At 5:30 am on Easter Saturday, my eyes fluttered open. I was on the bottom of a bunkbed in my new home. The fan had just stopped. No worries, I thought. The electricity will come back.
Accra is hot and humid. Weather reports will list the temperature in the low 30s but with humidity, it crosses into the 40s even at night. We get the most acute sense of how hot Accra is while travelling in tro-tros – privately owned vans that have been retrofitted with as many seats as possible. Sitting extremely close to people, with the only respite being the breeze from the tro-tro being in motion, with sweat dripping down my neck is evidence enough that the city is sweltering.
When the church kitty corner from us started it’s Easter celebrations using a loudspeaker at around 8am, I knew it was time to get out of bed. It was too loud and too hot to stay in bed.
The early start in Easter celebrations, after a late end to the celebrations the night before was our first indicator of how religion plays such a large role in Ghanaian society. It was further reinforced when we started noticing that many businesses were in God’s name – O! The Blood of Christ Tailors or Christ Cares Photocopies or Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Second-hand Tires. Often a Ghanaian will get on the tro-tro and start preaching the Bible – they are moved to do this from the goodness of their heart, to share God’s love with those around them. Religious conferences over the weekends are also popular – that first week we saw multiple saw signs proclaiming a “Three Day Explosive Cruasade!” all over the city.
The electricity came back after 36 hours but our celebrations were short-lived. It went out again after a short respite and only came back after another 46 hours – by this point it was Tuesday evening.
We managed to stay as comfortable as possible by spending the day in the Orientation Room, which had a cross breeze and the evenings on the terrace. A couple of times, we headed to Osu (arguably the downtown of Accra) to sit in an air-conditioned restaurant gorging American food like pizzas, double cheese burgers and warm brownies.
Walking around Accra, locals, young and old, would call out to us to get our attention – Obruni, Obruni. Obruni is the local term used to call out to a foreigner. It is adorable when the children start calling us and wave enthusiastically when we turn around. At one point, seven or eight children in the neighbourhood swarmed Sarah (the blonde, blue-eyed volunteer from the U.S.) chanting “Obruni, Obruni” and practically jumping on her. It is not nearly as endearing when adult men shout and wave to us – one odd fellow passed us by on the street muttering Obruni under his breath as if the word had spilled from his stream of consciousness. For all the attention we were getting, we could have been celebrities. Surprising, considering how many Obrunis are in Accra.
The days were long but the nights were worse. I was too hot to fall asleep so I would head to the terrace with a book and headlamp. When the mosquitos became too much, I would head downstairs to the dining table to finish my book. I could only fall asleep around 3am when I was too tired to keep my eyes open and then wake up again about four hours later.
To stay cool, I drank lots of water. Sold either in water bottles for 1 cedi (50 cents) or in 500 mL plastic bags for 10 pesewas (5 cents), we became experts in ripping open the corner of the bag with our teeth before consuming more water than we ever did while climbing Kilimanjaro. A few of these plastic bags are recycled and converted into funky handbags and other accessories.
It was an unfortunate beginning to a portion of our trip that we were very much looking forward to – we thought unpacking, being in one place for six weeks and getting a break from flying was going to be luxurious.
Electricity in Accra is sold much like a pay-as-you-go plan. You must buy electricity credits – if you run out in the middle of the night, you have to wait until the next morning to buy additional credits. Even more odd (as if the pay-as-you-go system isn’t odd enough) is the fact that credits for the first and second floor of the same house are bought separately. The next time I had to get through the night without the fan was because we had run out of credits for the second floor.
When I landed, I believed I would immediately fall in love with Accra, forgetting that it took me years to fall in love with Toronto.
On the plane ride here, Trevor and I had a conversation about eating at Pizza Hut in a modern Accra. We were certain that Accra would rival a modern Indian city. This myth was quickly dispelled. International companies like Pizza Hut and McDonalds have not yet entered the market. The amount of garbage strewn everywhere was one of our first indicators that Accra was not what we expected. Open sewers on both sides of the often unpaved roads taught us to breath through our mouth and not our nose while we were exploring. Vendors at Kaneshie market (the second largest market in Accra located less than a 10 minute walk from home) sells the world’s second-hand goods – shoes, once worn that have been fixed and polished, t-shirts clearly once marketed to a North American audience and hats from sports teams (such as the Toronto Maple Leafs) unheard of by Ghanaians.
Instead of pizza, our palates have been experimenting with Ghanaian food – jollof rice with fried chicken, fried plantains with peanuts and yams with fish are just a few of the local dishes that have come across our plates. Ghanaians love their rice, chicken, tomatoes, plantains, yams, beans and tomoatoes. Every dish is a combination of these items. The locals have tried little else – eating mostly at home and ordering Ghanaian food even at restaurants.
We end our week at Epus, a bar in Osu, cheering on Hearts of Oak (Accra’s soccer team) as they play archrivals Asante Kotoko (the team of Kumasi, Ghana’s second city). The rooftop is busy, people are enjoying their 6 cedi beer and the fans are in full spirit, breaking out into song when the Hearts score an equalizer in the 87th minute. But of the two screens (placed right next to each other) only one is playing the Hearts/Kotoko game. The other screen is showing the English Premier League. The speakers are set-up with one in the front of the bar and the other in the back. Sit in the front and you’ll hear commentary from the EPL, at the back you hear commentary for the local soccer game. We would soon learn that Ghanaians are bigger fans of the EPL than their own, with the majority being diehard fans of Chelsea because of its large African roster. We didn’t know it then but this powerful fixation on the foreign was a sign of things to come.