Is it just me, or wouldn’t any rational person assume you should be able to get reasonably good Tex-Mex food in a country where two of the four largest cities are named “Tamale” and “Takorati”?
The answer on Ghanaian Mexican food is a resounding “NO”. For starters, that first town listed above is pronounced “tom-ah-LAY” and beyond that, if a food group doesn’t involve chicken and rice, or fufu, it’s probably not on the menu and it doesn’t merit much shelf space in Ghana.
We did find a restaurant that makes reasonably decent ribs. The consensus is that the ribs are legit, but Michelle still thinks they are too small to come from any real pig she has seen. She wonders if they aren’t really from grass-cutters, a two-foot long West African cane-rat that is sold along the roadside, either freshly killed or flayed with the carcass stretched out on sticks and smoked. One of our friends who teaches self-reliance classes here tells me that grass-cutter farming is a booming, low-cost business enterprise. He claims they taste a lot like chicken…
By the way, the colorful little mutation at the left is the garbage truck that comes down our street every Monday morning. It’s a fully functional dump truck, plays a little jingle that sounds for all the world like an ice cream truck as it toodles down the road, but the neatest thing is if you run out of gas, you just pick it up and carry it to the nearest petrol station. I really wish I had a “Little Tikes” decal to slap on the front.
Forty years ago I arrived in Brazil on my first mission and promptly went into culture shock, due in part to being a transplanted small-town boy from Rexburg, Idaho, (the Cub Scout version of Provo) to Rio de Janeiro, a metropolis of several million souls intoxicated with the good life in the pleasure capital of South America.
Brazil was at the time operating under a military dictatorship, complete with all the cutting-edge efficiency and free-market forces you would expect from a government run by aging generals and patronage.
Despite its amazing natural resources, Brazil was firmly entrenched as a third-world country, even though many of locals would consider sacrificing a wee bit of their beach or soccer time and put in up to 20-30 hours of work each week to catch up with the rest of the world. The local rumor was that the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer with outstretched arms overlooking Rio was poised ready to burst into applause once someone put in an honest day’s work. Winston Churchill once quipped that “Brazil is the country of the future…and always will be.”
As I voiced my opinion at what I viewed as constant stream of the perceived absurdities around me; my senior companion counseled, “Remember elder, it’s not wrong, it’s just different.” And over time, I came to learn that, in many cases, he was right. People in Brazil were rational human beings and their local norms and traditions often made perfect sense, once you walked the proverbial mile in their shoes.
So when I came to Ghana last year, I frequently found myself answering Michelle’s incredulity with that same response. And often, I can eventually find the logic, especially when I talk it through with the locals. The cases below generally do not fit into that category.
“Dumsor” and Dumberer. For about eight years, Ghana has been hampered by a chronic electrical shortage of up to 600 Megawatts, triggered initially by droughts which limited hydroelectric power generation and by frequently damaged natural gas pipelines. The World Bank says that the bigger, long-term problem comes down to persistently poor governmental planning and management. The government’s solution for years has been to institute rolling blackouts lasting up to twelve hours, which cripples local businesses who cannot rely on consistent electrical power and enrages the local populace, who have dubbed the situation “dumsor”, which translates as “on and off” in a local dialect. In a recent state visit to Germany, Ghana’s president conceded to Angela Merkel that he has been derisively labeled “Mr. Dumsor” at home.
Late last year, the government finally arranged for a temporary fix, spending $1.2 Billion dollars to purchase two floating power plants from Turkey that will supply up to 450 Megawatts into the national power grid. The first barge was anchored and turned up offshore, just east of Accra in late December and the blackout situation has gotten appreciably better.
On the down side, in order to fund and fuel these floating behemoth power plants, our electrical and fuel prices just jumped about 30 percent at the first of the year.
But the government seems to be happy: since the barges came on line, the six-story government building behind our apartment has frequently been lit up all night long like a fifty-seven gazillion-watt nightlight. If we close all the drapes tightly and the door to the bathroom with a translucent window we can still sleep at night. You can buy power generating capacity, but you can’t fix stupid.
Speed Bump Specials. I get it that speed bumps are the cheapest way to rein in speeding traffic. But sometimes in Ghana, you wonder if every street commissioner has a brother-in-law in the business of making and selling speed-bumps. In the past four months, they have put in seven monstrous new speed bumps along our five-mile commute to work.
These mounds of concrete are over six feet wide and crest almost a foot high. If you don’t slow down to a very slow creep, you will either flip your car, launch it into a sub-orbital trajectory or just tear out the transmission if you’re lucky. The latest set of three cement monstrosities was laid last month on a stretch of road that is, at most, 200 yards long, ends in a T and already had two sets of rumble strips in it and was already in constant traffic gridlock. You couldn’t get up to 15 MPH on that road before the new bumps went in if you tried.
And this is just the urban variety. When you get out in the intercity highways, you will be zipping along an empty highway at 100km/hour when out of the blue, they have laid a series of speed bumps across the entire road to let you know there is an upcoming minuscule settlement and you are expected to immediately cut your speed in half to avoid serious undercarriage damage. It’s bad enough to face these shakedowns coming into town, but just because they could, I suppose, these car-killers on either side of the town stretch across the entire highway so that you get your teeth rattled both approaching and leaving each town. I am really looking forward to taking a leisurely drive back in the states. I haven’t found anything approaching that here.
Chronological addresses. When I was a kid, before cultural sensitivity, I remember an old Polish joke that went “What do the numbers 1492, 1861, 1776 and 1812 have in common?” Answer: “They are consecutive rooms at the Warsaw Hilton.” Flash forward several decades and across a couple of continents to Ghana, where I noticed that the house numbers on our street, Alema Avenue, range from 1 -22 but appear to be fairly randomly assigned along the road. Not the case, I was assured. For reasons that elude me, but seemed perfectly clear at the time to the Accra Streets Department, address numbers were assigned chronologically, based on when each building permit was granted. I suspect it was just someone with a lot of foresight who just wanted to mess with Google Maps.
Unfinished Business. There is a parable in Luke 14:28-30 suggesting that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that before you start building something, you really ought to figure out whether you can afford to finish it. Actually, in the parable, the Savior appeals to people’s sense of pride to teach the need for planning, suggesting that you are likely to be mocked by your friends if you waste a bunch of money starting various construction projects that you wind up abandoning for lack of foresight and funding.
The good news in Ghana is that pride hasn’t got a toehold on the local construction industry.
The landscape we pass on the way to work is littered with concrete shells of half-finished, abandoned buildings in various gradations of decay.
But hope springs eternal here – there are also a dozen or more cranes within a mile of us, each of them swarming with workers engaged in ambitious new construction projects. It would be fascinating to come back here in a few years and see how many of them actually made it to occupancy and how many have joined the ranks of the conspicuous maze of crumbling concrete towers.