Cape Town: Langa Township

Under Apartheid, townships came to mean a residential area that confined non-whites (blacks, colored, or Indians) living near a residential community. When outside of designated areas or homelands, the black population was required to carry passbooks, and failure to produce them when asked for would lead to arresting. While I spent much time in the well-developed areas in Cape Town such as the waterfront, soccer stadium, and hiking paths, I also saw the other side of Cape Town and spent my weekend in Langa Township. What struck me the most about Langa was the inequality. Obviously there’s a difference between the inner-city and the townships, but even within the township there are huge disparities. On the street below were well-developed houses that could be in any American suburb, while not so far in the distance is the shantytown.

 

cape town langa township inequality langa towcape townnship shanties

Despite living in Ghana for 10 months, it never hit me that the ribbed pieces of metal that people often construct their businesses or homes out of are actually discarded shipping containers.

cape town langa township shanty construction

Following are the new government-funded apartments, at least some of the ones that could be finished before the government effectively ran out of money for the project.

langa township new government housing

On Sunday I went to church. Singing along proved to be extremely difficult (just see the lyrics below), until the entire congregation changed from psalms to an amazing rendition of One Love.

 

cape town langa township church

Barbecue is huge in the township; on nearly every block there seemed to be some.

Particularly interesting was the delicacy called ‘smileys.’ Look away vegetarians, before having their hair seared off with a hot iron rod and being boiled for several hours, no teeth show. After cooking, the sheep seems to be grinning. Township dwellers can’t get enough of smileys; boatloads of sheep heads are imported from New Zealand and other countries.

cape town langa township smilies sheep heads cape town smilies sheep heads smoked

My favorite part of the experience was the homestay. My mama was the best chef in all of Langa (I swear!) and ran a takeaway business from her house. She left her door open for most hours of the day, and there didn’t seem to be a single moment around mealtimes where there wasn’t a customer in the house. Everything she made was off the wall delicious, especially her beet salad, celebration rice, and stewed meat.

Cape Town Highlights

Robben Island: This island lies seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town and was previously inhabited by political prisoners during the Apartheid era. The most famous of whom was Nelson Mandela, whose cell I saw. It was maybe 8×6 and had only a small desk, a thin piece of cloth to lie on, plus a wastebasket. It’s amazing how he stayed the person he was despite spending 27 years imprisoned in this cell. All tours of this island are given by former political prisoners.
What seemed most maddening for the prisoners is the beautiful view of Cape Town and Table Mountain from the island.

Sunset from Table Mountain: Table Mountain was absolutely stunning. Justifiably one of the seven nature wonders of the world, it can be seen from nearly anywhere in Cape Town. When the clouds roll in, it almost seems as if a tablecloth is covering the top.

 

Amina’s Take-aways: This food-cart was stationed right outside of our ship 24/7. Amina is a precious person; every morning I ordered two egg & tomato sandwiches (the best in the world), three samosas, and a bottle of water – all for a grand total of $2.50. I ate while chatting with her about my day’s plans.
Saying goodbye to her was surprisingly difficult. Despite only being around for six days, she sobbed while saying goodbye.

Toms and Rotary International Field Program: I’ve heard how Toms gives away one pair of shoes for each pair purchased, but it was pretty cool to give them away ourselves at Khayelitsha Township. We stopped at an orphanage, a school, and at Rotary International’s Nonceba project.

cape town township orphanage visit service taking photocape town toms shoes one for one

HintHunt: For this game, you’re trapped in a 200 square foot ways and have an hour to solve puzzles and figure out your escape. While I’m not allowed to spill many details (and taking photos was prohibited), I’ll stress that if you have an opportunity to play this game, do so. It was an absolutely amazing hour.

Spoiler Alert: We made it out with 1:19 to spare.

cape town hint hunt

Mabu Vinyl: I watched the movie Searching for Sugarman just two days prior to arriving in the Cape. The pilgrimage to this emblematic record store was fulfilling, despite Sugar having the day off and them being out of Rodriguez records.

Cape Foods: Favorite foods included bobotie (rice with ground meat, raisins, and egg), koeksisters (twisted fried pastries), biriyani, and hoenderpastei (chicken pies). Below is an ostrich steaks served with samp and beans – little pieces of corn niblets with a slightly smoky, tomato bean stew sauce. The ostrich was served with a South African Amarula cream liqueur sauce which was absolutely divine.

Green Point Soccer Stadium: I made it to a World Cup stadium during a World Cup year. It may have been 4 years after the World Cup took place in South Africa, but it was amazing nonetheless. Getting a stadium tour tour to see locker rooms, grass heat lamps, and cells for rowdy fans was amazing. Next step: A World Cup stadium during the World Cup! (Russia 2018 anyone?)

What Money Can’t Buy

Cape Coast Castle, a nearly 500-year-old slave castle, sits on the edge of the picturesque Atlantic ocean. From my seat in the Castle Restaurant, I gazed at the enormous waves crashing onto the rocky shore – while eagerly awaiting my bowl of coconut curry.

The rocks on the shore formed a natural staircase, winding around the back of the castle. Six foot waves crash into the rocks, flinging wide-eyed crabs high in the air. The previous day, Drew and I attempted climbing around the rocks – but we made the mistake of going barefoot. After 30 minutes we gave up, our feet begging for mercy.

After several minutes of staring absentmindedly into the ocean, I noticed a figure move from the shadows of the castle towards the main rocks. His legs were scantily thin, his face gaunt, and his clothes noticeably ill-fitting. The man’s face had a distinct five ‘oclock shadow. But despite all the telltale signs of him living in some form of poverty, his stride had a certain ‘bounce’ to it.

I watched the man as he strode towards the puddles lying on top of the rocky shore. Wasting no time, he removed his clothes and began to bathe himself. Having nothing to use as a washcloth or sponge, he used his muscular hands to voraciously scrub his skin. After several minutes of washing himself [without any soap], he was finished.  He dunked his face in the water several times, giving off the energy of a new man.

He paused for a few seconds, staring into the horizon. He wore nothing except his self-pride. The man proceeded to carefully wash his clothes in the sea.   He  had no change of clothes, so he dressed himself with the damp clothing, and began walking away.

Somewhere in the middle of this, a traditional drumming band started their daily rehearsal. The rich beats and intense chanting breathed new life into the ancient castle. The crabs scurried on the rocks; the waves were energized; the air somehow became lighter.

The last I ever saw of the man was him dancing behind the castle.

Advice for Tourists Visiting Ghana

With Mama preparing to visit the country in late March, I have compiled a list of tips and advice for when she arrives to Accra. Without any further adieu, here are my top 10 pieces of advice for tourists visiting Ghana.

  1. Acts of ‘Kindness’: While most Ghanaians are genuinely nice and will try to help you in whatever way they can, there may be some at the airport baggage claim and at major tourist attractions who will immediately jump in help you – by carrying your bag, snapping your photo, custom-making you a bracelet, etc. After doing so, they will either demand a ridiculously high amount of money, or run away never to be seen again. Try to avoid such situations – and insist upon doing things yourself.
  2. Cultural Norms: Ghanaians rarely say please or ask you to do something. If they want you to do something for them – they will command you. “Do this, wash this, scrub this.” Don’t take it as them being rude, it’s just a cultural difference.Another thing is that when somebody wants your attention, they will either call out ‘Obruni’ or ‘Acosi’, or just hiss/whistle at you. Don’t take it wrong – they just want you to notice them (and they don’t know your English name).
  3. What Not to Wear – Try not to wear anything anything too skimpy in public. I’m talking to you Richard Simmons – you’re going to need a wardrobe overhaul before coming to Ghana. Bikinis are fine at the beach, but use modesty when walking around town. You won’t get in trouble for wearing your booty shorts; it’s just not part of the culture and you may be in for some dirty looks from elders.
  4. Cameras & Electronics: Carry electronics in cheap looking bags to conceal them. When in crowded areas, try to avoid using them – or if you must use them, step aside until finished. As far as phones go, SIM cards for unlocked phones can be bought very cheaply, while phones usually cost $40+. If you plan on buying a phone in Ghana, go to a reputable storefront in Circle where you see Ghanaians shopping; I’ve heard stories about people buying ‘phones’ and getting boxes of soap. Once you have a phone, be careful. When in a car, hold the phone with whichever hand is furthest away from the window. Never use cell phones in the main street of Kwame Nkrumah Circle and be very careful about who you give your phone number to (everyone will be asking).Don’t plan on purchasing a camera or SD card in Ghana – technology is expensive here. As far as taking photos of people goes, always ask for permission first. Most of the times you will be declined, but that’s just something you’ll have to deal with. Another thing Ghanaians strongly disapprove of is taking photos of anything that could be perceived as negative to their country. If you take photos of such things, always ensure that you’re in a private place with nobody looking at you. Following is the perfect example of a photo not to take…
  5. Transportation – Find out the nearest trotro station to your house/hotel, and operate from there. Trotros cost next-to-nothing compared to taxis, and will give you more of a taste for how the locals live. You don’t even need to know which one to take at the station – just keep asking the mates. They will point you in the overall direction, and sooner or later if you keep asking you will find the correct car. On a similar note, make sure you travel out of Accra during your stay. Accra is just another big metropolitan city; the ‘real Ghana’ is in its small villages and towns.
  6. Bartering: Set prices only exist when they’re written – usually in certain stores,  restaurants, or shopping malls. For taxis and most items in the market, bartering is to be expected. If the shopkeeper starts off by saying an item costs 15 cedis or less, I usually start by offering roughly 1/2 of his price. Anything above 15 cedis and I’ll usually offer 1/3 or 1/4, depending on how much I think it’s actually worth. Don’t worry about offending the seller or making him bankrupt – he won’t sell the item at a loss. Bartering just means the difference between him making wide margins versus moderate ones.
  7. Currency Re-denomination: Due to rampant inflation, the government re-denominated the currency in 2007 by issuing new bills and notes with four zeros removed. Each new note is worth 10,000 times more than each old note. For example, 1 new cedi is worth 10,000 old. While most people have adjusted to the new money, a few haven’t. If a lady tells you that bowfloats are 2000 each, that means .2 cedis or 20 pesewas ($0.12) – not 2000 cedis ($1200).

    Six million old cedis – equal to 600 new cedis.
  8. Looking for Love – Expect to receive marriage proposals, and know how you will politely decline them. That is – unless you are searching for love. Regardless, keep in mind that only about 1/4 of the proposals are serious – the rest are usually just to see your reaction. I usually respond by either saying that I am a just a ‘school boy’, or that I have already been promised to someone. Another option is wearing a ‘wedding ring’, and telling people that you’re taken.More often than marriage, you’ll be asked if you want an African boyfriend or girlfriend. Don’t answer that you already have an American girlfriend/boyfriend back home; they will often get closer to you and ask if you want an African one too. 😀
  9. Local Languages – I’m not saying you should become fluent in Ghana’s 40+ local languages, but you will be loved by all if you put in a small amount of effort and know a few basic sayings. Following are the phonetic pronunciations of several phrases in Twi that I useon a daily basis.
      Akwaaba – Welcome.
      Obruni – Foreigner/white person
      Obibini – Local/black person (Response to ‘Obruni’)
      Ehtey sehn – How are you?
      Ehyay – Fine.
      Mah’chey – Good morning.
      Mah’ha – Good afternoon.
    • Mah’jo- Good evening.
      Dahbi – No.
      Me pao chow – Please.
      Meda’se – Thank you.
      Ba bai – Bye.
      Ehyay ahe – How much is it?
      Oy koing – Where are you going?
      Mahtoe kubeh – I will buy a coconut.
  10. Street Food – If you don’t eat street food during your stay in Ghana, you’ll be missing out on part of the experience. That being said, use common sense. Only eat fast food at kiosks that are full of Ghanaians, and never order salad. Don’t buy precut mangoes and pineapple – ask the seller to cut a fresh one for you. Before you buy plantain chips, make sure they are not broken (a sign of freshness). Ask to ensure bowfloats, spring rolls, roasted plantain are hot before buying them.
Traveling all the way to Ghana without trying a bowfloat fresh out of the fire would be a travesty to all of mankind…

Ghana is one of the top places in Africa to be a tourist, and in my humble opinion, one of the must-see places in the world. From the beaches of Takoradi to the natural parks, mosques, and overall scenery of the North – Ghana truly has it all. Even though some pieces of advice I gave may come across as negative, they are meant positively – to ensure you don’t make any mistakes, your time spent is safe, and that you get the ‘full Ghanaian experience’. I hope you enjoy your time spent in Ghana; ‘Akwaaba!’


	

A ‘Pay-as-you-Go’ Credit World

 

Here in Ghana, the 'pay as you go' business model is primarily used for technology services, in contrast to the Western 'monthly subscription' model. This is due to a combination of two main factors:

  • Credit Cards: They're simply not used. Besides at Accra Mall (where everything is brutally overpriced), I've only seen one or two places that even accept them. Without the automatic billing feature, it can be difficult for payment to be reliably collected every month.
  • Financial Irresponsibility: Many Ghanaians tend to spend money as they receive it. A large amount of the population lives day-by-day, and doesn't have much (if any) money saved. Having commitments to pay a certain amount every month may not be an option.

In a way, the 'pay-as-you-go' feature is great for the economy because it allows the middleman to flourish. The wireless and electricity companies couldn't dispense credit to everyone, so they instead ship credit wholesale to retailers. Thousands of people in Accra make their living by selling credit.

3 main aspects of Ghanaian life are bought in a 'pay-as-you-go' manner:

Phones:

While upper-class businessmen sometimes have monthly phone subscriptions, I'd estimate that over 90{3a5a0fd47fd42b6497167aecc6170a94848f1ba936db07c4954344fcfff1d528} of the population recharges their cell phone credit as-needed using scratchcards (see below). This credit is easy to find, with several people on every block selling credit. As if that isn't enough, people also weave  in-and-out of traffic stopped at red lights to make sales on the go.As far as costs are concerned, one SMS text message costs 4 pesewas ($0.025), while every minute on the phone costs 10 pesewas ($0.06).

One interesting aspect of this business model is that only the person making the calls uses credit;  accepting phone calls doesn't use any credit. When I told Ghanaians that in America both ends of conversations use their minutes, they exclaimed, "Wow – you guys are being double-dipped!"

 


As good as it may sound, the non-subscription model does 'bite back'. Because customers can switch networks freely, cell phone companies have no incentives to give 'deals' on phones. The phones cost full price, which hurts. The cheapest phone is roughly 45 cedis ($30), while keyboard phones cost a minimum of 110 cedis ($75). Samsung Galaxy phones cost a minimum of 850 cedis ($560).

Internet:

Internet is usually purchased via a wireless USB modem with a SIM card in it. It is far more expensive (and slower) than American internet; lately I've been lucky to get 100 kilobytes per second.

Following are the current prices for Airtel Internet Bundles:

  • 20 pesewas ($0.12) per megabyte; pay-as-you-go
  • 1 cedi ($0.66) for 25 megabytes
  • 5 cedis ($3.25) for 200 megabytes
  • 15 cedis ($10) for 750 megabytes
  • 60 cedis ($40) for 4 gigabytes
Internet is, by far, the most expensive and frustrating part of my monthly budget. At times it's too slow for e-mail, and updating my blog (not to mention uploading photos) can be a chore.
 

The reason there was no blog post yesterday is because my internet suddenly stopped working in the middle of writing about kélé wélé. It took 3 hours  before I finally got the 'Your subscription has expired' message.

 

Electricity:

This certainly is the most annoying aspect of living in a 'pay-as-you-go' world. Every time the electricity card runs out of credit, the banshee living in the electricity monitor starts to scream – disrupting my sleep for days. It doesn't shut up unless it is unplugged (and you lose all electricity in your house), or credit has been recharged.

You may not be able to see the banshee – but that doesn't mean she's not there.

One notable exception to the 'pay-as-you-go' business structure is television cable; Ghanaians never pay. Channels are included with the television, and while there's supposedly an annual 'licensing fee', it's not enforced.

Safely in Ghana

Hello everyone! As of now, I have officially spent about 36 hours in Accra.

This post is just to inform everyone that I am safe. I don't have very much time for an in-depth post, but Ghana is absolutely amazing. Hopefully there will be many postings and photos to come.

If you have any questions or comments, comment away. Don't forget to subscribe!