Year 2: January Term Week 1

Hey all,

I’ve spent the past 5 days in Accra, Ghana, and I'm really enjoying it so far! As NYU Abu Dhabi students, we are required to take 3 “January terms”, or short mini-semesters in which we take only one class, often with a travel/experiential learning component. I’m spending this January term at the NYU Accra global site, taking a course on Wealth and Inequality. This is going to be a long post, because I’ve been learning many new things that I want to share.

I’ll include a little map, in case you’re unfamiliar with my geographical location (see the little red star)

I’m a bit hesitant when writing about the culture of Ghana, because writing about this region of the world inherently involves engaging with the picture of West Africa painted by the foreign media, the history of colonialism/slavery, and the limitations of my perspective as a foreigner from a first-world country. I really feel like it’s best to learn about Ghana directly from Ghanaian people themselves; after all, there are already enough narratives of Africa written by outsiders. However, considering that there are probably people reading this who may never get to travel to this region of the world, I’ve concluded that sharing the things I’ve learned, even if they don’t capture the entire picture, is better than nothing at all. Please, if you know more about Ghana than I do, forgive any inaccuracies—I still have a lot to learn!

One of the buildings at the NYU Accra Academic Centre

I’m also going to assume that most people reading don’t know very much about this city, as I didn’t know very much about it either before I came. 

Some basics/ general observations:

In part due to the British colonial period, English is very widely and proficiently spoken here. (Side note: after 4 months in China, I can’t even begin to explain how convenient it is to be able to read and communicate). Most people here also speak the language of their local ethnic group. The most commonly spoken local language in Accra is called Twi.

The weather is hot and humid. Right now, it’s around 30 C / 86 F, but the humidity and direct sunlight makes it feel hotter. The sky is kind of dusty and overcast all the time, which I'm told is part of the dry season. 

Accra is the capital city, and it historically served as a trading port for slaves, gold, etc. Portuguese, British, Danish, and Dutch colonists all maintained a presence in different areas of the city, and their mark is still observable today. Ghana won independence from the British in 1957.

It's also a very religious country. It's roughly 70% Christian and 20% Muslim. I realized yesterday that this is the first Christian-majority country I've traveled to, other than the U.S. of course. Christians here are very openly religious and make it a part of their lives in a way that isn't nearly as common back home these days. There are Bible verses on shops, bumper stickers, public buildings, signs, and houses, and people's everyday speech is full of "praise God", "God bless", "by God's grace", etc. On Sunday, people dress in their best clothes for church and many people wear white. It seems like every other street corner has a church from a different Protestant denomination, and the streets are full of signs announcing the different sermon subjects and times. I notice that the people care about upholding moral values and using faith in their everyday lives. I even passed a place called the "Jesus Cares Snacks Shop" and couldn't help but smile. 

View of the city

Accra is an interesting place to study wealth inequality, because there is a wide disparity in the living conditions and extent of development of different areas. There are modern shopping malls and western restaurants like KFC, Starbucks, even Pinkberry yogurt. As you can see in the picture above, there are many multi-story buildings (not very many high-rises/skyscrapers, though). 
KFC in Accra
Roadside clothing shop

The contrast continues: there are large houses like the one I’m staying in with my roommates: comfortable places with air conditioning, internet, a living room, kitchen, TV, and multiple large bedrooms. People drive cars down paved roads, there are sports stadiums and universities, etc. At the same time, there are little street stalls, children selling fruit and snacks at traffic intersections, crumbling houses not much larger than tents, crowded slums, narrow dirt roads, uncovered sewers/drainage, trash littering the streets and covering otherwise-beautiful beaches, etc. 
The bedroom where I'm staying
(part of a larger house, with a huge bathroom adjoining the room)

Housing in the Jamestown fishing community
When our class spoke with a man who was the former mayor of Accra, he mentioned that the most significant challenge as a mayor was improving public health and sanitation, an area where there's still work to be done. But the impression that I’ve gotten from the Ghanaian people I’ve talked to so far is certainly optimistic. A visiting Ghanaian professor who led one of our class discussions emphasized that many political candidates focus on platforms of progress. A lot of people say things like “Ghana has the resources, we should be better off than where we are.” Sometimes when we use the term “developing country”, we mean it euphemistically, but I think that Ghana is a developing country in the literal sense.

One of the larger houses in Accra
Mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases are pretty prevalent here. I have some bug spray and insecticide and am taking precautions to stay safe. I was vaccinated for yellow fever before coming, which is a requirement to enter the country, and I’m taking daily anti-malaria pills as well (doxycycline). Thankful for modern medicine and hoping for the best! 

So far everyone has been really friendly and hospitable! People will greet each other on the streets even if they are strangers. There's a really close community atmosphere, and people sometimes address each other as brother, sister, uncle, auntie, etc. even if they aren't blood relatives. 

Taxis and shared minibuses called tro-tros are the two most common means of public transport, but the taxis tend to navigate by landmarks because the address system in Accra is a bit flexible, and they're not metered, so apparently they are kind of unreliable for foreigners. Accra recently got Uber though, so I've been using that to get around instead! Thank goodness for phone GPS, Google Maps, and Uber drivers! It makes my life so much easier in a place where navigation can be difficult. 
Taxi in front of the I Heart Accra sign
Clothing here is a mixture of western attire (suits, polo shirts, t-shirts, jeans, dresses) and the more traditional brightly colored fabrics. A lot of women wear skirts/dresses: mostly either tight, curve-hugging pencil skirts or long, loose ankle-length skirts. Some of the women wear brightly colored headscarves. Beaded jewelry is also very common. I think Ghanaian people are so extremely beautiful. I mean, of course every country in the world has beautiful people... but something about the high cheekbones, smooth skin tone, wide foreheads, and tall, proud posture that many Ghanaian people seem to have...just strikes me as so beautiful, and beautiful in a way that falls outside typical Western beauty standards. It's lovely.  

Ghanaian headwraps

Beaded necklaces, bracelets, and anklets
Along those lines, coming from an American background where being "black" is automatically associated with being a "minority" (and all the historical/political baggage that comes along with that), it's a complete change of perspective to be a white person here in a place where the vast majority, and therefore the default state of being, is to be black. In terms of racial representation, the Ghanaian media is a complete reversal from the way it is in the U.S. Seeing advertisements and billboards where the African families are front and center with maybe one or two foreign people thrown in the back, helps me conceptualize maybe a tiny bit of what underrepresented minorities must feel in the U.S. And this is only in the little things, like women's hair salons that advertise hair extensions/braids instead of blonde highlights, or makeup counters that mostly have darker shades, and feeling that tiny sense of being different. I'm going to have to keep observing, but so far this has been really interesting and eye-opening. 

The food in Accra is so so delicious! A lot of the dishes involve chicken or fish with rice. Jollof rice is a seasoned rice dish served with many meals. Today I tried some "waakye", which is rice and black-eyed peas mixed together. I've also tried fufu and groundnut soup, which I will let you Google search, because I don't really know how to explain them. Fried plantains and yams are also pretty common, along with tropical fruits like mango, papaya, and pineapple and their juices. Ghana is known for its chocolate as well. In general, the cuisine is very flavorful and a bit spicy, just the way I like it. 

Some fish curry and Jollof rice

A few minor complaints:

First, the house next to the NYU housing complex has a rooster in its yard. I was under the impression that roosters are supposed to crow at dawn. I think this is a very confused rooster, because it crows from about 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. nonstop and then again in the afternoon. I'm a pretty light sleeper and sensitive to noise, so it wakes me up during the night. There are also stray dogs that bark randomly at night. The dorms are near a construction site, so there are a lot of hammering sounds during the day which can get distracting as well. 

While the Wi-Fi at school works pretty well, the Wi-Fi at the dorms ranges in functionality from quite slow to completely nonexistent. Luckily I have data on my cell phone, but when I am trying to get schoolwork and research done, especially downloading large files, the inconsistent internet is a constant annoyance. I don't want to be that person that can't live without the Internet, but the type of schoolwork we are doing here makes it fairly necessary. I've been fighting the Wi-Fi the whole time I've been writing, trying to get photos to upload on here. 

"Ghanaian time" tends to be very flexible... people take their time going places and don't worry so much about punctuality. This can be relaxing and stress-relieving, but when we have a lot of tours and scheduled events, and no one is informed about the schedule or what time we are meeting for things, and the times change on a whim, this can cause a lot of confusion. When asking what time things will happen, people tend to give ambiguous answers like "soon" or "in a bit" or "after we finish doing xxx" which can mean a wide variety of actual timings. 

Travel highlights: 
I can't record everything and this post is already quite long, but I'll mention a few highlights:

One of the class trips took us on a tour of Jamestown, one of the older areas of the city, which now, unfortunately, has become a crowded slum due to a period of economic downturn. Many of the men there work as fishermen, while many of the women sell food and handicrafts. It was interesting to see them tying nets and working on their large wooden boats. 

Jamestown Lighthouse
Fishing boats 

View of the community on the beach
Before our tour of Jamestown, we attended a lecture with a man named Nii Teko Tagoe who grew up in Jamestown and works for an organization that tries to improve conditions there. His projects included building a basketball court/ recreational facility for the community, paving some of the dirt alleyways, and organizing a community theatre. He explained certain cultural aspects like the significance of names in generations of the Ga tribe, different ceremonies, the colonial history of Accra, and the current challenges facing the community and what is being done to improve the situation. These included difficulties with employment, birth control, sanitation, housing, etc. It's interesting to see how nuanced these issues are. As an outsider, it's easy to look at these slums and feel like you could just step in and solve everything by just building new houses or throwing money at the situation... but there are so many cultural, societal, and political factors that make the issue of economic inequality so nuanced and complex. Basically, if an easy solution to economic inequality existed, it would have been implemented already. Talking to him was good though because it gave me a more concrete idea of what is currently being done to improve these kind of communities in tangible, sustainable ways.

Artists' Alliance Gallery
This was a beautiful 3-story gallery full of Ghanaian art in both traditional and modern styles. It included jewelry, sculptures, beads, wooden masks, paintings, and just about every other imaginable art form. It also had beautiful displays of kente cloth, a type of Ghanaian textile that has symbolic woven patterns.
Kente cloth

I notice that a lot of art depicting African women tends to emphasize their curves

More kente cloth
Nativity (birth of Jesus) figurines

Independence Square
This famous area commemorates Ghanaian independence.

Osu Castle
This castle was built by Danish colonists. Unfortunately, its dungeons also served as a holding area for slaves before they were shipped across the Atlantic. As we walked through the dungeon cells, the darkness, heat, and humidity was almost unbearable even for a few short minutes. I can't even begin to imagine the brutally inhumane conditions in which the slaves were once kept. I didn't get good pictures of the dungeon because of how dark it was...but here's the castle:

View of the beach from the castle
Castle grounds

Anyway, thanks so much for taking the time to read this far! I'm looking forward to the coming weeks and hope to learn more about Ghanaian life and culture. 

With love from Accra, 


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