Adventures of an 'Obroni' in Accra
By: Tim Hinchliffe, Intern, U.S.A.
Stepping off the plane, coming from the U.S. via Paris and Amsterdam, I was greeted at Kotoka Airport by a blast of hot, humid wind. The type of air that you feel you can almost swim through, due to the thickness of the humidity. My white skin was already sweating bullets.
After finding my driver and where I would be staying, I was finally able to observe and reflect upon what I had encountered thus far. I spent some time in a hostel going back and forth to my Volunteer Organization for my week-long orientation into Ghanaian culture, and how to comport myself as a foreigner – a white man in black Africa!
Let me start off by saying that the people I have encountered here in Accra are among the friendliest that I have found in all my travels, whether in North America, South America or Europe. When I pass by children, their eyes light up, and bright smiles form on their faces. 'Hello Obroni! How are you?' they ask. 'I am fine Obibini. How are you?' And we all laugh.
Some of my favorite customs in Ghana are the greetings. I only know a few basic sayings in Twi, and I can't understand it when it is spoken - which I encounter everywhere, but I absolutely adore the handshake with the snap of the fingers.
Back home, there are countless ways of shaking hands amongst different age and ethnic groups, but the universal handshake that is known to all Ghanaians is my favorite over all others. It took me a few tries to get it right, and nobody taught me how, but now when I do it, I feel accepted and that I belong!
Being a foreigner, it is easy for me to get lost, but asking directions could not be easier in any other country. So many people are willing to help out and take me to where I want to go, but there is also the risk of talking too long and not getting to my destination when I had hoped. Time seems to pass slower here at the center of the world, than where I am from, but I don't mind that.
When it comes to matters of satisfying hunger, Ghanaian traditional food is something that has already penetrated my heart and taste buds. I have not had a dish that I didn't like. Although I have only been here one week, in my limited time, I have tried Red Red, Fufu, Tilapia and Banku, as well as some other staples such as chicken and rice with beef stew.
Every morsel I consumed was inundated with flavor! Nothing was bland. Every ingredient leaped from my fingers to my mouth (Americans are not accustomed to eating mostly with their hands).
The spices were not too hot, and not too mild, but perfectly balanced. I have not seen these meals prepared in the U.S., but I am sure I could open up a restaurant back home serving only Ghanaian food, and it would be very popular and profitable.
Traveling around Accra is definitely an eye-opening experience for an outsider. Getting to any location, normally involves taking a 'tro tro'. Since there are no signs that say where they stop, I have to ask many questions, so I don't miss my station.
In the U.S., I am used to navigation by means of bus stops, street signs, and memory. Having neither of these means at my disposal, I have to ask a lot of questions, but as I mentioned before, Ghanaians are always happy to answer.
I was briefly taught 'tro tro' etiquette and taxi driver bargaining by my Volunteer Organization (something that can be both fun and frustrating), and I have been able to see some of the city. I have waded on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea at La Beach, and have been hopelessly overwhelmed by all the sights, smells, and sounds of Makola Market, where I felt completely out of my element.
It was my first time ever seeing a market on such a large and busy scale, where everybody wanted to sell something to the Obroni. I did not want to be rude, so I talked with each person who approached me, but what I really wanted to do was explore. I didn't get very far, and would have to try again another day.
In the U.S., I had a car, and that was my main mode of transportation. I drove it everywhere, whether to work, a friend's place, or to the supermarket. Here in Accra, I walk 15 minutes to the |tro tro' stop, ride for 15 minutes and then walk another 15 minutes to work.
I am still trying to get used to finding the correct 'tro tro' for my destination, and while trying to remain polite, I have to make sure that I can make my way through the masses of people who are pushing and pulling every which way to climb on board.
I like walking through the city and the different neighborhoods. Each corner has its own feel. Every turn has its own sound. Every shop has its own smell. Everyday I grow more and more confident in my ability to find my way around town, dodging oncoming vehicles in the street and stepping over the open sewer drains as I weave through the busy roads.
One of my biggest fears is that since the sewers are open and deep, I worry that I will not see them at night and fall in. It has not happened yet, hallelujah! And I hope I can continue to be this lucky!
The honking of horns by passing vehicles, especially taxis, is something that I'm getting used to. Not one passenger-less taxi has passed by me without honking. Coming from a country where it is sometimes difficult to even find a taxi in certain areas, when even then it might not be vacant, the constant beeping is something new to me.
I don't know if it is because I am white and they think I am lost, or the misinformed belief that I have a lot of money, but I will accept the fact that I will always draw attention to myself wherever I go in this foreign and hospitable country.
I have been offered marriage by six Ghanaian women so far, but I find that the majority of women here seem to avoid me and look the other way when I pass. Maybe they don't like the way I smell. Maybe they think I have sinful intentions. Maybe I'm just ugly. Who knows? I just smile at everyone while trying to not look idiotic or threatening.
Before coming to Ghana, I was warned that there were a lot of mosquitoes that carried disease and illnesses. I can honestly say that I have not yet been bitten, and that in the United States, especially in wooded areas, I was bitten constantly. I know that I have to be careful here at night with the flies as I am still at risk of contracting malaria. I wear bug repellant when I go out, and that seems to work just fine.
Sometimes I walk down the street smoking a tobacco pipe. One thing that I notice is that Ghanaians are very conscious of health when it comes to smoking. They move to the other side of the street to avoid the smell, and they say that I should put it out, and that it is bad for my health. I find it ironic, however, that although they don't like tobacco smoke, they will still burn trash containing chemicals, plastic bottles or electronics, without hesitation.
Over the weekend I moved in with a very generous and kind host family in a friendly neighborhood. My host father is a Veteran of the Second World War and speaks slowly and deliberately at an elegant and gentle pace, as he motions toward me with a twinkling of ancient hands. He has made me feel very welcome and treats me as a member of the family.
I don't wish to give a completely one-sided view of experiences I've had here so far. I have also seen sickness, poverty, and pollution. I also had to practically bribe the security guard at the airport the ridiculous amount of $3 to give me back my contact information that he had taken from me. But these circumstances can happen anywhere the world. I wanted to portray what I felt were truly 'Ghanaian experiences,' that were unique to this traveler in this country.
I feel safe and secure here in Accra; comfortable, yet always learning something new everyday. I can't wait to see what else this country has to offer, and what I can give in return.
Tomorrow I will awake to the sound of the rooster crowing outside my window. I will see exotic birds with bright plumage that I have never seen before. And I will watch the colourful lizards climbing the mango trees next to the thicket of bananas through the window of my adopted home.
I look forward to learning all I can about Ghanaian life and culture, with the hope of taking some of it with me wherever I may go.