Accra – City of Darkness (2014-11-19)

It’s 8am and already I’m sweating; I only stepped out the door two minutes ago. I try to keep in the shade as much as I can, but the shops along either side of the street are merely sheds; wooden shacks one storey high, with corrugated iron sheet roofs, held together more by faith in the Lord than any kind of engineering (I pass one shop called ‘In God We Trust, electricals’). The pavement is merely that piece of gravel between where the shop-frontage ends and the road begins, where often the stallholders lurk to entice you in, whilst taxis and tro-tros rush blindly by, mere centimetres from your feet. The large drainage ditch at the edge of the road, deeper than you perhaps care to know, provides another danger.

From the taxis and the tro-tros come constant blaring of horns and shouts: ‘Acc-RAH’, ‘KEN-shee’; no destination boards on the front of buses here, no numbered routes, and yet the tro-tros barely slow down to pick up passengers; a deft opening of the door, the ‘conductor’ (invariably a tall chap, late teens or early twenties) swinging out to let someone jump in or out, then gliding back in and away they go, to who knows where. The taxis, meanwhile, drive by with a ‘hey’ or simply a look and a wave of a hand; they all want your custom yet are long past you before you can react.

I manage to hail a tro-tro going in the right direction, and jump aboard – regardless of the size of my luggage and the number of people already inside, there’s always room for one more. People are squashed in next to each other, there’s baskets, bags, Tupperware wedged under seats, and it seems that people get on and off every few metres. The drivers soar down the road as if in some kind of motor-race – stock-car racing seems the most appropriate for these death-traps. At least the windows open; slight circulation of otherwise heavy, sweaty, air.

A tro-tro filling up at Kaneshie, Accra.
A tro-tro filling up at Kaneshie, Accra.

It has been hot and sticky all night. Although my hotel room has had a ceiling fan, I seem to have visited Accra at the wrong time of year; for both the nights I’ve spent in the city, the power has been off from just after 6pm to around 6am the next morning. In the hotel I’d been chatting to two ladies (one American, one Australian) helping out at an (unofficial) orphanage and they’d told me that it’s only been this bad in the past month or so – up until September everything had been fine.
The power goes off just after nightfall. I can only presume that the infrastructure can no longer cope with the loads put on it, when everyone turns on their lights. It’s not just the hotel and the local streets that lose power – from the hotel rooftop the whole of Northern Accra was in darkness, save those places with their own generators (the local petrol station aside, a handful of shops and bars were still lit, and of course in the distance, the lights of the city centre still blazed on in mocking indifference). On my first day in the city I’d walked past quite a few stalls selling or repairing engineering equipment, including generators, and now I know why. The power loss stops the fans from spinning, the fridges from keeping the water cool, and prevents backpackers booking ahead accommodation on the Internet.
Despite the darkness people still mill around on the streets, shops are still open (who needs fancy electronic equipment when people pay for everything in cash), street stalls still sell food – cooked earlier or cooked on gas stoves that act as a candle for hungry passers-by. A few people walk with torches lighting the way, many use their mobile phones. Others yet walk confidently in the darkness – familiarity with the streets providing their safety-net.

In the daylight hours, Accra is a seething tide of people and colour – the whole city feels like one huge outdoor market, with a particular preference for fish; grilled/barbequed fish (predominantly tilapia) are sold everywhere, often with a curried sauce and either rice or noodles. Bags, toiletries, and electrical equipment are also common – especially mobile phones, often stolen from the pockets of those people who dawdle too much in the markets (not that I’m bitter or anything).

The edge of Makola Market, central Accra.
The edge of Makola Market, central Accra.

I’ve spent two long, humid, nights here, having arrived at around 6am on Monday morning, and now it’s time for me to head West, to the town and ancient slave-port of Cape Coast. I’ve quite enjoyed Accra (loss of phone and lack of net connection aside); it’s actually weird in a way since if you’d asked me to describe what I’d have imagined Ghana to be like before I arrived, I’d probably have said exactly what I’ve experienced and seen so far.
A lack of specific tourist sites might dissuade some visitors from Accra (I did visit the unimpressive Independence square area; an outdoor arena designed to house 30,000 people, most commonly used by random youths and old men to sit in the stands or stand under the roof, hiding in the shade from the endless, torrid, sun. The National Museum was quite interesting – whole segments on traditional crafts, slavery, tribal life, and ancient history – but it’s quite a way off the main drag of the city), but really, you’d come to Accra partly because you have to, and partly for the same reason to see Ghana in general – to see the people, the culture, the life.

There is life here, even in the darkness.

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