Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cosmopolitan Ghana - the Accra of today

The Accra I met more than a decade ago, on my arrival in Ghana was a crowded, hot humid yet dusty hive of activity. For the naïve volunteer set, of which I was a gold star member, it was an overwhelming sense of the absoluteness of cultural difference. There was nothing remotely familiar and we basked in the alien experience.

All of us were from the west, where a market is a tame organized centre for buying a variety of goods. In Accra the experience was quite different.

We were a procession, a snake like pinkish spectacle, chained together by sweaty fists and with a look of fear and excitement in our eyes. All conscious of where our money was hidden – strapped to our moist middles, under our cotton t-shirts and missionary style long shapeless flower skirts (prescribed by the NGO offices back home). We were paraded through a real market – African style.

People as deep as quicksand, we sunk deeper and deeper, away from the paved road into the colours, smells and sounds of the market. Smoked fish piled high on balancing trays, hundreds of tomato sellers in narrow rows, wide smiling African mamas, low down, faces behind their identical wares, each hoping their charm would win buyers and they would rise above the anonymity of their trade, to make enough to feed their family for the day.

We pushed on by, and through, sweating and squinting and averting the hoards of brown smudged fingers that reached out at our inadequately protected, sun beaten, damp white skin… shouts randomly from all directions, above the black heads and fleeting rainbows of colour and patterned cloth, “Obruni, obruni!!!”.

We managed to push our way through and were led single file past a grimy door into a tiny room. It was cooler and quieter than the outside, but the hum of the market surged palpably behind the grease coated glass. It was a Chinese take away. Our guide had apparently heard that Westerners like Chinese food and this was to be our treat, our solace for the day. The room had a few plastic patio tables with rubberized flower patterned table cloths. Each table boasted graying dust caked plastic flowers in tiny decorated pots. Roaches and ants scurried about. Random people leaned or slept at the tables. Just beyond the ‘dining room’ was a visible kitchen – the walls coated black with fuzzies caught in the dull greasy layer – far above the wall appeared to have been painted blue in some distant time. The metal surfaces were covered in random wilted vegetables and dirty piled plates.

We all stood huddled. There was an unspoken agreement that none of us were eating anything from this place. We compromised and ordered cokes. The reluctant waitress was woken up, wiped the saliva from the edge of her sleepy mouth, and as if in slow motion, she moved across the room to gather the bottles from the loudly buzzing overworked Coca Cola fridge. We rubbed the rust from the tops, and gulped the luke warm syrupy liquid, just wishing we could be transported magically back to the main road, to become invisible, to be out of here. Instead the return journey was more of the same and the group whined, complaining of sun stroke, heat stroke and bad tummies. Food choices that evening would be from very local, very peppery, very sketchy roadside ‘chop bars’. The restaurants in town were few. Either massively expensive and out of our reach, or more like the Chinese take away…

This was a typical first induction into being a volunteer in Ghana. Those of us who stayed – not many – have learned so many lessons since then. The market still thrives, writhes, dances daily. But now we know how to navigate. We’ve discovered there are actually things to buy and we can now bargain with the sellers, amusing them with local terms. We can be cut throat in our bargaining techniques. We are no longer amateurs.

But those who arrive today, in 2008, meet an entirely new Accra. The cosmopolitan city is arising, despite the persisting poverty and the traditions and the resistance. There is a new Accra for the trendy set, the academia and the professionals alike.

Today I found myself alone at lunchtime and popped in to ‘Cuppa Cappuccino’, a funky café near my office serving great salads, wraps, sandwiches, smoothies and of course – cappuccinos! In the big bowl mugs…

On any given day, the clientele pile in and out – alone to write or surf the net using the wifi, or in groups, chattering and nibbling and sipping. All dressed in 2008’s trends, talking about the relevant political and social issues affecting the world in general, and Africa specifically. Most are foreigners but definitely not all. In fact the groups are quite mixed.

Today I was alone so I observed. The scene was something absolutely unheard of 10 years ago.

The waitress smiles and is efficient and remembers my order. She sees I’m alone and brings me a few magazines to browse through while I await my greek salad and Diet Coke. I open a thick shiny mag with a gorgeous profile of an African model on the front. The make-up and lighting make this photo true art. I open the pages haphazardly at first, flipping along through glossy photos and adverts and admiring the artistic edge. Then I recognize some of the advertisements and the local jewelry in the modeling shoots. It’s a local magazine! On the cutting edge artistically and stylistically. Another absolute impossibility 10 years ago. Back then all printing had to be sent out of the country, or the images would be overlapped and discoloured, words cut off mid sentence…

This was something else. I wanted it as a coffee table centerpiece. It was called Canoe Quarterly. However, it is so ‘cool’ that I could not find out how to order it. But there was a web address: Canoe Quarterly. I visited the modern simplistic site and found some of the photo shoots from the magazine. The one below is from their site and speaks for itself…

So, I left the café, bumped into a few acquaintances at the other tables - some expat teachers from the International school, a couple of South African geologists… Then I heard many voices on the patio and noticed on my way out, a table of 12 new volunteers on their orientation. I knew this because they exuded newness, inexperience, and openness. Their Ghanaian guide was briefing them on some aspect of Ghanaian culture, while they sipped Mango Manias, café lattes and picked tiny triangles of brie and avocado sandwiches from their plates.

Things sure have changed since my day…

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

More trees slain in Accra...

The scandal!

Maybe I'll always be a tree hugger at heart, but I just cannot fathom the justification of hundreds and thousands of regal trees that shade the baking streets of Accra, being cut down, sawed, hacked and felled. Murdered.

This practice has been going on, intermittently since I arrived in Ghana in 1997. That year, the boulevard called Ring road, which was lined on either side by huge wonderful shade-giving trees, was gutted. Where careful planning and planting years earlier had created a tranquil majestic view from Danquah circle all the way up to Sankara - the overhanging branches, reaching from one side of the road to the other, suddenly looked barren, bright, harsh. The trees were being hacked to the ground. At the time some concerned groups wrapped huge purple ribbons around the trees in their defense and I believe the exercise was halted. Far too late though... Today a few trees remain, but they are all pared back, quivering on the edge of life...

Across from my office yesterday I found a typical crew of young fit guys, sent by the mysterious tree killing body, doing what they do best. Hacking innocent trees to death.

All my dramatics aside, it is heartbreaking to see. I suppose the reason is related to the recent housing development boom in the city - but I have to ask, who would prefer a barren wasteland as their view from a newly built house, to the soothing sway of an old tree?

Perhaps some of the other Ghana bloggers know more about why it's happening and what the justification is. I've heard that the Accra Metropolitian Authority (AMA) could be involved. These are the same people who have the curbs of the main streets, leading from the airport, painted a chalky white, every time a dignitary visits. Window dressing for the city... But killing trees? That definitely does not have an aesthetic advantage.

Last year at the 'Togo Embassy circle' near my house, a massive cluster of old trees, which amounted to a public park, were hacked to the ground. There was a protest with media coverage etc. It amounted to nothing. In place of the trees there is now one small statue, covered still with an old cardboard box, awaiting it's ribbon cutting ceremony... this is apparently development. This is apparently a tribute to the great ones... this is criminal!!!

Maybe it's just me... but I don't think there will ever be a day I can accept and condone it. They say when in Rome... but then this is not Rome and somehow I don't think the saying applies to the destruction of our environment...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

'Empty nest expat' - the emotions without the nest

Words prove inadequate to capture the majority of life’s most poignant moments and gripping emotions.

This morning I breezed by the empty bedroom, door wide open, dusty abandoned papers – the sum of eight years of private school in Ghana - left in sliding piles on the floor… Where the door would once be almost closed, the hum of the airconditioning purring and the soft breath of a teenager, sleeping, sleeping within.

It’s a Saturday morning. We’re up late, but he always woke later. I saved some bacon to fry up for him and we carried on with the day, always with the subconscious comfort of knowing he would pop his head into the lounge at some stage, bushy haired, sleepy eyed and shy, and he would find his mini soccer ball, like an old friend, to kick leisurely around…

Today is very quiet. Even with the music blasting from the speakers, to aid us along in the daily tasks, a vibrancy, an expectation is missing. It is truly a void.

Earlier this week, as the airplane lifted off, our middle son, second graduate, off to University in Canada, left the dark red soil of Ghana forever. It is the reality of living as an expat – the children don’t have a ‘home’ to come back to. We don’t know how long we’ll be here, there is no sentimentality in the company provided house, fully furnished. No bedroom to come back to forever, with all the medals and posters displayed as a haven, a fall back zone for the child, but mostly the parents – as seen in American movies… No, it’s just the raw emotional reality that the child has grown up and has gone.

I find myself, in the silence, burdened with the conflict between the emotional and the practical. Things have gone well. He has mastered the basics in life – brilliant at charming and influencing peers and adults alike, calm and affable yet the life of the party when the time is right. He found first love, and witnessing the dance was beautiful and nostalgic. But he did it better. He waited, he played and then he fell hard. No heartbreak yet, but those come. And we will not see it, feel it, we will not be part of that. He has grown up and he has gone. It’s natural. Yet it’s a sad reality for parents. He was never one day the cause of anger or worry. The rarity of this is not lost on me. At 18 years old, we can only wish him well and miss him in every way. Though the last two years prepared us for his departure – he was wrapped up in his own growing world, with emotions and passions and relationships evolving – we still felt his presence, cherished the small time together, the laughter in his eyes and the man he was becoming.

Still, today is difficult to face. He hasn’t gone away to a University a half a day’s drive away, he is gone in a much more profound way. He will live for four years at school, in a different world, a continent away, during which time the rest of his transformation will occur. He will definitely be a man. He will never be back. That process started in earnest this week.

As a step parent my emotional ties surprise me – but then he has always had a way of pulling people close, having them feed off his subtle but electric energy, and leaving you with a sense that you desire only to nurture and inspire him on his path. Four years were special, well spent, and enough to pull me in fully.
And next will be the last one. My own. I can’t as yet imagine it, though it will come, pushed along by the forces of nature and seasons and the urgency of puberty. He too has been an angel and I’m not sure whether to think we have been lucky or blessed.

I also find it strange, my melancholy. We have plans and aspirations and life affirming adventures ahead. We will not be sitting in the proverbial suburban house, on the matching opposite arm chairs, with the daily paper between us - the children’s bedrooms, ‘as they were’ upstairs, pathetically awaiting their return or a weekend visit with laundry in tow… We won’t be in that proverbial world, staring at each other over a pregnant silence… no empty nest syndrome for us. When the boys have gone we too will start a new life, like teenagers, on our boat… floating out to sea…

But still, there is the stark realization that the children we have raised are wonderful, complex and likeable people, and we’ll miss them with a love and admiration I would never have imagined until now.
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