Mon, 25 Oct 2004 Feature Article

An Englishman in Accra: Organised chaos

An Englishman in Accra: Organised chaos

*A regular column by Simon Dean, a British journalist working for Ghana Review International in Accra also republished in the GYE NYAME CONCORD For me, having lived amidst the stressful hustle and bustle of London, where every second of every day seems to be accounted for, one of the main attractions of moving to Ghana was the chance to live in a country with a more relaxed way of life. As a Ghanaian told me some years ago, people in Ghana work to live, not live to work – a philosophy which is the antithesis of life in many western cities. Based on my experiences so far, that definitely seems to be the case. It doesn't take you long to realise that the average Ghanaian takes life at a far slower pace than his western counterpart and who can blame him. In a country where even during the coolest months of the year, the weather resembles a Summer heat-wave back in the UK, the last thing any sensible person wants to do is hurry anywhere if he can at all help it. This stress-free attitude to life certainly has it's benefits. As any cardiologist will attest, stress is every bit as harmful to your heart as the effects of tobacco and cholesterol – and there's no doubt that the laid back Ghanaian attitude to life, work and…well just about everything, makes Ghana for the most part a very pleasant country in which to live and work. It can also be, as I've found out in recent weeks, frustrating beyond belief when trying to get anything - and I do mean anything – done. I should have been better prepared, having gone through the mill of applying for my entry visa at the Ghanaian High Commission in London. I won't catalogue all my gripes here (I'm hoping to finish this column by the end of the week) but lets just say the experience is akin to being repeatedly beaten with a large stick, and then being charged for the privilege. First of all I was told it would take four days and to not even bother sending my request in until closer to my time of departure. Unconvinced by such reassurances, I sent the form a good month or so early, figuring that it's best to get things done early than run any risk of unforeseen problems. Sure enough, with three days to go before my departure to Africa, the visa had still failed to materialise forcing me to spend my afternoon on the phone to embassy staff, desperately trying to convey to them the urgency of the situation. “Relax Simon, It'll be fine,” came the reassuring reply from the same man who'd been promising me my visa for the past month. I'm not going to use his name on account of the fact that I'll probably be needing his help again at some point in the future, but I'd be surprised if he ever suffers with high blood pressure in his life. I did of course get my visa stamped (right at the zero-hour) but then the person issuing the document forgot to inform anyone else he'd done so, meaning the courier I'd sent to the Commission to pick up said document was unable to collect anything. “Simon Dean? Never heard of him” came the reply from the bemused, but I'm told, very pleasant girl on the desk. After several more phone calls I finally managed to get my passport and visa in hand, although I'm sure the experience has taken at least five years off my life. That should have served as a warning, preparing me for the experience of setting up my new life in the sub-region. Unfortunately I seem to have been a little slow on the uptake. Having bought a car and had it taxed and registered, I took it to a local garage to have air conditioning installed. Now having been told by the mechanic that it would cost three million cedis and take an afternoon, I naively assumed that it would cost the said amount and take an afternoon, but as they say, assumption is the mother of all failure. Three days later the price had risen and the job was still in-complete (as was the front end of my car which now lay in a number of pieces). What's more, the mechanic seemed positively shocked that I wasn't entirely pleased with this arrangement, like I was squabbling over some minor detail and was being rude for actually expecting him to do what he'd said he would in the first place. I could rant on further about how my satellite TV system took several call-outs to be connected to my television (instead of the 'one day' I was promised) and the number of times that tradesmen have simply decided not to bother turning up at my house having said they'd be around that afternoon. Having been here now for a couple of months, these are the sorts of experiences I've come to laugh about, and in a strange way cherish (I did say after all that I was looking forward to living in a more relaxed atmosphere, so you can't have it all ways). Now, if I'm told a job will be finished by Tuesday at the latest, I make sure I leave my diary clear for the weekend. Whenever you move to a different part of the World you must allow yourself (or force yourself if need be) to adapt to your new surroundings. It is after all 'you' that is the foreigner with the strange ideas of how things should be done and hey, if you don't like it then you can always clear off back to where you came from. But there are more serious ramifications to this than a stressed, red faced 'obroni' jumping up and down because he can't get BBC News on his satellite dish. Ghana is an African nation that broadly speaking seems to be heading in the 'right' direction. In recent years the country has cemented itself in the tradition of democratic government, rather than the bomb and bullet regimes of many of its continental cousins, and the mood of the nation coming up to this years elections seems both peaceful and optimistic.
Ghana seems to be a country with its best years ahead of it, with the governmental drive to increase revenue from industries such as tourism and manufacturing a positive step in evolving from a developing, to a developed nation. But if Ghana is to compete in business with the Europe's and the Americas of this world, it is going to have to offer the same efficiency of service, and at the moment, it doesn't come close. Despite being a fully paid up member of the Ghana fan club (of course my membership card was due to arrive in the post last Thursday but is now due next month) if I was the head of a British company and I had the choice of doing business with a Ghanaian or a German company, offering the same product, I know which one I would choose. Quite frankly, western nations have the reputation of being efficient, hard working and reliable, and Ghanaian's…well, they don't quite frankly. Is this an unfair stereotype? Well yes, by definition stereotypes are unfair, but they also have a habit of sticking in the popular consciousness. During a recent interview in Accra with the Nigerian Born ex-English footballer, John Fashanu, he joked that in Ghanaian football, the problem wasn't a lack of raw talent but that discipline was considered a dirty word and that organisation wasn't in the local vocabulary. I can't help thinking that this is an allegory for the country as a whole. One thing that struck me as being strange when I first arrived here, was how little the Ghanaian tourist industry is publicised in Western Europe (you go into any UK travel agent and you'll be lucky to find a company that caters for Ghana). This seemed ridiculous to me when I saw what the country had to offer; rainforest national parks and reserves that are home to exotic animals such as elephants, crocodiles, monkeys and tropical birds, miles upon miles of beautiful beaches, perfect holiday weather, friendly people, and all this within a few hours flight. So what is it that's hampering the Ghanaian tourist industry and allowing millions of holiday makers to bypass the region in favour of destinations such as Kenya, Tanzania, South African and Gambia? Well quite frankly, a complete lack of service mentality. As I've found myself, and heard from countless others, it isn't unusual to order a meal in an Accra restaurant and to have different people's meals turn up at vastly different times. I've ordered meals off menus only to be told a good twenty minutes later that the offending item wasn't actually available, without any hint of apology or lament from the management – and this is the capital, go out to the provinces and it's a whole different story. The western notion that 'the customer is always right' seems as ridiculous to most Ghanaians working in the service industry as the idea that English people will pay good money to rub themselves in oil and lie in the midday sun until they turn pink. To have a thriving tourist industry – or any other industry for that matter – you not only have to have the right product, but also the service to back it up. You must be willing to bend over backwards to satisfy your customers, or they'll simply go elsewhere. The “relax - I'll do it tomorrow” attitude may seem very pleasant to a guy like me, living and working here (I'm very lazy by nature, just ask my wife) but it's not good for business, and is something I think Ghana must overcome if it truly is to make good on its pretensions, and its potential to join the developed world. Of course to change the culture of an entire nation isn't an easy undertaking. To ask a man to forget everything he's grown up to believe and adopt some new way of doing things doesn't often sit well (we humans – not to mention Englishmen, don't like change) but this is a change that has to be made if Ghana is to pull herself out of poverty. Ghanaian's themselves must also start expecting and demanding the services they pay for and not just accepting that 'nothing happens quickly in Ghana,' as seems to be the case now. If that happens, and Ghana manages to offer the sort of efficiency and reliability of service seen in the west, it can only be a good thing for her economy as a whole and allow the government of the time to try and close the gap between the rich, and the horrifically poor. Unfortunately, I fear it will mean the loss of, in part at least, the pleasant way of life for which Ghana is so famous – the very lifestyle and attitude that attracted me here in the first place. With that in mind I suppose I should remember the stressful society I left behind when complaining about Ghana's inefficiencies. Like the man said; be careful what you wish for, you just might get it