Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Coca Cola Eid

In honor of today's Eid holiday in Ghana - the end of the fasting-days holy month of Ramadan for Muslims worldwide - I'm posting a photo of a Coke bottle.  Hey, it's a special Coke bottle.

I had a lot of fun this past Christmas shooting some photos of folks holding the Santa-adorned 2 liter bottles of Coca Cola found in Accra.  Now, seems Coke doesn't just do special branding for Christmas, but for Ramadan too.  Which, in a society with a diversity of faiths, is a good thing.

Though I didn't do any special Coke-bottle photo shoots with this Ramadan design, I thought it was still a fun (if very commercial…) way to celebrate.  Happy Eid everybody.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Biggest Mass on the Road

Last weekend I went on my first big-group bike ride.  

I'd heard of rides like Critical Mass, where a large group of riders pedal slowly over city streets, a car-shutting-out celebration of self-propelled transportation.  But I'd never participated in one.

I've been lucky to meet a few serious Accra bikers through the local Chain Gang riding group, and one of them called me up to say there was a bike event Saturday morning.  I should come down to Accra's main stadium ready to register and ride.

I expected something small, but boy was I wrong.  This ride had a sponsor - milk-powder brand Cowbell, whose cartoon-cow mascot I think I've fallen in love with - and hundreds of participants.

After picking up my deep blue Cowbell t-shirt (I was Semi-Skimmed Cowbell for the day, though I envied those who were Cocount-flavored) we set out past Accra's iconic Independence Arch.

It was pure joy on the streets, then, as what must have been around 500 bikers - used to being pushed around by cars and trucks much bigger than us - transformed ourselves by mass into the biggest vehicle on the road, claiming the streets for two wheels.

But bigger than the feeling of bicycle empowerment - that heady take-over of the streets that Critical Mass riders in the US celebrate - was my sense of wonder that this was happening in Accra.  I was in Africa, for goodness sake, where it's supposed to be all disease, destitution, and disorganization.  Yet here I was in a band of biking brothers bigger than any I'd experienced anywhere else.  And we'd actually started on time.

I soon discovered that large-group rides have some down sides, like the constant need to keep your own wheels, pedals, and handlebars at least a few inches separate from your neighbor's.  But there were friendly fellow riders to talk to, taxi drivers to shame as they tried unsuccessfully to cut through us, and photos of this to-me-historic occasion to snap.

And, there were fun bike tricks to watch from the hot-shot teenage contingent on the ride: wheelies, spins, a guy standing up on his crossbar, another lifting a friend atop his shoulders.  One of the riders appeared to doing the whole 15 kilometer course with no front wheel.

As I and my 500-or-so friends paraded between Danqah and Nkrumah circles - two of Accra's most iconic and heavily traffic-ed roundabouts - cars, trucks, and pedestrians halted to let us pass.  And then, as one single body, we pulled the largest trick of the ride: getting through downtown Accra on a market-day morning.

The central area of Accra is a blocks-long market spilling over with horn-honking taxis, harried shoppers, calling-out saleswomen, and dozens of teenage girls carrying other people's purchases on their heads.  It's a jammed-packed part of town, and I wasn't sure the planners were thinking straight when they chose this route.  But we all got through ok, a mass of cyclists sticking so tight to each other even the market's thousands of hurrying pedestrians couldn't get across the road till we went past.

After winding through Accra central we soon arrived back at the stadium from which we had started, where entertainment, raffle prizes, and of course Cowbell drinks were offered to the masses.

I rode away with a big smile, a few new friends, and of course a blue Cowbell t-shirt.

Hey, looks like I'm not the only one who is falling in love with that mini-skirted mascot.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Man with the Eggs on his Head

This past Saturday I did an amazing thing in Accra - I went on a large-group bicycle ride with about 500 other cyclists.  Coordinated in our blue Cowbell (the milk-powder brand that sponsored the ride) t-shirts, we rolled through the streets of Accra, a living mass.  Police held traffic at intersections, bystanders lined up to wave, and we were jubilant in our momentary take-over of the city's traffic-ed streets.

While most of us pedaled sedately along, as is wise in a group that size, some young guys couldn't resist the occasional show-off trick.

But the best riding-trick of the day was The Man with the Eggs on his Head.

This man did the whole 15 kilometer (about 10 miles) ride, start to finish, with at least 12 cartons of fresh eggs (count 'em for yourself!) balanced on his noggin.  That's talent.

For most of the ride he was the leader, in fact, setting the pace for the rest of us down Accra's uptown Oxford Street shopping strip, around the double-wide Ring Road to Nkrumah Circle, then straight through the Saturday market-morning madness of Accra Central.

And what's more, if you take a closer look at this photo…

…you'll see he's doing it all with half a handlebar!

About two-thirds of the way through the ride, I started trying to make my way to the front of the pack to get some close-up photos of this extremely balanced individual.  It was tough going, though, as we were riding bunched-up on confined streets chock-full of fellow cyclists.  Clipping another guy's pedal or running into someone's bike tire was a constant worry, and I was having trouble moving forward.

I finally found The Man with the Eggs on his Head, though, in the middle of a pack just behind the leaders.  "Ah, I've got him," I thought, and whipped out my camera.

But the moment I started snapping he took off through the crowd, intent on regaining his place at the very head of the column.  I tried to chase him through the mass of cyclists, but simply couldn't keep up.  He was faster and more maneuverable through the crowd than I.

He was so intent on getting back to the front that, at one point, he got off his bike, pulled it over a street-center median, and rode forward against the car traffic on the other side.  All with those eggs still balanced in the airspace above him.

It's not every day a biker has the privilege of getting beat by a guy with 36 dozen eggs on his head, and riding with only half a handlebar to boot.  I had to simply applaud and give up my chase.

Too bad he didn't drop them.  We could have all had a nice egg scramble off the frying-hot pavement of tropical Accra.

I'll feature more writing and photos from this ride soon, but for now, I just wanted to give this guy his due.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is the Normal That I Bring With Me More Normal Than the Normal That I Find Here?

I've tried to refrain from posting very much about Accra's perceived everyday oddities.  I'm a guest in Ghana, after all, and loudly proclaiming that the normal I bring with me is more normal than the normal that I find here feels a little prejudicial.

But, if I'm going to get my blog quotient up, I need fodder for quick posts.  And, now that I have a phone with a (very poor) camera inside it, I can snap the stand-outs of daily life any time.

We'll put this photo in the "How the Heck Did This End Up on the Shelf of a Fancy Grocery Store in Ghana?" category.

And on aisle 5, between the Fairy detergent orbs and the latex doctors mitts,
a box of Subway-brand plastic gloves, polyethylene for that filmy freshness.
Apparently, next time I need a bunch of Subway-sandwich-shop logo-ed plastic gloves for my everyday life in Accra, I'll know where to go.

But with the absence of Western-branded food places here, for the actual sandwich, I'd have to fly one in.  So much for eating fresh.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is Africa Scary?

"Is Africa scary?" my niece asked me recently.

I was visiting my home country, the United States, for a few weeks, and had been trying to persuade her to visit me in Accra.

Given the bad-news reputation of the continent - wars, pirates, dictators, famine, mosquitoes and disease - it was a fair question.  I was quaking in my boots myself, I'll admit, the first time I boarded an airplane bound for that large land mass across the Atlantic.

But this week I've been thinking about a different question: Are the US and the UK scary?  And I've had to answer: Um, yes.

With the US still recovering from a greed-driven recession, narrowly enduring a debt crisis seemingly created by self-interested politicians, and now watching its financial markets in a fearful free-fall, it does seem like a scary place.  And with disparity of wealth in the States on the rise, how long until resentment over the riches of others helps drive a major societal uprising?  Frightful stuff.

Ghana, by contrast - where poverty can be much more in-your-face and yet the fear of violence and crime is much lower than in some US neighborhoods, where the economy appears to be booming - seems a positively refreshing and stable place.

Riotous looting in the streets of Accra?  Nope.  Just a regular day
in the always-busy downtown market district.
Then there are, of course, the nights-on-end of hooliganism that have plagued the UK this week.  The photos and footage of burning buildings, looted stores, and rampaging rioters has been shocking.  Especially given the high standards of 'civilisation' that we expect from one of the leading countries of 'the West.'

In an ironic twist, an international friendly football (that's soccer for you who have your head under a US sports pillow) match between Ghana and Nigeria on Wednesday night had to be canceled because of the riots.  Why, you ask?  Because it was slated to be played at a stadium in London.  Duh.

Barring comment on why a sports event between two African nations was scheduled to be played in England (I'm sure there are good reasons…), isn't it sweetly and satirically wry - for anyone who is a fan of the African continent - that a stadium in Accra or Lagos would have been a safer place for this match to take place?

Who's the scary now, huh?  (Poke in the English-man's ribs.)  Huh?

The colonized don't often get to outshine the colonizer, but as a former subject nation of England, all of Ghana should be reveling (in a humble and sorrowful-for-the-violence way, of course) in this turn-around.  Ghanaians who have lived abroad often come back home and complain about the relative disorganization of traffic, government bureaucracy, and other parts of public life here.  But what are they thinking now?  "Hey, thank God I'm back on the safe and sane continent."

There's not much scarier than mobs of internet-coordinated hooligans converging to do violence wherever they please, apparently motivated by little more than a thirst for destruction and theft.  Africa has had its share of child soldiers in the battlefield bush, but at least they were coerced into the hard life.  In the UK, this latest life-of-crime drama seems to be a free and personal choice by the criminals, a lark.  Mob violence as adrenaline.  (See this Daily Telegraph writer's article on how a good-sized segment of the looters appear to be white-and-well-to-do, not stereotypically minority-and-poor.)

"Is Africa scary?" my niece asked me, voicing a sort of primal American fear of the 'dark' continent.

"No," I said.  And then, with a wink:  "Not unless you're afraid of black people."

My niece, who has an African-American father, glanced down at her own brown skin.

"Oh," I could see her thinking.  "Right."

Suddenly, Africa seems the place to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Christmas in (almost) July

I thought that, in the middle of the summer months, it might be nice to have a reminder of the Christmas time of year; thus, this post.

This past December, a friend of mine showed me a 2 liter bottle of Coke he had bought in Accra.  Locally produced for the madhouse Christmas-market season, the plastic bottle's wrapper-graphics featured a black Santa with curly white hair and beard holding out a bottle of Coke in front of Independence Arch, Ghana's iconic monument to colonialism's end.

We were delighted with this bit of local kitsch, and set about figuring out how to use the bottle in a photo shoot.  I came up with the idea of trying to recreate that wrapper-graphics Santa scene with a street-found 'model,' like this:

You'll notice I gave up on asking someone to wear the Santa suit and beard.  But I think the hat gets the general idea across.

When I showed up at the arch around Christmas-time, camera gear dangling, I was immediately met by a short-ish, grizzled, middle-aged Ghanaian guy who claimed to be the arch's 'caretaker.'  He said he'd have to prevent me from taking any photos of the arch unless I got government permission.  But I simply stayed on course, setting up my tripod and taking a few test shots, all the while engaging him in conversation.  And, by the end of it, he was agreeing to be my first subject.

After that there was a line of 'models' waiting to hold the Coke bottle up in front of my lens, as passersby - and some local refuse collection professionals - got into the Santa spirit.

Now, if I can just meet someone from Coke's advertising department, I can sell them their Christmas 2012 ad campaign idea.