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African view: Navigation problems

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African view: Navigation problems

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene considers life without maps and signposts.


I had huge problems recently with my bank in London because I could not produce my "proof of address" in Accra.

I was excited therefore by recent newspaper headlines in Ghana that district assemblies in the country have been asked to name streets and number houses by 2010.

People in most parts of the world would probably be a bit surprised by this bit of news. In many parts of the world, street names and numbered houses are the norm.

People have addresses and they would say: "I live at number 20 Hillcrest Avenue" and that would be how you find them.

That certainly would be how their letters and parcels are delivered.

I recall an experience that convinced me Lagos was a very civilised city. Admittedly it was an age ago but the point must be made.

I arrived at Lagos International Airport, as it was then called, one fine day in 1970.

I wasn't met, but I had an address to a place I had never been. I got a taxi, gave the address to the driver - I forget it now - but it was number 13, something or the other road, Yaba - at the time, a reasonably okay suburb of Nigeria's commercial capital. He drove there and I paid him.

I was told I could have been going to the biggest slum - the taxi would have taken me on the strength of the same instructions.

I will never forget the sense of wonder I felt on my first reporting trip to South Africa in 1989.

I arrived at Johannesburg airport early evening and I wasn't met. I went to the car-hire desk and got the keys to the car that had been ordered for me.

I hesitated a bit and asked the young lady at the desk if she knew how I could get to the hotel I had been booked into.

"Ma'am, there is a map of Johannesburg and of South Africa in the car," she said briskly and turned her attention to the next customer.

Obviously I hadn't shaken off my Ghanaian instincts about how you find directions even after seven years of living in London.

But I was on my own, so I went and took the car, looked up the address on the map and with clearly marked street signs, drove to the hotel and that was that. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

So what is the big deal, I hear all you non-Ghanaians ask: How else do you go from place to place if not with the aid of an address?

Hidden identity

Well, we do things a little differently here.

This Accra street will be identified more by its vendors than its name This Accra street will be identified more by its vendors than its name

Mail certainly is not delivered to your home but to post office boxes and when we talk of address, we deal with the concept in a slightly different manner than the rest of the world.

I once almost got into a lot of trouble with the security services when I was accused at the airport in Accra of trying to hide my identity by putting on the departure form, my address as 14 Soula Loop, which was where I lived at the time.

"Aren't you Elizabeth Ohene of the Daily Graphic (which was where I worked then)?"

The problem with the new directive to the district assemblies to name all streets and number all houses is that it is not new.

The last government was very enthusiastic about the naming of streets and the numbering of houses.

Indeed, most streets and houses in all the cities and towns in Ghana have now been named. But you cannot find any place by a street name and house number.

I live in Accra in a house that was built in 1985 on a street that has a name, clearly written on both ends of the street, the houses on the street are numbered, even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other side.

'Tough luck'

But if you were planning to come and visit, there would be no point in my telling you the address, as no taxi driver would know it - no map of Accra would bring you.

In many African countries, post office boxes are the only way to receive mail In many African countries, post office boxes are the only way to receive mail

I would have to give you these directions:

• From the airport, turn right at the first roundabout.

• When you get to the lights, go through and take the first turning on the right.

• There will be a vegetable seller's kiosk on the left, go ahead till you reach the T-junction, turn right, then turn left.

• There is a school painted blue on the left, go ahead and you will find a big tree on the right.

• I am the third house on the right after the big tree, the gate is painted deep green.

If in the interim, the tree was uprooted by the wind, or the school repainted green or the vegetable seller replaced by a shoe repairer, well, tough luck.

It doesn't matter that there is and has been for the past 24 years, a number clearly written on the gate post of my house.

This first turn right, blue kiosk description is the only way to get you to my house and the only proof of my address.

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