The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Jamestown Fish Market

On Monday when Eric and I went to the harbor at Jamestown to buy some fish. Usually I go to Tema, which is a 20 minute drive down the wonderful Tema motorway which costs a whole .08 cents to drive. Its like an interstate and connects Accra to this huge harbor that was built in the 1960s, and is the port by which most stuff that enters Ghana must pass.

Jamestown, on the other hand is the old British section of Accra, and today is pretty much a slum. It does have a cool lighthouse that we toured about this time last year. Other than that, I pretty much avoid it, it’s the lowest part of Accra, and all the sewage that flows in the gutters has to go somewhere, and that happens to be Jamestown.

[The Jamestown Lighthouse ]
So maybe buying food from the lowest part of Accra wasn’t the brightest idea, but I like supporting the local community, which happens to be Ga. Our Driver (did I mention that we have a driver now?) well, anyway, Eric is Ga, and I asked him where I could buy fresh fish without having to drive to Tema. You would think that a huge city like this would have a fish market, but it doesn’t. Oh, you can buy “fresh” fish on Oxford Street from boys selling them out of shallow aluminum pans filled with ice, but I worry about it being fresh, or “flesh,” as it is said here because there isn’t the “r” sound in the local languages. So after running some errands with our new house guest Ana, (one of the new crop of Fulbright students) we’re off to buy fish and I’m thinking this is a 45 minute operation tops.

Well 60 minutes later we’re still trapped in traffic, and have not made it past Accra Central…road construction. Ghana seems to have taken a page out of the Texas Department of Transportation work site manual, which is tear up the whole road at once, and then start work. 90 minutes later we pull into the harbor.

[Fish market is on the left down the long road]
Now if it had been me, I would have parked, and walked the last 100 feet, but Ghanaian drivers are not wired that way. They like to park as close to the final destination as possible, even if it takes 10 minutes to do so, weaving through all sorts of working dead heavy wooden boats.

We get out of the car, 2 steps, I’m not kidding, two steps away from the fish “market,” its actually just a wooden stall, with sheets of rusting tin scraps for a roof. The seller pulls out two enormous Grouper Fish out of a box of ice, and says “Flesh, flesh, 100,000,” which in old Ghana cedis was about $10. I’m still at a disadvantage because I wasn’t here during the currency redenomination, and haven’t gotten used to the sort of blend of old and new currency people quote prices in.

One hundred thousand cedis, at least that’s what I thought. So, I’m ready to bargain her down to 60,000, about $6, and I think fine, at Tema, I usually pay $8, and that’s for red snapper, the fish I prefer. I’m liking Jametown so far, and am happy to agree to At 65,000 cedis. Actually, Eric is doing most of the bargaining, and he turns to me at one point and asks if it’s a good price. “Its OK,” I say, which means fine--its fair, so I agree and he says, “As for me, I do not know the price of fish.” First clue.

I didn’t even hear that little part of the brain that puts out those warning signals, you know, the kind we usually ignore, and later wish we hadn’t. So she scales the fish, and smacks them on the table and “WHACK!” off goes its head. They are not using fish knives here, it’s a very sharp machete with a sort of concave blade, from extensive sharpening. The next lady steps in with her own cutlass (as a machete is called here), and in my brain I call the first lady, head-whacker, the one who is working now fish-chopper. When fish-chopper has properly chunked the grouper, because this isn’t the kind of place that could fillet fish, fish-chopper puts the chunks, about the size of an apple, in a black plastic bag (what else), and slap it on the table. I hand her seven new Ghana cedis, and fish-chopper thinks it a tip. Second clue. I don’t get it. Turns out the prices head whacker was quoting was some cryptic form of New Ghana Cedis, and demands 65 cedis, about $63 for a bag of fish chunks that couldn’t be more than 2 pounds.

Together Eric, and fish-whacker go through the whole process, retelling the story of how we got to this point, I get every other words or so, the gathering crowd adds to the story, agreeing, nodding heads, or shaking them. They are seated, watching the drama unfold. When there is disagreement, the whole community gets into it. At first they side with fish-whacker, saying I agreed to that price. Eric is doing a great job arguing my side, but fish-whacker will have nothing to do with it. She wants 65 cedis, and so we stand around offering different options, give us half the fish, lower the price, but never walking. I have about 45 cedis which is still a huge rip off, but considering the way the car has been threaded into the market and well, a mob has formed, I figure driving away isn’t an option.
Then the crowd turns, and starts to argue my point with the woman. Eric is deeply embarrassed, and feels he has let us down—these are his people, the Ga. I feel sorry for Ana, she is just off the plane, and having to see this side of Ghana. So we stand around, Eric trying to push the 45 cedies in fish whacker’s hand, Ana playing with the kid behind us sitting on the fishing boat, the crowd yelling, take it, and a lot more, I’m sure, and me standing there looking her straight in the eye, but she will not meet my eyes. She knows she is cheating me, and the crowd does too. After about 20 minutes of this, it’s a hot day, I’m in the full sun, fish-whacker is in the shade, she takes the money, and after another 10 minutes, hands me the black bag of fish chunks, and off we go. There are no thank yous, no good-byes, or really anything. Everyone loses, and Eric wonders if we should even eat the fish, as it might be cursed, but that night, I use about half of it in a wonderful Indian fish curry, and remember, that’s why I love fresh, or flesh fish.

Its that preference for short term profit over longer term gain that makes me sad for Africa. Here I was wanting to establish a relationship with this woman and that market, to buy fish here in Accra weekly, not having to drive to Tema, or off the road, or frozen from the obrunie markets where it was either packaged from last spring or some other distant part of the world. The market was small, and I had dreams of getting to know the fishermen, maybe even getting a ride in their boat, but it looks like none of that will happen now…because I’ll be going back to Tema.

Jamestown Fishmarket & Harbor. The building on the left is the former Jamestown Fort, now a prison. The fish seller was just above the point of the roof above the four windows.
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Blogger Spike said...

It's hard, but one thing I have learned is to not let the bad behavior of other people circumscribe my life. If you want to shop in Jamestown, shop in Jamestown. Go back and there will be a different seller to buy from. You will have learned your lesson and will do better next time. I bet that there will be reprocussions for that fish seller from the community.

3:21 PM, September 20, 2007  
Anonymous Loreli said...

I'm with Spike. Don't let one fish-wacker (or was it head-chopper?) drive you away. I have a certain love for Jamestown. Try on a different day, different vendor, and keep the stories coming.

4:50 PM, September 22, 2007  
Anonymous J-M said...

Steve, This blog really captures some of the frustration that Westerners feel in these economic transactions that overlap relationships. The "African Friends and Money Matters" book we've been reading highlights the cultural difference so well. As Westerners, we want a long-term solution, a system (i.e. buying every week from someone you know), while Africans focus on the short-term, day-to-day immediate need. I often feel the same way - this money I'm paying you is only a short-term solution, don't you want more stability? But that isn't how African values work. Planning for the future really is a "foreign concept" in all senses of the phrase.

12:28 PM, September 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

J-M, being African, I find your generalization being quite offensive. That African values do not include planning for the future? How would that explain some of us that are Ivy-League educated with great jobs, contributing to the folks back home and helping build a legacy?

1:31 AM, November 18, 2007  

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