Sunday, September 27, 2009

Much has changed in Accra but not everything...

ACCRA, Ghana -- The last time I was in Ghana was 1985, when I had just finished two years of Peace Corps service and my wife and I had traveled there from Togo in order to catch an Egypt Air flight to Cairo. Here's what I wrote in my diary on Oct. 13, 1985:

"We didn't particularly enjoy Accra. It's a decaying city where it's hard to find items we would take for granted in Lome. The first night we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Fewer than half the items available on the menu were available. On the second day, we took a taxi into the decaying and filthy downtown and found a decaying hotel on the ocean. We looked down on a once-beautiful swimming pool that was now empty and decaying. We were very thirsty. All they had to drink was beer and tonic. I didn't want beer or tonic so I stayed thirsty. When I asked for a glass of water the water said 'It is finished.' That remark will be one of my strongest impressions of Ghana: 'The water is finished.'"

Note the number of times I used the word "decaying" in that short passage.

Those were the bad old days, when Ghana had a dysfunctional economy and food shortages so severe that Peace Corps Ghana had to truck in food from Togo for its volunteers. Fortunately, those days are gone and Ghana now has a vibrant economy and democracy that recently had a peaceful transfer of power after a closely contested election. That is why President Obama had chosen to make it the destination of his first trip to Africa as president.

I arrived here yesterday for my second visit. The Global Health Council manages the AIDS Candlelight Memorial, the world's largest and oldest AIDS awareness raising event, and we are meeting with our regional coordinators from around the world. I found that many things have changed, and for the better, but a few have not.

On my first night in Accra, my two colleagues and I went out to eat at Buku, an African restaurant in the Osu neighborhood, as the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa had recommended it for its Ghanian, Nigerian, Togolese and Senegalese food. It was a lovely place but I ran into a similar problem from my first trip, albeit no quite so severe. They had no dressing for my salad, they had run out of guinea fowl and had no ginger beer. But they did have most things and we had a delicious dinner in the open air and under a straw roof. I had groundnut (peanut) stew with goat (instead of guinea fowl!), fried plantains and Star beer. All in all, Ghana is vasty improved and I am thrilled to be back in West Africa.

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