Friday, 30 September 2011

Getting connected

“Life is simple until you enter the Vodaphone shop.”

So said an exasperated customer I overheard on a recent visit to the Accra branch of the mobile company. I was soon nodding in agreement. The Ghanaian approach to customer service takes a bit of getting used to. Not unhelpful, not rude, just … indifferent, as I found out while attempting what I had thought would be a simple transaction.

“I’d like to buy a SIM card, please”.
“Can I get one here?”
“My colleague will get you one.”

(Colleague tootles off around the corner while my sales assistant checks Facebook silently. SIM card arrives. I put it in my phone and go through the instructions.)

“Does it have credit on already?”
“How do I get credit?”
“You have to buy top-up vouchers.”
“Do you sell them?”
(Long pause.)
“Can I buy one?”
“My colleague will get you one.”

Getting our broadband installed at the flat was even more trying. For four weeks the Vodaphone staff and I went through a well-rehearsed routine.

At 10.00 am each day, I called the Vodpahone office and ask when my broadband will be installed. The sales assistant said they would call me back, then hung up.

12.00 pm. I ring again after no one has called me back and ask to speak with the manager. The manager tells me someone will be round that afternoon.

15.00 pm. I ring again to find out why no one has come round. The manager tells me they are very busy and will come round first thing tomorrow. We both know that a) she’s lying, b) there’s bugger all I can do about it, and c) I will have to call again tomorrow.

None of my attempts to speed things up worked. Being nice was met with indifference. Being angry, the same. My threats to take my business elsewhere also backfired, as the sales assistant switched to being extremely helpful, offering to cancel my contract over the phone until I had to humbly back down and confess I wasn’t going to switch providers. I think this counts as a lesson in the local culture.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Mount Iogaga

I had spotted Mount Iogaga from the summit of Krobo two weeks before. It’s one of the more distinctive hills in the plains north of Accra, steep-sided with a pointed peak. Thick forest covers the northern slopes, contrasting with the fields carved out on the southern flanks. Having admired it from afar, I was pleased a chance to explore came around so soon.

On route to Iogaga is a large agricultural project, led by Chinese investors. A clearly well-used dirt track led to a collection of buildings, where we parked up and headed along a rutted track to the hill. Heavy rain over the preceding week had turned the red earth into a thick gloopy mud; I was relieved my walking boots and sticks had arrived earlier that week. (Or rather, had finally reached me; they had been stuck in Ghanaian customs for six weeks for no apparent reason.)

Another steep climb kicks off this route. No calf-sparing zigzags in Ghana, just a direct line to the top. The shade of the forest helped keep us cool for the first half hour, but soon we were back among the tall grass. Kevin slashed away at the front again, and I secretly wondered if he purposely chose overgrown routes to give him and excuse to get the machete out.

Approaching the summit, we passed through a small bamboo forest before reaching the top. Another wearing walk was again rewarded with spectacular views – the payoff of hiking in Ghana’s crazy heat is quickly realised when you reach these breezy summits. Lunch was a leisurely affair, brightened by the many butterflies that joined us.

After descending through fields of yams and maize, we reached the cars once more and headed for the Aylo's Bay Leisure Spot on the Volta River. The post-walk beer is a ritual for the Ghana Mountaineers, and few places are more scenic than this tranquil spot. We cooled off slowly – Mike even stripping off for a quick dip in the water – before reluctantly making our way back to Accra.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Mount Krobo

Five am is an early hour to get up for a walk. I was still bleary eyed as I wandered over to the small group standing outside Accra’s El Wak stadium; with an assortment of poles and rucksacks, they could only be the Ghana Mountaineers. Introductions were made and we set off for Mount Krobo, on the road from Accra to Akasombo.

Krobo is a granite inselberg that bursts out of the surrounding plains. It is sacred to the local Krobo people, having served as a hideout from Ashanti slave raiders in the 1700s and also from the British in1892. In typically ruthless style, the British forced them down by cutting of the water supply (the mountain is almost dry) and killed them when they came down. A cheerful story to kick off my walking in Ghana, I thought.

We parked at the foot of the mountain, from where a path led steeply up the through the rocks and tall grass of the northern slopes. After 15 minutes of steady going, we arrived at an outcrop. Kevin, the organiser of the club, said there were often baboons there. Not today, but the views across to lower Lake Volta more than compensated, the morning sun turning the overnight cloud into a haze.

Shortly afterwards we passed the site where the Krobo people had hidden all those years ago. Evidence of their stay can still be seen underneath a small rock overhang, including rock paintings, and smooth stones where people had ground flour.

Another push and we reached the summit at 07.30. Felix got the breakfast barbeque going and a small group of us went to explore a nearby outcrop. More fantastic views across the green Ghanaian plains that lie north of Accra, and I was particularly appreciative as this was the first time I had seen anything outside of the city.

Two bright orange sunbirds danced around in the branches beneath us as we climbed carefully down from our precarious viewpoint, and we returned to freshly cooked sausages (or the meat eaters did at least). We also went to check on the mango tree planted a year previously by a now-departed group member; it was still there, fighting its way through the thick grass.

The route down proved a little trickier. The mountain is not grazed regularly, and as it was the end of the rainy season, the grass was over 10 feet high. Despite Kevin’s enthusiastic machete-hacking, we took one or two wrong turns. The grass also proved something of a heat trap, blocking out the morning breeze; the reason for the early start became clear – it would be far worse in the midday sun.

Eventually we dropped out of the grassy maze into a small clearing with a collection of half-completed buildings. These are the remnants of a Peace Corps-led tourism enterprise that failed to take off. A man from Krobo village walked up and tried to charge us for walking on the mountain, but gave no explanation of who he was or why we should pay. Nice try. We declined and walked off to the strains of Twi cursing and headed off back towards the vehicles and, soon after, a thirst-quenching Star beer.

Friday, 2 September 2011

New home

After eight days of hotel life, we finally moved into our new flat. A last-minute change of plan meant we moved to the residential suburb of Dzorwulu (pronounced ‘jo-WU-lu’) rather than West Legon. Nearer the city and school, but still an unknown quantity.

The house and flat, hidden behind black iron gates, were dark as the school bus driver let us in. He sped off quickly, and we were alone in what would be our home for the next two years. The flat was big and looked nice, but felt strange and empty. Outside, it was very quiet, the streets deserted. The TV didn’t work. We didn’t have our radio. The silence was becoming increasingly oppressive as we sat together on the sofa, both feeling a bit lost and a long way from home.

Five minutes later came a knock at the door. Joanna, our new landlady, marched in and sat herself down. A big smile and she started chattering away and asking us about how we liked the flat. We were both relieved to have a visitor, and the conversation followed in a typically Ghanaian way, where our questions were half-answered each time.

“Is there a shop nearby?”
“I’ll take you shopping tomorrow, to the supermarket.”
“Ah, is it near here?”
“It’s much cheaper than the Mall, nearly three times the price there!”
“How does the washing machine work?”
“Charity, our housegirl will do your washing, no problem.”
“But just in case she is busy…”
“She can clean the flat too, just call her.”

Conversations take a bit longer, and you are never quite sure if you have found out what you needed to, but on our first night we were grateful for a talkative guest in our strange new surroundings.