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David @ Tokyo

Perspective from Japan on whaling and whale meat, a spot of gourmet news, and monthly updates of whale meat stockpile statistics



Ghana - Day 1

In mid-March I took a trip with my lovely wife to Ghana. It was a short but great trip and I wish we had been able to spend more time there.

How did it come about? When the idea of going to Ghana came up it was a very much a "now or never" decision, as my wife has a friend (KG) living and working there right now (for just a few more months), as a JOCV (Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteer). My wife has an interest in Africa and African development, and for me Africa was a fascination when I was a young lad growing up in New Zealand reading Willard Price novels.

And so it was that we arrived at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, having come from the final stages of what had been a rather cold Tokyo winter. What we stepped out of our Emirates flight to was 30 degree plus heat not too unlike what we'd get here during late August or early September. If you don't know and haven't already pulled out a map to check for yourself, Ghana is located in sub-Sahara Western Africa, and the capital of Accra is located on the Southern Coast, facing towards the Gulf of Guinea.

Despite having already obtained a visa before arriving, the Airport immigration guys were pretty stern and perhaps genuinely suspicious of what we had come to Ghana for. After successfully making my way through the immigration gates, a poster on the wall gave me a clue of what sort of concerns they have about allowing people in. The poster was advising English speaking foreigners looking for tourism of the less savoury sort that it would be in everyone's best interests if such visitors went elsewhere instead.

The airport was relatively small and old compared to Haneda, Osaka and Dubai from where we had come, but later KG informed us that it had undergone some renovations in advance of the 2008 African nations soccer tournament that had been held there in January and February a few week before we were there.

We found our way through to the passenger exit of the airport, and had no trouble spotting KG amongst the crowd of otherwise mostly African people (KG lives further north in Ghana, apparently a 6 hour bus ride, and had come down to Accra to meet us). As soon as we went through the exit we had several African guys, apparently taxi drivers, offering to take us. And now some smiling faces too! Other guys tagging along were eagerly offering (or to us initiated, almost demanding) to carry our luggage for us (hopefully to the cab). We were travelling light so there was no need to accept (or submit to) these offers.

Although Ghana's official language is English, the local Twi language (so far as I understand) is what people in southern Ghana prefer to speak, and having KG with us, having been there long enough to learn the lingo and local ways of doing things, was a nice advantage. KG negotiated a taxi fare with a driver (there are no meters in most taxis - the end destination and price to get there is is negotiated and agreed upfront, and fee paid upon arrival), and we headed across the road to a car park. At this stage one of the guys demanding to carry the luggage became even more keen to help me load our luggage into the car, and so I let him do so, and got in the back passenger seat. Then, as we were about to take off the guy came around from the back of the car to my window and requested to me:
"Tip... just a small tip?"
Huh? I looked in front of me.
"What for?"
I asked KG who was in the front passenger seat. Don't worry, was the answer - the guy was just trying to get a tip for the minimum effort expended on loading our single bag into the back of the car (which I would have done myself had the guy allowed me to do so!). I still had no local currency (or USD) on me anyway, having just arrived. Apparently tipping has no origins in Ghana, but the locals created it for themselves, probably after someone realised that in places like America people get cash for providing good service. In Ghana this guy at least was trying to get a tip for an unwanted and unrequested service, so his concept was a little different :)

One of the things that really struck me as soon as we arrived and were travelling along the road was that people, mostly ladies, really do carry stuff around on their heads. It's not just when carrying things around, but also when vending things such bananas and other fruits, water, plus a myriad of other things. If you're selling something, stacking it on a neat pile on top of a big wide plate and then balancing the plate on one's head seems to be the standard way of showing that your portable vending services are open for business. What impressed me the most about this was the excellent balance displayed by all - even when walking, the wide plates balanced carefully upon heads seemed as if they were glued in place, for there was no wobble or hint that the plates might fall off. Mastering this is probably similar to learning to drive or use chopsticks though I guess.

Another thing that quickly became evident was that many Ghanaians are very religious. Christianity is apparently the main religion, and many of the buildings (shops?) we passed were adorned with one line messages of The Lord, the same goes for many vehicles. Most taxi drivers play music (often loudly, Bob Marley a favourite), but one we took in the later part of our journey was listening to a preacher on a radio show.

A further observation is that Ghanaians love their flags (as well as soccer). Again taxis and vehicles were evidence of this, many being adorned with a small flag displaying Ghana's red, yellow and green colours (if you look closely at the photo above which I took from the back seat of our taxi from the airport you can see an example).

KG had booked us a hotel in Accra's Osu area. In Tokyo terms, Osu is Accra's equivalent of Aoyama, or in Wellington terms, the equivalent of Courtney Place. Still, here most buildings are single or two storey at the most - a couple of new modern exceptions such as a recently constructed bank (with security guard) at the door stood out. One of the "landmarks" in the area is a large western supermarket called "Koala", located beside the Danquah Circle. Our hotel, which also had a Vietnamese restaurant, was a few hundred metres walk down a road from there (Chez Lien homepage).

We checked our bags into the hotel and then returned to the action area in Osu. Various souvenir shops adorned the sides of the road, and many people called out their welcomes (and again in some cases, demand-like offers) to buy some of their products. KG and my wife were greeted with numerous "Ni-haos" and the occasional "Konnichiwa" (it was obvious that there are more Chinese than Japanese in Ghana), whereas in my case I got lots of hellos and also a few of the more aggressive peddlers seemed to come my way. The sequence is they first introducing themselves by name, extend their hand, ask your name, and then after becoming acquainted immediately proceeding to request (or almost demand) that you buy their wares.

With Accra being close to the coast we figured we might be able to find a beach not far away, and indeed after walking down the main street of Osu, past various restaurants (Western and Chinese) we took a left and saw what we thought looked like a beach in the distance.

Well, my preconception of the beach was off the mark - at first. As we neared the shoreline it seemed like the smell was getting worse. When I got back to Japan later, several people said the fresh Ghana air must have been lovely. The reality in Accra, which is a fairly heavily populated city, is that an abundance of older vehicles (= stinky exhaust fumes) and under-developed infrastructure (open sewers, or urination in public once you get away from the main road) means the air was not as great as one might blissfully imagine. And at least in terms of infrastructure the situation was worse as we headed away from Osu and down towards the beach we had spotted. Instead of finding a beach we got the impression that we were heading into a shoreline slum or rubbish dump instead, but after checking with a local we got a confirmation that we could get to the beach if we continued on in the direction we were heading.

As you can see, we found the beach. It looked like quite a flash joint on the promontory you see in the distance there, but we were just out for an afternoon stroll before taking it easy in the evening after our flight, so after relaxing near the boats you see there on the right, we turned around and headed back to the hotel. Kana got some nicer photos with the digital camera (below)

Here's an instance of the carrying-stuff-on-the-head thing, although most people don't use their hands at all:

On the way back we got some photos of the local living conditions (this is just beside the beach, inshore):

That was pretty much it for us that day - we went back to the hotel and relaxed for the rest of it being tired from our journey from the other side of the world.

We decided not to go so far to have dinner - just to the front desk of the hotel in fact, where the restaurant / bar was located. This was the night when we would enjoy our first Star beer. Star is Ghana's local brew and it is a mighty fine brew indeed.

I'll finish with some photos of the art that decorated the walls of our hotel room that we stayed in that night.

The Ghana saga will continue...

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