a word on food.

Large helpings of deep-fried carbohydrates and vegetables on-the-turn, one food industry mogul said of Ghanaians:

“They love quantity, not quality.”

Soup you eat with your hands and dumplings that could break your skull, Ghanaian dining has its own charm unappreciated by most Western stomachs. One palatable country meal, however, is very popular amongst visitors to Ghana; red beans in an oily tomato sauce, served with the sweeter of the two plantain types that gives its name to this dish – red red.

“The white people, they love the red red.”

And then there is West Africa’s darling in the staple food department; Jollof rice. Jamie Oliver recently landed himself in hot water on making the mistake of publishing his take on Joloff rice on his website. The online food community particularly did not like his use of on-the-vine tomatoes instead of the withered, mouldy ones you’ll find in any local Ghanaian kitchen. I have my own opinion on how much fuss is made over what is essentially red-coloured rice with peppers but, whether you like it or not, Jollof means much more than just food to people; it’s a national pride.


christmas in jail.

Tuesday 23rd December, Nkrumah Circle, Accra

Today I visit the British High Commision in order to seek advice about my stolen bank card. During the early hours of Monday morning, in the midst of a night of revelry with two other volunteers, I was brutally attacked by three strangers who had been walking through Osu with us.
My first feeling was one of embarrassment; I did everything one shouldn’t do in a foreign country if you want to avoid this very thing. I was drunk, late at night, carrying all my valuables, in a bad area; to say I don’t know what I was thinking would be admitting I was even thinking at all.

I can’t remember what the attack was like, only the aftermath of running after my assailants and then reuniting with the friends who had fled at the first sign of trouble. I alone had been beaten to the ground and kicked in the ribs because I wouldn’t let go of my bag; something else that was later on agreed to be a bad decision. After exchanging contacts with a few witnesses, someone gave us a lift back to Teshie.

Waking up was a mixture of sleep deprivation from sharing a dorm room, a stonking hangover which I am pretty used to at this point (still, it never gets easier), and acute pain from the attack. Receiving the only pity I would see all day, someone dressed my open wounds – lending an odd pair of trousers to replace my cheap fabric ones, now in tatters – and three of us made the trip to Osu Police Headquarters. After being chastised for not reporting it last night, we were sent to a room referred to as the ‘complaints department’ where crimes were reported and, to my shock, detainees were lurking in holding cells immediately behind the desk.

Two smartly-dressed women stood in the female cell, staring through me as I pondered what crime they could have committed. The male cell was at maximum capacity with young men pacing around like caged lions, or sleeping on the concrete floor in nothing but underwear to deal with the extreme heat that comes with such a crowded room that had no window or fan. Occasionally the men would receive visitors; furious girlfriends who would yell at them from the other side of the ‘complaints’ desk, clasping bail money in one hand and a toddler’s arm in the other.


All of this was going on while the ‘complaints’ officer flirted in French with my friend from Togo, completely ignoring the rest of us, as we registered our initial ‘complaint’. Spending some time describing our case, we then had to wait outside for no reason. The eventual decision of a man conflicted between his sexual intrigue in a young girl and his lack of interest in the violent crime she had experienced in his precinct, was that we should go to the next building and await, what I expected to be, an equally frustrating process. I was not wrong.

My friend was called in first so I took the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep, surprised at my own patience for the absolute circus that this country calls a criminal justice system. When I woke up, I was ushered in to a chaotic room where two clerks were writing statements for the same woman on desks piled unstably high with paper documents for lack of a single computer. I wrote down my statement myself, describing the value of everything I had lost and what went down in the hour after the incident. The woman in charge then made me read it out so that she could totally ignore me, as well as direct her staff and other victims around the office. She then made me wait outside for an unspecified period of time, for an undisclosed reason and gave no suggestion as to what might happen next.

My position on the couch allowed me visual access to another, slightly more intimate, investigation room where a large older woman was ranting and raving at her electrician for stealing from her. I watched as she told her whole life story via the loose connection that was the tale of a crime; she revealed a plethora of weird and wonderful knick-knacks from her reused shopping bags as illustration of whatever she was harping on about. The three detectives in the room demonstrated considered interest as she carried on in this way, but when it came to the accused’s time to speak, old Mother Goose interrupted with loud animated protests over his version of events. I never really caught on what exactly the argument was, I think some money was missing and the fuse on her fridge had broken.

I went to enquire what would happen now. After refusing my case report to prevent me from making a false insurance claim, Inspector Nonsense said we could go as they didn’t have any more time for us that day; only for her to then appear beside us at the roadside hissing for our attention. She would, in fact, accompany us with one of her equally lazy colleagues to the scene of the crime and talk to witnesses, at our expense.

After a confused retracing of our steps, and an unintelligible phone call with The Rasta, who had actually witnessed the whole thing, we reached the perimeter of Osu Cemetery where the mugging had occurred. Matching our own individual statements, Rasta explained how he had heard some shouting at around 2:00am. But this wasn’t convincing enough for our shrewd justice team:

“What sort of shouting?”

“People can be shouting if they’re singing, or praying.”

“Or laughing.”

“How was the shouting?”

Went their line of inquiry.

I thought of the likelihood of people singing and laughing while being brutally beaten up by a gang. When we brought it to the investigators’ attention that Rasta had identified the criminals as people he knew, and that he was prepared to go with us at any time to areas where he knew they’d be and point them out for us, the policewomen had lost any feigned interest in us and began perusing Rasta’s collection of shoes and bags that were for sale on the roadside.

After this shambolic interrogation was over, we paid for the ladies’ cab back to the station and I was told to return in two days for the insurance information of my apparent elaborate scam to beat this airtight legal system.


art of conversation.

“You are in Ghana now, you can’t compare to England.”

That was the advice from my guide, Timothy, as we travelled to Axim; a large fishing town in Ghana’s Western Region. Timotee, which I upheld as a brand of shampoo products first, and the name of a friend second (however I feel like my frame of reference on these things is going to change a lot over the coming months), obviously felt I was talking too much about my home nation and its established way of life. It was only my second day in the once-named Gold Coast, and I had plenty of comparisons to make.

What I read from his response, to what I intended as idle chit-chat as we rode the 40 minute tro-tro journey to our destination, was that Ghanaians don’t want to hear about how things are patently different in Europe compared to life in West Africa. They’ve heard reports of Western wealth and lifestyles; they’ve seen the technological and cultural imports in the big three cities of Accra, Kumasi and nearby Takoradi; but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to show off with great pride the life that is available here.

Maybe I read too much in to this, but what I had already observed in the locals was that they don’t often ask you too directly about your accustomed of life. Believe me, they have gotten over the cultural differences way before you set foot off the plane. Ghanaian people very much live in the moment, never dwelling on or anticipating things too much – and they’re much more interested to hear stories about your family than anything else. In the tro-tro (the main source of public transport, which amassed to a shelled out transit van with old-fashioned iron flippy seats), I asked some basic questions about where we were going and what I could expect from Axim. “You will see with your own two eyes”, came the patient reply.

Axim Axim

After three days in the remote beauty-spot of Busua, I have already had many a rich and enlightening conversation with scores of people. Popular topics of conversation include football, music and, most significantly, sex. The best way to make friends, that I have found, is by trying your hand at one of the regional languages, of which there are around 40 over the whole country. Twi is the most widely spoken native language of Ghana, and it is spoken in the state capital of Accra. In Busua, my home for the next six months, lesser-known Ahanta is mixed with the broad coastal tongue of Fante, as well as English, in the veritable cocktail of language they use to communicate with one another. If you learn a single phrase in any one of these and repeat it to a friend, you are guaranteed an excited response.

There is also a unique way of speaking English in Ghana you need to understand to make any headway (of course, for many of these, context is everything):

“How do you feel it?” – Do you like it?

niece/nephew, son/daughter, mother/auntie, cousin/friend, him/her – all interchangeable as there aren’t traditionally have gender pronouns, and everyone seems to be considered family.

“You have to confuse him.” – You have to persuade him (or her).

‘Chop’ – Food, or ‘to eat’. Also ‘to spend (money)’.

“I’m coming.” – I’m leaving shortly, but I’ll be coming back.

“T.I.A.” – This is Africa, as spoken in the movie Blood Diamond but, as I was pleasantly surprised, also a common expression. Said when thinks don’t go quite according to plan.

‘Ok’ – I haven’t understood a word you just said.

It may come as no surprise that Ghanaians are devoutly religious people, the most religious country in the world in fact, and this also has an effect on every day phrasing. This is most exemplified to me from the son of my host family, who has said to me: “If God permit, I will see you tomorrow” and, in response to a enquiry of frequency,: “every blessed day”. Which, in a thick African accent, hasn’t nearly got the same sarcastic attachment to it than if a Brit had said it.

These heartfelt expressions go on. “You are invited” precedes every meal; “you are welcome” is warmly offered on arrival; and in their native languages, there is no word for ‘hello’ always a sincere “how are you?”. This nature of respect makes for the perfect travelling environment. I think I’m going to like it here.