Written on June 8th 2014
Although not my first time in Africa (I went to Tunisia about 10 years ago), supra-Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa have notably different cultures, and as I stepped off the plane I immediately began to scribble some things down in my notepad. I will do my best to include some interesting facts as I continue to describe life and work in Accra.
I received what you may call an unusual welcome. Vidette, the person whom I travelled with (a fellow volunteer from the QM Pro Bono Society and member of Energy for Old Fadama) happens to be the daughter of a very well known actor in Ghana. As we made it through customs without a single hitch, I became conscious of the fact that stardom is a lubricator for administration here. Let’s call this culture shock no 1. Having prepared for GMT (Ghanaian Mean Time, a cultural phenomenon whereby you can expect a meeting set at 1pm to begin at 2 or 3pm), I soon realized that the support of this celebrity would not only gain exposure for our work, but also practically obliterate the effort and time required to meet with a representative from the government.
I will not yet reveal details with regards to our conversation, but I will say that my level of excitement rose sharply after we met and discussed the project. More on this to come.
Back to the airport, where I experienced shock no 2 as we stepped out of the gates. I was greeted by a man who quickly took my bags and asked whether it was my first time to Ghana – I readily answered ‘Indeed it is!’, thinking he was a friendly member of the entourage of 5 people who surrounded the celebrity that I was with. He was not, and it soon dawned on me that he was performing a sneaky service. When he realized the company I was with he immediately changed his tone and became more careful. He still asked me for a tip, and my attempts to explain that I truly, really and actually had no cedis (the Ghanaian currency) were futile, as he continued to reach his hand towards me when I awkwardly closed the taxi door.
I was driven home by the cousin of my fellow traveller and colleague, a man called Patrick. Along the way, he asked whether I’d like to stop for a drink before we reached the estate in South Doko. After a 12 hour journey culminating in the choking warmth of Ghana I quickly accepted, thinking it would be a good opportunity to experience the local brews.
It was nearing midnight as Patrick, the cousin, parked his truck next to his friend’s bar. There I met some people (whose names I cannot remember, except for a man who called himself ‘Lion’) and began asking them about Ghanaian culture and their thoughts on Agbogbloshie. Referring to it as Sodom and Gomorrah, they all seemed to have the belief (along with other people I have subsequently asked) that the residents were illegal squatters who refused to pay for electricity, therefore causing electrical fires and draining money from the government. Whether this is true, or if it is a matter of not affording or having access to electricity, is a question that I will have to find an answer to myself as I enter the slum.
The area where I was staying is said to be one of the nicer places. Coming straight from London I could still feel the contrast, but mainly in the state of the streets (culture shock no 3). Recent rain had caused floods, leaving large holes in the ground that rendered walking slightly awkward, and driving a plain inconvenience. This is apparently a regular problem during rainy season (May/June). If the problems were so evident in one of the nicer areas of Accra, how did it affect the people of Agbogbloshie? I will find out and come back with answers to this.
The next day was a failed attempt at receiving a SIM-card and internet stick, as we arrived 40 minutes late to the Vodafone store in Ouso street in central Accra (hence why I have only been able to post this blog post now). It was also the day I realized that I had forgotten my towel (sorry Douglas Adams and Towelie) and the USB chord to my camera. Until I get this chord, there will unfortunately be no pictures (apologies all around). I will try to correct this as soon as I can. [Author’s note: I’ve now managed to upload some photos taken around this time]
After spending over 12 hours without internet, the withdrawal was too much and I spent several hours desperately searching for an open internet café on a Sunday. Not a good idea. The sun was burning hot, and finding open shops on a Sunday in a very, very Christian country proved impossible.
Walking down a street in my hunt for the World Wide Web I was joined by Robert, a local who was on his way to church and asked if I wanted to follow. I was suspicious at first, having experienced the sneakiness of some people looking for an easy way to get some money. Thinking it would be an interesting experience, I decided to follow, and discovered along the 35-minute walk that he really was only looking to make a friend. The friendliness of Ghanaians continues to amaze me. After a quick session in what can only be described as the most powerful Sunday ceremony I have ever witnessed (clapping of hands, dancing, singing and loud preaching), we went for a bobra (pint) of Club beer. After he showed me all the way back, I left him with a promise that we’d see each other for when Ghana played its first match in the football world cup. (Btw, hating on Suarez for what he did last time is a great ice breaker here).
At the time of writing (June 8th, 10pm) I have experienced about 5-6 power outages. When asked for the reason behind these outages, answers range from problems with the Akosombo dam to floods causing trees to fall and damage electrical wires. I have not yet experienced running water from a tap (there seems to be regular problems with the water pipes – culture shock no 4) and have become very comfortable using buckets of water from the nearby reservoir to wash.
This will do for now. Work has yet to start in practice but I am becoming more familiar with customs here, as I try my best to avoid using my left hand. I am excited to see the Fadama Legal Assistance Program first-hand tomorrow and will return with my first impressions of Agbogbloshie in two days, all thing’s being well. Or should I say, inshallah.