24 September 2008

What I miss about West Africa - and what I don't

I'm spending a few weeks in northern England, preparing for a move to London. After a few days I am used to the weather again; but in other respects the UK feels quite alien. Here are a few things I have found myself missing about life in Ghana:

1. The way people dress. Wearing clean, colourful and well-tailored clothes seems to be a source of pride for Ghanaians everywhere; I am shocked at how little many Britons seem to care about their appearance, wandering around in dirty T-shirts and ill-fitting tracksuits.

2. Courtesy to strangers. In Accra, it's quite usual to greet other passengers in a share taxi or minibus with a low-key "good morning". Anyone doing so in a London bus would get embarassed looks in return and quite possibly a torrent of verbal abuse.

3. A nod and a smile. Walking down a street in Accra at night, I know I stick out. But if I walked past a group of young men, my instinct would be to nod at them, smile and maybe say hello in passing. I would expect them to reciprocate, even more so in rural areas.

Walking around parts of north London a few days ago, my instinct was quite different. I averted my gaze from passers-by and walked fast so as to indicate that I was "minding my own business". There aren't many young people hanging around on street corners, but those who are there exude an air of menace (they are usually harmless, of course - but perceptions matter).

There are other things I don't miss:

1. Tropical fruit - mangoes and papaya especially. This surprised me, because I love all tropical fruit and devour it in large quantities. But the apples and blackberries which are all over rural England in September are equally delicious.

2. Uneven streets and pavements. Walking along a typical street in Accra is an obstacle course of open drains, potholes and cracked slabs. It's worse for pedestrians than for motorists. I used to think UK pavements were shockingly uneven, but maybe they have got better, or else my standards have slipped.

3. The humidity. I'm a dry kind of guy. I like mountains and deserts. The UK isn't exactly dry, but at least I don't wake up in the morning drenched in sweat.

How long does it take to adjust? The plane from Accra to Heathrow was a mix of British, Ghanaians and British-born-but-still-partly-Ghanaians. Almost all spoke with 100% London accents. At least, they sounded a lot more authentically London than I ever will.

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