Friday, February 26, 2010

Recalling How Toyota Has Let Us Down

Village goat 1, Toyota 0...

Early last year we picked up our brand new shiny white Toyota Fortuner from the dealership in Accra. Buying a car new and from the dealer is at once a luxury as well as a necessity if you want a reliable car in Ghana. There are a lot of what is called ‘home used’ cars on the market- that have been used abroad and sent to Ghana in various stages of disrepair, with no guarantees of any sort.

So it was great to pull off the lot in the new smelling 4x4, once we’d convinced them to remove the plastic wrappers from all the seats (apparently in Ghana many new car buyers like to keep it on as a status thing…) ANYWAY – it was certainly a step down from the shiny new model Land Cruisers bought in bulk by the NGOs in town, but it was a Toyota – a brand I’ve always trusted.

My very first car as an independent woman was a modest little gold painted, Toyota Corolla. It was used and unassuming, but it represented an important phase in my life – my first days as a newly single mother and business owner, and that little car was so reliable! I washed it every weekend myself in the summer and treated it to car washes in the winter. It carried my most important human cargo every day – my little boy – and it served me without a hitch for years. Since then I’ve always had the naïve appreciation and trust in Toyota as a company. Made in Japan meant quality, reliability, longevity…

But something has changed with Toyota. Something dangerous and far reaching. It threatens to damage a solid reputation.



Back in Ghana, on the road, the first hour out of the dealership we were on the pseudo-highway, headed down the coast. As soon as we hit 95km, the car made a strange noise. JW, unlike me, is quite in tune with cars. He knew immediately something was wrong. This problem persisted and a vibration happened any time we went above this speed.

It had to be sent back for wheel realignment. It never got better.

Then one day, on a Sunday drive to the beach, a car in front of us lost it’s bumper at full speed – it just fell/flew off and it was up to JW to react fast, which he did. But our Fortuner had it’s own ideas. As soon as he swerved, the car felt unsteady, unbalanced and as if it would tip right over. It was quite scary.

Another Sunday soon after, a goat wandered into the road, as they are apt to do – in fact on the roads of Ghana, one must be ready for random animals, children and stray car parts to float into your path without warning, oblivious to your presence or speed. JW swerved again and the car wobbled precariously, seeming for that split second that it would overturn, before righting itself. It was frightening.

We did some research and found out these models are assembled in South Africa. They have been banned in many Western countries for being too top heavy, too dangerous.

SO – it seems Toyota have been trying to send the junk models into Africa.

We gave the car into the work pool and bought a Mitsubishi…



With all the recent recalls of Toyota cars in the west, I now believe they have cut corners in all their markets. The president of the company, (Mr. Toyota!) actually made a public statement last week that the company had grown too fast and priorities had become confused.

Once a company with a long held reputation for quality starts endangering people’s lives around the world to save a few pennies and sell bulk vehicles, it’s time to lose the loyalty. Time to turn somewhere else. I think our next car will be a German one…

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bad Dogs and Johnny Paul Tireless

The streets of Freetown...

Welcome sign at Lungi International Airport. Apparently Sierra Leone has a Secretariat dedicated to 'attitudinal and behavioral change'...


A custom designed gate on the streets of Freetown.


Typical 'sidewalks' crumbling - people are quite adept at dodging the cement chunks and gutter openings...


The royal statue at the gates of my hotel, the Kimbima... (one of the newer and better hotels that touts itself as a 5 star)


Piled and rotting rubbish and the threat painted on the wall, warning people not to piss here...


More rubbish and graffiti.


A teddy bear sale above the gutter on a main street sidewalk. So cute! Just wondering who in Freetown has the funds, time or energy to buy used plush toys from the roadside...



A typical glimpse of a family house compound. I love all the colours. Laundry, buckets, pots, cups, people, all parts of the busy whole.


Avocado seller.


Childhood in many parts of Africa is about hard work and co-parenting can start by age 5. Here a big sister carries her sibling on the long walk to school.


The mobile phone companies signs provide decoration across the country in many villages. Fresh coats of pain are offered to poor and dilapitated buildings, at the cost of free advertising for the Cellco...


Love the name of this business...


Waterloo Street.



A bunch of guys ... lots of waiting around.


More 'free' paint jobs for tired walls...


Lots of corrugated tin structures...


Amerikin Enterprises...





Growth, Togetherness, Happiness. The promises of yet another mobile phone operator.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gone gone gone, she been gone so long...

I've been gone so long. I feel as if I'm sheepishly crawling back into this space to see if I'm still welcome. If someone will throw tomatoes or old shoes at me... I'm ducking.

Waiting...

Phew! Ok I see I'm safe. Well my excuse is that life has been happening in a big way. Some experiences that are beyond the world of blogging and far closer to the world of book/screenplay that have come my way...

But also I have traveled and though I had no Internet connection, I did write about the experience and I share it here:


Notes from a business trip in Sierra Leone…

A simple three day business trip to Sierra Leone is basically anything but that. The 2 hour flight becomes an 8 hour journey, since once you arrive in the country, you discover the airport is across a large body of water from the capital city…

My last visit involved boarding an ancient Russian helicopter to get the last leg across. Back then, the helicopter was run by a shady little company called Paramount Airlines. The beast was at least 40 years old, struggled to move, and held it’s passengers like captives, with all the luggage in the middle and rough benches around the perimeter. There were tiny round windows with no glass, which was a good thing because the heat inside was literally unbearable. The few wafts of breeze through the windows kept us going… All said, the journey from the airport to Freetown was about 10 minutes, but those were terrifying… Two years ago they crashed for the final time and that very day, the pilots and all staff closed up the offices and left the country. Their signboards still line the streets to Freetown…



I was pleasantly surprised this time though, climbing aboard the helicopter at Lungi airport. It was obviously bought over from the UN when they evacuated a few years ago, and was a significant step up from the ancient beast.

There are two other methods of reaching the mainland from the airport but the chances of all options being operational at the same time are slim to none. The hovercraft takes about 45minutes, the ferry can take 5 hours, the speed boats only 25 minutes, but they bash along on the waves, and have been known to run out of gas half way…
So I braved the helicopter, which is now only a 7 minute journey on a professional looking craft, with airline seats, luggage compartment in the back, and headsets to block out the noise. Luxury!

But the improvements in Sierra Leone since my last visit seem to have ended there. On arrival.



There was some sort of a commotion in the lobby as I arrived. My attention was quickly pulled from the rusting airconditioners outside, and the dark wood paneling that choked the small lobby, by the reactions of the staff. Having seemingly woken from their working trance, they all gathered around the tiny elevator at the far end of the room.

In their signature broken English, I pieced together that all the back and forth was about the elevator being stuck and some poor sod being stuck inside.

The men in the lobby, some cleaners, some guards and various other hangers-on, all gathered around the old metal door with some large object and began to pry it open. There was a lot of noise, rough banging and eventually the door was sufficiently damaged, and pulled aside on an unnatural angel. Inside, a white man’s chubby, hairy calves were revealed, along with a tote bag hanging down with the words “London Museum” visible. The floor of the elevator car had jammed half way between the two floors.

One man ran for a chair from behind the reception desk and was met with hesitation and resistance by the lady who had no interest in having her seat be used in a rescue effort. She was supposed to be checking me in, but apparently had no interest in that either.

Eventually the man was pulled, twisted and finally’ born’ like a red pudgy newborn, feet first out the bottom of the elevator door, a bit shaken but still with a witty comment for the staff, “I’ll be taking the stairs from now on!”.

This is the type of scene that plays in my head at every African hotel I’ve been to. This is the worst nightmare that has had me climbing 14 stories continually up and down to my room in Nairobi, Kenya on a 4 day trip – getting exercise by sheer circumstance… There are the persistent power outages and the general African lack of maintenance that render elevators a no-go area for me.



My colleague had brought me supposedly to ‘one of the new hotels’ but NOT the one that I’d been booked into, that actually had it’s own website and had been reviewed on Tripadvisor. That was too good to be true. Turns out there are a myriad of NGO and church conferences going on in town this week – surprise, surprise… and hence the lack of rooms.

So, for $130 a night, I got the Kimbima Hotel, a building overlooking the ocean, which claims to be a 5 star hotel but still manages to look like a dismal depressing dungeon…



The place literally looks as if it were built without an architect, by 10 rival groups of 7 year olds, each group trying their best to mismatch what had been done by the group before. No door closes properly, many staircases lead to nowhere, windows lead onto walls, and columns, trellises, tiles and all are installed on angles. Electricity sockets are not straight, doors are not straight, stairs are nor straight nor are each the same height. Uniformity and straight lines are not concepts in building here. There are cement, wood and tile surfaces with various patterns, paneling and interlocking bricks and all can be found in one room or one area.

There is mold in the hallways, in the rooms, in the chairs. I hope it’s not in the sheets.

This morning I came out of my room and met the cleaning crew. They’d swept up all the creatures of the night and managed to tip hundreds of wellfed cockroaches onto their backs. As I descended the 7 stories down to the breakfast room, I passed many twitching roaches, each having lost this one little battle, surrounded by yesterdays’ dust and crumbs…



On the beach though - you can’t help but have positive thoughts. The promise if each new wave as it laps the shore is infinite. I took a long walk down the beach, after learning the president had announced a new holiday, one day in advance, in the middle of my 3 day trip…



In Ghana, though we live in a coastal town, there is no serene beach, no long luxurious stretch of mother nature’s cool white sand to play in. All the patches of sandy coastline are divided up between hotels and various communities that would rather use it as a toilet than construct latrines…

So I love this about Freetown. There is a gorgeous stretch of beach, just a walk from the hotels. It’s just beyond the huge UN Peace Keepers compound that was a hive of activity only a few years ago. It stands empty now. I hear they left everything in tact when they moved out. Every airconditioner, TV set, fridge. A local guy is now renovating it, apparently with the aim of converting it into a hotel. I can only imagine what changes will be made…

Walking along, as I dig my toes in the sand, I pass the remnants of cafés that boomed with music, patrons, cocktails… dotting the boardwalk along the beach in the UN days. Even the American movie Blood Diamond alluded to the hedonistic bar scene that existed.
Now, there are only crumbling reminders. The bleached wood chairs and tables, in varying stages of disrepair, with rust stains, like blood pouring from their wounds, these are the carcasses of the false economy that ran Freetown. When the UN left, the bar scene died. The prostitutes now circle at night, their eyes are wild and desperate. I watch them, younger and younger, circling the fewer prey…

I come to a dilapidated gazebo on the beach. On the sides are painted warnings, “No Weapons Allowed” with rudimentary drawings of rifles with big red X’s over them. This was a disarmament stand during the war. It’s a reminder that this beach held much more than waves and cocktails and party goers, not so long ago.

I’ve been told they’ve sent many of the ex-child soldiers off to Afghanistan and Iraq to do menial labour jobs. This is considered good as they will return with some money in their pockets. I’m not sure how true this is, but what about the legacy in their minds? In their violent and vacant hearts?



Back at the hotel, as I climb the dusty path to the long winding road along the bay, I can’t help notice the hundreds of dogs I pass. All are sleeping, spread carelessly across the dusty rocky ground. They lie in the paths of cars and pedestrians, a symbol of the despair around them. Each house along my path leads down to the water. They should be prime real estate! Instead, they are unpainted, half built or half torn down structures, with squatters sitting in the exposed rooms, washing their few tattered clothes and stringing them across the unkempt yards, blowing in the breeze like captive birds…

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