By Laurian B.
For tourists to Ghana’s capital, the Osu area is probably the most well known area of Accra. In Osu, foreigners easily find comfort foods from home and enjoy Internet access at expat owned coffee shops. A week ago, my friend Adua raved about a decadent chocolate dessert at Pinnacle Restaurant and invited some folks to join us there.
The brightly tiled multistoried building sits off Osu’s main drag, Cantonments Road. The street is more colloquially known as Oxford Street, in deference to one of London’s most famous shopping roads. As the four of us ordered teas and lattes while we perused the dessert menu, the conversation turned to tipping in Accra. We all agreed that the culture of tipping arrived with tourism, and bears little semblance to the Ghanaian practice called a “dash”. When someone makes a purchase of items, very often the customer will ask a seller for a “dash” which is usually granted in a few extra items of similar to what has been purchased. For instance, when someone buys a satchel of hot pepper spice for a delicious stew, the seller may dash a regular customer chicken bullion cubes, as the pepper often requires a bit of chicken stock for seasoning. Like tipping, dashes occur during food purchases. A dash originates from the seller and not the buyer and there are no standard rules for a dash. Thus our party concludes that this was where the similarities between dashing and tipping come to an end.
Restaurants have different strategies for the distribution of tips, some of which are disconcerting. Palmer’s Hotel* easily holds its ground as one of the most opulent hotels in Ghana. Palmer’s policy is that individual tips for wait staff are turned over to management at the end of one’s shift. At the end of each month, in addition to their monthly salary, each worker receives a flat rate for tips, around $12. This amount does not increase or decrease based on the tips the workers received, but rather, is a line item in the monthly salaries. In a hotel where European and American guests are accustomed to leaving 10-20% in tips and dinners easily costs $100 the tipping system is criminal.
While we continued to wait for the arrival of our chocolate brownies and ice cream, Adua recounted a conversation she held with our server Esi a few weeks earlier. According to Esi, the owner of Pinnacle divides the tips among all the employees on a monthly basis. Much like the protocol at Palmer’s Hotel, the workers receive a lump sum at the end of the month. The all-women staff (save the bartender) can only estimate their collective tips at month’s end and the figure fluctuates dramatically. But most often, the employees feel cheated and often tell their favorite customers not to leave tips. With the arrival of our dessert Esi quietly explains how she doesn’t like customers to tip because “lazy workers” receive that she should rightfully have. Esi adds that because management “cheats them” out of their money, she would rather her customers didn’t leave tips at all. After hearing this story, Nana Eko muttered he would never return to the restaurant. On the one hand, these tipping systems rebut our meritorious assumption that individuals who work hard deserve more than those who don’t. To all of us, the tipping system is unjust. On the other hand, there are ways to work around the tipping structure of Pinnacle. Instead of leaving nothing, Adua crumbles a few cedis into a napkin and leaves it off to the side from the rest of the chocolate tinged refuse. This signals to Esi that there is a tip is folded inside the tissue. Each server clears the tables they service. I signal the attention of the manager and engage her in useless chatter to waylay her hawkish stare away from the service staff. As we walk into the humid evening air, Esi, Adua and I exchange conspiratorial gazes.
The interaction leaves me feeling conflicted and unsettled with lingering questions. Nana Eko said that in going to places like Pinnacle, we feed the oppressive nature of the job. Our phoned complaint to the management about their tipping policy elicit toothy smiles and suggestions that we are “misinformed” about how tips are handled at the restaurant. Esi says she appreciates the little extra cash she immediately receives from furtive tips, which helps her undermine the unfair distribution of tips and affirms her positive customer service perspective.
*Names have been changes.