We’re not in Kansas anymore…
02.06.2008 - 02.13.2008 88 °F
The plane arrived in Ghana and we were greeted by a blanket of heat as we descended the stairs to a waiting bus on the tarmac. The heat was less stifling than we expected, thanks to a seasonal phenomena known as the Harmattan, a dry and dusty West African trade wind that blows from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea. It carriers sand and dust that blocks out the sun like a fog. Even with that, it was over 90°, and humid. We grabbed our bags, made our way through customs and to the curb, where our official greeter, “Uncle Freddy” stood by with Dennis, his driver and trusty sidekick. We are here visiting Fred and Anna Adams, Carol’s sister and her husband. Fred works for Chevron in Accra, has been here for two years, and is working on bringing fuels and natural gas to Ghana from Nigeria. Fred and Anna live in the Accra suburb of East Legon in a great house that easily manages all of us, Fred, Anna and the folks that work for them – which is very typical for an expat. In fact, employing local Ghanaians is required by the government for expats.
The contrast in this East Legon neighborhood is something that you wouldn’t see in a developed nation, but is quite typical in Africa. Next to this great house that we are staying in is a tin shack with a family living in it full time. Chickens roam the yard and each morning the family bathes themselves in the yard. Children will be raised to adulthood in this house, and those children could become Doctors or Lawyers. People emerge from these tiny tin shacks dressed, pressed, and starched to the nines, ready to go to work. A similar home is just across the street. This is just the way it is here, and it can be seen all over Accra. It’s not considered strange. It just is. Another thing that “just is” are construction projects that seem to never end. Beautiful homes rise in the neighborhood and then seem to stop making progress. They’ll make progress eventually, just not now. Skeletons of incomplete homes and buildings punctuate the landscape and this isn’t considered at all bizarre. It just is. Another thing that “just is” is fluctuating water and power supply. The power goes out regularly and every large home has a generator to maintain power. The power doesn’t just stop. The lights start to dim, and then eventually the power goes completely. The same thing happens with water. It just runs out and comes back at another time. Folks don’t fret about it. They just make sure their schedule accommodates this kind of thing, and they don’t get upset when it happens. It is expected. It just is.
Another thing that is expected is traffic. There are 2.2 million people in Accra and the roads and infrastructure struggle to accommodate them. Streets are paved, then not. Streets appear to be “through”, and then just stop. Lanes are simply suggestions which are largely ignored by the locals, and traffic lights sit lifelessly, without power, encouraging intersection anarchy. With all that traffic, the stop and go, the near misses, and the stifling heat, people wave to each other calmly as they let drivers squeeze ahead of them into the lane, then patiently waiting for the next five feet of movement. Whether in a car, a cab or a tro-tro (a large shared taxi van) they just patiently wait. You won’t find road rage in Ghana. It takes a long time to go anywhere, or do anything, and people expect it. Man, could LA use a dose of that or what? Something that complicates the traffic situation is the lack of super markets or super stores that might have everything you need. There are no home depots, kmarts, best buys, etc.. If you want to get some nails, you might have to go to the other side of town, which could take more than an hour. We’ve been part of this routine now for over a week. This isn’t a convenient life. Again, in sharp contrast, and Accra is a contrast Anna can walk across the street and buy soap, eggs, salt, and other staples, just by walking to the neighbor's little "shed of commerce" across the street.
Something that the Expats apparently don’t like, but we love are the “hawkers” on the street corners. Every busy intersection is abuzz with vendors walking and running between lanes of cars with goods for sale. Apples, water bags, toilet paper, mops, ice cube trays, chocolates, magazines, snacks, or whatever you can carry on your head. The hawkers negotiate deals with the folks in the cars, send in the goods and then continue to barter for a mutually agreeable price. The hawkers then chase after the cars to either get the cash or get the goods back if a satisfactory price can’t be negotiated. This works pretty efficiently. We picked up three ice cube trays and two power outlet converters just yesterday.
A Ghanaian cab driver in New York once told us that we would see the “sweet face of humanity” in Ghana, and he went on to tell us “A little food, a little music, and a little soccer” is all that Ghanaians need. He wasn’t exactly right, but on the whole, the people of Ghana are wonderful. The people are fun, passionate, hard working, and they love life. They love life just like it is here. They don’t wish for a life that we might have in the states because you can get to your store faster, or have 200 kinds of cheese side by side in the grocery store. They appear to like it just the way it is. Esther and Dennis who run the house for Anna and Freddy are great examples of local Ghanaians. They are quick to smile and love to hear us “try” and use the local language called Twi (pronounced Trwee). Of course they both speak excellent English as well, but they speak Ghanaian around each other and we love to try. Esther’s daughter Gifty (a great name!) and her brother Kwamei are at the house quite often and we’ve been playing cards with them, doing homework with them, listening to music, talking soccer, and just hanging out.
The Africa Cup of Nations
We were very lucky to have our visit coincide with the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. This tournament takes place once every two years, and pits the best teams in Africa against each other. This is Africa’s world cup. This year the tournament was in Ghana, and the semi finals and the finals were being played in Accra. Soccer was everywhere. Anna went on a scalper search for some tickets and at the last minute, we were all able to get tickets to the Ghana vs: Cameroon semi final game. The scalper’s prices were dropping as the game approached and we lucked out. The streets on the way to the semi final were beyond jammed. Hawkers ran between cars selling Ghanaian fan gear; shirts, flags, horns, silly hats, whistles, scarves... The Ghanaian team is called the “Black Stars” and this night, Accra was going Black Star crazy. As we approached the stadium, we had to get out of the car and walk. Traffic just stopped and we were passed by masses of Ghanaians walking the streets, either going to the game or crowding around televisions that glowed in shops fronts. The air was damp and hot, and thick with the smells of smoke and meat cooking over open fires in the parking lot. Dusk was settling in. African rhythms boomed from drums while bands and DJs played fantastic Ghanaian and Cameroonian music. Huge crowds danced and fires burned while the music played. We separated into twos and made way to our entry gates. Parker and I had seats together and we smashed ourselves into the queue to get in. The game was starting and we were still in line. We pushed forward and I swept a pickpockets hand away from my pockets, we saw a south African bloke throw a man to the ground to protect his friends backpack. We were told it might be rough. It was. We made our way to the seats while the game was in full swing, and the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear your own voice. At half time, it was still zero-zero, and they fans were jubilant. About 25 minutes into the second half, Cameroon scored, the collective Ghanaian crowd audibly exhaled, followed by an uneasy silence. The rest of the game was painful to watch as Cameroon dived all over the pitch , feigning injuries. On the way to meet the others, the streets were calm but crowded, and resignation could be read on the face of the locals. Esther was very upset and was holding back tears. She was a good proxy for all Ghanaians. The excitement waned a bit in the city after that evening, but it was still “the cup” and the city was still excited. Freddy and I went to a sports bar for the final, and saw a group of young men from Cameroon jump from the crowd and begin playing with the band in the post game. Cameroon lost to Egypt, but the Cameroonians were partying as if they won, and hearing their rhythms and the ease at which they maneuvered through complex polyrhythmic chanting and drumming absolutely blew my mind.
Golfing in Ghana
Fred and I played a round of golf at the only “grass” course in Accra. I use the term grass rather loosely, because there wasn’t much of it. The greens were like rough, the sand traps were more mud than sand, and the fairways played like a hazard. Shacks lined some holes on the course, while shared TVs glowed with the Ghana cup consolation game, which would eventually establish Ghana as the third place team. Our caddies were awesome, and they steered Fred and I around the course, avoiding army ants and termite mounds. I lost only one ball thanks to a stellar forecaddie. It was unbelievably hot and humid and you could hear Ghana scoring as neighborhoods broke out in shouts at each Ghanaian goal.
The Market Places
Cynthia is one of Anna and Freddy’s gate guards (yes the house has barbed wire and a manned gate), and she has a special talent. She is an incredible seamstress. Anna asked if she would make some clothes for us and she gladly said “Yes!” She asked to see a pair of my pants, and said she could make a new pair just like it. We just had to go shop for fabric. So Esther Dennis, Anna, Carol and I made our way to the market. This is the Ghanaian peoples market where you can buy fabrics in one shop, buttons in another shop, thread in yet another shop, Ghanaian hip hop in another and so on. This market reminded us a bit of the Barkhor in Tibet. Crowded and tight streets, lined with small shops, snaked their way through alleys and walk ways. A few large streets crisscross the market slowly transporting goods in open lorries. We cruised the markets and had an awesome time. The people welcomed us into their shops and dickered with us on prices. Negotiating the deals was half the fun. The other half was walking the market to the shouts of “Abrone!” (meaning foreigner), and shaking hands with Ghanaian shop owners and their friends. People in these markets loved to see us, and you could tell by reactions that it was very novel and unique to have white people in this market. We keep remembering our NYC cab driver telling us “You will see the sweet face of humanity” … indeed I think we did