A Travellerspoint blog

Day One: Trying to get to grips with Accra.

A little bit culture shocked.

semi-overcast 25 °C
View Ghana on Sarabi's travel map.

Breakfast this morning was a pleasant surprise. S had deliberately gone out and searched for all the things he knows I like and bought them for me as my first meal in Ghana! Fresh sweet tea-bread (1), a croissant (not easy to find on the streets of Accra!), and sweet ripe juicy mangoes (2). Alright, I concede that continental pastries are not what one should look for when travelling to a different culinary destination but I definitely appreciated the gradual introduction to strange food rather than a rude awakening first morning after a fair-to-middling night's sleep.

Ghana wasted no time in informing me about her rules regarding noise production. From pre-sunrise to late into the night, all forms of music, animal noises, shouting, blaring TVs and radios etc. are perfectly acceptable and frankly any complaints would fall on confused (and somewhat ironically deaf) ears. Nonetheless, I was determined not to bring my rather British upbringing with me and jettison such expectations of peace and quiet I did.

To top off breakfast, S--with his usual mischievious grin--whips out a beautiful piece of olive-green, blue and yellow fabric he chose for me in Nigeria: 'Ta Da!'. The interlocking designs are enhanced by the offset of each colour from the others... the pattern designed to fit perfectly, but deliberately printed to look like the yellow and blue printer cartridges are out of alignment, gaps of white peaking out in between. Of course, being a textiles nut, I squeaked with delight. My friend T had warned me about bringing half of Ghana's fabric supply back with me. Looks like she might have been right.

S attacked the new Bradt guide-book I brought with me (up until this point he'd been figuring his route across from Abuja using only a continent-wide, rather bulky Lonely Planet. You can imagine the lack of detail in a book that aspires to cover Africa in its entirety). I expressed an interest in the Accra museum for the morning's excursion, but errands had to be run first: S had spent the last 2 days walking the length and breadth of the inner city and had discovered a Stanbic ATM where he wanted to try his Maestro card for Standard Bank South Africa. I had concerned folks to contact and assure of my safe arrival. So we got dressed and off we went to the main Ring road just north of Assylum Down.

The first thing you can't miss when walking around Ghanaian cities on foot is the open gutters. Wits are required to ensure jumping over them at the correct moment to avoid being knocked _into_ them by a passing taxi (any of which will ALWAYS assume that a white person on foot must want a taxi!). The smell emanating from said gutters is far from pleasant, but there are regular cross-over points and fortunately on the more busy roads they tend to be covered over. The streets are lined with various little stalls and plastic tables with wares for sale. S shows me how to spot a 'pure water' vendor--a cooler box perched on a table or crate on the side of the street contains (usually) ice cold 500ml sachets of purified water for only 5 pesewas each (3). Apparently the plastic packets with no stamp on them are dodgy, but we only found the printed, supposedly safe, ones. At 5Ghp for half a litre it's a steal, although they taste awfully chemically if you let them get warm. Drink them while they're cold.

After a successful visit to the Stanbic on Ring Road, we ventured westbound towards Nkrumah Circle to Busy Internet Cafe, a huge modern building with the cars of more affluent Ghanaians parked outside. Along the way, we encountered a hand painted advertisement board with approximately 12 cartoon figures depicted suffering the most graphic ailments, from a man with a lumpy wart-covered penis to a lady squating with blood and guts coming out of her behind. The claim was that this traditional healer could cure all these ailments, from incontinence to 'waist pain'. Ghanaians do not share Western prudishness, and seem to discuss any bodily functions and ailments bluntly and without skaam (shame). In a way, I found it refreshing, not having to pussy-foot around topics that frankly, everybody knows about.

Busy Internet was just that--busy. Good speed, plenty of machines and pretty nippy aircon, given the temperature outside. But at 2 Ghanaian cedis (Ghc) an hour, it's the most expensive place in Accra: the standard fee is around 60 Ghp for an hour (4). We sent relevant emails using S's remaining time, and ventured back to Assylum Down, crossing the main highway and taking the back route along the 'river' (read 'open sewer'). S has obviously made acquaintances with many vendors who he greets along the way. Most point at me and he responds 'my wife!', which draws many nods of acknowledgement. One or two men who are cycling past stop and ask me my name, telling me they want to be 'my friend'... I point at S and ask if they want to be my husband's friend too, to which they just smile and say goodbye and cycle/walk off.

On the corner of Samora Machel road, just on the southern edge of Assylum Down, S introduced me to fresh, soft coconut. A street vendor with a wooden, flat-backed trailer piled high with coconuts selects one, carefully rotating it to check for some unseen signs of ripeness. Then THWACK went his panga (machete), THWACK THWACK THWACK... thinning the top of the coconut hull with each successive shave until the bald core is exposed. One final THWACK lifts an inch-wide lid cleanly off the top, bar a small hinge carefully left in tact. He folded the lid back to reveal a creamy white lining and the internal cavity brimming with clear fluid, handed it to S and received 50 pesewas in exchange. S gave it to me to drink--YUM! I still can't believe how rich the liquid was, it seems so watery. Exactly the way coconut milk would taste sans the sugary sweetness and creamy texture. We marched up the road, I looking very pleased with my newfound refreshment. (5)

I was thrilled to see evidence of the Adinkra symbology all over the place, from Vodafone billboards to gate-designs, fabric prints and even as part of the backing on plastic chairs in restaurants! One stands out as dominant, outnumbering any others 10 to 1: Gye Nyame (http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/gyen.htm). While the website says 'except for God', Ghanaians interpret it as 'I served God'. Christianity was everywhere in Accra--most posters on the street lights and walls were advertisements for some kind of 'supernatural connection with God, every Sunday!', or 'come and see Apostle Daniel liaise with the Holy Spirit!', to funeral advertisements, showing the deceased in their best kente garb titled 'CALL TO GLORY!' with a long obituary, all printed on A3 colour spread. It's quite apparent that my atheism will prevent me from accessing a very important part of Ghanaian society.

Samora Machel Avenue became Barnes road... we continued south until we reached the Accra Museum. (6) An eclectic mix of Ghanaian history and culture, coupled with a shop at the back (watch out for the mosquitoes! They leave the fans on in the main area for a reason!) and a strange second floor with more generic West African art history combined with some other interesting artifacts such as a cast of an Egyptian pharoah burial mask. Unfortunately I found the captions provided for each exhibit a little low on detail and lacking continuity, but the exhibit made for some interesting reading nonetheless.

After a quick visit to the restroom (7), S suggests we get lunch at a spot he discovered the day before called ?. On the cliff-edge just before Fort Ussher, next to the Cadbury's factory (when we got there the whole parking lot smelt of Nutella! And was filled with the shouts of 2 games of football in the dust--one junior game, relegated to the 'kiddies pitch' and a match between adults of varying ages). The service was great, the waitress friendly, the price not half bad and the view + setting super! I tried my first plate of traditional Ghanaian food (commonly called 'chop' when served from fast food places on the street). A mound of jollof rice with coleslaw, 2 pieces of fried chicken and 'pep'--a spicy dark brown sauce added to most plates of food. Jollof itself is already quite tangy---great if you love hot food as I do. Unlike Nigerian jollof, Ghanaian chefs do not mix bits of meat into the rice itself, but serve it on the side. Most chicken is fried and do not have anywhere near the amount of flesh on them as what you'd buy in Sainsburys or PicknPay (most are free range and a bit more scrawny). Jointing a chicken seems to involve randomly whacking it with a machete... most of the bones were splintered (perhaps to allow for eating the marrow?) but this made eating a more delicate procedure than normal. The coleslaw was an interesting addition, as was the offer of ketchup with the mix. Almost every menu seems to serve this combination (8) and it seems a pretty good staple.

After lunch I was feeling pretty whacked, so we started a slow walk back to the hotel for an afternoon kip. We past the Kwame Nkrumah (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwame_Nkrumah) Mausoleum on the way which obtrusively stuck out in its opulence and pristine maintenance amongst the decay and dust of Accra. Photography was not permitted and we did not go into the grounds, although I think it speaks volumes that the one major public facility that is so rigorously maintained is a grave: not only about the near-idolatry that Nkrumah incurs (for good reason!), but also to the importance of the afterlife in Ghanaian society.

We paid a brief visit to the Novotel on the way, an opulent and very popular hotel on Barnes road with the best forex rate we found (1.45 Ghc to 1USD). I was struck by the glaringly apparent extremes of class inequality present in Ghana as it is in my native South Africa: well-heeled Ghanaians demonstrate their status as publicly as any other nations elite and seemed like they were from another planet to their compatriots hawking products outside in the heat. Unsurprisingly, they are also a lot less friendly and approachable, but again, this is not unique to Ghana. C'est la vie.

The rest of the day was spent catching up missed sleep. Another meal of chop was procured for dinner (the same jollof rice with chicken and pep) and we've decided to go to Cape Coast in the morning. I'm finding Accra quite intimidating, with the street sellers, gutters and constant calls of 'obruni!' (white man!). Being tired no doubt doesn't help, nor does my sore throat that had kicked in on the flight. I can't help but feel slightly ashamed at the initial repulsion I'm feeling towards the open gutters and general sprawl, so perhaps a slightly smaller city which is less over-bearing? S too has also seen enough of Accra, so Cape Coast it is.

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1. In Ghana you seem to get two main types of bread on the street (other than the expensive western sliced stuff you can buy in the super markets of Accra): sweet 'tea' bread and salty bread (both white). They look identical, and the sweeter version is by far more common--most Ghanaians seem to view bread as a pudding, unless served with eggs for breakfast. When eating a street breakfast you can ask for how much bread you want with your eggs: 20 pesewas worth or 30 pesewas worth. They are cut in doorstop slabs and are very soft: the closest thing I can think of is a white bap. The loaves also go mouldy very quickly so don't bank on keeping it for very long. No Ghanaian bread is made with a crust--although you do start finding more continental crispy 'baguettes' as you approach any of the Francophone borders. We encountered brown bread twice, but it's still pretty refined and has no texture to speak of.

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2. One of my favourite things about Ghana--fresh, ripe juicy mangoes on the streets. Quality dictates price: expect to pay about 1 Ghanaian cedi for a medium sized mango of good quality, and up to 3 Ghc for a humungous one. Anything less than 50 pesewas is probably better for making juice out of than eating, and half of it may already be fizzy. Try to select them yourself, as the vendor will always try and get rid of the ones that are a bit 'past it' first.

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3. Some people have claimed that pure water sachets are still dubious: we had no problems with them, other than the chemical taste which became more unpleasant as they warmed up. Pure waters can be found almost anywhere and frankly, you sweat a lot more than you realise in the humidity--its critical to take on about 2-3 litres a day, even if you're not feeling thirsty. I got dehydrated quite badly and didn't realise--very unpleasant. The price- 5 pesewas-- is standard throughout the south of Ghana so no need to haggle, or even ask. Pure water sachets are also very useful for brushing teeth--a good habit to get into as the tap water is not safe.

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4. Most Ghanaian internet cafes have a very sensible and convenient system for purchasing PC time--by far the best I've found anywhere. You buy a coupon with a unique code on it which you use as your login credentials. Log in and out as many times as you like, using your coupon, until your time runs out. This means if you only want to use 10min to drop a quick email home, you don't have to pay for a whole hour. And you can come back and use your remaining 50min any time you choose. 60 pesewas is a good rate per hour, although if you really fancy aircon, then pay a bit more and go to Busy.

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5. 50 pesewas is the high end of the price range for a coconut... we paid anywhere between 30 and 50 during our stay. Be sure to ask for the SOFT one, as these have the best liquid. If you fancy, you can take your empty coconut shell back to the seller and ask him to crack it open with his machete for you... then you can scoop out the soft lining using the 'lid' as a spoon and eat it. It's very tasty but has a very slimy texture which I could not quite get use to. Coconut is VERY filling: I'd recommend sharing one between two for your first try rather than buying one each.

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6. Photgraphy in Ghana was surprisingly tricky. Most formal tours or museums ask for a fee per camera: about 50 pesewas each. Some say no outright. Permission is required before taking any pictures of people and Ghanaians can get quite upset if you do not ask. Be careful not to point your camera indiscriminantly at people and try to be more subtle, taking photos of a whole scene from a distance rather than human subjects up close.

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7. Public toilets in Ghana: phew. Whatever you do, try to ALWAYS carry a roll of loo paper with you (in Ghana, it's called T - roll). Most public facilities, even the ones who charge, do not provide. Also try to open doors with your sleeve over your hand or your elbow as often the water is not running from the taps or no soap is provided. Washing your hands is critical: especially before you eat! (9) And ladies: always wipe the seat down first. When asking for the loo, just say 'toilet' or 'urinal': 'restroom', 'washroom', 'ladies', 'gents', 'facilities'... these are not understood outside fancy hotels who serve lots of obrunis.

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8. Unlike in the West, a menu is a list of what a Ghanaian restaurant would _like_ to offer. Be prepared to be told that your choice is not available, and have 2 or 3 backup options. It's frustrating sometimes, especially when you particularly fancied something, but it seems restaurants like to create the impression of a wide variety, even if they do not have stock of the required ingredients. This is more common in the rural, out-of-the-way places outside the main cities, but we even encountered a pretty respectable hotel in ACcra that had run out of fruit juice.

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9. Relating to footnote 7: most chop is eaten with your hands. It is perfectly acceptable to ask to wash your hands at a restaurant, and your waitress will bring soap, water and washing bowls + a towel to your table. This is always a good idea.

Posted by Sarabi 17:01 Archived in Ghana

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