Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Landing in Accra, Beneath the African Sun

Yesterday morning, I landed in Accra, Ghana, where I shall remain for a time yet undetermined. The flight took the full 11 hours, starting 4:20pm EST and landing 7:20am GMT. It may have been long and mostly sleepless, and I may have come close to crying for all that I was leaving behind, but alas, I made it in one piece. After a year of planning, I'm in Africa.

Very fortunately, Google's driver, Daniel, was waiting for me at the airport, and I only got mildly swindled by the scam artists waiting there. (I suppose it was inevitable, but I still felt dumb.) Daniel took me to my hotel where I dropped off my luggage and promptly realized that I had no idea what to do with myself. So I went to the office, the empty office. You see, this week is Google's G-Kenya conference in Nairobi, and the entire Subsaharan Africa team is there. Thankfully the receptionist had been alerted that I was coming, so she showed me in, and I got to work trying to figure things out. I wish I could express how comforting it was to be there. Even if it's only two, disconnected rooms, the Google office in Ghana feels like a Google office nonetheless. For lunch, I ordered some traditional Ghanain food, basically seasoned rice and chicken, which was brought to me by someone I can only describe as the office footman. The seasoning was not what I expected since it looked so close to something I might get in the US, but once I got over the initial hurdle, I rather enjoyed it.

Around 6:00pm, I headed back to my hotel, watched a movie and the news on TV, and tried to get some work done on my laptop. That didn't work as well as I would have liked. The Internet connection in my hotel, and from what I hear, in many places across Ghana, is shoddy at best. This resulted in a nontrivial amount of frustration especially since so many of the people I need to work with are in time zones so different from mine.

Today was my first full day in Ghana, and very kindly, the Google Ghana Country Lead, Estelle, who's out of the office this week, sent her personal driver to pick me up and show me around the city. We hit some of the major tourist sites like the soccer stadium and the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park as well as a decidedly less touristy market where they sold mostly traditional clothing, masks, and even swords. Being led through by a local, it was starkly clear how singled out I was as a white man. On the upside, I learned a new word from the experience, obruni, which means, you guessed it, white man. In the afternoon, I headed back to the office to get some more work sorted out, finally met one of my sometimes office mates, Ego, who's from Britain, and got lots of advice on the expat life.

From my two days here, a few basic observations have stood out to me. The first is the culture of servitude. It's been discomforting having someone wait on me; I've always just taken care of myself, more or less. Stranger still is the attitude servants seem to have have, that of utter, well, subservience. In the US, even people in service professions usually seem to have a sense of entitlement that doesn't exist here. Another significant lesson has been about the state of Internet connectivity/telephony. I knew it would be bad, but that's entirely different from actually understanding it. Between not being able to do my work online and having to ask people to repeat themselves every other sentence on phone calls, I can tell I'm already starting to make headway on one of the pieces of advice I got before leaving: Feel people's pain. The last observation I've had is a less serious one, basically about how people carry things here. I wish I had a picture to illustrate it, but I've never before seen everyday people carry so much atop their heads, and without using their hands to balance it.  Huge baskets of everything you could imagine: eggs, pineapples, hair brushes, everything, all perched feet high atop their heads. The notable exception to this rule is for carrying a baby, which is invariably done on one's back, strapped on with a large shawl. Pictures to come, I promise.

For now, that's it. This weekend will consist of lots of apartment shopping as I seek to find somewhere more permanent to live. Wish me luck!

Pictures after the jump!

Airplane reading on the way to Ghana.

The Google Ghana office with my lunch sitting atop the table.

Traditional Ghanaian meal: Banku, fish, and pineapple for dessert.

The view from the entrance to my hotel.

The Ghana National Soccer Stadium.

The Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. The structure on the left
was built to resemble a cut down tree, symbolizing Nkrumah's
unfinished work. The figure on the right is the statue of
Nkrumah that was defaced during his coup d'etat.

A statue of a traditional Ghanaian herald, welcoming
Nkrumah back to Ghana after his exile.

A market selling traditional Ghanaian crafts.

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Unknown said...

That is one handsome fish.

Unknown said...

Think I'd prefer a view of the Swiss Alps.

Anyway, you know the expression, "when in Ghana, do as the Ghanains".

They'll learn to love you soon enough!

And, Robyn, that is one handsome fish!

hronnsa said...

thinking of you! it is hard now, but it will be ultimately awesome! xox

Unknown said...

The Nkrumah Memorial Park structure is really beautiful - looks like something I'd expect to find in Barcelona! (PS just the mention of Kwayme harks back to Alu, AP World History, and of course, Jacob.

Glad to hear your settling in nicely! Reminds me of when I got to Fiji - I was the very first of my group to arrive and had the chance to wander the city.

And would it be too much to ask to pick up a cool African mask for me at some point during your travels? :)


Marjorie said...

Hi Ben,
I sent you info on a contact for you in a Facebook message. Hopefully you can get it. It could be a really good lead for you. I hope so.

Kathy said...

Ben, so glad you made it safe and sound! Can't wait to follow you on this adventure. A phrase I picked up during my time in TZ. "No hurries, no worries, hakuna matata. TIA - This is Africa".

Drew Meyers said...

Hey Ben-
So glad I found your blog -- I'm headed to Ghana at the end of October for a month to volunteer with Lumana Credit. I used to work at Zillow, and am now just traveling doing freelance work from my computer. Would love to meet up with you while I'm there!

Unknown said...

Hey Drew! Thanks for reaching out; I'd love to meet up when you get here. Hopefully I'll be more settled in myself by then. Shoot me an email when you can. My email address is Looking forward to hearing from you!

Drew Meyers said...

Thanks Ben - just sent you an email