a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Another day, another city

Keen to make the most of the bank holidays with which the end of April and the beginning of May were so  awash, I started eyeing the expanse of long weekends as a potential holiday slot as soon as the Royal Wedding was announced.  It seems I was not alone in this, as many other Brits headed overseas to make the most of their bonus days off from work.  Not for me, however, were the beaches of Europe, or even the (slightly chillier) beaches of the UK.  Nope, I went instead to Ghana, where I have just spent two weeks adventuring ("holidaying" doesn't do justice to the pace at which we hurled around the country, or the number of exciting places we visited).
As a now habituated urban-dweller, wherever I travel I look at cities, and invariably draw comparisons between any new ones I explore and my Accidental home-city of London.  However Ghana is not much like the UK, and where similarities and differences may be easily compared between, say, Berlin and London, the Ghanaian capital city of Accra is not much like our European metropolises.

Accra, like many similar, comparatively young cities, is not governed by long-established urban planning regulations and patterns.  It is wonderfully disorganised and chaotic.  Taking a stroll through Accra is a major health and safety risk.  If you manage not to tumble into the open sewers which dribble merrily along where the pavements should be, Accra's road-users could take you out should you step carelessly into their path.  The cities' drivers hurtle across its roads as if they're all dancing some wild, automotive hokey-cokey; rushing at once into the same tiny spot, then racing away again.  It is no surprise that many vehicles bear the dents and dings of former smashes.  Nor that their drivers bedeck their windscreen with biblical messages, as if to invoke some sort of spiritual protection.  One backscreen reads simply, and somewhat desperately, "Oh! God" (note the placement of the exclamation mark - playing it fast and loose with punctuation as well as the Highway Code).

The city bears the architectural marks of its colonial past, in the former slave forts and British-built lighthouse of Jamestown.  It commemorates Ghana's most famous leader, the prolific writer and pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, with a vast marble mausoleum set amid lush gardens and ranked fountains.  It displays the staggering gap between wealth and poverty, in the varied landscapes of guarded compounds for the rich and the board-built, waste-strewn villages of the cities' poor fishermen.
The tourist in Accra will not find any guided tours of the city, no open-topped buses or maps of must-see sights.  Any visitors need to find their own entertainment, and find their own way around.  This is not a city for tourists.  It is a city for everyday lives, being lived at busy, bustling speed.  There are undoubtably attractions but you need to work hard to find them, and brave the stifling, sticky heat that  turns even the delightfully eclectic national museum into a sweaty greenhouse.
Whilst night falls abruptly around 6pm, like a black-out curtain dropped over the city, the street-life pounds on, in a whirl of crazed cars and twinkling lights.  Behind security fences and slightly further of the beaten track, a sheltered ex-pat microcosm co-exists with the local Ghanaian life.  In that aspect Accra shares a little with London, Paris, Berlin, and even New York; it is being shaped by numerous nationalities and supporting multiple cultures.  It is a city in development, growing before one's eyes.  What will it look like in another ten or twenty years?  Will it be more like London?  Or even less?

4 comments:

  1. Ah, I spent a month in Ghana last summer - super country. Insane shop names though: "Jesus is Lord Hairdressers" and "Blood of the Saviour Laundry" were a couple I particularly enjoyed. xx

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  2. Nice post! And welcome back...Have never been to Ghana, so I wouldn't know what to expect. I couldn't help wondering what London would be like in 10 or 20 years...maybe a bit more like Accra?

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  3. You're right, shop and business names were hilarious, Emma. I made a mental collection of the best ones - "Holy Ghost Auto-Balancing and Fine Tuning" was one of my favourites!

    Thanks for the welcome back, Muriel. It is nice to be home, but am certainly missing the sunshine. Very glad I got to see Ghana now; I fear Accra may lose a lot of its frenetic individuality in the upcoming years as it tries to be more like Western cities.

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  4. Hello,
    Really interesting post, I've always wanted to go to Ghana, one of my best friends from school was born and grew up there and always had great stories from his many visits. It's obviously an amazing experience!
    However, to the point! Your blog has won our (Dorset Cereals') Little Blog Awards for April, so a huge congratulations! If you get in touch with me on robward@dorsetcereals.co.uk I'll organise your egg cup and other prizes.
    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Best wishes,
    Rob

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