Tag Archives: Accra

Memories of Ghanaian markets

These are two excerpts from the journal I kept in Ghana..

– May 2006

“O Broonie!” This is what the kids in the street shout at me. It means ‘hey whitey’, but I’m told this is a term of endearment, not an insult as I first thought. It’s my first day in Accra and all my senses are being assaulted. Nyami, my eternally-grinning tour guide, decides it’s a good day to show me the city – despite the torrential downpour. The streets have been turned into rivers of mud and I’m trying in vain to avoid it. My flip-flops flick mud up the backs of my legs with every step and I have to stop at each corner to wipe it off. I give up on this futile exercise soon afterwards and instead tell myself that being caked in mud from the knee down is a good look.

Nyami takes me into Makola Market – the biggest and busiest in the country. It’s hot and the humidity is at about 95%. Its a bit like walking into the bathroom after someone has just taken a long, hot shower. He tells me they sell everything here from bread, to underwear, to umbrellas, to chickens. He doesn’t tell me they also sell pigs trotters, cows feet, giant snails and buckets of angry crabs. I stop to watch a young girl hack open a cows hoof with a machete; I’m grateful – when the bits of sinew and fat fly onto my legs – that they are still covered in mud. Nyami senses the experience is a bit much for this ‘whitey’ and very graciously takes me to a friends house to wash my legs and feet. I am beginning to realise that I have become squeamish living in London. Not that London is a particularly sanitary place, but this is my first taste of real ‘Africa’. Growing up in suburban Cape Town does not prepare you for this either.

Pigs trotter sashimi anyone?

I am yet to have my first supper in Ghana and suddenly have a vision of going home to my lovely Ghanaian host family to find the dinner table laden with boiled pigs trotters and snails the size of my fist. I imagine them sitting around the table with expectant faces and me being forced to eat the mutant molluscs. I doubt I would handle this situation very well. I am relieved when I get home and discover that spaghetti bolognese is on the menu. Its only the next morning I find out that it was made from goats mince.

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– June 2006

It’s the day after Ghana beat the USA in the Football World Cup. Making it through to the 2nd round of the tournament is a first for these debutantes. I’m in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region, and Ghana’s victory last night prompted a spontaneous street party throughout the city. I came here with a group of fellow volunteers and we spent the night drinking Star beer, jumping up and down, and hugging everyone we passed.

It was a very happy night, but now its the morning after and I have a severe hangover. This is not helped by the sweltering heat and the humidity which is at its usual level of 97% – not ideal conditions for nursing a hangover. We have to go back to Accra today which, unfortunately for us, means a trek to the other side of Kumasi where the bus terminal is located. After crawling out of our ‘5 star hostel’, we navigate our way through the remnants of last nights celebration to the central market where we hope to find something resembling breakfast. This is Ghana however, and breakfast here rarely comes in the form of a fresh croissant and a cappuccino. Perhaps a stale bread roll and some jam if we’re lucky.

Not the best hangover cure

We arrive at the market and march straight into the heaving mass of people ahead. As soon as we’re inside I can smell that this is a bad idea. I can see a woman behind a small table – she appears to be selling a pile of honeycomb. Or perhaps its coral. Why would she be selling coral I wonder – we’re nowhere near the sea… As we get closer the stench confirms what she is selling. Tripe. Great steaming heaps of it. It doesn’t take long until we notice that there is a woman selling tripe at roughly five meter intervals in this market. And if its not a pile of tripe laid out neatly on the table, its a large enamel basin full of slightly rotting fish. The smell is incredible. I can hardly breath and am certain I will either faint or throw up in the next two minutes. Its midday, the sun is fierce, the market is busy and noisy and I feel completely disorientated. I keep bumping into people in my state of semi-consciousness and nearly walk straight into a table full of tripe. The rest of the group are in a similar position and we must look like a bunch of recovering heroin addicts. At this point the thought of eating anything here makes me retch and the relief is tangible when we finally make it out the other side. I can see the bus terminal and now have a three hours of motion sickness to look forward to in a dilapidated mini-bus along the most pot-holed road in Ghana.

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Lessons from Ghana: How to Eat Humble Pie

In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself…For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

– Benjamin Franklin

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A chance encounter with a Vatican priest was to be my first lesson.

He was in the seat next to me on a flight to Accra, Ghana’s steamy capital city. I was on my way there to work for a local newspaper, and he was coming home to visit his family. He was Ghanaian and had moved to The Vatican a few years earlier to work for the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, a branch of the Vatican that organised pilgrimages.

He had this air of benevolence about him which I found comforting as I was only just slightly anxious at the prospect of spending the next four months living in deepest, darkest Africa. He was very engaging and I was surprised at how approachable he was, even dressed in a long black cassock and clerical collar. We started chatting almost immediately and didn’t stop until we said goodbye outside the airport in Accra. We discussed absolutely everything from God to Ghanaian cuisine, and disagreed on many of these topics. However, one thing we agreed on and that stayed with me since, was the importance humility.

It came up in conversation when I asked him why he wasn’t flying first class as I spotted him earlier being whisked through the departure lounge, clearly not your average traveler. He told me that he has never flown first class even though he is automatically offered an upgrade whenever he checks in. He said it can be incredibly difficult to stay grounded when you work for the Vatican as you are elevated to this divine status. He also said how easy it is to lose touch with what is real and important in life and how quickly you can get caught up in all the pomp and material benefits that surround you, not only in the Vatican but in all spheres of life. I think I knew this already but admired how he had made a conscious decision to turn down something seemingly meaningless, like the offer of a reclining chair with plenty of leg room, to rather sit squashed with the masses in economy class in an attempt to stay humble. He told me it was much too comfortable in first class and sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. This was just one small thing he did which he hoped would maintain some kind of humility within himself – something he told me that was very important.

My next lesson didn’t teach me how to be humble, but rather humbled me so completely that I felt ashamed. I was walking through Accra, trying to find the bank and after a few wrong turns realised I was very lost. I approached a young man carrying a briefcase who seemed to be on his way to work and asked for directions. Instead of pointing down the road and then being on his way, he walked the entire way to the bank with me, ten minutes in the opposite direction to where he was going. When I was safely at the entrance to the bank he said goodbye and went back to where he was going.

It was only later that day when I recalled this act of kindness, something he seemed to do without a second thought, that I felt so humbled. Coming from a city like London, one of the worlds great cities, loaded with financial and material wealth, it can be difficult to get the time of day from a person in the street. Yet in Accra, a relatively destitute African city that can barely feed its people, I was offered help in such a generous way and without hesitation. This made me realise just how wrong we’ve got it in our Western civilisation.  This was not the only occasion someone helped me like this and there were many other selfless acts of charity during my time there.

There was a small café near my office in Accra and if one of my colleagues ever spotted me walking past while they were having lunch there, they would shout out the window and invite me to join them. I was a millionaire compared to them and in the three months I worked there, not once did they let me pay for my lunch. Even after much protest on my part, they simply kept reminding me that I was a guest in their country and they would never accept my money. I cringe at the thought of one of them coming to London, expecting to be treated with the same hospitality, and instead being pushed out the way on the tube, or ignored when asking for directions.

London is clearly rich in terms of money and material things, but Ghana is so much richer in spirit, kindness and generosity. And which is more important?