Virtue Foods

I wake up on Wednesday morning feeling excited but anxious. Today we meet our SME’s, our Small to Medium Enterprises, the companies we work for over the next nine weeks. I am hoping that Virtue foods has reasonable power and a decent desk to work at; today could make or break my hopes for my time in Ghana. It doesn’t get off to a good start. The power has been cut off overnight. This is the third time now, and I’m beginning to get used to it, but it’s very demoralizing when you don’t expect it. When it blindsides you and you’re left with 30% on all devices, and no idea whether it’ll be two hours or two days before the power comes back, it can really halt your momentum in its tracks. I shower using a bucket of water and my cupped hands. Again, it’s an alternative method that I’m getting used to and in an odd way I find it quite enjoyable. I cant tell whether it’s the novelty of it, or the work involved… it sounds pathetic but it’s more satisfying to physically wash yourself rather than letting the water just flow over you.

But while I’m doing this I realize: No power, no FIFA.

That’s right folks. I’ve travelled to one of the most interesting and radically different continents to the UK, just to end up doing what I usually do at home. Playing video games. We all think of Africa as one big country, plagued by disease and poverty, and one of the things I realized just in preparation for this trip is how naïve we are in the West because of this perception. Every African state is unique, with it’s own problems, people, food culture, produce and wealth. Luckily, I ended up in the one where guys have cracked versions of FIFA 15 on their laptops and USB converted PS2 controllers. For a country hit so dramatically with sporadic power cuts, they’re really good at FIFA. I had played Dennis the night before, doing battle with the only team to actually have weaponry in their name, The Gunners.

It was a tense match against the German team, Bayern Munich. I concede a penalty in the 30th minute, and the crowd of Ghanaian lads scream around me. They think it’s all over, but it’s barely begun. Dennis scuffs it wide, and the game proceeds in close match of wit, reactions and agility of the thumb. The atmosphere is incredible. Most of the FIFA I play is alone in the dark, and even socially it’s usually confined to two people in a living room, one of them getting gradually grumpier as the match goes on (usually me). But here, there’s just one laptop and two controllers. So everyone waiting in line gets behind a team and watches ‘the big game’. Thankfully, I give them something to watch as I miraculously bungle it into the net, not quite knowing how I did it, in classic Arsenal fashion. It’s late in the second half, so I can win the match if I can keep my cool amongst the jeers and screa-

Dennis equalizes almost immediately. The game goes into extra time, and I finish one of the best goals I’ve ever scored whilst being in control of a group of pixels simulating a football match. A handful of passes on the left wing disorientate his defense. I see my moment and cut into the middle, laying it off to the centre of the pitch just before I’m tackled. The trusty Cazorla picks it up and bamboozles the centre back with a dummy shot, then passes it to Chamberlain: prime real estate bang in the centre of the box; but closely marked. A beautifully timed turn as he receives the ball leaves The Ox with just the keeper to beat. I can feel the anticipation in the room around me. Goals like this have been scored before, but never at such high stakes: during extra time, in a room full of football fanatic Ghanaians, after 48 solid hours of trashtalk between the two competitors. I nail the circle button and Chamberlain passes it out of reach below the keepers hands, and into the back of the net. I go wild with everyone around me, and Dennis has barely kicked off before the match comes to a close. Two classic Arsenal goals, for two very different reasons. I promise Dennis a rematch the next day, which is why I feel slightly low in the post power cut shower. Alas, he will have to wait another twelve hours for the rematch he craves.

Anyhow, I’ll hang up my boots as a football pundit for now, and write about what everyone really wants to know about. Our business training! Wednesday morning is fairly uneventful, as everyone’s minds are in gear for meeting their CEO’s in the afternoon. We do a few hours on marketing and branding, all fairly straightforward if you enjoy The Apprentice or did a Media GCSE. We do learn some fascinating trends about Ghana, however. One team decide to rebrand Ghana’s favourite chocolate, Kingsbite, using the slogan ‘Every day is chocolate day’. But Sylvia, our mentor, immediately shoots them down. She grills the Ghanaian contingent of the team.

“Why don’t we eat chocolate in Ghana?”

The English have no clue, but the Ghanaians mumble the word ‘Sugar’.

“We don’t like sweet things. If you had the choice between chocolate and chicken, what would you choose?”

The Ghanaians unanimously choose chicken. Some detective work reveals that this is for a handful of reasons, including the negative effect on dental hygiene, and the fact that much of the cocoa is exported for the infamous sweet tooth of Britain and the US. I feel slightly guilty, but Sylvia explains in her authoritative African tone that most Ghanaian children have chocolate ‘At birthday’s, at Christmas, and never again!’

Lunch consists of the simple but tasty Jollof rice, and is followed by a period of slow but uninterrupted wifi access, both of which bring me out of my lull and boost my morale. I’m ready for my CEO. Me and Gerald are ready to smash it. Decades of minutes pass, and I hover around humming ‘Another one bites the dust’ as each pair is picked up by their SME. I manage to upload my first blog post, and look at the staggering backlog of posts I have drafted but am yet to write. I scan facebook but, irritated by the slowness of the internet (and the fact that I’m in Ghana and still a cretinous addict), I soon give up. Nonetheless, I am on a morale high. An hour later still, we are one third of the handful of volunteers remaining, and it becomes apparent that our car came half an hour ago, but the wrong pair got into it. They got all the way to the office, shook hands, sat down, then realized they had gone to completely the wrong business when the CEO said ‘Welcome to Virtue Foods’. So Gerald and I jump into a series of taxis, the second of which reeks of petrol and bounces violently over the bumpy terrain. The location of our workplace, Tantra Hill, lives up to its name, and I know I have a fun commute to look forward to each morning. We jump out at ‘Ebeneezer house’, which is just a family home with ‘Ebeneezer’ written in large font on the wall. A landmark nonetheless. The CEO herself, Aunty Gemma, comes out to meet us, and we walk to Virtue Foods, which is a mere thirty seconds away.

The meeting is initially as rocky as our journey. Gemma is almost monosyllabic, and facially vacant, but I determine to get a smile out of her somehow. I make sure to beam at her every time she looks my way in the hope of improving communication in the room. We start asking the right questions, probing about the packaging. We find out that Virtue Foods isn’t into condiments as much as we first thought; she started out with Pineapple Jam and Custard powder (both of which I am keen to sample) then moved into vinegar and ketchup. Timidly, we ask to see the products, and she returns after five minutes with a selection of goods and an extra label for each one, of which I stow away in my notebook. I look at the labels and ask if she would be interested in a rebrand; the labels do the job but when your main competitor is Heinz, utilitarian design isn’t really going to cut it. I am thankful that she seems keen on a rebrand, as up until now our main objective was to sort out the accounts — something I’m clueless about. A rebrand is more realistic for an English student with half a knack for photoshop. At this point everyone in the room seems genuinely happy; even Aunty Gemma. By the end of the meeting, we have all warmed up, and upon asking where we would work, Gemma offers up her office. It is modest but functional, and I’m grateful for a decent room to be working in for the next nine weeks, but even more so for a boss who seems helpful and down to earth. Gemma walks us to the taxi rank, and we pass a four a side football match in the street. The goals are tiny, the size of two toddlers holding hands, the nets pinned down with large rocks. The subs sit on the roadside and the sun sets in the background. It’s the kind of thing that belongs in a street football documentary. It is beautifully stereotypically African, and I take a heavily overexposed photo on my Iphone. It’s one of the few times I regret not bringing my DSLR.

Gemma sees us into a taxi, and tells us she looks forward to seeing us next week! I’m glad that we all seem to get on well by the end. Although it takes a grueling combination of four different motor vehicles before we are home, I am held in high spirits by the fact that Virtue Foods is a small but determined SME, with a lot of work to be done but a lot of potential for us to unlock. When we arrive at the hostel, the lights are still out, but even that does not knock my morale. However I find that the others have not had such a great afternoon, as some of the other CEO’s were harder to please, and much less cooperative than ours. One pair speaks to me about the health drink they have been tasked with marketing, and I tell them I am keen to try the sample they’ve brought back with them. That is until someone knocks it over in the dark and I can smell it from ten meters away. I find the pair and tell them I immediately retract my offer to be guinea pig. They laugh. I gag; at a smell I’m undecided as to whether it smells of Parmesan cheese or a Soho gutter on a Saturday night. Humans have been recording sights for around one hundred years, sounds for over fifty, through photos and recordings. The ears and the eyes have been conquered, but I look forward to the day of technological advancement when I can go home from my travels and say not ‘Look what I saw’ or ‘Listen to what I heard’, but ‘Smell what I smelt’. Fish from the market. Incense in the temple. And fermented fruit health drinks that make you gag in parts of your throat you never knew existed.

Dinner is perfect; redred! A combination of beans, similar to Mexican black beans, with fried plantain on the side, redred is simple but delicious. Eating it in the dark is a bit of a downer, and after a couple of hours the day’s high wears off. It’s amazing how demoralizing the darkness can be when you’re so used to light. It creates a feeling of — not quite homesickness — but the difficulty of rationing your power, plus a lack of running water, plus a sense of vulnerability and detachment from home via the internet, plus not even being able to see the person that you’re talking to…they all add up to make you crave home not because you are sick for it, but because you crave the creature comforts: light and water. You realize how many things make home ‘home’ that you take for granted. In the dark there is little to do, and I am always tempted to go to bed and let the day reset itself, let nature restore the light with the rising of the sun. I tell myself I’m going for a ten minute rest, but as soon as I hit the mattress, I know I’m not getting up before the sun does.

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