The Accra I met more than a decade ago, on my arrival in
Ghana was a crowded, hot humid yet dusty hive of activity. For the naïve
volunteer set, of which I was a gold star member, it was an overwhelming sense
of the absoluteness of cultural difference. There was nothing remotely familiar
and we basked in the alien experience.
All of us were from the west, where a market is a tame organized
centre for buying a variety of goods. In Accra the experience was quite
different. We were a procession, a snake like pinkish spectacle, chained
together by sweaty fists and with a look of fear and excitement in our eyes. All
conscious of where our money was hidden –
strapped to our moist middles, under our cotton t-shirts and missionary
style long shapeless flower skirts (prescribed by the NGO offices back home). We
were paraded through a real market – African style. People as deep as
quicksand, we sunk deeper and deeper, away from the paved road into the
colours, smells and sounds of the market. Smoked fish piled high on balancing
trays, hundreds of tomato sellers in narrow rows, wide smiling African mamas,
low down, faces behind their identical wares, each hoping their charm would win
buyers and they would rise above the anonymity of their trade, to make enough
to feed their family for the day.
We pushed on by, and through, sweating and squinting and
averting the hoards of brown smudged fingers that reached out at our
inadequately protected, sun beaten, damp white skin… shouts randomly from all
directions, above the black heads and fleeting rainbows of colour and patterned
cloth, “Obruni, obruni!!!”.
We managed to push our way through and were led single file
past a grimy door into a tiny room. It was cooler and quieter than the outside,
but the hum of the market surged palpably behind the grease coated glass. It
was a Chinese take away. Our guide had apparently heard that Westerners like
Chinese food and this was to be our treat, our solace for the day. The room had
a few plastic patio tables with rubberized flower patterned table cloths. Each
table boasted graying dust caked plastic flowers in tiny decorated pots.
Roaches and ants scurried about. Random people leaned or slept at the tables. Just
beyond the ‘dining room’ was a visible kitchen – the walls coated black with
fuzzies caught in the dull greasy layer – far above the wall appeared to have
been painted blue in some distant time. The metal surfaces were covered in
random wilted vegetables and dirty piled plates.
We all stood huddled. There was an unspoken agreement that
none of us were eating anything from this place. We compromised and ordered
cokes. The reluctant waitress was woken up, wiped the saliva from the edge of
her sleepy mouth, and as if in slow motion, she moved across the room to gather
the bottles from the loudly buzzing overworked Coca Cola fridge. We rubbed the rust
from the tops, and gulped the luke warm syrupy liquid, just wishing we could be
transported magically back to the main road, to become invisible, to be out of
here. Instead the return journey was more of the same and the group whined, complaining
of sun stroke, heat stroke and bad tummies. Food choices that evening would be
from very local, very peppery, very sketchy roadside ‘chop bars’. The
restaurants in town were few. Either massively expensive and out of our reach,
or more like the Chinese take away…
This was a typical first induction into being a volunteer in
Ghana. Those of us who stayed – not many – have learned so many lessons since then. The
market still thrives, writhes, dances daily. But now we know how to navigate.
We’ve discovered there are actually things to buy and we can now bargain with the sellers, amusing them with local terms. We
can be cut throat in our bargaining techniques. We are no longer amateurs.
But those who arrive today, in 2008, meet an entirely new
Accra. The cosmopolitan city is arising, despite the persisting poverty and the
traditions and the resistance. There is a new Accra for the trendy set, the
academia and the professionals alike.
Today I found myself alone at lunchtime and popped in to
‘Cuppa Cappuccino’, a funky café near my office serving great salads, wraps,
sandwiches, smoothies and of course – cappuccinos! In the big bowl mugs…
On any given day, the clientele pile in and out – alone to
write or surf the net using the wifi, or in groups, chattering and nibbling and
sipping. All dressed in 2008’s trends,
talking about the relevant political and social issues affecting the world in
general, and Africa specifically. Most are foreigners but definitely not all.
In fact the groups are quite mixed.
Today I was alone so I observed. The scene was something
absolutely unheard of 10 years ago.
The waitress smiles and is efficient and remembers my order.
She sees I’m alone and brings me a few magazines to browse through while I
await my greek salad and Diet Coke. I open a thick shiny mag with a gorgeous
profile of an African model on the front. The make-up and lighting make this
photo true art. I open the pages haphazardly at first, flipping along through
glossy photos and adverts and admiring the artistic edge. Then I recognize some
of the advertisements and the local jewelry in the modeling shoots. It’s a
local magazine! On the cutting edge artistically and stylistically. Another absolute
impossibility 10 years ago. Back then all printing had to be sent out of the
country, or the images would be overlapped and discoloured, words cut off mid
This was something else. I wanted it as a coffee table
centerpiece. It was called Canoe Quarterly. However, it is so ‘cool’ that I
could not find out how to order it. But there was a web address: www.canoequarterly.com. I visited the
modern simplistic site and found some of the photo shoots from the magazine.
The one below is from their site and speaks for itself…
So, I left the café, bumped into a few acquaintances at the
other tables - some expat teachers from the International school, a couple of
South African geologists… Then I heard many voices on the patio and noticed on
my way out, a table of 12 new volunteers on their orientation. I knew this
because they exuded newness, inexperience, and openness. Their Ghanaian guide
was briefing them on some aspect of Ghanaian culture, while they sipped Mango
Manias, café lattes and picked tiny triangles of brie and avocado sandwiches
from their plates.
Things sure have changed since my day…
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