Help us to help you.

Still in Accra, trying to get better. I seem to get malaria backwards – the real illness happens after I have taken the medicine. I also take about a month to get over it, during which time I’m as weak as a tubercular Victorian poet. I sleep a lot, sometimes I fall over, and nothing quite works. I’ve been at this stage for nearly three weeks now, so one more to go. The challenge is not to work: it’s hard not to just get up and start interviewing people, particularly since my next assignment is just to talk to IT companies in Accra. It seems like no challenge at all. Until I try to make a cup of tea, and find my whole body is shaking and I have to lie down for an hour. So no interviews for me for a while.

I did rouse myself from my torpor yesterday to go and get a map of Accra, which is harder than it sounds. I needed it because I am trying to figure out whether I want to do some cluster sampling of internet cafes here, which entails, among other things, having a map of the area where one is planning to sample (and some understanding of sampling, which is almost as difficult as finding a map of Accra).

The national survey office, I was assured, would have a map. So I set off. Of course you can’t just find it, because there’s no map. In Accra you have to have a post office box because you don’t have a street address. Houses don’t have numbers, street names are negotiable, and no one delivers anything anyway. On the way I passed what I think is the street sign of the week: “Don’t entertain criminals! Report them to the police.” So no Nigerian movies for the criminals. This is almost as good as my favourite: “Help the police to help you.” In my case, as I remember, this involved giving the police all the money I had, after which they focused on asking for more. So I guess I didn’t help them enough.

The survey office’s website, along with a wealth of non-functioning phone numbers, offers directions: go to Elwak Stadium, and ask. Fortunately this worked. I found the map sales department, a dark warehouse with two men burrowing through vast piles of crumpled paper like something out of a Borges story. I worried that the map I needed might  be somewhere in their main filing system,  which consisted of a 10-foot-high pile of maps. But my anxiety was misplaced. When I asked whether they had a map of Accra, they started laughing hysterically. They couldn’t even answer my question. Then another bloke walked in, and they shared the joke. Eventually he stopped laughing and told me I should go to a Shell garage, as he had heard they once produced a map of Accra. Where was there a Shell garage, I asked? They didn’t know. After a long pause for thought, one of them said he believed he had seen one once down near the cultural centre, at the other end of the city. Leaving sadly to seek a taxi to go across the city in rush hour, I looked down the road and saw a Shell garage about 50 yards away. I walked over. They sold maps of Accra.

Of course, the notion of a map of Accra is somewhat nonsensical. The city changes daily, bits fall down and new bits are built, things are washed away by storms and end up where other things used to be. Sometimes it’s purposeful: the Chinese are building a highway north through the suburb of Achimota that has necessitated knocking down half of the area, which has presumably now gone somewhere else to sulk and recuperate. Then there are new settlements growing up outside the boundaries of the citythat don’t officially exist yet.

Nonetheless, the map is a revelation. I realise my understanding of Accra has been turned round 45 degrees from reality, and now it is reorientated travel makes more sense. The map even has street names, which is charmingly optimistic. It shows rivers (I hadn’t realised that the vast, turgid open sewers running through the centre of town were actually rivers). And parks – which I had previously thought were landfills for plastic rubbish. So the map is great.

Of course, it doesn’t show all of Accra. No one at this point knows what ‘all of Accra’ actually constitutes. It may be Accra as far out as the police customs barriers, which would mean double the area shown by the map, or Accra may be the area run by the Accra Metropolitan Authority. Or something else entirely. I’m guessing the latter is the best way to go. I asked Hannah, and she says she thinks that the AMA should have a map of the area they cover.  Then she thought some more. ‘Metaphorically, if not literally,’ she added. So it’s back to metaphorical maps.

Meanwhile, the rainy season makes Accra a large open sewer, so I am opting out of the whole thing and going away to the sea for a week. I am going down the coast to the west where there is less sewage and more air, and no phone coverage. It will be peaceful, and I will eat fish and do nothing too strenuous such as walking around or standing up for too long.

One comment

  1. I’ve been following your blog for some time. As a person whose been afflicted with malaria twice, I’m wondering if you are malaria prophylaxis resistant. I took mefloquin (Larium) and got malaria twice. Since stopping taking any malaria preventative, I haven’t gotten malaria. I just ready myself with the antidote should I get it. Have fun out west. We just returned from Anomabo!

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