Accra and Oyarifa Arrival
Settling into Ghana with Yeli Ama Teresa, the luckiest woman in the world
The plane descends through two distinct layers of clouds. Far to the west, perhaps over Côte d'Ivoire, is an immense towering cumulus. I think about how the sky has its own particular colors in different places, and wonder if the blue-steel color I remember of Ghana’s sky comes from cloud layers like this.
The first thing I notice after landing in Accra is how much Kotoka Airport has modernized. Instead of taking stairs down to the tarmac—and getting the full force of heat and humidity right off the plane—we are ushered through a jet bridge into a climate-controlled 1st-world warren of immigration and customs stations.
Before getting my luggage, I go to use the restroom, noting a sign saying that extortion is not tolerated. There is a woman sitting outside the restroom door and I wonder if she is an attendant but, she returns to her phone after pointing me to the door. After I wash my hands, I try to use the towel dispenser just as she walks in. She waves her hands in front of it herself, also not getting it to work, as I use the air dryer. “Give me something,” she deadpans, revealing that she is in fact an attendant. “I haven’t got any money yet,” I tell her.
Probably I should have just given her a US $5 and left without a guilty conscious.
Then I use the ATM to get some cedis. The exchange rate is quite different now than it was nine years ago. Instead of roughly 2 cedi to one dollar, it is now eight. Here is how the US Dollar has done against the Ghana Cedi (magenta) and the Swiss Franc (red) during the time since I was last here:
I retrieve my luggage and go through customs; I’m not sure I even had to stop here, but I do. The young man asks me a few questions about whether I’ve been here before and what I’ve brought with me. He asks about electronics—are they new? No, I tell him.
“What have you brought for your son?” he asks. I’m confused at first.
“I don’t have a son.”
He repeats the question, then his smile widens, “Me! I am your son!”
“Ask your father what he has brought,” I laugh.
Dan is planning to pick me up in his car, but the flight arrived a little early. Several taxi drivers are working the terminal entrance. When I say I have someone coming, they offer to call them for me. One comes up to me, “Teresa!” and at first I think he was sent by Dan, then I realize he’s just reading my luggage tag. But they soon give up, and Dan appears, and we are on our way through Accra traffic, to Dan and Agnes’ house where I spend a restful night with warm hospitality.
The next morning, Dan takes me to Hopeful Way House, where I meet the staff and discuss possible projects for me to contribute to while I’m here. Hopeful Way is making my visit here possible by generously supporting me with lodging and assistance in the Accra/Oyarifa area.
When they take me to my room, I can hardly believe it. It’s beautiful, very different from the places Peace Corps was able to provide for us in the cities. I have a private bath, hot water, clean electricity, and all manner of comforts. No air conditioning (yet), but luckily for me it has been raining so it has stayed relatively cool.
After arriving here, I got a sudden apprehension about visiting Kabile, the small town where I lived for two years. There is a real physical toll—and risk—in traveling into the rural area. I no longer have the full and considerable resources of the Peace Corps behind me. Mentally I begin subtracting days; maybe instead of four nights, I’ll only stay two. Instead of taking tro-tros, I’ll take the VIP bus. The reality of the grueling (for me) travel involved sets in. I try to put it aside. I will simply do the best I can. I know that if anything goes wrong, I will be in the hands of people who will care for me as if I am part of their family. This quells my anxiety but induces waves of shame and feelings of unworthiness that I do not do the same in return.
I wasn’t sure how to time this trip, but I knew I didn’t want to come in the hottest part of the year, and I wanted to come when Dan and Agnes were here (they split their time between homes in the US and Ghana). I tried to find out the dates for Songee Festival in Kabile, but that changes from year to year (it’s based on the Nafana calendar), and I could not pin it down. It has been in July in the past, but I couldn’t make the trip work for that.
There are two things I want to do right away: find a seamstress and have a couple of local dresses made, and get a local SIM for my phone, which I imagine will make contacting Kabile easier.
Joe, a staff member here who is tasked with taking care of my hospitality needs here, takes me into town for the SIM. We stop at a phone service kiosk and I begin to have doubts; usually, this would require a visit to an office. I explain I need a virtual SIM—my phone can take two numbers, but I want to keep my Verizon number working (I have international service for a month), it it occupies the physical SIM slot. She begins to register the SIM, but she can’t do it for a foreigner, so Joe gives his contact info to register it under his own name.
During the afternoon, Joe is also hand-carrying two phones of his own, as is common here—probably less expensive than a dual SIM phone, though I wonder if there are other advantages. These young men have a way of shuffling the phones one-handed, somehow not tangling the headphones attached to one, as they jump from one service to another to answer texts, make payments, or do other business—as if they’ve grown magnetically attached appendages.
The usage of apps, too, has exploded. MTN now offers payment by phone with MOMO. And to get to this kiosk, Joe called an Uber to come pick us up.
The woman at the kiosk grabs a SIM and starts to unwrap it, asking for my phone. No, I tell her, I need a QR code for a virtual SIM. She is confused. She and Joe discuss this for a while, then decide we need to go to an office.
From there, we take a tro-tro, and I am happy to be on public transportation again. It is a feast for the senses and for a curious mind. If I am on a tro-tro and I are confident that I know where it is going, all I need to do is relax and enjoy the spectacle. With Joe as my guide, I don’t even have the mental overhead of tracking where we are and where I need to stop. No one requires my attention—and even the radio or bits of conversation are in a language I don’t understand, so I am allowed to be immersed in observation.
Above: Some street ambience, riding a tro-tro in Ghana. The man sitting ahead of the jump seat, hanging out the window, is the "mate". He calls out the destination and gives its hand signal as the driver navigates the road. When someone calls out for them to stop, he bangs the side of the tro-tro to tell the driver to stop. He also collects fares, usually waiting until they've filled the car.
During the ride, I begin to noodle on part of my fundamental issue with being here, related to making these observations and sharing them. At one point, we are behind a garbage truck that is open in the back. In front of the garbage, on the tailgate, sit two slim men, relaxed and at ease as the truck bumps along. They wear tattered and dirty clothing; a red sock pulled up over a pant cuff. They are somehow poetic and beautiful, and I want to photograph them.
If I do, though, everyone around me will assume I am documenting a dirty backwater country. It will create shame. Among Americans, I might be praised for such a capture, especially among those who also see the beauty in it and don’t understand its potential repercussions. Noticing the visual poetry sometimes feels like a form of enlightenment.
But what if seeing this beauty is not actually enlightenment? What if it is in fact pathological? (I suspect it is a little of both.) It is a form of “othering”, and I don’t fully understand what is behind my love of photos like this. What I do know is the feeling I have when others love them—that then I can see the objectification that is taking place, and realize that it also lives in me—yes, even despite the very genuine love I feel for who and what is being objectified.
That is what I am grappling with, and it is one part of what I still haven’t dealt with in my Peace Corps experience, particularly in my writing and photographs.
Should I tell you about how we go to the air-conditioned Vodafone office in Medina, and explain what I need, and hand over some cedis only to have the clerk again unwrap a SIM and ask for my phone? It is the usual comedy that ends in paying for more transportation home without anything except a useless Vodafone SIM—officially registered, however.
An odd thing, though, about traveling around in the city here this time—no one calls out “Oborɔnyi!”, not once. I have not heard it a single time during this trip. I hope this is simply a sign of the cities here becoming more cosmopolitan.
The phone data comedy continues into the next day. I decide to try to move my Verizon SIM to virtual so I can insert the Vodafone SIM. This requires a wireless connection, but it keeps dropping. Verizon reps email me QR codes twice, which expire in 10 minutes. No one tells me how to use the phone camera to scan a QR code that is on the phone, but I try to do it using my computer to display. One rep tells me this corrupts the QR code. In any event, I give up.
The next day I attend an interesting class being given by Hopeful Way to nurses, about working with children with substance abuse issues. They are really doing some great work here, and I appreciate the depth and substance of the class—even for my own benefit. Some of the information and discussion around motivation and behavior change are of especially high quality.
During the class, I get a phone notification—my Verizon monthly data on the international plan has run out, and going forward they’ll be happy to charge me $20 for every gigabyte.
It never occurred to me that paying $100 for a month of international use would include being reset to a different data limit. I can only laugh. Remember this, Americans…if you are still enjoying virtually unlimited fast internet, it will not last. Everywhere else in the world, that’s a complete anomaly.
During this fiasco of electronic communications, I recall that most people here favor WhatsApp for texting because it’s free. Before I left Peace Corps, Facebook was already making vast inroads into customer acquisition by offering free data for anything done over Facebook, and then by proxy their messaging platform, WhatsApp. Free data is a huge hook (so much so that it should probably be illegal). So I give in to Zuck, get WhatsApp on my phone, and find that Matthew’s number is still listed there. His profile photo shows a woman working in the cashew factory, so I’m confident it’s still his number. I send a message.
In a few hours, contact is made and Matthew responds. I ask if I might visit next week or weekend—and I can’t believe my luck. He writes back:
“You are warmly welcome, June 23rd and 24th too is our SungƐƐ festival.”