September 26, 2006 lia

Two Faces of Accra – fun in the sun, pollution and poverty

Pictures from this trip are at:
I have fun and entertaining material for sixteen [and counting] “cultural lessons” [including one specifically inspired by my trip to Accra: Cultural Lesson #16 – experiencing intercity public transit, Ghanaian style], which I am in the process of slowly fleshing out into words, but I’m going to take a minor detour and talk about my weekend in Accra for a moment while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I reunited with three fabulous ladies I met at an intercultural workshop in Toronto, just a week before I came to Ghana. We enjoyed a brilliant weekend of pristine beaches, some of the warmest hospitality I’ve experienced over the course of my extensive travels, and some great laughs over beer. However, we were also exposed to some harsh realities of poverty and the more disturbing effects of urbanisation which need to be reflected upon as we thrust ourselves into the 21st century and begin to witness what our new globalised world is going to look like.

Ghanaians are some of the friendliest and most welcoming of people, who tolerate religious differences and co-exist peacefully across tribal, religious, and linguistic lines. Ghana is a constitutional democracy which enjoys a relatively free press. Ghana is also doing much better economically than most of its neighbours. The four year development plan I am working on at the municipal scale is part of a national effort to elevate Ghana’s economy to being one of “middle income” status among the world’s national economies in an effort to officially climb the ladder of development [as defined by Ghanaian authorities’ interpretation of the standards set by the Millennium Development Goals] rather than continue to be compared with the world’s most desperately poor economies.

Like in most countries, young people in Ghana are moving out of the countryside and into the cities, uninterested in the agricultural livelihoods of their parents. On a national scale, this contributes to food security issues, unemployment, HIV/AIDS rates, drug abuse, and other consequences of sudden changes in population movements that the socio-economic infrastructure cannot keep pace with.

But what does this actually look like? How does it smell? How does it sound? How is this actually experienced in the lifestyles of people?

People don’t often see photographs of African cities, and I think I understand why. Accra seems to me like a village sprawled across a huge landscape of 3 million people. But it never feels like you’ve arrived. You see a tall concrete wall to your left, a dirt path to your right, and signs indicating that you’re in the centre of the city. In the less prosperous neighbourhoods, you see dilapidated roads with paved open-air ditches [sewers?] separating the road from a row of 2 metre wide by two metre high vending structures made out of aluminium siding. In the more entertainment-oriented neighbourhoods, there are more permanent structures with two levels set back from the road, often with terrasses carefully fenced from the traffic, with sidewalks lined during the day with tables selling mobile phone units, roasted plantains, or other edibles. Between these neighbourhoods are the major roads that connect the city, and there’s no chance of getting anywhere without a vehicle.

In Accra, I spent about 3-4 hours a day sitting in traffic. It’s very difficult to take photographs in Ghana, and the only instances I took out my camera were when I could subtly sneak it through the window of my taxi. Not only are Ghanaians very apprehensive about having their photograph taken, once you pull out your camera it puts you in an awkward you-are-my-subject role, and I haven’t felt comfortable taking photos much here. In one occasion, I narrowly escaped a potentially violent encounter with a Ghanaian who opposed my taking a photograph of someone else. A man had waved at me, I had asked if it was alright that I take his picture – an excellent representation of the tire district of Accra, he was one among a hundred men covered in black exhaust with stacks of tires waiting to be sold behind him – and he seemed pleased that I was interested in capturing this moment. As I pulled out my camera, a neighbouring man began sharply screaming “stop that!”, and even got up and started running towards me making violent gestures at me, at which point the light conveniently turned green and my taxi took off down the road. For the next 15 minutes, neighbouring vehicles were asking my taxi driver what had happened, because they had seen how violently the man reacted towards me.

What I was unable to photograph from my taxis were dried up river beds, flowing only of garbage and sewage, lined with shacks where the shore line once stood. Wide 10 lane major thorough ways, with concrete dividers to separate directions of traffic, decorated with barbed wire to discourage jay-walkers. The five lanes each direction were actually occupied by 7 or 8 columns of traffic, so tight that I saw two fender benders [and one fist fight to decide which driver was at fault for one of the traffic accidents]. On the edge of the five lanes of traffic stood stalls selling products that were tinted black from exhaust fumes, and overhead were pedestrian overpasses so over-crowded that people looked as though they were being crushed while waiting to exit the overpass. There were people in the process of urinating everywhere — in the ditches along the road, along fences, and even in the dried up river beds now filled with rubbish. At least every minute in the taxi — whether I was along a major road or in the middle of a posh neighbourhood — I saw someone whipping it out to take a leak. The walls defending the more official buildings in town often had spray painted writing on them which read “Do Not Urinate Here”. Most of the schools in my municipality don’t have toilets, and I haven’t been able to ask my colleagues what happens when nature calls during class.

There are fun parts about the traffic too though. A great entrepreneurial infrastructure has been set up such that you can buy almost everything you need from the comfort of your taxi on your way home from work. At particularly busy intersections, it gets very exciting approaching the red light as hordes of vendors prepare to pounce. Queued up along one foot wide concrete dividers, hundreds of vendors with baskets of products on their heads are almost spilling into busy traffic, waiting for the light to turn red.

From inside the taxi, you hear the FM radio blaring talk radio, the sounds of horns honking everywhere, the wind blowing into your face from the window, cooling your skin from your last 10 minute wait at a major intersection. And then as the car slows down, the sound of the wind in your ears quiets, the honking horns begin to cease, and you are giddily anticipating the sounds of 100 people all demanding your attention at once.

I even saw a book on how to learn Twi for English speakers being sold at one of these intersections. I’ve been looking for one of these books all over the Eastern Region where I live, and yet some 12 year old boy offered to sell me one without even needing to step out of my car at Nkrumah Circle.

Accra seems to be full of extremes, something I am generally fond of in urban centres. I tend to fall in love with cities that enjoy a heightened sense of excitement, usually as a consequence of some conflict in the city — Montreal, where francophone and anglophone Canadian culture coalesce to form a rocking social scene; Hong Kong, where capitalism meets communism and space is vertically-derived, rather than the usual horizontally-derived; Istanbul, where the east meets the west. Accra is alive with all the excitement of West African cities, yet this excitement exists spread across a seemingly village landscape, with rivers that have pre-maturely exceeded their best-before dates, yet the beaches are pristine and beautiful [and privatised].

How are cities preparing to meet these demands? Why are people fleeing the countryside? How are we planning on feeding ourselves when no one wants to tend the crops? How can cities in the developing world possibly be re-oriented to be more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly? How come music videos are essentially the same all over the world?