Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Americans, History & Ghana

DSCN1698Akwaaba. Welcome to Ghana, is what the sign at the airport says. I arrive with a bit of intrepidation because I have NO idea what Ghana is like. Except that I know that Marci has moved here recently. Something about traveling for several month just emboldens a person lots so you forget the "what-ifs" and just go.

The plane is freezing cold but the minute off the flight; it is a goddamn sauna. And it's nearing midnight. Customs is long; there's a separate line for ECOWAS, but even the south african shuffle though that line for West Africans; so typical I think to myself. The taxi drivers don't know where my hostel is. So Typical. But I am prepared. Armored with info. I figured this as much because I had the same trouble in Pretoria a week ago. I have to read the directions and simultaneously get smothered and hit on by the taxi driver. It is all in good fun. I just roll my eyes. Just get me there. No more talking please. I need sleep.


I think of East africa, and I brace myself for the hassle in the streets, touts and people following me anywhere. BUT - it doesn't happen here in Accra. ok, maybe only 10x less. I will explain why .

It is a lot hotter here in Ghana than it was in East Africa. I don't know if it has anything to do with the time of year but apparently this isn't the rainy season. 91 degrees Farenheit on average every day in ridiculous humidity. Rain is sporadic, and it doesn't stay wet long. People run around the street with bags of plastic water stuffed in their mouth as they work on the streets. Water in bags. Ice cream is also sold in bags. Of course you can get it in a bottle or in a box, but the cheap stuff is all in a bag. People chew off a corner of the sack, spit it out and then walk around with a bag stuck to their mouth.

These bags of water, ice cream, and more are all sold in traffic to ward off the heat. Accra has a huge traffic congestion problem. By midday expect most of the major streets through the city centre to be bumper to bumper. Cars, trucks, trotros, coaches, back to back and neck to neck. With a large percentage of the population unemployed many people make their living hawking goods on the street, as in many parts of africa. But compared to east africa, I have never seen such a large group of people and with so many diverse items sold in traffic. They really take advantage of the standstill traffic to sell stuff to people sweltering in the heat. You can buy everything in traffic.... super glue, socks, pants, notebooks, laptop cases, french-english translation dictionaries, chips, popcorn, lunch, drinks, flags of the USA, Canada, australia, ... they seem to like americans a lot here.

You just die in the heat. I fork out a 5 Cedi bill for a giant bottle of water. 4 Cedis come back through the window. I give the driver 3 Cedis, "that's for you" I said. The driver is sweating buckets, and the 3 Cedis go back out the window to buy several packs of ice cream and water. Ah, so that's where your money goes. I lay in the back, and wish for some air conditioning now.....

Accra has become a major business center. Also, LOTS of expatriates here. Tons of volunteers, peace corps, university students from abroad, hospital exchange programs, business people from the USA, Canada, Lebanon, India.... etc etc. It's a very safe city. The traffic can be a bit hectic and of course you have tro-tros ( their bus-taxi equivalent ) but I feel a heck of lot calmer here. People are pretty easy to deal with you don't have as much inflated prices for foreigners (oboroni - person who comes from beyond the horizon). In fact, I got into a tro-tro today and paid the guy 20 pesewas, and he gave me 5 back in change. I didn't want the change. I gave the 5 back to him. They see so many volunteers, business people and academics who come to study abroard, they don't bother trying to hawk more money from foreigners. Unless it is a taxi driver and a few people selling goods in more touristy markets.

But as a whole there isn't much tourism here; there isn't the draw you get for east africa, because most of the animals have been killed off. People come here for different reasons. They come for the drumming, the music, the culture, and the people. The people here are very nice, and it's really safe. It's squeezed in between several francophone countries; you can hop across the border to Togo, Cote d'ivoire and they're completely french.

The money here was recently revalued and the current exchange is 1.4 Ghana Cedi's to 1 USD. 100 pesewas make up 1 Cedi.

Accra is an odd place. Before independence, it was a British colony. But here they don't drive on the other side of the road. They drive on the same side as we do in the states. And everybody speaks English.

However, despite the English; few people here know where anything is. Is it the accent? No, because they know where major landmarks are. But once you start getting specific, like street names, places that are new or off the beaten track, they look at you and say they have no idea. After a week or so, it's not that they don't understand you; they really don't know street names.

The people here - they remember places. they remember circles, big places, gas stations, supermarkets. But they don't know the name of the street, or the number on the buildings. Taxi drivers will just look at you blankly and drive past if they don't know where you want to go. No, you don't want to make any money today?, I say. Funny.
Cape Coast
A must see if you are interested in African American history. This town was once the capital of Ghana. In the colonial days, Ghana was known as the Gold Coast. Literally there is gold here, underfoot. Ghana also produces a tremendous amount of cocoa, like its next door neighbor, Cote d'ivoire. But, despite this, you won't find a lot of chocolate made here; most of the chocolate is made in belgium, switzerland. Something about politics and subsidies and facilities. I won't get into that here.

Every major european country wanted a piece of Cape Coast - they fought endless wars over it. Strategically it was really valuable. It was the major hub for the slave trade to the americas and the caribbean. The dutch, The portugese, the french, the swedes, the british.... eventually the british got it and controlled it and built this fort to export slaves, a place called Cape Coast Castle. Its' actually a well built fort; and honestly after seeing Zanzibar, the space that the british kept slaves in appeared to be a lot better than Stone Town Zanzibar. That's the one thing I hated about stone town; i went to a lot of the historical sites and through the winding streets. It had such a contorted twisted horrible feel to it. It really left me uneasy, sick. The arabs traded slaves there as well; to where I don't know.

Some americans come every year to visit cape coast castle, and place rememberances there within the slave dungeons. As for celebrities; word has it that Serena Williams visits Elimina every year - another fort/town about 10km from Cape Coast.

But, as for Independence from colonialism.... the roots started here in Ghana. Ghana won independence in 1957, on March 06. Last friday was the 52nd year of independence. Independence celebrations are like the US, a bit more subdued.... but they do deck out the entire stadium and downtown and have a giant parade. People are very patriotic, lots of gold, red and green. The first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkurmah is known for inspirating Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in the USA. Also, W.E.B Dubois - first black american to graduate from Harvard is buried here. He actually moved here in the last two years of life to work on chronicles of african countries and to work on "pan-africanism". They were really trying to build a united Africa - one africa, not the africa like you see today with many small countries, cut up along colonial divisions... What they wanted was something massive like how China is. But unfortunately there was a lot of fall out. Also Nkurmah was exiled in his last days, some say because of mismangement, but others say because it was a CIA plot.... of the interesting characters I've met, I heard that from the son of the guy who worked as Nkurmah's personal press - reporter. How true I don't know.

Cape Coast is a small town and actually pleasant to walk around....admist the goats wandering the street and the sewage, but that's another matter. It is significantly cooler than accra, and little traffic. Outside of Accra it can be difficult to get around because there aren't as many trotros and you have to take a taxi, which adds up fast.

My gut feeling is that Ghana is still extremely valuable as a strategic point for the US. I went past the US embassy and it is one monster of a structure. Really ridiculous how obscenely big it is. Also ran into some marine corp soldiers, although they weren't soldiers...they were the marine corps band! Their only purpose - the entertain the troops. Thanks. so that's were our tax payer dollars are going.

If I had more time, I would have traveled north to Kumasi; they say there is a huge market there, and people say you can see more of the traditional ashanti culture there; although the bus ride was 5 hrs and I was too lame for that.... and then further north to Larabanga. Larabanga is one of the oldest mud structures - it is a mosque, and is known as the Mecca of West Africa.


I'm getting a bit tired of traveling. Being here in Ghana is making me somewhat immune to really enjoying africa, I feel like I've seen enough of the same thing over and over again.

Originally I had planned to go home 2 weeks ago, after vic falls. I extended it to come to Ghana. Really ready for something else, preferably home? Originally I was considering a border hop to see more of Francophone west africa - to lome in Togo, but I am so tired I'm staying put here in Accra for a few more days. My plane leaves to Casablanca on Saturday night at 3am - that's tonight.. Not looking forward to that.

I had plans to go through Europe before heading back. But the last couple of days have been lethargic..........I can't describe it - perhaps its the weather here, but I don't have the energy to go exploring, to brave the maddness of the crowds, the excitment isn't there, I have seen TOO much africa, yet at the same time, I am realizing, ironically how LITTLE of africa I actually have seen.

I am feeling really lucky that I've been able to see so much so far, but at the same time; I think I have overdosed on shooting from the hip and "just going".

Keep in mind, all of the traveling I've done since the beginning of this year has been ALONE.


Nobody is going to any place with me. Scary thought. It's so dangerous, people say - that continent africa. But its not entirely, you *can* be safe and just play it by ear. Talk to lots of travelers. Look dirt poor. Pretend that you work for the Peace Corps or just look the part. Some people think I'm nuts. Sometimes I think the same. But the rewards of doing this by yourself is really great - reap massive rewards. And see what you really want to see. Meet lots of really interesting and great people along the way. Make some awesome friends. Feel crummy when you have to part your ways. And then meet some crazies along the way. Feel relieved when you get to ditch them. And not feel guilty.

Things you learn on the road, you can never learn in school. And I mean it. 4 freaking years of university education will never teach you how to live like this, and how other people live in different parts of the world. An education from books won't teach you how to shoot from the hip; move to another place when ever you feel like it. Or to deal with touts, and the hassle and to qualify travelers and people on the road at the drop of a hat. You learn to go with your gut. And to listen to the locals and to find out what's there under the surface that the ordinary tourist doesn't want to know or doesn't care to know. There are days when I've literally packed up at 4pm and decided to haul ass to the next town instead of staying here because word is, the party's better over there. haha. Feel the freedom of not having to be locked down in one stupid country with one stupid set of rules that you might not like today.

Unfortunately my curiousity is dying. I just crashed this week. Hard. I have one more place I must absolutely see, and then...I caved. I have mixed feelings about returning to the states. But you know, there is no place like home. Today I just booked all my tix home. Yes, this whole time --- I have no valid return ticket. Until now.


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