Musings from the Merse
Sunday, April 17, 2005

Yes Yes many bloggees have deserted the rant as they are apparently not into Africa but to sign off GHana here is a impressionistic account of some of the features of the country-and, yes. it is back to Hutton and to the Berwickshire Blogger-and to the avid readers of the Mail on Sunday

It was hard for Huttonian to rant from Ghana. Everywhere is a long way from the medical complex of Korle-Bu in south west Accra. This is a leading teaching hospital built in the 1930s by the then British Governor and we were staying in a doctor’s house, originally a ‘rest house’ of the old colonial type in the vast medical cantonment. But the internet was a problem. Our host’s connections were not functioning with both servers down but he told us that when it was working it was slow possibly similar to the phone line in Hutton and would cut out without warning. So the only sure way of www access was to take a local cab to the Busy Internet Café bang in the middle of the city. This was taking several peoples lives in your hands-mine were frantically clutching the passenger grab handles as the driver, Mr. Kushi, dodged, ducked, violently braked and suddenly accelerated to take advantage of any gap in the mass of cars heading down town at as much speed as was possible-varying it seemed from dead slow-i.e. stopped- to well over 100 mph. Roundabouts-circles here-were a challenge and tested the skill and macho of the drivers(80% of cars in Accra are taxis) How there is not a violent death every few minutes escapes me. The secret seems to be: avoid eye contact and blaring horns and go for it. Pedestrians are not a factor-Zebra crossings are an invitation to accelerate and they remind me of what was said about pedestrians in Beirut being in two categories: The Quick and the Dead. I cannot believe that Accra is much different except that the quick never seemed to test the system.

Eventually, if you re spared, you may reach the Busy Internet Café. You will have endured 30 minutes of 33c, 95% humidity-a/c in taxis is like mains gas in Hutton; a nice idea, good for a chuckle. But one should not complain. A cab hired for 90 minutes, the minimum time for getting anywhere, doing something and coming back, will cost you, the expat sucker all of $5.50 or 50,000 cedis in the vernacular. A local will pay much less. Internet access at about 40 p for 30 minutes is a bargain as well. It is said that the Busy is the biggest and best internet caff in all Africa. It is good place to be with its efficient a/c and about 80 terminals nearly all taken at any one time. It has a Broadband connection but with so many clients on line at once the connection speed was about half my ISDN speed in Hutton and slower than a normal dialup connection-the Old Manse always excepted. So 30 minutes gets you your e-mail and very little else. I managed one frantic rant on my first visit and was just being timed out when it went on its way. As my stay progressed blogging was possible but minimal

Then you have to get back again.

Huttonian has a Ghana connection and was last here with the wife and baby eldest daughter in 1968. My father was a banker and helped to establish the first Commercial Bank in the then Gold Coast. It became the Ghana Commercial Bank on independence in 1957 and my father stayed on as the first Managing Director and then as adviser. His claim to fame was the design and production of the Ghanaian currency-the Cedi. Once two to the pound sterling (in 1960) and now you can get about 17,000 Cedis for the quid. The biggest denomination is only C20, 000-just over US$2, but most machines churn out C10, 000 notes only so a visit to an ATM requires virtually a wheelbarrow or large carrier bag if you are extracting serious money.

More fun than the ATMs and certainly cheaper are the ‘Forex shops’. There you can change your sterling, dollar or euro for cedis over the counter. On my first foray I was taken to a very plush looking establishment, air conditioned and six tellers; three buying cedis and three selling. The rates were beautifully displayed and soft music. I flashed my Morrison atmed pounds. The tellers sighed in unison-sorry-no cedis to day. I wonder why they were open then as no one will actually be selling cedis for hard currencies except perhaps on the eve of a visit to Europe. They all went back to their ‘Daily Graphic’ and again in unison, wished me a nice day. What a relaxing way to spend your time-cool and under employed. It was no real problem as the forex shops are on every block and the one next door had cedis coming out of every crevice with clever machines that counted a million at a time- one million equaling not much more than £ 58.

Ghana has a long connection with the British who first went there in the 17th Century-the old city centre on the sea is still called James Town. If you ask the average professional class Ghanaian where he is going for his holidays he will often say ‘Home’. Not unreasonable until it dawns on you that he means the UK. In my previous visits to West Africa in the 1960s a class of Ghanaian was referred to as ‘been tos’ –the UK of course but now it means wider Europe or the States. (Some of these, especially those who banged on about it were sarcastically referred to as’ has beens’) Many go for higher education, to work in the NHS, to do business and lots stay on. I noticed from the Funeral announcement of a man in his eighties with 12 children and 40 grandchildren that 10 out of the 12 were in North America or the UK and more than half the grandchildren were overseas.

One day neither of our usual taxi drivers was available. One had his car b**g***d and the other ‘in the workshop’, just as b**g***d. So I ‘picked’ one in the street. With advice from my hostess on her mobile phone the driver (using mine) found his way to our destination in the posh part of Accra –Osu- to pick up a video recorder which the wife needed for her teaching. The driver asked if he could bring his son along to drop him at school on the way to Osu. The son had two large sacks with him. He was still however with us, 30 sticky minutes later, after we had found the video shop (the video was nor ready, inevitably) and when I asked to be taken home again the driver said fine but we need to go via the school. We set off but not back. Certainly not back as after 15 minutes I found that the international airport was on our right and we were heading East-Korle-Bu being definitely west. I asked the driver about our destination-Medina he said naming a settlement at least 30 miles to the east where his son’s boarding school was located. Don’t worry-I’ll ‘go go’ to school and then ‘go come’ back. Having indicated that I was in a bit of a hurry, hot, thirsty and fed up he dropped me by the road side and found another cab for me whose idea of where Korle Bu might be was distinctly hazy but at least he was driving West. An hour later, temp about 40c and after enduring long periods of stationary traffic we got back to where I had been originally ‘picked’. A wasted double journey and 90,000 Cedis out of pocket-10Dollars US for flirting with heat stroke. It might have been worse as the return driver got agitated every time I put my mobile to my right ear (the ear nearer the road side-Ghana celebrated freedom from Britain by changing to driving on the right but not everyone in Ghana seems to know that) Apparently there is a severe risk of hostile hands coming in from the pavement and liberating your phone-so use your left ear-useful tip I suppose and it would mean using the other ear in, say, Paxton.

Even the most poverty stricken Ghanaian seems to have a cell phone. But there is not a phone culture as in the UK. People will drive miles to see someone and not dream of phoning ahead to make sure that they are there. It may be that the land lined phones are so poor and no one answers them anyhow. It took me 40 minutes to get through to the British High Commission and when I did so I was told by a live human it was ‘closed to the public’-whether you were arriving personally or using the telephone. There is no easily obtainable phone book, no directory enquiries and numbers change with bewildering frequency. I was given 5 for British Airways. 4 were wrong but I never discovered the right one as no phone was actually answered. But no worries-we will go and see them-if they are not in we will drive back again which we will have to do whether they are in or not. I am sure some Ghanaians drive great distances to establish whether or not so and so’s phone is working-and if it is not, and they are in-what a triumph for initiative that represents.
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