Opinions Wed, 21 Sep 2011

Coming to Europe - then and now

Anybody who has lived here for 15 years will tell you it was not like this when they came. There were jobs, there were women and the immigration was not always breathing down your neck. Today, things are different. Even the worst kinds of jobs are difficult to come by. Some time ago, those who arrived here on student visas were not allowed to work except during the summer holidays. But they still worked all year round and studied as well. Today, students are given work permits together with their student visas. But where is the work for them to do? They are lucky to get some nkukuom or cleaning job. Soon, these students may not even be able to come here unless they have scholarships or extremely rich parents. Many European countries are imposing huge fees on students coming from outside Europe.
Yet someone who came here 25 years ago will tell you things were far better then than they were 15 years ago. And when you meet someone who has been here for the past 35 years, he will regale you with tales you will find difficult to believe. What about those who have made 45 winters here? Now and then, you will meet some American, who, dodging the draft of the Vietnam years or going AWOL from the army during that time, sought refuge in this neutral country and he will hold you spellbound with stories of the times gone by. Nobody knew of AIDS then. There were chicks aplenty. They led you by the hand into their bedrooms. And there were jobs too. You left one job because you were fed up with it, not because they sacked you or declared you redundant.
But there are Ghanaians who have been living in Europe even before the heady days of the late 60s. There are Ghanaians who have been living in Europe since even before our country attained its independence. Many of them are dead now but there are some alive, in the twilight of their times on earth. They were the ones who arrived here on boats with Gold Coast passports under their armpits. They were, technically, subjects of the British Empire and could come and go from the colonial metropolis as they wished.
Of particular interest are the Ghanaians who arrived in Europe just after our independence. Most of them came here to study. Many hurried with these studies and counted the days when they would finish and go back home to big jobs and even fatter salaries. Not many of them wanted to stay here. They were days when one was very proud to be Ghanaian. It was said in those days that some nationals of other black African countries living in Europe proudly passed themselves off as Ghanaians. The days when if you said you came from Nigeria, some ill-informed Brit was likely to ask you if that was the capital of Ghana! It was Ghana all black persons were proud of. Nkrumah ruled, we were rich and we were very proud. We never heard of anybody leaving Ghana because the country was not good enough for him. The grass was greenest right in our own backyard.
All through the 60s and much of the 70s, it was still relatively easy to come to Europe. As a Ghanaian, you didn’t need a visa to enter the UK and many other European countries. You were given a temporary stay stamped into your passport at the port of entry. Even in the 70s, it was easy to apply for and obtain some foreign exchange at the official rate from the Bank of Ghana once you could prove that you were travelling outside. That was your right as a Ghanaian. But not many people travelled then. Only dadabas went on holidays abroad. If you were in the university and got lucky as a member of AISEC to be matched to Europe as an exchange student, you went there and you were the envy of your mates. You came back with a heavy “sound system” that was sure to win you that Volta girl you had had your eyes on for so long but never had the guts to talk to.
Then things started getting more and more difficult. It was Thatcher’s government which imposed visa requirements on Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana (all Commonwealth countries which hitherto didn’t need a visa to enter the UK) sometime in the early 80s because there were too many citizens of those countries coming to the UK but not going back. Even then, it was still easy to get a visa.
Today, we have long called our country Ogyakrom. One does everything to become a citizen of a European country. In the old days, no Ghanaian doubted which country he or she was a citizen of. One was Ghanaian and Ghanaian and Ghanaian. Period! There was nothing like an American or British of Ghanaian descent or Ghanaian with Swiss citizenship. There were, simply, no hyphenated Ghanaians! But, today, people celebrate the day they become a European citizen and cease to be Ghanaian. For some people, acquiring a foreign passport becomes the greatest achievement of their otherwise wretched lives. After all, personal well-being is far more important than national pride in a country you are running away from even though the country hasn’t done you any wrong. The Freedom and Justice passport is quickly discarded. Anyway, it had always been a hindrance to you on your travels around the world.
Now that dual citizenship has been approved by our country, the implications of acquiring foreign citizenship have changed somewhat. If your new nation accepts dual citizenship, you can, legally, have two passports. But some Ghanaians still travel with two passports even though they have not applied for and received dual citizenship from the Ghanaian authorities. As a dual citizen, you are denied certain rights in Ghana. There are many positions you cannot aspire to including sitting in parliament. Many foreign based Ghanaians think this is just “skin pain” on the part of the Ghanaian lawmakers who stayed put and braved the turbulent years of our country’s recent past and don’t see why you should come and take the goodies away from them. There are some Ghanaians who do not want to take the green identity card that marks your dual citizenship because they are afraid that if something happens to them while on a visit to Ghana, the foreign countries they became citizens of would not lift a finger on their behalf. The funny thing is that those who make such arguments are nonentities whom nobody knows in Ghana or even cares about. So they continue paying for Ghanaian visas each time they visit their country of birth. And at the immigration desk at Kotoka, they have to join the slow moving line of foreign passport holders while speaking Twi at the top of their voices and complaining about everything.
The educated Ghanaian in Europe calls his other countrymen “Borgas”. It is just like the Ghanaian teachers in Nigeria and Libya who referred to the boys working on the construction sites as “Constro Boys” to distinguish them from their own more refined selves. Whether “borga” or “acada”, for the JJC in Europe, much of the initial effort will be concentrated on getting the almighty nkrataa that will ensure you a permanent stay and a job. These days, aduro is no longer working. Nobody is being hounded by our government for political reasons even though some Ghanaians still arrive in Europe with such claims. And gone are the days when the black man was scarce in Europe and in high demand because of his supposed sexual prowess. Today, there are many black faces in the streets of the major European cities – and villages too. Black people no longer nod their heads at each other in acknowledgment of a common bond when they pass each other in the street. Try that and you will end up with a serious headache. But the European woman continues to be an important helpmate. God bless her. How many Africans will not be in Europe today but for the kindly hearts of matronly Dutch, Swedish or Danish women? Of course, the needs are mutual. So the young black men on the trails of women old enough to be their mothers is in fulfilment of needs on either side. What does it matter that these young men cannot keep their lecherous eyes away from the women’s grown up daughters even as they play husbands to their mothers?
But all is not bleak. Today, many Ghanaian students can visit Europe and the US on holidays without necessarily being Daddy’s children. The US Diversity Visa Program has opened quite a sluice gate for many Ghanaians to move to that country. Once you have a permanent stay and shed off the white woman (or man) who helped you to it, you can bring your real wife or pass off your cousins and nephews from Ghana as your wife and children (possible DNA tests are proving a threat to that, though). We can now even bring our aged and illiterate parents to come and have a taste of the life here. And Ghanaian traders are going and coming all the time. There are so many of us here nowadays that our collective remittances form a large percentage of the total foreign exchange receipts of the motherland. And through it all, we are still hoping that we will move back to Ghana where we will spend the last days of our lives on earth. The children we beget here can stay on and we will hope that they will come to visit us in our dotage. That is always the hope, anyway.
I remember the time in 1969 when my big sister arrived back in Ghana from West Germany. For the nine years she had been away (studying and getting herself married), she never visited home on holidays. She did not call even once. All we knew of her wellbeing were the black and white pictures of herself in snowy landscapes she sent us now and then in her letters. But now she had come home for good and my father brought out the fattened calf to celebrate the return of his daughter from the white man’s land. The festivities that Saturday engulfed the whole village and on the following day, we all attended mass that my father had ordered to thank God for all His bountiful mercies. My sister dutifully turned up wearing high heeled shoes and nylon stockings despite the warm weather. She even took the quick short steps that we associated with white ladies.
Oh, but that was a long time ago. A very long time ago...
Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi