Accra, 22 February 2009.
We wake up to the sounds of religious chants from the Christian center next door. In Ghana, there are churches all over the place and they are packed every week… You can’t miss them ! Churches often feature live music, and while passing by I have several times seen people take the microphone to add their testimonies of spiritual enlightenment. Atheists such as me better swerve when religion comes as a discussion topic : every Ghanaian is a true believer and will lecture you given the opportunity.
We wake up lazily and enjoy an English breakfast on the hotel’s roof. The staff is very nice and we are the only guests in the six rooms hotel. By the way, I recommend this hotel heartily even though it exceeds any typical backpacking budget. Its official name is Golden Oyster Executive Hotel – In Ghanaian English, “executive” means anything that is sophisticated and commands premium pricing.
The sky is a gray ceiling with light rain falling, but it is already so hot that you don’t notice the rain drops falling among your own perspiration. I scan the 802.11 frequency bands but no networks are detected. Data roaming does not seem to be functional in Ghana – at least I won’t be tempted to spend my money !
“Papa, please close your eyes and open your mouth” – and next thing I know I’m chewing on fresh garlic… Pauline probably got that from the hotel’s kitchen and somehow decided I would be the guinea pig for that mystery food.
Next up, assembling the bikes minus one seat and stowing away the flight bags. I use one bike bag for each bike, and a big duffel bag to keep three of the panniers together for the flight. I keep the fourth pannier as a carry-on to protect the most fragile stuff. To pack the bikes, I only disassemble the handlebars, the seats, the trailer’s beam and the big bike’s front wheel – so that assembly is a quickly expedited affair. In theory I should have bothered with disassembling the pedals, but their width is actually not a problem. Removing the pannier racks would have hugely reduced the package’s length and facilitated transportation, but then disassembly and assembly would have been much a more involved business and I prefer to have the bike arrive in a configuration whose solidity I trust. As usual, the tandem bike is a sure-fire conversation starter with any passerby.
Before leaving the hotel I noted its address : East Legon, opposite the Christian center, near the A&C shopping mall. Yes, that is an actual address, as good as you’ll get in most African locations. We are then free to descend downtown Accra for some sightseeing. The hotel lies in a quiet leafy suburb near the airport. A very nice neighborhood even, as measured by how the villas are built and decorated, how vegetation is kept and the amount of security that surrounds them – though the street in the neighborhood are still beaten earth strips sided by ditches with partly broken covers. But there is construction going on in many streets so that might change.
A short walk away from the hotel we catch a tro-tro apparently heading in the general direction of the city center, but it drops us at Nkrumah Circle, a stinking muddy African minibus yard cum marketplace where finding our next tro-tro took some searching among the chaos and language difficulties – the quintessential African experience.
Badly covered drainage ditches, stagnant water with decomposing matter, dust and traffic produce the patented smell of Africa, although the Ghanaian version is very tame and only appears in the worse neighborhoods – in other places the public utilities seems to work rather well. Part of the reason for the relative cleanliness might be the omnipresence of public urinals which make rogue excretive exercises less frequent, although the drainage ditch does seem to double as a toilet – one more reason to watch your step for missing covers. But with dirt and filth often around them, many Africans make a point of being spotlessly clean – in Accra I even saw a several occurrences of a guy hand-washing the wheels of his vehicle with a sponge. And those were apparently not vehicles for sale.
Private schools advertise their results on billboards. With unreliable public services, Africans have no choice but to be entrepreneurs, and education is a market like any other. In Ghana there are establishments named “remedial schools” that are focused on supplementary teaching. It is the same as evening classes in Europe, but the advertising is surprising : instead of being focused on success, the unique selling proposition is invariably based on “not failing”.
It is Sunday so most of the shops in what on the map appeared as the historical center are closed. On the way to Jamestown, I start recording our positions so that I can geotag the pictures. the lack of activity, the derelict buildings and the odd abandoned one produce a strangely quiet atmosphere. Accra’s urban landscape is rather low and extensive, like an overgrown small town.
We came across a card playing competition with a big scoreboard and a couple dozen of animated tables – I snatched a couple pictures and nobody paid attention to us. Most people in Accra don’t care about photography anyway, and they sometimes even show off a bit.
Jamestown is supposed to be next to the historical center, but it is very derelict with obvious signs of poverty. But even in this sort of environment, there is not a sign of hassle, aside from a timid half hearted demand from time to time. One girl tried a pass at me – which earned me stern looks from the guys, and a boy tried to sell me fish – yeah I obviously need fresh fish. I felt very secure here, apart from the ship construction yard workers who don’t seem to like tourist intrusion. In any case, this is not cadeau country – this makes me feels much more relaxed.
The harbour, which is actually a beach protected by a breakwater, is a very interesting place with fishermen mending nets, boats coming and going, children playing in the water, equipment strewn all over the place, habitat in the middle of it all and as usual in Africa heaps of people milling around with mysterious purposes.
Behind the harbour, people live in narrow alleys where a few goats munch on plantain skins. The presence of goats is a clue that this is a poor neighborhood. Goats eat anything and no vegetation is left.
From what I gather from my feelings and talking with locals, apart from the odd petty thief the place is safe. In crowded neighborhood, the odd opportunistic petty thief is all you have to worry about – but I’m warned that deserted estates at night are a different story.
We pass by the childhood shack of a famous Ghanaian football player with a life-size portrait painted on the front. Not far, a flock of kids dances in front of a wall of loudspeakers – I did not want to intrude with the camera, but the scene looked like a ragga music video. The best pictures are the one you did not take…
The advertising plastered on walls mostly falls in the following categories :
- Mobile telephony
The obituaries are A4 or A3 posters, often in color and containing a picture of the recently departed along with biographical information. I had never noticed them before in other African countries.
A mobile telephony operator advertises free airtime in exchange for receiving inbound calls. I had never seen this marketing scheme anywhere else, but it makes a lot of sense to cash in on termination fees by encouraging prepaid users to ask for calls. The effect could be compounded by having network preferential rates for the postpaid users.
Kwame Nkrumah memorial park is a tidy place, apparently a favorite of wedding photographers with no less than four couples and their suite posing in the park. According to Wisdom <firstname.lastname@example.org>, the only Ghanaian in the park who is not part of a wedding, few Ghanaians come here for any purpose other than the photo opportunity – although Nkrumah remains a big figure with no less than three political parties claiming to be their heir.
I don’t know what earned me all the smiles from the bridesmaids, and chatting chatting one up definitely crossed my mind but I tried to remain focused on purely touristic endeavours. I learned from the small exhibition near the mausoleum that after having been ousted in 1966, Nkrumah had been named co-president of the Republic of Guinea. A picture as early as 1960 shows them together. After all I’m not surprised, but it is the first time I see it mentioned.
A couple of roller skaters glide by, one quad and one inline. I had seen a couple in Dakar too, but roller skaters on the African streets are uncommon enough to be noticed. Accra even has enough properly tarred roads for fun skating rides, although the wild traffic might be too much for most riders to handle.
Short African minibus tutorial – lines exist but all minibuses are alike, with no sign displaying where they are going and the bus stops show no distinctive indication either. So you have to have to listen to the minibus monkey boy calling the destination as the minibus pulls by, and quickly decide if the line ending there passes by where you want to go. The locals have a general idea of what line goes where, but few people can read a map, notions of geography are ofter limited to uni-dimensional concepts and in some places people are not comfortable with reading, so communicating with a map is not going to get you anywhere. Just talk to whoever you find and you will end up finding someone you can communicate with effectively, who knows where you are going and who will point you to the right bus. So “East Legon, opposite the Christian centre, near the A&C shopping mall” might see like a strange address to Europeans, but it is really the best one for finding your way home.
On the way we passed by the brand new presidential palace, a shiny piece of modern architecture whose cost overruns are currently a matter of much debate in Ghanaian politics. Some government buildings such as the national theater are definitely worth a sight – interesting architectural trends express themselves there. The rest is the usual utilitarian lot of post-independence administrative buildings. In Takoradi I learned from Arama’s father that the National Theater was built by the Chinese, as a few other buildings in Accra and other places – such as Takoradi’s stadium for example. The presidential palace on the other hand was built by Indians.
Legon and Legon East are farther than they sound. Following the the Legon line we became temporarily unaware of our whereabouts. While Pauline was drinking and eating a coconut, darkness fell. At this latitudes, darkness falls very fast. We tried another direction and then ended up getting a taxi for the last leg. On the way we drove past a drugstore where I found Malarone for Pauline for 90 Cedis, slightly less expensive than in Paris. Street peddlers use a tin can and a wick as a makeshift oil lamp. I spotted a girl frying coconut – I have to try that !
The night is quiet as there are barely any mosquitoes in Accra, a nice break from the usual tropical fare. But in the bush out of the city I have been told to expect having to use lots of repellent. After fooling around in the hotel’s pool, we showered and washed our clothes while showering – the most efficient way to do it, trust my experience. We then headed out to grab dinner. As we chatted with Sharon, the nice lady who built and owns the hotel, I showed her the pictures we took today. She recognized Jamestown and told us that although she spent a few years in Europe, she is the queen of Jamestown. Named Sharon, she goes by the name of Queen Sha. She showed me pictures of events where she is carried on a ceremonial chair. She is the heir of a centuries old title previously held by her mother. We are hosted by royalty – nice !