“Can’t we take a taxi?” she asks, Mrs SC.
“There should be a road off to the right,” I say, looking. Failing to find it.
We’re in Accra, on the Central Ring Road, looking for the Tourist Information Centre. It’s clearly marked on the map in our guidebook and didn’t look far from our hostel. But the reality on the street bears no obvious relation to the lines on the map.
This is awful. I hate it. I hate the noise, and the heat, and the dust. The smell of exhaust fumes.
“We said we’d walk,” I say, and trudge truculently on.
Was it ever like this?
Cars keep slowing down alongside and drivers shout from open windows. Are they trying to warn me about something? Telling me to get off the road?
Could be. There is no obvious place to walk alongside the road. Paths appear and disappear, turn into the forecourts of petrol stations and garages, supermarkets and churches, banks and high-rise apartment blocks. Sometimes the way is blocked by a wooden kiosk. A lone man or woman – or even a whole family – selling wooden carvings, woven baskets, potted plants, bright cloth, water in plastic bottles, furniture. They shout at us as we pass by. They want to sell to us. I don’t want to buy.
The heat is heavy and the humidity high. The air is laden with red dust, stirred up by the cars, but higher too. It’s the harmattan season and the Sahara desert has taken flight. In the sky the sun is a hazed orange circle. I have a headache coming on.
“It wasn’t like this,” I say. “It was never like this.”
I look around. She’s in conversation with the driver of a battered car by the side of the road.
“He’ll take us,” she says, cheerfully. “Twenty cedi. You sit in the front and show him the map.”
I climb into the front passenger seat, she gets in the back.
“It’s like this all over Africa,” she says cheerfully, the old Africa hand. “Nairobi, Maputo, Khartoum.”
I give up trying to fasten my safety belt. There’s no buckle. Instead I show the driver the map in the guidebook. “The tourist centre,” I say. “Here. Off Gamal Abdul Nasser. Can you take us here?”
“Yes, sir, yes. I drive.” He doesn’t look at the map.
The first taxi ride
We drive. It’s a relief to sit down and look out at the traffic and the people. This city is so much larger, so much busier than I imagined.
This trip is her present to me. After years of talking about returning to Ghana “one day”. Talking about seeing again the country I got to know as a child of six, seeing it with adult eyes. But six to sixty, what’s that? Fifty-four years. Of course things have changed. And the things I think I remember were probably never quite that way in the first place. Even so, this is not what I was expecting.
I should buck myself up. I should look for my memories in the details.
The fresh pineapple slices at breakfast, such a pale yellow they are almost white. So sweet, so much a memory of childhood. The little lizards among the stones of the hostel’s garden. On the plastered walls and ceilings; stopping, running, freezing, hunting. The smell of charcoal cooking fires mixed with the faint tang of excrement.
These little shards of memory are swamped now by the heat and the noise and the city. If this trip fails, it will be my fault. All that money, I think, wasted.
Alternate street names
I’m trying to follow the route our driver is taking. At first we seem to be going in the right direction. But then we are following the flow of traffic along one highway after another. Street names, where I catch them, are different from the ones on the map, or we are not where I thought we were. Sometimes there are two names, one under the other. Both equally official looking, one with white letters on blue, the other with black letters on white. Sometimes someone has painted a third name on a wall in shaky capitals beneath the official names: Onya Cres., Nana Odotso St, Jeremiah Road.
“Nasser,” I say to the driver, pointing at my map then out the window in the general direction where I think it may lie. “Tourist information centre.”
“Yes, yes. I drive, sir, I drive you.”
“He’s taking us somewhere else,” I say.
“It’s okay,” she says from the back seat. “I think I know what he’s doing. Take it easy. It’s Africa. Enjoy the ride.”
He turns into a dusty compound surrounded by a variety of huts with more stretching away under the occasional palm tree. Some huts are very like the ones along the side of the road, others are larger and walled with concrete slabs or breeze blocks. They are selling furniture, plastic water bottles, bright cloth, potted plants, woven baskets, woodcarvings.
“It’s a tourist market!”
“Yes,” says the driver happily. “Tourist centre.” The driver pockets his 20 cedi note. “You want I wait, sir, madam?”
“No thanks,” I say. “That’s fine.”
Flow or undertow?
We buy bottled water in a cafe, which is also a clothing store. Rest. She tells me I need to unwind. Go with the flow. I try, but what if the flow is an undercurrent pulling me out of my depth?
There are treacherous currents just off shore here, all along the coast of West Africa. When I was six and my sister Linda was three and a half, our mother took us to play on the beach. While she was watching me, a wave took Linda. Curled over her and drew her out to sea. Mum waded and swam out to rescue her and brought her back. Family story.
We leave the cafe and the market and set out along the road towards the city centre. From the opposite direction now. No cars slow down, though now I’m looking, keen to accept. The traffic hurries on. No one here wants to carry us.
“You want a taxi?” A man hails us from within the market compound. He guides us back in to a taxi kiosk. There are several beaten-up cars parked outside, one or two in what I now realise is taxi livery, yellow front fenders. A bunch of men are sitting around smoking and chatting. Our guide navigates us past several cars to the most beaten-up car of all. He introduces our driver, a thin, elderly man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“He will take you. Where you want to go?”
Once again I show the map in the guidebook. There is a lively discussion that involves our guide, the driver and most of the men sitting outside the kiosk. Eventually everyone seems agreed. They know where I want to go and more importantly, so does our driver. Thirty cedi, we agree.
The car has no suspension and the front windscreen is cracked almost right across. The gang outside the kiosk seem delighted to have hooked a couple of rich western passengers for their friend. There is much laughter and good-natured banter as we climb aboard. One of the men gestures a fist-bump and Mrs SC in the back seat responds in kind. This delights the gang who wave us on our way.
The second taxi ride
This taxi driver has even less English than the last, but he really does seem to know where to take us. Busy streets give way to slightly less busy ones. Occasionally he points and says a name: “Black Star. Christianborg. Osu Cemetery.” We swing right, by a big sign, and our way is blocked by a red and white traffic boom. A guard comes out of a little cabin, talks to the driver in the man’s own language, then to us in beautifully accented English.
“You have come to the Ghana Tourism Authority Head Office,” he says. “This is perhaps not where you want to be?”
Try to be Ghanian
Later that evening, after more vicissitudes, we sit over a beer with Mrs SC’s colleague Patrick. He’s home in Ghana for the holidays. We tell him our adventures.
“That’s Ghana,” he laughs. “John, you have to chill. Take it easy.”
“Go with the flow?”
“Go with the flow. Try to be Ghanaian.”
I promise to try.
Where we stayed: Agoo Hostel. We were very satisfied with our accommodation, just off the Central Ring Road. Friendly, efficient people, good breakfasts and the possibility to order evening meals too. Good beds, air conditioning, showers. Airport transfer. I’d recommend it to almost everyone, but it’s perhaps best suited for younger people. Say 30+ years younger than 60!
Rather than taking a taxi, everyone we spoke with, later, recommended using Uber. That’s fine if you can guarantee you’ll have an Internet connection when you need it. But you can’t.