June 16, 2011

sights, sounds & smells of Accra

after six weeks of living in accra, it feels like a long list has accumulated in my mind's eye for experiencing many new sights, sounds & smells here.  for most of my adult life i have felt like i had a sense of what ghana was like -- perhaps through my friend's stories, articles, college courses...i'm not really sure.  i have seen the traditional, round & colorful baskets being sold in the u.s., as well as the kente cloth which is so internationally known.  i had an image of village life with fires cooking food, basins full of clothes being soaked for washing, tropical plants creating a density of lush greenery all around, thatched roofs keeping the rain out, dirt paths and roads to carry people, bicycles and trucks, and children on mamas' backs snuggled under beautiful patterned fabrics.

now that i am living in accra (which is far from village life), i have come to see that i had no real concept of this land and its peoples whatsoever.  aside from the fact that we're living in a city and not a village, i could never have imagined or known what life is like here.  i also realize that even if we have great interest in other nations and their cultures, we are far removed from the details of life that make each one unique and distinguished from one another.

the first aspect of life here that struck me with great surprise is the lack of infrastructure.  paved roads do exist but they are not common enough to make one feel like it's normal.  dirt roads intersect paved roads along common roadways in every neighborhood.  the dirt roads are so bumpy and rocky, with uneven rivets as a result of heat and heavy rainfull, that only the 4x4s can get through them with a sense of ease.  when you factor in the traffic and chaos which typify life on the roads, it becomes an experience that challenges whatever sense of accomplishment one had felt in the virtue of patience.  every simple trip from one neighborhood to another becomes almost an ordeal.  if you add in two additional factors -- the presence of police who are eager to find any reason to fault you and send you to the local station unless you offer a bribe, and the endless stages of highway construction which create massive bottlenecking or the lack of maintenance of the roads (potholes, broken gutters, eroding asphalt along the edges of the road) -- the errand that should take a half an hour is easily more than an hour.  we must take all of these factors into consideration when needing to use a vehicle when traveling around.  somehow other countries like tanzania, mozambique and cote d'ivoire -- all 'developing' nations -- have managed to create cities that have great infrastructure and modern landscaping.  accra has some very nice hotels but surprisingly, it has no area which facilitates people to travel with ease and enjoy restaurants, beaches, and other typical tourist attractions.
it is common to see broken coconut shells on the side of the road, littered plastic water bags (which are sold much more often than water bottles), people carrying local foods on their heads, lizards scurrying into hiding spots, corn stalks growing on lawns instead of grass, urban gardens in public lots, and women dressed in gorgeous, traditional outfits to take care of their daily business.  there are always container shops or wooden stands selling a variety of essentials, snacks, local cuisine and produce.  i like how they are interspersed with official businesses and in all kinds of neighborhoods.  accra is still a city that has people of all classes living side by side.  those who are striving to make a living by selling goods open up containers in front of their homes.  it fascinates me to see how this is occurring -- there are no laws preventing people from 'setting up shop' so it's nice to see people being able to create business opportunities for themselves.  i especially like how tables with umbrellas are set up for those who can't afford something more substantial.

when we first arrived we noticed there are sounds that are new or unusual.  one is the constant pumping of a rubber horn, the kind that clowns in america use sometimes.  it is used to alert neighbors that the vendor is nearby with food to sell.  typically it's fried foods, ice cream and ghanaian meals on the go.  it sounds like a bird calling, with repetitive honks, usually 8-10 in a row, with a pause in between before it repeats again.  another sound we hear about 2 times a week is a loud announcement on a megaphone from a car that randomly rides by.  several times we've heard it around 6:30 in the MORNING.  to me it depicts the scene in a film about africa when the rebels are announcing something about the 'cockroaches' -- as if we're preparing for war. 

the familiar sound of cars honking to get a guard's attention to open the gate to residential homes is now a normal part of life.  most of the time these big homes or compounds have little rooms inside the property for the guard to sit.  when the car arrives it beeps a couple of times and waits for the gate to open.  there are NO automatic gates in accra -- it's definitely odd how a lot of money is spent on expensive homes and security fences or barbed wire but no one has automatic gates (which they do have in south africa).  we are now a part of the beeping system because dash's company, olam, provides a driver and insists that wherever we live we have a security guard.  this is necessary to the company because the house we live in is furnished by the company.  the driver service is not my favorite aspect of life in accra, but i am learning to appreciate the advantages it offers -- like avoiding the stress and hassle of life on the roads (our driver was already sent to the police station one time and had to pay a small fine for talking on the cell phone).

one sound that we find brings a smile to our faces is the wide variety of musical rhythms one can hear anywhere at anytime.  cell phones around the world are now full of ringtones; it is fun to hear songs and melodies in ghanaian languages that we've never heard before.  the loudest and most festive sounds come early in the evening until way past midnight, but music in africa is so woven into the fabric of daily life that it's more of a 24/7 sound:  it can be heard by women singing gospel while ironing, washing or cooking, to dj's and big speakers blasting reggae, house music and local sounds at clubs and bars throughout the city.

smells leave a unique impression on us.  the biggest smell here that i love is burning trash.  it brings me instantly to jamaica where the hint of citrus scent is intermingled with piles of waste burning in backyards and the sides of streets.  each time i smell it i feel connected to life for all people in the tropics, where mango and avocado trees grow with lemon, orange and banana trees.  most families find burning waste an easy solution to accumulated waste.  it may not be ecologically beneficial but it certainly is the practical way to deal with the reality of accumulating waste.  now that i am living here, and not just a visitor, i am eager to discover ways to bring sustainable solutions to the needs of daily life.  i am hoping that the accumulating sights, sounds and smells of accra will inspire me to do so. :)

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