It has been a while since I wrote something, anything of value to be exact. My fingers are twitching, palms sweaty and heart racing. It is probably the beer.
The Airbus A350-900 cuts through the thin cloud cover over the mighty Congo flowing through a mass of green down below, Accra behind and the warmth of Uganda calling; I cannot help but go over the events of the past one year. This has been my longest sojourn away from the people that call me husband, father, brother and friend. It has been five months since I was back home, but it feels like forever.
A year has gone by since I first arrived in Accra the capital of Ghana and I never stop getting amazed and sometimes astonished by the people and the culture. Public transport in Ghana is mainly minibuses popularly called Tro Tro that carry anywhere between 10 and 30 passengers. Some of these Tro Tros look like relics from an era gone by, you would be forgiven for taking a tetanus shot before getting into one. Like in East Africa the drivers are known for their do or die attitude in their daily fight for survival on the streets.
It is not uncommon for a Tro Tro driver to get out of the minibus in the middle of a traffic jam to take a leak by the roadside. While it was a shock to me the calm that prevailed in the Tro Tro was surreal. As we waited at a busy junction for the green light, the driver climbed out of his seat leaving the engine running, stood by an open drainage channel running along the road and relieved himself into the sludge of decaying food and plastic. I did not hear the standard condescending sneer that seems to accompany any delay on the Accra roads, above all the drama that everyone seemed oblivious to except me the loud music continued to play and within minutes he was back at the wheel and we were on our way.
Three months into my stay I moved to a new neighborhood not far from where I lived when I first arrived. Neatly tucked to the side of the affluent East Legon suburb, Bawaleshie is a commercial hub with a life of its own. Littered with food kiosks specializing in the national staple of Banku, fried yam and fried rice, it stays awake almost throughout the night. William the broker that got me the apartment told me “It is safe here; the people do not sleep,” and he was right. Early morning in Bawaleshie is ruled by the sound of fire spitting pastors with their “The time is nigh” message over the metallic clank as the women of the kiosks squat at the fire mingling the day’s Banku in large blackened aluminum cauldrons that look like they are from the fire the preachers are threatening.
In mornings when I hit the road for an early run or the gym for a spinning class to prepare for the hot day ahead it is a common sight to find hordes of young and old men standing outside their homes, toothbrush in one hand, manhood in the other easing themselves with wanton abandon into the roadside channels. It is generally okay to urinate anywhere, it is an unwritten but widely accepted code that most men seem to abide by. The stench of acrid ammonia hangs heavy in the humid morning air, an unpleasant smell but you get used to the point of embracing it and sniffing it out every day lest you lose your bearings.
Fanatical and practical about football
Ghanaians are fanatical about football but unlike the East Africans they are practical. You will find that most men own a pair of aging football boots tucked away in the corner with a coat of dust not older than a week. Near my apartment there is a sandy patch measuring about 100m x 75m laid out between two lines of high voltage pylons and surrounded by short lush green trees. I was told the field lies in no man’s land but the residents of a block of flats nearby have control over it. It is here that every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon young men and boys descend for a football frenzy.
A friend introduced me to the group that calls this ground home and I now partake in the feisty encounters that grace each weekend with each day starting with a short prayer before the teams are picked. We look after the field which involves occasionally cutting down the scanty vegetation that springs up on the edges during the rainy season otherwise it is all sand and hundreds of plastic bags littered across. We share the playground with a passel of hogs that take over and root around for food when there is no football, and, on any day, you will find football boot prints interspersed with hog prints.
The games are very competitive and physical with play going on until there is a winner in normal time or going down to penalties. What struck me as odd was their complete disinterest in watching live European leagues’ games preferring to rather tussle it out on the field while in contrast I stayed away on such Sunday afternoons to watch the big games. Surprisingly they were up to date on whatever happened in the games, the goals, the misses and Mourinho or Conte’s theatrics on the touchline. The few locals that make it to the sports bar I frequent at times stream out as soon as the games end yet my brothers back home in Uganda will stay on long after dissecting every facet of the game until the tongues become heavy and the facts blurry.
I love the gym and I am a frequent visitor to one located at the A&C Mall about 2 kilometers from where I stay. The short walk gives me time to think and clear my mind after a hectic day at work. This mall and gym are a firm favorite of the rich from the affluent Trassaco Estate in the neighborhood. The parking lot is always dotted with an array of expensive American made SUVs, Range Rovers and sleek Japanese models a few years old. Young men eager to show off their latest cars are a common sight. They sit atop their toys showing off chiseled bodies as they wind up equally built women fresh from aerobics classes their bodies glistening with sweat in the humid evening air under the glare of the floodlights. The ladies string along knowing it will not be long before the boys return their fathers’ cars at the end of the evening.
The rich here love living large and it is
evident from the palatial houses that line the streets in East Legon. At the
gym it is no different, the dress code is clear show of status; Beats by Dre,
Nikes, Reeboks and the bafflingly priced Balenciagas are ubiquitous. Probably
cheap knockoffs but the showboating is a spectacle on its own. The gym is
always relaxed but if you are new to Ghana you might think it is a battlefield
because even in a good-hearted conversation Ghanaians are loud and you can
imagine alpha males pumped up with steroids, lifting heavy iron and discussing
last night’s football game. It is crazy but in a good-natured way and you can
feel the camaraderie amidst the muscle and sweat as people work off the day’s
Accra is a vibrant city awash with color and energy, monstrous traffic and a palpable heat that forces many to walk around with face towels to fight the uncontrollable sweat. Despite this, the streets are full except on Sunday when many heed the call of the men of God who have monopolized the business of salvation in thousands of churches with branches scattered in every corner of the city.
The story of Accra’s religious behemoths is for another day, religion is an industry here, a juggernaut that has its tentacles in the very fabric of society, it is too big to crash into a couple of paragraphs and I will come back to that another day.
Time flies when you are busy and in one year I know I have not done enough exploration beyond the city. Accra is a low-lying coastal city with high terrain to the east and the famous Cape Coast to the west; two places I have been able to visit. The low rising mountainous area around Aburi is popular with health enthusiasts who fill the road to this sleepy outpost town in the Eastern Region about 30 minutes from the city.
Running in groups they go up the winding road carrying boom boxes singing along as if in a trance invoking their ancestors to nudge them up the steep slope. It is a weekly social event with good intentions that inadvertently pits different health clubs against each other. The first time I joined this health pilgrimage we were seeing off a workmate who was ending her short-term assignment in Ghana. At the end of the charge up the mountain we drank coconut water from freshly cracked nuts and took pictures at the Peduase Valley Resort a very scenic place on the mountainside.
As I raise my hand to signal a passing hostess for another beer, I hear the captain calling out to the cabin crew to prepare for landing and I will have to forget that and leave the story of Cape Coast and its dark past for another day. I fold my seat tray, buckle my seatbelt and wait for touch down in Addis Ababa, home is closer now, I must get out of the past and steady myself for the future. My time in Accra is not yet done but this will be a welcome break.
Charlie Sekakoni Ateenyi