The five weeks of pre-departure training in Toronto before my arrival last Wednesday in Ghana, was like climbing up to the high diving board at the pool. On the way to the top, we learned all sorts of great theoretical things about diving, water, swimming techniques and what to do if things went wrong, but the closer I got to the jump off point, the more inevitable a full-on, stinging belly flop into Africa seemed. As the water rushed closer to smacking me in the face, whilst flying from Toronto to Cairo and then on to Accra, I settled on a strategy of limp resignation and blind faith in the universe to go easy on me.
Arrival in Accra, was actually quite smooth, having our colleague Neal pick us up (I traveled with one other APS, Gordon), and take us to a basic, but very comfortable hotel near the airport. From there we took a walk through one of the nicer areas of the city to the Accra Mall, for a double slap of culture shock. The mall is a beacon of consumerism, conspicuous consumption, globalization and American culture (you can buy golf clubs and cat food), standing in stark contrast to the dirt roads, chaotic traffic, and street vendors hocking phone cards and BBQ from glass boxes on their heads just outside. (This is a very similar establishment to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which was in the news this week.) Having purchased a mosquito net and some phone credit, we once again simultaneously left and entered reality on the way outside.
The first few days in the hot and bothered metropolis of Accra were a blur of traffic, heat manifest as a physical force, awkward expat herd dinners, byzantine marketplaces, tro-tro buses and many other sights and sounds that defy description and loosen my grasp on reality. Back to the swimming metaphor, this is when I have realized that I have floated too far from the shore and the current is pulling me further out to sea. The panicked mix of embarrassment, guilt and shear desperation to return home was more of a shock than I expected having traveled and lived overseas before, but I do not think this first reaction will have a lasting effect on my stay here.
For better or worse, I was only in Accra for about three and a half days before moving North to my permanent base in the city of Tamale (more to come on that, next post). What I can say about Accra is only what was gleaned from my short stay, but the first impressions were very powerful. First of all, Ghana and Accra are not Africa-lite or Africa For Beginners, as far as I can tell, they are very much the real thing. Depending on how you crop the photo, however, you can capture very different worlds. The contradictions, disparities and contrasts were the most pronounced that I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. As the Lonely Planet describes it, Accra seems to be simultaneously crumbling and building; failing and succeeding; and moving forward and backward (and every other direction) with equal determination and momentum. There’s a sense of tremendous activity with the traffic and building boom, but also crushing tedium as people sit by their road side stands and wait patiently for the next customer to happen by. There are all conceivable manner of consumer goods available, the very best in technology and communications, fancy clothes and shoes, one of the most expensive rental housing markets in Africa, and amazingly new and well-kept European and Asian automobiles clogging the streets. Existing in exasperating contrast to this technological modernity are the open sewers, goat herds, dirt roads and grinding poverty that seem to be in somewhat reluctant coexistence with each other. As seems to be a trend with most modern economic systems, it is much easier to put a fancy cellphone and a cold Coke in the hands of every citizen than it is to build roads, keep the power on, and keep people healthy.
I will definitely get a chance to go back to Accra, during my time in Ghana and I hope to do a lot more exploring and learning, especially in the cultural and historical areas, as there’s clearly a lot more going on below the surface. On the final leg of my journey, I will be travelling overland to the Northern capital of Tamale about two-thirds the way up the country, where I will be living permanently.