There are no manicured roadside lawns but torn plastic bags strewn on the dusty ground. There are no skyscrapers like the Empire State Building but clusters of tin-roofed cottages are painted the lime green, red and yellow of competing phone companies that use the buildings as ads. There are no empty sidewalks but pathways filled with endless streams of people crisscrossing one another. Many wear sandals, the women in African wrap skirts with babies tied to their back and balancing goods on their heads. The lush palm trees and the coconut stands remind visitors this is a tropical country, Ghana in West Africa.
Invited by the U.S. Peace Corps for its 50th anniversary celebration in Ghana, my American husband and I visited the former Gold Coast this late August. For the first time I stepped on the soil of Africa.
Mild breezes accompanied us throughout our six-day visit. We did not expect the moderate temperatures with high 70s°F and low 80s°F. The local people told me that August was the winter in Ghana. So even though Ghana is on the northern side of the equator, the country shares the South Hemisphere seasons.
With the help of our Ghanaian neighbor back in the U.S., we had a driver and a car while we were in Ghana. Our main purpose was to reunite with old friends. But since this was my first time in Ghana, we squeezed time out to sightsee the capital Accra and Elmina (about 100 miles westward from Accra).
Like many national capital cities, Accra is a very busy metropolis. Its everyday congestion reminded me of Beijing’s dreadful traffic. Roads in Ghana are rough. We were lucky to be on quite a few concrete roads in Accra and on the way to Elmina. But we also experienced the muddy unsurfaced roads just inside the capital city.
The earth in Ghana is starkly red, rich in iron and aluminum. People seemed to get used to walking on the uneven red soil. They flip-flopped, shuffled and kids even ran with their bare feet. Occasionally, I saw young men playing street soccer with gusto. No wonder Ghana had one of the strong African teams in last year’s World Cup.
Being stuck in traffic was common in Accra. That allowed me to rubberneck from the passenger seat. The traffic jam brought opportunities to those who carried goodies on their heads and cellphone cards, maps and souvenirs in their hands. These hawkers were like agile fish swimming between narrow car spaces, enticing drivers and passengers to buy what they sold. At times the beggars in rags joined the single file march, begging in an indistinguishable language.
At one time, I heard kids who sold snacks call me “obruni.” My husband said the word meant “white person” in Twi, one of the widely spoken languages in southern Ghana. I laughed. Perhaps in Ghanaian eyes, those who don’t have skin as dark as theirs are all “obruni.” Later that day, I googled a phrase to respond such a greeting, “etisen obinini,” meaning “hello black person.” Alas, I did not hear anyone call me “obruni” again. Instead, more Ghanaians said “Nihao” to me. I was surprised at first but soon I realized there are many Chinese businessmen in Ghana, so are there many Ghanaian traders in China. Chinese restaurants have mushroomed in Accra in recent years.
Having lived in the U.S. for more than two years, I noticed a drastic difference between Ghanaian and American daily life. You can’t drink tap water. You need to bring your own napkins. You only can shop with cash. You have to bargain for everything including taking a taxi. Auto maintenance falls behind. I thought to myself most the dusty cars on the streets in Ghana would have retired to the junkyard in the U.S.. They were clunkers either dented in various degrees or emitting black smoke. Even so, the cars still zoomed forward to any possible space. In the U.S. if my car’s check engine light lit, I would have panicked and I would have it checked immediately in the garage. But in Ghana, it seemed everyone was driving calmly with a check engine light on. This is African life. Different living conditions result in different life attitudes.
Ghanaians are known for being laidback. That is probably why the tourist attractions in the country are not lavishly publicized. We went to Elmina Castle, one of the oldest castles in West Africa, with a history of about five hundred years. There was not a single sign on the main highway giving directions to the Castle. Constructed by the Portuguese colonists and later occupied by the Dutch and the British colonists, the Castle was used as a slave prison during colonial time. Slave trading was prosperous in Ghana. The slaves that were about to be sent to the New World were all incarcerated in the pitch dark cells inside the Castle. From the only window of one cell, I saw the roaring waves in the Gulf of Guinea and the hustling and bustling fishing villages by the seashore. The sky was as gray as my mood. My heart wrenched. What have the colonists left for their settlements? Life in Ghana is still tough in many ways despite the fact the country is developing rapidly.
The Accra Mall is one of few malls and a landmark of globalization in Ghana. I was shocked to find international brands like Puma, Apple Inc., Panasonic and Sony inside the two-story big mall. Besides, a brightly lit supermarket with at least 20 checkout lanes sold all sorts of fresh produce and necessity goods. From bread, cheese, beverage, imported wine to cookers and bath towels, you name it. On the second floor were the movie theatre and a large game room. How can the Mall not to attract the novelty-seeking young Ghanaians? How can you believe today’s Ghanaians lead this kind of posh Western life?
Compared to the well-to-do Ghanaians who have a good education, a good job, a big house fenced with high walls and drive high-end vehicles like Mercedes, quite a few Ghanaians still live in suburban or rural areas where concrete roads don’t exit. The residences look makeshift. Some houses are made of clay or thatch. Some are even roofless. Open sewers run through narrow alleys between houses. It is not uncommon that many poor families cannot afford to send their kids to school. Thus, older kids work despite being underage while the young ones roam on the streets. I notice it’s quite unusual for Ghanaians not to have sibling. If I were a Ghanaian, I would be a rare animal as an only child.
However, I was a rare Chinese customer in the Chinese restaurant we had dinner one night. Although the décor and the menu were Chinese style, the servers and the customers in the dining hall were mostly Black with a few White customers. I was definitely the only Chinese customer. In the U.S., I have never been served by White waiters in a Chinese restaurant. If Chinese food is too difficult for Caucasians to serve, the Ghanaians certainly get the credit for being knowledgeable about the Chinese menu.
Our whirlwind visit in Ghana broadens my horizons. Before my visit, I thought Africa was only a huge continent that can easily move one’s sympathetic heart. After the trip, I realize Ghana, just like many other African countries, welcomes global investment while it shows a striking discrepancy between rich and poor. If centuries ago the colonists trampled Ghana’s sovereignty, bringing deep Western influence to Ghanaian life, today’s globalization in the country is a new round of economic invasion. But this time, not only does the Western world take part in the game, so does the Oriental world, including economic powerhouse China.