Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Office Space

August 3, 2007
Kumasi, Ghana

The British Council was like my office. We discovered it our very first day in Kumasi but I avoided the place for a month because I didn’t want to be like all the other obrunis visiting this city. What a stupid impulse that is, to try not to be like other white people traveling in Africa. All of us indulge in this avoidance of our brethren from time to time, some more frequently and adamantly than others, but nothing’s going to change the fact that white people stand out here and obviously do not belong, no matter where they go or what they do. True, we didn’t come to Ghana to experience an isolated obruni culture, but we will never be anything but obruni and it’s foolish to avoid certain places because other whities flock to them. But I digress.

Back in March I bought a six-month membership to the British Council. It was like an oasis of order in an ocean of chaos, although that’s not really an apt metaphor: Adum, the central hill of Kumasi on which the council and all the major banks are perched, is the least crazy place in town. Still, to get there I had to traverse Asokwa, in a packed tro-tro or on foot or cycle, amid “obruni!” catcalls from children, through clogged traffic lined with hawkers and across a trash filled gully where the goats were congregated, sometimes brushing the outskirts of Kejetia or Central markets that were brimming with the morning rush. And that was all in equatorial heat that increasingly sweltered even before 9 a.m.

Walking into the council provoked two startling contrasts, one of climate, the other of sound. I could feel my capillaries contract so abruptly from the powerful air-conditioning that I would get an immediate chill inside the door. And the drone of automobiles and cries from street sellers would be replaced by quiet BBC reportage, ever-present on the screen of an enormous TV in the corner of the room. Otherwise the place was quiet as a library, which in part it was.

A sofa and chair sat next to a Nescafe machine across from the television. On the other side there were three administration desks, a water cooler, a photocopy machine and a lavatory that was, hands down, the best public place in Kumasi to take a dump. Throughout the rest of the U-shaped building books and videotapes lined the walls, except for where the 12 computer terminals were installed, offering the best Internet connection to be found in Kumasi.

Tables and chairs at either end of the main room always filled by noon. It’s true that obrunis frequented the place but the majority of its patrons were Ghanaians taking advantage of literature and technology, of modernity. It was a wonderful place to work, to do research or to write or just to watch the news in peace and quiet so sacrosanct that people took their cell phone calls outside.

The powers that be have closed the council to do a month-long comprehensive inventory. It reopens September 3. But by that time, if anything goes according to plan, we will be gone from Kumasi.

To reveal anything more of our Grand Scheme would be telling tales out of school, so I won’t. But chances are I won’t be going back into the council again, and I miss it already. (G)

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