MICHAEL COOKE for Chicago Sun-Times Great things are happening in Ghana. It's a stunning African success story. Bono went and so should you.''
That's what the lady from the World Bank headquarters in Washington said when she telephoned.
At that very moment, in a magical coincidence, I was reading Mary Kingsley's account, published in the 1890s, of her travels in West Africa.
''When you have made up your mind to go to West Africa,'' Mary wrote, ''the very best thing you can do . . . is go to Scotland instead.''
Seen Braveheart country already. I bought a pair of those sexy wrap-around blue sunglasses -- just like Bono's -- and packed a bag for Ghana, a country whose 18 million people speak about 90 languages.
I'm on the streets of Accra, the capital.
But I can't understand why folks are smiling so much.
Ghanaians die about 25 years too early.
Most live on a dollar a day.
Some boys are sold as slaves for the price of a Chicago theater ticket. They're taken north.
''The cost is dependent on the age, build, looks and what have you.
''Certainly, you pay more for a fat, healthy cow! The same principle applies here,'' the Accra Daily Graphic reports.
It can be tough for the girls, too. Up in the north, they are still very handy with the clitoridectomy knife.
In Ghana they say computers and ''communications'' are a way out of poverty.
I'm treading along a crowded street with an open sewer. Smiling at little girls whose faces are etched with tribal scars.
And there's yet another gleaming Internet cafe. There are about 400 of them in Accra.
The biggest is BusyInternet, open 24/7. Sitting in front of 100 terminals are Ghanaians e-mailing their boyfriends and girlfriends in Chicago, New York, London and Frankfurt. When Ghanaians get out of Ghana, that's where they go.
''Actually, some of them are committing fraud,'' says owner Mark Davies. ''Bank and credit card fraud.''
''E-mailing people around the world asking for money in a scheme that will make you millions, guaranteed.
''We keep a very close eye.''
Accra has embraced ''communications'' and has several Internet-based telemarketing and customer-service companies providing a new kind of employment.
You can't program your new VCR, so you call the manufacturer's support line for help.
''How can I help you, sir?'' asks the voice on the other end.
You don't know it but he's in Bangalore, 8,500 miles and several cultures away.
Ghanaians practice their American accents so they can call and sell you a magazine subscription as you're digging into your spaghetti bolognese at dinner.
There's even a report of a physicians' answering service. You call your doctor in America and an operator in Accra promptly answers: ''Doctor's office . . . can you hold, please?''
Promising stuff, this high-tech business. But Africa is nothing if not a study in contrasts. Accra university computer students write out their computer programming with pen and paper because there aren't enough computers to go round.
People like Davies are spreading the communications buzz, and that's something the government is edgy about. People who can sign on to Yahoo or Google find out just how poor they really are.
My hotel has CNN, but I'm in a country that has witches.
I'm told there are four ''witch camps'' in Ghana containing thousands of women who have been condemned as evil.
Six hundred woman "witches" are confined in a little place called Gnani in the north.
If tomatoes wither, say, a farmer doesn't wonder about the acidity level of his land. He looks for someone to blame.
How to get tomatoes to grow red and firm? Lynch a witch.
Those who escape the rope get sent to the camps.
A government minister told me over a cup of tea and cookies: ''Don't think of the camps as camps, like concentrations camps. Think of them as hostels.''
Doesn't sound like any YMCA I've slept in.
They say that John Kufour won the 2001 presidential election because of Ghana's 40 or so new FM radio stations.
Newspaper reports say the beaten president, killer and thief Jerry Rawlings, goofed when he gave up his government's monopoly on FM radio.
Flight-Lt. Rawlings ran the country for 21 years and once forced his enemies to eat wet cement. He executed many people for corruption, giving elevated meaning to the word irony. His supporters say he wasn't all bad.
But when Rawlings allowed an expansion of radio, Ghanaians were suddenly able to listen to news and views not under government control.
Rawlings' opponent Kufour won in the eight provinces that had new FM stations, Rawlings won the two provinces that did not. Kufour now wears the presidential sash.
That's ''communications'' for you.
Africa. It makes you cry. Sometimes it makes you laugh, but not often.
BBC radio has the story of soccer stadium owners who tried to end corruption: Fans were bribing their way past turnstile operators to see the game without tickets.
Answer: Stadium management hired deaf people to take the ticket money, and fired the other guys. No more haggling about bribes. Cash receipts have soared.
When Big Jake heard the Sun-Times was in town he phoned to offer to show us around. Later, he took me to the Door of No Return. Two hundred years ago, if you were African, it was the last stop on the dreadful journey from Africa to be a slave in the New World.
Jake is Ghana's minister of tourism.
His dad was a big man, too. One of the country's Big Six, the men who headed the independence movement. Jake's dad's photo is on their money, the 10,000 cedi note. It's worth about $1.
Jake decided I had to see a slave castle, one of many dotting Ghana's coastline.
He phoned for seats on a military plane, taking two for himself.
''Only one rule when flying with me,'' he grinned, ''I get extra space.''
The Door of No Return leads out from Elmina castle, a holy place. A plaque reads:
''In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice.''
Jake wants to turn the coastal town of Elmina into a hot tourist destination and he's going to ask Oprah to help. He wants her to do her show in the castle courtyard. I never program the VCR for Oprah but I'd watch that show for sure.
''We want to develop a black hajj,'' he said.
''The hajj says Moslems must visit Mecca once in their lives. Well, we want African Americans to think of this as their Mecca and to make the pilgrimage to our slave castles.''
We came out of Elmina castle and I walked over to the beach.
About 500 gaily painted big canoes fish out of Elmina's small harbor. The traditional wooden boats are built on the beach.
It's fun to stroll around and watch.
That they saw and chisel and plane and hammer the boats the age-old way is neat. Jake's future American tourists will love it.
Trouble is, they do dentistry the age-old way, too.
With Jake interpreting, I chatted with the children. The language around Elmina is Fante. Kids didn't ask only for money. Amazingly, they wanted my e-mail address. They want to communicate.
Jake is candid about Elmina's filth.
It isn't Bermuda.
Cholera is lurking.
But Jake tells me to imagine Elmina as a first-class resort for Americans.
Good beaches, great location, friendly locals. Already a World Heritage Site because of the castle.
Jake has plans for telephones, hotels, drugstores, souvenir stands, bars, and clean water.
''We know where we are, and we know where we want to go,'' he says. ''We have the commitment and we'll get there, God willing.''
Later, we paid a courtesy call on the Chief of All the Fishermen, and Jake and the Chief did the West African handshake. You shake hands and on the exit press your index finger against the other guy's index finger to make a clicking sound, like a finger snap.
The Brits left Ghana in 1957. Ghanaians are just as poor today as they were under colonialism.
I am deeply pessimistic about Africa. All those maniac presidents and their stealing, and those bloody tribal wars.
But there's a but.
Ghana has a fledgling democracy. It's peaceful and beautiful. The literacy rate is growing. The AIDS problem is tiny compared with the rest of Africa. And there's an acceptance that unless they can attract foreign investment by being safe and stable, they are doomed.
Jake and his pals are trying hard.
Ghana has a shot.