Next Stop: Accra Main Station

Because the traffic is so bad, I decided to get a motorbike. Not a big one or a fast one but just good enough to evade all the traffic in the morning. Sitting nonsensical in the trotro and sweating is not the best option to start your day. I heard that they sell bikes at Circle (Kwame Nkrumah Circle, one of the major traffic and public transportation hubs and the long distance station for anyone who wants to go to the West).

Because I was stuck in traffic and no car was moving for at least 10 minutes, I decided to go on a walk and find it myself. However, after seeing a couple of rundown bikes, I decided to go on a walk and somehow make it to Jamestown, one of the oldest parts of Accra.

I walked through Ussher Town and came across Accra’s old train station.

The gateway between two worlds is a narrow pass and highly frequented. Outside on the streets are gazillions of market women selling smoked fish of unknown quality and age. Little red sunshades are moving in the light summer breeze and dust and black rubber bags are flying through the air. Interacting in a ballet of filth and dirt applauded by thousands of pedestrians and security guards lying in the shade.

If it weren’t for modern accessories and cars, the whole place could be frozen. By-passed by history, rusting away in the tropical sun.

Early 20th century architecture, old German trains, junkies, poverty, gambling, the smell of urine and people staring. I thought I am home in Leipzig but no, this is Accra.

The small train station was run down and the beautiful small turret with an old watch, made in London of course, reminded me of scenarios long gone which I might have seen in movies or on old yellowed pictures.

In the shade of the canopy of the stations dozens of people were sleeping, sitting or selling their goods. Some waiting for the train who leaves twice a day.

Originally build in the beginning of the 20th century by the British to access the manganese, bauxite and gold mines as well as the cocoa rich areas of the western and central region, the rail road system is only a mere shadow of its former self. The former A-shaped road system between Takoradi, Kumasi and Accra, with an interlink on half of the way between the eastern and the western division, is only operable on two tracks. One is Takoradi – Kumasi for the mining trains, one is Accra – Kotoku, also for commercial trains.

There is only one connection that runs for transportation purposes, that is between Accra and Tema. Twice a day the fancy looking train covered in the colors of the Ghanaian flag rolls out and bringing workers from Tema to Accra in the morning and back in the Evening.

In 2010 the Ghanaian government signed a $6 billion deal with the Chinese state firm CNC to build a railway from Kumasi to Paga and from Tamale to Yendi, making all regions accessible by train, except the Upper West, which development is neglected anyway (but that’s a topic for another post that needs some travelling and field research).

If the cooperation is fruitful, nobody knows. If the Ghanaians learn from experiences from the past is also a question that awaits its answer. (when the stadium in Accra was renovated by a Chinese contractor, they brought in Chinese generators and when the first soccer game was about to start, of course with all the VIP guests etc, the electricity went down and nobody knew how to start the generator because everything was in Mandarin, so they had to bring a guy from the embassy of China to translate the instructions. The game started half an hour later)

Accra is a terminal station. At the railhead burns a large pile of trash. Old wagons are parked aside  and used by homeless and jobless people to take a nap.

The opposite platform which was used to access the trains from a storage building is used by a guy to wet-iron jeans and dry them on the railway later. The space between rails and platform is used as a public toilet, creating a sort-of swamp of urine, trash and mud.

The smell is intense. Burning plastic, urine, dust and frying fat from a chopbar very close. Oh Ghana!

While I mount my tele to do a shot, someone is hissing at me from the side to draw my attention to him. Someone from inside one of the old trains invites me to join him. I climb the wagon and step into a world 30 years before now.

I soak in the atmosphere and have the feeling, that something is familiar here. I look around and finally find what I was looking for. The wagon was built at the VEB Wagonbau Bautzen. A state-owned factory for trains of the former GDR. A little research later tells me that they were imported to Ghana in 1987 shortly before the reunion of Germany.

I climb over three or four sleeping men, stretching their legs on the seats. After we finished our talk and I have to turn down his question if I have any job to offer, my very friendly host encourages me to take a picture of the scene. While being suspiciously inspected from people outside of the train, I hope that no one wakes up and feels disturbed by my presence.

What I learned during all my travels in the West African countries I have been to is, that the most grim-looking people who might not even give much about my presence, are the most fun.

I am being eyed on suspiciously by a group of men. Maybe ten of them, sitting on the platform in the shade where a nice wind is blowing.
Cards and damii are the favorite games.

My ‘hello how are you nod’ is responded with short glances basically saying ‘what do you want?’

I decided to try to join them for a quick chat to ease the slight tensions and they turn out to be a very loud and friendly group of shady gamblers trying to make the day pass by.

I am urged to try myself at damii, which is a very fast board game with simple tactics. But be aware of Ghanaian men for they are trying to cheat you wherever they can. I earn their recognition by playing a draw game with ‘fresh boy’ my opponent.

After that they try to lure me into games with stakes of ‘5 Cedi’ and ‘double or nothing’ and you name it. Thankfully I am not that easily attracted to gambling and can withstand the temptation to spend the rest of the afternoon with them.

I continue my Journey to Jamestown, trying to reach the light tower and its fishers village beneath.

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you want to chop, you need to chop

Cooking is a women’s job. Women cook, men eat what women cook.

The ideal of the traditional family is very strong in Ghana. I often witness conversations about women in the trotro.

The general idea goes like this: If she is big enough she is good to be a mother and cook your dinner. If she is girlish and skinny she is a good girlfriend/affair (if you can afford to support two women).

(classic picture of a ‘big mama’ cooking over an iron stove that is welded from an old rim and some construction steel)

Irrespective of her size, if she is the mother of your children and cooks for you and your family she will do so most likely using charcoal and a classic welded stove. So do 70% of all Ghanaians.

Ghana consumes approximately 700.000 tons of charcoal every year amounting for an annual per capita use of 180 kg. 30% of that in Accra alone.  The charcoal is produced in the northern and western region where the big lush forests are. The truck on the picture, together with a second one, came from Bolgatanga. So in addition this might be a case of coal smuggling from Burkina Faso.

An estimated amount of 3 million people live directly from forest production such as charcoal, traditional medicine, bush meat, fabrics, shelter, water supply etc. This people are poor and rely on business reliance with local traders and big coal producers who buy the freshly logged timber.

The interconnection between deforestation and water supply is extremely critical and its devastating effects if not dealt with can be seen in Kenya, where the Mau forest is being deforested despite its importance for five major rivers in the country.

If you take a car to the Volta Region or the Western Region you will pass by villages that almost entirely live off of burning coal and selling it on the roadside for a very small margin because they can’t afford the transport to the city center of Accra or Kumasi where the price is higher.
So others will take advantage of this situations and organize transport. Collecting all coal on a round trip and sell it in Accra.
Questions of sustainable forest management, biodiversity or communal outlook are staying unanswered since illiteracy is high and life is hard. Making quick money now is easier than thinking about difficult long-lasting decisions. A mindset that influences today’s economy very much and creates a lot of headaches for many.

 

Ghanas forests are shrinking every day.

Logging has been part of the economy since the very first colonial days but the rates are dramatic. Between 2005 and 2010 Ghana cuts down 2,19% of its forest every year. It seems to be a West African problem. Togo (5,75%) and Nigeria (4%) are also part of the game. To put it into perspective, Brazil’s rate is 0,42%. Or in a different view: Ghana’s forests are shrinking 5 times faster than Brazil’s.

Main reasons for this are widespread policy changes in the 1980s. The so-called Economic Reconstruction Program (ERP) of the famous (you know who I am talking about) IMF forced countries like Ghana to open its boarders and orient their economies export wise. Since then, in an environment of lack of monitoring and environmental awareness, the forests are being plundered. Leaving behind Cocoa monoculture or pasture area for farmers. Lack of funds do the rest and the communities suffer from erosion and income losses.

‘Don’t cut the branch you sit on’ is way too accurate here.

 

Besides the environmental influence there is a hidden one.

Coal fumes are dangerous. Carbon monoxide and other gases are attacking the health of those sitting closest to the stove. Women and children.
The Global Alliance for Clean Cook stoves (yes they exist) estimates that worldwide 4 million deaths are linked to household air pollution mostly from ‘dirty’ cook stoves.

Initiatives to help people understand this issues are difficult because they intertwine with local cooking culture, which is holy to mostly every culture on the face of this planet. I bet everyone, from any country can name a couple of examples what is unhealthy in their respective countries cooking culture.

Sitting in the trotro and hearing someone coughing in the back, I know, in 90% it is a mama with her baby on the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greetings from Hamburg

I leave the house every morning at 6am.

Down the street at the junction I try to get one of the rare seats in a taxi and go to Zongo Junction to get a Trotro to stand in the traffic for the next 1-2 hours.

A big truck packed with used first world goods stands at the roadside and is being unloaded by several men.

Fridges, freezers, chairs, sun shades, ironing boards, toys, bicycles, TVs, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, windows and other goods have just arrived on the Ghanaian market.

People from the neighborhood are coming to see what there is to sell, others leave while complaining about the high prices.

The woman selling the goods is greeting me with a friendly

” Guten Morgen, wie gehts?”

More and more I feel that either I became more obviously German, or Ghanaians became way better in guessing where I am from.

Deep inside myself I am hoping for the latter.

Since I am the only Obruni around, its pretty easy to recognize me. So we get into this conversation on how she thinks it so is funny, that I eat at the local place nearly every evening.

Fried cheese is the new thing to have with your Jollof. And its good and totally worth the 1 Cedi a piece.

Apparently she was worried that I might get sick from eating too spicy food. 

The guy on the trailer could have been a dockworker in Hamburg, judging by his look.

Yes, Pure!

As I said before: prices in Ghana are increasing by the day and those who are most affected are the weakest parts of society. Those who work in the formal sector under minimum wage and those who work informal under no minimum wage whatsoever, even more.

Considering the hardship through most of this workers are going every week, every day of the month and 7 days a week to earn a little bit of money is impressive.
Also it makes you wonder how long things will stay like they are. How long it will stay peaceful and how long the poor will keep on releasing their frustration against other poor rather than fighting those who are most responsible for their circumstances (others than themselves).

If you look at the development of the daily minimum wage over the last years and see the increase in prices you may be able to visualize what it means for a single person.

Official minimum wage in Ghana per day:

  • 2010: 3,11 GHS
  • 2011: 3,73 GHS
  • 2012: 4,48 GHS
  • 2013: 5,24 GHS

That’s a staggering increase of nearly 70%. But in addition the decline of the Cedi to the dollar and the euro have let to a raise in import prices that are passed on to the consumers. By the end of the year the Ghanaian public will have seen 2-3 raises in fuel prices and a second raise in utility prices. Since February electricity prices went up 79% and Water 52%.

This has negative effect on the transport business. Even Trotro mates are no longer fair to their customers. Charging more or trying to keep the change hoping to make some extra money.
For someone selling water at the roadside, which you see very often, this news are very bad.

Most commodities that are sold at the roadside or in the never-ending traffic are brought in from outside. Coming into town by thousands of small cars and hundreds of trucks every day, increases in transportation costs are directly conveyed on the prices. But communicating this increased prices with your customers is very difficult.

Water prices are fixed. 10 Pesewa for a sachet. There is a new water called Special Ice.  Its 15p and its quality is way better. At least the taste.

But if you want to sell water the procedures stay the same.

You buy your water in bulk and add a block of ice  to it and thus sell it cold as long the ice lasts.

Or you buy the cold sachets from a water seller who sells them cold from the fridge.

In any case you rely on someone with access to electricity. If prices increase, so do the prices for the cold water. And if they are fixed, the margin of the seller decreases, which in return increases the pressure on the actual street hawker to sell more to even out the margin loss of the boss.

Assuming that you make a 5p profit from one sachet of water, you would still need to sell 105 Sachets of water to get tot the minimum wage level which obviously doesn’t apply for the informal workers on the streets and elsewhere.

(But allegedly this is enough money to have a decent life with. At least according to government.)

The day ends after 12 or more hours of long work. Your feet hurt, your throat is sore and you have that piercing pain in your chest since you stand all day long in the traffic breathing in the fumes of old cars and new alike.

Breathing hurts.

You are tired.

Everything hurts.

Breathing hurts.

After hard work you see yourself confronted with existential questions. And you look inside your hand and count the coins asking yourself:

Where do I live?

How do I get home?

What do I eat?

How do I pay for my kid’s school fees?

How do you I for medicine?

How do you I for a pension fund? (yes also Ghanaians get old and retire)

How do I afford to buy water, cloth, sanitary goods like soap or condoms?

Does a kid selling water in the traffic also dreams of becoming a pilot or a doctor one day?

Asking itself: Where do I want to be in 10 years?

12 hours work.

5,24 Cedis minimum wage.

beyond my reach.

 

Traditional Slaughtering of a Bull

At the Eid festival I meet Hashim. A young guy in his 20s chatting with his friends.
We have the very usual small talk about the very usual topics that come up between young Africans and young Europeans.

Where are you from?

What is your name?

What is your favorite football team?

Do you want to come to my house when we slaughter the bull?

yes. yes I want to see. No! I don’t want to see!

Being curious by nature is sometimes really difficult. But I went.

I am astonished how open and welcoming the Muslim community is at this very important holiday.

I got used to the welcoming attitude during the day and in normal situations such as buying things on the market or going with the trotro. But being invited to such an outstanding happening made me feel proud and glad that there is such a hospitable community.

What I am about to see is new to me. It is beyond the things I have seen so far in my life.

Yes I saw it on TV. Yes I know: If you eat meat, animals die. Yes I know…but still.

We walk down a sandy road and enter a compound not far from where the big prayers were held.

On a tree to the right hand side he is closely tied. His head down. Quiet.

Obedient like he is. Not kicking or rebelling against his fate. But his eyes are wide opened, white and full of terror.

As if he knows what was going to happen. As if he could already see how it will end.

Five strong men tie his forelegs; tie his hind legs. Tie them together.

One swift kick to his tendon and his legs fail him. The short muscle reflex is enough to bring him down.

A pressed wheeze from his nostrils. Wide open eyes!

Four grabbed the rope around his neck, one grabbed his tail.

‘One–Two–Threee!’

they dragged him out of the compound and on the street.

On the other side they dug a hole. For blood and shit and anything that is not edible.

A short break. discussions about the procedure and wild gesticulation with sharp machetes and knifes in hand.

I stay away from the group and observe.

One guy is a butcher, the other four have no idea what they are doing.

Excitement and chaos are mixed on the human side.

His eyes have rotated inside his skull as if he is centering his vision in himself.

Finding peace before his execution. No wailing or complaining.

He is just lying  there. White eyes wide opened. Foam and saliva running down his nostrils.

The machete is long and sharp and the view in the butchers eyes is a mixture of determination and indifference.

When I was walking over Madina market the days before the Eid I was wondering why everybody had machetes and they were so carefully sharpened. Now I know.

They over-stretch his neck and pull the fat and skin of his neck very tight.

One hand on the handle and one giving weight on the blade the butcher starts sawing through skin and flesh.

Mooing and  moving in cramping pain the head of the bull was raising for the last time.

His throat is gashing wide open and blood is pulsing out from his neck.

His heart is pumping

His lung is breathing

But nothing can safe him now. With every liter of blood that pour on the ground and builds a red lake on the brown sand of the road, his life is flowing away from him.

When he breathes out, the skin of his neck covers the part of his wound where the windpipe ends in his lungs. It creates a disturbing sound of suffering that has burned itself deep in my brain.

A helpless accusation. coming deep from within.

His ability to communicate is literally cut away from him. You can see and hear that he wants to cry out in disbelieve over his sudden suffering and nearing death. But his breath doesn’t reach his vocal chords.

The only sound that is left of him is flapping skin on bloody flesh. Slowly reducing in strength and vigor.

Death is certainly close.

His suffering will have ended by now and I hope, I tell myself, that he left this world with the feeling of a warm shower filling his lungs and legs and that the supernova of stress hormones eased his pain to the degree that made it easier for him to let go and accept his fate.

The men drag the carcass back to the compound. I stay there in front of a lake of blood and foam and saliva. The silence was unnatural and the mayhem i see with my own eyes is of a level I have never seen before.

The reduction of a living animal into a pile of flesh and bones is an impressive incidence.

It will have long-lasting effects on myself. For that I am sure.

At this moment I am thankful that I could witness what i saw. My heart was bleeding and I felt sick in consequence of the unnecessary suffering of such a precious animal.

I am glad that I have my camera with me. During the whole time I took about 150 pictures and basically watched through the lens, bringing some distance between me and what was happening. Bringing it to an abstract level and through that making it easier for myself to see.

Let the animal lover fall silent. He can’t do anything right now.

Let the scientist observe. For it is for him to see what is happening here in the context of the community and local culture.

The rest is quicker business. Easier to explain. Technical, because it is about the decomposition of a dead cow.

A tarp is put on the ground and the animal rolled on its back. Knifes are brought.

The first cut opens the bull from the breast to the far end. The outer skin of the penis is cut away and the belly is opened.

The organs look like they are out of a picture book. Clear colors and well-formed, barely any blood. Blood vessels covering the different stomachs. and organs. Everything comes with a little yellow touch from the fat strings attached to it.

The tripe is cut to give away the inner organs. The different stomachs are cut out to release the dung and wash them for later preparation.

Intestines are sorted in edible and non-edible. The latter one staying reasonable small. Only the skin is thrown away.

An Axe is brought and the head severed. The carcass is cut in half at the waist and chunks of meat are cut out of the body.

What once was a living animal became meat in a matter of 30 minutes by the hand of men.

Throughout the whole process kids are watching closely. Small boys confused by what they see. Knowing that is a celebration for the community and that by tradition two third of the meat goes to the poor and needy. Still he sees the suffering and the blood and the violence.

Stand still and watch, for that one day it is your turn to hold down a bull; To end the life of one of this precious animals.

Eid Al Adha

‘Tomorrow there is a holiday. A big feast and people will gather to pray.’

Growing up in a secular household and not attending any religious rituals whatsoever besides on Christmas sometimes, my curiosity in local life and the way of celebration was larger than the lack of knowledge on Islamic holidays. I went and I didn’t regret it a single second.

By knowing some of the stories of the old Testament that Islam and Christianity share, it wasn’t too hard to sort this one in.

Abraham showed his love to God/Allah/Yahweh by the willingness to sacrifice his son. So far so good. Jews and Muslims don’t agree which son it was. Jews say it was Isaac, the Muslims believe it was his older son Ishmael.

In any case god tested Abraham’s faith and was pleased with his obedience. Therefore he send him a lamb down from heaven to kill instead of his son.

That’s also better because eating a lamb is more fun than cutting your own kids throat.

When I woke up in the morning I was confused by the silence. Normally the music is on at 7 am and people are all over the place yelling and honking and cooking and fighting.

I stood up quickly and rushed down the road.

On the football field between Atomic Road and UN hundreds of people gathered in the morning.

Dressed in the finest gowns with colorful ornaments and polished shoes, people came in from all over the world.

And how it is with the returning diaspora, they show why they migrated: big cars, clumsy watches, fat rings and the latest electronic accessories ranging from iPads and iPhones over DSLR cameras to iPods and such devices.

I wonder if they’d be still willing to share 2/3 with the poor and the needy as it is the tradition at the Eid.

Reciting the Takbir, a large group of young men gathered behind a man who i found out later was a famous Imam in Ghana.

Their singing interrupted with the general prayers who have been ongoing for the last 15 minutes. Nevertheless they continued to sing the following words until they reached their places and sat down next to the other guests.

Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar

lā ilāha illā Allāh

Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar

wa li-illāhil-hamd

Alongside the field you could see people selling Fanyogurt, coconuts or other small things to eat, waiting for the prayers to end.

Although being Christian, they seem to be very amused and quite interested in the happening.

Nobody said anything about me and my camera. I was even asked why I was just standing aside and using my tele, rather than going inside taking close range pictures. Saying that I do it out of respect and lack of connection to the community made sense after all.

After the prayers I connected with some locals who invited me to the slaughtering of a bull.

The ‘feast of the sacrifice’ became a tangible thing…

 

Same Same but Different

 

Why would you move a whole market, if you set it up literally 10 meters down the road on the other side of the street?

The old market had its advantages. Solid concrete ground, elevated selling spots and of course it was right opposite site of ISH 2.

The new spot has a corrugated iron roof and booth numbers as well as fancy made in china energy-safer light bulbs. But really bad flooring and it is a pain to walk on it with slippers.

Several stands are gone missing such as the DVD/Film aka awkward porn seller, the old red-red lady is no longer there (also they mix the beans with the palmoil now on the plate…which is beans with palmoil to me rather than red-red…anyway), the shoemaker/repairer is gone and I feel at least two other stands that I can’t name.