Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First impressions

Getting off the plane in Accra was awesome. I walked from the cold recycled plane air into a wall of solid humid heat, which instantly brought back memories of Egypt—it feels just like June or July in Cairo. I had forgotten about the constant, overbearing, debilitating African heat. I keep wanting to chicken out and hide in air conditioning, amazed that anyone can even survive in this heat, but then I remember that I survived (and loved) this crazy hot weather. We walked all over the place in the Egyptian heat. We went mosqueing in Islamic Cairo in July. We even went to the Pyramids at noon in August (stupid, yes).

Now that I’ve been here for a while (two whole days!) I think I’m reacclimatized and have fully accepted that my clothes will dripping wet for the next two weeks. I’m loving the heat again and have missed it horribly. Come on future State Department or USAID hiring staff—send us somewhere hot and exotic!

The heat hasn’t been the only thing to make me homesick for the Middle East. So much of Ghana is like Egypt. The hordes of taxi drivers outside the airport (although not nearly as many as their Cairene counterparts). Empty plots of land with “This property is owned” or “This land is not for sale” spray painted on the wall (هذا الارض ليس للبيع). Taxis and buses overloaded with local decor or religious stuff.

Middle Eastern vehicles are plastered with Islamic sayings (الحمد لله, الله اكبر, Praise the Prophet, etc.); Ghanaian vehicles rival their Islamic counterparts with phrases like “Victorious Triumphant Jesus,” “O Lord Deliver Me,” “Holy Ghost Fire,” “God is good,” and other evangelical Christian phrases. Members of the Church even get into it—some members’ cars have “Priesthood” or “Book of Mormon” decalled on the back windshield. Like the Middle East, even corner stores get into it. We drove by the “Satan is vanquished” cell phone store today. Awesome.

The interior of our little tour bus is even identical to the big AUC commuting buses, which is kind of uncanny.

Unlike the Middle East, there is almost no visible police or military presence. No police with ancient AK-47s picking their noses while guarding speed bumps. There is also far less visible corruption. I have been asked for tips, but it’s nothing at all like the stupid Middle Eastern baksheesh. I’m sure there are required tips for getting official government documents, but I doubt its as extensive (and painful) as the Mugamma.

On the other hand, the poverty in Ghana is overwhelmingly worse than Egypt. It actually seems to break my theory my statistical research from last semester, where we posited that good governance drives economic growth. In our measurement of governance (which ranged from -12 to 12; -12 meaning horrible governance and 12 meaning fantastic governance), Egypt scored stinking -2.5 while Ghana almost scored a 1. Although it’s better governed, Ghana’s economy performs horribly compared to Egypt—its 25 million citizens are by far poorer and less healthy than the 80 million Egyptians up north.

And you can definitely tell. The outskirts (and the inskirts(?) too) of Accra are filled with village-like slums with open sewers, tons of livestock, and unpaved orange dirt roads. The rooftops aren’t covered with satellite dishes—just antennae. It’s like if every tiny village in Upper Egypt were transplanted into downtown Cairo and were 10 times poorer and less developed.

Slum outside coffin place Slum outside coffin place

The poverty here is incredible.

Accra also feels less safe than Cairo, Alexandria, or Amman. Every relatively well-to-do compound has walls covered in razor wire and broken glass. Our bus got broken into in broad daylight. There seems to be more of a visible problem with drug and alcohol abuse (which I’m sure goes on in the Middle East, but is far more muted since it’s haram and everything…).

I’ve heard from a few people that Accra is their least favorite part of the country, so I’m excited to see some more of Ghana. It’s a fascinating place and I’m totally jealous of all the diplomatic and development expats here. Someday…


  1. Fun observations and thoughts Andrew. What are you there for?

  2. I love hearing your impressions of Ghana. Your descriptions of all the taxis and shops with names makes me laugh and reminisce.

    The poverty really is astonishing and awful. It takes a long time to catch up when they've dealt with dictator after dictator for decades on end. The people are really quite amazing, though. I hope you find some more enjoyable places on your trip-- Accra is a crazy city.

  3. So interesting to hear your impressions of Accra. To me it seemed like a vibrant and relatively safe city (especially after reading accounts of what it's like in neighboring countries.) When we were there we say pairs of policemen all over the place looking for people to shake down, but luckily never got stopped.

    You will get tired of Accra after awhile. The one place I wish I had visited more was the little artist market near Tetteh Quarshie Circle. They're much less aggressive.

  4. Bringing back memories, Andrew! It's sobering to remember that Ghana is actually more affluent than many other African nations. They say Ghana is "Africa for beginners."

    You'll get a different feel for Accra when you visit the temple compound and meet the people there. It's a little piece of heaven amidst the squalor, and you see the amazing character of the Ghanaians very powerfully there. And yes, you'll love getting out of the city. Very different feel (though no less poverty-stricken).


    - Jeff Thompson

  5. I simply can't imagine craving that kind of heat!

  6. Crazy! Glad you managed to keep all your stuff. Just out of curiousity what were the variables you guys used to define good/bad governance?

  7. @ Crys - They did a statistical analysis of World Bank data. I'm not sure exactly what indicators they used, but I think they probably used this. I tried to find a copy of his paper, but I couldn't. It's really quite interesting..

  8. @ Tod - He's doing a field study program though BYU. His group is doing a study for PEF—whether vocational or "academic" studies better fit the needs of the Saints/country currently—and another group is studying vegetable market "mafias" and how to infiltrate the system so that farmers can more easily sell their vegetables. I imagine he'll go more into depth about what they're doing at some point.