Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghana 2017 - Day 2. My first ramblings through Accra

When I asked my friends in Ethiopia what kind of folks Ghanaian were, they answered “They are soft-spoken, like us. They don’t shout like the Nigerians”. Coming from some of the gentlest people on Earth this was indeed high praise. However, my sources forgot to mention that the people of Ghana like group songs, and that they like to congregate to sing late at night, and that they like to play songs very early in the morning, at full volume so all can enjoy them.

Now, I had woken at 2 am in the morning, at the insistent ringing of my brand new cell phone. My parents had just read yesterday’s blog, and they were calling to congratulate me on my good fortune for having landed in paradise. I was very happy to hear their voices!

My first disappointment happened when I was going to plug my electric kettle to fix an early morning cup of coffee. Of course the plug was different than what the fixture in the wall could accommodate. Rats! So I added to the list of things to do the note “Buy adapter in town”, and went out to seek a cup of coffee. Nothing! In spite of the loud music there was no person stirring, not even a mouse. Maybe it is because today is Saturday? Saturday! Oh, today is the day the students arrived, so I better get to the USAC office and join the welcoming party. It gave me a good excuse to go for a morning walk and further admire my new university. When I got to the International House, one of the prettiest buildings in campus, I found the porter, who assured me that no one was coming to work on Saturday. I felt I needed to give it a second chance, and went for further exploration until I came to a Shell gas station with a mini-mart, where I bought a yoghurt and a pastry for breakfast (no coffee, though).

By 9 am I was back at the International House, where it was clear the porter was right. Fortunately I now have a phone, so I called Abigail, the Program Director, who after a few words of welcome told me that they would be going to receive the first batch of students at 7 pm, and yes they would be glad to come pick me up at Volta Hall on their way to the airport.

OK, that means I have the full day to myself, so I will go explore Accra on my own. I went back to Volta Hall to drop off my backpack, and armed only with my map and some water headed out. At the desk of Volta Hall I was regretfully informed that there was no adapter for my electric kettle, and that I could take a mini-bus (here called a trotro) to downtown right outside of the entrance to the university. Piece of cake, and for just two cedis (US$ 0.50) I had a front seat ride down the handsome Liberation Rd. to downtown (about 15 km). Accra is clearly prosperous and growing vertically almost as fast as Addis (soon all African cities will look alike), but the mini-bus terminal is in the backdrop of town, right in the midst of the open market. You know I am not faint of heart, but I am not a fool either. I had the feeling that this was an unsafe environment, so I walked rapidly, with my hands in my pockets, until I got to High Street. Right away I knew two factoids: One, the British had at some point been the masters in Ghana, and two that this was where I could expect most of the government offices and old businesses to be located.

I followed the road to the east, and right away came to the Mausoleum Park to Kwame Nkrumah, the recognized Founding Father of modern Ghana. I will probably expand on my knowledge of Ghanaian history, but what I learned from my visit is that Ghana had been invaded by the Portuguese, then the Danish, and finally the British. All of them exploited the region as a source of slaves, but also as a source of gold (Archean lode mineralization and secondary beach placers?). The British thus referred to this portion of their empire as The Gold Coast. As the British empire fell apart after World War II, native thinkers like Ghandi in India and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana strongly argued for native rule, and in 1957 The Gold Coast became emancipated as the country of Ghana, and after the interim transition period Kwame Nkrumah became its first president (1960-1966). President Nkrumah was as influential as Nelson Mandela was in South Africa, and greatly increased the standing of the country in international circles, but he was ousted by a military/police coup and eventually died in 1970. More Ghanaian history will follow as the days go by.

On my way down Liberation Rd. I had seen an ad for an electric supplies store that promised to solve all your needs. I forget what the store was called, but I noticed it was in Opera Square, and when I saw a sign with that name I dove in and joined the shopping crowd. Pretty soon I was surrounded by all sorts of street stalls selling anything electric your heart might desire, so I promptly became the proud owner of an adapter that will make my mornings oh so much happier.

I followed High Street to the east all the way to The Lighthouse, but by then I was pretty sure I was in the bad part of town. A smiling young man approached me and offered to guide me through the fort, the lighthouse, and the fishing village (which was as if someone would offer to guide me through the alleys of Old Peralvillo in Mexico City). I jokingly declined, walked a few hundred feet farther, and with relief jumped into a mini-bus. I am beginning to enjoy the reliability of mini-buses, where you can always find a friendly person that will take you under his or her wing. In this case was an older man (he looked like Morgan Freeman), who told me where to get down, and gave me further instructions to West High Street, which is where I should have headed to begin with. Bless his soul.

Today is Saturday, which means it is funeral day here in Accra. As I was walking near Independence Square I saw at least three funeral processions heading for the cemetery. At first sight it looks more like soccer fans celebrating the win of the their team, with honks honking and people waving, even as the Hearst goes by (invariably followed by a car with a man hanging precariously out the window and recording the whole way). They are full black attire affairs, though, so the impression of joviality is short-lived. Claudia later confirmed my observations, adding that funerals are commonly held on weekends that fall or follow the first of the month, when people are paid and have money to pay for the costly ceremony and gathering,

By then I was hungry. I had been scouting for a small, quiet restaurant, but I found none. There are plenty of street vendors, but I needed something a bit more formal so I could make my baby steps over a printed menu. I think I am living on an alternate reality, however, because as hard as I looked I couldn’t find one. Then I spotted a crowd at the Conventions Center, so I headed there to find a full exposition on bridal gear, including makeup, dresses, wedding cakes, and wedding caterers. Most important, however, was a big food court where I was sure to find something good to eat. I approached the barbecue area, where broiled chicken seemed like a good bet. I ordered a serving of chicken, but somehow managed to order a full chicken. Normally that would have been too much, but it was a scrawny chicken, roasted to death, so it shrunk to a manageable amount of chicken jerky. It tasted great, however, and the adjacent stall of Pepsi provided me with plenty of drink at just 1 cedi (a quarter) a bottle.

This business of being a pedestrian is wearing thin, so I am going to have to get me some wheels, at least for the weekend. In the meantime I was ready to head home, so I walked to Liberation Rd., asked a young woman what was the right mini-bus to take. She took me under her wing, told me to take the one advertised as going to Madina (you need to listen carefully at what the ticket-man sing songs as the mini-bus approaches the stop), and shoved me into the right ahead of herself. Then I had a magic moment. I was transported to Botswana, sandwiched between a traditionally-built lady on the left, and a young no-nonsense modern lady on the right. I was surrounded by Africa, and I loved every moment of it.

When I got back home I was hot, sweaty, and ready to take a cold shower. I am going to use the time to write this blog, watch TV, and relax. Goodness gracious! I was channel-scanning when I stumbled on a Mexican telenovela, El Cuerpo del Deseo, dubbed in Twi! No wonder everyone smiles broadly when I tell them I am from Mexico J

Note: Twi (pronounced chewy) is the most common language spoken in southern Ghana. It is a highly tonal language, in which all vowels have short and long sounds, and three levels of intonation, low, intermediate, and high (something like papa, Papa, and papá in Spanish). To the untrained ear it sounds distinctly African but with a hint of Chinese tones.

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