Accra, Ghana – Christmas madness

The full set of Accra photos are here

After a brief overnighter in Dubai, which seemed ridiculously modern and comfortable after Jordan, we flew into the heart of Africa.  Well, not the heart exactly, a little more to the west and on the coast to the capital of Ghana, Accra.  For those that have been following my various travels for over a decade you might remember my missed flight to Egypt (curse London traffic) so it was a redemptive feeling to get off the plane on the African continent at last.

Big cities are not the major attraction of Africa, especially sub-saharan.  If Accra is indicative of the general standard then we will be avoiding them as much as possible.  Accra is bogged in traffic, polluted in every way imaginable and has nothing to recommend it other than the people being easy going.  Hotels are stupidly expensive so we stayed in the one place that could be booked over the internet without breaking the bank.  The room itself was good.  We got a free upgrade to a huge room with air-conditioning so no complaints there.  On the downside it was 30 minutes to an hour from downtown, depending how lost the taxi driver got, had nothing worthwhile to see nearby (and I include restaurants and supermarkets in that list) and the promised internet was always going to be fixed tomorrow (welcome to Africa).  They also served some very ordinary food.  The fried chicken was a strange colour and served with fried rice that had half a tin of white pepper in it.  When we tried the local food one night, okra stew with banku, a fermented maize dough, it was pretty hard to get down. The stew had flavourings of dried fish which you see sitting in the sun at the market and a layer of red palm oil on the surface.  The banku sticks to the roof of the mouth and its additional flavouring of raw fermented dough don’t improve the dish.

We didn’t exactly have high expectations for Accra so none of this was especially disappointing.  We had early nights and watched Game of Thrones on our laptop.  Local TV was mainly comprised of soap operas from all over the world which were instantly addictive.  The local news broadcast had some comical technical quirks, such as when the newsreader finished her introduction only for the stories stock footage to continue for thirty seconds before the required quote came up, or if there is not enough footage for the words they will just loop the footage over and over.  The local newsreader was in traditional dress, something a bit like a toga, which looked very impressive.  The traditional clothing is fantastically colourful.  Women on the street wear colourful dresses with babies swaddled to their back with some cloth.  It doesn’t look all that comfortable for their baby.  Their heads are jammed up against their Mum’s back but they sleep peacefully all the same.

The school girls here all have shaved heads which is a very practical and conformist hair cut.  It carries on sometimes into adulthood as well which strikes me as preferable in a hot climate to the massive piles of dreads that some people sport.  I got a haircut in Accra as well and I have to say that, although time consuming, it was the best haircut of my life.  I arrived in Africa in dire need of a trim not having had any hair lopped off since my last haircut in Sydney.  My hair tends not to grow down so much as out, becoming incredibly thick and burdensome.  Maybe this is not helped by my “no shampoo” challenge. I haven’t used shampoo in years, the idea being that natural oils in your head balance out given time. This is generally not a problem but with my hair turning into a birds nest it was essential to lighten my load on arrival in the tropics, and what better time to get my head completely shaved for the first time.

We turned up at one of the many shanty town style hole in the wall barbers and sat down to wait my turn.  When I got in the chair it turned out the the barber only had a number one gate which was shorter than I was prepared to go without knowing how my head was going to look, so even though it was only $3 we had to bid him farewell.  He pointed out a fancier barber down the street where I paid a whole $10, but what a haircut experience it was.  Blessedly air-conditioned with the most comfortable chairs I have ever experienced while getting trimmed.  The barber gave me a short back and sides then proceeded to nervously trim my hair.  After some failed communication attempts he got the message and gleefully shaved my entire head.  That was not the end of the experience.  As Sarah sat on the couch sipping her drink I had my newly exposed scalp massaged with a variety of oils and creams until I felt a new man.  $10 well spent.

Our business during the day was admin related, getting a Benin visa, a local sim card, local money.  We got driven around in taxis in what we can only assume was especially bad pre-Christmas traffic.  God help them if it’s like this all the time. Spray painted on walls everywhere are messages saying “Don’t urinate here….or here….or here” and “This property is NOT for sale.”  People wander through the traffic selling all sorts of potentially useful items, fruit, brushes for sweeping the dust from the inside of your car, mobile phone top-up cards, small appliances, all mainly carried in large metal bowls on their heads.  They do a roaring trade in fresh water which is sold in a soft plastic cube a corner of which is then ripped off to suck the water out as you drive a couple of tourists around in your taxi.

It’s not easy finding your way around as a taxi driver.  Many places don’t have a street address for the very practical reason that many of the streets don’t have names and almost none have numbers.  You’re lucky to get a suburb to go to and then it’s a matter of asking people when you get there if they know when the Benin embassy is, for example.  For the limited directions they get these guys do amazingly well but it’s not a very efficient system for a city of around 3 million residents.  Rubbish is strewn everywhere which might be due to lack of bins and garbage collection.  It’s actually cleaner than a lot of other cities in developing countries we have seen.  There are some slums which we drove through on their dirt roads as shortcuts every now and then.  Apart from horrendously unsanitary drains, no doubt there is no running water, they are clean and well organised.  There are little shops everywhere all with religious names like Jesus Weeps for You Barber shop.  Religious labelling extends to the bumper stickers such as “Thank you Lord J” and “U + Jesus = Enough”.  The radio in taxis is often tuned to the preaching station where African preachers ramble on with completely random statements made to cheering crowds.

The only sightseeing we did was to go to the memorial for Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the former socialist president of Ghana who was deposed and ended up dying in Guinea after being co-president of that country.  We also made it to the national museum which had some interesting drums and textiles but was mainly interesting for its new music exhibition which had a couple of videos, one on hip-life, a Ghanaian brand of music most similar to big band which has been mixed with hip-hop in recent years.  They also had a video showing a pidgin musical, which was actually a hip-hop opera called Cov ov Moni.  Check it out on YouTube or buy the soundtrack.

In between the memorial and the museum we walked through the big open air market in town.  In was complete chaos as vendors crowded the footpath with their pile of shows or bowls full of live enormous snails (hopefully not the ones that give you bilharzia and kidney failure but we weren’t going to be the guinea pigs for that).  We saw a photo of the same street a couple of days later on the frontpage of the paper and if possible the crowds became even worse in the days before Christmas.  It looked more like a mosh pit than a market with cars trying to force their way through the crowds.

We went for a traditional pre-Christmas trip to the mall while we were waiting for our Benin visa to be ready.  It is a new mall on the northern outskirts of the city where the burgeoning middle class hang out and the suburbs stretch to the horizon.  It was odd to see shelves full of whitening cream in the pharmacy.  I guess everyone just wants olive coloured skin.  Guiness have the Ghana soft drink and beer market totally sewn up, lord knows how.  They even make a popular non-alcoholic malt drink which tastes a bit like sweet weetbix mush.  We got a hit of carols, stocked up on mince pies and were on our way down the coast for a ten day break by the beach.

The full set of Accra photos are here

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