notes from Accra


 I arrived at night, during a power cut. The owner of Crystal Hostel, Mrs. Quaynor, was prepared though. She showed me to my room wearing a very rugged mining headlamp, and gave me a torch to see me through the night. No power: no fan. Not good. Mosquito nets are hard to figure out in the dark too. What I learned today:

          Ghanaians dislike Arabs much more than they may dislike George Bush.

          Everyone wants to get involved, date you, drive you around, guide you to places you didn’t know you wanted to visit.

          When there’s no power, it’s 95 degrees and you have no cellphone reception, a good response is to paint your toenails red and wait it out. 


 St Patrick’s Day. The power, and the fan, came on during the night. At 4am the local muezzins started up, calling the faithful to prayer. It’s a sound I love, and it’s soothing after a night of immense heat and stickiness. They called the morning breeze over from the sea, and things got much cooler. Plus there’s no hot water, so the morning shower reminds you what it’s like to be too cool – something it’s good to remember around midday.

Most of Accra is like Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, only with goats. And chickens – lots of chickens. The chickens here are sassy though, without that glassy-eyed stare they have in richer countries. Here, it’s tough to be a person, let alone a chicken. Even the expensive areas of town have chickens, just pecking around on greener, more manicured lawns. My search for interviewees didn’t start off well. My first appointment, arranged by email, had double-booked me and was too busy to fix another time to meet. The second, at the British Council, was fairly unproductive, except that the receptionist at the educational programs desk turned out to have studied in the UK, so I signed her up for an interview. 

I tried to find the national museum, and managed instead to have an instructive experience about finding things in Accra. The map is wrong. So are the other two maps. They show streets where there are no streets, and buildings where there are no buildings. But sometimes they don’t show things that are there. It’s a city Borges would have enjoyed, constantly shifting to avoid being pinned down by its listless cartographers. Even the street sellers, who presumably work a certain street with some regularity, have no idea of its name. They don’t know the way to other streets, or to landmarks like the National Museum. Which sounds fairly large and distinctive. The confusion of the maps and the ordinary residents, though, is dwarfed by that of the taxi drivers. I got into one looking for the British Council, and went from specific (“the British Council, please” to more general (“it’s at the intersection of Liberia Road and Independence Avenue”) and finally to the macro (“it’s in West Ridge” – an area that comprises about a quarter of central Accra). None of these rang a bell. I got out my map and directed him, but when we got close, repelled by the nearness of our goal like an electron by its neutron, he veered away and started down the wrong road. I argued and argued until he stopped, got out, asked someone else for directions, and they told him what I had been telling him. So we did a u-turn and went back the way we came, and finally drove past the large “British Council” sign oblivious, doing a solid 50. I yelled, he stopped, I resolved to stick to tro-tros in the future, since they only go one place but at least know where it is. 

Things I learned today:

          In Kaneshie market they sell live snails the size of chihuahuas. Paris Hilton could carry one in her bag. They almost have facial expressions.

          You can sell almost anything on a sidewalk.

          You can find a person in Kaneshie – somewhere that resembles the beach at Dunkirk, only with more goats and chilis – just by saying his name to enough people. 


Two days feel like two months. I’ve covered a lot of ground. By the end of today I had eight interviews lined up, and felt as if someone had squeezed all the water out of my body and then sifted black and red dust over me until no more would stick. Which is pretty much what happened in the course of the seven tro-tro rides


and several hours of walking I did in Achimota, Legon and Osu.

I took refuge from the heat in the expat ghetto of Osu, eating ice cream and drinking litres of water until I was suitably recovered and could call more unsuspecting people to insert myself into their busy week. “hello, you don’t know me but I’d like to ask you incredibly detailed questions about your migration history for an hour and a half, based on a claim to be a phd student and to be conducting research that will inform migration policy.” They were too kind to point out to me that evidence has the kind of influence in migration policymaking that organic ingredients have in Coca Cola. Luckily for me, since I’m basing a doctorate on providing more evidence of what might give developing countries a better shot at the big time. I left Osu decidedly singed, and headed home for dinner.

A conversation with a travelling doctor, recently qualified and enjoying her last months of freedom before beginning work. She’d been working at a Ghanaian hospital, and was shocked at the lack of care. Patients, she said, may get medicine, but they don’t get care. She said if she were taken ill, she’d fly straight home. She recounted seeing equipment, flown in by donors who then left, mangled by rough use and lack of upkeep, then seeing children die because the machines weren’t working. She said that it’s not enough to offer incentives to keep doctors here – they have to want to work here too. We discussed setting up exchange schemes where doctors and other professionals would circulate and work in each other’s positions for six months at a time, schemes which already exist on a small scale. What if European took them seriously, I say. Not that doctors aren’t altruistic, but what if everyone with skills grew up expecting to do regular exchanges with poor countries, the way that we plan our education or our vacations? Maybe, she said. But there would have to be a lot of movement for people to see things differently. 


I’ve been waking up early every morning – around 6 – and feeling very awake. It turns out to be a good thing, since going anywhere after about 9am gets fairly hot. So I set out for my first interview in Achimota. It’s never easy finding anything, since there aren’t any road names, and no one knows where anything is. So after a couple of trotro rides (trotros are public buses,)usually with  some papaya, a few conversations about where a billboard for Star Beer was, and a half-mile hike down a path by the sewage ditch, I found the office where I was supposed to have my meeting. Unfortunately neither my interviewee nor the secretary were there. The door was locked, so after knocking I called the secretary’s number. She told me she was coming to the door. I waited a minute, then called again and she said the same thing. The third time I called, she admitted she was out doing some photocopying. I guess she hadn’t wanted me to go away. It all worked out well in the end though.  

I snatched another interview with one of the staff at the British Council and found a salad for lunch, then headed off to try to find a swimsuit ahead of my trip to the beach this weekend. I’d been told the only place was the Golden Tulip hotel, which turned out to be an unholy distance from town down a road that was so packed with traffic my cab driver and I must have lead poisoning by now. In fact, any real journey in Accra involves risking permanent lung damage. The trotros in particular seem to compete to see who can spew the vilest smoke. After the Golden Tulip, where I bought one of the six swimming costumes in Accra (and the only one that wasn’t either fluorescent pink or yellow), I headed across to the expat ghetto supermarket. Disaffected young Europeans smoked listless cigarettes in the little café, while harrassed English mothers wheeled their kids around the shelves of digestives, baked beans and cornflakes. It was the only place I’ve been that felt remotely colonial or English, and although I’m happy they stock baby wipes, I had had enough within five minutes. 

Took a trotro across town again to Osu for my two afternoon interviews, then it all cooled off a bit and I found a cab driver willing to try taking me home to Darkuman. I’m not sure he knew where Darkuman was, but after an hour of driving round neighbourhoods I didn’t recognise, with the driver stealing hopeful glances at me every now and then to see if we were there, we emerged onto the Darkuman road and I was able to guide him. Best sign of the day: a huge “Insha Allahu” on the back window of the dodgiest trotro in town as it putted down the ring road. I hope Allah is good at fixing emissions systems. 

The swimsuit I bought turns out to be both child-sized and almost completely transparent. I shall have to borrow one.

Today’s tally:

·         Four interviews

·         One marriage proposal

·         One offer of a free chicken (I was photographing some and the owner felt sorry for someone who so obviously had none of her own).

It all seems a bit tame today, while the Tibetans are charging the Chinese police on horses. they deserve free chickens far more than I do.

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