Monday, February 15, 2010

My breakfast meeting with the mayor of Accra

Tomorrow morning I will be at a breakfast meeting with his Excellency the mayor of Accra, the capital of Ghana and the city of my youth. If there is any city I identify with, other than New York where I currently live, it is Accra where I was born and raised, and lived through and after college.

There was a time I thought it would be really cool to be the mayor of Accra. The city is large, and complex, and a whole lot of fun. Ghanaians are always laughing, cracking jokes and making fun of each other. The highlife nightclubs in Accra are really lots of fun. It is one of the safest cities I know - I drive through the city regularly at very late hours feeling extremely safe and comfortable. So, I figured at the time, Accra would be a manageable entity, fun, and yet a place where you could possibly do extremely well by the residents. It would be a great place to be mayor.

Accra is a city of, I hear, some 2 or 3 million people. A large city, but not a mega city like many others – Mexico City, Mumbai, or even Nairobi. Because almost all the building are have one, two or three floors, the city is extremely manageable.

Anyway, back to the mayor I am having breakfast with tomorrow. He is Alfred Vanderpuye, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party of Ghana. What are some of the things I should say to him tomorrow?

First, in coming to the US, he should continually remind himself (and his hosts) that Accra is a culturally rich, colorful and vibrant city. It is my favorite city. Too often African leaders come to the US hoping to get some kind of charity and completely destroy the image of Africa. So, Honorable Mayor, please do not do this to the city of my birth. Please tell the people of America about the great things about the city. It is peaceful – there is no war going on in Accra! Serious, I am sure you will be asked this. Some parts of Accra are really gorgeous – the old colonial style houses in Cantoments and Airport residential area; the beautiful waters of the Atlantic Ocean; the fishing areas of Jamestown.

On the other hand, as you, Honorable Mayor, know very well, there is a lot to be done in the city. I will stay away from some of the larger national issues – water, electricity and general poverty of large sections of the population. Here is a list of some of the things I believe that you, as mayor, should and can do.

a. Clean up the city: I am told that Kigali, the capital of Rwanda is now one of the cleanest cities in Africa, perhaps the world, because of conscious efforts at the top (like banning the use of plastic disposable bags). The lonely planet, one of the authoritative guidebooks for tourists said that Accra is "Ugly, chaotic, sprawling and completely indifferent to its waterfront location." So, honorable mayor, please spruce up the city. On that note, here is my second request:
b. Can someone explain why the gutters in Accra are not covered? I was told there is a scientific reason for this – or is it purely financial? It really is an eyesore, probably a breeding ground for mosquitoes and many other creatures which will remain nameless. My untrained mind says – "gutters already built, city close to Atlantic Ocean, so why are the gutters so disgusting?" Lee Kuan Yew, the big Man of Singapore, mentions in his autobiography that one of the first things he did to bring business to the country was to clean it up. I am sure the residents of Accra would also really appreciate not having to smell that Accra gutter smell.
c. Another theme from Lee Kuan Yew: how about a greening campaign for the city – build lots of trees and plants everywhere. Yes, it is so surprising that the city in a damp tropical area is often so incredibly dusty. I know, I am beginning to sound so bourgeois and this will be a hard sell for your residents. Yet, Nana Konadu Rawlings, the former First Lady has been a big champion of this for years. Singapore is an incredibly clean city, part of which is due to the greening campaign. And, Honorable mayor, do not forget that this is also good for tourism and for foreign investment, and, most importantly for the residents of Accra!
d. Back to those nightclubs: Why not start a highlife carnival in Accra, to put the spotlight on Ghanaian and African music. We have a wonderful heritage in music, and I think this could be something that would attract lots of tourists which in turn would generate income for your city's residents. It could also help the local music industry which is currently focused too much on hiplife (rap music in the local language), which probably could use some infusion of new ideas from Ghana's past.

So, Honorable Mayor, above are a few easy schemes for you. If you really get ambitious how about designing an accessible heart of Accra, with areas where people can freely walk without getting hit by cars – a downtown, or central area with bars and clubs? Think of a larger and more indigenous version of Accra's Oxford Street. Anyway, see you tomorrow, Honorable Mayor.

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