Work Hard Play Hard

Our second day at work. As we eat our breakfast of oats and sausage, we are both silently praying that there will be power at work. Aunty Sandra mentioned that a pair of German volunteers would be moving in soon. I wonder if that explains frankfurters for breakfast. Either way, I’m not complaining; bread in Ghana is slightly sweet, and so the sausage sarnie I make tastes like a brioche hot dog. We take the taxi on the extremely bumpy road up Tantra hill, and are welcomed with glorious news; we’ve got light. It sounds extremely cliché, but power gives you power. As opposed to the previous day when we struggle to complete one document, we race through our work and almost finish the week’s tasks in a single day. I worry that perhaps we’re working too fast, so I gravitate towards the blog posts and, I hate to say it, facebook. In a foreign country, doing interesting work with small businesses, I really thought that I’d be engaged enough to be able to resist the temptation, but I find myself, as per usual, sinking fifteen minutes at a time into that blue and white portal that supposedly tells you all you need to know about your friends, family and the world at large. I’m falling into old habits, and I tell myself it can’t happen. We’ll see how that pans out.

An old favourite reappears for lunch. Banku. The slightly sour, bitter ball of dough that you eat with your hands, dipping it into pepper sauce in an effort to disguise the flavour. I am still slightly confused by it, as sometimes I almost enjoy it. This pepper has chunks of tomato in it and tastes similar to salsa, so I manage to finish a ball of Banku the size of my palm. Along with the sardines and omelette, it was a pretty tasty lunch. Sardines, I discover, are one to add to the list in my head of fish that either have soft, edible bones or no bones at all. Following lunch we have two important meetings with Gemma and Janet, both of which I was fairly anxious about, and both of which were highly successful. I did an internship last year in which I was required to conduct numerous interviews in the workplace, and I quickly discovered how difficult it can be to pin someone down for half an hour, whether they were the CEO or the kitchen cleaner. Since then I’m always anxious about meetings with busy businesspeople, but todays meetings flow with information and cooperation.

By the end of the day the majority of the weeks tasks are completed. It is so very easy when you have a working laptop for the entire day, although saying that, Week One has been fairly relaxed. We’re required to do a few reports for the charity we’re out here with about the business when we begin our placement, and so we haven’t made any real progress for Virtue Foods itself yet, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s all going well. As we walk to the taxi rank, I think about our time here to come at Virtue Foods. I can’t sit in the office whiling the hours away on facebook. In television, in literature, in film and in real life, the image of ‘the office worker’ is someone who spends eight hours a day in an office, doing just enough to not get fired, and spending as much time as possible on facebook and miniclip without getting caught. That’s my iconography, anyway. But I’m not here working nine to five for just under London Living Wage. I’m here to (sorry, I’m going to say it) make a difference. If we change the brand name, if we help get certification, if we improve the branding on the labels, if we do anything that has a positive change for Virtue Foods, we are making a difference. And that’s what we’re here to do. Not sit on facebook until four o’clock when we can tro tro away down Tantra Hill. I reach the end of the road and my train of thought at the same time. We get in a taxi, and are away down Tantra Hill.

At the bottom of Tantra, the power is out. Consequently, Gerald and I start a game of Monopoly. He has never played before, so I explain the rules and, being an accountancy graduate, he picks it up pretty quick. As with all Monopoly games, we put it aside halfway through, but not before I swipe the South African equivalents of Mayfair and Park Lane. It’s Spaghetti Bolognaise for dinner, a welcome Western dish, and I scoff it all down. I’m feeling much better than I did after work on Monday, but the Spag Bol reminds me of those pangs of homesickness, because the sauce is pretty good, but it’s got nothing on my Dads.

Wednesday the 1st of July is Republic Day, a national holiday, but we find ourselves waking up earlier than we usually do on a work day. Seen as all of the volunteers have been given the day off work, we have made plans to go sightseeing in Central Accra together, culminating in a football match, the final of the President’s Cup. Gerald and I hop on a series of tro tros, meeting Daisy and Rita on the way. It’s difficult being around another person constantly, and I’m relieved by the presence of Rita, a determined young Ghanaian woman, and Daisy, a feisty Scotswoman, as they jump into our tro. We’ve beaten the rest of the group by half an hour, so we take a stroll to the nearby coastline. The smell of chocolate lingers in the air, and I think I must be dreaming. The phrase ‘The smell was so strong you could almost taste it’ has always been slightly inexplicable in my mind, but this really is like getting smacked in the face with a dairy milk every five yards. As we turn off the main road onto a large dusty plain, I see a large sign dictating that we were passing the Cadbury’s factory, explaining the wonderful smell. On the dusty expanse before us, a game of street football is being played furiously by a bunch of Ghanaians. I think back to FIFA street on the PS2; this is like living it for real, with the ball constantly travelling in its own whirlwind of sandy smog. The wooden planks that have been constructed into a goal perfectly frame the choppy sea meeting the horizon.

I realize how long I’ve been watching, and that the others have gone on ahead. When I meet them, I find another scene that is already framed for a photograph. The word ‘Welcome’ has been welded into a metal gate, through the bars of which are the bluey green waters of Accra’s coast. The ‘beach’ itself is more of a coastline, where the waves have eroded the rock into a roughly flat orange platform, from which you can sit and watch the fisherman on their fishing boats, and feel the tiniest splashes of water in the sea breeze, as the surf knocks against the rocks on the shore. There are a handful of bars and resturants that have used the same platform for their foundations. They look a bit worn out, as if they had been the setting for so many good times that they were abandoned for fear of never living up to their legendary status again. We hear word from the others and meet them a short walk away. It’s great to see them all, so refreshing after only four days of being apart.

That first week together was like being one big family, so now it’s as if there are two families to be homesick for. It’s also highly reassuring that everyone seems to be having difficulties in their homes rather than just me, but I’m not surprised. To put it in context, marriages, as far as I can work out, don’t really work because it’s almost impossible to spend that much time together and be happy and sane. But couples don’t have to work together. I think this will be the real difficulty of our time here in Ghana; living and working with the same person for nine weeks. It could be anyone, the most tolerable person on earth, and you’d still find a way of getting sick of them in nine weeks. So no hard feelings. Its just human nature. I must be just as annoying to live with. Gerald has already had to repeat 50% of the things he’s said, because I’m deaf in one ear but spread evenly over both.

Our first stop is the Kwame Nkrumah mausoleum, a memorial dedicated to the President who led Ghana to its independence. But apparently the entry fee is too much and some of us cannot afford it, so we miss Attraction #1. I’m slightly annoyed by this, as already I can feel a pattern emerging for the day. It’s extremely rare in Ghana to achieve what you set out to do in the morning. But even the Ghanaians tell me that it’s really no big deal, and we pass by a second unmanned entrance as we leave, which allows an optimum view plus photo opportunity, all for the royal sum of zero cedis. We walk the ten minute distance to Independence Square, which is, rather disappointingly, pretty much just a square. There are stadium seats on either side and a grand arch at one end; we’re told that this where they hold public marches and celebrations. Probably amazing in context, but in comparison to the Memorial site it’s essentially an empty car park. The Independence Arch, however, is quite appealing. Simple but refined, it’s a solid arch with a massive Black Star, and just its stature is a pretty good symbol of the strength of the Ghanaian people in their struggle for Independence.

We go to a chicken shop for lunch. Imagine a KFC but three stories tall. The food isn’t very interesting and quite expensive compared to the delicacies you can get on the street, so I opt for the cheapest thing on the menu, a plate of French fries. There is a mall nearby with a Tesco-esque Shoprite, so me and a few of the others go for a gander. Outside, I am attacked by a jolly old man who holds his hand in the air. Granting his request, I high five him, and he grabs my hand and begins to dance to the music from the mall. With little choice, I match his moves, beginning with a simple jumping action, then moving up to a twists and a crouch involving one knee touching the ground. We finish, and he high fives me again, but grabs my hand and begins dancing just as before. I concede, and do another round of the same moves, but opt for a wave instead of another high five when we finish, narrowly avoiding a third bout. The Shoprite is fairly uneventful, and similarly to the first one I visited, more expensive that expected. We pass the bakery and I fail to resist the words ‘Cake on a stick’ for two Cedis. I gobble it down. Ghana doesn’t seem to do sugar, apart from its fruit. It’s been about a week since I had any sort of sweet snack, so I savour every soft bite. I’m slightly upset as we cram back into our tro tro; we were promised a visit to the Jamestown Lighthouse, where my craving for some old historical monuments would be fulfilled, but we’ve only got half an hour till kick off, so I save Jamestown for another expedition.

Fortunately, the football makes me forget any emotion other than sheer joy. You can feel the hectic atmosphere as the tro pulls into the car park. We gather round the stalls outside the stadium. Some of the girls buy football shirts, but I have one mission. My suitcase is old brown leather and covered in stickers from exotic locales. This tradition was started by the neighbor who gave it to me, and I’ve been sure to carry it on, with Edinburgh and Barcelona stickers being the latest additions. After a search around the perimeter of the stall, I find a sticker for the Accra football team, Hearts of Oak, for a single cedi. Result! The atmosphere inside the stadium is even more raucous. The stadium is only half full, but I’m so happy to be there, and our seats are pretty decent too, being just behind the sticks in perfect position for a goal.

The first half is fairly entertaining, although goalless. It’s the Ghanaian equivalent of the Community Shield; the winners of the league versus the winners of the cup at the end of the season, so both teams have nothing to lose and are really going at each other. The ball stays mostly in the middle of the field, and the opportunities on goal are rare at both end. Unfortunately, none of them are too notable. Halftime, however, is very memorable. For the halftime entertainment a half sized match is played: just like UK teams have junior squads, both the teams in the final have put together midget squads. It’s a novel way to keep the crowd entertained, and I struggle to compute how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s highly offensive, essentially a glorified freak show — look at the funny people try and be big people — but on the other hand, midgets are allowed to play football too, right? It’s a tough call to make. I had to laugh in the first few minutes, and I did so with a guilty smile. But the ‘junior’ teams were actually exceptionally good, and more entertaining than the proper footballers. We even got to witness a midget doing the Rabona, which I feel is my reason to stop watching live sport; once you’ve seen a midget take on two midfielders then 180 a defender, you’ve pretty much seen it all.

I buy a Hearts of Oak flag to cement my support and hang up in the UK, and I spend the second half seeing how many different ways I can tie it around my head. After the half time match, the second half is lackluster in comparison. The players are tired and much more defensive later in the game, and they begin dropping like flies in the last ten minutes. It looks like the match will go into extra time, but due to the exhausting heat, or the fact that the referee is late for dinner, the game goes straight to penalties. Kotoko miss their first penalty, and my team, Hearts of Oak, make them pay for it. The game ends 5–4, and I go wild with all the other Hearts fans in the stadium. I take the flag that I have fashioned into a bandana off my head, waving it in the face of the Ghanaian fans who support Kotoko, whilst Gerald and a few others who support Hearts do the same.

What a great day. One of those days amongst tough ones that reminds you why you’ve taken the path you have. As I jump into the tro tro, one of the girls points out how tanned my face is. I stretch my shirt and she takes a photo of the tan line, which is quite impressive. I check my pockets and am also relieved to find that I’ve managed my first day in Central Accra without being pickpocketed. One of our party was not so fortunate, so we know there is a real threat in the center of town. As we pull out onto the road, I am reminded that the day may be over, but the night is not, and that we all agreed to go to a salsa evening. Although I pledge that my booty will stay firmly attached to the bar’s seating area, I am taken over by the music almost as soon as we get there. We take part in a beginner’s session with a really good teacher, and even I begin nailing the steps after pooling all my concentration. But as soon as the music begins it all falls apart. The beat is too quick and my feet turn to jelly. Luckily, at this point, Gerald steps in to tell me that we need to head homewards.

The epic trek to Tantra is only an hour long in reality. Although it feels like midnight it is only nine o’clock, but this is still pretty late in Ghana, more like 11pm in Britain. Thankfully the house staff are awake, and have set aside our dinner: Ground Nut Stew. It took me two weeks to realize that ground nuts are peanuts, and my first time trying Ground Nut Stew is glorious. The rice balls it is served with are fairly indistinct, but the stew itself contains chicken legs and is beautifully meaty and thick. Think chicken cooked slowly in a spicy peanut butter soup. I am going to have to hunt someone down to cook this for me in London. After lapping that up, I hold an open water pillow to my mouth like an IV drip, finishing it one go, before falling into bed. The holiday is over. Tommorrow is work day three.

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