Wandering around Accra, finding my bearings again. It’s no less confusing than last time, still no street names, but this time I have more of a general sense of where I am and what’s going on, and I hope I get lost with better grace. Hannah (my friend from Sussex) helps too, since she lived here for a couple of years a while ago. Most importantly, she’s teaching me which food is vegetarian, something that’s surprisingly hard to figure out and which caused me no end of problems last time. We had lunch at a rooftop place in Usshertown called “Back Pass”, which despite the dodgy name was both good and shady.
Ghana is all about Obama at the moment. t-shirts, bars:
Hannah and I are creating our own map of Accra, since there are no decent ones. We’re taking pictures of salient places, then will GIS them onto a google earth map when we get back. It’s very subjective cartography (note for Ilse – psychogeography) but hopefully will be better than the current map, which shows about a quarter of the roads and offers frequent misdirection when you are searching for important places. If we can post it on the web one day, perhaps it will help future visitors not get quite as lost as we have.
After walking around in the heat for four hours or so, we had lost about half our bodyweight so we went to Osu and ate massive amounts of ice cream in Frankie’s, a Lebanese place with air conditioning. Then we found we were completely high on sugar and AC, and all we could do was wander around looking at things beatifically. Finally we sobered up and came back to Auntie’s, where we’re staying. It’s in Kokomomle, which for anyone who has been here is just north of the ring road, near Circle and Busy.
In the evening, we went out with the other people staying here for fish and chips at a new place nearby. It’s always a trip going out in the evening, because it’s completely dark (no street lights) and everyone in town is out walking around, cooking things, and hanging out. Kids playing, people socialising, no one apparently able to see a thing. We walked past a sign for a chop bar – ‘Don’t mind your wife chop’. But there was no one there. So I guess wives aren’t so unpopular after all.
There’s a wonderful backwards thing with cutlery here – when you order dinner, cutlery only comes with certain things. So you get a whole roast fish, on the bone, covered in vegetables and doused in pepper sauce, and banku (maize dough), with no cutlery at all. But if you order chips, you get a knife, fork and napkin. So you eat the main dish with your fingers, then wash your hands in a bowl, pick up your cutlery, and eat chips. Odd, but it works.
The restaurant was showing movies with no sound, first Blood Diamond then Grand Canyon, which was an odd mixture. First, West African war and destruction with happy boy band restaurant music playing in the background, then Kevin Kline getting robbed and menaced in LA by African Americans with happy girl band restaurant music in the background. Both were pretty odd to watch in Accra, where people still use well-bred English words like ‘palaver’ and even the refugees read the Economist.
The essence of Accra at the moment, for me, is conveyed by the MTN office. It’s one of the two main mobile providers in Ghana, and has a very posh place downtown, where you go to top up your phone. It’s a Ghanaian company, ordinary Ghanaians use it, it’s great. However, people are not used to posh yet. So when you have a nice office with lots of glass, you still have to warn people so they don’t walk into it.
To be fair, I had a lovely boss at Rockefeller who used to walk into the glass at reception and nearly knock himself out, quite regularly. We had to get a plant put there.
I have been talking with friends a lot recently about the paradoxes involved in ‘development’ and NGOs in Africa. What do the endless projects and inputs and outputs actually amount to, and how much does it help that it’s foreigners who have all the money and the power? Ghana is an interesting case because it’s a peaceful country (mostly) where private enterprise is booming, and the street signs for the development NGOs and projects all compete and mingle with the commercial activity. This won’t be so true as I go further north this month, but it’s what I’m studying – the transition from Development (international-aid-driven) to development (whatever the country does on its own). I reflected that the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) industry, which is huge, is actually a system devised to mitigate the fact that those who fund and implement development projects actually have no personal stake in what is going on. They may feel strongly about the success of their interventions, but still, if it doesn’t work out, they can do something else. And if they really make a mess and people start shooting at them, they can get on a helicopter and leave. The real M&E is done by people who live or die by the results – farmers, checking whether their crops are growing or dying, sellers in markets checking whether people still want to buy what they are selling. M&E is a way of filtering altruism, of making sure there is some reality in the mix. But how can it take the place of an actual personal stake in what is going on?