Tuesday, 11 June 2013


It's not all bad
After nearly two years in Ghana, I have seen a lot of the country, learnt a few words of Twi (about five), and tasted all that Ghanaian cuisine has to offer me – not much, being vegetarian. But I could live here another 20 years and still not master Ghanaian logic.

The taxi journey last night was a prime example. Walking to pick up a takeaway at Noble House, an Indian restaurant near the local A&C shopping mall, I heard the familiar parp of the horn. I said where I was going.
“You are going to A&C mall?”
“No, a restaurant near there.”
“OK, 6 cedis to the mall.”
“Fine, but it’s not actually the mall. It’s nearby. OK?”
“You know the way? I don’t know it.”
“Yes, I know, let’s go.”

He asked directions all the way, and then pulled up at the mall. No, I repeated, I’m not going to the mall; it’s a restaurant nearby.

“Oh, I have to pick someone up and I’m late. You said you knew the way.”
“I do, just take the next turn right.”
“No, right.”
“Yes, right.”
“OK, right.”

We turned left. Past an enormous, garage-sized ‘Noble House’ sign with a bright red arrow pointing the other way.
“It’s the other way.”
“No, nothing is down that road. It’s this way.”
“But you said you don’t know where it is.”
“I know it’s not that way. Nothing is that way.”

We got there eventually. I had to pay him eight cedis; not only did I not know the way, I had made him late for collecting his passenger. Taxi drivers in Accra drive a hard bargain.

Where are the spuds?
New arrivals are just as easily caught out. Our friends Lilly and Ole came for two weeks last year, and after a dusty trip to Mole, we retreated to relax at Till’s No.1, a beach resort just outside Accra. Owned by a German, the menu has a better-than-average selection. After a week of yam chips and fried rice in the north, Lilly spied the fresh green salad – lettuce, tomato, eggs and boiled potatoes.

One hour later (the standard waiting time for food in most Ghanaian hotels), out came the meals, including her salad ­– minus the spuds. She asked where they were; “Oh, coming, coming,” came the reply from the hurried waiter.

A further 20 minutes, and the salad devoured, but still no potatoes. As the plates were cleared, Lilly asked about them.
“Oh, please, no potatoes with salad,” said our smiling waiter.
“But the menu says potatoes”, replied Lilly (the chips I had eaten proved they weren’t ‘finished’).
“No, this salad doesn’t come with potatoes.”
“It says on the menu, though – lettuce, tomato, egg and boiled potatoes.”
“Oh, please, everyone here knows this plate doesn’t come with potatoes. You can ask my friends.”

Sunset at Tills
Simple logic: why on earth would a guest expect potatoes when the staff all knew the menu was wrong? To be fair, the waiter probably had the stronger case this time; most Ghanaian menus are as grounded in reality as the average Noddy story. “It is finished,” is a refrain common to anyone eating out. It’s difficult to believe some dishes ever ‘started’.

The moment I knew I would never get my head around the Ghanaian way of thinking was in Shoprite, Accra’s low-cost, poor-quality South African supermarket in the city’s main shopping mall. It had been a stressful Saturday morning, full of typical expat problems: the air-con was broken; the waitress brought the wrong coffee; it was too damn hot, again. Sweating and in a bad mood, I went to buy the week’s groceries before retreating home to watch Coronation Street on Youtube.

Vegetables are weighed and priced by a bored-looking shop assistant, but when I handed him my mango, he gave it back: “It must be in a plastic bag”. Refusing bags for single items is my own futile gesture towards reducing Ghana’s phenomenal plastic waste, but I knew it wasn’t worth arguing.

In between me getting a bag and returning, a Chinese couple had sneaked into the queue with half a trolley’s worth of veg. Swearing quietly and trying to stay calm, I impatiently waited my turn, then unloaded my basket of veg … only to find an unbagged avocado at the bottom. Swearing quite loudly this time, I went to get yet another bag, only to be stopped.

“That doesn’t need a bag”, said the assistant.
“Why did the mango then?”
He gave me the smiling, ‘what’s he on about?’ look that is a common Ghanaian response to irate obronis making a fuss about nothing. I tried again, this time with props.
“What is the difference between this (holding up bagged mango) and this (holding up unbagged, similarly-sized avocado)?”
“That one is a mango… and that one is an avocado” he answered.

Beaten again by Ghanaian logic.

Spot the difference

Monday, 10 June 2013


What connects mobile phone credit, 500 ml sachets of purified water, and a framed hologram of Christ on the cross? Answer – they can all be bought on the streets of Accra. Along with bush meat. And fried plantain chips. And huge maps of Ghana. And Chinese-made neck massagers. And sliced papaya. And self-help books, bottles of fresh coconut water, new windscreen wiper blades, frozen yoghurts…

The capital’s street traders, known as ‘hawkers’, sell these myriad items at every set of traffic lights and traffic jam that slows cars down long enough for a transaction. Sometimes only just long enough; a hawker running alongside a car, one hand collecting change through the window, is a common sight.

Chasing cars isn’t the only hazard the hawkers face. They must dodge quickly out of the way when the traffic starts moving: not easy with an overflowing basket of oranges balanced on your head. And spending 12 hours a day amid the city’s vehicle fumes can’t be healthy.

Several women, men and children trade at the end of my road in the suburb of East Legon. While buying phone credit one morning, I asked the seller, John Abatey, how much he earns. “I get four cedis (about £1.30) for every 100 cedis of credit I sell. Most days, I sell around 500 cedis.”

My surprise at such a meagre living must have shown, as he quickly explained that this was a good living. “The water sellers earn much less,” he told me proudly. Water sells for 10 pesawas per sachet (around £0.03), with a seller making 1 or 2 pesewas per sale. Buying one always leaves me with mixed feelings: the empty sachets are one of the mains culprits in Accra’s wave of plastic pollution, but there’s no denying that they are instantly refreshing on a scorching day.

How much longer John and co. can stay there remains to be seen. The Accra Municipal Authority is stepping up efforts to clear the streets of hawkers. Their stated aim is to clear the streets to reduce congestion; the suspicion among the hawkers is that the authorities see them as an untidy blot in a rapidly modernizing city.

If they do disappear, I will miss them. Not least because of the convenience they offer: I know I don’t have far to walk whenever I need phone credit. Or some grilled maize. Or a box of Man Utd tissues. Or a carved wooden mask, a dead rat, a school lunchbox, a slice of watermelon, a game of Scrabble…

Sunday, 2 June 2013


Nous jouons au babyfoot
Education experts claim that schoolchildren in the UK should spend more time learning languages to bring them up to European standards. Personally I think we should forget the whole thing; we only end up embarrassing ourselves.

A storm over Lomé
Having just crossed into Togo from Ghana, Hannah and I were instantly surrounded by moneychangers and taxi drivers, all yabbering away in French. Maybe due to the excitement of walking across a national border for the first time, the 50 words of French I learnt at school instantly flooded back. Where I didn’t know the French word, I chucked in random bits of German and the odd smattering of Spanish. The gathered Togolese looked thoroughly bemused, as if faced with a low-budget version of C3PO – fully incoherent in three languages. Luckily Hannah’s French course paid off and she managed to get us a taxi to the Hotel Napoléon Lagune.

Le petit dejeuner
A weekend is long enough to get a taste of Togo, and that taste is fresh cheese, crispy baguettes and freshly brewed Togolese coffee. I ordered for breakfast the next morning while waiting for Hannah: “Je voudrais mon petit dejeuner” – I was back in full flow after a good night’s sleep. Togolese breakfasts are a marked step up from Litpon tea, rubber omelettes and sugary stodgy bread served in Ghana’s hotels. It went down very well as we sat overlooking the Bé Lagoon in the hotel courtyard. Togo grows on you very quickly, especially at mealtimes.

"...and smile..."
Less appetizing was the city’s major attraction, the fetish market. If you visit a market where they sell animal parts for traditional medicine, you can’t really complain if that’s what you find. But while initially fascinating, the piles of monkey heads, dried chameleons, dead vultures and many more besides were fairly gruesome; the wicker basket of kitten heads was particularly stomach turning. The smell of the market was even more overwhelming; it’s hard to describe in words, but probably not that difficult to imagine the stench produced by hundreds of dead animals lying about in 35-degree heat.

Not sure what these cure...
Our guide assured us all the animals had died of natural causes – yeah, right – but Hannah and I were quickly going off the idea of a fetish market as a good day out. When he asked if we wanted to meet the fetish priest and be ‘cured’ with our choice of animal, ground and brewed with “over fifty traditional herbs”, it was our cue to leave. Quickly.

Some carving or other
La Musée International du Golfe de Guinée (that’s the international museum of the Gulf of Guinea, non-linguists) was a far more relaxed and less pungent affair. Located in a house on Lomé’s urban seafront, it contains statues and artefacts collected from across West Africa. A good selection of wooden penises was on show for fans of the genre, as well as some particularly ugly carvings.

Unfortunately, once you have visited the fetish market, nothing can distract you from the need for a shower. We headed back to the hotel and I threw away my fetid T-shirt, which still smelt of the elephant thighbone* I had been persuaded to pick up for a photo. Only after two scrubbings, a swim in the pool and a few Togolese beers did I start to feel clean again.

An elephant's thighbone. Heavy.

* The T-shirt was nearly 15 years old and regularly used for hiking, so the elephant cannot be held fully responsible for its aroma.