WIN-SOL FAIL / Cultural Kudos
By Axel Monin Nylund
16 June 2015
I write this in a state of slight disappointment. WIN-SOL, a conference on the regulatory framework for renewable energy in Ghana, addressing the problems facing the national electricity grid, was cancelled last minute. Having washed our BLACK STAR SOLAR T-shirts and mentally prepared ourselves for two days straight of extracting knowledge from leading experts and building professional links, Amrik and I are now quietly planning the next few days from our hostel.
- Visiting mosques together with a local chief to receive free promotion
- Visiting the shanty town at night to see the brightness of our product
- Becoming local radio celebrities
We’ll get to that in due course.
Meanwhile, in order to avoid boring people to a slow and painful death, I decided to make this post about the cultural experience that is Ghana. This inevitably must begin with what makes it such a great place to visit — the people. From the moment you set foot outside the airport, you’ll be greeted everywhere by people who’ll want to show you their home, their church, their local bar and so forth. Ghanaian hospitality is probably one of the biggest reasons I decided to come back. I simply knew that alongside work, I would be chatting to and laughing with some amazing people. So far it’s held true — breaks at work have been spent drinking soda with the chief and mixing with locals in the area, who are always keen to sit down and ask about where you’re from and the customs of your country. Although there are some clear income inequalities which can be easily spotted by looking at the difference between people’s houses (shack dwellings contra air-conditioned pillared mansions), most people have a general air of positivity which is unparalleled in any other place I’ve been.
The second thing is the languages. Akan, or Twi, is the most widespread in Accra, and learning it will gain you favour as an outsider (though knowing of Ewe and Ga will impress as well!). Though people speak English, making an effort to use the local language is advised. Every day I am mistaken for a first-time visitor with little knowledge of the language, and every day I get the satisfaction of watching locals drop their jaws (read: laugh) at my practised greeting phrases. But beware: once you've spoken a word of Twi you’ll soon be drawn into an advanced discussion and led by the hand to others for a further demonstration of your language skills. On that note, hand-holding between men was a strange things to become used to, but is generally seen as a practical and friendly way to lead people one way or the other.
Now the food is something else. On the first day of my first visit, I tried Fufu — a type of dough (maize, semolina or cassavas) bathing in a hot, starchy (read: slimy) soup scooped up using the dough. The taste was good, but I nearly drowned in the sweat gushing from my brow and had to stop halfway. On our first day this trip, Amrik had a go at Bakro and Okro stew, which is similar to Fufu except possibly starchier. He, too, had to stop halfway. I myself was proud to finish it this time. As most dishes are eaten with your hands, the texture and form of the food becomes important (hence the malleable dough), but you won’t be denied a fork and knife if you ask. I have yet to try the snails and frogs, but as a Frenchman I vowed that I would. I’ll report back on that.
When in Ghana, it is important to keep in mind local tradition and customs of etiquette. Greeting people you pass in the street is commonplace, the same goes for offering gifts to your hosts (always wrap the gift!). Over and above all, exclusive use of your right hand for things like pointing, shaking hands, waving, receiving and handing things over. This is a particularly important consideration when speaking to elders, chiefs or community leaders. It’s generally recommended that you keep your left hand behind your back whenever greeting or conversing with these for the first time.
Religion, being a hugely influential aspect of Ghanaian life, is everywhere. The majority of the population being Christian, Sundays mean all shops closed and most streets desolate, prompting memories of some post-apocalyptic zombie flick. Cars with bumper stickers, billboards, TV-programmes — literally there is no escaping it. In Agbogbloshie, however, Islam is the major religion, meaning Friday prayers typically put a halt to our work in the area. The African Solar Cooperative has provided lights for about a dozen of these mosques (but there are many more dozens), allowing Quran study sessions at night during power cuts. Only to briefly touch upon the solar aspect of our project in this otherwise heavily cultured post, our later research has shown a huge demand for fans in these places. This is as a result of those Friday prayers, when over 500 people sometimes crowd together to pray.
Hopefully that gives a small taste of Ghanaian society, or at least Accra, but really it is a place to experience yourself. There’s good reason why it’s dubbed the gateway to Africa. Although I have more than two and a half weeks left here, I already dread going back home.
Maybe I won’t.