Wednesday, 9 May 2012

"Accra for Help"

I was met at the airport in Accra by Osei, a representative from the school in which I'm working. He informed me that I'd be staying in Accra until Monday, that way I could make the most of my time in the capital and have a good old explore…
Accra has a system of 'tro-tros' - minibuses and vans (70% people, 10% wheels, 10% rope, 5% metal, 5% cardboard and duct tape) that makes up a wonderfully cheap and extensive public transport network. For the uninitiated however, we're warned that without a few weeks of deciphering, these networks are impenetrable to the first-time-in-Ghana rookie. Falling into that category myself, for the most part I stuck to taxis (both shared and 'dropping'). Driving in Ghana is wonderfully chaotic, but it just about works because everyone drives that way. The courageousness of the overtaking manoeuvres is matched only by the dare-devil pedestrians who cross dual carriageways, often carrying all manner of interesting items. And as far as I can tell, horns must be used: 1) to announce your presence on a road 2) to say hello 3) to say goodbye 4) at any other time.
Presuming you have faith in your driver's wish to live, you will find yourself aching for a breeze at every corner you turn. Accra is hot. Sweltering is a better word. In my few days here, it's been solid 32˚C+  heat from 08.00 until 16.00 with no breeze at all. To survive, I highly recommend buying some small 500ml plastic bags of water from the hawkers who descend from all directions to junctions at any hint of a red light. Tear a tiny hole in one corner with your teeth and proceed to squeeze the water into your mouth, in a sibling's eye etc.  It must be purely by fate that I am yet to burst the bag over my trousers or in someone's taxi. It's only a matter of time. 
After getting my bearings, yet another SIM card and general comms sorted out, I ventured into the centre of the capital. The coastal drive into town is certainly atmospheric. The settlements spill out onto the road; some buildings seem stable and others look like a strong breeze would render them uninhabitable in a second. With the window down, you can't help but notice the sweet stench of burning rubbish and rotting food. It's a reminder of how many people still live in poverty in a country that many regard as a great African success story. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination representative of Accra as a whole. The centre of town has its fair share of wide avenues, high-rise buildings and luxury hotels to match those of any other capital city.
Whilst here, I visited the National Museum - a great place to start to learn about the rich cultures in Ghana. Whether your interest is in woodcarvings or musical instruments, kente cloth or dancing, there's plenty here to warrant a couple of hours wandering. Perhaps this could be shortened if the layout were a little more efficient - how anyone can look at all the exhibits without doubling back on themselves any less than half a dozen times is beyond me. Perhaps dehydration and confusion had set in.
After trekking the streets in the midday heat, I shamelessly treated myself to an afternoon at a wonderful swimming pool. Surrounded by perma-tanned Westerners sitting under palm trees, with their cigars in one hand and glasses of wine in the other, I can hardly say that I felt in touch with the everyday-man in Ghana. I tried to offset this guilt by speaking my vastly limited but always appreciated Twi  - the most dominant of the many different languages in the country - to the Ghanaians who worked there. A taxi back to my guesthouse introduced me to the joys of African time (I've heard from some sources that over here GMT stands for Ghanaian Man Time). This means that if taxi driver tells you he will be ten minutes, he will be well over forty minutes. This scale works exponentially.
My next day in Accra was an introduction more to the people than the place. Whilst wandering around the Nkrumah Mausoleum and surrounding area, I found myself sitting on a dusty step chatting in French and English to Camille. Camille had fled from Gao in Mali, since the tuareg rebels took control of the northern region of the country. He had worked there as a tour guide . Since Mali is no longer such a viable destination for tourists (at least those who aren't into running away from burning villages or having chats to members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), he instead showed me some stunning photos of him and visitors in Timbuktu, Djenn√© and various places whilst talking me through the history and culture of the country. It was fascinating. Sadly he's been left alone  to wander a new country that he doesn't know, in desperate search of some way to make a living again. Should you be making use of some cut-price hotel deals in Bamako this summer, I can give you his number if you fancy a tour…
Later that afternoon I got talking to a student whilst walking through Ussher Town - the district that probably has the most viable claim to calling itself the centre of Accra (loud, vibrant, colourful and markets in every direction - well worth a visit!). Emmanuel speaks flawless English and has his heart set on starting up his own publishing house. He is 16 years old. We got talking and before I knew it I found myself in James Town - a somewhat dilapidated but incredibly atmospheric district on the coastal area of Accra. It is one of those places where you feel the stares drilling into the back of your head, hear whispers in the shadows and generally feel like you should keep your wits about you. But thanks to the ever-grinning Emmanuel, I felt entirely unthreatened and it was fantastic to wander around the heart of a district that I would think twice about were I alone.
And so my time in Accra, or at least this time, was coming to an end. The next day I'd be travelling out of the sweltering capital and venturing around 250km upcountry to my new base for the near future...
[Acknowledgement: All credit for this title goes to Tom, my 'sometimes-has-sparks-of-genius' brother.] 

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