The surmountable trials of Lady Ghana

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Driving me crazy

Today, I’m getting a Ghanaian driver’s licence. Being in possession of a local licence is compulsory for all residents, so after driving illegally in the country for over a year, I figured it was about time to get my house in order. Luckily for me, I just need to convert my foreign licence into a local one.

Everyone who has been through the process of buying a car, taking a test, converting or renewing their licence has had to face Ghana’s most dreaded government administration: the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Authority (DVLA). It is infamous for its painfully slow procedures, its ability to lose files and mysteriously recover them in return for small benefits. Many have tried and failed, sometimes losing patience after 5 hours of waiting, or coming back many times because they were told they had filled in the “wrong form”.

Here is how my day unfolded:

09:10:    arrive at the DVLA office. The waiting game begins.

09:40:    the regional manager wants to see me before approving my application. While I sit in his office, he takes on four phone calls and places one: “Good morning, Sir. How is your health? And the family? Thank God. I just wanted to hear how you are. OK, we’ll talk later”. Then he stands up, points a stick at a poster on the wall and sternly, like an old school teacher, gives me a test on regulatory signs. Satisfied that I know the difference between “no parking” and “no overtaking”, he signs my form.

09:55:    back in the waiting room. There is constant movement and creaking of chairs, as candidates for the driving test “move up” the waiting list by swapping seats with the person in front of them.

A police officer in uniform tries to sneak in the front row, as he’s spotted an opening with a lady who’s a bit slow on the move. He is immediately admonished by 20 people behind him who are waiting to enter the holy sanctuary and he swiftly leaves the room.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s X-Factor is playing on TV. A woman has impressed the judges by making a can of beer stand upright on her buttocks. The audience is in hysterics and she goes on to the next level.

Back in the room, a few women have sensed a business opportunity and are selling bagels and cold drinks. They seem to be making good money.


10:50:    the wait goes on. An officer tells me that one of the forms in my application has been misplaced and they are searching the archive bags for it. I go back to reading my book, while the Mexican soap “Dueña” is playing on TV.

11:45:    my “driving competence form” is officially declared lost by an incompetent officer, and I’m forced to fill in a new one. I must produce 2 passport photos, which I don’t have on me, so I go back to the main gate where about half a dozen men rush towards me, asking “hey lady, you need pictcha?”. I sit in a plastic chair, while one of them presses his digital camera in my face. Ten minutes later, I hand over my form and my photos.

12:03:    the competence manager has locked himself in his office and won’t sign my competence form until his lunch break is over. I seriously contemplate conceding defeat, but settle for the bagel lady instead.

12:40:    the competence manager’s door opens and I spring into action. Then I bring my form to the fingerprints and photo lady in the next room. She is in a good mood and is delighted to speak French to me as she reads out my name. In just a few clicks she enters my data, takes my picture and lo and behold, the digital printer issues a copy of my brand new Ghanaian licence!

12:50:    mission accomplished. I’m out. Wait a minute: I look at the small print at the bottom of my licence and it says “temporary – valid for 3 months only”.

I guess I’ll be back by Christmas.


Pick-me-up advice to Ghanaian men

Dear Ghanaian men,

You love foreign women, and you certainly cannot be accused of shyness. Here are a few tips that will guarantee your success when chatting up foreign women.

First it is important that you take special care in your personal grooming. Adopt a cool dreadlocks style and wear extra large sunglasses. When you see women walking down the street, hail at them something like “Hallo sista. Lookin’ good t’day, ooo?”. Repeat it each time you see them so that they will know that you really care about them.

Mention their body parts. If possible, back up with ample gestures. Use expressions like “big bottom” while ogling them – it will boost their self-esteem and they will enjoy being reminded that years of heat combined with a lack of exercise have acquired them traditional African curves.

If they innocently greet you while passing you by, do not under any circumstance beat around the bush. Instead politely strike a conversation by saying “Ah. Nice breasts. You have nice breasts”. Avoid eye contact at all costs and stare at the said breasts while shaking your head to show your appreciation. God forbid that you would say or tolerate someone else say such rude things to your female Ghanaian friend, but foreign women love to be harangued that way.

Come up with a sexy profession, such as artist or photographer. Tell them how you have been suffering for your art to be internationally recognized but that unfortunately you lack the financial means to make it happen. Insist that women are your true inspiration and that is why all your paintings depict (again) voluminous curves, female genital parts and couples having intercourse. They will want to help by buying one of your paintings and will display it proudly in their living room to show it to their female guests.

And be spiritual. Foreign women want to hear that God has revealed you that you were destined to marry a foreigner. He will eventually speak to them in a dream as well. At the very least, he will convince them of your crucial need of a flat screen TV or of sponsorship for a visa to their country.

Do not be deterred by the presence of other men when trying to pick up foreign women. If you think they might be having a drink with their boyfriend, or listening to some live concert with their husband, it is an appropriate time to make a move. Walk straight to them and assuming that they will happily oblige, pull them to the dance floor and woo them with your dancing savoir-faire while their man will be left staring incredulously. Better still, if you are a customs official and you see a couple, married from the look of their passports, trying to enter your country, ask the foreign woman to show you her boarding pass and while her husband is watching, write your mobile phone number at the back and invite her to “call you” with a broad smile.

Above all, never lose hope. Should you regularly get shut down, assume that foreign women regularly enjoy being annoyed. Who knows, one day these efforts of yours may finally pay off.

Yours sincerely,

Lady Ghana

cool ghana dude  cool ghana dude2


God’s marketing

The only positive thing about traffic in and out of Accra is that it gives you plenty of time to admire billboards and shop signs along the road. And some of them are indeed spectacular.

Now Ghana is a very religious place, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most signs have a spiritual (if not biblical) content. At the very least, your business should be blessed and anointed in the oil of holy deliverance. And, sister, you don’t just own a small home appliances shop – you run God’s power house.

Here is a selection of my favourites, captured just outside Accra, in a place called Budumburam (reminds me of something…).

This looks very promising. But I wonder about the pastor’s name?

You can’t go wrong with an anointed square pipe, right?

Open the door to your heart

Do not check while driving

A very special school

That’s faith for you. But should you need more of it:

By the way, I would like to thank you all very much for your kind comments, concerns and encouragement  following my previous post. It means a lot. Thank you x


A low kind of day

I have hardly been here two months that it’s already started: I get annoyed. I am irritated at our house maid who comes in two hours late and starts her working day by sitting at our dinner table to eat her spaghettis using our plates and crockery. I repress a silent curse when an incompetent receptionist keeps me waiting while finishing reading her friend’s status on Facebook (and then goes on commenting on it), all this in front of me and without shame. The word “idiot” slips off my mouth too quickly when I’m driving.

Yet life hasn’t been so bad. For the first time in years of moving out to new countries, I almost immediately found a job to keep me busy until Christmas. Our heavy baggage has arrived in one piece and our house now looks cosy and familiar. And the sun shines EVERY DAY.

But comes the evening, anxiety starts. I don’t look forward to tomorrow. I feel lonely, uninspired and tearful, and I wake up with a heavy heart. I know the symptoms for it’s happened before – I think I’m going through a phase of slight depression. And it’s got nothing to do with Ghana, rather with new beginnings.  I am simply not good at it. I need to feel settled, to have a purpose, to know people and to be known. It’s not about getting invited to a party on a Friday night, but the comfort of having a few people with whom you don’t have to try, people who get you.

I promise the next post will be more cheerful, but for now let me be plain honest with you: I don’t like it here. I guess the first step is to accept how I feel and make some small changes, among which:

1. stop taking Lariam, those pesky anti-malaria tablets that have been known for causing depression as a side-effect;

2. read something inspiring, like Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones;

3. look at something beautiful, like those tiny red flowers, sole survivors of our feeble gardening efforts;

4. drink some Rwandan coffee, freshly brewed in my French press;

5. pray and hold on the hope that God knows what he is doing with us here.

And be patient rather than resigned.


Get off my road

We’ve had this long-standing argument with Mr Club. I got tired of seeing him zipping around town on his cool motorbike while I had to hail a taxi just because we ended up with a lemon of a car on our previous post.

I reached a point where I was desperate for a two-wheeler of my own. Not a motorbike, since I would struggle to maintain my usual class on it, but surely a scooter would solve my misery. Mr Club however remained inflexible: take a basic training course or I won’t let you get one. Therefore as I travelled through Europe this summer, I booked a class and I am now proudly qualified, if not safe, to hit the road.

Getting a scooter in Accra is really easy. The streets are strewn with hundreds of imported motors that you can buy for about 500 dollars or less. I settled for a Suzuki 125cc that had been shipped from Italy. The ownership papers indicated the right body number, but on close inspection the brand read Yamaha 600cc. Interesting.

I agreed to pay the retailer once he would come back with the ownership papers duly changed and a regular license plate, and I left him 150 Ghana cedis (about $75) for the government registration fee. Three days later he came back with the right papers, the right plate and a receipt for 50 Ghc. Apparently and a few people have confirmed it since, although the government officially charge 50 Ghc, they like you to pay three times as much to help them do the work “correctly”. Whatever.

But for the past three weeks, my scooter and I have been cruising the streets of Accra, avoiding mad drivers and potholes, while trying to stop my skirt from embarrassing me too much. And I’m told that I look very French on it.



Ghana’s “beautiful” beaches

We had been warned. “Make sure that you leave Accra once in a while, otherwise the chaos will drive you crazy”, a friend told me. She was right, so a couple of weeks into our first month, we decided to get out of the city and spend a long week-end at the beach.

What nobody told us is what we would find at the beach.

After two and a half hours of driving a mere 50 km through congested roads and bottlenecks outside the capital, we finally arrived at Sisimbo Beach Resort. Tucked away on a quiet bay east of Cape Coast the lodge is simple but quiet and the semi-private beach is clean and lined up with pretty coconut trees. Nowhere near the appeal of an Indian Ocean resort and after years of East Africa, I confess to be slightly disappointed.

On our final night, we decided to take a walk along the beach, towards the nearest fishermen’s village. There is something that must be said for Ghana – the level of harassing is surprisingly low. We walked past a few people who greeted us with a smile or a nod and went on their separate way without asking us anything. However, as soon as we left the boundaries of our hotel, we were amazed by the amount of garbage found on the beach. Discarded bottles, plastic bags, used water packets had been washed back from the ocean to their sender and were blanketing the beach.

We were approaching the fishermen’s village when we walked among a few people sitting on the beach. Everyone was sitting by themselves and was staring pensively at the sea. We greeted them as we walked past, when we noticed the somewhat tense features on their faces. That is when it dawned on us. They were not meditating nor admiring the ocean but in fact were simply crouching and having a crap on the beach. We had somehow managed to end up walking right in the middle of the public toilets.

Past the initial shock which I’m trying to recover from, I am still to decide whether the worst was:
1. That a only few meters behind them stood a block of public latrines, which they were obviously ignoring;
2. That as we walked through a minefield of poo we remembered that we’d romantically decided to walk bare feet on the beach;
3. That some of them started to greet us back, hailing “hey Obruni, how are you?”.



“You will love it there”

When we told them that we would be moving to Ghana, most people were happy for us. We weren’t and I feel bad about it.

We had been looking for jobs anywhere but in Africa, but the doors seemed to remain closed. We dreamt of skiing in Switzerland, of cycling along the Potomac in Washington D.C. or learning how to cook in Vietnam. After five years of dealing with post-conflict countries, I felt we deserved it.

Settling for Ghana seemed like a compromise. Like I was being robbed of my chance of a more normal life.

But Ghana is different, or so everybody claimed. It is more developed, more stable. “You will love it there”, was the most common thing we heard when we told people of our decision.

I was very nervous when I stepped off the plane. As we were introduced to our new colleagues, everyone was friendly, positive and welcoming. I smiled a lot but felt like a fraud, quietly praying that no-one would sense my disappointment.

For all the good things you hear about Ghana, it is not that developed. Sure you can find a number of well-stocked grocery stores, South African wines, even a massive shopping mall, but it is far behind South Africa or Kenya in terms of infrastructure or service delivery. Accra is chaotic, ugly, and dusty, and it does not draw on its beaches, giving it zero tourist appeal.

What Ghana does have for itself is safety. It feels stable and Ghanaians make a point of saying that their country is not a mess like Nigeria. Here’s hoping that the upcoming presidential elections in December will prove them right. I have been walking on my own at day and evening time and some people look at me but nobody stares. Nobody shouts “Obruni!” (the Ghanaian equivalent of Mzungu-the foreigner). I almost feel normal here and it is SO nice.

And Ghanaians are really friendly. In fact, it is possibly the friendliest place in Africa I have so far been to. People are gentle, they greet you with a smile, they are spontaneous and offer you help when you look like you need it and they seem to generally trust each other.

Maybe the settling in will be easier than expected…

Accra’s main shopping street, Oxford street in Osu