The heart of every community in Ghana is its market.
In Accra (the capitol), the main marketplace is this cavernous, sprawling maze of life and activity and color and chaos and HEAT. My first time there, I’d had no idea what to expect, I’d simply gotten into a cab and been told we were heading to the ‘heart of the city’, Makola Market.
People and chickens and babies crowd every square inch– 4 foot high piles of mangoes and 2 feet tall piles of rainbow colored toothbrushes and a cacophony of sound– three different kinds of music blasting in any given alley and blind men singing in harmonies begging for change– cavernous tunnels filled with stalls selling brightly colored prints and sparkling plastic jewelry, luminous market queens tugging at your sleeves and through all of this weave these 12 year old girls with four foot high stacks of crates balanced precariously on their heads.
I just gawped and stood in complete shock and amazement. I somehow had goosebumps, despite it being 3,000 degrees.
Despite it being so captivating, I didn’t take many pictures. People were offended even when I casually took cellphone pictures of a crowd, so I’d ask individuals for permission instead.
Everywhere you go throughout the city, the streets are crowded with people selling everything imaginable. Women balancing giant baskets on their heads and with babies tied to their backs weave in and out of the crowd, utterly complacent in the face of the oncoming traffic. Stalls painted bright and held together with campaign posters crowd the sidewalks. People live their lives in these stalls, talking, arguing, singing, haggling, and catching cool breezes. The informal side of the economy creates a close community, even in the fast-paced city of Accra. 8 out of 10 working Ghanaians have one of these small, independent ventures. These informal sales of everything from sunglasses to fried plantain accounts for a whopping 22% of the GDP.
The Ghanaian economy is based on micro-businesses. I was surprised to learn that even the well educated employees at the office where I interned had these sorts of businesses on the side– Joan, with an undergraduate degree in political science, a graduate degree in business and a job in a consulting agency also sold an average of 200 cedi (100 USD, approx) in jewelry and clothes a week, for example. This income isn’t taxed, there is rarely record keeping or marketing– it’s just interpersonal exchanges, run out of homes or on street corners.
Women are a powerful part of this informal economy. They represent 71% of these enterprises, compared to 53% of the labor force as a whole. Women are traditionally expected to have an informal job in addition to conventional employment, and use their income for running the household— mainly food and clothing, which are large expenses in Ghana. Men traditionally have only one job, and use their income to pay for larger expenses— the home, car, school tuition, and so on. With economic responsibility comes greater power. In addition to contributing to the bulk of daily expenses and making sure everyone is fed and clothed, women contribute equally to the decision making process in the home.
The picture below is of the marketplace in Koforidua, a somewhat smaller and calmer city not far from Accra. I happened to stumble upon a little parade/spontaneous dance party.
You never know what the day will bring.
Markets are a hot pot of culture and chaos and exhilaration, and they can be tough to navigate when the culture is still new and foreign. My 5 months in Ghana only began the long process of learning how to navigate a culture that could really take a lifetime. I had nothing to compare the culture to (southern Africa, Costa Rica, and Mexico are all worlds unto themselves, I really began to appreciate just how homogenous Westernized countries are). I so wanted to do right by everyone I encountered, but I had a few missteps along the way… I suppose that’s inevitable, though. Ask before you photograph anything!
Ghanaian culture is all about hospitality. Everyone I met was incredibly warm, friendly, and giving. Being in the city, I was initially operating the same way I would in New York or Philly— if a stranger talks to you (especially male), feign deafness and walk faster. I was amazed to learn that when people were saying hello, or asking me if I was lost, it wasn’t because they were trying to get something from me. They actually want to be friendly! Many people were just interested in me as red-faced, sweating, smiling oddity.
During my time in Ghana, I wasted a lot of time searching in vain for performances and exhibits. After a few weeks, I began to realize that street life was what it was all about. Impromptu dance parties and lively conversations all unfold to a deafening soundtrack of Azonto, roaring traffic, and roosters crowing. That’s Ghana.