October 29, 2009

How dangerous is travel in Ghana?

This is my take on them, and please feel free to add your own stories or tips in the comments below:

1. Health—Mosquitoes: Malaria. I wrote a post about how it feels here. The bad news: it is ‘as common as catching a cold.’ The good news: it’s easy to do something about.

The standard rule is to take antimalarials for one month before arrival so your system can develop resistance, and one month after leaving. The month after leaving rule is to kill parasitic cycles that could develop into malaria over time, later.

One time, a volunteer friend was experiencing spontaneous sweats, fever, vomiting, tiredness, and diarrhea, so we were tested for malaria; her test was negative. The following day she was ill again so we visited a different clinic. She had a seizure during the consultation. She had severe malaria. So much for the test.

So, the moral is: a negative blood test may be wrong; it doesn’t guarantee you are malaria-free. If you are presenting the clinical symptoms, you should seek treatment. You can go to a hospital or clinic. They’ll test you. Even if negative.

Roughly speaking, about 1 in 5 volunteers I worked with got malaria. Some never got it, others, like me, got it regularly. We took the various brands: Doxy, Larium, and so on. None of them are perfect. We sprayed ourselves at night and slept under nets, but it only takes one bite. The good news, as I said, is that it’s easy to cure provided you do something about it when you notice the symptoms. Don’t worry, don’t freak out or panic, just act. If you wish to see a doctor, fine. It’s not a bad idea to keep a written record of medical visits.

Regarding general health and travel, see your travel doctor at least a month, preferably longer, before coming to Ghana and follow their advice on general and Africa-specific vaccinations (there is no malaria vaccine), and which antimalarial drugs would be best. For the record, it’s much cheaper to buy them here than it is in developed countries. I can buy a sheet of 10 doxy for one dollar. You might want to check the Centre for Disease Control’s latest updates for Ghana here to learn about malaria in detail and other mosquito-borne diseases and health issues in Ghana:

I’m looking forward to the day when a mosquito bite simply means an itchy bite.

Vehicles: Most nights I say a prayer of thanks for good health, friends and family, and that I haven’t been mangled in a horrible road accident. Indeed, I don’t practice any one religion, but the roads in Ghana have turned me into a practicing prayer. And I’m not picky about which God hears my trotro prayers. I had so many close-calls and passed so many serious accidents that I updated my will—that’s how bad it is. The Vice President, John Mahama, was on GTV yesterday morning at a community where a terrible dirt road was about to be paved. He said that the rutted road forces vehicles to drive at 20-30 km/hour and there has not been a single road accident there. But he lamented that once it’s tarred drivers will speed and he fears the ‘carnage’ that will occur. It was quite candid of him, and it gives you a sense of the gravity of the situation.

The Bad news: Taxis, trotros and buses are virtually unavoidable. The good news: There isn’t much good news on this one. I’m sorry. Drivers bribe officials to get licenced without sitting for a driving test and until that situation is brought under control, I can’t see it improving.

A few months ago on my trip to Accra, the STC (which I took because it gives the impression of being safe) driver fell asleep at the wheel and veered so close to an oncoming semi-trailer that the side mirror smashed off. On the way back from Accra, the STC driver over took on a blind rise over solid double lines into a row of oncoming cars and trucks that were forced to shift to the far right to make space for us on the wrong side of the road. I think most travelers in Ghana would attest that this standard of driving is quite normal. I have countless similar stories, mostly involving trotros, blind corners or hills, oncoming vehicles, rain, and high speeds.

Highway robbery along remote roads is becoming more common. I have not heard of physical threats occurring during the highway robberies, but I’d like to know if anyone has. It seems that as long as you hand your stuff over, you are not harmed. Don’t carry anything you don’t mind losing on trotro journeys.

If a driver is being careless, chances are Ghanaians will shout at them. Don’t be afraid to shout yourself. If worst comes to worst, you can always get off. I learnt to say ‘slow down’ in Twi and it works. Life seems cheap on Ghana’s roads, so if you value yours, speak up.

Crowd situations: Pick pocketing and stampeding are problems. There have been a few stampedes at football games over the years that resulted in many deaths. Please be careful if you’re attending a game or any event in large crowds like a concert where everyone might suddenly push to get in or out.

Pick-pockets are rife in crowded areas. I’ve seen it and heard about it. I kicked guys off me one day in a crowd and saw others do it plenty of times too. One sneaky thing thieves do is slash your bag straps or the underneath of your bag, so hold your bag tightly in crowds.

The ocean current and surf: While waves on Busua, Axim and a few other beaches I visited are much smaller, they are wildly unpredictable. You might pop up after ducking under a wave to find another one hitting you side on and pulling your legs in the opposite direction. You have to keep moving around to stay in a safe zone. The undertow and rips are fierce.

My friend, a strong swimmer, got caught in one rip, and struggled to get out of it. It seemed to shift and suddenly I was caught in it and I really struggled for 10 mins until I made it to the shore.

General places to avoid:

Kokrobite Beach is notorious for daylight and especially night time robberies. A bunch of small boys will surround you, pull a knife and demand your back pack. Even male acquaintances were robbed this way.

University: Like most campuses world-wide, don’t roam around at night unless you’re in a large group, definitely not alone or with just one other person.

Accra
Nima/Mamobey area at night. Be alert during the day. Pig Farm (yes, it’s a name) at night. Ashaiman at night. Kwame Nkrumah Circle area and Kaneshie by day and night for bag and phone snatching; don’t be alarmed, but don’t let anyone carry your bags and hold on tight. Osu main street at night.

Kumasi
Racecourse area at night. Kejetia trotro station and market area at night for bag and phone snatching and occasionally people physically trying to stop you. Just push them away and keep walking. Shout if you have to. I never had a problem there, but keep your wits about you.

Cape Coast
Along the beaches at night—just don’t do it unless you’re with body guards (not the guys who like to sweet talk girls at Oasis or any of those who approach travelers on the street. It’s a notorious area for robberies).
Around the Castles—the area and beaches around there are known for petty robberies.
Outside Oasis and the back roads that lead from Oasis to the town centre at night. Stick to Commercial Road: the long road that extends from the Castle past the crab and up to the market, but be careful around the Castle/Restaurant area at night.
Around the crab at night and Hacienda. You can have fun, but take care.
Kotakoraba taxi station at night—not too bad, but be careful.

Elmina:
Shell Elmina during festivals when all the young boys in the area converge to dance.
The SSNIT building past Shell on the right side of the highway at night is not a safe area. Elmina Castle area at night.

I have only been robbed twice in Ghana. My phone was pick-pocketed because I left it in an outer backpack pocket in Kaneshie. And I was robbed by three men when I least suspected it—in broad daylight in a taxi one morning heading to work along the highway from Elmina to Cape. In retrospect it was a set up, but I’d never experienced such a thing. I got mad, shouted a lot, hit them over the head (lame but it worked) and got my stuff back. It was a surreal experience (and another exciting chapter for the book). But I was lucky; try not to be in that situation in the first place.

The point is, if you don’t see a weapon, or you’re not physically threatened, don’t be afraid to fight back and shout and make a lot of noise. If other people are around, there’s a good chance they’ll come to your aid. Ghanaians detest thieves and people who break into other’s homes, uninvited, in particular.

Upper East and West
Comparatively, the Upper East and West Regions are less touristed and the hassle factor is virtually zero in towns compared with, say, Kumasi or Accra. However, you should keep your wits about you at night and traveling in remote areas.

Bawku:
It is a conflict zone and you enter Bawku at your own risk. However, the conflict occurs in bouts, weeks, sometimes months apart. Most times, if you’re just passing through you wouldn’t know there was a conflict. There is a heavy police and military presence if something should happen.

Between Mole and Larabanga:
It says so in the guide book and for a reason. That little stretch of road is a playground for thieves. Avoid it.

While all this may be scary, I’ve felt safer here than many other places in the world. Most Ghanaians hardly drink alcohol or smoke so alcohol fueled violence is barely an issue. Truly ugly, violent crime is far less common than in many capital cities in developed countries.

If you want to read more about health issues, I recommend the Travel Doctor in the UK for information.

The photo is licenced as free to use from Flickr.

8 comments:

  1. Hi Gayle
    Nice blog! I envy your life in Ghana. I loved the years I had in Bali and Thailand. I wish I was youn again, and could travel more. Maybe next life?
    Glad I could help with your back-up.
    Cheers,
    Roberto

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  2. Hi thanks! No, this life! I am always inspired by one of my former volunteers who was a 73 year old woman who came here to volunteer for 4 months in the organisation where I formerly worked, Global Mamas. She went to Mexico the following year and is considering Bali now!

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  3. Great informative post Gayle!! Thanks for sharing. I'd have to say I agree with the parts I actually know about.

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  4. Great information Gayle.

    My 2 cents

    Crossing the Volta River was very dangerous when we did it. They packed these motorised canoes with far too many people, young children and chickens. Water was seeping in the sides and the army officals came, were paid off and we set sail. We were warned by a fellow traveller that if it sunk to swim away from the boat because we would be pulled under by sinking Ghanaians!! Thankfully we made it...but not without tears

    The road situation is awful. We saw numerous accidents and the worst travel time we had was the stretch back from Mole National Park. We honestly thought we might not make it at one stage

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  5. Hi Rachael, thanks so much for your comment. Yes my friend and I had a similar experience in a motorised canoe. While not overpacked, it was taking in water and we couldn't help but muse whether we'd have to put our long distance swimming skills to the test. Thanks again!

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  6. Hi Everybody, beautiful blog, obviously written with a lot of love for the Country. My name is Henk Visschers, i'm living in Ghana since 2007 and I'm the Managing Director of Metro Mass Transit (The Orange and Yellow buses). I would like to respond on the issue of Road Safety. I share the analysis on Road Safety, but I would like everybody to know that we at MMT are taking a lot of measures to make our services the safest (and most affordable, BTW) in the Country. We train and retrain our drivers, use electronic speedlimiters in our buses, use Vehicle Tracking System, check our drivers on alcohol usage, take measures to prevent fatigue. We also instruct them to adhere to speedlimits and to drive smoothly and safely. This doesn't mean all our drivers are perfect and that our buses are never involved in any accident, but to my opinion it makes MMT-buses the safest option in Ghana.

    So welcome to Ghana and enjoy your stay and use MMT-buses to move around the Country.

    Cu,

    Henk Visschers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Henk. Thank you for taking the time to write a thorough outline of what MMT offers and, in particular, its action regarding safety. These are the orange buses and they certainly are on par with tros for value but much safer. Please share any other information as it becomes available. As anyone who's traveled around Ghana knows, transport info is not easy to come by in Ghana. I appreciate this. Gayle.

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  8. thank you very much for good commants

    Bathmate

    ReplyDelete

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