When I tell Ghanaians I am staying in the Newtown neighborhood of Accra, I receive one of two reactions: elation, because they live in Newtown themselves, or shock, because Newtown and nearby Nima are known for thuggery. It turns out that some years ago, Newtown was a rough area. It was a place where “people did not sleep.” Thieves occupied the narrow corridors in between buildings and the route home had to be carefully planned. Or so I’m told. Newtown was, and still is largely, a neighborhood of migrants from Northern Ghana and Nigeria – Hausas, mostly. Hausas, undeservedly or not, have a reputation for agression and xenophobia. Despite all this – Newtown’s reported history and the prevailing warnings about Hausas – I have felt welcomed, looked after, and cared for by nearly everyone I come across.
When I first arrived in Newtown I was admittedly pestered and harassed at every turn. Being a white man where there aren’t any, this unwanted attention was understandable. It was also annoying and intolerable. I endured this gawking for a day or two. Then the plot took a turn.
For consecutive mornings, I shared smiles with a radiant woman who sells bananas and groundnuts (peanuts) by the roadside. When I returned the third day, our mutual curiosity lead to a conversation. After a week, she was regularly inviting me to sit and eat with her (Ghanaian English has a lot of peculiar phrases – “you are invited” is one of the most endearing). This was just the beginning.
I now have standing dinner invitations from nearly a dozen people as well as invitations to stay in peoples’ homes, to attend church, and most recently, to attend a graduation. While I receive my daily Twi lesson from the lady who sells me bananas, I learn Hausa from the chophouse where I eat jollof rice. I remain a novelty for the neighborhood kids, but I am no longer victim to “obruni” potshots from distance (kids hollering “obruni” – white man – and then cowering behind a taxi for instance). Instead, I am now the K-5 tow truck (literally – an obsession with my arm hair has led to this), dragging children down the street, all of us laughing hysterically.
The story of extraordinary rewards wrought from a longer stay is not confined to Newtown. I am convinced it is a general travel truth. While I will gladly visit museums and travel distances to see recommended attractions, I often find that I would much rather spend my time learning the local jokes and drinking the local liquor. The best and perhaps the only way to do this is to put your bags down and stay a while.
I love this video. The boy, self-conscious, steps out of the frame. The girl remains. She is excited to discover that the bread is coming straight from the oven.