Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First Impressions

Having grown up in southern Africa, I very much looked forward to a chance to return to somewhere on the African continent. Admittedly, my husband and I were in Africa this past summer--for two days in Morocco, but that didn't feel like Africa to me. So with my daughter on a work assignment in Ghana, I took the opportunity to visit her. I realize that there will be differences between my childhood experience of quite some time ago in another part of Africa, and my adult visit to a country in west Africa.

Hence--I offer first impressions as my visit to Accra, Ghana began. I am struck by the extravagance of Africa. Riotous trees, people everywhere, cars, trucks, buses, tro-tros, a jumble of buildings, ditches along the road which are for both rain run-off and daily sewerage, women walking with all manner of goods on their heads, at every intersection where the taxi must stop, there are vendors pushing wares. Everything from air fresheners to fruit--apples, bananas, papaya--to pens to toilet paper to sun glasses to jumper cables to water in plastic bags, to maps of Ghana, maps of Africa to flags to key chains to bathroom scales!

Even the air is extravagant. As I first stepped off the plane into the night air at Accra airport, I was hit with a wave of humid air. Past 9 o'clock which made it 3 hours after sunset, the air was so moist it felt like a steambath. During the day, as we ride anywhere in taxis, the air hangs blue redolent with wood fire smoke and vehicle emissions from all manner of traffic belching unfiltered fumes. But the smell is one I remember. The pungence of wood fire smoke that bites my nose is completely reminiscent of childhood.

The monetary system is extravagant. Of course, one needs to change U.S. dollars into local currency, which was one of the first things my daughter took me to do. We tried two established banks intially. In the first, we sat for some time waiting for someone to deal with us, until finally someone said--no, they did not change money here. We could have been told that to begin with! The second bank was faster on the information, but the information was the same--only service for customers. So we went off to a local currency exchanger. He happily handled the exchange. For some $300 U.S. we get back about 3 million cedis (pronounced CDs). So, when calculating the price of anything, I simply removed 4 zeros and got the approximate U.S. price. The hyperinflation is a little disorienting, and since the largest denomination paper note is a 20,000 cedi, one walks around with a stuffed wallet.

Finally the people are extravagant. They are wonderfully friendly and welcoming. They are quick to say hello, to ask how you like Ghana, and to ask when are you coming back. Upon first encountering someone, it is expected that you will go through a brief interchange of--hello, how are you--before you get down to business. Very relational. Everyone asks your name--and if you have looked it up in advance you can tell them your name which correlates to the day you were born (more on this later). And they shake your hand--an interesting variation on which I, as an American, had to be instructed. First you shake as one would in the west, then leaving go of each other's hands by dragging the fingers apart, then finally snapping your thumb and middle finger. It takes a bit of practice, and I don't have it mastered yet.

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