Because the Prempehs' car was having some mechanical problems, my plans to explore Accra were rather severely curtailed. Mr Prempeh suggested that I explore the capital in the company of one of his drivers, but with the car unavailable things kept getting delayed.
My first tantalising glimpse of Accra was in the dark on the way from the bus station to the Prempehs' house, but my first experience of Accra in daylight was a chauffeur-driven trip to the internet café and back. It soon became apparent that where I'm staying is completely different to central Accra, with its pollution, traffic and amiable chaos; the Airport Residential Area is to Accra what Kensington is to London, and the streets are wide, clean, empty and dotted with travel agents, internet cafés, well-stocked shops, medical clinics and embassies sporting palm trees and well-watered lawns. I marvelled at it, but like all relatively modern residential areas, it has yet to develop any soul. Suburbia is a great place to live; it's not such a great place to hang out.
But hanging out was all I was able to do, so when Mr Prempeh suggested a drive on Tuesday afternoon, I was definitely up for it. It was only to deliver some papers and to have a couple of meetings with people over the repair work on the car, but we brushed against the capital's ring road and I sensed that feeling of compacted humanity that makes African and Asian cities so fascinating to visit. From the comfort of an air-conditioned Range Rover places like Accra take on a wholly different aspect – being able to explore without breaking into profuse sweat every few steps is a luxury that's hard to beat – and more than once it hit me that this is why the houses in the Airport Residential Area have razor wire and guard dogs; once you've settled into the padded seats of chauffeured transport, you don't want to go back to sweating your way along the dusty streets of the city.
By Wednesday the car was behaving better but was still not perfect, so instead of exploring Accra we spent the afternoon driving to a plot of land which Kwesi, my brother's friend, has bought. It's in a suburb called East Legon, not far from the University of Ghana, and Mr Prempeh proudly showed me the vista from the plot.
'The airport is just over there,' he pointed out. 'This is great, because Kwesi loves planes, and we're going to build a balcony facing the flight path, so when the planes go past he can watch them.'
It's odd, the thought of someone actually wanting to watch the planes fly past – most people in Hounslow would rather the planes just buggered off and left them alone – but in all the time we plodded around Eddie and Nick's plot, not one plane flew past. The flight path in Accra isn't perceived as a Bad Thing; living close to the airport is seen as a positive benefit, and East Legon, in sight of the airport, is a very desirable address indeed.
'At the moment the plot has just been levelled,' said Mr Prempeh, showing me where the bulldozers had done their work. 'We need to remove some old foundations of a building that was here before, but we're nearly ready to start building.'
'How long will it take?' I asked.
'That depends on how fast the cash flows in from England,' he said. Of course, I thought – that's how people build in Africa. They buy everything one bit at a time when they can afford it, rather than saving up and buying everything in one go, which is the norm in England. The main reason is cash flow; property and buildings are good investments in times of economic stress, so buildings go up in stages, often with long rest periods between. Half-built shells of buildings are incredibly common in West Africa, the steel rods from the concrete reinforcements sticking up into the sky like rusty lightning conductors.
But Nick and Eddie's plot of land is a little dream. Give it a few years and the surrounding concrete shells will transform themselves into razor-wired fortresses of the rich and famous, and East Legon will be a paradise of suburban luxury. Even given the shakiness of the Ghanaian economic situation, it's easy to see why you might want to buy a plot of land in Ghana. A few kilometres from the bustling heart of Accra, you can live in a cocoon of luxury, complete with your very own guard dogs, night watchmen and chauffeur-driven car. After the cramped life of London, it's another world.
On the way back from Eddie's plot Mr Prempeh took me round the grounds of the University of Accra and his old school Achimota School, the best school in the country, and at last I got a taste of something historic. Here were colonial-era buildings, extended and expanded over the years to accommodate more and more students, and the administration blocks and old school houses were beautiful. It only made me want to visit Accra even more, and finally, on Thursday, I got my chance.
This time the problem wasn't with the Range Rover, which was humming along nicely, but with the lack of a driver. Godfrey had taken the day off, so as a compromise one of the house staff took me to the taxi rank round the corner from the house and found me a respectable taxi driver to take me into town. As long as I rang the Prempehs from time to time during the day to say I was safe, everyone would be happy, so I hopped in the taxi and felt the happy glow of being free to explore what I liked, when I liked.
Accra is a sprawling place, but it's easy enough to explore on foot if you've got plenty of time. I asked the taxi driver to drop me at Independence Square, a huge open-air parade ground by the sea that smacks of post-colonial presidential rule; a massive concrete arch dominates the parade ground's empty concrete stadia, while Independence Arch stands alongside in the middle of a nearby roundabout, celebrating Ghana's independence in 1957. I wasn't too bothered by the square itself, though it was a bizarre sight as the wind blew black plastic bags through the dusty expanse of the parade ground, but I did want to see the sea. Accra is a coastal city and I hadn't seen the sea since the Gambia, and just behind Independence Square the Atlantic Ocean laps against the beach, alternately dumping and washing away streams of litter and refuse. It's not the most pleasant beach experience on the planet (though the hundreds of school children leaping into the water didn't seem to care) but I felt a sense of achievement at having reached water again; Mali had felt a long, long way from the sea.
Just along the coast from Independence Square lies the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, a tasteful homage to Ghana's first President, who was ousted in the mid-1960s and spent the rest of his life in exile in Guinea. Nkrumah is going through a bit of a renaissance in Ghana, and his impressive mausoleum sits in green gardens round which parties of jabbering school kids wander; meanwhile, tucked away at the back, behind the mausoleum and the posed statue of Dr Nkrumah looking every inch the leader, is a museum to the first President's life. It's an eye-opener.
The museum doesn't contain a great deal, but what it does contain are lots of photographs of Dr Nkrumah with some of the most famous people of the 20th century. I wandered through the photos, stunned at how many of the century's most iconic people were pictured shaking hands with the founder of modern Ghana. There was Jawarharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, John F Kennedy, Sir Alec Hume, Queen Elizabeth II, Harold Macmillan, Pope Pius XII, President Nasser of Egypt, and countless leaders of countries like Malaya, Sri Lanka, Niger and Nigeria. I was impressed; as a tribute to Nkrumah, these photos are about as good as you can get.
After the peace of the Memorial Garden I plunged into the chaos of James Town, the run-down area of town that juts out on a small peninsula in southern Accra. At last I'd found a real piece of Africa among the posh suburbs and impressive monuments, for here the streets are packed with people, playing drums, shopping in markets and generally ambling round town in the way everyone does in the tropical heat. Little children waved 'Hello obruni' and I waved back; in Ghana obruni is the equivalent of toubab, and you hear it everywhere, especially in places like James Town. Right down at the water's edge an old lighthouse looks over a squalid jetty that juts out into the sea, right next to James Fort, which is now a nasty-looking prison; it oozes atmosphere, and it's a world apart from the Airport Residential Area, as the piles of rubbish and half-crumbling shacks demonstrate. I remembered a couple of English girls I'd met who were living in James Town, and they described their address as 'past the lake of human shit and next to the goat market.' That sums it up rather well; it's a great place to explore.
North of James Town lies the main market in town, and just walking through the melee took an hour. Everything spills out onto the street – hawkers, pedestrians, stalls, you name it – and it's a colourful chaos where you can buy practically anything. I'm not that fussed by the shopping aspect of markets as I rarely buy anything and I'm an incredibly lazy negotiator, but wandering through a market like Accra's is an experience in itself, if only because of the tide of humanity that sweeps you along, dodging the traffic and ducking to avoid the huge bundles that the women carry on their heads. I thought it was great; this was the Accra I'd been looking for, and I was glad I wasn't experiencing it through the air-conditioned window of a car. Besides, the people of Accra are friendly in a way you don't associate with big cities, and I was only hassled once in the whole day's wandering. After Dakar and Bamako, that's a serious luxury, shit or no shit.