Grab the bull…

Over the last two days I have grabbed Accra by the balls. Or one of them, at least.

Friday is uneventful. A bunch of us planned to meet at the pool, but by the time we get there it is overcast and cold. I resort to the pool tables, and ironically get more ‘pool’ time than the people who were determined to swim. I buy a Holy Bible at a stall on the way to the pool, something I’ve meaning to do for the last week. With the frequency of the power cuts, you can’t have too much reading material, and it seems fitting to be reading it in such a Christian country. I’m hoping it might give me some understanding next time I go along to church, but I’m far from a convert. I explain to Gerald that studying English Literature is a bit like being a detective, and a large chunk of the clues are to do with religion, so if I read the bible, I’m more likely to pick up those clues. In other words I’m hoping that reading the bible equals a guaranteed 2:1, or maybe even a first. But God knows I’ll need his help with that one. Another reason for the sudden interest in all things holy is the exact opposite of being able to recognize religious clues in people’s writing; it’s because I want to know how to lay those clues myself. As they usually do, one late night idea has manifested itself into a dark octopus that sucks at my neurons, and until I expand on it and get it down on paper, I’m basically a walking corpse. I’m going for something a bit like David Fincher’s Seven, but set in Hell, hence my need to brush up on the bible studies. This part, I don’t tell Gerald.

One of our group has fallen ill, and visits the hospital while we’re poolside. And then we get some interesting news. She’s had to pay for it herself. The charity say they’ll reimburse it, but this isn’t the point. We were specifically told that we were fully insured and wouldn’t have to worry about any medical costs whatsoever. It’s the latest problem in a line the length of an Underground tube train, and this one makes me lose it. If one of us gets ill, we shouldn’t be worrying about whether we’ve got enough cash to get a diagnosis. We’ll have enough to worry about as to whether it’s Malaria or something else that’s just as life threatening. This is the point at which I vow to write one massive shitheap of an email, listing every miscommunication error made so far and sending it as high up the foodchain of the charity as possible. You can screw up my stipend, you can screw up my WIFI dongle, but do not screw up my chances of surviving Malaria. I’ve felt absolutely fine in the two weeks I’ve been here, but that could change at any moment, and for any one of us. By the time we get home, we have missed dinner, which is a bit more unfortunate than usual. The three children from Benin, Aunty Sandra’s nieces and nephews, are leaving the next day at 6am, and we have missed the celebratory meal. The fact that our leftovers are highly delicious saturates my guilt. Rice mixed with spaghetti (a tasty and common occurrence in Ghana), with a delicious chicken sauce, a banana and orange juice drink and a plate of gorgeous cookies, the flavour of which I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps, and most probably, coconut. To make it even worse, the eldest daughter gives us a beautiful golden bangle each as a goodbye present. I feel terrible; late and giftless to the bon voyage. I try to sleep it off.

The next morning we wake up early for our weekly business training. At the end of the programme there’s an optional qualification, so every Saturday we’re meant to meet up and go through some training slides. We’re inefficient in our get up, and we leave the house at the time we were meant to arrive at the hostel. Even so, we’re not the last ones to arrive, and the training itself seems a bit haphazard; it’s the first session so no one knows exactly how to handle it, and the fact that we’re lacking a projector doesn’t help either. After the training, I go to the mall round the corner. Uncle Gregory told us that the exchange rates had fallen overnight, so I want to change all my pounds for cedis while its still a decent rate. He told us that because of whatever caused the fall, the rates wouldn’t go up until September, by which point I’ll be back in the UK, so there’s little point in waiting. I get 175 cedis for my £30, as opposed to the 200 I got when I exchanged the other half. In relative terms, 25 cedis is about the price of a t shirt on the market. But where it’ll make even more of a difference is in day to day life, as the price of everything around you increases to make up the difference for the falling value of the cedi. It’s a like living in the German hyperinflation you learn about in GCSE, but much less drastic and life threatening. The point is, I’m intrigued to be in a country where the currency fluctuates so easily and the whole country changes their prices overnight. It’s a fascinating occurrence, something that in Ghana (and many other countries I’m sure) is just common practice, but for someone from the UK it’s pretty interesting.

Wandering back from the mall, I see a stall selling Dashikis; the large African print shirts that I have been looking for since I got here. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think of any racist stereotype of an African prince, then look at his shirt. The stall owner shows me the assortment of bright shirts, and recommends the red and the purple, based on my complexion. She invites me inside to try them on against a mirror, and I opt for the red. I’d pretty much made my decision several years ago when I finally settled on a favourite colour. The price is around a tenner, but for Ghana that’s expensive. Usually I’d haggle, but the lady has been so nice that I give her the full price she asks for. I can’t really do anything else with an envelope of fresh currency in my bag. Then a bunch of us meet at KFC. I don’t buy anything, but apparently it tastes just like home.

Most of the Ghanaians have gone elsewhere for food, and the handful of British volunteers in KFC can’t help but dwell on the negative aspects of the business programme so far. The girl who went to hospital has received medication, but it doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet, and the volunteer with the crappy boss has decided to book a flight home. I don’t blame her. She’s been offered a better opportunity in Madrid, and when you weigh it up she has few reasons to stay here after all her complaints were ignored. I’m grateful for my good three; a good partner, a good host home and a good workplace. Only a handful of us have it so good, and it upsets me to see my friends finding it difficult to settle. The scary thing is that I could’ve easily been the one at the rubbish company. Amongst the negativity even I feel like going home, and I go outside for a phonecall and a chance to breathe.

Feeling a little better, I start to pester Daisy about going home. We live relatively close to each other and are both going home independently of our partners for the first time, so I want to leave with enough time to get home before dark at around six pm. We talk about the low morale in the group on the way home, and both vow our determination not to be beaten by Accra. We’ll be here till the bitter end. We start talking about the complaints we have lodged, and how they haven’t really been answered. We strategise ways of making the charity listen, should it come to that, and realize how much influence we actually have. It’s scary how powerful we, the little people, can become if you just put your mind to it and pool your contacts. We’re feeling energized by the time we get to our stop, which is good because Lapaz junction takes a lot of decoding. The guys who round up commuters and take the money on the tro tros often stand on the street directing customers to the appropriate cars. We ask one for my stop, St Johns, and he tells us to cross the road. We’re pretty sure that’s wrong, but we put our faith in him. A man on the other side directs us down the road, but then a third man tells us to cross the road again. At this point, in sympathy for Daisy (who knows exactly where her bus stop is) I tell her to go home, that I’m sure I’ll find my way.

I cross the busy road again, and ask another man for directions. I’m pointed in the direction of a side road, the same side road we parked at when Gerald and I were coming into Lapaz a few days ago. I’d had the thought in the back of my mind when we arrived at the junction, but tried to shake it. It made no sense that a muddy rundown side alley would be a bus terminal, with buses travelling both to and from St Johns. But after three rounds of confusing directions, maybe it was as simple as my mind first suggested. I turn onto the side road, asking someone for St Johns every twenty metres. The third guy points me down a side alley full of tro tros, and the fourth man bangs on his car, the universally understandable equivalent of saying ‘I’m going where you’re going, get in the bus!’

This seems to be Accra’s alternative to the TFL route planner; ask enough strange men and eventually one will thump his car and tell you his tro tro’s headed that way. Relieved, I hop in, and let Daisy and Gerald know that I’m in a tro tro homeward bound.

I feel euphoric as I begin to recognize landmarks and settle into my seat, knowing I’m definitely on the right tro. It sounds pathetic, but I’m not used to being so dependent on another person, and it was really starting to get to me. When I arrive home, Aunty, Uncle and Gerald are sat in the front porch. There’s an empty beer bottle on the table. They’ve obviously been sat out talking, and I’m sad I missed the moment, but Uncle Greg tells me he’s saved a beer for me, so we sit in the living room while I drink. We chat about the challenges we’re having with the charity, and Aunty and Uncle try to give another perspective, but in the end they can’t deny that our jobs are being made extremely difficult. We are offered our dinner on trays so we can carry on talking, and when the plate arrives I nearly faint with happiness. Homemade chips, Hake (another one for the good fish list — no bones, just one massive spine in the middle!) and pepper sauce with ketchup. As if the evening couldn’t get any better, Ghanaian fish n chips! It’s all very tasty, especially the pepper sauce when mixed with the ketchup, surprisingly. And all washed down with a beer…perfect. It’s just the pick me up I needed after all that low morale in KFC, and its encouraging to see that Gerald and I are both as animated as each other about the current issues. I remember everything I have to be grateful for out here, and go to bed a very happy bunny.

Like what you read? Give Sam Toller a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.