Page last updated at 09:04 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

African view: Navigation problems

A post office worker in Ivory Coast (left - BBC); post office box in Abuja, Nigeria (right - AFP)

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.

Signposts in South Africa
Ma'am, there is a map of Johannesburg and of South Africa in the car
Car hire desk attendant

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.

Traffic in Lagos, Nigeria
Taxi drivers in Lagos are reputedly experts at finding addresses

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.

A vendor at a street corner in Accra, Ghana
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.

Post office boxes in Abuja, Nigeria
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.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

i felt so nostalgic reading this. I'm originally from addis ababa, ethiopia where what you described fits our sense of placement to a tee. to this day, the only road that is well known in addis is Churchill Road in the heart of town. but even there, if you gave a house number no one would know how to get there. the detailed directions you laid out were a perfect description of how we lead people to our homes too, only thing that is different is that once you get off a main road, you add to your visitor to ask anyone of the villagers on the gravel road where so and so lives and they'll show u the way. its a reminder of our communal way of living, where your guests are not just your guests, but will be welcomed by your community. your neighbours will lead your guest to your door with smiles and easy conversation and praise your worth to your guest. they'll know if you don't have coffee or tea or sugar and will run to their homes to bring the necessary items to treat your guest, because they know that when a guest arrives to their home, you will do the same. to me, that is a beautiful way of life. a sense of our unity. we are each other's backbone in a country that is politically and economically disjointed. but we will always have each other.
solo, toronto, canada

I see a potential business opportunity in this problem facing your country. I am a Graduate of surveying and geoinformatics from university of Lagos so I can tell you that I help people not to get lost. Think about it selling a portable tourist map to all taxi drivers and anyone who cares for one. Contact me if you think I am making sense.
Oyelaran Tayo, Lagos, Nigeria

This is so funny. I grew up in London and my husband grew up in Ghana. I always have this discussion with him saying that it's completely irrational but strangely it works! At the heart of this debate is the question of communication. So the lesson I get is that how you communicate (road signs, map, sat navs or blue kiosk site) is not as important as doing so effectively... We should improve yes, but keep our quintessential Ghana style. From Akua Agyepong... Past the field on the A2...on the left just after London
Akua Agyepong, Dartford

Ma Elizabeth, you never fail to amuse me. Lagos of 1970 is not Lagos of 2009. The taxi drivers can't find a lot of places theses days.
Obaro Ege, Lagos, Nigeria

Directions in Khartoum are very similar to Ghana - we use a combination of building and other landmarks to find places. Cell phones have made this much easier, as one can now call the owner of the place to get more directions, when one inevitably gets lost.
Timothy Klaas, Khartoum Sudan

Such is the game of life. I often wonder if we only have this system in Ghana. It is such a shame that there is no street map of any town in Ghana for taxi drivers and the only way to get to an address is just the way Elizabeth described it. I hope this national anomaly can be rectified by this present government and Ghanaians learn to use it instead of "ask for Papa Bula's house, next to where Blue fries plantain and that is where i live".
Ewiase, Dordrecht, The Netherlands

This piece is so hilarious I almost found it romantic. Maybe it has to do with my love for Ghana. I can imagine telling my new girlfriend to turn right on the third light immediately after the cassava seller and the black broken gate on the left is my house - huh. Even with the attempted numbering and naming of streets in Nigeria it is still difficult to find anything. I definitely prefer the Ghanaian style, it's more natural and sincere and in Accra - you are comfortable enough to ask questions if you lose your way. Try that in Lagos and your family may have to come up with few million naira ransom.
Bawo, Canada

What's up with African journalists running down their own countries in front of the whole world. I have an advice for you folks, instead of doing this, write something positive, encourage the people back home and pray to God for the best. Cheers.
nnamdi, port-harcourt, nigeria

I know exactly how Elizabeth Ohene feels. I still don't know the name of the road I lived on in Elmina, Ghana. Immigration were ok when I wrote: "Opposite Elmina Beach Resort" as the street address. I have no idea where I live now in Bolga, but I can tell you it's next to a very big niim tree, beside a Mosque, behind a football field!
Gayle Pescud, Bolga, Ghana

I love that! I am from Ghana as well, and I can attest that this is the only way to give directions. I used to live at 7 Pine Street. I gave out the address and all, but never to a taxi driver, and never as the means for someone to locate my house. It is quite funny, and remains one of the longest running inside jokes among Ghanaians. One of my friends recently gave directions by saying, "just go behind the big blue kiosk where the waakye seller is" It actually made me nostalgic, and I got a good laugh out of it. It may be inconvenient for a lot of people, but I don't see how it is going to change anytime soon. So, in the meantime, we can all enjoy a good laugh.
Afua, Washington, DC, USA

We have a saying in my vernacular that goes to the equivalent of 'The road is on the mouth'. Meaning - talk to people and you will get there.
Adam, Dar es salaam, Tanzania

I was once required to name the place of the "town" where I was born while filling one of the British official forms. I left it blank and the very important official forms were returned three months later saying there an unfilled gap that I must fill. Now I was born in rural Africa where the nearest town or anything resembling it was eight miles away. What there was a mile away from home - and I am estimating - was called a "sitenseni" (station)in those days, and it was called that because it was at a crossroads and it was a shopping area. How many Africans live in cornubations? And while at it, What about birth certificates?
Reverend Amos Kasibante, Leicester, United Kingdom

Absolutely brilliant article. Finding and locating houses or streets in Africa should made possible using GPS or MAPS. This will help in saving precious time, fuel etc. It will also bring more innovation and Value added services. We are in the 21st century, we need to try and keep up with the pace of technological advancement in the world.
Timi, London, UK

I sympathise with this totally! I have just come back from 4 months in Ghana, and was surprised to be laughed at when I quoted the street name and number to taxi drivers or friends who were coming to meet me. I soon learned that landmarks were the only key to someone finding an address. And when I asked if they have sat nav, well I did feel silly! lol
Jenni Arhinful, Hastings UK

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