Monday, June 18, 2012

Tro-tros and other findings (Week 2)

I’ve been here for two weeks now and would say that I’m starting to learn how to live in Kumasi. I manage to feed myself on fried rice, a dish of which anyone will get tired of half-way through the first portion and that really isn’t the most convenient for a sensitive stomach. I know where I can see the football games I want to see. I can find my way to the most basic services in the town. More importantly, I’m learning to behave like the locals when things happen slowly; I’m learning to wait! I can proudly say that I do not instantly start snapping at people and behaving badly once something takes a longer time than planned. In addition, I’m adjusting to the heat: yesterday, for the first time, I sat myself by free will in the sun without any fear of dying on the spot! Of great help in adjusting to the local lifestyle is the basic set of stuff one should always carry with himself: a camera, water, sunscreen and a good book.

Our small development project is starting to take shape. I’ve been running around town talking to headmasters of vocational and technical schools in order to make sure that someone will actually attend the seminar we’re organizing. What is different from organizing an event like this in for example Finland is that here, things are still very much done by the means of face-to-face interaction. For me, that means a lot of sitting in tro-tros. That’s one way of seeing a new city, isn’t it?

Standing still in traffic has made me realize a couple of pieces of ingenuity of the tro-tro system. When in a traffic jam, you actually find yourself at a small supermarket. As soon as the car slows down to about walking speed, there will be a line of vendors wandering around the car. They sell water, spring rolls, doughnuts, fried bananas, Menthos, soap… You name it! I’ve had some satisfying lunches just sitting on my behind, shopping through the window. You can also get more credit for your prepaid calling card. There also seems to be an informal system for a kind of buss lane on the roads. At rush hour, it is perfectly ok for the tro-tros to use the roadside for getting forward. What is beautiful is that, despite the absence of much control by authorities, no other cars use this method! It’s one of those unspoken rules. Basically, that’s the notorious, inefficient informal sector for you!

The banking sector, on the other hand, seems to have gone nuts in Ghana. Due to some unfortunate events, I’ve had to be in some contact with them. There is a spot in the KNUST campus where I counted the offices of five different banks (Barclay’s, Standard Chartered, Ghana Commercial Bank, HFC Bank and EcoBank) within a few steps from each other. Just around the corner, I found two more (CAL Bank and United Bank of Africa). Amongst poor university students! I don’t know much about the rest of the world, but coming from Finland this seems like a bit of exaggeration (or lack of regulation?). And  I was worried about getting cash here…

My good deed of the week was to help out in the ASK Project, another project driven by AIESEC that targets local youth for raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. The project is lacking personnel, so I jumped in to give a lecture at a junior high school in Ejisu. This is one of those small, iconic development projects that don’t seem to bring much new substance to the community development arena, but obviously addresses a very important issue. Moreover, it was actually great fun to go talk with local teenagers about… well, sex.

I’ve had one more interesting encounter. Outside PPAG, a NGO that provided us with some HIV/AIDS schooling, there is a tiny booth. In the tiny booth, there’s a small man selling water and a sweet, non-alcoholic malt beverage called Schweppes Malt (I respect Ghanaians for not calling it non-alcoholic beer, which happens in Finland). I wasn’t able to catch his name, so I will call him Ron for now. Ron has built himself a high throne of stacked plastic garden chairs. So he sits there on his throne all day, feet dangling in the air, selling the two products he has. Having a bottle of water here, I experienced my first tropical rain. You don’t want to be outside then, so Ron invited me over to his booth. Nice gesture of him, but he refused to give me a chair from his pile of about fifteen but rather made me sit on the floor. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but has two huge books on his fridge: one on chemistry and one on microbiology. I have yet to find out whether he has read them. Curious character, anyway.

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