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Africa » Ghana » Greater Accra » Legon
October 13th 2010
Published: October 13th 2010
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29/09/10
Last weekend, I went to Togo. I went with another girl, Stella, from my CIEE group. We both spoke enough French to get around so we thought, “This will be fun!” We left at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to catch a cab to the STC Bus Station at Kwame Nkrumah Circle. We stood for about half an hour in the wrong queue before I asked someone if it was the wrong queue, and was quickly redirected to another queue. We didn’t trust the queues anymore, so we went instead to the information desk. For once, the information desk actually provided helpful information. We were at the wrong bus station.

Fortunately, the bus going to Aflao, the border town close to Lomé, Togo, was leaving from STC Bus Station to the Accra Station so we ended up being the first passengers on board. This meant we got to pick the best seats. They took our money (5.50 Ghana cedis, or about $3.50) and printed out quick tickets for us. They picked random names to put on the tickets, so Stella became Florence and I became Felicia. We got a kick out of that.

The bus ride took about four hours along an excellent road. The scenery was beautiful. We drove through the Volta wetlands, which are a haven for all sorts of migratory birds and other wildlife. There were little fishing villages built alongside the wetlands, and we could see men wading far out into the water to check their traps for fish, crabs, etc. After a while, we reached a huge lagoon. It was peaceful and gorgeous. There were several fishing boats bobbing in the water, and we could see the ocean from the narrow break in land to the south. The homes were constructed differently from those farther north and west, in the forest and savannah regions. The ones I had seen on my other trips were made from red clay and straw, and the roofs were thatched with grass. The houses in the wetlands were woven from long, dried palm leaves. The leaves were arranged vertically in even rows and braided down until each wall was finished. Then, they were erected, and a roof of the same material was placed on top. Easy to move if the home was flooded, I’m sure.

For some reason, the road turned to dirt about ten miles out of Aflao, and from there to Togo, it was a mess. There was a huge truck lying overturned on the roadside. Thankfully, we got to Aflao without incident. Then things got a bit difficult. When we alighted from the bus, we were mobbed. Literally. Money changers and taxi drivers descended on us from all sides, shouting at us, grabbing us, pushing us, and keeping us from moving freely. Unlike the other vendors I had encountered in Ghana, these men did not take “No” for an answer. Young men kept coming up and asking to be our friends, wanting to know our phone numbers, sticking wads of cash in our faces and asking repeatedly if we wanted to get money changed. We kept yelling that we weren’t interested, telling them to leave us alone, explaining that we didn’t need any help, but they kept coming.

Finally, we got to the police checkpoint at the border and things settled down a little. We had to pay almost 50 Ghana cedis each for the privilege of crossing the Togo border. I had not anticipated such a steep price, and was left with the equivalent of about $10 to last two days in Togo. Fortunately, Stella brought a bit more money with her than I did, and she was able to loan me 5.50 Cedis for the tro-tro home the next day. When we crossed into Lomé, we were mobbed once again, this time in French. We walked away from the crowd to discuss what we wanted to do next, but were followed by several persistent men. We explained them in a combination of French, English, and enraged non-linguistic bellowing that we did not want to be touched/propositioned/befriended/etc. Finally, there was a lull in activity long enough for us to figure out what to do. We began walking in the direction of the more developed district of Lomé, and gradually, the “friends” dropped to the wayside until eventually we were alone again.

We stopped by a gas station to change our big bills into small ones, since that’s what everyone does in Ghana. The lady working the desk was positively venomous. She scowled at us as we walked in, ignored me until I repeated myself twice, and then told me that I had to buy something. That would never happen in Accra. Everything in there was ridiculously overpriced, but I bought a yogurt drink and she took my money. She gave me my change and I didn’t figure out until later that she had given me a coin which was effectively worthless. In Togo, if the coin is older and worn smooth, it isn’t accepted by merchants anymore. So I ended up buying a REALLY expensive yogurt drink.

Stella had a list of reputable hotels she had gotten from a guidebook, and we started searching for the first one on the list. We didn’t really know where we were going, so we decided to get a ride. There aren’t very many taxis or tro-tros in Lomé, and there are no buses as far as I could tell. The cheapest and quickest way to get around is by motorbike. The traffic isn’t bad at all because very few people can afford cars. I felt safer on a motorbike in Lomé than I would have in Accra during rush hour. We hailed two motorbikes, negotiated a price of 250 C.F.A., or about $0.50, and set off for the Hotel Galion. They took us past the market place to a big, old conference building. They didn’t have any idea where the Hotel Galion was, so they asked directions of several people on the way. Then, we left the conference building, came back the direction we had started from, and turned down a narrow dirt street lined with tall palms and deciduous trees. Shade was very nice after being blasted by the sun reflecting off of the ocean.

The moto drivers found the Hotel Galion fairly easily, and left when we paid them. The Hotel Galion is owned by an older, bearded French man and caters to Europeans, specifically the French. It is comprised of two older buildings, constructed in the French Colonial style with vaguely Middle Eastern undertones. The ceilings are high, and there are balconies and terraces in abundance. Our room cost 8,000 C.F.A. and was very basic, although luxurious by Togolese standards, from what I’ve read. For the record, 8,000 C.F.A. = $16. There was one double bed, which we shared. One desk, two closets without locks, one brown tiled bathroom with a dim yellow light over the sink, and a showerhead in the corner. The bed had bedbugs, but I already got bedbugs at the Coconut Grove Hotel when I first arrived, so it didn’t bug me too much. Hehe.

Stella wanted to go to the market, so we got motorbikes to the main part of town. At the market, we got mobbed again. We were carrying backpacks, which was nerve-wracking. The smart way to wear a backpack in an African urban center is on your front. That way, pick-pockets won’t try to open the pockets and steal your things. So we made a rather ridiculous couple, walking along with a crowd of men and women shouting at us from all sides, our backpacks firmly latched to our fronts. We stopped to take pictures of a cathedral, and two police officers told us we weren’t allowed. I think they may have wanted compensation. One of them, the older one, asked me to marry him and when I told him I had a boyfriend, he asked if my boyfriend was a white. When I said yes, he accused me of preferring white men over black men. There’s just no way to say the right thing in a conversation like that.

We didn’t buy much. There were some sweets for sale, and we tried one of each. One was kind of like a coconut stack, one was a hard molasses ball, and the third was a stick of peanut candy not unlike the center of a Butterfinger, except less processed. They were all delicious, especially after the long day we had had. We walked around a bit more, spoke to some amorous security guards who hailed us motorbikes and gave us the name of a restaurant, and had dinner. The moto drivers tried to overcharge us after the guards had secured us a fair price, so that was one more argument I got into. I argued a lot in Togo. Note to self: I really need to look up the French word for “cheat”.

Dinner was slimy okra soup and rice. We were about ready to eat the bowl it came in, though, so we choked it down. Stella ordered a beer. It was humongous, so we split it. Although I can’t say much for the soup, Togolese beer isn’t bad at all. We got back to the hotel and were about to turn in for the night. I had gotten a big bottle of citron-pineapple juice, fermented, as it turns out, and went to the front desk/bar to get two glasses for us to split it. There, I saw another girl from CIEE, Jordan, and two of her friends, one of whom I had a class with. They were staying at the same hotel, so Stella and I joined them at their table and we all shared stories. Theirs was a lot more exciting.

They had decided to go to Benin first, and then Togo. They had set out on Thursday morning with a little money and their ATM cards, because they had read in a guidebook that Benin had ATMs in abundance. When they arrived in Benin, they discovered, to their dismay, that they had been misinformed. They also spoke no French, whatsoever. So they were stuck in Francophone Africa with no money and no way to communicate. They walked for miles through urban Benin, searching in vain for an ATM or a money changer. Finally, an older Asian man took pity on them and changed their money from his own pocket. Otherwise, they would either have spent the night at the American Embassy or on the street. By the time they got to Togo, they were exhausted and very sunburnt.

And that is how we found them at the hotel. They were each holding a baggie of fried rice and eating feverishly. I offered to share my fermented fruit juice, we got a few more glasses, and toasted the fact that we were all still alive. In Lomé, Jordan and her compatriots had befriended a Peace Corps guy from, I think, Texas. He was stationed in rural Togo, where he was running a rabbit farm and teaching 30+ men and women the finer points of raising rabbits. He was on vacation in Lomé, and he was very, very drunk/high when they found him.

He disappeared for a little while and came back with something called ‘sodabie’, a.k.a. Togolese moonshine. It was absolutely foul. I didn’t have very much. Instead, I had a nice conversation with a middle-aged French guy sporting a few sad-looking dreadlocks who kept sneaking over to the stereo to turn up the volume of the Bob Marley music he was playing. The manager would periodically come turn it down. The Rasta man gave me the address of a venue in Togo where they have “Reggae Night”. “Reggae Night” is code for “Stoners’ Night”. There’s a “Reggae Night” on the beach in Accra every Friday, and they pay off the cops in advance. So I don’t think I’ll be going to any “Reggae Nights”. The penalty for being caught with marijuana in Ghana is ten years’ hard labor. When they do a marijuana bust, everyone in the vicinity gets arrested and dragged to jail, and they sort it all out later. The prospect of sitting in either a Ghanaian or a Togolese jail is not appealing to me in the slightest.

The next day, we met with the other three girls at 9 a.m., got breakfast on the street, and ate it on the beach. The beach in Lomé is breath-taking. The water is sparkling blue, the beach is undeveloped, and palm trees line the beach walk. The sand is kind of dirty, though. People use it as a bathroom and trashcan. You couldn’t go swimming in the part of the beach we saw. The drop-off is very sharp and the waves are huge. We sat in a circle underneath a palm tree and ate baguettes and avocados. A couple of boys gathered around the coconut tree next to ours and we watched one boy climb the tree to throw down the coconuts at the top. It was probably the nicest part of the weekend in Togo.

We decided to leave soon afterwards. We got five motorbikes, negotiated a price, and headed back towards the border. The moto I was on broke down, but the driver got it running again. My friends were waiting for me, and we headed into the immigration office to get our Ghana visas extended for another 60 days. Then, we were mobbed once again by tro-tro drivers. We couldn’t take a bus back because it was Sunday, and we couldn’t change our money at the Forex for the same reason, so we found a money changer on the street, eventually picked a tro-tro that was heading to Achimota, elicited from them a promise that they would swing by Legon to drop us off at campus, and headed home. By this time, I was completely broke. I walked to my house from campus, ate dinner, and dropped into bed.

10/05/10

This weekend, I went to Akropong-Akuapem with my host family. Akropong is Grandpa Asante's home town, and they were celebrating their biggest festival of the year, Odwira. It is the traditional start of the new year, and is marked by two weeks of festivities. We left on Thursday morning with lots of drinks for his family and some food for us. His ancestral home is located at the top of a hill, accessible by a bumpy dirt road. It is not one building but many, built around a central courtyard. The Akan tribe, of which they are members, transfers property and inheritance matrilineally. They believe that a person inherits her blood from her mother and her spirit/personality from her father. So property, in order to be kept in the family, is from maternal uncles to the children of their sisters. It's confusing at first if you come from a patrilineal society, like that of the United States. Anyway, each adult descendant of Grandpa Asante's maternal grandmother had his/her own house. Grandpa has a small flat with two bedrooms and a rudimentary kitchen which he keeps for his visits to Akropong. I stayed in the second bedroom, which I shared with ceiling-high stacks of chairs and several snails. My gastropod roommates didn't stay for long. I saw them floating in the soup on Saturday. They were delicious.

On Thursday, the families of Akropong were appeasing their traditional gods and ancestors. A sheep was slaughtered and its blood was rubbed on the floor of the family's sacred shrine. Certain special plants were laid out and a basin was filled with water, the blood of the sheep, and schnapps. Family members washed themselves in the basin to cleanse themselves of the sins of the past year, and to protect themselves for the coming year. Libations were offered to the gods, and three younger members of the family painted themselves white and sat in places of honor to represent the long-departed and recently-departed loved ones. After the home ceremony, all the members of the family gathered around the "ghosts", and plied them with gifts and held canopies over their heads. They chanted and sang songs of remembrance, and then began their procession towards the cemetery, where they would pantomime leaving their dead loved ones behind. It was very emotional, because they were also mourning the family they had lost recently. The "ghosts" resisted being taken to the cemetery, to show that they missed their living family, and so they were pulled through the streets. Drums were beaten to accompany the procession, and cars were stopped along the road. After watching them go off down the road, I returned to the compound. There was music reverberating all through the town, and it was fun to see everyone dancing and relaxing outside the shops and bars. My eardrums will probably never recover, though.

Friday was the durbar of chiefs. A durbar is a procession and reception of important people. Chiefs and queen mothers from all of the surrounding towns were present, as well as the chief of the region and the Minister of the Eastern Region. One of the presidential hopefuls, Nana Addo-Afua (not sure I got the name right) was also there, and he got the biggest cheers and applause. The chiefs and queen mothers all rode to their places on lavish palanquins, carried on the shoulders of eight or ten strong young men. They wore gold jewelry and carried scepters and other symbolic objects. Some had wooden carved guns, which they waved around jokingly. The numerous police officers patrolling the event with real guns did not joke. The reception was conducted primarily in Twi, so I just watched the people instead. I was accompanied by one of Grandpa Asante's nephews, a young man at a university in Koforidua for electrical engineering. He was able to tell me what was going on and he took a bunch of phenomenal pictures which I will post once my internet is good enough.

Saturday, most of the businesses were closed and there was widespread dancing in the streets all day. Most of the dancing was done by men, with a few young women dancing here and there during the day. The best part was the spectacles put on by different companies (MTN and Kasapreko, to name a few). MTN had a man in drag who danced and gyrated his hips in a hot pink skirt that came down far enough for us to see more than we wanted to of his bum. Kasapreko, a Ghanaian company which makes alcoholic beverages, also had a dancing man who entreated members of the audience to come dance with him. He grabbed me and started dancing, and when I surprised him by doing some of the traditional Ghanaian dances with him (I learned them at a seminar on campus), he gave me a free bottle of cocoa bitters and a t-shirt. Grandpa's family got a big kick out of that. I was with Grandpa's grand-nieces, Yaa, Belinda and Benedicta (8 year-old twin girls), and Akwia (five year-old girl). Akwia and Benedicta were dancing especially hard, and they were very excited that I won a prize. Benedicta kept trying to drink the bitters and insisting that her mother wouldn't mind. Kids throughout the world are all the same. 😊

Sunday, everyone went to church dressed in traditional attire. The men wore their bright green and orange-colored kente cloth and the women wore vibrant hand-made dresses and matching starched cloths tied intricately around their heads. Not all the men wore kente, because it is very expensive, but they all dressed traditionally. They wound cloth around their bodies with the left shoulder covered and the right shoulder bare. It was not unlike a toga. There was lots of music in the church, and people were very convivial. There was a period where we all walked around and shook hands, and several different preachers preached. It was all in Twi, so I didn't get much out of the service, but it was still an interesting experience. Even the hymns were in Twi.

On Monday, we went back to Accra. I miss the fresh, unpolluted air and the cool weather. 😞

10/13/10

Quite a bit has happened. The professors have been striking for a promised pay raise that never came. They're in their second week of striking, and the international students are freaking out about the possibility of not getting any credits for the semester. Negotiations are being worked on, with students mediating since we're the only ones really suffering from the strike. Some of the professors have agreed to hold classes for just the international students. I had class yesterday for Sociology of the Family, and both my Ghanaian History class and my Rural Sociology class today are meeting. That only leaves Urban Sociology, since Twi will meet regardless of the strike. If I have to drop Urban Sociology, I'll still be okay since I'll meet the 12 credit hour minimum for the semester and keep my scholarship. It's still kind of irritating, though. There must be a better way of getting the government to keep its promises than taking it out on the students.

On Saturday afternoon, I took a tro-tro to the airport to pick up Kirk, who had come to visit for a few days. I took him to the Brigina Lodge, just down the street from my house, and he got a room with air-conditioning, cable t.v., free internet, a complimentary breakfast, and a private bathroom with warm running water for $60/night. Not too shabby. After being introduced to the Asantes, I took him to Chez Afrique, a restaurant/bar with live music on Saturday nights. We didn't stay for long, since he was pretty tired and the music was, unsurprisingly, very loud.

Kirk caught on quickly to how things work in Ghana. He learned within his first half-hour how to cross the street without getting hit by a bus, and he also got a handle on how to pay the tro-tro mate. He learned that the tro-tro mate was not to be trusted for an accurate assessment of fares, and that other passengers were willing to yell at the tro-tro mate in order to ensure that Kirk wasn't cheated. We went to Aburi Botanical Gardens on Sunday, and then decided to visit Grandpa's relatives in Akropong. After getting off to a late start because of the rain in Legon, we arrived at Aburi around 3 and stayed there for about an hour. We caught a cab, after much directions-asking and refusing of expensive chartered taxis, to Akropong. At Akropong, I mistakenly thought we needed to take a cab to the opposite side of town, when the side we were on was actually where the Asantes lived. So we wound up on the wrong side of Akropong. We asked directions to the chief's palace and were discovered by the grandson of Akropong's Queen Mother, who decided that we should meet every chief and queen mother present in Akropong at the moment. So we got an insider's tour of the palace and met a chief who had formerly been a prominent librarian. It was pretty cool, but we didn't get out til after 5 and were running very late. And then, when we were within 200 yards of the family home, it began to storm. We could barely see five feet in front of us, and I was wearing a white linen dress. Oh joy.

We got to the compound and sprinted to the nearest house, where Yaa, Belinda and Benedicta live with their parents. Yaa, the twins, and Akwia gave us a spirited welcome and then we visited the matriarch of the family, Grandpa's oldest living sister. Grandpa's brother Kwame and his wife invited us to sit down and made us some egg sandwiches. They would have given us beer (much to Kirk's dismay), but we were worried that we wouldn't be able to get back home if we stayed too much later. It was already past nightfall, and very very rainy. So they packed our food up for us and lent us their umbrella to get back home. We hiked back down to the roadside and waved desperately at every passing cab until one finally stopped. We didn't know where it was taking us, but it was heading in the general direction of Accra so we hoped for the best. It stopped in Kwamu (I think that's what the town was called), and we joined a long queue of people waiting for a tro-tro to Accra. We fought our way onto the third one that came by, and had a long, wet, cramped ride home along a winding, slippery road in various states of repair. The egg sandwiches and juice were very welcome after our long day.

The tro-tro dropped us off in Madina, a district north of East Legon, where we wanted to go. After dodging bad drivers and smelly trucks, we managed to hail a dropping taxi and negotiated a fair price to take us home. We arrived on Grandpa Asante's doorstep, dripping wet, muddy, and utterly exhausted. He and Grandma Asante had a good chuckle over the dripping obrunis and then fed us chicken stew and rice. I was never so grateful to see a plate of chicken stew in my life.

On Monday, I took Kirk to see the children's ward at Police Hospital in Osu. That went okay. I'll bet it was interesting to compare Police Hospital with the well-staffed, well-supplied hospital in Chicago where he volunteers. Police Hospital isn't bad, though. They help lots of people and although they face many challenges, they are still getting by. After Police Hospital, we went to Madina Market because I needed a new phone and Kirk's shoes were falling apart. He got a pair of red knock-off Chucks and I got a phone to replace the one that died. We got pineapple, and Kirk bought water. We ate our snack, headed home, and had chicken stew and boiled yams. Grandpa Asante got a kick out of ordering me into the kitchen to wash the dishes (a chore I always perform) while he and Kirk had "man talk". Hmph.

Tuesday, we checked out of the hotel around 11 a.m. I had lectures, so Kirk got to sit in on Sociology of the Family and Twi. Then, we went back home, ate chicken stew and yams (noticing a trend here?), and prepared to depart. The Asantes wished Kirk goodbye, and he and I took a tro-tro to the airport. It was already dark, and a nice man sitting next to us was concerned for our safety. So we took the second airport stop and walked the long way up to Kotoka along the side of the street that had lights. We said goodbye and I headed home. I got my phone and University I.D. stolen when I boarded a tro-tro to American House. I had my hands over my pockets right up until I lifted my arm to get into the car, and that's when someone reached from behind and picked my pocket. How inconvenient. The best part is that my broken phone was in my other pocket. If only they had chosen to pick that one instead... :P

Now, I'm on my way to lectures and will hopefully see the strike end sometime this week. I need to call my bank to see what the deal with my money card is, since it's been declined both times I've tried to use it. I'll try to update more regularly than I have been. Love to everyone at home!

-Claire

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