, "your name is not in the database, I don't trust you, you are collecting data and you cannot have data for free, you need to pay". He then walked across to a quieter part of the quadrangle and told me to go with him away from the thugs. he looked me in the eye and quietly asked, "OK, do you work for MI5?", "no sir", I answered politely. "Do you work for MI6?", "No, sir", I answered politely. A short pause then he said, "OK, I don’t believe you. You are being tricky, you are a spy". What demented fantasist! Clearly, whatever I had to say was of no interest or significance. The man was a delusional mobster and imagined that he was a really important part of the festival, because he could command some thugs to be violent. So I was as meek and calm as I could be.
I was then marched over to another place. On the way, we walked passed the graffiti that I had photographed in the first moments of this terrible experience. Two small boys, about 11-12 years old attracted my attention. One took my hand momentarily while we walked and said quietly and calmly, “don’t worry, you will get your camera back”. He smiled while he said it and for some reason, this was remarkably reassuring. His friend on the sidewalk pointed at the people with my camera, then at himself that and me and mimed, “you will get it back”. My emotional reaction in this turmoil turned to amusement as I digested the irony of what the boys was indicating – that if they thugs did not give it to me, the boys would just steal it and bring it to me! Amazing. I would have happily paid them if it came to that. (Afterwards, I discovered that they had already ascertained which taxi was waiting for me, so they would know where I was later, if it came to that. Fighting fire with fire, I thought.)
In this next location, other people shouted at each other for a while, the original thugs having disappeared, apart from the one carrying my camera, although he had no security tee-shirt or anything that would identify him. I started to imagine that he was holding the camera until someone gave him some money. We then went to yet another place, something like a car park with gazebos and a place where permits on lanyards were being sold to people filling in forms and parting with cash. Various unknown and unidentifiable people yelled at each other and argued. My senior guide was getting so angry at these idiots he was shouting and waving his arms and it all seemed as though things might get violent, after all. And then finally someone calm faced me and said, "OK, you can have you camera back if you may GH$250 for a two-day permit but you must ask your man to stop shouting so aggressively". I said that he was not “my man” and I did not want a permit; I did not want to take any photos; my time at this venue was finished. I just wanted to leave.
I had been held detained for nearly an hour by now and was getting very thirsty in the hot sun and was sick with worry. Three Police stood nearby looking completely disinterested, as if this was normal life. I tried to stand near them and to get their attention, but they were totally oblivious and uninterested. I supposed that they needed cash to intervene and only worked for the biggest payer. I could not compete. Finally, a big man about 6 feet 6 inches tall joined in. He would not speak to me or make eye contact. When I tried to explain myself to him he just said, "I want to know what these guys are telling me". He did not want to know what I had to say. Then another man joined in and he would not let me speak until he heard what the shouty people had to say. Finally, he looked at me and said calmly that they had a big festival, that he was the representative of the mayor and some other authority, that they were providing blanket coverage of the whole event to ensure that nothing untoward happened, that they were conscious of the need to control and manage what was going on and that I would get my camera back. He asked me for my account of the situation and I explained that I was a professor here for a conference that was over and had just taken a short walking tour of Jamestown with a guide in order to take some photos and see local life. I was not really interested in Chale Wote. It was just something we came across. “There has been a misunderstanding”, he said. “Fine”, said I, “can I please have my camera back now as I need to leave”. “You will get your camera back”, he said, and then took me with an entourage of more shouty people, including the youth who would not give up the camera, to another place with big steel doors and a little step-through gate, into yet another courtyard. Here, there were some artists demonstrating their art of making something to an audience. For some reason, we had to stand here to argue some more with the same people. It was getting surreal. I tried to ask this senior man, if I was going to get my camera back, could we stop arguing about it and just give it back to me so that I could be on my way. But, apparently, he still had to argue with a few more thugs first.
Finally, in this performance space, the youth relinquished the camera, and I was allowed to put it back in the case. I left with my guide because the car I had booked for the morning was waiting for me, and there was now only sufficient time to back to the hotel before the agreed time elapsed. I was called back, of course, as these people, whoever they were had not finished. Now, the issue was that they did not want me to leave feeling victimised, bullied and upset. The mayor's rep wanted to apologise and wanted me to accept that it was just a little misunderstanding. Despite my inner anger and extreme anxiety about spending another moment in this terrible place, I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and quietly, calmly thanked him for his apology and told him I accepted it. Then I walked away at a brisk pace without looking back, as they continued to shout their vain attempts to persuade me that this was just a little misunderstanding. Finally, back at the car the guides wanted money even though they had failed to provide the protection that they had promised and they would not let the car go until I handed over something. They said they had helped me because they had got my camera back. I said, no, you made it worse by shouting and jumping around as if you were going to beat someone up. I had got the camera back myself from the mayor’s representative by talking quietly and calmly. But they insisted that I had to donate something to the free school they ran for the fishing village kids, so I had to give them some money in order to leave. By now, I just needed to get out of there as quickly as possible without looking back.
After struggling through road blocks and police and security people shouting that we were not permitted to drive out, as we should never have driven in, we finally escaped. What a bloody shambles. As you might imagine, my recommendation is steer clear of this place unless you leave your camera at home. Even then, steer clear of Chale Wote Festival. It is an awful, nasty and brutish place where gangs are operating under cover of some kind of faked authority. If you must go, stay in a large group with some strong, local, official guides with you at all times. And don’t take a camera.