Obama was in Accra this weekend. Sheer madness. The insanity started a month before – Obama t-shirts appeared, and columns in the newspapers meditated on the significance of his choosing Ghana. But the last week, ahead of his arrival Friday night, has been just crazy.
Walking through Osu on Friday afternoon, the street sellers had stopped shouting ‘obruni’ or ‘sister’ or hissing, and instead were shouting ‘Obama’ at all foreigners. There were ten types of Obama shirt, five types of Obama cloth, Obama posters, Obama special editions of all the newspapers, Obama shoes sold on the street, and a rumour from Auntie of roving sellers with Obama biscuits.
There were also what seemed like unprecedented numbers of foreigners on the street. It turned out the entire Peace Corps in Ghana had come to Accra for a speech Obama was to give at the airport as he left, but we didn’t know that and thought there must have been some mysterious seasonal migration.
The national rubbish collection company, Zoomlion, managed the most iconic celebration of Obama’s presence. He went to Cape Coast castle on Saturday after his speech to parliament – the main shipping point for countless thousands of slaves over a couple of hundred years, and one of the darkest historic sites of the world. Obama’s family are descendants of slaves, so it was highly symbolic in any number of ways. The castle, however, has been in a state of gradual readying for the tourist trade for a few decades, with nothing ever quite finished. Plus Cape Coast is a normal Ghanaian town, and is thus permanently covered in a thin layer of rubbish. Zoomlion organised a Big Push with all its available workers to get the place clean for the visit, but unfortunately didn’t have the cash to pay them. So all the rubbish collectors (the lowest-paid salaried employees in Ghana at the best of times) were privileged to work three days for free, ‘their contribution to the visit’, as their caring employer put it. So it’s inspiring to see how slavery has been eradicated for ever in the its most symbolic location.
On Saturday morning Hannah, Chris, Tamara and I decided to go and watch the speech at a café in Osu. So we set off in a taxi at 9am, only to find the roads shutting down around us and Accra’s traffic turning to gridlock. It was so bad, people stopped honking their horns. They got out of their cars and tried to figure out what was going on – the scale of the road closures had not been announced ahead of time.
Everyone thought it was just the main road from the parliament to the airport, but all the main roads were closed, with policemen hanging out and claiming to have no idea why they were closed or when they might reopen. People told us they had been stopped at 7am, and it was now 9.30, with no information or signs of movement. Cars and trotros pointed in every direction. People started walking.
People were bewildered and cross. One man took a picture of the chaos with his cellphone, and some cops smacked him around and took him away.
We walked with everyone else down Ring Road. People were being nice, as they tend to be in surprising and dysfunctional situations. Except for one guy who was determined we were going to give him money, and when we didn’t, gave us an epic death-curse in a mixture of English and Twi. ‘Don’t mind him,’ said a passing man. We agreed we wouldn’t.
Finally, Osu. We ate brunch to store up energy for what we assumed would be a long walk back.
Aside from a small person who was dressed for the occasion in Obama cloth and an Obama t-shirt…
…Frankie’s was full of expats who couldn’t really care less about the speech, which was fortunate because the transmission didn’t really work, and one had to guess what was being said most of the time. It sounded good though. ‘Corruption… investment… security… rape… terrorists… international aid…’ all the ingredients of contemporary foreign policy.
We started walking back at 12, convinced it would still be gridlock. But bizarrely everything had cleared, and we were mercifully able to get home in reasonable time. As we were out with Aunty that evening, Air Force One roared overhead. It was a beautiful evening, with the rain briefly pausing to note the occasion and a scarlet sunset blazing against a light blue sky. We waved goodbye.