Surviving West Africa: Top Tips
This article first appeared in Escape Artist magazine.
1) Road trips and car maintenance
First of all, remember to send your car to the garage every couple of months; this is necessary because of all the extra wear and tear involved in driving on crappy, potholed, dusty roads. Beware local garages’ ingenious business strategy: although they may actually fix whatever’s wrong with your vehicle, they are also likely to remove parts in perfect working order (replacing them with older, dilapidated ones). After a few weeks, you’ll be back to replace the parts which have strangely failed; luckily – a replacement will be waiting on the shelf for you! Unsurprisingly, jobs always take longer than you expect; one garage even calls itself It’s Not Ready Yet. If your idea of fun is foreseeing your own death every time you drive around a bend in the road, you’ll have a whale of a time in Ghana.
Just to add to the excitement, most drivers avoid using their headlights as they think that using the bulbs drains power and hence fuel. Huge logging trucks blithely bowl along at alarming speeds; sitting behind them, you’re just waiting for a mammoth sized tree trunk to roll off, land on your car roof and squish you into human pâté. As most Ghanaians drive down the middle of the road (to avoid those potholes) it’s also quite likely that you’ll meet them face to face at 90mph.
2) Taxis and buses
Despite being dilapidated old heaps with creaking suspension, doors held together by string, and windscreens so badly cracked that the driver has to look out of his side window to see where he’s going, taking a taxi in Ghana is felt to incur certain status upon its occupants. Taxi-drivers tend to have a natural feeling of superiority as a consequence and thus think themselves above obeying any of the normal rules of the road. Undoubtedly, they see themselves as frustrated Formula One daredevils – hence the common sight of a taxi rear ending another vehicle following overexcited acceleration. Additionally, as their vehicles always seem to be on the verge of collapse, drivers are often obliged to jump out suddenly to salvage some recalcitrant bumper or exhaust pipe that’s fallen off in the middle of the road.
Taxis have two rates of pay – one for hiring the vehicle all to oneself (the height of luxury) and a cheaper rate whereby any passing passenger can be picked up en route and asked to contribute to the fare. As this tends to be pre-set on entering the vehicle, it’s in the driver’s interest to get you to your destination as quickly as possible and to pick up as many extra bodies on the way as he can; it’s not unknown to find four people squeezed on the back seat. I’ve even seen a taxi with four goats in the back and a sheep in the boot – this goes some way to explaining some of the smells you encounter on getting into a taxi.
Of course, no-one really needs to pass their test here – you simply offer your inspector a reasonable sum of money and you’re off to join the mêlée. If you can toot the horn and swear in at least one local language this seems adequate. Who needs to use indicators? They don’t work anyway. You can’t help liking the taxi drivers though as they’re always so cheerful and take pride in the taxi as an extension of their own personality. Furry animal seat covers, soft toys and family photos jostle for space with religious pictures and slogans – such as Jesus Guides Me (not a great advert for the church that one). The only part of the vehicle that is sure to be in working order is the stereo – blaring out at top volume.
If you really want to travel on a budget, you can try catching a trotro minibus. Don’t expect to reach your destination too promptly though. They can only travel at 30km/p/h as their undercarriages are scraping along the road, courtesy of the forty passengers crushed into 20 seats. They also have an alarming tendency to break down. If this happens, you’ll be turfed out to the side of the road while the driver peers under the bonnet and the innards belch smoke.
3) Little beasties
Those with heart conditions beware. Be ready for cockroaches to jump out of dark kitchen drawers, for snakes to slither through the garden and for geckos to run down the wall while you’re on the loo. Ants in most parts of the civilised world are insignificant – small and harmless. Not so here; they are huge and they bite you. Moreover, if you turn your back on a loaf of bread (or anything edible) for more than a microsecond, you’ll find them swarming all over it. Meanwhile, it’s not for nothing that Ghana was known as the white man’s grave. This wasn’t because you were liable to get mauled by lions, gored by a rhino or trampled by elephants (you have to go to Botswana, Uganda or Kenya for those kinds of thrills) but simply because of the mosquitoes. Although a ‘bug man’ can come to spray your home, the chemicals are supposedly extremely toxic; you may not feel entirely happy about living in an environment that’s had poison sprayed up the walls. What happens if your pets lick the floor or skirting board?
For those of you thinking of taking a swim, be aware that water snails living in rivers have Bilharzia parasites living in them; the eggs hatch in the water, releasing lavae which then swim around looking for warm blooded creatures to feast upon. If you’re splashing about nearby, this will be you. They wriggle through your skin, snuggle down in your bloodstream and grow into worms up to three cm long. At this stage, you get an itchy rash (which will be looking lovely alongside your sunburn and mosquito and ant bites). The eggs eventually travel to the liver, intestine or bladder or even to the brain or spinal cord (causing organ damage, seizures or paralysis) – lots to look forward to.
Finally, the African Tumbu Fly will wriggle its way into any warm blooded animal’s body – usually through the soles of feet or, delightfully, the genitals (don’t go walking barefoot or lying down in damp grass). The Tumbu has also caught on to the trick of laying eggs on damp pool towels and washing hanging up to dry. It can penetrate in as little as 25 seconds; the larva then lives just below the skin and breathes through a central breathing pore. Within days, you have a boil oozing larval faeces (like pus). However, with a steady hand you can rid yourself of this unwelcome guest. Cover the boil with Vaseline, as this makes the larva pop out to breathe. It can then be plucked out with tweezers (and deposited onto the beach towel of someone you don’t like).
4) Magical creatures
Many animals are thought to have magical properties. If you visit the village of Paga – on the north-eastern Burkina Faso border – you’ll find it’s home to hundreds of sacred crocodiles. These are regarded by the Kassena tribe as the embodiment of their ancestors and anyone daring to mistreat them is thought to incur a curse. The crocs can supposedly take their own special revenge on you – such as causing a woman to give birth to a disabled child. To keep them happy, the crocodiles are regularly fed with live chickens; this has now become rather a tourist attraction – you can pay around $5 for the thrill of tossing a scrawny foul into their snapping jaws. Snakes are evil omens; having one on your property is said to indicate that someone will die (regardless of whether the snake itself is poisonous or not) – even dreaming of them is supposedly unlucky. Consequently, any sorry snake skulking its way into a compound will soon find its head lopped off. As the proverb goes: when a snake is in the house, one need not discuss the matter at length.
Not surprisingly, bats have a strong connection with witchcraft in Ghana – but can also be considered lucky. If a bat flies three times around a house, it is an omen of death but if they come out early in the evening for a playful flap about, this indicates good weather coming. The trick is perhaps to shoot them before they get a chance to come near your house. Huge swarms of bats currently reside next to the military hospital in the capital; each time an ambulance siren sounds, the bats panic and let loose a shower of excrement onto whoever is below. Not unreasonably, the local residents are complaining that they can’t risk drying their clothes outside anymore or sit under trees for fear of being pelted with droppings. They did resort to shooting them with home made catapults and even climbed the trees to stab them but the bats continue to thrive. There have been so many bats hanging from the trees that some older branches have even broken off, crushing hapless pedestrians and cars beneath.
5) GMT or Ghana Maybe Time
Stop wearing a watch as looking at it too frequently may drive you insane. Ghana Maybe Time (the local version of GMT) ensures that meetings begin when everyone can be bothered to turn up and buses leave when they are full. It takes so long to get served when you eat out that gobbling down a small snack immediately prior to leaving home is advisable – this will tide you over for the next couple of hours until your food appears.
When trying to get your waiter’s attention, remember, being patient, smiling and seeking out eye-contact won’t work; nor will saying ‘excuse me’ – whether politely, loudly or persistently. Short of tripping your waiter up and grabbing him by the collar, the only way to get service in a busy cafe is to do as the locals do – make an abrupt hissing noise (somewhere between a cat spitting and a grasshopper rubbing its legs together). Although this seems the height of rudeness, it’s the only thing that works. Of course, you’ll probably find that most of the menu is unavailable and, in fact, you have a choice of tilapia (a river fish full of bones) or chicken legs. While you wait, you may or may not find it comforting that your waiter will assure you that it’s ‘on its way coming’.
In order to preserve your local friendships, it’s best to avoid holding traditional dinner parties. First of all, half of your guests will probably fail to turn up (even if you’ve phoned them an hour beforehand to check they’re coming). This is because invitations are far more fluid in Ghana. Even if people do come, it’s likely to be several hours later than you intended – by which time, your chilli con carne will be suitable for tarmacking the driveway and you’ll be ready to throw it at anybody who dares to come to the door. Arranging open house parties for large numbers is far more sensible.
6) Local cuisine
If you’re feeling peckish, there will always be a street vendor to hand, ready to sell you a tasty titbit. You can try kelewele (deep fried spicy plantain), yam chips or fufu (a glutinous starchy concoction) with hot shito sauce (does what it says on the bottle). Alternatively, you might like to sample some goat stew. All the above are quite tasty and filling. The only problem with open air cooking is that passing insects are liable to find themselves on the ingredient list, along with any leaves, dust and general dirt that might happen to fall into the pot. I can vouch for this, having bitten into a spring roll to find a beetle’s rear end looking back at me.
Ghanaians love their food and will eat almost anything. Consequently, little wildlife is to be found in the countryside. It’s all long been served up on a plate. Local delicacies include grasscutters (a ratty rodent often sold at the side of the road, spatch-cock style) and monkeys; some Ghanaians travelling to the UK to visit relatives still try to bring freshly killed ‘bushmeat’ into the country in their suitcases – the blood oozing out of their bags is usually a giveaway to the authorities at Heathrow. If your neighbours seem to have rather a lot of puppies in their garden, they may not be the animal lovers you imagine; they are probably running their own micro-dog meat industry. Besides being a good source of protein, dog flesh is supposed to confer mystic protection on those that eat it, making them impervious to witchcraft. Cats are another finger-licking favourite. Lovely fat ex-pat moggies are always in danger of being whisked off to add their juices to a steaming pot.
7) Between the sheets
Although it’s only legal to register one marriage, men are encouraged to take as many partners as they like; the only social stipulation is that they should be able to financially provide for them. This is something to be aware of when inviting people to your home. You may be expecting Mr. X with Mrs. X but it’s just as likely that he’ll bring Mrs. W, Y or Z. Taking mistresses is also de rigueur; those who remain faithful to their wives are often teased by others saying: A man who owns a farm should also own a garden. One popular joke states that a man needs to find a woman who cooks and cleans, a woman who has a good job, a woman who likes to have sex and most importantly, he must make sure that these three women never meet. Conversely, it’s said that young girls are looking for ‘gold, silver and steel in their husbands – they want silver hair at their temples, gold in their pockets and steel between their legs’.
The Ghanaian police force has a terrible reputation for being corrupt and lazy. This is partly due to the pitiful nature of their salaries and may explain why they spend their days trying to extract fines for traffic offences (real or imagined). Obviously, this hardly endears them to anyone. Accusing drivers of running red lights is a favourite as no evidence is required. The police pull you over, swear blind you have committed the offence and tell you to attend court the next day to pay your fine. Just as the steam is rising, a ‘get out card’ is offered – pay the officer a small fine now and he’ll forget the whole incident. It’s a brave driver who turns this down.
If the police were able to enforce the law effectively they might be forgiven some of their shortcomings but, sadly, they are not renowned for their success in capturing criminals. Actively searching them out appears to be far too much like hard work – and perhaps it is when you don’t have a vehicle! This lack of transport has been redressed somewhat in recent years, but it is still common to phone the station to report a burglary or assault only to be told that there are only two officers on duty so they can’t leave their post (and don’t have a car anyway). Unless suspects are forcefully marched into the police station by disgruntled victims themselves, little seems to happen. This inevitably leads to frustration and it’s not uncommon for people to resort to lynching criminals. If you catch sight of a young man apparently running for his life down the road then that is probably exactly what he is doing; a minute later you’ll see the angry crowd behind him.
This strong sense of popular ‘justice’ also extends to car accidents where the driver is deemed at fault. If you ever become involved in such a situation, don’t leave your car as you’ll risk being beaten to death by the crowd. It’s best to try and drive away, reporting the incident at the nearest police station. On a different note, also be wary of ‘accidents’ which you come across on your travels; these are sometimes staged by criminals to get you to stop your vehicle.
Ghana is well known as being the safest and most stable country in West Africa (not too difficult mind you when you’re up against Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire). However, it’s the norm for ex-pat homes to have 24 hour guards, wire and glass embedded along the garden walls and ‘rape gates’ (a grill which draws across the bottom of the stairs each night).
One of the strangest things about life abroad is the desire to embrace traditions from ‘home’ – even things you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole under normal circumstances. This includes joining clubs like The Caledonian Society. Who’d have thought that living in an equatorial climate would inspire you to try Scottish country dancing? Of course, it’s all very sociable as you get to dance with so many partners (n.b. this is in no way related to those get-togethers where you throw your keys into a bowl half way through the evening). The down side is that the girls do have to grin and bear it when they find themselves in the arms of someone who has bad breath, food in their beard or smelly armpits.
Another obligatory outing is the Christmas Fete – usually held at the High Commissioner’s Residence. It might be hot but that’s no excuse for somebody’s husband not to don a Father Christmas outfit and act as goalie while bored teenage children kick footballs at his crotch. Add to this an abundance of burnt BBQed sausages, jugs of ever-popular Pimms and stalls selling everything from ancient copies of Good Housekeeping to embroidered loo roll holders and you have a recipe for a perfectly lovely day. Don’t get arm wrestled into supervising the second hand clothes stall; local staff go into a buying frenzy over cast off Windsmoor mother-of-the-bride outfits and Laura Ashley numbers from summers past. The ensuing scrum for ownership of a patent red handbag or a pair of diamante encrusted party shoes can be quite scary.
10) The demon drink
The one thing ex-pats seem most famous for is drinking. Even if you’ve never been a big drinker – just a glass of wine every now and then – stiflingly hot days do make your thoughts turn to long cool drinks with just a dash of something in them. The climate forces you to become inert in the afternoons and, after all, if you’re just sitting about anyway, who needs sobriety? Add to this the regular socialising and you easily begin to notch up more than your recommended weekly units. If, at around 5pm, you find your taste buds niggling you for a little drink, your’re on the slippery slope. A quick look in the garage of most ex-pat residences will reveal a hidden stash of empties (commonly Bombay Sapphire and Glenlivet), surreptitiously hoarded until their owners can decide how to dispose of them without looking like alcoholics to the rest of the street on bin day.
When having a large party, it’s often good fun to employ live musicians; the local groove is called Highlife (a blend of jazz and African rhythms). However, it’s wise not to let your band drink any beer until after their set. It’s not unknown for fights to start when they get a bit tipsy. On the whole, local people don’t drink much and, if you ply them with spirits, things can quickly get out of hand. Amusingly, even the men here have a big sweet tooth. Liqueurs like Baileys and Tia Maria go down a bomb; we once got through 6 bottles in an evening with our male guests asking for tumblers full of the stuff. I was solely responsible for creating a new type of alcoholic disfunctionality. Some guests got so badly behaved that I had to ask their friends to carry them home.
I hope that these lighthearted tips have given you some insight into expat life in Ghana. Although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, living in Africa is an unforgettable experience – one that very few people would regret.