Never-never land

2008-02-08 00:00

I ASK the receptionist at my Accra hotel what it is like to live in the city and he replies, quite pointedly: “You work and you work and you work, and you never get ahead.” It seems to be the most apt description of Ghana I have been able to procure in my stay here.

Ghana is, on the one hand, a relative oasis of tranquillity, prosperity and reasonably good governance in a region plagued by war, corruption, instability and crime. On the other hand, though, it seems to be a very difficult place to get things done.

If I had come here for a two-week beach and sightseeing holiday I might have had a very different view of the first African country to attain its independence, 51 years ago in 1957. And, if Bafana Bafana had been based in Accra or Kumasi, or, better yet, the idyllic beach tourist haven of Sekondi-Takoradi, my impressions would probably also have been significantly different.

In retrospect, though, I am glad that I stayed the first 10 days off the beaten track in rural Tamale, because the time spent in the predominantly Islamic capital of the Northern Region, removed from comforts such as warm showers and spacious hotel rooms, gave me some very small idea of the struggle it is to be an ordinary Ghanaian.

Tamale, with a population of just under 400 000, is Ghana’s third-largest city and primarily an economic centre to the arid Northern Region, with its settlements dotted through a dry savannah landscape. The dusty city is also a transit point to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Its modern, new 20 000-seater stadium constructed for the current African Nations Cup rises like a space mothership that has landed among the surrounding single and double-storey tin-roofed buildings.

In Tamale less than half of the South African journalists covering the Nations Cup managed to send e-mail via their laptops. The stadium was supposed to have a free wireless network — which it did, but it never worked. Some journalists were advised to try a cellphone shop owned by Luxembourg company Tigo, where the staff were able to work miracles sending e-mails from within the shop, but this did not work once you went on your way. We resorted to Internet cafés crowded with teenagers to whom, of course, we were the centre of attention, which was distracting.

For one whole day all the cafés in Tamale went offline and it appeared that the entire town’s server had gone down. These are trying conditions to work in for the town’s residents in the age of the global village, and Ghana really seems like a country where it takes a lot of effort to get a little done.

While Tamale was the worst venue, Ghana’s organisation of the Nations Cup as a whole has at times been atrocious. This embarrassment, for a country that should have done better, is mystifying because Ghana has held the tournament once before, as co-hosts to Nigeria in 2000, and should have known what to expect.

It is all the more exasperating because the country is supposed to be a leading light in West Africa. Infrastructurally, though, Ghana just does not appear to have the riches it promises. Accra is dotted with modern high-rise buildings and office blocks either newly constructed or still being built. Ghanaian TV, though, seems to have about 15 poorly-made advertisements that are run repeatedly.

In post-match analysis of Nations Cup games, replays are actually rewound on-screen while the studio host says, “Yes, yes, that’s enough, stop it there.” Newsreaders read looking down at pages held in front of them, instead of at prompters in front of the cameras.

The main roads between Tamale and Kumasi, and Kumasi and Accra, are single lane and without tarmac in places, and under construction for improvement in others. The trip from Kumasi to Accra, which would take just over two hours on a good road, takes four on the current one, and this can turn to six when you hit the Accra traffic. The congestion on the capital’s roads is just another sign that Ghana is lagging behind in upgrading to match the growing wealth of much of its population. Whether this is because of a lack of resources or for other reasons is unclear. And the Accra traffic is another reminder that in Ghana things just have to be done slowly.

This aspect of Ghana is balanced by its famously hospitable population — although they are also a proud people with perhaps just a little stubborness in them.

Ghana’s middle-class is generally well informed and well spoken as a result of a free education system, which is a product of the socialism that was installed by, and outlasted, the founding father of the independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who was overthrown in a military coup in 1966.

Other than that coup the country has been a regional oasis of peace, and if I were to compare Ghanaians with another nationality — as you might, say, liken Mozambicans to Cubans — I would say it is the Swiss. Ghanaians’ hospitality and politeness is matched by a seeming impenetrability that can come across as aloofness.

Against this the brash, loud, somewhat full-on personalities of many of the South African journalists, particularly those from Johannesburg, sometimes grated like a steel brush on a chalk board. One South African journalist’s joking lament, when the media bus driver had absconded for a few minutes, that “I’ve been wanting to moer a Ghanaian since I got here”, seemed to reflect this.

Ghana is a startlingly beautiful country, particularly near the coast where it is lush and populous. Accra is a comfortably spread coastal capital with a population of just under two million. The city mixes modernity with post-colonial architecture and monuments such as its huge military parade ground with its colourful pavilions and striking arched tower, and the Independence Arch with its black star of Ghana.

The bustling nightlife of the Ossu area, with its bars and clubs, reminds one of Melville in Johannesburg but cranked up in intensity and African-ness about 10 times, and without the punch-ups.

The only slums I have seen belong to the canoe fishermen and their families who inhabit the township of Chokor, which has overrun the old city of Jamestown on Accra’s outskirts. I’m sure that there are more, but the relative lack of a huge gulf between rich and poor has contributed to a society where petty crime exists, but violent crime seems almost non-existent.

Other than that there does not seem to be too much to see in Accra, and a holiday in Ghana would probably be best spent taking in its many fortifications that line the coast near the beach resorts. The fortifications are remnants of the time when the slave trade removed seven million people, mostly from this region, as recently as the early 19th century.

There are also rain forests just inland from the coast; Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake; and Ghana is known for its crafts, drums, music and culture. Mostly, though, Ghana is not a place you visit to see specific things. This is West Africa and an on-the-surface languidness masks an undercurrent of furious activity, in spite of the obstacles. It is the country itself that you most want to take in.

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