Claire Chaffey writes: When my housemate came home from work with a human tooth lodged in the sole of her shoe, it confirmed what I had come to know in my time as a volunteer in Accra, Ghana: I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The offending molar was rather large, slimy and yellowing and was stuck fast in the bottom of her thong. Believing it a pebble, she plucked it out at the dinner table just as we were sitting down to our evening meal of goat stew and steamed plantain.

Ordinarily, I might have found this event quite strange, but here in Accra, Ghana’s sprawling and boisterous capital city, I barely battered an eyelid.

When I decided to come to Accra to work as a volunteer reporter at one of the daily newspapers, I knew that as far as being a tourist destination of choice, Accra is no Paris.

James Town, one of the city’s poorest areas

I have since discovered why: it’s huge, ramshackle and shockingly over-populated. Open sewers line the streets, almost inviting you to fall in, and the Atlantic which so promisingly hugs the palm-strewn shoreline is heavy with waste. Thick black exhaust spews from the hordes of battered old cars which rattle along the pot-holed roads, and the chaos of daily living is, at times, overwhelming.

While much of provincial Ghana is quaint, luscious and beautiful, Accra is about as enticing as a sauna on a hot day.

However, it is precisely this lack of charm and allure — and the fact that it seems so unappealing — which also happens to make Accra an ideal destination for those looking to dig a little deeper and get a genuine taste of Africa: it’s virtually tourist free and devoid of any falsified glamour generated for their benefit.

Accra is gritty, confronting, and real. Culturally, it’s about as African as an African city can get. It also happens to be populated by some of West Africa’s warmest and most resilient people, is relatively safe (it’s oft been labelled “Africa for beginners”), has housed a democratic government for almost two decades (earning it the unofficial title of the “shining star of Africa”), and is progressive, modern and open to change.

It’s volunteer heaven.

A volunteer’s life

It has, I admit, taken me quite some time to become accustomed to Accra. I’ve had to get used to the choking pollution which has clogged my lungs and blackened my nostrils, and I now know what it feels like to be a highly visible minority, unable to truly blend in no matter what I do.

The hustle and bustle of Makola Market

I’ve accepted the fact that my hair has fallen victim to chronic Bucket Wash Syndrome and is now a cruddy, uncontrollable mass yearning for running water, and I’ve learned to laugh at the revelation that ultra-spicy Ghanaian food, coupled with loos which flush sporadically at best, is never going to be pretty.

I’ve also grown accustomed to seeing things I never thought I’d see, and reluctantly accepted that most of them I cannot change.

My daily routine in Accra goes something like this: at 6am I am plucked from a mosquito net-shrouded sleep by a startling flurry of drums and the chorus of kindergartens belting out the Ghanaian National Anthem.

The house in which I am living is right in the middle of a school yard and the sound of joyous singing and tiny feet marching around the courtyard forms the soundtrack to my reveille.

After a breakfast almost as spicy as what I had for dinner, I chat to Gertrude, the 70-something school mistress and matriarch of the house. Gertrude houses volunteers, she says, to alleviate the loneliness she endures since her husband died and her children sought a better life abroad.

I also catch up with the seven other volunteers living in the house, trading yesterday’s stories before we go our separate ways to work in orphanages, build houses, intern at the local hospital, report on human rights abuses or coach the local football team.

I leave the modest weatherboard cottage, which stands in a Rastafarian-favoured beachside suburb a few kilometres from the city centre, and enter the hustle and bustle of suburban Accra.

Pygmy goats wander the muddy orange streets, rambunctious children chase old tyres, and shy neighbours, clad in brilliantly colourful kente cloth, greet me with dignified smiles.

The streets of Labadi, Accra

“Akwaaba (you are welcome),” they nod as they pass, a mix of fascination and bemusement lining their faces as they assess my comparatively dull clothing and odd-coloured hair.

I pass through clutches of cluttered and tumbling shops and homes, many made from rusty sheets of tin, which stand between the house and the bus stop. Curious toddlers emerge from amongst abandoned cars and I stop to buy them water and lollies as my shirt succumbs to the squelching humidity and sticks to my skin.

Once at the bus stop, I join the maddening throng of locals en route to the city centre. We wait until we see the bus assistant, or ‘mate’, leaning from the window of an approaching vehicle, yelling the name of the destination we need.

The bus (and by ‘bus’ I mean a barely roadworthy mini-van, also known as a tro-tro, which has a few extra seats thrown in) screeches to a halt and, like the other commuters, I rush towards the door, battling to squeeze inside amongst sweaty bodies, plump babies, cooking utensils and many a nervous chicken.

The view from the back of a tro-tro

Once we’re packed in (and cursing the person who’s carrying a bucket a raw fish), the tro-tro see-saws between manic speed and a painful limp, all to the groove of blaring reggae. When the traffic congests, as it inevitably does, street vendors descend on the open windows, offering everything from boiled eggs and mobile phones to passports and underwear.

I buy a bag of water, top-up my phone and wonder what adventures my day at the office will bring.

An education

Once at work, after muscling my way through a city centre riddled with hawkers and touts, I await assignment with the other reporters, knowing my day will never be dull.

If I’m not interviewing political prisoners or victims of violent crime, I’m gazing at the bodies of slain armed robbers lying in the street. If I’m not writing political updates or attending lectures, where Ghana’s future leaders speak with the passion of Martin Luther King, I’m reporting on human rights abuses or investigating corruption.

Working here, I have the privilege of finding myself in the heart of what makes Accra what it is: vibrant, bizarre, disturbing, intriguing — and I experience things I never would were I not part of its ordinary daily machinations.

A daily reality for many children in Accra

On one such ordinary day not so long ago, I found myself thrust into the maze of the city’s most notorious slum, known to the locals as Sodom and Gomorrah (I learned later that it is known for harbouring killers and rapists, and most of the city’s most wanted list is thought to be in there somewhere).

“Just go in there and see what’s going on,” my editor had suggested innocently, ushering me out the door. “Just lock the car doors and windows. You’ll be fine.”

A few hours later, I had learned that even the slum’s biblical moniker was complimentary: thick black smoke billowed from the lagoon where the slum lay as piles of rubber tyres smouldered on the edge of a stagnant and filthy river. Rotting rubbish carpeted the streets, producing an acrid stench, as the slum’s desperately poor residents, many dressed in rags and with horrible deformities, went about making a living by trading whatever they could get their hands on.

Making a living in Accra’s most notorious slum

The squalor was sickening, and watching children play in it alongside their mothers preparing meals, was even worse. The experience was appalling, merely for the fact I had never imagined people could survive like that, and the guilt I felt at playing voyeur and later retreating to the comfort of Gertrude’s house gnawed at my conscience.

But the newspaper articles that followed my visit reignited political debate about what could be done to give the slum’s residents better options, a better life. I felt slightly appeased.

Another assignment on another ordinary Accra day was no less educational.

“Are you free tonight?” my editor had asked, not waiting for any kind of response. “We need you to pose as a backpacker in an internet café so you can spy on a gang of young men we’ve been tipped-off about. They’re sending scam emails to Westerners and threatening the locals with Sakawa [black magic] if they don’t hand over money.”

I agreed, of course, and ended up spending an uncomfortable night in a dimly-lit internet hub; watching, listening and trying to look inconspicuous as young men filed in, coming and going, openly sending fraudulent emails and scoping out potential prey in chat rooms around the world.

That night I learned that ordinary, in Accra, is most certainly relative.

Lessons learned

Day after day, the ritual continues. More adventures are had, more chickens are nursed on the bus, more open sewers are hurdled, and more crazy, sad and revealing stories are written.

And my fascination and fondness for this city grows steadily with every unexpected piece of it I hazard upon.

As every hot and confronting day ends, I depart the office and make my way back to Gertrude’s house. I meet up with the other volunteers and, most nights, we descend on a spot bar — a smattering of plastic chairs and a beer fridge which mysteriously appear on footpaths or football fields after dark — and commence the debrief.

We trade colourful tales, some unbearably sad and shocking, as we sip on beers and chat to the locals, pondering the balmy evening which reeks of mosquito repellent and the promise of summer rain.

While some are of despair, most of our stories are of the depth of hope, joy and integrity we have, over the months, found in this city. We tell of playing football with barefoot children as they dream of becoming the next Michael Essien, or of seeing the wide-eyed wonder of babies who lay eyes upon a white person for the first time.

Cheering on the team at a local hockey match

We recount the simple joy of being invited to share a meal in a new friend’s home, of having gotten to know a stranger in the street, or of having sung and danced like maniacs to the beat of drums and the blast of horns at a local sporting match. We talk of the beauty of Accra’s people and their fiery determination to lead a better life.

We acknowledge that we have not saved the world and that we were perhaps naive to think we could ever really make a difference. But we also hope that, in some small way, we may have left a mark in Accra half as big as the mark it has left on us.

Most of all, we feel privileged that, in the honesty of daily working life in Accra, we have been able to find the pulse of Ghana, the real Accra, and alongside its often ugly reality, we’ve discovered its truths. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always genuine. Experiencing it is nothing short of life-changing.

Claire is a journalist at Lawyers Weekly, after a stint with Projects Abroad in Ghana. This post was first published on her blog.

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