Streets Are Hot: 3 Vignettes of Accra

When a Ghanaian tells you streets are hot, you know they’re not just talking about the temperature. Every vignette in this post is a lightly embellished retelling of a very true story.

Note: Each vignette first appeared as a Twitter Note. Each one is hyperlinked in a heading.

Vignette #1

A man sits on some steps in the shadow of a shop’s roof extension, hungry and sheltering from the threat of his own sweat. He is probably hungry. He is probably broke. Streets are hot, and he probably knows that intimately.

You don’t even see him, at first. You are thinking about how you would rather be at home, asleep. Alas, it is primetime to be “in town” on a quick but necessary errand. You’ve found yourself a rare, sweet spot within the rhythms of a bustling Accra, during which the facilities you require are open, even as the streets on which businesses are squished like irregular sardines are unusually free. This part of town is unusually quiet at this time. Just as well, because you only came to town to do one thing, which ought to last five minutes and which, today, will not take two hours.

You are tired, hungry, and very close to broke. But this does not matter to the man in the shade, because you are driving a car, and as far as he’s concerned, that makes you potentially the biggest business opportunity he will have today.

Therefore, as you approach, his droopy eyes perk up. He jumps to his feet, donning a reflector jacket that seems to have materialized out of nowhere. He has eyes for you and only you. He rushes to direct your parking as though you are royalty in distress.

This is about the least distressed you have ever felt in this part of town. You are about to be only the second of two vehicles in a car park that could easily hold over twenty more. But from the enthusiasm with which the reflector jacket man runs and gestures, one would think you were attempting to park in a space so packed that an inch in the wrong direction would result in the most disastrous of scratches to the most unforgiving driver the city has ever seen.

You sigh at the fellow’s theatrics and park in one swift move, perfectly within the white lines. On another day, parking in this same spot would have taken you five moves—or five minutes.

You cut the engine and emerge from the car. The man in the reflector jacket beams at you with all thirty-two and greets you with a colloquial honorific you suspect you are too young for. You greet him back in a flat tone, partly because you are exhausted, and partly because you are secretly envious of how much energy he can muster up for his hustle, even on a day like this.

You go off to attend to your errand, which you complete well within five minutes. When you return, the fellow in the reflector jacket is nowhere to be seen, which is just as well, because even as a self-appointed parking attendant there really isn’t any work for him to do today.

As you pull your car out with utmost ease and start to accelerate away, you catch a glimpse through your mirrors of the reflector jacket man dashing out of a streetside not too far away, where he was apparently ingratiating himself with the driver of some other lone car.

You wince as he starts trying to run after your car, but you are already too far away and accelerating too much to bother turning back now. Still in the mirrors, you can see a total reversal on the man’s face from the beam with which he greeted you earlier. Now, his expression, which you only glimpse for a second, suggests that you just might be the rudest and most ungrateful person he has ever met in his life.

As his figure shrinks in your view, he performs a number of rude gestures towards you, the thrusts of his hands packed with vehemence. You wonder if he genuinely believes that you owe him; that you’ve cheated him by leaving him without paying for something you did not need him for. Eventually, you conclude that what he believes is likely not as important to him as it is to you. All that matters is that streets are hot, your paths crossed, and he still got no cedis out of you, which is the greatest affront imaginable to him in this economy.


Vignette #2

A man stands in the shadows of a bank at the corner of what was once an exclusively residential street. You turn your car gently into that street, vaguely noticing the fellow, but paying him no mind as you cruise past him to park halfway down the road. You cut the engine, right beside the gutter of your partner’s house. You text your partner that you’ve arrived. The text delivers but is not immediately read, and so you wait.

It is a cool night in Accra, and this evening, you are driving in more comfort than usual. You have borrowed your mother’s car for the night: a sleek, recently-washed Nissan that surrounds you with an air of affluence you do not fully possess. The historically bourgeois street on which you find yourself probably adds to this aesthetic. You do not consider how these factors may have influenced the events to follow, until a much later post-mortem. As things stand now, you see no harm in getting out of your car to wait for your partner to let you into the house.

In the time it has taken you to park and exit your car, the man from the shadows of the bank has walked down the street. He now approaches you with an intentionality that makes you wonder if you are supposed to know him.

He stops before you and greets you with an exceptionally polite gesture that is a little too self-conscious to be a full-blown bow. It’s an impressive paradox, how well his intentionality is combined with bashfulness. You greet him back cautiously, in a measured tone, certain now that you do not know him.

The man, infusing his slightly accented voice with generous amounts of supplication, apologizes for bothering you at this time of night. It’s just that… well… “It’s so emba-razz-ing,” he bemoans.

He proceeds to spin you a barely comprehensible tale about how his car has broken down. (There are no other cars in the vicinity, broken-down or otherwise.) Now his unusable car is at some place. (Is it a workshop? You’re not sure, but there are no workshops close by. How did he get here, then? You don’t ask.) He really needs to get to some place, and the place is far from your current location. (Ashaiman? Ashaley Botwe? You’re not sure, and he’s not good enough with the nuances of Ghanaian pronunciation to make it clear.) Now his wife is waiting for him at some other place you can’t catch the name of, and, well… “It’s just so emba-razz-ing,” he repeats. “So emba-razz-ing.” But he really needs to meet his wife and get to the place, so if you could please assist him with transport…?

It must be a slow day for your brain because you think he’s trying to ask you for a lift. You let him know that unfortunately, you are meeting someone, so you don’t have the requisite time to take him anywhere. In hindsight, you will wonder if this man thought you were stupid as he repeated, with extra careful deliberation, “No, I mean transport. Transport.”

And that is when it finally clicks for you.

The man continues, “So if you can spare something, anything…?”

Earlier this very day, you mentioned to your partner your intentions to be much more intentional about how you spend and give away money. The latter is particularly relevant because several acquaintances who have you in their Contacts list seem to consider you their resident bank; the person whom they call to ask for money because they know you are kind enough to give it, even when their communication with you is largely limited to their moments of financial need. Despite your own humble finances, you always give when you have enough to spare, because you subscribe to the philosophy of kindness, and because you understand: streets are hot.

But streets are hot for you too, and you’re not convinced that you have enough to spare for a complete stranger. You tell the embarrassed man, regretfully, that you have no money on you, which is… almost true. You’re barely carrying any cash; certainly not enough to spare.

The man is undaunted by your declaration. While never once dropping his demeanor of abashed determination, he informs you that he will accept mobile money. But please. Something… Anything.

You release a sigh of resignation. You have never been good at shrugging off a person in need. Your partner has still not come out of their house. Besides, you can’t see any smooth way to get out of this—and so you bring out your phone and begin a mobile money transaction.

“Is twenty cedis okay?” you ask, tap-tapping on your cracked phone screen.

The man barely misses a beat before imploring you, “Make it thaarty, make it thaarty.”

You hold back another sigh and change the figure you have already typed in. It is around this moment that your partner comes out of their house, slightly alarmed to see you looking like you’re doing a shady business deal with some guy they’ve never seen.

You acknowledge your partner’s presence, and the man does as well, not bothering to explain who he is or why he’s there. Your partner waits in silent confusion as you complete your transaction. You ask the man for his number and enter it. A many-lettered Yoruba first and last name appear on the screen within a prompt asking you for confirmation. You show it to the man who eagerly—but bashfully, always bashfully—verifies the number.

You complete the transaction, and the man proceeds to thank you with a quiet profuseness. You do not notice, in the moment, how the man strategically avoids eye contact with your partner, who is clearly suspicious.

A few moments later, when you are finally inside the house, you find it increasingly difficult to shake the uneasy sensation in the pit of your stomach. You tell your partner that you fear you may just have gotten scammed. You recount the events in full, including as many details of the man’s very confusing story as you can. By the end, your partner’s eyes are full of doleful amusement.

“Yeah,” they drawl. “You just got scammed out of thirty cedis.”


Vignette #3

You have had a long and stressful week, with most of your frustrations proudly sponsored by the country you call home. The inefficiency of your bank, the too-sluggish progress of your work, the increasing prices of fuel and food, various family-related stressors, your bedroom ceiling being clawed apart by vengeful crows that you must have offended in some past life… The list goes on.

But it’s the weekend now, and after taking care of your various washing, dusting, sweeping and scrubbing chores, you are ready to enjoy what’s left of your Saturday. You’re about to meet up with some friends at an arts event which, thankfully, does not cost money.

Accra’s heat is unrelenting at this time of afternoon, and you drive to the event venue with your windows rolled up and your AC on. For the moment, temporary escape from Accra’s oppressive heat takes precedence over saving money on fuel.

Sometimes, you wonder how everyone else stands it, especially those who make their living on the streets—walking, hawking, running after cars while carrying loads… Their hustle is relentless and, while admirable, it is another reason you prefer to keep your windows rolled up. Whoever you give a chance will get as close to your face as they can, never knowing or caring about your resolution not to spend a cedi on anything you haven’t pre-determined to spend money on, including their wares and services. Streets, after all, are hot, and you splurge enough on fuel as it is.

All you are trying to focus on today is getting to your destination, hassle-free… and then you hit a red light. The people who must, some way and somehow make a living, descend on the stopped cars.

If there is one brand of hustle that you hate, it is the rush to provide services unasked-for, fast enough to blindside you and therefore trap you into an obligation to provide compensation for work that cannot be undone. You hate it because it works too well on your emotions. You’re begging me for money now that you’ve already done the thing; how am I to refuse you now, without feeling like a wicked person?

And that is why your whole body tenses up when one of such legendary hustlers, a window washer boy, runs up to your car. Before you can blink, he has splashed filthy water on your windscreen and started to wipe. Your reaction is visceral. You wave your hands, clap your palms, bang on your steering wheel, shake your head, glare at him, say “no” and “please leave me alone” in as many ways as body language will allow, with the barrier of your car’s sealed windows between you.

The window washer begins to beg and plead, saying words you can’t and don’t want to hear. He moves from the front of your car to the driver’s seat window, leaning on your car, getting as close to your face as the glass will allow, and increasing the profuseness of his supplication. Through it all, you stare steadfastly ahead, trying to make your face a mask of stone. All the cedis you tend to dash out to people on the streets, they accumulate, and you’re tired of it.

You expect the window washer to move on to his next victim in the time he has left, but for some reason, it’s like this young man has meant you paa. He remains beside your window throughout the duration of the red light, and his response to your lack of response is that his pleading transitions to insults. Determined as you are not to look directly at him, you observe all his vehemence from the corner of your eye.

He continues his rant at you for as long as it takes for the traffic light to turn green, and that is when he makes his move. As the cars ahead of you gear up to speed off, the window washer splashes the remainder of his filthy water all over the left side of your windscreen—the side that you have to look through as a driver—and runs away.

You are shocked out of your mind, but you have no choice but to obey the traffic and move along.

It takes you another few moments to conclude that you should probably do as much as you can about your abysmal visibility while driving.

You try to squirt water onto your windscreen, but none comes out. Great.

You resort directly to the windshield wipers, but fate is not on your side today. You are forced to remember that one of the stressful things that happened during your week was that the rubber portion of the wiper on the driver’s side fell off onto the street as you were driving in the midst of a rainstorm, and you never had the time to get the wiper fixed. Now, the plastic of the left moves impotently over the windscreen, never making contact with the screen itself. You turn the wipers off, defeated. There is nothing to be done until you are parked at your destination, with access to soap and water.

For the rest of the journey, you are a hazard on the streets, struggling to navigate the road through a view of crusting, murky brown water. You are forced to admit it: the window washer won this round.

🕸️

-Akotowaa

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