“Don’t snap me!” he says as I twirl about with my bag unsteadily like a spinning top resisting the inevitable topple.
“I was actually just taking a pic of the billboard” I offer, but end up muttering to myself, the offended man long gone.
New city – we’re in Accra, Ghana – and our local guide has spilled us onto the pavement and left us to discover the excitement of the largest market in the city for ourselves. I don’t want goods, but an enlivening experience. Something fresh and dangerous to jolt the clarity back into my thinking.
We carefully but awkwardly position ourselves alongside a woman with stalls of fresh goods.
“Five Cedis” she says when my companion asks for a photo of her dish of undulating grey knobbly snails.
“I would like to take a photo though. Just a photo of the snails,” he replies in an even tone, hoping to appease her and get an in.
Her face sharpens and darkens and her eyes angle in on him: “Five cedis!” she replies.
“For a photo?” he pleads.
“FIVE Cedis!” she snaps and turns her head abruptly to dismiss him.
So off we go into the swarm of bodies that populate the market. This is not a tourist craft market for leisurely holiday trinket collections. Large quantities of goods, everything imaginable from toothpaste to hair extensions, arrive from all over the world. They are stacked in small collections and sold by traders at this business hive, then distributed upon the heads of a very determined stream of very strong women. These women, who look to me like the heavy-duty workers of this system, are dwarfed by the size of the parcels on their heads which they carry for delivery to customers all over the city. Some have a baby strapped to their back too.
“You!” A finger and a voice summons us from the darkness of the shade. “Come here and work”.
Not exactly warm but the most welcoming thing anyone had said to us all morning. Off goes my companion to join a pair of fufu dough makers. Two synchronised human actions underpin their operation: the woman puts her hands into the bowl and folds the dough over itself and the man pounds down on the dough with a big pestle, flattening it. He could be mistaken for a construction worker operating heavy machinery.
I am impressed by her faith in the rhythm of their perfectly choreographed fold-and-pound action. My companion, a curious tourist, puts his back into lifting the weight of the pestle. All the onlookers and performers, locals and tourists alike, break into laughter, reveling in his failure to lift the pounding stick more than a centimetre out of the dough. Walking on we are relieved at being seen and pointed at, feeling relieved a bit from the awkwardness of our presence.
“No. No. We want to snap YOU!” says the squad of primary school kids as they negotiate the loan of our camera. They’re tired of being captured by the tourist lens I expect: ‘local boy running down the local street’, ‘local girl combing her local hair’, ‘local goat under trolly and local medium-sized local girl eating local food’.
All this play-play touristing about the countryside and city streets looking for objects of surprise and fascination and I have forgotten I am a guest here. Dabbling in the seriousness of other people’s everyday struggles for material survival.
They’re being snapped at by cameras all day. A continuous flow of shutter snaps with the non-consensual tourist photographers stealing a piece of the ‘exotic’ elements of Ghanian daily life to spice up the mantlepiece back home.
It feels awkward because it is awkward. And rude. And exoticist.
What kind of tourist am I? What do I leave behind in the minds of residents here when I leave? My Ghanian friend back in Cape Town, South Africa, had an answer for me: A few years ago there were a couple of incidents where tourists visiting Ghana published pictures of local Ghanians going about their daily business on the web. The pictures depicted what the tourists wanted to show about their African holiday: poor Africans running around shoeless on dirt roads. What they failed to photograph was the other thousands of kids running around with shoes on. The one little person they had captured on camera was probably just like a lot of kids are: resistant to clothing of all types. Rumour has it the tourists might have even gone so far as collecting secondhand shoes for the cause.
Ghanians like my friend were deeply offended by this and understandably many refuse to have their photo taken. “Why not go to Portugal and Greece to take pictures of poor starving kids?” he asks. They are some of the poorest countries in the world at the moment.
As tourists we should be brave and honest enough to break from the stereotype of what people in African countries are doing when we report back home. After all, one could just as easily find tired and sweaty workers to photograph going about their business in the backs of European and North American markets, as well as kids running around outside barefoot and dirty, as every other kid on this planet likes to do.
Frances is a master’s degree candidate at the University of Cape Town. She enjoys exploring city streets by foot, bike, taxi, bus, horse and car. She dreams of city streets that move to a rhythm more welcoming to pedestrians, kids, informal traders, musicians, the homeless, pigeons and trees, women and other forgotten owners of the street scape.
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