Friday, December 18, 2009

Accra, Ghana


My first trip into Accra was on the S@S-run city tour. My tour guide was awesome. He spoke excellent English; it's the most common language spoken here, mostly because it was the British that actually shoved the various communities together into a nation. His name was Nii, which is a really common name around here. We later were told that the local tradition is to give a first name based on the day of the week that the child was born. Names like Kofi and Kwame come from that.

The tour involved stopping at a monument to Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana's first president and a political hero), a nearby arts market (we only had 30 minutes to exchange dollars for Ghanaian cedis and shop), and a memorial to W.E.B. Du Bois (an African American who later became a Ghanaian citizen). In between, we had a lunch of Jollof rice, fried plantain, and chicken.

But! the cool part of this tour was just seeing the people and shops on the streets. Everyone can balance loads on their head; they all carry giant platters of stuff that would be impossible to carry in any other way. Nii explained that carrying water from a well used to be a common chore, so kids would get used to carrying the buckets on their heads. One day, they'd suddenly realize that they were no longer supporting the bucket with their hands, and that's the moment that the bucket falls. :)

There is advertising everywhere for Coke and for various Ghanaian products, but by far the most common advertisements were for the big four telecom companies in Ghana: MTN, Zain, Vodafone, and Tigo. About half of the shops, stalls, and homes that faced the streets were painted in the colors and logo of one of these companies, and their billboards were all over the place. Sometimes every building on a block would be painted in the same company's advertisements, like one big Vodafone village. It was crazy.

Ghana has a significant portion of the population practicing Islam and lots of people practicing African traditional religions, but the vocal and visible majority are Christians. A lot of taxis had religious messages on the back windows (e.g. "Try Jesus"), a lot of walls had religious things scrawled on them, and it seemed like every other shop had a name like "By His Grace Fast Food" or "God's Word Beauty Salon" or "Jesus Jesus Jesus" (actual examples). I also heard a minute of a radio show in which a guy was preaching the gospel over reggae music.

There's a lot of animals around: I saw lizards in most shady rocky areas, and a certain type of bird was absolutely everywhere (they're black with white necks, like crows but pretty). It seemed that every populated part of Ghana outside of downtown Accra seemed to be filled with little goats, chickens, and occasionally cats and dogs. The goats will eat anything, it seems, which is a good thing because the sides of most roads are covered in trash. There were also a lot of walls that had "DO NOT URINATE HERE" written in big letters, which I suppose says a lot.

The people are also very, very friendly. About half of the people we passed would smile and wave at the bus (and the other half glared, but whatever). Even the annoying guys selling us stuff off the bus would ask our names and where we're from. They *love* Obama, especially since his visit; there are a ton of billboards up with his face next to that of the current Ghanaian president (which I expect is the president's attempt to improve his own image).

During the traffic jams, of which there were surprisingly many, nearby vendors would swarm the streets and hawk their wares to the car windows. There are a lot of people selling cheap bags of plantain chips or nuts and a ton of people selling little 500ml sachets of purified water (which is the biggest contributor to all the litter). Someone on our bus bought some chopped up sugar cane through the window and passed everyone a piece to chew.

The coolest part of the day came at dusk. We were riding home and somebody pointed out a flock of birds outside the window. Then we realized that they had feet and ears and leathery wings. And then we noticed several other flocks, and pretty soon the entire sky was filled with bats! I like bats, if only because they kill the mosquitos.

Did you hear the joke about mosquitos? It's malarious! ...
Mosquitos are a problem this close to the equator, but I'm not too worried; I only got bitten a few times. Apparently, about 5-10% of mosquitos here carry malaria, but since I'm on an antimalarial drug and used plenty of bug spray, I think I was careful enough to get through unscathed. Another consequence of being at this latitude is that the sun is a lot more powerful than elsewhere. You can really feel the difference. It bakes you alive.

At the end of the city tour, myself and some friends got dropped off at a "welcome reception" being run by students at the nearby Ashesi University. The Deputy Minister of Education came and gave a short speech. Later, an African student dance troupe did a performance for us. The rest of the evening was just freeform socializing with the Ghanaian students. They served kebabs (the chicken had bones in it, I discovered the hard way) and plantain chips (delicious!). I met several Ghanaian guys, including a few Computer Science students! One was even making games using XNA and the Unity engine, technologies that we're playing with at Dartmouth; I told him to do the Imagine Cup next year. Nerds are everywhere! They said they'd be my Facebook friends. :)

The next morning was an early departure for the Cape Coast Historical Tour trip. The bus ride that morning was difficult; our tour guide laboriously instructed us on some basic vocabulary in Akan (the second most-spoken language, and very common in Accra), her microphone had an echo (which made the vocab lesson oddly eerie), the bus was speeding along some rather bumpy roads, and honking is extremely common.

But we eventually reached Kakum National Park, my first visit to a rainforest! We had been told that there would be a choice of whether to walk in the canopy walkways or on a trek through the floor of the rainforest; in actuality, they just had everybody go through the canopy. We took a short walk up to the first platform and saw plenty of dense foliage. Aside from a lot of butterflies, there weren't any animals in sight; I think our group was too big and noisy. The canopy walk itself was a lot of fun, although very short. We were very, very high up on a safe but narrow rope bridge. It was something I've always wanted to see firsthand.

We had to wait for another group to go before ours, and traffic was worse than they'd expected, so we were very late by this point. We were told before landing in Ghana that the philosophy here is: "in time", not "on time". We got to lunch about two hours late. Lunch was at a place called the Hans Cottage Botel, a restaurant built over a pond with some resident crocodiles and weaver birds (both very fun to watch).

One of our two buses broke down at this point, so we all crammed onto the remaining one. The guides decided that we would go straight to the hotel for the night and postpone the day's castle tour until the day after. We stayed at a place called Coconut Grove Beach Resort, which was pretty much what you'd expect a place with that name to be like. Palm trees, beaches, reggae music coming from the pool bar. When we arrived, they gave us a welcome drink by hacking open a coconut, sticking in a straw, and handing it over to us. Coconut milk has a very weak, very peculiar flavor.

Dinner was rice, chicken, and yam balls. I spent the evening lounging around watching the stars come out, enjoying a bonfire on the beach, playing volleyball by streetlamp, and hanging out with Paolo, my assigned roommate for the trip, who's from Mozambique.

We woke up early the next morning to try to fit in both of our two castle tours (the "Historical" in the trip's title). One was Cape Coast Castle, and the other was Elmina Castle; both were built by colonial powers to facilitate the slave trade, and both tours were pretty much identical (though equally fascinating). The experience of visiting these castles was akin to visiting the Holocaust Museum. We got shown all the slave dungeons and packed into the cells. The guides told us about how it all worked. Some parts were particularly disturbing. Apparently, slaves that died on the ships were thrown overboard, and groups of sharks would learn to follow the ships. Then, when the food supplies ran low, the sharks were trapped and fed to the remaining slaves. There was also a whole system in Elmina Castle for raping the female slaves; the governor's balcony was set up right above their dungeon so that they could be paraded out for him to make his selection. Then, they would be washed and brought up through a special trap door to his bedchamber. Slaves that resisted at any point were thrown into the ridiculously small "condemned cell" and left there until they died.

The nearby township of Elmina was a fascinating sight to see. It's dominated by a giant chaotic fish market. Apparently the town accounts for almost a quarter of the fish supply in the country. We had some of the locals show up at our buses on the way out to try to sell us stuff. They would ask our names and be very friendly and then suddenly become extremely pushy. One guy asked me to donate to a charity. He was wearing a shirt that said, in giant block letters, "F*** ALL MY ENEMIES". For some reason, I didn't trust him.

We got back to the ship three and a half hours late. Remember, "in time", not "on time", and sometimes neither. I had been planning to meet up with my roommate Colin when I got back and go into town, so I was worried that he would have left without me, but his trip was equally late, so everything worked out. Colin had become friends with a local named Fred the night before. Fred was a 20-year-old tour guide who had been inviting S@S kids to have dinner with his family. We took the shuttle into town and met up with him.

Fred, Colin, myself, and another group of my friends from S@S went with him to his house. He led us past all sorts of interesting street food stalls and bought some palm wine for us to have at dinner. His house was plain but comfortable; we met his mother and his siblings, Oliver and Olivia. They were all very nice and they gave me a water sachet to have (they're pretty fun to drink). They were watching a Nigerian movie on TV when we came in; it looked like a bad soap opera.

We were served banku, a sticky ball of dough made from corn and cassava, served in a broth of okra, crab, beef, and heavy spices. We were instructed to wash our hands in the basins of water they brought out and then eat with our fingers; you'd pinch off some dough, scoop up some broth, and shove it all into your mouth. It was the opposite experience of what I was expecting: it started off surprisingly palatable and soon became disgusting. I ate as much as I could (not very much), and nobody in our group finished their plate, but since we had eaten earlier that evening, they didn't seem to be insulted.

The palm wine was young, which meant it was very sweet and not very strong; after a few more weeks, it would have had the opposite characteristics. I had a sip since I wanted to be polite (the taste was very strange), but I was surprised that Fred refused to have any for himself, citing that it contained alcohol. Apparently, his family is very religious, and until he turned 18 he had never had anything to drink or seen the inside of a bar or known anything about alcohol to start with. He made it sound like he considered his upbringing to be very sheltered.

We stayed as late as we could and then took the final shuttle of the night back to the ship. The other kids on the shuttle had had a lot more than palm wine that evening.

My final day in Accra was dominated by the Torgorme Village Experience trip. We took a ride out into a fairly sizable village and were welcomed by a big crowd of locals. There were a lot more kids than adults. We paid respects and shook hands with the village elders and chief. A bunch of kids of various ages then did several different drumming and dancing routines for us; while it was choreographed, the dances were more about the individual's movements than the group's synchronicity.

We also participated in a naming ceremony, in which we were each assigned a day name and a local name. Mine was Kwabla (born on a Tuesday) Dzidzo (pronounced "jee joh" meaning "happy"), so if anybody wants to start calling me by my Torgorme name, you're welcome to do so. Other names translated to "beauty queen" and "your savior is alive"; there was a lot of variation. They gave me a pot with my English and African names written on it and tied a bead bracelet to my wrist. Fun stuff!

They did some more dancing and invited us to join in. Some kids took it upon themselves to walk right up to me and show me how it was done. It felt like a really awkward dance when I did it, but they really got into it. Just about when it was time for us to be leaving, the wind picked up and we noticed that a big front of clouds had snuck up on us. It started pouring rain just when we hopped onto the bus. We had another meal of rice and chicken at a nearby kitchen and mess hall; they also served some delicious french fries to cater to our fine American tastes.

The last stop of the trip was the Shai Hills Game Reserve, where we were planning to visit a cave. Unfortunately, the rain made the road impossible for the bus to travel on, so we were given the option of either walking to the cave or staying on the bus. Most of us walked. I was well prepared with bug spray and sneakers and raincoat, but some girls were out there in shorts, flip flops, and purse.

We walked for about an hour over some very muddy roads; my sneakers didn't hold up very well. The last ten minutes was a legitimate hike to the cave up some steep rocks. I had a lot of fun with it, even if the latter parts of the path reeked of bat guano. Apparently, this cave (known as "the bat cave", no joke) was used by the Shai elders as a sacred meeting place. It was pretty wet and miserable, but worth seeing. On the way back we saw an antelope in the distance and a family of baboons hanging out on some rocks nearby; I got some decent pictures. Then it was back to the bus, back to the ship, and back out on the ocean!

We've got about a week at sea before hitting South Africa. Cape Town is our longest time in port, with six straight days. More updates then!

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