Cover image: Street scene from the eastern suburbs close to the government hospital
I arrived in Swedru on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late September, at the beginning of the second rainy season of the year. Three months earlier a flood had destroyed parts of the town and swept away the bridges crossing the river Akora, and as the repairs on the main bridge had not yet been finished, all cars approaching the city from the south via the Winneba-Akim Oda road had to disembark their passengers at the river. There we were, a small group of volunteers and three Ghanaian supervisors. Laden with large backpacks, our suitcases stacked on the heads of carriers that had been recruited on the spot, we hopped from rock to rock to cross the river, curiously observed by local shopkeepers and passersby. In no time we were divided among several taxi cabs and ferried off to our respective host families.
Image 1: A worker installs a new street light
Image 2: One of the car mechanics from Cottage Jct.
The following days were spent moving in, getting to know our families and settling in. Soon I was introduced to my project, which consisted of teaching ICT (computer science) at a local Primary and Junior High School, and working with an NGO that cared for disadvantaged children in the community, tales and images of which will feature in the following posts. I quickly befriended two fellow Red Cross volunteers, Agnes, who took over the role of secretary for the NGO, and Anne, who was inducted as an assistant PE teacher and a nearby Senior High School.
Image 3: Makeshift burglary protection on a compound wall
Soon most of our Sundays were spent exploring. Owing to living in completely different parts of town, we often met at Texaco, the town’s central junction that was named after the original petrol station located there, and is still called thusly despite ownership having long since been transferred to Shell, and just picked a direction. One day we would head east, then south to cross the river on narrow planks of wood precipitously laid over wet boulders as a temporary solution until the new bridge was finished. We would sit down on one of the rocks, watch some local youth splash around in the water, and snack on biscuits. Or we would buy fresh coconuts from the roadside, and have the vendor chop off the top with a machete, to first drink the juice and then scrape out the flesh, which was so much softer and succulent than the dry variety we get in Europe. Another time we would head north-east, pass the busy market with its narrow lanes and overlapping roof panels that gave it the ambience of a Persian bazaar, and make our way to the muslim quarter to snack on the only available proper cheese in town (no, Cowbell doesn’t count!), deep-fried and sold at the roadside. One day we even walked past the areas of flood damage in the south-west and hiked on and on until we had left the town behind and, after an hour, discovered a tiny hamlet located deep in a forest of coconut trees, where we sat on the porch with the chief, ate coconuts and chatted with the people passing by.
Image 4: Vultures having breakfast at Cottage Jct.
Image 5: A child playing hide and seek on a container
And thus, with time, we got to know Swedru better than most of our fellow expats. Whilst other volunteers spent the weekends at the coast or in a hammock in their family’s compounds, we roamed all the little lanes, chatted with women pounding fufu in their backyards, climbed rooftops, played football with kids and took many pictures. Whenever I headed out, my trusty Panasonic bridge camera would accompany me. Thankfully most Ghanaians are very open and rarely ever object to being photographed, many, in fact, appreciate it. Children usually went as far as to congregate around us, striking ‘cool’ poses they had picked up from hip-hop videos.
As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, I grew to love Swedru. No one in their right mind would call it pretty, or even picturesque, and yet it had a certain beauty to it, with its colourful houses, the groves of coconut trees, and the thicket of television antennas mounted on tall bamboo sticks. As an introvert I had never been a fan of crowds and busy places, but Swedru just felt so completely different. I felt right at home wiggling my way through all the vendors selling sachets of ‘pure water’ or boiled eggs with hot sauce, among the tro tro mates calling out destinations and scores of taxi drivers honking and swearing. Every morning I would walk to school by the same route, making my way down the hill through our almost rural neighbourhood, waving to the same people, signing “How is it going?” to the students of the School for the Deaf that I passed through (after they had taught me how to do it in the first place), taking a taxi at the same junction … Some people complained about the lack of entertainment and regularly went to Accra to go to the cinema – but what would I need a cinema for if I could sit on the porch instead and watch the sky burst with lightning from a tropical thunderstorm? Why would I have spent hours to wiggle my way into the centre of Accra to dine in one of the country’s few Italian restaurants if I could just pick up some delicious Kelewele (pieces of plantain fried with peanuts and spices like cayenne pepper, ginger and nutmeg) from one of the stalls that popped up in the streets after nightfall?
Image 6: An electrician setting up a sound system during a blood donation exercise
But the best thing about Swedru were its inhabitants. Always upbeat, always up for a chat, but never intrusive or besieging. As Agnes, Anne and I were coming back to Swedru after our first trip to Cape Coast, where everyone and their grandmother were hassling us for attention, or money, or both, we all looked at each other and simultaneously blurted out how different people in Swedru were compared to in Cape Coast or Accra. That may also be the reason why this post is full of images of people, rather than streets or buildings. But as I recently discovered Google Street View is now available for Swedru’s major thoroughfares, so if you’d like to see how the town itself looks like, why don’t you just head over and have a look around Osama Jct., where I would catch a shared taxi to get me to school in the northern part of town, and then make your way south to Texaco, or east past the market and Melcolm all the way to my school?
Image 7: A child walks through a narrow lane in the slum next to the central market