Monday, December 04, 2006

A City of Contrasts

Accra is a city of great contrasts—there are four lane highways, dirt roads, gleaming glass buildings, impromptu lean-tos, lush gorgeous flowers, open sewerage ditches. There are sections that you drive through where you could almost be in Europe, or some other developed place in the world, then other areas where you clearly are in an emerging country.

The most striking feature to me is the haphazardness of all this. Suddenly you leave the relatively nice homes section and see chickens scratching in the dirt next to roadside hovels. Right next door to the hotel was a large open field where it appeared that people lived, or at least slept, almost out in the open.

The city is a city planner’s worst nightmare. The sections of Accra have grown up seemingly unaware of other sections. So access becomes the great problem. Roads between the sections, such as the Ring Road, become very clogged. And there is no concept of air pollution control.

One of the most striking contrasts is one of the architectural features of the city. There is a large arch in Liberation Square. This whole area commemorates Ghana's 1957 independence from being a British colony. As official and celebratory as the area is, it is hardly ever used. We drove by, but there were very few people viewing the area. It is used on official or holiday occasions, but usually no one is there. Imagine such a public square in Paris or in Berlin that would be empty of people much of the time. In contrast to such an official edifice that goes largely unused, there are many half-built buildings all around Accra. Whether these are remnants of Soviet investment that dried up, or are structures designed to prove one's ownership to a piece of land is unclear. However, some of these structures clearly have people living in them. You will sometimes see a cloth draped across an open space to provide some protection.

My daughter and I visited the cultural centre (where arts and crafts are sold) on one of my last days in Accra. This section is the city in miniature. It is a low-walled in area with craft stalls—not laid out in a grid pattern, but more randomly. Some stalls are quite stable and fixed in location; others are ramshackle. Some have adobe walls; some are pole and tin-roof construction.

But everyone wants to sell. I wrote earlier about the pressure to buy, and, if not to buy, well, at least you can look. If you don't buy, no problem. Unlike Tangier, where the vendors kept dogging your every step, here people relented if you persisted and walked on by. Most everyone is amazingly friendly, and usually they ask where you come from.

There are many ways to spend money (in modest amounts). In addition to the craft stalls, and the road side hawkers, there are beggars—people who have various infirmities: a blind woman being led by a small boy, a crippled man in an improvised wheel chair—a lawn chair on wheels; a one-legged man moving swiftly on crutches. As the taxi stops at a traffic light, they approach, less insistently than the hawkers, but still asking for money. My daughter usually gives them something, noting how hard it must be to be physically disabled in a country that almost demands able-bodied ness.

One more contrast comes to me—the extreme physical labor you see people engaging in and the people taking impromptu naps seemingly at any time of day. Among examples of the physical labor, of course, are all the people, typically women, I saw carrying everything on their heads. This brought back many familiar recollections from my childhood. But people also wheeled carts down the road piled high with firewood or yams. While we were at the beach, we watched three men pushing a heavy cart filled with dirt down the beach. After a half an hour we saw them return with the cart empty, and a half an hour after that, they were back pushing the reloaded cart down the beach. I have no idea from where and to where the dirt was being moved.

The impromptu naps take the concept of siestas far beyond a mid-afternoon snooze. As we walked around the Makola Market, we passed several stalls where the supposed proprietor was stretched out, next to whatever the goods for sale were, sound asleep.

Such a city of contrasts.

1 comment:

LauraO said...

I am enjoying the postings on Africa. Thanks for sharing them.