5 August, 11:30pm GMT – Central Market, Kumasi
We spent the day with the three Unite for Sight volunteers working with Friends Eye Clinic; they live in an apartment above their clinic just down the road from our hotel. The three volunteers are Chloe from Middlebury, Pooja from Princeton, and Emily C from UC Berkeley. It was Chloe's birthday, so the family of the Friends Eye Clinic ophthalmologist (Dr. Wanye, pronounced Wan-yeh) made her a cake. After having chocolate cake for breakfast, we took the chrochro into downtown Kumasi.
The chrochro is a network of vans that carry 15-20 passengers each that serves as the public transportation of Kumasi. The drivers work independently, but they are all registered, stop at a set of agreed upon (but unmarked) spots, and charge a set fare per person for each stretch of a trip. If you walk along a road outside Kumasi, you will inevitably find a group of people huddled somewhere along the shoulder. If you stand with that group, a van will eventually stop (if it has room) and everyone pushes their way on. A fare collector who sits in the second row of the van collects a fee based on how far you say you want to go. Each stop is a suburb or landmark, so we for instance take the chrochro regularly from Trede (where our hotel is) to Central Market (the center of the city where there is a chrochro depot) for GHC1 per person. Taxis are more comfortable and easier to find, but the same ride costs GHC3 per person after haggling the price down, and the driver may not know where you are going or drop you off at the wrong place. Somehow, the chrochro thrives as an autonomous entity, built from the ground up by drivers, not by infrastructure. You can read a better explanation of the elegant mess that is the chrochro system here.
In Kumasi, Bernard, Dr. Wanye's nephew, was our guide through Central Market, a sprawling network of booths or blankets spread along dozens of sidewalks and alleys that make up the second largest market in all of Africa. The booths were organized somewhat into sections for fruit, meat, clothing, fabric, beauty products, and other goods. There are small grocery stores and pharmacies as well, but everyone it seems buys much of their clothing and food here or at similar roadside markets. We stopped at a few booths to buy cloth, which sells for about GHC5/yard, which we're planning to take to a seamstress to make into dresses, shorts, and skirts. There are some pre-made Ghanaian style dresses here, but seamstresses and cloth market booths are everywhere, so it seems as though people buy just their Western-style clothes from markets and get their rest of their clothes handmade from cloth they purchase (the pre-made dresses seem to only attract obruni).
Adjusting to Ghanaian culture begins with accepting their perspective of foreigners, or obruni (literally "white person"). Locals will often call out "obruni!" when they see us walk or drive past, but it's not meant to be discriminatory. Calling out "obruni!" is simply a greeting; if you reply with "obibini!" (literally "black person"), they will get excited, shake your hand, and smile. Ghanaians are very polite and generous, especially to obruni. They will sometimes let you cut the line for the chrochro, offer you a gift or special price for a market good, or strike up a conversation with you about your visit. There are touristy spots known as "obruni places", upscale international cuisine restaurants that serve mostly obruni clientele. We eat at such restaurants (Venus and the Chinese restaurant included) a few times a week. They are comfortable, give good service, and have an expansive menu, but they rarely serve local dishes and don't really let you experience the culture. We use them as a nice retreat from the sounds and smells of the city to food and atmosphere we're more familiar with.
There are also markups, or "obruni prices", at local markets. Vendors assume you don't know what a fair price is for goods, and so will start bargaining way too high with the hopes that you take the price immediately. To help us get a good feel for the markets, Bernard told us what a good price is for goods we wanted, which is normally about half of the starting price, so we always start at 1/3rd of the asking price. Because they assume you have lots of money that you're willing to spend, vendors will call out to you (usually with "ssssst", which means "hey, you"), grab your wrist, or pinch you. Vendors excitedly called out "Indian?" to Shreya and Pooja, since Bollywood movies are popular here. Many couldn't understand that you could be North American and not Caucasian, so they didn't believe Pooja when she told them she lived in the US or Shreya when she told them she lived in Canada. Similarly, when I explained to one of the nurses that DC is sunnier and hotter this time of year that it is in Ghana, he didn't understand how I could be from there and be so pale. For most of the people we've met, living a few hours outside your hometown is a big deal, and almost no one has traveled outside of Ghana.
The UOregon folks had the same experience, and this article about perceptions of foreigners in Ghana sums it up pretty nicely. They also explored the Kumasi market, in all its intensely chaotic glory. For anyone who can, I would recommend walking around the Kumasi market at night. We nearly got lost there trying to find some good quick food after all the shops had closed and stumble upon an open field of abandoned train tracks, where hundreds of people were cooking their dinners over open fires behind the shop stalls.
For Chloe's birthday, we ate at Moti Mahal, an Indian obruni restaurant. Kate wanted to meet us on the way, so we took the chrochro to the main traffic circle and waited. At the traffic circle, a woman in a pink dress came up and hugged Ricarda, who didn't know who she was and replied "no, thank you", assuming she was a street vendor. Turns out it was Kate! The food was good, but not spectacular, but the service was fantastic. We were the only people in the restaurant, and afterwards we had the sports bar to ourselves to play pool and watch the Olympics. So far, we've been able to catch snippets of the Olympics in nearly every restaurant we've been to, but unfortunately the coverage is by the national news channel and gets cut off by the nightly news or other shows. Today we watched 2km steeplechase, and hopefully we'll be able to see more track & field before the games are over.