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Accra for beginners

By Colyn Alcock

Ghana welcomed me with an impressive monster of an electrical storm at 35,000 feet, out of the plane window it looked like God was taking photographs of his little piece of heaven that fell to earth. The lights of the capital flickered blue yellow and white below like hundreds of thousands and fireflies, the plane touched down and I stepped out into the hot wet blanket of an African night.

Since then my prose falls apart as my senses have been drenched in the weird, the fabulous and the downright crazy! To give you a real time sense, lets go back to that first Accra night. I was picked up at the airport (looked more like an overgrown cattle hut) by Addo the local hotel manager and his mates, who seemed to need to form a posse to collect me. Oh well. Into a clapped out 40 year old banger of a car with no glass in the side windows, with the driver wearing a Stetson of all things…wild west Africa I thought! Addo says “ I’ll take you on a tour. Here is military barracks, over there the police training school,” he said. “There is airforce headquarters, ” either Addo was a militarist fetish or Ghana was gonna be pretty limited on tourist attractions. After we’d dropped his mate off at his house (the real reason for the round trip), I checked into Ghalebon Guesthouse, turned on the 1950’s air conditioning unit, emptied my pockets of all valuables and hid them and then strolled out into the sweaty night. Follow me.

Going past the ridiculously ornate Kola supermarket, you turn left into Cantonments Road. Strolling down Cantonments Road must be like Brad Pitt feels when he goes out shopping “hey white man, how ya going?”, “Cool, later” I said waving past the greetings at a trot and wondering what the going rate was locally for the sale of internal organs. As an “obruni” (white person) the only speed to stroll down Cantonments Road is a nicely-paced gallop, I thought at first. If not, you’ll be assailed by street hawkers, business proposals, curious children, wandering roosters, Uncle Tom Cabin and all. After a couple of days I’ve learned to chill here and take it at the pace of the rest of the street, that is to say leisurely to the point of falling over. However, on the first night I took the first block with nervousness, the second with curiosity and the third with a sense of mounting wonder.

The first thing that hits you (after the droves of flag sellers) is that practically no buildings are over 2 storeys high, some are 1 story and quite a few can’t make up their mind as to whether they are being built or falling down at all. My current favorite is 3 blocks down on the left, where there is a stand with a sign proclaiming “I believe in God” that is rather pitifully slumped at a 30 degree angle. Past the bread sellers vending doorstep hunks of loaves, the women wrapped in blues and yellows and greens, who will break off from their gossiping if you are not worth ignoring. Fruit sellers, drums sellers, mask sellers, flag sellers, rice sellers, coat hanger sellers, more flag sellers, salt sellers (think about it), map sellers, (“hey! You wanna map of Africa” he shouts out – “no thanks I think I know where I am” I gamely respond. There are boot sellers, clothes sellers, shoe sellers, sandal sellers, more flag sellers, enormous black banana sellers, more bleeding flag sellers. The soundtrack to Cantonments Road at night is a curious mix of ghetto blasted reggae and the hornets blare of hundreds and hundreds of taxis. Kinda dumb of me not to realize but Bob Marley is the main man round here (and “One Love “ has been my anthem of the first few days…more of that later). There are plenty of brothers hanging out with nothing to do and making plenty of noise about it all.

I guess this could be any big city in Africa, but these noises, these sights these sounds and these smells are what make the heart of Accra beat. It is really hard to do justice to with words: the sense of muted exuberance prevails, like you think at any moment the whole street could break out into a song and dance routine. If it was the Black and White Minstrels I’d be fairly outnumbered (it took me 2 days to spot a white person, and found they were hiding out in droves in the air conditioned Koala supermarket). But oddly, curiously, even on that first night, in the midst of this Total Sensory Overload, I felt no sense of danger, except SLAM! I walked straight into a pot hole!