I’ve heard it said that you are never more than a metre away from a spider. I don’t know if that’s true, possibly it is, they live in all kinds of nooks and crannies, but I do believe it could be true that in Ghana, at least in the tropical zone, you are never more than a few metres away from another human being.
I hope Ghanaians aren’t offended by this comparison. Spiders play an important role in Akan culture, having apparently inspired the invention of weaving, and the famous folklore trickster Ananse is a spider. I think they are pretty cool too. But not on your car windscreen while you’re driving.
Ghana is a densely populated country, with approximately the same population as Australia (22 million) in an area not that much bigger than the state of Victoria (Ghana: 238,540 sq km, Vic: 227,600 Sq km). That’s a tight squeeze. Perhaps not as tight as the LA basin, where my niece told me that about 20 million people live, but there’s virtually no high rise accommodation here, plus in LA it’s probably more true to say you are never more than a few metres from a car.
I was shocked the first couple of times I came here. Being surrounded by people almost all the time was one of the things I found most confronting. Although when I returned to Oz I was almost equally shocked by the absence of people from the streets except in shopping centres.
Even on the road to Mensakrom, which is, if not remote, at least off the beaten track, you can’t drive more than a kilometre without seeing people: women with babies on their backs and baskets of farm produce on their heads, school children walking to or from school, men with cutlasses on their way to the farm or weeding the verge.
On my trip north, we could drive further without seeing people – but not much. We spotted cowherds with their animals, farmers bent over the newly planted fields, bicycles and people propped against mango trees, children playing and adults working near small family compounds. If anything, people were more visible in this savannah country than in the thick foliage of the rainforest zone.
But it is in the cities and towns, and along major roads, that you really notice the population. Like in the country, there are people engaged in their day to day business by the roadside. Schools, shops, light industry and manufacturing, food vendors, bars, and anywhere that the traffic slows down or stops, hawkers. This is a good thing, because it means you can buy almost any household item or snack that you require, without leaving your vehicle. As long as you’re on the ball and have spare change handy. Morning commuters could easily purchase a cheap and nutritious breakfast of snacks on the way to work without leaving their car.
Hawkers, mostly young women, run to the side of your vehicle with iced filtered water (sold in 500ml plastic bags), bofrots (basically donut holes sweetened with honey) peanuts in the shell and boiled eggs. These are the staples of roadside sales everywhere I’ve been so far, although North of Tamale, on bus stops at river crossings, there were few bofrots but plenty of fish. Fried fish, dried fish, smoked fish, take your pick. I didn’t. But I did say to ActionMan, who was absorbed in his PSP and trying to shut it all out, “You know your’e in Ghana when complete strangers thrust gaping fish heads through your bus window.”
If your vehicle starts to move while you are in the middle of a sale, the vendor will run beside it until the transaction’s completed, with passengers yelling out to the driver that he can’t speed up yet. Sometimes the driver ignores or doesn’t hear this plea, with the result that either buyer or, more commonly, seller, is disgruntled.
Recently I saw a man haggling over the piece of fish he was buying, and I’m sure he ended up with the one he didn’t really want, because the bus took off too soon. Another time, I witnessed a plastic ice-cream sachet hurtling through the air – the buyer had thrown it out of the car, in the middle of a busy road, either because he changed his mind or discovered he didn’t have the right change. The hawker was justifiably annoyed, although luckily the sachet didn’t break, so perhaps he could resell it. But mostly the system seems to work, and of course if you are in a private taxi or car, you can stop as often and for as long as you like.
The Sunyani Road, which we take into the city, gets very congested for a stretch where the road is being widened and a new overpass is being built. You can buy yellow Vicks cough lozenges there – they seem to be a local speciality. You can lean out the window and gesture to women sitting by the road selling roasted corn or yams or fruit, and call “fa bre me barkun” (bring me one). The current roundabout – the one that’s to be replaced – serves as a stop for trotros, and there you can buy T-rolls (toilet paper), biscuits, bread, plantain chips, bofrots, yams and cement. One day I spotted a man with pink and white blow up plastic …. maybe they were swans …. or perhaps herons ….
There’s also a young man with a special spot beside one of the huge red mounds of earth that’s waiting to be levelled on Sunyani Road. He stands there wearing a small backpack, offering a single pair of very tiny, very clean, toddler’s running shoes for inspection by the passing traffic. Unless selling toiletres or stationery, people are usually only selling one product.
The closer you get to the city the more you can buy: Ghana brand chocolates, handkerchiefs, document folders, towels, tissues, dust brushes and sometimes pillows, twelve at a time stacked improbably on young men’s heads. In one hand they carry the rope that ties the bundle and helps them balance it. There seems to be a gender division of labour, with women monopolising the food items and water, and men, except for ice cream and chocolate, mostly selling the non-edible items.
At lorry and taxi parks there is even more variety, and a lot more noise, as with greater competition, people seem to feel the need for loud promotions: “nsuooooo – puuure watair”, “bofrooots”, “ akosua-ni-markooo” (boiled eggs & chilli), “biscuit”, “Fan Ice Yogo” (icecream & frozen yoghurt), “sweet abrobe” (sliced pineapple). I guess they also have to be loud to get the attention of the bored passengers waiting for their buses to depart, and to compete against the trotro conductors who are calling out destinations: “Nkawka-Nkawkaw-Nkawkaw”, “K’dua-K’dua-K’dua”, “Goaso-Goaso-Goaso”.
At Kejetia (which always sounds like “Ketia” to me), the main trotro station in Kumasi, you can buy, as well as everything above mentioned, toys, dolls, pens, notebooks, mobile phone accessories, torches, gadgets, soap, toothpaste & brushes, razors, perfume, skin creams, detergent sachets, newspapers, juice, meat pies, condensed milk lollies, sponges, jewelery, sunglasses and more, mostly sold from aluminium bowls or trays, or perspex and wooden boxes, carried on the head. Of course. Sometimes in huge stacks. Jewelery is one of the exceptions, being sold in small, glass fronted display cases.
When sitting in a stationary vehicle in a bus station – or in slow moving traffic anywhere – it’s important to ignore the hawkers unless you actually want something. This is easy for Ghanaians, because they are used to it, but it’s all so new to me, and I’m so fascinated that I just want to look, look, look. However even looking is construed as an invitation by the hawkers. It’s a bit like being at an auction, where the slightest gesture is loaded with meaning, and can bring a crowd surging towards you.
Around the perimeter of the station and along some of the bus stalls, women sit surrounded by aluminium basins and closed plastic containers of rice, yams, salads and stews, which you can eat in – from a bowl on a wooden bench behind the stall – or out, from a plastic bag. Some of the larger stalls even have little cafes attached, so you really can eat inside, at plastic clothed tables, with religious posters or sporting calendars to look at, and plastic bowls of water in which to wash your hands.
Kejetia tro-tro station is adjacent to the market of the same name, allegedly the biggest market in all of West Africa, and it is there that you really feel the pressure of population. The whole area around the market and the station is packed with people. Here, you are rarely more than a centimetre from another human being. Perhaps that should be millimetre. This intimacy is complicated from above and below by people’s head loads and the uneven ground: disused railway tracks, broken concrete, puddles, holes in the ground, semi-open drains. You can’t avoid being close. And I haven’t yet even ventured into the middle of the market, just skirted the edges. When I plunge into the centre, which I plan to do soon, you’ll be hearing about it. If I get out alive.
So really, when you sum it all up, a household of 20 people is quite a tranquil place to come home to.