Wednesday, October 22, 2008

First Impressions of Lagos: Ghanaian's Perspective

Last week, I spent three days in Lagos and loved it! Today's blog entry is a conglomeration of all that I found to be interesting about Lagos consisting mainly of how it differed from Accra and in which ways the two cities are similar.

Nigerian People
One of the things that was immediately evident to me is how much more attractive the women in Lagos were than the ones in Accra. They were thinner, taller, had reasonably-sized asses and prettier faces. They also seemed to put more effort into looking good. The only thing I didn't like is that the women tend to be a tad too liberal with the make-up on their faces, but I'm a minimalist when it comes to make-up so make of that observation what you
will. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks Nigerian women are pretty because on my way back to Ghana one employee of Virgin Nigeria asked me at the airport if I was Nigerian, and when I said I am Ghanaian, she responded and I quote "Hardly will you find a very beautiful Ghanaian woman". I could have slapped her! but all her colleagues shared her view. When I got back to Accra, I asked one of my Ghanaian male friends, Ivy-League-educated (whatever that's,..yes, hating), arguably worldly guy, possible womanizer what he thought and he too agreed that Nigerian women are finer, adding however, that they are too sikadicious (Ghanaian term for money-sucking. ie. a woman who drains a man's pocket.) The only person who had a different view is a Nigerian medical student who has lived in Accra for the past seven years. Let's call him Segun. Segun thinks that while Nigerian women may have pretty faces, Ghanaian women have the booooooodaaaaaaaay! He claims that Ghanaian women have what African men want, i.e. ass. lol. and that Nigerian women are too straight, few curves. Nuff said.

On the other hand, it might seem that Nigerian men have it all, the looks (the younger ones are really fit, but as they get older and make more money, their waistlines expand), the money, and the willingness to spend the money on their women.
Yes, the men too are better looking than the Ghanaian men. A Cameroonian friend of mine, a guy used to tease me mercilessly that Ghanaian men have huge noses and are among the most unattractive in Africa. I couldn't really argue with him because that guy was the only Cameroonian I knew and he was attractive. What are the chances that a randomly selected Ghanaian man will be attractive? ...uh...let me leave this alone before i rouse the ire of all the Ghanaian men reading this blog. In Lagos, it was nice to see more men with afros, and to see that unlike in Ghana where certain foods are sold exclusively by women, Nigerian men sold oranges and groundnuts by the roadside. They are also more aggresive. I say this because I've been in Ghana for over two months and I haven't had a single older man proposition me to be his sugar baby but only three days in Lagos, and I had an older married man (mid forties) ask me to be his girlfriend. When I asked whether he was married, he brusquely inquired if I was looking for a husband. I left it at that. Perhaps Ghanaian men are more guarded because I live here whilst the Lagosian wouldn't have to worry about any clashes between me and his madam. It would be convenient for him to have a girlfriend in Accra. Only 45 minutes away by flight, he could easily come over for weekends, have his fun, and fly back in time for work on Monday. Or maybe it was the appeal of the exotic. The self-proclaimed timid man had finally summoned the bravado to reach for the forbidden fruit. He did what I have now learned Nigerian men know how to do best: He took me to the mall, and told me I could have whatever I wanted. In Ghana we call this bO me ka. Wow! The sales-ladies were too excited, they did not seem to have any qualms that a man that old had brought a young lady like me to their shop. They encouraged me to choose, saying "Your Oga says you should pick o". I cringed. This man was not my Oga, dammit! I was just caught in a funny situation and was trying to survive it unscathed. The amusing part of it all, similar to what has been reported of men in Senegal, he told me he loved me. Yeah right! Now i'm receiving emails that read: I WILL SOON BE VERY BUSY SO I'M TRYING TO TIDY UP ONE OR TWO THINGS SO THAT I CAN BE FREE AND COME TO GHANA TO SPEND SOME FEW DAYS WITH YOU. Ouch! What I don't get is how he doesn't ask my opinion on any of this but assumes that because he wants to do this, it is fine with me too. I'm pretending this isn't happening. I find it quite amusing, but I think I have to send an email soon that emphatically discourages this man from making any such plans.

People Selling in Traffic
I haven't been to any other African countries but in both Ghana and Nigeria, sellers bring their items to the buyer in traffic. It can be convenient service as in when I needed to buy MTN units two days ago, and a boy brought be some right when I needed traffic, but it can also be annoying. Read more about commercial activities in traffic here. The only differences I noticed was that besides the boiled groundnuts (Americans call this peanuts) and shaved oranges, the drinks being sold were something called the boost pack drink, coke, and bottled water instead of the Refresh, and Pure water (water that is packaged in plastic sachets) we buy in traffic here in Accra. Speaking of traffic, the congestion in Lagos is far worse than in Accra, so spending three hours every morning on one's way to work is typical. Workers leave home as early as 5 am and get back home as late as 10 pm. Who is watching their kids, are they getting enough rest? In light of the global credit crunch, all Nigerians thinking of returning home in hopes that work life in Lagos is less stressful and thinking that it would be advantageous to escape the crazy work hours on Wall Street should please think again. In Accra, yes, but in Lagos, uh, I don't think so! Another feature of the traffic is the types of cars that can be found on the streets. In the mainland, I saw more taxis and buses. These are painted yellow as in the picture below. There was also a lot more unlawful maneuvering by the drivers, whilst on Lagos Island, Ikoyi, Victoria Island, and Lekki, there were more private cars, nicer looking cars...always with tinted glasses. I hear the tinted glasses says something about the social standing of the car's owner. Dem go kill us o!


When I told one of my Ghanaian friends that I liked Lagos, he was surprised. According to him, he doesn't see what is to like about such a filthy city. Sure, the main streets of Accra are much much cleaner than the streets of Lagos, but hey, people like NYC! Lagos reminded me of NYC. I think the first thing that surprised me about NYC was how dirty the streets were. I don't know how i'd gotten it into my coconut (head) that somehow the US was going to be so clean but I remember being really surprised that people threw away their trash on the streets in NY city.
But the similarity to NYC doesn't end there. Lagos also had really tall buildings. I wouldn't go as far as to call them skyscrapers, but but they have much taller, more imposing buildings than we have in Accra. The gap between the rich and poor is wide. On one side of the street you see the suit-wearing business executives walking into whichever bank or oil company they work at, and on the other side you see bare-chested young men dangerously transporting people on motorcycles. This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is everywhere, but in Nigeria, somehow it seemed ever more remarkable.

I'm not very adventurous when it comes to food. I did not have any Eba or pounded yam. I stuck to rice, chicken, and sauces. For breakfast I had omelets on toast, and tea saturated with milk, and sweetened with cube white sugar. The Nandos at the Palms Mall (Shoprite) had some great grilled chicken though, and Yellow Chile Restaurant on Victoria Island has wonderful atmosphere (kinda like a pub), and delicious stewed escargot and prawns. There are a lot more smokers in Lagos than in Accra, that is, unless all the smokers decided to congregate at yellow chile the night I was there. Ah let me give you one gist (the nigerian term for toli is gist, probably borrowing from the english term from which it was probably derived). When I went to Yellow Chili, I wanted to drink something that could only be found in Nigeria so I asked about Nigerian beers and was told that "Up" was a good Nigerian beer. However the waitress said they were out of "Up" and I ended up having two Gordon's Sparks which got me quite pleasantly tipsy. Yes, yes, I know. I don't drink. This was a one time thing. lol. So the following evening when I had dinner at "La Pizza", an open air restaurant close to the "Great Mall" (Is that what that mall is called? I forget), I asked for "Up". The waiter brings the beer, I read the label and it says "HARP". I couldn't laugh. haha. I knew that Nigerians have a problem pronouncing the h sound but the fact that I had not caught this one and had also called it "Up" for two days was hilarious, Chineke! Just one more peculiar finding: Nigerians eat raw garden eggs. They eat it like one would eat an apple. That was an eye-opener because even though Ghanaians also eat garden eggs, we always eat it cooked.

Movie Theatres which don't show Nigerian Movies

By movie theatres, I mean the one movie theatre that I visited. It's called the Galleria, and is a three or four tiered building, done very much in the style of the movie theatres you'll find in Germany, or the US, with popcorn and soda and all. They even show relatively new movies from the US. Ironic that Nollywood is the fastest growing movie industry in the world, and at the Galleria in Lagos, they are still showing the imported stuff. See I wouldn't be so miffed if the movies were classics, or educative and entertaining independent movies but they're importing all the trash that hollywood churns out, and making Nigerians pay for it. Clearly the demand exists or the Galleria would be out of business, but I can't help thinking that the demand is not so much for the movies but for a nice movie theatre. Like Ghanaians, Nigerians like to flex (show off), and just as Rhapsody, a bar in Ghana is popular not because of the service or the food, but because it looks very nice in there and people go to there to flex, it is possible that the Galleria is also being patronized because of the atmosphere and the flex, not necessarily because of the movies. It is also possible that I am completely wrong about this.


Lagos is easily twice, if not three times as expensive as Accra. Nice hotels in the city like the Eko hotel charge as much as $600 per night. It is not possible to find a hotel for $100 on Victoria Island. Food is just as expensive. Breakfast cost $16 , lunch about $26, and the taxi ride to the airport cost $30 with the taxis painted yellow, and $50 for the taxis that are not painted yellow. It is a fact that Nigeria has more money than Ghana, but I did not expect things to be as expensive as they are. Billboards
Unlike in Ghana where quite a number of our billboards have non-Ghanaian looking people on them, all the billboards that I saw in Lagos had Nigerian-looking people on them. On this I salute Nigerians.

Check out this link to see pictures of Yellow Chili, The galleria, the malls, and more of Ikoyi, Victoria Island, Lagos Island and other places I mentioned.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Living in Ghana - What's Good, What's Not?

I've had some ideas percolating for a while. They're not necessarily related. At least I didn't think they were which is why I haven't written about them till now, but today It occured to me that they're all about life in Ghana, the highs and the ills. So i decided to write a piece in typical cosmo fashion entitled 5 ways to titillate your man till his toes curl. Just kidding. This piece is less exciting than that. What I actually want to share today are 5 things I love about living in Ghana and 5 things that I hate about living here.

Let's deal with the bad first

1. Mosquitos
For two days in the past week, I think my dad forgot to spray my room with insecticide spray so I was under mosquito attack. With every bite, I dreaded that I would soon be coming down with malaria. In some ways, I miss malaria. No kidding. I haven't had it in so long that I think it wouldn't be so bad to get it so I can remember what it feels like. That's easy for me to say of course because I am not allergic to chloroquine so all I did whenever I got malaria in the past was to take my chloroquine course and presto! i'd be well again within 3 days. No big deal. So its not really the getting malaria part that I hate about mosquitos. It's the bites, how it itches, and the annoying buzzing, the droning, the wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee sounds the winged creatures make in my ears that I can't stand! Why did God make mosquitoes?

2. No Shopping
I've never really cared much for clothing shopping. I mostly shopped online when I was in the US, and thankfully, all clothes my size fit well. I don't have the trouble that many Ghanaian women do when they buy jeans and the hips fit but the waist is too loose. Hint, lose some of that behind. haha. But even if i'm not going to buy anything, it is nice to get up and go to the mall, try on some Lord and Taylor clothing, schlepp your boyfriend to victoria's secret, ogle lingerie and amuse yourself. I've always felt an odd sense of schadenfreude in such situations where I know i'm forcing the boy to come and he hates it, but i'm completely loving that even though he's uncomfortable i'm making him do it. haahaa. If you're a guy reading this, please tell us, do guys actually hate going to VS and shopping lingerie or do they just make like they don't like it? I think that if I were a guy, I'd love opportunities to go finger women's underwear, try on feminine scents like the amazing VS very sexy and angels perfumes and watch my girlfriend try on bras. What's not to love about that? But there's none of this in Ghana. I know someone is going to mention the paltry options we have at the A&C and Accra Malls but really, does that inspire anyone to dedicate a whole saturday to shopping?Also I miss Barnes and Noble. I miss bookstores that have a homey feel. It's not that shopping should be for imported stuff only, but the clothing made by Ghanaian designers are not for the average person's pocket. Nallem, one of the Ghanaian designers is selling clothes for GH 80 cedis, and his clothes aren't so many steps ahead in quality that the tailor in a kiosk somewhere in Ashale-Botwe can't make them, so one cannot exactly go clothing shopping for locally made Ghanaian clothes either.

3. Handwashing
I approached ghanaian-style laundry with enthusiasm, tried to be positive about it and see it as exercise. That attitude lasted two weeks, if that. The first time I washed, I had an allergic reaction to either the Omo or Brillant soap I used and the underside of my wrist became raw, itchy and sore by the time I was done with the laundry. What's really terrible is that in Ghana, it is hot, and I sweat (I'm not one of those women who perspire or glow or whatever, I sweat), and so I have to launder my clothes after I've worn them only once, and then if I pile up the laundry, it smells which means that the longest I can go without doing laundry is two weeks. It's not fun.

4. Nosy People
Ghanaians think they have a right to question a grown woman like me about why I don't go to church or why my hair is the way it is, or why I'm not married. All this prying and kvetching is making me rebellious. They seem to miss completely that I'm a 26 year old woman who owes them no explanations about why I don't go to church. It is especially irritating when you consider that they had no idea where I was or what happened to me in the past six years and never bothered to find out, and now they not only form an opinion about my hair but actually express it too. Hmph!

5. Potholes and Speed Ramps
Everywhere you go, speed ramps and potholes abound. I'm exaggerating but if you live at Ashale-Botwe, or Aben wO ha, or Madina, it sure feels that way. It's irksome to have to slow down so often to dodge potholes, negotiate them slowly or go over speed ramps. The frequent changing of gears kills me.

5 things I love about living in Ghana

1. People call me Woarabae
People in Ghana can pronounce my middle name, and they use it all the time. It is such a refreshing change from being just my first name and last name, neither of which is original or inspiring. But Woarabae, now that's at the very least interesting. And now that the original Woarabae has gone to the village ( i think they put stuff, and money in her coffin to help her cross the river that many Akans believe a person's soul crosses in order to get from our world to the next), I feel bound to keep the name alive.

2. Custom-Made Clothing
My aunt bought me 3 pieces of beautiful Ghanaian cloth (4 yards a piece), and then asked her seamstress to come to my house and take my measurements. I asked her to make me clothes that I'd seen in some Boston Proper catalogues that I brought along with me to Ghana from the US. I have no doubt that they clothes are going to turn out great and i'm going to end up with about 5 pieces of clothing all of it costing me no more than GH 60 cedis. That's pretty sweet.

3. Knowing People
Since I've been home, I don't think I've attended a single function without bumping into some old friend. It was such a great feeling to enter the "social center" (this is really a canteen) at Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital today and know 90% of the medical students who came in while I was there eating or to go to the pharmacy to look for a friend, and the person I meet there is someone else I went to high school with, or to walk into Ecobank and see familiar faces all around. I received 3 calls this week from people I haven't spoken to in 8 years, and all because they happened to hear from someone that I was in Ghana, took my number and called me just to say hello, and be buddies again. And it doesn't even feel wierd. I don't think for a second that they're stalking me or worry that someone gave another person my number without first checking with me. I know these people, so even though I haven't seen them in so long, I'm excited to hear from them, and it feels good that they make the time to check on little old me.

4. Living well on GH 200 cedis
In the month of September, I had more fun than I have had in a long long time. I went out more times than I ever did in the US, and my total monthly expense- that is, the money that came from my own pocket -was a grand total of 200 cedis, which is equivalent to $200. The delights of living in Ghana! This does not include rent, or bills (Actually water and electricity cost very little), but still...

5. Random Acts of Kindness
During my first week at work, I mentioned in passing that I was hungry and a young engineer whom I hardly knew at the time brought me chinese food which he had in his car. I was floored! Why? Because I wouldn't have given my chinese food to a stranger who didn't even know I had food. I was so impressed and thankful and, I shared the food with one of our drivers who also shared his portion with two other people and the whole cycle of sharing that I witnessed was quite moving. Soon after, another old friend gave me two free tickets to a club, then yet another gave me tickets to a concert, and it seems as if it has been an unending cycle of giving. I mentioned earlier that my aunt bought me the pieces of cloth, and even a stranger paid my tro-tro fare for me one time from Madina to Ashale-Botwe. The fare cost 30 pesewas but I was so touched by it and thanked him effusively. I need to relearn how to give like that.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Rasta Man in Ghana

In my very first blog entry entitled "Getting back on the road", I mentioned my brush with Rastafarian culture in Ghana. It’s an underground, non-conformist, alternative sub-culture. They’re almost all unwed men, and they look like demi-gods. Kinda like what one would get if Yaa Asantewa ( a Ghanaian heroine) had a baby with Nana Bosompo (the sea god). Several weeks ago when I went to the Accra cultural centre to meet my friend Liz, a host of them swooped on me. Then I started speaking twi, and they realized I wasn’t an african-american chick, but still they were interested in talking. A decade or so prior when I was growing up in Ghana, I’d internalized the popular view of rasta men as nothing more than weed-smoking, strange-mannered recalcitrants bound for psychiatric institutions. But for the first time ever, I didn’t see the Ghana man with loc-ed hair as the other; Being the true daughter of Asaase Yaa (Earth God) with baby locs that I am now, I was right at home with them.

I was also mighty curious. I told one of the guys that I liked his hair, and while we were exchanging hair regimens, a grungy-headed rasta man joined us. Soon afterwards, a bald-headed fellow started to ridicule our newcomer in taunting shouts of "kwasia, EnE wo so wo se woYE rasta (tr: foolish man, today you too claim to be a rasta). He jeeringly indicated that he never dreamt that our dreadloced newcomer would go that way, and called him a hypocrite. I asked why and he continued that some time in the past when others had worn their hair longer, our rasta man, who was then bald-headed had called them names, said they were weed-smokers, and been generally antagonistic. But now that he had seen that many of the guys who loc-ed their hair had managed to leave the country, he too had loc-ed his hair. At hearing this, my ears perked up and I prodded my new friend for more details. He called our rasta man a phony saying that he was wearing his hair that way to attract white girls and foreigners. I was rather disappointed to learn that what I’d initially thought to be a cool counter-culture; a rare oasis of non-conformist creative folk was merely a breeding ground for ordinary Ghanaian men aspiring to leave the land of their birth by any means necessary, in this case by wooing a gullible foreigner.

When the excitement had waned, one rasta man with a winning smile invited me to see his shack/store where he made drums, I obliged since Liz was still nowhere to be found and all attempts to reach her by phone had proved futile. On the way, many of the rastas called out greetings which made me feel a sense of belonging. When we got “home”, I pointedly asked them if they were just doing this to get out of the country, but they denied and assured me that they were true rastas who believed that their hair was their glory which is why they kept it that way. They heartily welcomed me and showed me their posters of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife empress Wayzaro Menen, telling me that just like his majesty the emperor’s wife, I too am a queen. Now that felt good. I don’t remember the last time a regular Ghana man called me a queen. They were buttering me up, and I was sizing them up. Then one of them asked me to go buy weed so we could smoke it as a way to initiate me into the family. I was alert, and saw this as a form of extortion, and their messed up way of getting me to purchase free weed for them. I declined and testily questioned why I had to be the one to buy the weed that we were all going to smoke for my initiation ceremony, adding that I’d not asked to become part of their little family. They let that alone, switched tactics and tried to entice me into buying their patchwork skirt. The idea was original and the pieces of fabric used were very beautiful, but the skirt's finishing was poor. I tried it on anyway, and though it was ill-fitting,my new friends all claimed I was a delightful sight to behold. Yeah right! Thankfully my friend Liz called me right about when I needed an excuse to leave and I escaped to meet her.

I’ve thought about these rasta people since then, and I’ve wondered if they’re really just doing this to get out of Ghana. The bible says whatever fills a man’s heart so he speaketh. Well, don’t quote me on that, but you get the drift. haha. After cogitating on this for a while, I couldn’t help mentioning it at work this week, and asking why a white girl or foreigner would be more likely to be attracted to a rasta man than a bald-head. One of my colleagues said it is because they look more indigenous. hmm. Another said that the rasta men tended to have more time for women because they did not have regular 9-5 job so they could travel around the country with the girls and see them whenever they wished. I, in typical pedantic, not true to Ghanaian style said that perhaps it is because they have an air of mystery about them, and they seem to own their blackness and that kind of confidence and self-acceptance is attractive -all bullshit I picked up from the US maybe, but still a plausible reason.

It could also be simply because these men are good-looking. I don’t mean to objectify them(cough). Two years ago, a good friend called me out for doing this by saying that "We both attended splendid liberal arts college that taught us to disclaim our actions while commiting the very actions that we are disclaiming. You are judging me and being critical. There is nothing wrong in doing that". Since then, i've been careful when i'm doing this, but in this case, the feminist in me sees harm in objectifying men but i'm compelled to do so to make my point. Apologies in advance. That done, a look at both men in this photo reveals their gorgeous ebony skin, ribbed abs, and genuine smiles. If you ask me, they look shag-worthy (gulp!). They do not seem to own much, or be well schooled but they tend to speak an average of a quarter-dozen Ghanaian languages and possess multiple talents. For example, the guy who took me to meet his rasta family made and sold drums for a living, did his own hair, could tie a nice african head-gear with dexterity, could sew moderately well, spoke hausa, ewe, ga, twi, english, and God knows which other languages with ease, had this rasta religious thing going on, and was quite physically attractive. As if that were not enough, he also happened to be part of a local band that was good enough to be invited to play at the labadi beach hotel every Wednesday night! Will someone please convince me that such a man is not at least a bit intriguing?

I still don’t know if there is one particular thing about being rasta that gives men the allure but the combination of all their typical characteristics undeniably adds a touch of coolness to a son of Tweadeampong (God). Forget white girls and African-American women. These Ghanaian rasta men are interesting characters. If your kind of guy is the typical bald-headed, clean-shaven middle-aged banker type with a growing belly, flashy car and fat wallet who probably never gets the chance to leave the office long enough to do anything interesting, then clearly the rasta man isn’t it. But if you want someone to relate to you on a soul-to-soul level, in a let’s-just-hang, drink kube (coconut) and learn how to beat drums kind of chilling, then there’s really nowhere else to find ‘em but in rasta-ville at the Accra cultural centre.