About Rebecca Hunt
After 10 years as a techie in the United States, Rebecca Hunt joined the
Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. She taught computer skills and
business skills in a medium sized city. After 2 years in Togo, she
moved to Accra, Ghana to work in a internet and mobile telephone
Latest Posts by Rebecca Hunt
There is a peculiar form of marketing here in Accra. At least, I think it is marketing, but it might actually be just a party. Every week or so I will see that a company, group, or school has rented a flat bed truck, given about 20-50 young adults a t-shirt with their logo, and put the youths and speakers on the truck to be driven around town slowly. Some dance, others walk along side the truck. The speakers tend to be about 5-feet tall. In fact, it is a lot like a parade float, without the decorations, and without the parade.
I’m not sure what the point is. Usually the only logo on display is on the T-shirts, which is too small to see from a distance. So I see the event, but I have no idea who is sponsoring it and why. The folks gyrating together on the truck seem to be having a good time, but I feel like and old person when I see them; I always think they must be really hot in the sun. Do they get paid to be there? Is the t-shirt enough payment? Or is this just a good time? How far does the truck go, and do the cars behind them mind that they are holding up traffic? I have so many unanswered questions.
I’ve tried to explain the web surfing experience in West Africa before. Slow connections, power outages, viruses on the cyber cafe machines… did I mention really really slow connections? Here in Accra, working above the poshest, most professional, and probably speediest cyber cafe in the country, we get a pretty good connection. You still wouldn’t want to download a video or an application, and even browsing websites with lots of images (baby pictures from friends!) is slow. But it is possible.
At work we are building a web application, and most of our clients are in Africa. They experience all the same frustrations as us, and some times worse. We built a web site using a leading technology (GWT) that, we thought, would allow them to have a great user experience. Check it out: www.esoko.com There are not a lot of graphics, certainly no video, audio, or flash. We don’t have any problem with server load. The site content isn’t heavy, and the site might seem fast in the US. Yet some of our clients have been complaining of slow page loads… very slow. As in… almost forever for a page to load.
One problem is that our servers are in the US. Our clients, on their 56k modems are making requests that need to cross the Atlantic and come back with data. It seems that the closest hosting company we can find to West Africa that meets our standards is in… London. That is still pretty far away. We need a professional quality hosting company here (and content distribution networks like Akamai don’t have servers in Africa!)
Another problem is that we wrote the code without making performance our top priority. We wrote it as if our clients were in the US or Europe. Most developers there don’t worry about sites being more than 100mb. (I didn’t when I was there.) But we see that we have to be very concerned. We don’t have the luxury of being big and lazy.
We are hard at work improving the site, squeezing every bit of performance improvement out of the code that we can. We are reading yahoo standards, facebook advice, looking at what all the big players have to say. We are writing improved code, re-working what is slow, and looking hard at our numbers.
Despite all this, we can’t improve our clients’ connections. They will still be on 56k modems or similar. Our objective is to have pages that download for most of our clients in 10 seconds or less, which hardly seems speedy outside of Africa.
Yesterday the Daily Graphic – the Ghana newspaper that is something of a mouthpiece for the govt – had an article that Ghanaians up north were crossing the border into Togo to flee ethnic violence. The article also showed up on BBC. (See it here too)
Eric and I, while not unsympathetic to the refugees plight, sniggered at the Togolese authorities response:
“Our immediate task is to find the resources to provide these refugees with emergency relief supplies, security, feeding, clothing and temporary rehabilitation structures.”
In other words, Togo was looking for money from the international community to help them in this situation. Yet there is little doubt that most of the money would be “eaten”. That is to say, put in the pockets of local authorities… as little as possible would go towards refugees.
But then, lo and behold, today the Daily Graphic had an article on a meeting between high level government dudes of Togo and Ghana (including Ghanaian president Mills). They renounced this horrible press rumors. There were really only 1000 refugees in Togo, they stated.
Surely, it is highly embarrassing for the Ghanaians to imagine that their own citizens would seek refuge in the poor neighbor country that they tend to look down on. Of course they would react strongly to put a stop to the international press that is (possibly) airing Ghana’s dirty laundry.
I don’t know how many refugees are actually in Togo, and how much of the story was fabricated by the Togolese to get international money, and how much is being refuted to save Ghanaian pride. I don’t intend to go up North to find out. But I’m learning to “read between the lines” of press stories!
Eric and I decided to splurge and go out for a Margarita last night. There is a hotel-restaurant nearby that claims to serve them. The hotel has several restaurants; unfortunately it turned out that the place that makes Margaritas was charging 20 cedis to get in. (All you can drink Saturday!)
We decided to just go to one of the other restaurants in the same hotel, where we know we can order a cheap bottle of wine (9 cedis). We enjoyed sitting in the traditionally decorated patio and watching the people pass through. Groups of very young Americans trooped through on their way to All-You-Can-Drink, looking slightly guilty and scared to be leaving their cultural exchange experience or volunteer program to go get some underage (for American) intoxication.
Three very beautiful, young, and sexily dressed ladies sat quietly at a table across from me. They didn’t talk to each other, and they didn’t order a drink. They studiously ignored the 70 year old infirm white man leering at them, perhaps hoping for a younger, richer client. It was a quiet night, and there weren’t many options. In fact, 2 of the 6 tables of people seemed to be women waiting for money-making opportunities.
Behind us sat a group of Lebanese men. Live Lebanese music started in the third restaurant in the hotel complex; we could see the singer through the window and hear the music. The singer was impressive; I don’t consider Arabic a language that soothes the ears, but he rendered it into something nice. From our perspective, it looked like the restaurant was full of white men, clapping along to the music and laughing.
I heard the group behind me call out something to us, and understood that we were being nicknamed by the bottle of wine we had in front of us (Baron D’Argnoniac). I turned to the older, thicker Lebanese man as he encouraged us to enjoy the music. He clapped his hands in rhythm in the air. “You need to enjoy life”, he said. I said he should show us how. He didn’t require any armtwisting, and immediately stood up and danced. “Now you should!” he said to me. I said I would give the floor to my husband first.
Eric didn’t take any convincing either, and was suddenly up dancing with the Lebanese, trying to imitate his moves. Suddenly, everyone in the restaurant, from the prostitutes to the ex-pat family, was clapping along and smiling as the two men danced in front of me to an Arabic song in the next restaurant.
There is an American style mall in Accra. It is large, air-conditioned, has a movie theater, and Apple store, a food court, a grocery store, a number of small clothing stores, and a book store. It is the place to go and be seen on Saturdays if you are a teenager in Accra.
In fact, everyone tries to look nice when they go to the mall. If you enjoy people watching you will see the mixture of traditional and new styles. Men with woven cloth, attached on such a way that one shoulder is bare, walk past groups of teenage boys with Fro-Hawks, skinny jeans, and chunky silver chain necklaces. Young girls look awkward in their secondhand mini skirts, while older women look elegant in the floor length skirts in bright patterns with matching tops and head scarves.
The stores tend to be empty; people mostly wander the mall hallway. Except for the grocery store bags, it is rare to see people caring bags of purchases. I don’t envy the store owners in the mall; I can’t imagine they make a profit.
Accra is 5 degrees N of the equator. One result is that days don’t vary much in length (they tend to be equal near the equator). In December or in June, the days are about 12 hours. The sun rises at about 6am and sets at about 6pm.
This means that there is not a lot one can do outdoors after work ends at 6pm. No biking, or quick frisbee games or other fun activities. Streets aren’t always lit, so even jogging after work becomes a dark pursuit. At least in the warm spring days of northern america, we can take advantage of BBQ’s other sunny activities until 9pm.
But there is a benefit; only in extremely rare circumstances do I need to get up before the sun rises. I don’t have to haul myself out of bed while it is still dark, get ready under the too-bright glare of lightbulbs, and then make my way into work just as the sun is rising.
If you are interested in looking up sunrise and sunset times around the world, look here
I have said good bye to my friends and colleagues in Sokode. It was not easy, but they threw lots of parties for me. Several going away events were thrown in my honor, 2 at schools I worked with and 2 others with friends and colleagues. I did not cry at any of them, although I came close at times. It was mostly just laughing and telling jokes and not focusing on the fact that I’m leaving.
I realized that lots of people would have liked to say good bye or give me something to remember them, but they didn’t have anything to give. So I bought a notbook and decorated the cover. I asked everyone to write in it, draw in it, or do anything that would help me remember them. People seemed to really enjoy that and it was nice to have a way to say good bye.