On arrival in Accra airport, I join a queue at the office marked “Visa on Arrival”. This is for people like me whose arrival is authorized, but we do not quite have a visa. There’s quite a few of us, but there’s 4 or 5 people behind the counter, and we’re all authorized to enter, and I think, well, this won’t take very long. Oh how wrong I was.
I don’t know what they do with the papers, but it involves looking at them, at a computer screen, and at each other. Then one person writes something down and hands it to another, who enters it in a computer. They print another piece of paper which is handed on, then there’s a glacially slow rubber-stamping of the passport. There are long delays at each stage. Papers and passport are now put in a pile to be further organized. Then there’s a quick game of tennis and a two-hour lunch break, and four verses of the Hokey-Cokey with all the actions (that is, after all, what it’s all about), before the papers are finally handed to you so you can go give them to someone else who may deign to let your whole self in.
All right, I did make up some of that. But not much. It does take an awful long time, especially if you are (and indeed I was) the last one they process.
Ghanaians - I suggest cutting it down to three verses, and seeing if there’s any other ways to speed up the process. This is the first impression you get of the country, and it could be more welcoming.
On the other hand, I went to huge efforts to get a duplicate of the Yellow Fever vaccination certificate which went missing sometime in the confusion of the last few addresses. I was told there’s no way to get in without one. But nobody asked for it. Maybe I got a pass because of the graceful way I put the left leg in and out.
Eventually I manage to leave the airport. There waits Liz Jones, wife and beloved companion of many years, a wonderful sight. Also a driver, and soon we’re on our way to the apartment. It’s a bit dark for a vivid first impression of Accra, but I make out huge numbers of small, fragile-looking shacks put together from lumber, corrugated iron, and other stuff that looks like “found materials” on either side of the road. They’re commercial enterprises – vast numbers of hairdressers and beauty salons, each big enough to hold no more than two clients at a time, and only if they know each other well. Barbers, too. Little sell-everything places, lottery ticket booths, street food, and much more. Many are closed, it’s getting late. There are car showrooms by the dozen, and lots of ads for mobile phones and financial things you can do on them. Almost all the writing is in English, but not all.
Everywhere there are unfinished buildings, and piles of builders’ rubble.
Turning off the main road as we near the apartment where Liz has stayed for some while, we’re soon on an unmade surface. I’m interested to note that the one thing they have managed to do on these unmade, uneven, hazardous tracks where a speed of more than about 6 miles per hour would be suicidal is… add speed bumps.
We get to the apartment, and I look around. It’s a fine, big place, very new and quite modern. There’s a security gate, though it’s not locked. The gate man apparently lives in the gate house, which is extremely small.
There are a couple of anomalies in the apartment, some finishing touches appear to have been badly planned. In the kitchen there’s a lovely plaster ceiling rose, much like one we had in Southampton in a house from the early 1900’s. But the rose is installed first: then wiring for lighting and fan are added, so there’s a large gash though the rose, spoiling the effect. Luxuriously for Accra, there are two shower rooms. Unfortunately, in one, the drainhole is on the uphill side of the flooring…
These are minor faults - it’s a fine apartment. Liz’s main complaint is the lack of hot water. It’s not that it doesn’t work, the whole complex has been built without a hot water facility. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing, it’s always hot and the shower is refreshing – and since the water tanks are outside and exposed, the “cold” water is warmer than many a “hot” showers at some public swimming pools.
Liz introduces me to the delights of Ghanaian TV. We turn it off quite quickly. We chat over a glass of wine, planning the next day, until it’s time to sleep.
It’s Sunday, and I’ve travelled from California via London, so I rise late. Liz, who has relied on her own cooking for several months, poor lamb, made sure there’s stuff ready for me to make breakfast. Among other pleasant surprises, local bacon is a lot more like the British bacon I love than the fatty pork-belly which is US style. Not surprising - Ghana was a British colony until peoples around the world decided to take charge of their own fates and manage their own resources.
Later I discover two more heart-warmingly Brit food items in the supermarket: Pickled Onions (possibly the thing I miss most in the US); and authentic Hot Cross Buns.
Ghana, and Accra especially, is overwhelmingly Christian, not just in numbers but in sincerity. Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and even the poorest locals dress up for the occasion. Church is the center of the social life of most locals.
The driver (a different guy this time) comes (after church) about 1.30 to take us out for the day. Driving through town to our chosen lunch spot, I see it by daylight. Liz has been here for months, and points things out, but wherever you look it’s obvious you’re not in Kansas anymore. (Not that I want to be in Kansas – mile after mile of nothing between here and the horizon…)
The streets near the apartment are gravel, if you want to be kind. Dirt tracks if you don’t. There’s an amazing range of places, from beautiful, finished houses with lovely tiled walls to families living in windowless, door-less half-finished shells where the breeze blocks (cinder blocks to US types) are not even painted.
Half-completed building projects of all kinds abound, some because they are still being worked on, some because the owners just ran out of cash before the project was finished. Few people are out and about here. Free-roaming goats and chickens are everywhere. There’s not many of the ubiquitous commercial huts, just a few.
Once the houses and apartments are completed and the roads finished, if they ever are (and the rubble and rubbish cleared) I think this will be quite a posh area.
A couple of blocks away are some shops in actual buildings too. Small ones – a pharmacy, a dress shop, etc. I wonder where the custom comes from? There’s few pedestrians here and fewer cars. Everywhere is dusty, dusty, and builders’ rubbish is strewn everywhere – and plenty of, well, just rubbish. This is odd, because the locals appear to be very house-proud – their own property is clean and well-kept, but immediately beyond the bit that’s yours, it seems perfectly fine to just dump stuff.
Here, we are most certainly not in Tourist Central or ex-pat-urbia. So far, once we left the airport, I have seen a few people from the middle east and the Indian subcontinent, but overwhelmingly Africans. My eye is not sharp enough to distinguish one tribe from another, though it probably is obvious to themselves.
As we come back onto the main street, everywhere is suddenly way more crowded. The little shop-huts are everywhere and the streets are noticeably cleaner. Some of the huts turn out to be churches, but not as many as I think at first, because “Jesus Saves” is as likely to be the name of a place selling the stodgy local dough balls as it is to be a church. One place called “Redemption through Suffering” turns out to be a food stall. I think I’ll give that one a miss. And it seems to me the "God willing" laundry might rely just a little more on soap and water than the almighty. It seems to work for me and MY washing machine...
There are familiar-looking shopping malls too, along with the ubiquitous beauty parlours, phone shops, churches, water sellers, bars, takeaways, and so forth. Along the main road there are some European style hotels, offices and shops that could be from any European or US town. There’s even a KFC and a Pizza Hut.
People are everywhere, chatting, walking, laughing, dancing, peeing, eating, selling. More churches, chapels, temples, tabernacles, and any other name you can imagine for a place of worship than you can shake a stick at. I know, I’ve already worn out two sticks, and my stick-waving arm is tired.
We head for the coast, a mile or so away, to our chosen lunch spot. The litter around the residential area becomes worse as we move away from the dwellings. Here, people are going somewhere, not living here. By “not my doorstep” logic it’s even more permissible to just drop any sort of litter you want to. Stream beds are choked with boxes and plastic bags.
We arrive at “Next Door”, right on the beach. I see nothing to be Next Door to, so I guess it’s simply Next Door to the beach. For the first time since the airport, we see a few white people, prosperous ones. The view is gorgeous, palm trees, a rocky shore, breaking waves, one fishing boat some way out.
A sign says “warning! Stop dumping your rubbish and defecating here!” At the time I find this amusing, but Liz tells me taking a dump of both sorts in inappropriate places is a big problem – around half of the dwellings have no sanitation, so what are they supposed to do? You have to go somewhere. This is something else the new government have promised to tackle.
The food is good, though Liz knowingly says “Don’t look at the menu – they won’t have most of it. We’ll ask what they actually have today.” She’s absolutely right. I get fried goat (I love goat, those little chaps wandering around by the apartment make my mouth water) and Liz has tilapia. This is the first time I’ve seen tilapia as a whole fish rather than as a fillet. I try my first local beer, a lager style called “Star”. It’s passable, though not spectacular.
From here we ask to go look at the lagoon, which I believe is some sort of wildlife sanctuary. It’s not too interesting, just a small wetland beside the highway and the waters leading into it are again badly littered.
Why there’s so many plastic carrier bags around is a mystery – most things are carried on the head, no matter how heavy, unbalanced or awkwardly-shaped. I’ve seen people carrying the most enormous loads. They must have a better sense of balance than me. And a sturdier back – just giving shoulder rides to an 18-month-old was an effort for me – or maybe I’m just getting old.
The most interesting thing on someone’s head was two big cardboard trays of eggs, one balanced on the other and carried hands-free as the lady navigated her way through crowds, turning to greet people and swerving to avoid collisions. An amazing feat – I’m not sure I could even stack the two trays without breaking some of them.
We move on to the fishing harbor. Again we are the only non-locals. The hand-built fishing boats all sport flags of different nations. It’s not that they are from there, these are the football (soccer) teams they support. (We see boats under construction: the base is carved from a single tree, then the sides constructed. We also see some that are past their sell-by date. These are broken up for use in the fish-smoking exercise)
Football is huge here. Later in the supermarket I see a section marked “Manchester Goods”. What the hell are they, I wonder? It turns out to be Man United paraphernalia.
Fish is drying and being smoked on the beach, and people are again laughing, dancing (even the boys playing kick-about are dancing when they don’t have the ball), smiling, selling each other things. Chickens and goats wander freely. It is smelly, chaotic, exhilarating, noisy, unhygienic, different to anything I’ve seen before. I don’t feel tempted to buy any food, though some of it looks tasty. I’m just not sure of the provenance of the provender. Or as Mum used to say, "Don't eat that, you don't know where it's been". If you were buying fresh fish though, you couldn't get it fresher than straight off the boats.
Time to go home. We stop at the supermarket on the way, which is much like a supermarket anywhere, apart from a few small differences, some of which I’ve mentioned. I won’t bore you with that bit.
Last stop on the way home is the coffin-makers. That may sound like an odd tourist destination, but I’d wanted to see this since I first looked up “Accra” on the internet. The coffins are individually made, and customized to the, um, passenger. A fisherman might be buried in a giant tuna or hammerhead shark. A newspaperman in in a special edition of their newspaper. A bus driver in a bus. I think that Ghana Airways might be a bit worried about the airplane one… Nobody wants to imagine they’re in a flying coffin…
The owner shows us a book of photos much like a baker might show you when you want to order a special birthday cake. I think my favourite is the giant chili someone went to meet their maker in. He offers to let us choose one for ourselves in advance, but we decline – tempting though the offer is.
Back at the apartment I try to find something watchable on the TV. One channel has a dubbed movie on, with various people engaged in unconvincing martial arts. I usually watch with subtitles because I don't hear all that well, but I can't get them, and can't even try to lipread a dubbed movie, we give up on that one. It was crap anyway.
There are many other channels, but they appear to be divided into: British Football, which I have no interest in (yes, I know I’m British, bite me), other sports (like American Wrestling, which interests me less than 22 men kicking a bag of wind about), and evangelical channels. There are a lot of those, all looking exactly the same, enthusiastic haranguing of enthusiastic worshippers, though some have panel discussions about the recent preachings, just as sports channels have panels about the match just ended.I wonder if they have Fantasy Gospel Leagues?
I wake as soon as it begins to get light, my internal clock still confused.
Here, so close to the equator, the length of the day varies little from season to season. How different this is to the Iceland trip a couple of years ago, just after midsummer, where I sat outdoors at midnight reading by sunlight. One things I still notice back in California (and New Jersey before that) is that winter days never get so miserably short as they did back in the UK.
It’s Monday, and I know Liz has to get to work today, and leave early, so eventually I become that annoying person that asks you if you have to get up yet, five damn minutes before you actually do. I get up and make tea to apologize.
I see little of Accra today, spending most of the day catching up on various computer things, attempting projects I promised myself I’d have a go at while here, but much can’t be accessed from outside the USA. I do manage to delete several hundred emails and unsubscribe from NYC theatre stuff which is no longer relevant.
I read the local papers and slowly get insights into the local scene – it is made difficult by all the confusing quadruple-barrelled local names. I decide to take a stroll, but am defeated by the front gate. Sephus the gatekeeper is off somewhere doing one of his other chores, and it looks like I need another key to exit. Later I learn that that lock isn’t used, and all I had to do was to draw back the bolt.
Liz returns from work to be greeted for the first time ever in the apartment by the smell of cooking. She is very pleased, and I’ve made enough of the curried meat and Bombay Aloo to freeze a third portion so that she can eat more than grilled chicken at least once after I leave.
We update each other with various pieces of news in the evening, and break out the Jekyll and Hyde Murder Rummy game.
Days four to six
I’m going to lump these together because, although each day tasted different to me, the pattern was essentially the same and it doesn’t matter to you what order things happened in or which day I discovered what.
Each day I awoke a little earlier than I wanted to, which meant I could make tea (and hot-cross bun!) for the worker and then see her off. After that, maybe a brief sneak back to bed then some computer stuff and some writing I’ve been meaning to get around to (house moves etc. got in the way of this recently). Then out into the city just nosing about without any great plan except to become more familiar with it, and then back to welcome Liz with that rarity, home-made food.
One day I visit her in her office, several stories up. From that vantage point I appreciate for the first time how flat the city of Accra is. At ground level you only notice that the bit near you is flat, the view is broken up by people, buildings (finished or not) and an occasional tree. Flooding here could be disastrous (and was so last year) – there’s nowhere for the water to go to, and the deep drains bordering most of the roads would soon clog up especially where there is a lot of rubbish.
My initial forays are timid, given that many streets have no street signs (cue U2 song?) and I can’t afford to get lost. Asking for directions to “the apartments where Sephus is the gatekeeper, you know, where the goat and chickens are, and one of the houses has a flag outside?” would be unlikely to produce good results. But after a while I begin to know where I am and get bolder.
The day I visit the office, a driver picks me up to take me there. I’d walked right by it about 90 minutes earlier and could simply have asked to be let in, but believe me a long walk in Accra’s temperature had left me looking like an entrant in a wet t-shirt competition (I wouldn’t have won) and I had to go and change.
The weather has been uniformly HOT and dusty, but mostly the sky has been overcast – a blue sky, or even a bit of blue in the sky, is rare. After all, most of this area was originally rainforest.
The carrying-things-on-heads saga continues – the two most astonishing I’ve seen are a small boy carrying a cardboard tray of eggs, which he is selling individually. We’ve seen eggs balanced already, right? So no surprise there… well, the thing is, all the eggs that have gone have gone from one side – the right side is empty and the left full. The damn thing should just fall off his head right away. How does he keep it balanced up there? The second is a woman carrying, I kid you not, a vacuum cleaner on her head. There has to be a punchline to that.
I notice now, many people actually put a cloth on their head to cushion the weight, or a little pill-box hat to provide a flat surface to make balancing easier. By this time, I feel this is cheating. “Why can’t you be more like egg boy?” I want to ask, “Why can’t you be more like vacuum woman?”.
I begin to recognize individual chickens near the apartment by now, which I guess answers my question “how can they just let them roam free?” They’re rather territorial too, so you can always find your own chickens. I guess you’d know their habits enough to know where they lay the eggs.
They look smaller than chickens in the US and Europe – that’s the result of deliberate breeding to change the body type to match modern tastes. At one time, everyone thought the chicken leg was the choice part, now they want (no skin please! No bone! No taste!) white chicken breast and nothing else, unless it’s been shaped into a dinosaur or something. Sorry, rant over.
I don’t have the same recognition factor with the goats, but they tend to move away when they see me coming. Maybe they know how much I like to eat goat.
It’s difficult to decide when some of the shops etc are open. As I said, they range from a few sticks thrown together to purpose-built malls. In the mid-range, the first priority seems to be to claim that you’re open. I’m considering sitting and doing some sketching of the people and places, something I’ve not done in a long time, but I know that I stand out quite enough as it is, and I’d like to find a shady corner somewhere where I can observe without being seen, maybe purchasing an occasional tea or beer. This is proving difficult. I start with a hotel a couple of blocks away. At least, it says it’s a hotel – a sign points to it from several adjacent streets, claiming that it’s a Hotel, Restaurant, and Bar. When I find it, it wouldn’t be suitable anyway, the street is too quiet. Nevertheless, it’s near the apartment and would be somewhere we could nip out to in the evening. So I attempt to check it out. It doesn’t look very open, but I walk up and try the door. Encouragingly there’s a chalkboard outside with “Today’s specials” chalked up – there’s tilapia. There’s various meaty things, there’s some of the local specialities. I try the door, it’s not open, but a guy who was hidden on the porch wakes up and greets me in a friendly fashion.
Communication can be difficult – yes, everyone does speak English, but they all also have a tribal language which they speak better. I find the accents a little difficult, and they do mine, too. And of course I’m hard-of-hearing. So I try to indicate I’d be interested in tea, juice, or beer. He nods encouragingly and disappears. He comes back and points to the now-open door. A young lady appears around the edge of the door and lifts an inquisitive eyebrow. Again I try to say tea, juice, beer?, attempting to mime. All the mimes look a bit similar. I’m crap at mimes… Eventually she decides my mumbling and finger-waving is getting us nowhere, and she says “Fruit and Veg-et-ables”, very slowly. “No thanks, I’ve eaten. Just a drink of some sort?” “No, fruit and veg-et-ables.”
I concede defeat and move on, exiting past the menu “Today’s Specials” which incidentally doesn’t mention “fruit and veg-et-ables”.
Another place looks closed, but has invested in a large neon sign proclaiming the restaurant/café “OPEN!”. Closer inspection yields a note which says “please use stairwell”. I walk up the stairwell, to an unfinished upper floor deep in cement bags and dust, where a guy is asleep in his chair behind a table. There’s no other tables, or chairs, or food, or drink, or indeed anything but a radio and some building materials. I conclude that the neon sign was a vain boast.
Sometimes a place will be “open”, the door (if any) will not be locked, and there simply won’t be anybody there. Which makes it hard to get served…
One day, after the longest walk so far I find a place that’s actually open. I do enjoy just wandering about here, there’s always something new to be seen. But by now, after about two and a half hours in the oppressive heat I’m as hot as a very hot thing indeed. Beer is required. I try my second Ghanaian beer, called “Club”. It’s pretty decent. The other one tasted like they tried really, really hard to make it as tasteless as Budweiser but didn’t quite succeed. This one actually has a taste. Not that I notice all that much, it hardly touches the sides, evaporating on the way down. Unfortunately, “Charlie’s” doesn’t have any suitable spots for observing the street life, so it doesn’t help with the sketching quest.
One thing I’m discovering is how important funerals are here. I already talked about the personalized “fantasy coffins”, but that’s just one aspect.
Leafing through the local papers, there are many announcements that a beloved relative has been “Called to Glory”, or inviting us to “Celebrate the life”, or one of several other stock phrases, all optimistic in nature. There’s always a photo too, often in traditional clothing. The advert gives details of the funeral arrangements – the whole affair lasts up to a week, with a lying-in-state, a family vigil, pre-burial service, burial service, thanksgiving service, and wake. Depending on various factors (mainly, I think, family finances), the announcement can be up to a whole page of the paper. They may list all the relatives (a tidy few if the deceased was 100 or so, as is sometimes the case) including siblings, children and grandchildren (and great- etc), cousins, nephews and nieces. Then it lists the chief mourners, up to about 50 people. Not only is this announced in the papers, but posters and banners will be put up in the streets, sometimes just one or two, sometimes dozens, up to 20 feet high. For the particularly important/wealthy, new announcements will be placed in the papers on the anniversary of the death for one or many years.
Despite the poverty of some of the people, there are few beggars. In fact, I’ve been approached just once, by three small kids, who were very charming about it and not at all pushy. I had no appropriate money (I had a 20 cedi note, but that would have been too much), or else I might have been tempted to part with some.
And, although there are plenty of people trying to sell you things, they don’t wave them in your face, or follow you while telling you all their merits, as happens some places. For the most part, everyone is exceedingly polite.
Most of our evenings are spent in the apartment. Liz is finding that having me as cook again is a welcome change, and it's a welcome change too to have some company in the evening.
One night we go out to a restaurant which offers an eclectic mix of African, Chinese, Italian and burgers. Again, much of it is unavailable (even though this is a business hotel). I order what I think is going to be a steak Diane from the description, but what turns up is a decent piece of steak, overcooked, and swimming in a rather nice brown gravy. The mushrooms in the sauce are, I’m pretty sure, out of a can, which is disappointing as is the fact that the dessert menu seems to be completely unavailable.
We don’t find this last fact out all at once. The menu boasts cake, ice cream, and, um, cake AND ice cream. Liz orders cake. “Sorry, madam, no cake today.” Ice cream then. “What flavour madam?” Chocolate. “Sorry, madam, no chocolate ice cream today”. Berry, then? “I will ask if we have any”. (the waitress leaves, to return with the news that no, there is no berry ice-cream). Very well, then, vanilla. “Very good, madam,”. There is a short wait before the waitress returns with the news that, you guessed it, there’s no vanilla ice cream…