Accra, fifteen years later

To obtain the emergency passport I needed to visit Nigeria and Ghana, I revisited my old stomping grounds in Southern Connecticut. To reward myself for a frantic day of bureacratic wrangling, I stopped by New Canaan, CT, the absurdly wealthy town across the border from the more pedestrian New York village I grew up in. I found myself eating ice cream on a park bench and trying to remember both how exciting this town was when I was eight and how stultifyingly dull it was once I was a teenager. Very little has changed – the same tasteful, expensive shops still cater to very similar clienteles. But the familiarity of the space wasn’t able to help me travel back in time, to remember what it felt like to be seven years old, with my father at the cheese shop, tasting a sharp, hard English cheese for the first time.

Visiting Accra, on the other hand, feels like time travelling. I stare out the window in my hotel room at the frenzied samba of cars, pedestrians, hawkers, merchants, children and the occasional chicken, and I’m seeing at least three streets – 1993, 2003 and 2009. There are constants, like Gokal Opticals, which fixed my only pair of glasses in 1994, carefully soldering a new hinge in place as ordering a replacement part would have taken weeks. And there’s the entirely new – a steel and glass tower where I expect to see a decrepit house, unblemished pavement where I’m expecting dirt and goat shit.

If a two-day trip can have multiple themes, my Saturday was about incrementalism, and Sunday about revolutionary change. Saturday, I walked down Mission Street Extension from Papaye Chicken (still serving ginger-coated charcoal chicken and vast piles of rice, with dark, almost sweet shito) towards my old apartment, across the street from Blue Gate (still serving huge griled tilapia and balls of banku, but now featuring seating on both sides of the road.) Side roads that were red dirt and sewage are paved and lined with elegant chop bars, designer clothing shops and a tattoo parlor.

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A tattoo parlor in Osu. Hell has frozen over.

I feel as if I could recreate the past by layering a thin film on top of the current reality – a scrim that covers that new four-story shopping plaza with the disused concrete and rebar hulk that stood there a decade before. Add some burning plastic and we’d be able to take me back to a past I remember, if I squint a little bit. It’s the same place, just gentrified, in a particularly Ghanaian fashion. My friend Amos met me for lunch at Asanka Local, a deservedly popular chop bar that’s new since my last visit, and mentioned that he was looking for a house in the area to use as an office. He figured he’d need to spend at least 100,000 cedis, or about $67,000. Makes me wish I’d bought the apartment building I used to live in.

When I visited the Accra Mall on Sunday, there was no amount of squinting that could have convinced me that I was in a country I knew and understood. Ten minutes past the airport, the mall features two supermarkets, a cinema, several high-end boutiques and an excellent bookshop. It’s beautiful, as nice as its counterparts in Nairobi and Cape Town, and it’s got a steady buzz of people, tourist, Filipino overseas workers, Lebanese traders and lots of middle-class Ghanaians.

The bookshop left me babbling. In 1993, the only bookstores we had in Accra were the university shop in Legon, which featured required reading texts, Akan-English dictionaries, and the occasional heavily used Mario Puzo novel, for $5. The Methodist bookshop in Accra had less, with a stronger emphasis on devotional literature. We treasured books, trading them back and forth until everyone in a circle of friends had read all the literature each had brought. Guests were interrogated about what they’d brought and sent home empty-handed – we seized the airplane copy of Granta and it would pass through a dozen hands in the next month, emerging with smear marks on the pages and a cracked spine.

There’s Mario Puzo at the new bookshop, but there are also an excellent selection of local authors, fiction as well as histories, rich, colorful books about Ghana’s rich, colorful culture. There are racks of non-pirated Ghanaian CDs and used US ones, DVDs that include a Dizzy Gilespe concert as well as the latest Bruce Willis shoot-em-up. I thought of my friend Teju Cole and his anecdote in his beautiful memoir “Every Day is For the Thief”, where he finds a jazz record store in Lagos and feels like he might actually be able to live in his home city… until he discovers that the store only sells bootlegs of these CDs, as the originals are too precious to part with. It’s time to bring Teju to Accra, and let him pick up some Ornette Coleman albums, because – unbelievably – they’re in stock and reasonably affordable.

And then there’s the grocery store. When I first came to Accra, I asked the bartender at the hotel where I was staying where I should shop for food. “All the obruni go to Danquah Circle. You can get anything you imagine there.” I walked around for a couple of hours, visiting the handful of western-style food shops and discovering that my imagination now needed to be limited to canned corned beef, canned mackerel, dried beans and pasta. Add in the amazing fruits and vegetables on sale on almost every corner, and we had a perfectly servicable diet, but one light on the comfort food that everyone needs now and again. My family and friends ended up feeling like they were supplying a prisoner, sending me letters that included packets of dried orange cheese mix so I could buy pasta, oil and a little milk and make macaroni and cheese. A letter from Rachel included sheets of nori, which led to a sushi party, using soy sauce bought from one of the Chinese restaurants in town. I almost got into a fistfight with a housemate about his incursions into my most prized posession – a jar of Skippy peanut butter.

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And now there’s a supermarket, and it has cheese. A whole cold case full of it. Apples aren’t luxury items sold for a dollar a piece by roadside hawkers – you can buy them by the kilo. I looked like a madman, walking through Shoprite with my camera, snapping photos of remarkable, miraculous sights – chickens, already gutted and plucked, frozen and in bags! – that looked completely ordinary to everyone around me.

When Rachel took her first trip to Ghana with me, in 1999, I wanted her to get a feeling for what my year in the country had been like five years prior. That meant staying in a $10 hotel, taking bucket baths, wondering if the power would keep the fan on, and generally suffering. I think I wanted her to understand why that year had been so difficult – why I was sick so often, why accomplishing one thing during the day felt like such an achievement. So we were sweaty, dirty and sick together for a wonderful two weeks, and she was a good enough sport to enjoy both that trip and a later one, where we stayed in hotels with aircon, televisions and much smaller insect populations.

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The bar at Citizen Kofi

I don’t know that one could come to Accra and pretend that it’s 1994 anymore. If the mobile phones don’t give it away – with phonecard sellers, repair shops and charging stations on every corner – the architecture does. Towering over Danquah Circle is a new orange and purple tower, a vast nightclub and restaurant called Citizen Kofi. Amos took me there, and we sat on the fifth floor, the Atlantic visible a mile to the south, cool breezes blowing our hair and cooling our $5 cappuchinos. It’s elegantly designed, beautifully executed, and it wouldn’t be out of place in Ibiza or Beverly Hills. And it’s Ghanaian-owned, and filled with wealthy Ghanaians dressed to the nines. It simply doesn’t seem possible to me, and looking down on the rusting sheet metal roofs of the neighboring houses, it’s not hard to imagine those humble dwellings being torn down and cinemas, steakhouses, nightclubs and spas opening in gleaming new buildings.

These consumer paradises, of course, are a lousy way to judge the success or failure of an economy. The first time I travelled to India, I found the gap between rich and poor disconcerting because it was so much larger than anything I’d seen in Africa. It wasn’t that Indians were poorer than Tanzanians, for instance – just that desperately poor Indians were across the street from five-star hotels filled with absurdly wealthy Indians. I kept waiting for class warfare to break out on the streets, not able to believe that such levels of inequality could be sustainable. Now I find myself wondering if we’ll soon being asking similar questions in Ghana.

My friends who support the NDC – the party that regained control in the most recent election – tell me that NDC won because people felt like eight years of NPP government had resulted in a lot of developments that looked like Citizen Kofi and not much improvement of schools or infrastructure. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair – driving throughout the city, I saw roads I knew to be almost impassible that are now paved and smooth. I ask about whether a particular neighborhood is still plagued by traffic jams and learn that a two-lane road has been replaced with a six-lane carriageway with two flyovers.

Is this just benefitting the comparatively wealthy who are lucky enough to live in the capital city? No idea – I was there for 51 hours, and I didn’t get outside Greater Accra. And I know it’s a mistake to characterize the direction of a country based on half a dozen long walks and conversations with a dozen old friends. But I felt like I was catching glimpses of a future Accra, the stylish capital of a middle-income nation. And I wonder if the Citizen Kofis are less an invitation to class warfare than they are aspirational reminders that a poor country can build institutions that are world-class… and that fellow Ghanaians might support these sorts of places.

My friend Georgia is predicting that Cuba will open to US tourism in the next couple of years and has been planning to spend as much time as possible there, enjoying the current beauty and decay before Hilton and others transform it. I’m too late to drag those I know and love to Accra to see the place I fell in love with in 1993. It’s a happy coicidence that I find the Accra of 2009 inspiring, challenging, welcoming and beautiful, or this would have been an alienating two days, instead of inspiring ones.

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6 Responses to Accra, fifteen years later

  1. msnu says:

    Ah, but Ethan, next time drive past the Tetteh Quarshie roundabout, hit the Legon-Madina road and it will take you right back to 1994… I’m amazed by the changes in central Accra every single time I’m there but it’s nothing compared to the shock of how much remains unchanged.

  2. Pingback: Food Accra, fifteen years later | India Restaurants

  3. Its always the same at the end of the day. There would always be a wide disparity between the rich and poor for as long as capitalism is king in developing countries.

    The same disparity exists in Lagos and South Africa even has the worst disparity between the rich and poor, in the world.

    Accra would keep growing for a long time to come.

  4. Abi says:

    Hi Ethan,

    Your article brings back very fond memories of Ghana. Particularly Accra. I was almost walking the streets with your vivid description.

    I look forward to seeing the changes. It is a great nation.

  5. Joe Dee says:

    Ethan, i do remember seeing you around in Osu during your greatest years in Ghana. although my residence changed to the NW Connecticut; work in Stamford, reading your article brought a big smile to my face. i can’t wait to see the “new’ Accra next summer. was last there in ’07.
    thanks for the positive image you’ve potrayed about an African country.
    the problems will still be there but the development and the struggle to reduce the gap b/n the rich and poor will surely come.

  6. Darren Schemmer says:

    I was really interested to read your story comparing your experiences in 1993 and 2009. I’ve only been in Ghana for 3 years and even in that short time the pace of change has remarkable, especially in Accra, but the whole country is urbanizing very quickly. There are still millions of people living a life of poverty, but only half as many as in 1990 and the children of most of those subsistence farmers and fisherman won’t be doing what their parents did. Ghana is a remarkable story with more to come.

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