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••• The International Writers Magazine: Travel: Ghana

Festivals, Friends and Fishermen in Accra, Ghana
• Elizabeth von Pier
Accra, Ghana was a unexpected surprise. I went there with my sister who was on a volunteer work assignment but she and I stayed in different hotels because I wanted to be close to the center of the city.


Having been warned about the safety of being a woman alone in Ghana and especially in this part of Accra, I was quite apprehensive. But I stayed at the Movenpick, a big international hotel used by many business people, and it turned out to be a perfect option for me. I felt safe and comfortable there, it was convenient, and it had all the amenities that I needed. I quickly acclimated to this very foreign place and even made some new friends along the way.

Back home, I had signed up for several small-group walking tours of various parts of the city. They were limited to twelve people but apparently during my time in Accra there were few tourists and it turned out that I was the only person at the meeting point each day. Coincidentally, the tour guide for all four of the tours I had selected was Emmanuel. Emmanuel and I quickly developed a friendship and I met him each day for my private tours of various neighborhoods of Accra. Like all people in Ghana who study twelve years of English in school, Emmanuel speaks English but even so, I often had trouble understanding him.

Most of the people who live in Accra are very poor. Fifty-eight percent of Accra's population live in poverty, 31% of all adults have never been to school, and the average annual household income is $1,300. The poor come from other parts of Ghana hoping for a better life. This puts a severe strain on the city's resources and most find themselves living in hovels in the nine slum settlements within the city. Here there are few city services and conditions are deplorable. Children sit in muddy puddles to cool themselves from the summer heat, nearby their mothers cook rice on an open fire, and chickens, goats and malnourished dogs roam freely. The river is polluted with trash and open sewers flow next to the road. They sleep in shacks with tin roofs, but during the daylight hours, they spend their time on a small patch of dirt out front under large tarps which provide shade from the hot sun.

Walking Market The Ghanaians are very industrious and I saw examples of this over and over again, in the markets, on the streets, and in the Old Fadama district. Women with large heavy baskets on their heads are “walking markets”, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to housewares, used books and squawking chickens. Photo: Walking Market Women

They sell to people on the streets and sidewalks and to cars stopped at traffic lights. This has got to be painful after a while. I saw one of these women take the basket off her head and massage what must have been a very sore neck.

When I asked Emmanuel why it is mainly women, not men, who carry these heavy loads on their heads, he said that the men have other very important things to do. They drive cabs, repair second-hand machinery, tend the “shops”, and recycle trash. It's a hard life for everyone who lives here.

Usually, I met Emmanuel at Palladium Hall, one of the few intact historic buildings and a place of great significance in Accra's political past. One day we visited the markets of Accra. Here, in the Makola and Salaga markets, is where the majority of these poor people do their shopping. The markets are very colorful and sell everything—from lumber to fresh food to housewares and clothing. There also were vendors selling herbs, snake skins and mice used for curing a multitude of ailments and for voodoo ceremonies. Except for food, prices in these markets are negotiable. Emmanuel does a lot of his shopping here. I wonder where he lives.
Selling produce
smoking fish

The Jamestown lighthouse is in the English neighborhood where most of the English officials and staff who managed the colony lived and worked during the 19th century. We climbed to the top and had a bird's eye view of the the fishermen below hauling in their catches and the nearby neighborhood where they live, smoke fish and prepare it for sale. Coming down from the top of the lighthouse, we went into this district and saw first hand how these industrious locals live. Not only do they build the boats they use for fishing but they also build their houses here. These are some of the people who go to the Makola market to buy their food and clothing, and to the timber market to buy wood and building supplies. Photo: Smoking Fish

making tin baking pans Another day I met Emmanuel at the same place and we went on a tour of the Old Fadama slum district. The poorest of the poor live here. Life is not easy for them, but they maintain a positive outlook and good spirits in the face of very challenging circumstances. These people help keep landfill sites clear by taking items that they can salvage, rework or repair, and sell. From sunrise to sunset, they work hard. I saw workers flattening tin and crafting it into baking pans and ovens. I saw old tires, auto equipment and hardware that had been salvaged and were now selling for a few cedi. Photo: Fadama craftsman crafting baking pans

And I saw old computers, refrigerators, microwaves and stoves that they had repaired and were re-selling. I paused to think that it is ironic that these people cannot use most of these items themselves—they cook on open fires and do not have electricity for the computers, stoves and refrigerators.

One day did not turn out as I had planned but I made some new friends in the process. It showed me firsthand how industrious, happy and helpful the Ghanaian people are despite their difficult lives. I was supposed to meet Emmanuel at the Ussher Fort but by mistake my cab driver dropped me off at the James Fort. So I found myself lost and on my own. As I stood in front of the fort, it was obvious that I was a tourist who had lost her way. Cab after cab slowed down to give me a ride. One cabbie named Kelly stopped and would not leave, offering ideas for where he could take me so that my afternoon would not be completely wasted. He waited with me for a half hour until I decided that Emmanuel was not coming. He even called the tour operator for me to see if we could somehow connect with Emmanuel. It never dawned on us that I was at the wrong fort.

Salesmen of Accra Eventually I decided to have Kelly take me to the “art center” because I wanted to buy a mask for my collection. This is an area of town where artists work their crafts and, as soon as Kelly left me off, I was surrounded by men who wanted to show me their shops. It's just about impossible to say “no” to these determined salesmen. I was glad that Emmanuel had taught me how to bargain like a local so I felt comfortable buying my mask at one of the shops. Two neighboring shopkeepers watched in amusement as I “expertly” got the price down from 160 cedi to 90 cedi (about $20).
Photo: Three men who gave me a tour of the 'Art' center.

Then the other men showed me their shops (I suppose hoping I would buy something else) and all three gave me a “tour” of the sections of the market where their friends, the basket makers, weavers, wood carvers and jewelry makers, do their work. There were vivid displays of handcrafted beads, colorful baskets and Kente clothing, all created with beautiful artistry and craftsmanship. The men stayed by my side, introduced me to their fellow artists, and told me I could freely take pictures. When it was time for me to say goodbye to my new friends, I shook their hands and walked back to the hotel, smiling from ear to ear.

One day when my tour was scheduled for the afternoon, I had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and then walked to some of the sights close by. Breakfast at the hotel was a large buffet that, in addition to the typical American and continental choices, included dishes that are typically part of the Ghanaian breakfast. I had the likes of fresh papaya, dried fruits and peanuts, spicy beef stew, curried potatoes, steamed rice, boiled sweet plantain, and green beans. The combination of spicy, hot and sweet flavors was exotic and delicious and enough to hold me until dinner time—when I had the same thing all over again. After a satisfying and filling breakfast, I walked to the new and very glamorous Kempinsky Hotel and admired its beautiful artwork and floral arrangements, the modern National Theater which was built with Chinese assistance, and the stadium. I also visited Independence Square with its monument to freedom and justice, the Independence Arch celebrating Ghana's independence from Great Britain in 1957, and the Black Star Gate, all very impressive testimonies to Ghana's struggles for independence.

A highlight of my stay in Accra was the day Emmanuel and I happened upon a traditional Ghanaian festival. This time we were touring the city's architecture and its Danish and Dutch neighborhoods (there really is very little “architecture” to see—except for Palladium Hall, almost all of the buildings are in ruin). We came upon the Gbese Odadao Festival which celebrates the end of a month-long period of spiritual reflection during which there is a ban on noise making including drumming, dancing and general merry-making. People had gathered from all over the neighborhood and watched as the mantses (chiefs), elders and other notables paraded before them, shaking hands as they went along. They wore Kente and colorful costumes and the women's bodies were painted and adorned with beads. I sat in the front row, the only tourist in sight, and they shook my hand as they paraded by. Finally the festival reached its climax when the mantses started drumming, a sign that the solemn month had come to an end and merry-making could resume. The crowd cheered and rushed into the square, singing and dancing. Being squeezed from all sides by the celebrants, Emmanuel pulled me along as we ran hand-in-hand to the narrow and quieter streets and away from the crowd.

Having spent four days visiting very poor neighborhoods, I wanted to see where the middle and upper classes, albeit small, live. I hired a cab to take me to the Cantonments area of the city where the the Ghana International School, the embassies, including the American Embassy, and the homes of the middle/upper income people are located. Unlike the dry and dirty slum areas, there were lots of trees and grass here.

My stay coming to an end, I reflected on what I had seen and experienced. I am thankful for Emmanuel and the experiences I shared with him and for Kelly and the men who took me on a tour of the artists' quarter and treated me so well. Most of the Ghanaians I encountered were poor and impoverished, living on the margin. They work very hard, making a meager living under challenging conditions. But they have a friendly spirit, smiling faces and a helpful attitude, and I was warmly welcomed into their country.

If you go:
Movenpick Ambassador Hotel, Independence Avenue, Accra, Ghana, +233 302 611 000, for tours of Accra

Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker, now an editor and photojournalist, who has traveled extensively throughout the world. Her articles have been published in, WAVE Journey and Travel Thru History.

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