Monday, March 9, 2009

Urban (and Exurban) Rhythm

Urban congestion in Kumasi is shocking. Though it is far worse in Accra, the traffic problems facing Kumasi – and this is a city whose entire metro area, extending out some 300 squared kilometers, rests at around 2.5 million – are staggering. Pedestrians are seriously imperiled in many places due to a lack of sidewalks, or sidewalks completely taken over by street vendors. Gritty and apparently fearless, the vendors in question risk life and limb, often darting into traffic to try to sell everything from dried fruit, roast bat meat (seriously, see below) to mobile phone credits to passing motorists. Traffic is unpredictable, moving from a brisk clip to an immobile lurch often in the blink of an eye. While traffic control devices are observed in places, order in general is beginning to break down as the city expands. Long-time observers will tell you that Kumasi is beginning to morph into a slightly smaller version of Accra – a city choked by insufficient lanes, too many motorists and a breakdown in law and order on the roads. Indeed, Accra has so heavily regressed that a strip of destroyed plastic posts marks a stretch leading into the city from the North. I am told that these posts used to work to divide lanes until someone hit one of them one day, and it was realized that they were not concrete at all, but rather just hard plastic. From then on, cars just drove through and over them, as was most convenient.

Roads themselves can often be a problem. Series of potholes mire routes, often leading to cars driving very quickly towards each other on the same side of the street in some perverse game of chicken; often narrowly missing each other. The skeletal burnt out chassis of past wrecks intermittently dot major traffic arteries like the remains of long extinct dinosaurs. These however, fail to serve as forewarning to drivers who have grown inured to these macabre landmarks. Though Kumasi boasts one of the countries few railheads, which gives it theoretical rapid freight access to Accra (and with it goods shipped along the Atlantic), due to poor maintenance of rail lines, and numerous delays (often causing goods shipped by rail, a mere 300km journey to take as long as week), trucks darting along the patchwork of roads that link Kumasi to Accra remains the predominant means of goods transit, with overweight trucks often snapping axels while traversing potholes and finding themselves stranded.

Kumasi is the capital of the Ashanti Region and the second-largest city in Ghana. The population of the inner city is just over 1.17 million people, but urban sprawl outwards has made it indistinguishable from its equally unplanned surrounding villages, resulting in the above mentioned metropolitan area population figure. Kumasi is an anchor of the Ashanti region, immediately in the hart of Ghana and thus the prosperity of these surrounding towns is tied to the economic and cultural health of Kumasi, which have flown into the city. In this sense, ongoing suburban expansion of Kumasi will reduce urban poverty by attacking the problem of rural to urban migration at its root by paradoxically eliminating the surrounding rural stretches that remain, or by pushing them farther from the urban core. This in turn can cause a whole new set of problems for the city. As these formerly rural and small town people gain affluence and achieve middle class, the plight of the car-based commuter is sure to plunge further into a phantasmagoria of traffic nightmare. The surrealism of inner city driving cannot be expressed in words. It must be experienced.

King Osei Tutu I of Asante founded Kumasi in the late 17th Century, on the advice of his senior priest: Komfo Anokye. (Anokye was also a formidable general and many, many cultural sites and public institutions, including the teaching hospital in Kumasi are named for him.) Situated at the crossroads of the Trans-Saharan trade routes, the town rapidly grew from a small imperially administered outpost to a trade town. It eventually became the capital of the Ashanti Empire as well as the cultural seat of the Kingdom. It boasts the first national cultural center (which I live across a major traffic artery from – a rare stretch of urban green space, dotted by the occasional museum, art gallery or library. It also boasts a rather nice, outdoor bar, which on Sundays at midday is unvaryingly populated by savage old drunks who make angry passes at the bar girls before collapsing upon themselves and being thrown out – and it is this type of alcohol abuse which leads many Africans not to drink at all. It is the hard-core alcoholics who make for the only point of reference.)

Kumasi had earned the accolade as the “Garden City” of West Africa due to the (relative) abundance of fauna and flora interspersing physical urban developments. The cultural center is dotted by a large number of these fauna trees which, without fail are filled with bats – which apparently have become something of a local culinary delicacy; granted though it is not one seems to have much found much of a taste in the circles in which I travel. These bats, beginning around 3 every afternoon take to flight in great swarms; blackening the air above the trees with their numbers, and sailing over merchants who sell their less fortunate brethren roasted on sticks in front of said trees. How they manage to get the bats out of these trees (as the bats perch very high up) remains a mystery to me.


While the Ashanti people are known for commerce, their favored pastime remains indisputably funeral attendance. While funerals are popular across Ghana, it is in the Ashanti region that funerals take special precedence in social life. While Ghanaians tend to be rather tight with their purse strings, a funeral turns everyone into a spendthrift. People go absolutely funeral mad. Prime time television boasts an hour-long program that features nothing but semi-identical funeral listings. People take out full-page ads in the newspapers, with particularly wealthy families even purchasing enormous roadside billboards announcing funerals. With the hullabaloo surrounding funerals, it is often almost a month before the deceased are actually put into the ground. Time must be given for any relatives living overseas (and special prestige is given to those funerals that can boast the greatest number of ex-pat relatives showing up) and to plan the party, catering, and drink service. Funerals here are not the dour affairs of the west, but rather are like Irish wakes to a factor of ten. They feature singing, dancing, and drunken merriment for which no expense is spared. They dwarf weddings in their scope. People make whole weekends of running the funeral circuit and employers do not hesitate to give employees the afternoon off to attend a funeral, despite the fact that many do every week.

This fixation on funerals seems counter-intuitive but in a way it almost feels healthier. Why not celebrate the life of a departed loved one rather than simply mourning the loss, though the element of keeping up with the Jones’, or in this case the now late Annan’s or, if you will, ex-Tokaradi’s does have a certain garishness about it. Commerce patterns reflect the prestige placed funerals. A vendor near my flat flogs deluxe coffins by the side of the road – these tend to look like a combination of a very chic refrigerator and 50s Cadillac, complete with ostentatious angelically themed hood ornaments.


The predominant national passion, when not ecclesiastical (see my previous post) or post-mortem is, of course, football. Ghana is the football powerhouse of West Africa, and people take a deep pride in knowing that the countries top players, including the sublime Michael Essien, play for top European clubs. People are not only avid followers of the local leagues as well as European leagues. (As far as local leagues go, you are either a Kumasi Asante Kotoko supporter or; a supporter of the wonderfully named, Accra Hearts of Oak; determined of course by geographical proximity to said club.) The favorite European clubs, of course, are those like Chelsea that boast a large number of African players (including the aforementioned Essien) or, those that are repeatedly successful; resulting in near omni-present support for Manchester United. Strangely, one of the most loved players in Ghana is the Liverpool employed, Finnish centre back, Sami Hyypia. He is something of a sex symbol to a certain subset of Ghanian women, but his popularity as a player among Ghanaian men remains somewhat inexplicable. The national team perform remarkably well internationally - especially for a country of Ghana's size and economic means, and are favorites to advance past the group stage in the forthcoming 2010 South Africa hosted world cup (an event incredibly heavily advertised across Ghana). The recent defeat in the final of the inaugural African Confederations Cup by the DR Congo has resulted in a national depression across Ghana, the end of the game appropriately coinciding with the onset of a massive thunderstorm. Ever resilient though, many people are already pointing to next years Africa Cup of Nations as a vehicle for both revenge and to re-embolden the national character. The success of the countries president is in some ways weighed by football results, and President John Atta-Mills appeared visibly distraught when briefly pictured on television upon Ghana going down 1-nill at the beginning of the second half. He was not shown when the game ended after the final result had been marked at 2-nill and Ghana’s defense had all but given up the ghost. Indeed, the controversial Atta-Mills may have detected the grim harbinger of knives being sharpened back in Accra with the final whistle.


As for me, I am enjoying my work here. I have been attached to the Research and Development unit at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (and there is Mr. Anokye name) and predominantly work on public health outreach (as it relates to urban planning) and research methodology. The work is interesting and my co-workers excellent, but I find myself working regular 12-hour days - such is the norm among professionals in West Africa. This position should also see me doing some travel across Africa as part of an anti-malarial availability project (the irony is not lost on me, having suffered from malaria while on anti-malarials) all of which I will of course document. I will continue as regular posting then, as can be managed.

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