One of the things you get used to pretty quickly in West Africa is the art of drinking from a bag. In the West our drinks are always sold in bottles, boxes or cans, but in West Africa commercial soft drinks are sold in thick glass bottles which are sent back to the producer for re-use, and cans are a real rarity, often imported from South Africa and sold at a premium. However most non-corporate drinks are sold in bags, and sooner or later you just have to try one.
In Mali, bisap was the bag-based drink I bought the most. A sweet, red hibiscus tea sold in frozen bags by children everywhere, bisap was how I learned how to drink from a bag. The bags are made of thin stretchy plastic that miraculously manages to survive the battering it gets from being touted round the bus stops and backstreets of the desert, and once you've got the knack, it's wonderfully easy to drink. The first time you try it, things are guaranteed to go wrong, but practice makes perfect and bisap is a cheap way to learn.
The most popular way to drink from a bag is to nip a hole in one corner; drinking bags are shaped like standard freezer bags, so when they're filled to the brim with liquid and tied up at the top, you end up with two corners to choose from. Biting a small hole allows you to squeeze the drink out into your mouth, but the secret isn't just to suck or to squeeze, it's to suck and squeeze; if you just squeeze then the chances are your drink will spill down the bag and all over your shirt, and if you just suck then the bag collapses and you can't suck any more. A judicious balance of the two is the secret, and the locals are so experienced they even manage to move onto the next level, squeezing the drink out of the bag in an arc that lands right in the mouth. I tried this once, and I still feel guilty about getting the bisap vendor bang in the eye.
It's also important not to make your hole too big. If you do, the bisap rushes out before you can drink it, and you'll get nothing more than a cold, red beard for your pains. Still, even the locals spill their bisap occasionally, and it's better to have sucked and lost than never to have sucked at all. Indeed, if you want to graduate to drinking hot coffee from a bag, then it's a good idea to practice on something cold first; making a mistake with a scalding beverage is not recommended.
In Ghana the bag drink takes on a whole new significance, as even the water is sold in bags. In Senegal and Mali bagged water is very much available, but most of the time it's sold in unmarked bags that could contain anything from river water to tap water, a real risk for the uninitiated traveller's stomach. This means you're stuck with buying bottles of mineral water (or, in some bigger cities, cheaper bags of mineral water) which pushes up the daily cost a lot; a bottle of water in the desert will set you back around CFA1000, or just under £1, which is fair enough when you consider it's mineral water and this is the desert, but given the amount of water you have to drink in the heat, it's a significant cost. In Ghana, though, it's a different story.
Sure, you can still buy bottles of mineral water (though at half the price of Mali) and unmarked bags of chilled but dodgy water (known as 'iced water'), but absolutely everywhere on every street you will find either someone with an ice box, or a child with a basket on their head, stuffed with chilled bags of purified water. 'Ice water, pure water,' the kids cry (though it sounds more like 'Aieece-wata-peeya-wata!') and for the princely sum of 200 cedi (a shade under 2p) you too can be the proud owner of a 500ml bag of pure, bacteria-free water. It's not mineral water – it's just normal water that's been filtered and treated with ultraviolet light or ozone – but it's cheap, it's safe, and it's wonderfully refreshing necking a bag of cold water in the tropical heat.
The bags themselves are interesting too. Printed with the brand name, the chemical composition of the water and some marketing blurb about how wonderful it is to drink purified water, these square sachets of see-through plastic are full to the brim with water, making the bags feel like chilled silicone breast implants. Indeed, there's something decidedly symbolic about the whole thing; everywhere you look there are Ghanaians suckling on corners of these little bags, and once you've tried it, you can see that there's something deep-seated in the comfort that it brings. I'm no psychologist, but I'm sure Freud would have had something to say about the bag drinkers of West Africa.
Indeed, I have a theory. One of the things that hit me about crossing the border into Ghana is how few people smoke here; not only is smoking not that common, but it's frowned upon, especially among women. I asked Mr Prempeh why this was, and he said that when the economy took a bashing in the early 1980s people stopped buying cigarettes because they were too expensive, but that doesn't explain how they managed to keep smoking in the much poorer Sahel countries like Mali and Burkina, where it's practically compulsory. Sure, the influence of French culture is one reason for the popularity of smoking in Mali – they smoke a lot in France, after all – but it seems that in Ghana, something else has replaced the urge to smoke.
My theory is that bagged water is Ghana's addiction. In the Sahel cigarettes are everywhere, and whenever the bus stops you see plenty of people with cigarette packets stacked on their heads; in Ghana, bags of water appear on every street corner, and my theory is that because bags of water are so cheap, and because everyone uses them all the time for cooking and drinking, they've replaced cigarettes as a way of getting comfort. And that's where Freud comes in; there's something curiously relaxing about suckling on bagged water, and where in Mali you'd see people dragging on a Dunhill, in Ghana you're more likely to see people necking purified water.
It's a nice theory, but I doubt it holds much aieece-wata-peeya-wata...