City of the Ants


Accra apartment  - through the blue security gate.

Back in Accra

I’m going to bundle the next few days together again as, although full of interest, they do again follow the pattern of working a bit, going for a wander, welcoming Liz home from work. It’s also an opportunity to mention a few things that somehow got forgotten in previous installments.

The rains:

As Liz predicted, Sunday’s rain had pretty well dried up by the next day. But when I went for a wander, and ambled into an area which was new to me (I was, to be completely honest, a bit lost for a while), I found that this wasn’t true everywhere. A whole street was almost impassable, being still flooded on one side and with sticky red mud elsewhere. One poor guy was standing outside his “pub” (read, “wooden shack”) trying to find some way to restore access. However, the deep drains on either side of the road had overflowed – and had obviously been watery even before the torrential rain, for the green scum which had been growing in them had now spread out over the road. There was also a distinct smell of poop – someone’s cesspit had probably overflowed. Though I felt sorry for the owner, it would take a lot more than a couple of planks laid over the mud to get me to drink in THAT pub, I can tell you…

Power:

I mentioned power was out when we arrived at the crater lake – I haven’t mentioned power cuts before, but they are common. There was one while we were in the supermarket when it rained, although momentary. And one in the apartment every day or so. There’s a generator, but someone has to go get the fuel (and someone has to pay for it). It’s just a fact of life here. I was congratulating myself one day that we cook with gas here, so power cuts don’t stop mealtimes – but then the gas gave out. And we’ve had no water now for several days – we persuaded someone to bring us a couple of buckets full, so it’s not desperate, but it is annoying. Now a COLD shower would be a luxury.

Solar power should be everywhere here - it would make so much sense, huge amounts of free power, all year round, no hunting for fuel for the generator every day or so. But I have seen absolutely no evidence of it. I’m informed that solar panels attract a luxury tax, which puts people off. This may change soon – the new government does seem to be doing good things, or at least making the right noises.

Names:

I said before it was hard to tell a church from an eating place, due to the habit of naming them “Jesus Love” or “God be Praised”. This extends to just about any sort of business. Now, although I can imagine getting a haircut at “God is Great Barber”, I’d hesitate before getting a haircut at “Trust in God”… I think I’d rather find a barber with a little more confidence in themselves. I’ve not seen a “Jesus Saves” Bank, which is a shame, because you’d have an obvious advertising campaign – “Jesus Saves. So can you, with our high-interest deposit account.”

More about names:

“Accra” is a corruption of a word which means “driver ants”. These are a variety of army ant. Often moving about in numbers up to several millions. Apparently when the Gar people arrived in the area, the Fante thought there were so many of them that they were like the ants. In fact “Gar” is from the word “gargar” which also means “driver ant”.

Personal Names:

People are I learn traditionally named several times here. The first name you are given is simply the day of the week on which you are born. THus, being born on a Wednesday, I would be "Kwaku". A female saturday child would be "Amma", and so forth... Later there is a naming ceremony where another name is added - this can it seems either some sort of status (eg 'older twin") and/or the name of a family member or someone that the parents want to pay respect to. Traditionally, the father's surname is not used, though that is changing I hear.

The Golden Stool:

Many of the tribes, especially among the Akan, have a sacred stool in which the power of kingship is invested. When a king is officially installed, they don’t have a “coronation” (which literally means “crowning” of course), the have an “enstoolment”. The Asante royal stool is gold-plated and descended directly from heaven early in the 18th century due to the magic of Okomfo Anyake, a Merlin-like figure who served several powerful rulers in succession. He seems to have been quite a character. The arrival of the stool in a thick cloud of smoke was seen by many witnesses. In 1900 the British demanded to be given the stool, which led to the War of the Golden Stool. One story is that eventually they were given a copy, while the original was so well hidden that the Asante themselves couldn’t find it for some while. This last story was told to Liz by someone at the Asante museum, but I can find no trace of it in official sites.

The king (Asantehene) never actually sits on the stool, which is too sacred. He hovers over it at this ascension. It never is allowed to touch the ground, but must always sit on a blanket.

Buses:

I wondered how the locals know which of the many little mini-buses (known as "tro-tros") which run around the city to use: It seems that there is a hand-signal which tells you where the bus is going. The driver, or someone else, leans out the window and gestures appropriately. Or the hopeful passenger will make a sign to say “are you going to x?” – and the bus will stop if so. Later I realize taxi drivers employ a similar code – as I walk past a stationary cab, the driver will make hand gestures at me. Before I realized they weren’t just trying to attract my attention, I would wave my hand palm-out in a “no thank you” gesture. Now I wonder if that actually meant “please take me to the airport” or something. It would explain the puzzled expressions.

Now I just smile and shake my head.

This puts me in mind of a scene in Greece many years ago. A tourist appeared to have learnt just one word: “Neh”. Unfortunately, she thought this meant “no”. It actually means “yes”. To compound this, when a Greek shakes their head, it can also mean “yes”. So when a shopkeeper offered her something and she backed out of the shop shaking her head and saying “Neh, neh, neh”, it confused the hell out of him. Why on earth was this crazy woman leaving the shop while muttering “yes, yes, yes” and giving him the nod (or rather giving him the shake)?

Expaturbia:

We were invited to dinner one evening in a different part of town, where the houses are much bigger and most of people are expats. As it happened, out hostess was herself a local, but I suspect this is unusual in that area. It was a very different part of town, and everything (except the roads) had a far more finished and permanent look to it. It was at that (very fine) dinner that I heard about the solar panel “luxury tax”.

Bookshops:

Anyone who knows me at all well will know that I am extremely fond of books, and am always reading. And that one of my favourite things to do in a new town is to visit the bookshops. Obviously this is of less interest in non-English-speaking places, but here the lingua franca is indeed English and I was hoping to spot some stores.

I have seen several, one of them being quite close to the apartment. But all of them are Christian bookshops, and their stock appears to consist almost entirely of Bibles, or of texts telling you how to read the Bible, or live your life according to the Bible, or illustrated childrens’ Bibles, etc. There are also book stalls, but when I stopped to look at one, the ONLY thing it had was Bibles. Some were beautiful leather-bound editions, some paperback for everyday reading, and all grades in between. But books as such are simply absent. I’m told that the posher European-style malls may have a bookshop in, but it seems the locals simply don’t read anything other than Bibles and newspapers.

I did buy two books in Ghana– one was the folktales which I mentioned earlier. The other I purchased at the slave castle, a history of Ghana. This was published by a British company (and printed and bound in Malaysia). Searchinbg for book publishers in Ghana gives me mainly establishments that will print and publish your own books, or Bible publishers, or legal books.

Crime:

The larger, more affluent houses in the area all have formidable gates, and walls topped either with barbed wire or electric fences (although, what use an electric fence would be, I can't help but wonder – just wait for a power cut. There’ll be one soon). Many (like our apartment block) employ gatekeepers. So I deduce that property crime is common. But as I wander through the neighborhood, I have never felt any sense of personal threat. Obviously, people notice me, I’m the only white guy they’ve seen all day. People will nod, or smile, or ignore, but I have never felt any hostility. Maybe I’m naïve. But I think I have a fairly good inbuilt trouble meter – I grew up in a town (Basildon) where it paid to keep your eyes and ears open. I felt far more nervous when walking around the poorer parts of Baltimore, and distinctly edgy in Camden, NJ. But here my trouble-radar has not pinged once.

The shops:

I have written before of the retailers here, ranging from ramshackle scrapwood stalls to posh shops. I don’t know how strictly regulated these things are – but there is some sort of control – you might see a “for rent” sign on even the scrappiest of these structures, and I have often seen the word “remove!” written on the side of some, even quite elaborate, street shops. This seems to be official, although whoever is in charge of the operation is either not working very hard or is taking bribes. The notice is usually followed by a date, and I’ve seen several still in operation with a 2015 date. On others, though the date is more recent, and they are simply abandoned. Why would you bother to pull it down if there’s nowhere to move it to (and the authorities don’t know who you are)? I even saw on one huge building project, either an apartment block or a retail site , a notice "No further work to be carried out until all permits are obtained". I wonder now if this is the problem with some of the half-finished houses near our apartment?

Typical Accra shop

I see I haven’t mentioned the bicycle-driven vendors. These are guys (so far as I’ve seen, always guys, though I don’t know if this is universal) with a bike and some food to sell. Usually it’s a variety of things that look a little like Cornish pasties, carried in a glass case. Some also have a cool box, which I think contains ice creams. These guys sell mainly to shopkeepers, and they announce their arrival by sounding an old-fashioned bicycle horn. Or you may have seen clowns with these – there’s a rubber bulb at one end, and a sort of tiny megaphone attached. They sound rather like the “honkers” from Sesame Street.

Trying to make me feel at home?

"Not for sale" :

I was puzzled to see, painted on signs or on the walls surrounding some small pieces of land, the notice “This land is NOT for sale”. In one case that was followed by “Buyer Beware!”. I discovered what this is about: when someone dies, the disposition of their property, if there’s no indisputable will, is a matter for the whole family. There are sometimes disputes, and sometimes someone will try to pull a fast one, and sell land without the permission of the rest of the family. The sale might or might not hold up legally, hence the notices, and hence “Buyer Beware!”.

White faces:

In our immediate vicinity, there are none. I’ve seen white people ("Obroni") when shopping at the European-style supermarkets, and in hotels and restaurants, but otherwise, except for our dinner in expaturbia, none. Actually, that’s not quite true – the other white faces I’ve seen have been on tailors’ mannequins. Quite why nobody has decided to make black mannequins for black countries is a puzzle. It’s probably a good commercial idea for an entrepreneur out there somewhere. Children, especially of the pre-school age, find me fascinating. Slightly older kids will give a huge smile, a wave, and very wide eyes. It is charming.

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