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…
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posekyere said...

Hi Holli,
I have been enjoying your blog for sometime now.
Your comments are so true to a fault.
Ghana is such a place of acute eccentricities and contradictions!
As an keen observer you seem to be much better at seeing the progressive changes that are slowly
knocking at the doors of Ghana.

Let us hope that a better and a more efficient Ghana will arise to replace permanenly the one currently existing.
I am glad you chose to stay and help build this interesting nation of colours and culture.
Try to take a look at this blog on Ghana:

The pale observer said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Are you based in Ghana? Are you Ghanaian? I will definitely check out the site - is it yours? Do you also write as blog? Last question - how did you find my blog?



tania said...

as I am reading your entry, I am embarassed by my lack of knowledge of Ghana. I will be back, with lots of uninterupted time, to explore through your words, what sounds like a very fascinating existence. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving me a comment today.

The pale observer said...

Hi Tania - thanks for visiting! Will continue to visit your blog as well.



posekyere said...

I am Ghanaian but at present residing in South Africa.
The recommended website is not mine.It is written by a Ghanaian lady who has returned to live in Ghana from the west.
Not sure how I landed on your blog but probably via a comment you posted on another blog.

I am new to the world of blogging.You may get to my blog by clicking on my username appearing on this comment

Continue to educate us with your bold & non-PC views on life in Ghana.

The pale observer said...

Thanks again - I read your post on Zimbabwe - you are right that it's difficult to fathom how bad it has gotten. What do you think will happen to cause a change for the better?

James said...

Boy, another nice post Holli. I also arrived in Ghana for the first time about 10 years ago...

The area near my office (Cantonments...or Catonments, depending on which road sign you read) was without the rows of condos that have since sprung up, and there was no African Village or sprawling US Embassy, etc.

I’ve always told people that Accra is a wonderful place and very “liveable” compared to other urban centres in Sub-Saharan Africa that I’ve lived in. In the last decade, I would hazard to guess that over two dozen quality restaurants have since been opened, dozens more higher-end places to shop (barely within the means of middle class expats!), and half a dozen more auto dealerships. Conversely, we see almost no new paved roads in the last 5-10 years. There is a new hospital (Lister) that I know of (very expensive private facility), but I know of no new government hospital built since that time, nor large school of any note in Greater Accra.

Accra, in my opinion, has suffered for the worse. Traffic has gone from busy in 1999 to unbearable, which impacts everyone’s quality of life. Driving in Accra on a Saturday morning these days is essentially what traffic was like on a busy weekday a decade ago. Those days are over forever. In addition, due to the housing bubble, no Ghanaian of middle to lower income can afford to live south of Ring Road, adding to the traffic problem.

Time marches on and all that jazz, but there are some interesting papers on the net and other rumblings by local and other urban planning experts that point to Accra being the next Lagos: Ungovernable, unmanageable and ultimately (judging by the number of Nigerians who have left and come, ironically, to Accra) unliveable. All the nasty ingredients are there. Urgent action is needed to avoid this fate, but ultimately Accra may be a victim of it's own current "success". It may also be too late. The amount of money needed to improve the infrastructure to bring it up to even “poor” standards (roads, water, power, etc) is massive and probably not within the means of the Government of Ghana even should it be given priority (which it is not).

I wonder what Accra will look like in 2018? I hope I am wrong, but I suspect it will be much, much worse.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I am about to celebrate my first 'ten years served' in Ghana and can relate to all of your article. I remember the days of visiting Ghana's only internet cafe back in '98. Great place for meeting expats and locals trying to communicate with the rest of the world but terribly slow service. Also enjoyed a baptism of fire down at Makola Market. It scared the crap out of most of us pale faces then. I still enjoy sending newcomers down there these days. Often spicing it up by telling newbies not get lost as they last group did have still not been found. Ahh we were all fresh in mind then. The National Service guy who took me down to Takoradi loves to remind me how I spent a large amount of the journey looking for large game that I thought I may see at the side of the road. He told me at the time 'We chopped it all!' with a big Ghana smile on his face. Great website. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

again enjoyed your story,
btw if you interested at all you might want to look at Bob Pixel on flickr who's a great ghanaian photographer who i also believe took some of the Canoe images..
here's the link


Minnie said...

I love reading your descriptions of Ghana.
It makes me want to pack a bag and see it, smell it, taste it.

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