Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ghana

I first visited Ghana twelve years ago, recently I had the opportunity to revisit Accra, and I was keen to see what changes, if any had been made.
Stepping off the plane at Kotoka International airport in Accra was like stepping into a blast furnace. Even though it was 11pm the humidity levels must have been in the mid 90% range.
Had I remembered this I would have been prepared with a towel to control the copious amounts of sweat that seemed to erupt from every pore. And on top of that I had to deal with passport control and the usual throng of porters and taxi drivers all trying to attract my attention and my business.
I have to admit that in-spite of the mass of humanity, the airport functioned extremely well and I was on my way to my hotel in a very short time.
My hotel was an eye opener, as it seemed to clad entirely of turquoise blue tiles…there must have been a special on at the builder’s supplier when the hotel was built.
I found it to be a sort of mix between the old hotels that you find on the KZN coast and Muizenberg in the 60’s and 70’s.
The airconditioner in my room strained to keep the cool in and the heat out and the housekeeping staff had an annoying habit of turning it off as soon as I left my room. This meant that I invariably returned to a clean room that was like a sauna. (But I have stayed in worse accommodation so it did not warrant complaining about.
Ghana has fixed their local currency (Cedi) to the US$ it makes a visit somewhat expensive for a South African.
Although soft drinks sell for R15.00 and beer around R40.00 I found it possible to have a reasonable meal for less than $15.00
Like most of the African cities I have visited, Accra is exciting and vibrant and one that I was looking forward to exploring.
I do not enjoy doing the usual “tourist” type activities and I steer away from tour groups and guides unless there is an absolute necessity for them. Language in certain counties can be a problem, but that was not the case in Accra as most of the locals speak English. Occasionally their accent that can be difficult to understand but that is part of the allure of visiting foreign country.
And speaking of allure, where else in the world can you find a colony of straw coloured Fruit Bats in the centre of a town? This colony was in Accra 12 years ago and numbering in the tens of thousands they provide a great photo opportunity for tourists as well as a food source for the locals. (I tried a bat stew while on a visit to the Seychelles and found it to be like eating chicken wings, but with less meat on the bone) The colony has chosen to live on a military base, perhaps that is why their numbers have remained constant. Interestingly enough although most bat species are nocturnal the majority of this colony seems to be awake during the day. At night the entire colony moves out of the city to feed, quite a spectacular sight, as these mammals are the size of a Jack Russell.
Although there are regular shops of all sorts most of the roads are lined with informal traders of all descriptions.
It is possible to buy anything from used radiators to gym equipment made out of used car parts. These traders were happy to not only show me their wares, but also took time to share their stories with me. Not once was I made to feel like an outsider, neither did I feel threatened or uncomfortable with the locals that I met.
I discovered high quality bespoke beds and lounge suites being manufactured on the road side and if I had wanted I could have a coffin made to my own design. (This trend seems to be specific to West Africa with coffins in the shape of beer bottles and even airplanes)
I needed a charger for my digital camera and none of the “main stream” electronic stores was able to help at a reasonable price. Luckily during one of my walks I discovered a tiny cell phone shop well of the beaten track. Called “ The Thank God cell phone shop.” This tiny, and I do mean tiny, shop was able to provide me with the charger that I needed. As neither the shop owner nor I had a common language the entire transaction was conducted in sign language and was concluded with big smiles and handshakes all round. My most interesting discovery on these outings was the fact that most of the shop names have some religious connection.
If you are looking for a more formal curio shopping experience, then a visit to The Centre for National Culture is the main tourist craft market is a must. Comprised of a variety of small and large outdoor stalls, all joined by claustrophobically small alleyways it also has an indoor textile and clothing area that is unbearably humid. As this market is usually the first stop on the tourist tours and it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Unfortunately the market does note seem to have grown in the twelve years since my last visit. Although the clothing and textile area seems to be as vibrant and busy as my last visit, the carvers and curio stallholders seem to have decreased and their stalls have become very dilapidated.
The major change that I noticed was that the traders are so desperate to do business that they will offer you outrageous deals in order to get your tourist ‘dollar’. Many of the stalls sell similar products and for that reason it pays to visit as many stalls as you can before reaching a decision. One of the traders I was dealing with was keen to make a sale that he was prepared to take any currency …except our South African Rands. You have to be prepared to haggle, as the traders seem to find this an acceptable form of doing business. I am not great at haggling, but it was pointed out that it is almost disrespectful to accept the first price you are offered. Invariably a deal can be struck by offering to buy from a competitor!
The clamour, heat and tenacity of the traders eventually wore me down and I left without buying anything. I could not wait to go and find quieter and cooler places to visit (I could deal with the heat, but the humidity was making my life a misery. Getting in and out of air conditioned vehicles was my biggest complaint.)
I discovered a wonderful Art Gallery on the way back from the market and although there were several pieces that caught my eye, the prices (most in excess of $2000.00) kept my wallet firmly in my pocket.
Accra is on the coast, but neither the beach nor the water was very inviting. I am not certain what the water temperature is as the beaches I visited were filthy and covered in litter. With the exception of certain hotels that keep their beachfront areas clean and welcoming for their guests, the rest of the Accra coastline is littered with slums. These seem to be inhabited by sections of the local population that still earns a living from fishing out of small canoes. Unfortunately the numbers of these subsistence fishermen are diminishing, as commercial fishing is takes its toll.
The fish that are caught smoked in converted iron barrels and then sold on the side of the road. They seem to be a delicacy but I certainly was not ‘brave’ enough to try them. (They seem to be a mix between a mackerel and a sardine) I did get stuck into packets of Plantain chips that can be bought at every traffic intersection. These seemed to be the healthy (?) alternative to the crisps that we have here. Plantain looks like a small banana and although very bitter when raw they taste like sweet potato when cooked. They can be eaten as a crisp or as an accompaniment to a meal.
As far as food goes, I saw very few vegetables while I was there. Most meals seem consist of either chicken, fish, meat all of which are served with large helpings of CHIPS! These are French fries and the not slap chips that we have here at home. I have to admit that the Ghanaians make great chips. However, I seem to remember having the usual trimmings on the burger that I had, so lettuce and tomato do exist.
There seem to be a lot of unfinished buildings in Accra. It is almost as if the building industry only builds to a point and then moves onto the next project.
The Accra University has been building a stadium for the last four years and although the world class track and centre field are complete the stands are derelict and the facility nowhere near completion.
I will never complain about traffic chaos in Johannesburg again! The centre of Accra makes our roads look tame by comparison. However the drivers seem to be a lot more patient and don’t show the same aggression that South African drivers have come to demonstrate.
There is one way to see an African city and that is to walk through areas that are not infested with tourists.
Four of us undertook a David Attenborough type excursion that got us so lost that we had to use the sun to get us back to our hotel. But during our escapade we discovered the most wonderful shops and locals. We were greeted with smiles wherever we went and, unlike the tourist markets, we never harassed at any time. The favourite local greeting seemed to be “You’re welcome!” an attitude that we should be promoting here in South Africa.
My favourite moment of the trip was finding a group of weavers working on the side of the road. With flying feet and hands their homemade looms turned out the most exquisite multi-coloured scarves and shawls. I spent some time with these weavers who were very proud of the quality and variety of their products. (Although working with hand crafted looms and in the outdoors on the side of the road, one of the weavers did give me his contact e-mail…such is the advance of technology)
My visit to Accra proved that you don’t have to leave the continent to have a memorable experience.
Both SAA and Ghana Air fly direct to Accra.
Recommended visits:
The Centre for National Culture
Independence Square
The National Art Gallery
The National Theatre

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