I am now the holder of an official Ghanaian motorcycle driver’s license. I feel like a bit of my inner (or not so inner?) rebel has been lost, but as consolation, I ended up paying no more than the official 34 GHC fee and a 1 GHC dash to get it, so I feel like I am still pretty bad-ass.
Corruption at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority in Accra is brilliantly orchestrated. Applicants never pay a bribe directly to an official. When applicants come into the office, officials direct them to a handler. The handler, who is in no way officially associated with the DVLA, helps the applicant through the process—he assists with getting passport photos, filling out paperwork, and sending the applicant to the correct offices. The handler knows the process in and out, and has friends in the various offices.
The handler keeps the process as opaque as possible, often meeting with officials without the applicant present. The handler makes it a point to pay the applicant’s fees without the applicant present, hiding the true cost of the license fee. The handler then asks the applicant for a sum larger than the true cost. If asked about the discrepancy, the handler will say that the extra is needed to dash the DVLA officials so that they will process the application the same day. Presumably, the extra is actually split between the handler and the DVLA officials.
The beauty of this system is that no one can ever be caught for corruption. If an applicant complains, the only person who has ever asked them for extra is the handler, who is not affiliated with the DVLA and is just taking a fee for helping the applicant with the process. The handlers will never complain about the DVLA officials, because they make their whole living off the system.
So how did I get off with a 1 GHC dash?
I was smart, but I also got lucky. Before going in, I asked around about the cost of a moto license, so I knew it would be in the range of 30-40 GHC. Then I got assigned a handler who far overplayed his hand—he asked for 200 GHC to cover the cost of the license—lucky. I got lucky again when I said the price should be “30 to 40 Ghana”, and he thought I said “34 Ghana”—which turned out to be the exact price of the license. At that point, he pulled me aside, and admitted that the license cost 34 Ghana, but said I would need to pay extra to dash the officials to get the license that day. It’s possible that he may have actually slowed down the process on purpose; we hopped around to a lot of offices.
I decided to call his bluff. I started loudly talking about how I wanted a receipt for everything, and how I couldn’t trust him, because he had just tried to tell me it cost 200 GHC for a license. Exclamations and tongue clicks—Ghanaian sounds of disapproval – began emanating from the crowd around us. One woman poked the handler, asked “200 Ghana? For a license?!” and shook her head reprovingly. “Okay, okay” said my handler, and he ushered me back inside. A moment later my paperwork was approved. My handler and his brother the DVLA official shook their heads ruefully and speculated out loud about how I had known the price.
After seeing the receipt in my paperwork, I paid the handler the 35 GHC for the 34 fee. He left without giving me change. I thought he would be back, and I would have given him a small tip for his help, but apparently he was afraid I would start yelling about 200 Ghana again, and he left me to complete the process on my own, which I did with no trouble. He kept the 1 GHC change—but I kept his pen.
Here are tips to help avoid be extorted for money in Ghana:
1. Do your research. Know what the process should be, and know how much fees should cost.
2. Use the “R” word—receipt. Since receipts must be turned in, the amount listed there is the official price, and total receipts must equal total cash turned in. Always ask for a receipt to make sure you are paying the official rate, and that the money you pay goes to Ghana, not someone’s pocket.
3. Hold on to your important documents. Once your passport, license, or other difficult-to-replace document is in someone’s hands, you will have to convince them to give it back. And they may hope you will convince them with cash.
4. Be willing to spend time rather than money.
5. Be willing to call bluffs.
6. Don’t have tons of money on you. It’s hard to extort someone for more than they’ve got.
7. Know when a dash is okay. If someone is truly doing something extra for you, outside of their normal job, or if the dash is actually to compensate a handler for their assistance, it can be appropriate.
Ramadan is coming up, and in Northern Ghana, that means a large portion of staff, partners, and survey respondents will be going without food and water during daylight hours. If you aren’t Muslim, sometimes you forget that other people are fasting, or to be unaware of how this may affect their work and schedules. Some rookie mistakes I have seen:
· One of our interns wanted to do something nice for the office, so he brought in donuts at 2pm- prime hunger time for many fasters.
· A friend of mine was working with a Ghanaian staffer, and noticed she wasn’t eating anything. Feeling bad, she proceeded to offer the Ghanaian shares of everything she ate that day. It wasn’t until later that she realized the Ghanaian must have been fasting.
· A staff member scheduled a lunch meeting with partners. The partners came without complaint, and the staff member was chagrinned when none of them ate anything and she remembered it was Ramadan.
To avoid being a jerk to hungry people during Ramadan:
1. Find out when Ramadan is. In many cases, the beginning and end of Ramadan are set locally, based on sighting the moon in that location.
2. Set schedules that allow people to break fast in their accustomed manner. This usually means being at home for sundown.
3. Don’t push food on people. It’s fine to offer, but if someone declines, try to remember that they may be fasting, so don’t keep offering all day.
4. Be aware of the effect that fasting may have on energy levels and mood. Most fasters will do the work they need to without complaint, but think twice about asking people to work late.
5. Remember the people who aren’t fasting. Don’t assume people can skip lunch breaks.
6. Don’t pity the fasters. Ramadan is a month for celebration, and most people fast gladly. They won’t mind you eating in front of them, especially if you aren’t wafting the fumes from your super-smelly food at them.
7. Consider trying to fast, if only for a day. It will show solidarity and make you more sensitive to those who are fasting. I fasted during Ramadan in Tamale last year. This year, I will be fasting in Accra for as long as my Tamale team is in the field.
If you decide to try fasting, here are some tips:
· Don’t give up early. The first three days are the most difficult. Get through those, and it gets easier.
· Eat before sunrise. Even if you aren’t hungry, make yourself do it. It will help you get through the day.
· Don’t fight the hunger. The more you try to ignore it, the more you will focus on it. Accept that it is there, and learn to function with it.
· Recognize your moods. Be aware of how fasting is affecting your mood. Work on changing your reaction to hunger, or be on guard against letting the mood affect your behavior towards others.
· Be aware of your health. Consider whether you want to include water in your fast, especially if you work in hot environments or exercise during the day. Muslims fast if they can; young children, pregnant women, and others for whom fasting could pose a health risk are not expected to fast.
· Don’t stay up drinking all night. A hangover is no fun when you can’t have pizza. This is especially important if you aren’t drinking water, as you can easily get dehydrated.
· …Unless you also stay up eating all night. I spent one night last Ramadan at a friend’s house mixing drinks and cooking a new meal every few hours, till the sun came up. The next day was the easiest day of Ramadan.
The text reads:
One of the most common hazards for moto drivers in Tamale, Ghana, is animals on the road. Learning how different animals will behave when a vehicle approaches is one of the key ways to keep safe driving moto in Northern Region. Here is what you can expect:
In the diagrams below, the red represents the location and velocity of objects on the road at time 0. (Yes I know these can't technically be simultaneously measured but give me a break I am a social scientist.) Red points indicate zero velocity. The black represents the probable location of these objects during the time it takes the moto to move through that space on the road, with darker lines represent higher probability of the object being in that space.
Lizards are all over the place in Northern Ghana. Mostly they sit around and do push-ups or clamor over your walls making a racket. Occasionally they decide to cross the road. Their quick, flick-y movements may make you jump, but don't worry-- they will go straight across, and they are quick enough that the probability of lizard guts on your tires is low.
Even the white Toyota Landcruisers favored by overly-pampered, well-funded development workers won't go up against a cow in the road, and the cows know it. They won't move except under duress of a slipper wielded by a small boy. You will have to go around them. If they are many, be prepared to honk your horn in vain while they decide which side of the road they really want to be on.
Goats are the ideal animal to encounter on the road in Northern Ghana. Street smart and properly aware of their place in the road hierarchy, they will run away and off the road at the approach of a vehicle. The exception: goats often like to sleep on highways at night. Beware of groggy goats when driving early in the morning.
While goats are the ideal animal to encounter on the road, sheep are bane of Ghanaian drivers. Dismally stupid, they will invariably run directly into traffic. An experienced motorist will, counter-intuitively, plot a trajectory behind the sheep. The difference in behavior between sheep and goats makes distinguishing the two a key survival skill in Tamale. Remember: tail up, goat; tail down, sheep.
After a chicken perceives an oncoming vehicle while crossing the road, its velocity can be modeled with a random walk, plus a constant increase in speed of averaging 1 ft/second. Use this formula to calculate the most probable route of the chicken, and avoid it. Alternatively, just keep going. A chicken ain't no cow.
In all seriousness, take care to watch for animals when driving in Ghana. If an animal is on the road, your first priority should be the safety of you and the people around you-- don't try to stop for a chicken or lizard if it would endanger you or others. If you hit and kill an animal of economic value (goat, sheep or chicken), and the owner is around, you may have to compensate the owner. Typical prices for strong, adult animals are 5 GHC for a chicken, 35 GHC for a goat and 50 GHC for a sheep (another reason sheep are the bane of drivers.) However, a sincere apology may be suffice. I heard about a man who hit and killed a goat, and after arguing with the entire village for an hour, was allowed to go on his way-- after he promised he would never ever hit another goat.
This weekend, after a delicious dinner, some friends and I visited a rooftop drinking spot in Osu. As I slowly drove my motocycle into the crowded parking lot, a man reached out, put his hand on my leg, and slid his hand up my skirt as I went by on the moto. It took me a moment to register what had happened, and by that time, I had passed the group of men, and wasn’t even sure who had done it. After fuming for several minutes, I joined my friends, had a double whiskey, and did my best to forget about the incident and enjoy the rest of the night.
As I write this, several days later, I am still furious—furious with the man, but more furious with myself for failing to give the man any disincentive to repeat his actions. The options were many: yell at the man; report him to the police; hit him; run over his foot with my moto; or in my most vengeful fantasy, castrate him with my moto keys. Why didn’t I do any of these things? It wasn’t that I am incapable of standing up for myself. For the most part, it was simply because I wasn’t quick enough to react, but riding away had its advantages: I wasn’t physically hurt, I got out of a potentially harmful situation quickly, none of my friends had to be involved in a mess, and I was able to move on and continue my night. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome had I chosen to confront the man—but at what cost did this efficient short-term result come? What does it take to prevent this type of behavior?
Minor physical assault and sexual harassment is not uncommon in Accra. My recent experiences include:
· A man grabbing me around the waste and pull me away from my friends to try to get him to dance with me at an outdoor dance spot. I peeled him off of me and started yelling at him; another Ghanaian intervened and convinced him to leave us alone.
· A man repeatedly came up to my friends and me in a dance club and rubbed against us, even though we were not dancing. After asking him three times to stop, I told him to “F-k off” and shoved him. He drunkenly fell on the ground and then went away.
· A man on the street grabbed my hand as I was walking by him one evening and would not let go. I dug my keys into his wrist as I twisted my hand free. He let me go on my way.
Let’s be frank—women face these types of encounters everywhere. I have a close friend in New York for whom catcalls are a humiliating but regular part of her daily commute. She has experimented with every type of reaction I can think of: anger, humor, honest conversation, and simply ignoring it. Nothing seems to make a difference. Is a man with a key gouge on his wrist less likely to try to grab a woman’s arm than one who got away unscathed?
The truth is, I don’t think any reaction from a victim of harassment is enough disincentive to put a stop to this behavior. To be an effective deterrent, punishment must come from broad society. Men who sit on steps and catcall in New York City should face the disapproval of the grandmother next door and the scorn of the respectful men who pass by and see them as the boys they are. Men who assault women in Accra bars and clubs should be unwelcome in those spots, and those who grab women on the streets should be ostracized by other vendors there, who face lost business when women avoid those spots. In some cases, this happens. Too often, it doesn't. As long society fails to punish men for this behavior, a they will continue to bet that victims won't punish them either.
The STC public bus company continued its losing streak, canceling its service to Sunyani on Monday without notifying me. After arriving at the station at 5:30 in the morning and finding out there was no bus to Sunyani, I requested a refund for my ticket, and hiked over to the transport yard hoping I might find a bus going to Sunyani sometime that morning.
In the transport yard, buses typically leave whenever they are full. I was lucky, finding a bus that already had a good number of passengers, and the rest came along quickly.
I soon discovered that, besides the prompt departure, there was another difference between the transport yard bus and an STC bus. It started with an extra-long prayer upon the departure of the bus. Well, I thought, it's normal to pray at the beginning of a bus journey, and maybe transport yard buses are perceived to need a little more prayer in order to arrive safely. After readings from John and Genesis, receiving a booklet on "Exploring the Bible: Truth and Consequences", five hymns, and a sermon, I was forced to conclude that I was on the Bible Bus. I went to sleep and woke up several hours later, just in time to see service conclude with the pastor making fun of my glasses in Twi and an offer to buy pomade for 1 Ghana per tin.
I am now writing to you from beautiful Brong Ahafo, where the cars are strong, the chameleons are good looking, and all the roads are above average.
Sadly, though the cars are strong, there is a shortage of shared taxis here unlike any I have encountered anywhere in Ghana. (Shared taxis run routes, and pick up anyone who wants to go on that route. Most of the time, they are a convenient and inexpensive means of transport.) Getting a shared taxi in Sunyani involves standing at a corner and yelling where you want to go as taxis go by, and then when one stops, rushing to beat the hoards all going for that taxi. The first time I was there, I got a taxi because a driver felt sorry for the poor clueless white girl and made it a point to get me in his car. The next time, I got a taxi based on my rushing merit, which was infinitely more satisfying.
Why don't more people run taxis here? Why don't they raise the price of taxis? I later discovered that the taxi shortage was being caused by a diesel shortage. Many of the taxis converted to run on diesel were not running. Yet again, things that appear to make no sense to an American economist have a logical explanation. The diesel shortage was temporary; sticky prices and fixed capital costs prevented the market from clearing.
Given the shortage, what is the appropriate way to allocate taxis? Free marketers might suggest they be allocated to those willing to pay the most. However, if your concern is allocating them to those who have the most need for them, and you think the welfare created by this outweighs the extra supplier surplus that would go to the taxi drivers, there are other ways of allocating them, which might be more efficient in a context of high income inequality. One, the use of lines, would allocate taxis to the people most willing to spend their time waiting for the taxi. Another, the one actually in use, is to make people spend effort. Those most willing to run, fight, and look foolish must be the ones who value the taxi service the most.
About 10% of the cloths I brought to Ghana go unworn. There’s the long, patterned skirt that I thought would be perfect for a hot climate where women don’t show their legs, but whose synthetic fabric catches uncomfortably on sweaty skin. There is the cool-looking white blouse that turns see-throw when it gets wet in sudden rainstorms. There is the sharp, sexy pencil skirt that is physically impossible to ride on a motorcycle in.
Knowing what to bring, and when to wear it, can be a challenge in my work. You have to be prepared for everything from meetings with government officials to dusty trips to the field, in weather that ranges from swelteringly hot to cool and dumping buckets of water. In every case, you have to consider cultural norms that are not your own. For armies of interns about to pack their bags and head off to get their toes wet (and dirty, and sweaty, and mosquito bitten) in West Africa, here are my tips for dressing for development work:
DO focus on material for comfort. No matter what you are doing and where you are going, it will be hot. Look for very lightweight, natural materials (like linen or cotton) to stay comfortable. I favor light, knit shirts that fit neatly and have some embellishment that brings their formality up a notch.
DO focus on cut for appearance. Comfortable materials can be cut to look professional. Men should look for very light weight collared shirts and slacks. Light-weight khaki pants with a sharp cut can go from office meetings to the field.
DON’T bring stuff that can’t get wet. Between sweat and monsoons, it will.
DON’T bring stuff you love. Handwashing is rough on cloths. So is falling in sewers, being grabbed by random children, getting bitten by goats, and being lashed by wind and rain. If it will break your heart if it gets ruined, leave it at home.
DON’T bring white stuff. It will get dirty super fast. Khaki, brown, red, green, black or dark blue are much more field friendly.
DO bring jeans. They are an awful fit for the climate, but everyone wears them, and you probably will too.
DO wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
DON’T wear shorts while working. Shorts are rarely worn in Ghana, and never in the workplace. Very short shorts will always draw attention. Short sleeves are fine; nice sleeveless shirts are usually okay.
DO wear skirts, if you are a lady. Skirts are a great way to keep cool while looking nice; they are the loophole in the “no shorts” rule. Just keep them around knee level or below, and unless you are adept at riding side saddle, don’t wear tight skirts if you are planning to ride moto.
DON’T forget to bring fun clothes—outfits for working out, clubbing, dates, hanging around the house, or trips to the beach. And don’t forget a swimsuit!
DO wear nice sandals. If you are a man, look for nice local-made leather sandals that can be worn with your lightweight khaki trousers. Ladies can wear any nice looking sandal.
DON’T wear heels, except on carefully considered occasions, but DO bring a pair. The ground is very rough here, and you will walk, so find nice-looking shoes that are comfortable. Also, it is very hard to drive a motorcycle in heels. Some clubs require ladies to wear heels to get in, so come prepared for that.
DON’T wear “bathroom shoes”. Bathroom shoes are inexpensive flip-flops that Ghanaians wear to go to the bathroom. If you can’t tell the difference between bathroom shoes and potentially work-appropriate flip-flops, don’t wear flip-flops at all. IPA Ghana officially does not allow flip-flops in the Accra or Tamale offices.
DO get something made locally. The tailors in Ghana are talented and inexpensive.
DO ask a local friend or coworker if your clothing is appropriate. This is especially true if you are attending an unusual function, like a funeral, or if you are experimenting with local fashions.
DO consider the impact of your appearance. Ghanaians are often inappropriately forward with ex-pats in a way that they would not be with a fellow Ghanaian; this is especially true for women. Consider whether your appearance will encourage people to treat you as a professional; clothing that is too casual or sexy will encourage advances. It’s no fun to be shooing off suitors while walking into a partner meeting.
DO break at least one of these rules. Putting on that one dress you really love, or wearing shorts to the market, or (gasp!) wearing a pretty pair of flip flips to the office can be a fun, harmlessly subversive way to escape from the constant pressure of fitting in to another culture.
After 11 months in Africa, I spent two wonderful weeks in the United States visiting friends and family. Some of my thoughts during the trip, in chronological order:
1. British people get really pale in the winter time.
2. People don't really buy all those expensive handbags, do they?
3. The North East is really cold.
4. The average American doesn't have ANY idea what life is like for the average African.
5. Oregon is really cold.
6. What's tempranillo?
7. I'm dehydrated; why isn't anyone selling water sachets?....oh yeah I can drink the tap water.
8. Los Angeles is sometimes really cold.
9. Wow, Hulu might actually make money with its premium service.
10. DC is really cold.
11. GAAH what is this Friday song?! I need to go back to Ghana!
12. Tamale is really hot.
The other day I called British Airways Ghana to confirm my flight from Accra to New York. The booking agent asked for the reservation code. Because of the bad connection and my American accent, the agent couldn't understand what letters I was saying, forcing me to use phonetic code to spell them (A as in alpha, B as in bravo...etc.)
I've never learned the NATO phonetic alphabet, and I find having to come up with my own codes strangely stressful-- there is pressure to quickly come up a good word that won't be confused with any other word. It has to be sophisticated and unique, but not too nerdy. (You can't go around saying "H as in heteroskedasticity", for example.
When I came to the letter "F", I said the first thing that came to my mind: "F as in fufu."
The room full of Ghanaians and expats gallantly stifled their laughter till I finished my phone conversation.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.