For expatriate academic staff arriving at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi in the early 1970s, the greatest recreational joy was undoubtedly the outdoor Olympic-size swimming pool. To plunge into its cool water after a hot and humid day at work seemed like a life-saving necessity. However, as time went by with its accompanying acclimatisation, thoughts turned to alternative ways of spending leisure hours. It was then that membership of the University Horse Society came under consideration as an invigorating way of leaving the campus and exploring the surrounding bush.
Like Accra, Kumasi had a fully functioning horse racing track that had its origins in colonial times. Apart from racing, and a polo club in Accra, horses were not much used in the south of Ghana. Horses and donkeys were still used by farmers in the north and it was traditional for northern village chiefs to be mounted on ceremonial occasions. The University Horse Society acquired its horses from Kumasi race track and recruited northern horsemen as stable staff.
The horse society thrived in the 1970s. However, as most of the members were expatriates its fortunes waned as the numbers of foreign professors and lecturers declined. Local people took little interest in the recreations of their former colonial masters, and by the early 1980s, neither the horse society nor the swimming pool was functioning. Many who were there a decade earlier took full advantage of both recreational facilities.
The university campus in Kumasi extends to about 18 square kilometres. Much of this land was cultivated by the Faculty of Agriculture and there were extensive plantations of cocoa, coffee and oil palm. The oil palm plantations were laid out in square blocks separated by long wide fire breaks. These flat tracks of mown grass provided excellent opportunities for the old race horses to stretch their legs again in a full gallop that provided the high point of an evening ride on a working day. On weekends, however, with more time available, more extensive rides off-campus became possible.
Foreigners who only travel by motor vehicle along the main roads of Ghana see only towns and villages that line the road side. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that there remain many villages that lie deep in the bush, reached only along footpaths. These settlements were seldom visited by foreigners but the residents were as welcoming as most other Ghanaians. To reach them on horseback after a long trek through the bush was to re-capture some of the excitement experienced by explorers in earlier centuries. Emerging from dense forest, riders often burst unexpectedly into village clearings and both children and adults flocked to see the horses and greet the riders.
Riding in the bush was not always easy but it was always rewarding. Hazards included fallen trees, swollen streams and snakes. Fallen trees varied widely in size: those too big to be stepped over or jumped forced turning back, unless they had lain long enough for a circumventing footpath to have developed. Similar distinctions applied to streams: many that could be waded in the dry season, in the rainy seasons became swollen floods that prevented further progress.
Fallen trees and swollen streams could be seen by riders but the snakes were usually seen, or sensed, only by the horses. Often when riding in the bush a horse would stop and no amount of urging would induce it to move on. All the rider could do was sit and wait, usually for several minutes. At length the horse would move on, presumably when it sensed the danger had moved away. Only occasionally would a rider actually see a snake and it may well have been that there were other perceived dangers that stopped the horses. Fear of snakes was certain however, because a horse encountering a rubber hose pipe lying in its path for the first time would react in the same way.
If there were natural hazards there were also delights. One day, riding across a clearing, riders noticed crows circling around and attacking a large fluffy owl chick that had evidently fallen onto the ground from its high nest in a tree. One rider dismounted and collected the young owl and another rider carried it safely back to the stables, taking care to avoid any contact with its already fearsome beak and claws. A few weeks later, after the owl had been reared to maturity by an amateur ornithologist, it was carried back into the bush and released.
Anyone visiting the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in the twenty first century will be relieved to find that the swimming pool has been restored to its former glory. It would be pleasing to hear that the Horse Society had also been revived and that intrepid academics were once more venturing deep into the bush.