It’s amazing the difference 200kms can make. We’ve been living in Accra now for three weeks. School has started. I am no longer terrified of Tettah Quarshrie interchange. We have met some lovely, interesting people, and life seems to be approaching some sort of normality. But it’s the new normal.
I drive to school, not along a dirt road, but a motorway whose range of speed varies from ‘bat out of hell’ fast, to struggling to keep up with a hobbling grandmother snail. Dodging the tro-tros whose ‘100km/hr to zero’ routine in the slow lane keeps your eyes peeled on the road and your heart in your mouth. Around three wheeled motorbikes laden with water sachets whose drivers, like egotistical manics, decide they are able to keep up with the traffic in the middle lane, and the churning, smoke belching, massively laden trucks whose drivers don’t want to deal with the tro-tros in the slow lane either, stick to the outside fast lane (and if I had to drive to Burkino Faso at 50km/hr, I’d probably do my best to maintain any speed I could too). And between all this are the taxi drivers who make the driver of Harry Potter’s Knight bus look sedate, and the big shiny 4WDs, whose sheer volume permits them any multitude of traffic sins.
Like developing cities anywhere in the world, the traffic is typically the first thing that is mentioned when you talk about Accra. When we first arrived, I decided in my naive, ever optimistic way that it was just all just an exaggeration…surely it couldn’t be that bad? Until I missed my turn on the brain-bending 4-leaf clover interchange known as Tettah Quarshie, and spent the next 45 minutes, in the increasing darkness, staring at the building my daughter was in visiting a friend, while I slowly make my way around the 4 leaves, back to my turnoff. I decided, again somewhat optimistically, and of course completely erroneously, that the traffic is so bad because everyone really is just lost on Tettah Quarshie.
The traffic light vendors wares stretch beyond plantain chips, apples, phone credit and windscreen wipers (though very pleased to see the plantain chips readily available), to the giddy heights of tummy trimmers, electric tennis racquets (to swat mosquitoes), a multitude of car phone chargers, and hilariously “neck” massagers, which the sellers assure me are also good when used elsewhere (!). All made in China crap admittedly, but the variety is nice to look at.
Google maps is my constant companion. But like advice from a well meaning, but delusional friend, it can lead you, quite literally up the garden path. When trying to take a short-cut (let’s be honest…trying to avoid a u-turn situation on Tettah Quarshie), the kids and I took and adventure down memory lane, when the bright white road on google maps turned into a washed out, rutted out trip through a small settlement of houses. It was the stares and confused looks of the residents which gave me away (where the hell is that woman going?), and after a few ‘Good afternoons’ and our very best smiles and polite enquiries, we were pointed in the right direction. [And no criticism to google, I mean I know they can’t ground truth every road in the world, and life would be significantly harder without it].
Beyond the motorway, driving the streets of Accra is an interesting exercise. From the quiet, residential neighbourhoods where huge fences provide privacy for the mansions and lush gardens within, to the sprawling suburbs with their rusted iron roofs, to the newer compounds and apartment blocks housing affluent Ghanaians and foreigners of every nationality. And seemingly irrespective of their suburbs affluence, are the street stalls providing lunches of kenkey, basket sellers and phone credit. Some suburbs are peppered with signs for embassies and multinational companies, which then pass into streets of cane sellers and towards the high streets. Accra is reported to be the fastest growing city for millionaires between 2012 and 2020. The photo above is of the funky suburb of Osu, a suburb known for it’s night-life, restaurants and as a gathering ground for young foreigners and Ghanaians alike. The multinationals sit alongside the street sellers, and it provides and excellent example of Accra today.
Despite living in this country for nearly two years, I find myself in the odd position of feeling like the new girl again. This time round though, it’s a heck of a lot easier. The new school has provided a very soft landing pad, because almost everyone here has been the ‘new kid’ at some time; students, teachers and parents have been welcoming and helpful. And with friends who I saw maybe once or twice a year, we have finally had the opportunity to cement these friendships and be welcomed into their circle of friends. Everyone has a story to tell, the only commonality being, we all decided to move to Ghana. I stop myself smiling at foreigners in the super market, and remind myself, you don’t need to do this anymore….But there is a real sense of having to put yourself ‘out there’, to make new friends and create a more normal social network, not only for the kids, but for me too. Seasoned expats are experts at this, making connections, circulating, sharing numbers, and making ‘dates’. And while it has been a great deal of fun, it has perversely renewed a sense of homesickness, where in the rosy glow of memory, life was easy with old friends around and one didn’t have to give potted histories of previous lives at every social event.
But really, after two years of a tiny social network, it’s hardly something I can complain about. And not something that (surely) will last very long.
Conversations with other women (and in this world of trailing spouses, it is almost exclusively women), the conversation invariably turns to food…what are you eating, where are you buying it? I find myself missing Kumasi..well, one particular aspect of it.
The fruit and vegetable stalls, with their shining pyramids of red tomatoes, spiky mounds of pineapples and the dark velvet of the aubergines. Happily, all located along every road you would want to possibly drive along (and some you wouldn’t). Here in the big city, they are, disappointingly, not common. And for the life of me, I can’t work out where the 2.2 million people of Accra buy their fruit and vegetables, apart from a few widely spaced stalls, and local markets. I live in a residential area, and it is just that…residential, with a few huge shopping malls which I can’t face when I need a few tomatoes and cucumbers.
But if you time it right (can I suggest 9.30pm?), you can zip from mall to mall, camembert to pomegranate, KFC to DeliFrance, bookshop to cinema, salsa dancing to book club. The opportunities are really quite heady. But most nights you’ll find me, like mum’s all over the globe, eating dinner with the kids, cajoling them into piano practice and homework and at end of the night, starting to holler about bath times and selective deafness while I take a medicinal red wine.
Tell me, what’s your secret to exploring new city and making it feel like home?
I think you have the essentials down to a “t”. Used to live both in Kumasi and Accra and your descriptions of both places bring back memories – some fond, some not so fond. Ok, about adjusting to a new city. Last move I made was jetting out a small one-main street town in Maine to the urban jungle of Chicago. The shock to my system: watching people look past each other on the street; the only people to call if you need help – the police, fire service, etc; I couldn’t take the supermarket cart home, with a promise to return it the next day; the cashiers at the checking lane couldn’t remember me after my hundredth visit… You see where I am going? The adjustment I needed to make – change how I approach people, adjust my sense of security, begin to think of ‘me first, me second, and me always”.
Hi Kwasi, Thanks for your comment, it’s always great to hear when a post (or two) resonates with a reader…especially one who has lived where I’m writing about. I know what you mean about big cities, it’s kind of depressing really as I think a lot of people in cities resort to the same adjustment that you did too.
Your story of the interchange made me think of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s book, Good Omens, & made me laugh, at the same time as sympathising with that awful feeling of being able to see where your daughter was, but not being able to reach her. In case you haven’t read the book, this link will explain the reference. http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A27019479/conversation/view/F8227622/T4634010
Thanks! That’s hilarious, and may go a long way in explaining the driving tactics on show! My husband is a huge Terry Pratchett fan and is always telling me to read his stuff…I’ll be sure to pass it onto him. Thanks, C
My pleasure, always happy to share the laughs around.
A small comment – mainly because it is in the headline: the spelling of the interchange is “Tetteh Quarshie” not Tettah
Yikes, thanks! I’ll change it now.
Appreciate this post. Leet me try itt out.