This summer, as many of my colleagues interned at newspapers in New Haven and around the country, I decided to try something totally different. I went halfway around the world to try my hand at journalism in a developing African country. I ended up working at The Daily Guide, a small private newspaper based in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
Accra is situated right on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. As West Africa goes, Accra is fairly developed; my office had a few computers, air conditioning and a flushing toilet. Perks notwithstanding, the Daily Guide office was like none other I’d seen in the United States. While Accra has luxuries like five-star hotels, air-conditioning and western-style supermarkets, it is still a Third World country.
Freely wandering goats are a common sight, and if you’re not careful you could fall into one of the many open sewers or uncovered holes spotting the streets. As a European expat told my friend: “There are only two kinds of people, those who have fallen into a hole, and those who haven’t fallen into one — yet.”
Besides learning to walk carefully, one of the earliest lessons I learned was that NOTHING ever starts on time in Ghana. Before I left for Accra, I read a joke in the Lonely Planet’s guide to West Africa that while Ghana ran on GMT (Greenwich Mean time), the acronym would better read “Ghana Maybe Time.” At the time I hadn’t found this little yarn too amusing. As it turned out, an hour late was generally considered to be “on time.” The idea of hurrying never seemed to occur to the average Ghanaian. My friends and I decided that the starting time for functions was really the time you were supposed to start thinking about leaving your house to go to the function.
I arrived for my first day of work, full of enthusiasm, at the reasonable hour of 9 a.m. The editor-in-chief arrived some time around 1 p.m. In the interim, I had the pleasure of being interrogated by some of my co-workers.
“Do you have any children?”
“Because I’m too young.”
“Well, are you married?”
“Because I’m too young.”
“How old are you?”
“Oh, well you should get married soon. You’ll be too old soon.”
There also were the ever-popular queries about visas to the United States and my opinion of Ghana — a topic of conversation I usually tried to avoid.
When the editor-in-chief finally arrived, she seemed quite pleased with me. Apparently, it is very impressive for a Ghanaian paper to have a white reporter on staff, so she assigned me to the rather interesting tourism beat. But first, she wanted me to get acquainted with Ghanaian journalism.
She assigned me to work with Joseph Mensah, the Daily Guide’s court beat reporter. The next morning, after waiting over an hour for Joseph’s arrival, we headed to the courthouse. We arrived 45 minutes late for court, but — surprise — we still had a fair amount of time before proceedings would begin.
The court was interesting, to say the least. British Colonial rule had left behind remnants of its own court system, mainly in the form of traditional robes and wigs. Like many other aspects of Accra, however, the courts were run-down and the robes and wigs faded and torn.
The trial we attended was of six police officers accused of negligence in the case of a deadly stampede which took the lives of 127 people at a football stadium. When the head investigator was asked whether he had actually visited the stadium or interviewed anyone involved with the incident, he responded that he had not. The defense asked if he had done any of his own investigation, and he replied that he had been told by his superiors to arrest these men and take their statements, and had done no more. That was the extent of the investigation.
And yet, when the prosecution asked him to give his opinion as to who was responsible for the incident — and the defense objected that he was unqualified to answer, on the grounds that he had never visited the site — the objection was overruled. The investigator said he believed the accused to be responsible for the incident. The trial was recessed after a few hours, and the next trial was postponed until the next week — one of the attorneys said he was “too tired” to make his case.
Afterward, I asked Joseph if he thought the investigator could have done more. “He didn’t do a great job,” Joseph replied, “But it was okay.” I cringed a bit but chose not to push the issue. (I was pleased a few weeks later to hear that the accused officers had been found not guilty for lack of evidence.)
Covering the courts proved to be an interesting first assignment. My knowledge of the American legal system fails to extend far beyond that which I’ve learned from watching “Law & Order.” Even so, the cultural and procedural differences between the two shocked me.
During this time, as I was still being “taught” by the Daily Guide, I was not allowed to write my own stories. Instead, Joseph proudly added my name to his articles so that “I could show that I had published my work.” Unfortunately, his articles — and most of the articles in Ghanaian newspapers — were full of grammatical errors and written in a style that begged a good editor.
Since my superiors were so interested in American culture, I decided that perhaps my role at the paper was to edit their stories into American English. It was not. Upon presenting my first (and only) effort at editing, I was told not to waste my time.
About this time, Joseph stopped mentoring me and began asking me out for drinks and to accompany him to the beach. When my excuses finally started running somewhat low, I decided to mention my nonexistent boyfriend back in the States. “That doesn’t matter,” was his ever-flexible response. “I want you to be with me while you’re in Africa.” The feeling was not mutual. I eventually “accidentally” missed an appointment with Joseph at the courts, and spent my time at a press conference instead. Press passes were generally unnecessary for me, as my white skin seemed more important than my young age. I reported back to my paper and asked if I could type my own story. (Most journalists wrote their stories on paper. Typing was done by typists. These typists, incidentally, were the source of many of the paper’s typographical errors.)
Despite the angry looks from some of the other female workers, after two weeks of shadowing Joseph, it felt very satisfying to sit behind a computer and write my own story. To be honest, getting the editor-in-chief’s approval — and my first story published — was even more satisfying.
In Ghana, white people are few and far between. Sending a white correspondent to a function seemed almost a symbol of status for a newspaper. I was therefore sent to events like receptions for the Canadian and British High Commissions. The food was good, but the newspaper had a misconception; the white people at these events had no interest in me, and the Africans there were too important to speak with me.
As the editor-in-chief doled out premium assignments to a rookie from America and the newspaper’s male employees showed romantic interest in me, the women in the office were, needless to say, less than friendly. Fidel, for instance (whose job I could never exactly define), made a lasting impression with her wit.
“Erin, let me ask you a question,” she said.
“All right,” I replied. And then, without any kind of warning:
“Erin, where are your breasts?”
“Excuse me?” Obviously, I had misheard her.
“Your breasts, Erin,” she repeated. “They’re so small. Where are they?”
She responded to my blank stare by grabbing her own ample bosom and then pointing at mine. “Where are they? I can’t see them.”
I managed to mutter a pathetically snotty, “Well sorry,” before running into the reporter’s room. It was about 10 a.m. — too early for anyone to be in there, thankfully — and I took a few moments to try and compose myself by repeating the mantra: “It’s just a different culture, just remember it’s a different culture.”
As the weeks went by, my success at the Daily Guide continued to diminish. My stories were often “lost” or simply not published, especially when I submitted my article to someone other than the editor-in-chief. On the brighter side, I was able to attend some rather interesting press conferences, including one where a non-Ghanaian man gave a presentation suggesting a subway system and a Las Vegas-like strip down by the beach to lure tourists to Accra. During the question and answer session after the presentation, one journalist suggested Ghana educate its children and develop a proper sewer system before worrying about such luxuries. I asked him why he thought western tourists would want to come all the way to Africa just to see Las Vegas and pointed out that they might actually come to Africa to see a different culture and environment. I got a handshake from another journalist for my “good question.”
Highlights like this made my trip worthwhile. While Fidel and others made me occasionally hate Ghana and all of its inhabitants, there would always be some people who would show my friends and me such an unbelievable degree of kindness that the others would fade into the background. Like Dereck, a Ghanaian developer who spent the day with some of my friends and me, escorting us in his big SUV to waterfalls and other sights in the area. He gave us his card over a few beers and told us to call him if we ever wanted to go out again. People like Dereck shaped my experience in Ghana, and the end, I cried like a baby at the airport when I had to leave.