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April 10th, 2009 | Africa

The Road to Accra and The Cocktail Party…

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here over a month already! Seems like only yesterday that I was driven through the gates of Scanstyle and received a rather nervous welcome by the staff… I discovered that the Chairman had advised everybody that a “Military Man” was taking over… They probably expected me to be wearing full body armour, carrying an AK-47 slung over my shoulder, grenades attached to my belt and a blood-thirsty glint in my eye… They got the “glint in the eye” part right…

Last week, we officially launched the Company onto the local market. (Heaven help them/us!) We had always been seen as a 100% export orientated enterprise. The Chairman decided that we should have a “Cocktail Party” and invited “hundreds of dignitaries” to view our products. One of the first tasks I had on arrival was to ensure the production of a long list of samples for this “exhibition”… Four different types of panelled doors, each in three different species of hardwood (Mahogany, Essa and Black Ofram); various sizes of Parquet flooring in (you guessed it!) three different species of hardwood (Papao, Teak and Iroko) and various mouldings and skirting board options in (all together now…) three different species of hardwood (Dahoma, Danta and Koto)… A nightmarish start for someone who has been used to Pine and Saligna all his life!

I was to be his “star attraction” quote, un-quote… I was advised to “prepare yourself to face the media in all its shapes and forms”… This posed a small problem, as I had not packed a long sleeved shirt, let alone a tie!! I was destined for the jungles of West Africa for Heavens sake!! Who the hell would think to pack a dress shirt and tie for a jaunt of this type? The Assistant Managing Director, Albert Zanu, is a bird-like individual, who probably weighs in at about 60kgs, fully dressed… No help there! I dashed through the factory, looking for someone my size, and settled on Bruce Something-or-Other, my Packing Supervisor…

“Bruce, do you own a long sleeved shirt and a tie?” I asked.

“Yes sir” he replied proudly, “I have three shirts and two ties…”

“Good. What colours are the shirts?”

“I have a green one, an orange one and a blue one, sir…”

“Oh shit,” I thought…. “I’m gonna look like a fruit salad at this gig…”

“Mmmm… And what colours are your ties?”

I expected him to say “Purple and red, sir…”, but to my relief he replied that “one was black for formal occasions, and the other was blue…”

“Bring them all to work tomorrow,” I said, “I need to borrow them…”

His raised eyebrows and open-mouthed look of astonishment told me that this was an instruction that he had never received before… After a short pause, followed by another one, (they were so close together that you couldn’t tell them apart…) he nodded and said “Yes…surely, sir”.

Good man, that Bruce…doesn’t ask questions, just does as his told… He’ll go a long way…

He duly arrived at work the next morning, astride his trusty bicycle, riding one handed, the other holding a few buckled coat-hangers, draped with his three shirts and two ties, the whole ensemble flapping in the breeze… From three hundred metres away, I already decided that there was no way I was going to pick the neon-orange or lime green shirts… Fortunately, the other was pale blue, and I took this hanger from him before he had brought his bicycle to a proper stop and his feet had touched the ground… I took both ties, and thanked him, telling him I would return them in a few days…and reminding him that I wanted the container loaded before 5.00pm… He pedalled off towards the packing department, beaming from ear to ear, shouting to one of his mates that “MD is wearing my clothes…!”

I have a feeling I’m never going to hear end of this…

I decided that we should drive to Accra to save money, much to the disgust of my Production Manager, Mr. Owusu Deborah, who had been looking forward to a little flip on an aeroplane… Had I known that it would take us 9 hours to make the 440km journey, it would have been “bugger the money”, that’s for sure!! The drive started off well enough, dodging logging trucks and taxi drivers who had surely obtained their licenses using the “gift in a brown envelope” method… Just outside Bibiani, we drove through one of those tropical storms that left me in no doubt that we are truly at the mercy of Nature… It bucketed down for about half an hour, turning the potholed and “semi-tarred” road into a scene that resembled something from a Mad Max movie… Oncoming traffic passed us on both sides at one point, while our driver muttered to himself about bad drivers… I found this quite amusing, as I was sure that he had been trying to kill us for the past few minutes…

Deluge and near death on the road to Accra...

As I took this photo, our right front wheel encountered one of those potholes that would have swallowed a smaller vehicle….

We made Kumasi in good time, and turned south for Accra. Entering the town of Nkaukau, we stopped to get something to eat, as OD (as Owusu Deborah is known) was complaining bitterly about not having had any lunch before we set off from Mim. The place he had chosen was a bustling little shanty-lined area where buses running between Kumasi and Accra stopped to allow passengers to buy food. A Ghanaian version of Ultra City by all accounts… A bit like Alexandria town-ship, but not as tidy… We sat down and ordered kebabs from a vendor close by… I watched carefully as the two I had chosen, along with a sausage of some kind, chopped into pieces and interspersed with slices of onion, were placed over the hot coals and roasted to a turn… What I had first thought to be slivers of beef, turned out to be chicken giblets… They had been soaked in a spicy sauce and were served on bamboo skewers… I munched them down, trying to look as nonchalant as possible, all the while eyeing the truly enormous cloud of flies that buzzed about above our heads…

Yeah, right...!!!

I have no idea what the sausage was made of, and it was probably better that I did not ask… OD ordered a plate of glutinous brown stew and with a quarter loaf of bread, proceeded to mop it all up and chew it down. There wasn’t a piece of cutlery to be seen anywhere, which was probably just as well…

“They serve the best food here,” he happily told me…

I considered asking him when last he had seen a health inspector in the area, but decided that the question didn’t bear thinking about…

My kebabs and sausage roasting…and something that might once have been a chicken…

We set off again and all along the next stretch of road, people were holding out platters of what I thought were either chunks of brown vegetable or pieces of meat… That is until we stopped behind a stationery bus, and one of the vendors came over to the window and shoved the plate under my nose for closer inspection… The “veggies” turned out to be a writhing mass of Giant Land Snails! The look on my face must have left the vendor in no doubt that I was not a “willing buyer”, and with a shrug of his shoulders, he sauntered back in the bushes alongside the road…

At Nsaoum, we ran into the mother of all traffic jams, and sat there for over two hours while a broken down bus was pulled and pushed to the side of the road. Vendors selling anything you care to name strolled through the traffic hawking their goods. By all accounts, they were doing a roaring trade, and every so often would come walking back past the car to replenish their stocks from some place up ahead of where we sat baking…

“Yummy..!” Smelly dried fish, only a few days old… Gotta get me some of those…not!!

I had not seen another white face since we left Mim, and as I sat there, cries of “Bruni…Bruni” went up, and our vehicle became a magnet for hordes of these hawkers… “Bruni”, is the word used to describe Europeans in Ghana… As we inched along, we finally came to a huge mahogany tree, under which sat an enormous toad-like woman, who was clearly in charge of a large group of these vendors. She continually shouted at them to fill their baskets and plastic bowls to the hilt, before sending them off to do their selling. She sat there counting wads of notes, before stuffing them into her bra… I lifted my camera to take a photo of her, but the glare she gave me made me drop it back into my lap… She was truly a frightening sight, with rolls of fat hanging off the sides of her chair, her hair tinted a bright orange colour, and her powder pink dress rolled down to her waist to expose the most pendulous breasts I had ever seen, covered in a white bra which was clearly a few sizes too small for her… Nightmares are made of this…

Dusk settled around us as we sat there, and eventually, the hawkers could only be seen when they opened their mouths and smiled… It was like a flotilla of false teeth floating by in the darkness… At about 8.00pm, we finally got moving again, and made our way through to the outskirts of Accra, down a long stretch of highway under construction, bumping through detours which often took us down dusty and litter strewn alleyways, before taking us back onto the main road, which was again, tarred in places…mostly around the huge potholes, into which small cars sailed with gay abandon, before bouncing out the other side, their headlights flashing across the night sky… What a palaver!

We had left the factory shortly before noon, and got to our hotel in Accra just in time to see the kitchen close! The look of thunder on my face soon had two plates of spaghetti and a couple of cokes on a table near the pool… OD seemed impressed that my influence had already extended as far as the Capital.

And they have security too… so take the above sign seriously…!

The next morning we met at the venue for our little exhibition. I had expected “Architecture House”, the headquarters of the “Ghana Institute of Architects” to be a building of spectacular design, but once we turned down a potholed little side road off the main road leading to Kotoko International Airport, I knew I was going to be sorely disappointed… It turned out to be a rather small house, which shared a parking area with the Lebanon Bar… In the garden to one side of the house, three open sided gazebos had been erected and draped in varying shades of green cloth…

“Bruce’s lime green shirt would have fitted in perfectly…”, I thought to myself…

With our “Cocktail Party” starting in just six hours, there was more than a little work to do…

I assumed that our samples would have already been delivered, but this is Ghana, and assumptions of any kind should not be made…under ANY circumstances! It took the best part of the next five hours to drive across town, find the keys to the warehouse where our product had been stored, load the samples onto a truck, drive back through hectic traffic, offload, set-up the displays under the gazebos, get the “lighting and music man” to assemble all his paraphernalia, and tidy up the grounds… At about 3.00pm, the “caretaker” strolled over to ask if I had made any arrangements for water…

“Eh… What water?” I asked…

“The water in the taps, sah…” he replied cautiously…

“Huh..?” was all I could manage…

“We have not had any water here for two weeks, sah… The tanks are empty, and the pipes are spoiled…”….

I had been toiling away in the hot sun (36 degrees!) and was now faced with the fact that “hundreds” of guests would be arriving in less than two hours, and perhaps one or two of them would want to use a toilet while they were there… I went over to the toilets and on opening the doors to both the men’s and ladies toilets, was blown backwards by the smell emanating from within…

I hastily put a call through to the Chairman, who, being a rather mild mannered man, was unprepared for the language I used to explain the situation… There was a long silence before he asked what I needed… I requested a plumber, a team of cleaners, as many litres of cleaning chemicals that he could find, and a 5000 litre water tanker to fill the three inter-connected water tanks on the roof of the building…

He hastily assured me that all would be taken care of. As I put my cell-phone back into my pocket, I looked longingly at the planes taking off from the nearby airport, and wished myself into one of them… I didn’t care where it might be going…away from here was all I wanted!!

By some miracle, and a lot of cursing on my part, we managed to get everything sorted out and I took a taxi back to the hotel to have a quick shower, a slab of chocolate and a Coke from the mini-bar, and change into my borrowed shirt and tie, which I was wearing with a pair of black jeans… I was secretly hoping somebody would make a remark about the fact that I was inappropriately dressed for the occasion…

The Chairman’s opening speech was due to start at 5.30pm… By 7.00pm, there were more media people in the little room than the “movers and shakers in the building industry” that I had been told to expect… The Chairman was pacing about with a nervous look on his sweaty face… Finally, at 8.00pm, with everybody seated, the hubbub subsided, and we got the shindig underway… Opening prayer, Chairman’s welcome, and then over to the “Wonderful New Managing Director”… A microphone was thrust into my hand, and I walked over to the centre of the small stage…

"What have I got myself into....?"

The first thing I wanted to say was… “You are all very lucky to have flushing toilets here tonight!” but I suppressed the urge and gave a ten minute speech extolling the many virtues of our company… All lies of course…! Then we watched a 20 minute promo DVD, which had been filmed in 2005, when the company had experienced “better days”… Then there was a “question and answer session”, and finally, with half the people suppressing yawns, we trooped outside to view the products, quaff beer and guzzle the snacks…

After the last guest had left, and having received the congratulations of the Chairman and his family, I was driven back to the hotel, where I collapsed into bed… Reminding myself, (before I fell into a dreamless sleep), that I had to be at the airport at 7.30am the next morning to welcome the Managing Director of Alexander Rose, the company who markets and distributes our product throughout Europe… I needed that like a hole in the head…

I will leave the story of their visit to my next letter…

High winds and rain are ripping through the town as I write this; large branches are thudding off the tin roof above me, and leaves and other debris are bouncing off the windows… The TV gave up the ghost a few minutes ago, and the power is more than likely to follow suit… I’m almost certain that I saw a Pied Crow being blown backwards over the veranda… And they call this the “Small Rainy Season”!! July and August herald the “Big Rains”…. Should be fun !!

Tonight's supper..... Don't ask...!!

We are working through the Easter Weekend in order to complete our export contracts, and make a start on the product for our new warehouse in Accra… Before I arrived here, the management had signed an “agreement” with the Chairman that we would supply $150 000.00 worth of stock before the end of April… I have inherited this “little” problem, and now have to make good on their promises… Wish me luck…!! I’ll need every little bit of it…

Take care and I hope you all have a Happy Easter…

2 comments to The Road to Accra and The Cocktail Party…

  • admin

    So if on one of the workers wants to use the restroom – WC – I understand that they are nice, clean and somewhat modern for Ghana, but they are locked? And to get a key. How did that system work when you were in the Ghana Files?

  • Well, it was a system I perfected back in Swaziland, where I was losing far too much production time due to the fact that not only was the WC about 300 metres from the factory, but too many people were making the trip during the course of the working day. I put locks on the toilet doors, and then attached the keys to a 20kg log which I painted bright red… In order to use the WC, workers had to carry the log with the key attached, whenever the “urge” overtook them… Carrying a 20kg log the 600 metre round trip it took to get to the toilets and back took some doing… Needless to say, traffic to and from the toilets was drastically reduced after that…and productivity was vastly improved !! Another African solution to a uniquely African problem…!!

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