Getting Comfortable in Accra

We’re getting extremely comfortable here.  So comfy that we are threatening to Alex that we might really move in.  We’re pretty good roomies, especially since we don’t fight over whose turn it is to do the dishes.  Cale and I have kept ourselves busy with a volunteer opportunity down the street, and we are able to visit Alex’s school to go lap swimming or go to the weight room.

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Cale and Alex, 32 going on 8.

I’ve been trying to get a handle on how to describe our experience in Ghana. I think the easiest way to break it down might be to point out each individual difference.  It took us a couple weeks just to get a handle on doing anything. Like buying bread, for example.

1) Accra smells like diesel.

What would be considered an ancient and useless car in the U.S. is a middle aged car with a pep in its step in Ghana. We often see cars broken down on the road- not pulled over to the side… just in the middle of the road with the driver underneath fixing whatever has gone wrong.

Also contributing to the smoky smell is the garbage. Garbage gets tossed into the street without a second glance, and if it is handled, it’s indiscriminately swept into a pile and burned. Plastic and all.  Here’s a shot of garbage burning and blowing into the guys playing soccer in the field next door:

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2) It’s entirely acceptable to go to the bathroom on the side of the road.

You don’t get arrested here for indecent exposure!  Men go to the bathroom on the side of the road, or next to the river.  Women too; they just straddle the open gutter on the side of the road to pee.  It’s much more convenient than home if you ask me.

3) We can’t go anywhere without getting honked at.

As white people, taxis honk at us as we walk down the street to try and get our business. And there are a ton of taxis in Accra.  So we can’t walk for more than 20 seconds without getting honked at.  I’ve started not even looking at honking cars, and instead shaking my head ‘no, I don’t need a ride.’

We also seem to be somewhat of a novelty in certain parts of the city.  Kids will point at us and say ‘Obruni!’ which means ‘white person’ or ‘foreigner.’  The other day some little kids came up and pet Cale’s leg, then ran away.

4) Careful where you walk, you might fall into a gutter!

A sidewalk is a sidewalk until there’s a hole in it and the hole leads to the sewer.

5) Our privilege slaps us in the face wherever we go.

This is something we weren’t expecting. As minorities in Accra, we figured we would experience discrimination. But it doesn’t work that way; it’s been the opposite.  We have a heightened awareness of our privilege, both when it comes to race as well as economic class.

Electricity goes out here often and we are lucky enough to stay in an apartment with a generator. I was complaining about not having wi-fi access for 24 hours while waiting for the regular power to come back on, then realized that I sounded like a jackass.

6) The disparity between the rich and the poor is unbelievable.

We’ve been volunteering at a community center down the street; a basketball camp and tutoring center for kids. The kids share basketball shoes because they don’t have their own. Some play without socks because they don’t have any.   People live without indoor plumbing and electricity.  Minimum wage here is $2/ day.  Meanwhile what would be considered middle class back in the U.S. experiences a lifestyle complete with personal housecleaner and cook, because it’s so inexpensive to have these luxuries.

7) You buy everything from the side of the road.

Need a piece of furniture? There’s a guy on the side of the road for that.  Need a tailor? Take a right at the guy selling phone minutes.  Whatever you need: architect, fruit, superglue…. somebody will be on the side of the road to sell it to you. When we first arrived I asked Alex where we buy milk, and he said “on the side of the road, where else would you buy it?” Most people sell stuff out of old shipping containers, others just have a table set up.  And lots of people sell goods at stoplights, carrying it on the top of their heads.

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Shipping container shop

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Working mama selling snacks to the b-ball ladies

8) Accra has amazing street art festivals

We were lucky enough to be here during the Chale Wote festival, a street art festival on the coast.  They close off the main road in Jamestown and the streets are full of kids playing soccer, painters creating murals on every surface imaginable including building walls, makeshift canvases made of wood pallets, the asphalt street surface, etc.  Modern mobile art and fashion shows proceed down the street.  BMX bike and breakdancing contests are held throughout the day.  And there are stages with live music.  It’s an impressive, energetic, colorful festival.

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At first I found it overwhelming to be here- we can’t walk anywhere without getting stared at, and it took a while to figure out how to do the basic things like shop for groceries.  20 Cedi notes come out of the ATMs (equivalent of about $6 American) and it’s often too high of a bill to be able to spend on the street because nobody can make change for it.

I soon realized that everyone in Ghana is extremely friendly- the moment you wave or smile and say hi they will break into a grin and are extremely friendly back. They are willing to help a lost American (compared to Morocco where we had to be cautious of anyone trying to help us with anything).  And it’s also been great to get to know a new lifestyle of teachers who work internationally.  It’s giving me lots of ideas… 🙂

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