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Press Review | Jan 8, 2005

An Englishman in Accra: A New Year

Ghana Review International

What with the turn of the New Year and all, I thought this would be a good time to take stock of my first five months in Ghana, and see how accurate my first impressions of the country have been.

At the end of July, when I arrived in Ghana, my first impressions were on the whole very positive, or at the very least hopeful.

As I expected, I saw poverty that would be unthinkable in many western countries, and yet the people seemed to take these hardships on the chin, going about their daily business with far more joy and hope than I'd seen from my relatively opulent countrymen back home.

Ghana was obviously a poor nation, but there seemed to be so much hope for the future, so much untapped opportunity and resources to spur on this new dawn of economic development that the government seemed so keen to talk-up.

I noted that the people, as well as being generally congenial to anyone visiting from outside their borders, also seemed to be remarkably honest and law abiding, especially considering the hardships that many of them had to endure (I still feel safer walking though the streets of Accra by night than I ever did in London).

I arrived as Ghana was cementing itself in the democratic tradition after more turbulent political times, and the country was, and still is regarded by many as being a jewel of West Africa – a country heading (as I believe I put it myself) in the right direction.

In this respect, I thought I'd struck gold by choosing to make Ghana my home for the foreseeable future, in that it offered the chance to see the 'real' West Africa, as opposed to some bastardised tourist office's version of it, while at the same time being able to experience it at first hand, rather than at arms length as with other African countries where security is always of paramount concern.

So how have my opinions changed having lived and worked here for five months?

Well inevitably, many of my initial impressions have turned out to be, if not false, then somewhat exaggerated.

I still find the people to be one of Ghana's main assets although my opinions on this subject are rather less polarised.

There is no doubt that the people are on the whole, more law abiding than those back in my home country, although having being ripped off time after time, I don't have quite the same 'rose tinted' view of the people of Ghana and am liable to take much of what I hear now with a pinch of salt.

I'm sure this has a lot to do with being an Obroni - although a white face seems to offer a certain degree of fascination in Ghana, it also seems to be a licence to take advantage.

Being constantly overcharged and lied to (be it from car mechanic, street vendor, market worker, home staff etc) when you are a tourist is one thing, but when you've made Ghana your home, this begins to become rather annoying, if not insulting.

Many has been the time when I've got talking to someone at a bar, or on the beach, or at a restaurant, only to find that the person is basically after something from me - be it a job, or a visa to enter the UK (I'm still a little unsure as to how people assume I, as a journalist living in Ghana, can get them a visa, but there we go).

When I take my car to be repaired, I invariable end up being charged more money than I was originally told the job would cost (the job usually taking far longer than I was told it would take); I often ask these people why they are not just honest about these things in the first place – the dishonesty and trickery being the annoying factor, rather than the added cost and time.

Then again, I can't blame people for trying; in a country where people have so very little in material terms, it is inevitable that a white face is seen as a way of making some easy, and much needed money, though they often make the somewhat false assumption that if you are white, you have money to burn (many of my Ghanaian friends make me look like an abject proper, although I also see such horrendous poverty that it makes me count my blessings).

The main difference between my current view of the country and my initial impressions is waning hope I once felt for its future.

Before coming here I couldn't have imagined the lack of organisation and the inefficiency that plagues Ghana, along with the corruption that seems to infest the very way of life here, from the government to the police, to average Ghanaian worker.

And it is the latter of these problems which makes me realise how fragile Ghana's new tradition of democracy truly is; with a police force that seems to be omnipotent (though certainly not omniscient) the current mood of political harmony is held together by nothing more than good will, with the threat of a coup never far from the front pages of the popular press.

I won't go on too much about these subjects (I've already talked at length about them in previous columns) but it is disorganisation, and corruption that will, in my opinion, greatly hinder if not completely scupper any chance Ghana has of using its impressive natural resources to pull itself out of poverty.

When I first came here I heard about the much touted, and much needed National Health Levy that the government is trying to implement.

Now, I can't see this being anything but a bundled farce, with millions of cedis being lost down the drain through a mixture of the problems I've already mentioned.

Then again, I might be wrong; in a country that takes is religion as seriously as Ghana, I suppose a miracle isn't out of the question.

So if Ghana is such a hopeless case, and my hopes for its future are so grim, then why don't I just pack up and go back to England (a question one or two people have asked after reading some of my less positive columns).

Well, in short, because I like it here.

All of the problems I've talked about above, do, and will continue to add to the suffering of the ordinary Ghanaian in the street, which of course makes me sad.

They do not however (as selfish as it sounds) greatly affect my personal enjoyment of this vastly interesting and beautiful country.

Although moving here - like moving to any new country - was stressful at first, I have learned (to a large extent anyway) to deal with the inevitable frustrations that Ghanaian life throws at you and to adapt to the way things are done here.

I accept that getting your car fixed is not a case of leaving your car with a mechanic and coming back at a predetermined time to pick it up, paying the price that was quoted to you.

It usually involves coming back at the predetermined time, only to find several extra costs which the mechanic failed to mention, and your car still in a number of pieces whilst the man himself sits and chats to his friends (I can assure you this impression is not based on a few isolated cases alone).

When we go to a restaurant we accept that a meal will take an age to arrive, will probably be different to what we ordered and arrive at different times, but we work around this by ordering dishes that we both like, so we can share if necessary.

Many tourist guides will tell you that Accra isn't the most beautiful city in West Africa, but I must admit that I think it has a certain rustic charm.

The view of the ocean along the coast road near Labadi is something I never tire of seeing – just like the tranquil beaches of the Central Region, or the gloriously hot, yet changeable weather which can provide you with perfect blue skies one minute, and a violent, yet short thunderstorm the next.

I know many 'Accranians' will disagree with me on this point, but the clouds of bats in central Accra that flock in the early morning and evening time, are still an amazing sight to me, coming as I do from a country where bats are an endangered species and rather harder to spot.

And of course, the quality of life I enjoy here is far greater than I had back home.

Of course we are in a very privileged position as Obronis living in Ghana, in that we can afford to visit the hotels and restaurants of Accra.

Many of them offer a range of foods (Indian, Chinese, Italian, French) as good as I've eaten back home, and I've also found the traditional Ghanaian foods themselves much to my liking (ground nuts and roasted plantain for lunch have proved quite addictive).

And of course, being an Englishman I like my beer and this is something which Ghana also does well.

Both the main lagers are refreshing, and the locally brewed Guinness, though strong enough to run your car off, is strangely addictive (I doubt when I return to the UK I'll be able to stomach the 'weak' brand they sell there).

As for my hopes for the New Year:

Personally I'm keen to travel and see more of the treasures that the country has to offer.

Having visited the sombre, yet impressive Elmina slave fort, I want to see more of the relicts of Ghana's troubled past.

I want to see the national parks that come so highly recommended (by Africans as well as westerners) and travel further into the lush Volta Region.

I would also like to think that with the national elections over with, and the government starting its second term, that many of my fears for the economic problems of Ghana can be proved wrong.

This is one Englishman who would happily eat his hat, if the current administration could really turn things around, though I won't be rushing out to buy a medium sized Panama just yet.

Then again, in a country that takes its religion as seriously as Ghana, I suppose a miracle isn't out of the question. GRi…

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