Traffic Lights and Light Out
When the light is off, the traffic lights are of course out too, there is no back up. Sometimes Ghana Police sends out an officer on motor bike, or bicycle, or trotro, and when they don’t its lord of the flies, which quickly turns to gridlock, and sometimes, volunteers direct traffic for tips. This is my favorite, because it is fun to watch, these young boys who should be in High School, figure out how to direct traffic.
[Steve dashing the guy, please note it is with the right hand]
I like it because an especially good tip can get you a green light faster, than saying no, and waving them on when they come “asking”. Ghana in interesting in that the direct no is taboo, and almost never heard. Instead an indirect no is the norm, which comes in the form of “not today,” or “maybe tomorrow,” or “perhaps.” Almost anything is preferred to a direct no, even if we both know it is not completely truthful. At many of the traffic lights there are beggars, and I used to tell them no, or shake my head, or wave them on with my hands, and the beggar would continue to stare and plead, but now I’ve gotten to the point where I just roll down my window, and ask how they are today. They will ask how I am, and if Suzanne is with me in the car, give a greeting to Madam, then they will ask for something small. If I have it, I’ll give it, and if not, I’ll say “not today,” or “maybe next time,” and it is OK with them. Often we’ll continue to chat about this or that, and then the light turns green, and it doesn’t really seem to matter if I give them something or not, because I might next time.
But with the boys directing traffic, I always try to give them something, and something bigger if I’m in a hurry. Usually there are four or five boys working a single light. One or two directing, and the rest going up and down the rows of stopped cars, asking each one for a small dash. When a big one comes in, like a ¢5000 cedi note (50 cents), the collector will whistle or wave his hands getting the attention of the boy directing traffic, and suddenly the traffic pattern changes, and we’re moving. I like that.
[going through the underpass, following a meat pie guy, slowly]
There is a one lane underpass north of town that is a great short-cut, but too narrow for more than one car to pass at a time. So, there are two men who work the underpass working the site for tips, letting one direction of traffic go through, while the other is stopped, and then letting the other.
In certain parts of Accra they sell chew sticks by the side of the road. Chew sticks are a sort of primitive toothbrush. The chew stick is made from the wood of a particular tree, the Adom Tree, and the way you use them used is to fray the end of the stick with your eyeteeth, and then scrub that end against your teeth, like an end-on toothbrush. In general, Ghanaians seem to have very good teeth. Maybe its genetics, maybe its diet, or the lack of processed food in, maybe its that sweets are not a craving part of their diet, or maybe it’s the chew stick.
[Bundle of chew sticks]
[Prepared chew stick]
[Emmanuel using chew stick]
Now understand that there is no residential postal delivery service. I think there might be business delivery, but I’ve never seen a postal truck or a walking postman. Businesses have a P.O. box. Individuals use their place of employment, or if that is not possible, then their church address. So for example to send a letter to Emmanuel, you post it to
7th Day Adventist Church
Osu, Accra, Ghana, West Africa
This system presents its own problems, for example bills. Our electricity is prepaid (see that blog), so are our mobile phones, so no bills are necessary, but the water bill is sent by messenger, who gives the bill to our guard, who presents to us later, and we go to one of the water-bill shacks around town to pay. They don’t look all that trustworthy, and sit right next to the vegetable, used books, or pirated CDs/DVDs shacks around town. What they lack in professional appearance, they make up in convenience. The bill itself is interesting in that it can accrue for many months and this is not regarded as a problem. For example, when we arrived, there was six months of unpaid water bill for which we refused to pay, but after six months of it continuing to show up on the bill (despite paying for all the water we had used), and the land lord promising to pay for what we had not, I decided to just pay the durn thing off.
[I pay my water bill here]
If the utility is not prepayed, and they don’t send a messenger with the bill, then you are expected to go to their office to pay the bill, but how you know when, is beyond me. For example, when we first arrived at the Dade Street House, we had a working land line phone, but I couldn’t figure out how to pay for it, and then one day, it was disconnected. Turns out I should have gone to the Ghana Telecom and paid the previous tenants’ phone bill.
[Ghana post has beautiful stamps]
So this is a US quirky. I guess it shouldn’t be a big surprise, but Time Magazine puts out a different International edition than is distributed in the US. We only figured this out when the international version featured Ghana’s 50th on it, and the US edition didn’t. We kept mentioning it to people back in the states, and they didn’t see it. That Ghana was on the cover to Time was a big deal here, we thought “WOW, Time is really covering Ghana?!” but only later we realized it was only in the International version. The article about Ghana was great, but it didn’t come out in the US editions until a few weeks later.
[Guess which one is the US edition]
Near our house is the 37 Hospital, why it is called that, I have no idea, but near the hospital there are bats, many bats, huge bats, and they hang from the huge trees, and when they are active, they fill the skies. Now you would think that with as many bats as there are, there wouldn’t be a mosquitoe around. In fact I think they eat pretty well, especially around our house, where we see them flying, but no, there are still plenty, plenty mosquitoes.
So here is the legend about the bats. It seems that many years ago, an Asante Chief became sick and was sent to 37 Hospital for treatment. He came from the capital of the Asante Kingdom which was Kumasi, where there are many bats, and so some of these bats followed the Asante Chief to Accra. But the chief died, and the bats don’t know the way home. So here they are waiting for the day the cheif will come out, and lead them home.
[Bats in a Tree]
Space to Space
When land lines were few, and mobile phones were just starting to become available, a new business popped up that opened this new connectivity, to everyone. It was called Space to Space. The name originally came from the first cell phone company, really radio phone service called SpaceFon, and worked off a particular broadcast radio frequency. The desktop phones were quite large, in fact today the derogatory name for them today is a “Key Soap phone,” because the receiver is so large, and about the same size as a bar of key soap. (Key soap is a popular brand of bar soap used to wash cloths, 3 inches square and sold by the inch).
[A Communication Center in Labone]
The earlier edition of this enterprise was called a “Communication Center,” which sprung up when Ghana Telecom’s land-line to mobile circuits became overloaded; so much so that connecting from land-line to mobile phone was almost impossible during the day. Soon people realized that mobile to mobile wasn’t overloaded, and thus the creation of the Communication Center, and later, Space to Space booths. Initially, Ghana Telecom responded to the circuit overloading by jacking up the cost of connecting from land line to mobile phone. So it made economic since to call someone from a Communication Center, and later space to space booth. The Communication Center was basically an enclosed space, often a container. It generally offered fax, and maybe a typing service, but today most of these enclosed centers have given way to the outside Space to Space booths. Usually it is a large umbrella, with a cloth banner hanging from it quoting the rates, a table under it, and a large desk phone sitting on the table. The phone is just for show, it doesn’t actually do anything, to connect the seller takes out a cell phone she has buried in a pouch around her neck, dials the number and hands you the phone, and writes the whole transaction in her book.
One time I was at a remote Methodist Church worship service, so remote that we had to drive several hours to get to it, and none of us had any reception on our cell phones, but this church was near the top of a hill, and wouldn’t you know it, right outside the church, was a space to space booth.
In addition to these Space to Space operating as a public pay phone (and putting Ghana Telecom’s payphone out of business), they also sell prepayed phone cards, and sachet water. Personally, it is hard to see how anyone could make any money doing this. I mean the sachet water sell for 3 cents, space to space 10 to 20 cents/minute, and phone cards have such a small mark-up, 50 cents on a $7 card. And the really funny thing is that it isn’t the owner sitting there in the hot sun all day. They hire it out. I once asked Laura, one of the sellers I often buy water and phone cards from, if this was her booth, and she laughed, “Oh, its not for me.” “So this is not your booth?” “It is not for me.”
[Laura’s Space 2 Space booth in action]