Weekend at Accra

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I’m home!  The last two weeks have been pretty wild, and definitely an amazing experience.  It’s going to take a while to sort through it all and put the pieces together.  I arrived in Ghana just over two weeks ago, and spent half a day resting up in a hotel in Accra before heading north to Koforidua.  The two weeks working at Ability Bikes were super productive, and I feel really good about how everything went. There’s a lot to tell, so it will have to wait for another post, but everyone involved was inspiring.  I had a really good time working with and just hanging out with the people at AB.

When my time was up, I stayed an extra day to hang out and relax before heading to Accra again to fly home, but I still had almost two full days in this chaotic West African city of over 2 million people.  I went back to the same hotel I stayed at upon arrival, Club 10 in a neighborhood known as Kanda.  It wasn’t a great spot, but it seemed safe, and I didn’t plan on spending much time at the hotel anyway.  If you’re looking for internet, solid locks on the door, or running water, it’s probably not the place for you, but if you like funny old Ghanian men who sing John Denver songs and ask you for your address so they can write you a letter, I’ll pass along their info.  After arriving a little after noon on Sunday, I left my laptop at the front desk for safe keeping and picked a taxi at the street corner and headed for a place known as “Circle.”

I stopped at an internet cafe to look at a map, get my bearings and make a plan for the day and then walked into an open street market surrounding an over sized rotary.  I expected a lot of attention after my travels in East Africa, but Ghanians are much less reserved than the people of Rwanda, and I was never really in such a large city in Kenya or Uganda, so it was fairly intense just walking around.  It was a constant barrage of people trying to get my attention and I defaulted to just walking swiftly through the crowd like I knew where I was going.  I climbed a ramp onto an overpass and crossed the busy street, descending down into a transit station filled with minibuses and more street vendors.  I pushed forward through the exhaust fumes and whistles until I reached another street and grabbed a cab to Tudu, where I was told I would find the bicycle market.

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Since I had arrived I’d taken cabs everywhere.  There are minibuses that go around that are cheaper, but there are no markings on them, and I really didn’t know where any of them went, so I opted for the much quicker, but more expensive way of taking cabs.  A ten minute trip will generally cost you somewhere around 5 Cedi, but being a white foreigner, I was often asked for 15 or 20 Cedi for these trips.  I usually just took whatever they asked for and offered about half until we reached a negotiated price, but the driver who took me to Tudu wouldn’t budge.  I figured it was fine, and just handed over the money, but told him next time I wouldn’t take his taxi.

I stepped out to what I expected to be a busy market to find a mostly abandoned street littered with garbage and only a few men sitting on the ground tinkering with some broken bicycles.  It was Sunday and the market was not in full swing.  I decided to walk south toward the ocean and a restaurant I found on Happy Cow called Assase Pa (The Earth is Good.)  They serve traditional Ghanian food made vegan, and do a damn fine job.  The second I walked in a guy with dreadlocks eating some sort of soup with tofu called me over and asked to see my tattoos.  We started talking and had a really good conversation about bicycle projects and foreign aid and development in Africa before I ordered food and joined them.  He introduced me to his friend, Daniel, who was there selling veggies from his organic farm.  Daniel happened to be vegan, and after Sam (the first guy) left I hung out for a bit.  He told me about some other vegan spots in town and offered to take the next day off work to show me around a bit.

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We exchanged numbers and I headed off toward the beach to take some photos.  Overall, Accra is an extremely safe city and never once did I feel like I was in danger, but heading to the beach I did second guess if I was headed in the right direction, and if it was a smart idea to be walking through where I was with my camera.  I asked someone which way the beach was and they told me to just keep going.  The road narrowed to a foot path through a tight neighborhood of shacks.  It was a busy time of day, and people were moving everywhere.  Kids were running around, people were screaming, music was blaring, food was cooking.  As I passed by people stopped and stared, and some began to laugh out loud.  The smell of urine and fish and pollution were evident as I crossed a dirty stream and found an open area that lead to the beach.  It was packed and I was a little lost.  I stopped for a second and was quickly approached by someone who asked where I was from.  Meanwhile several people in all different directions were calling to me to come over to them.  I walked up to a younger guy with short dred locks and a brightly colored shirt who was holding a half rolled joint in his hand and said hello.  He brought me a chair and introduced me to his friends who smiled and quickly asked where I was from.  I told them I lived in Boston and they gasped.  “Do you know Northeastern University?” one asked.

I told them I did, and it turns out they are drummers who are going to be in Boston next month doing workshops on traditional drumming at Northeastern and some other colleges.  We hung out for a bit and they walked me to their studio where they showed me drums they built, and i filmed them playing.  The exchange was a bit awkward as they pressured me a bit to buy a drum or some of the other things they carved and made, but I felt like they helped me out just by getting me back to the street, so I bought some small masks and they were pretty pumped.  These exchanges are always a little weird, you want them to be genuine, and I think they can be, but there’s definitely an agenda to sell something.  I think the exchange was pretty fair though, I asked them if I could record their drumming because I needed music for a video project I was working on and they were more than happy to oblige.  I ended up hanging out with them the next day as well and exchanging emails, so maybe I’ll even catch them when they are here next month.

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As it got dark, they walked me to the street and got me a fair price on a cab ride home.  The next day I met up with Daniel and he took me to a city called Tema, just east of Accra, and we hit up a restaurant called Plant Base Food that was super good.  It was a long minibus ride, but I’d say worth it if you’re looking for good veggie stuff.  They even had Vermont maple syrup there!  We went back to Accra and met up with a guy named Wisdom who I had met in Koforidua.  Wisdom builds bamboo bike frames for Bamboosero, an American company, but he builds them in Ghana, out of locally sourced materials.  Instead of carbon, he uses locally made rope for the joints.  Unfortunately, these hand built bicycles are far too expensive for the average resident of Accra, so most of them get exported to Europe or the US.  I got to ride a mountain bike built by Wisdom, but the big surprise were the cargo fat bikes he has been building.  He had one that was built up, but needed repair, and another that was just a frame.  Parts for these bikes are basically non-existent in Ghana, but it’s pretty wild that he’s making them.

I made a final stop at the bike market, which was the hectic scene I had first imagined, and then grabbed some food from Assasse Pa to go before heading to the airport and spending the next 24 hours in transit back to Boston.  Once in the airport I felt some relief, but also like my trip was too short.  I can’t see myself enjoying more than a few days in Accra at a time.  The pollution is heavy, streets are jammed with traffic, it’s a big African city, but I think Ghana has a lot more to offer, and there are probably some more relaxed spots in the city too that I didn’t check out.

Here’s some photos, and I’ll be working on some video stuff, as well as a short documentary on Ability Bikes for Bikes Not Bombs over the next couple months.

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