Ghana So Far: The Impressions of a holidaymaker
The hot air that ushered me into the British Airways aircraft five years ago had been lurking around to welcome me at the Kotoka International Airport. I had flown then as a disgruntled public relations officer, who had narrowly survived a devastating professional misadventure. This time, however, I was coming home as a refreshed but confused Londoner, eager to assess possibilities in the land of my birth. I had been cataloguing the changes that had been taking place in Ghana since my departure.
I knew about the misfortune at the Akosombo dam, the currency redenomination, the school feeding programme, ROPAL, the Ghana @ 50 celebrations, the development of some important infrastructure and the competition between the mobile telephone providers. I also knew about the launching of some new newspapers and the rather refreshing development of some commercial and investment banks in the capital. I would later learn three important things during my two week stay: presidential aspirant Akufo-Addo’s formal launch of his campaign; the 5-0 defeat of the Black Stars by Saudi Arabia and a new word for a thief-Owiafo. This is the term Mr. Kofi Wayo had used to describe members of the ruling party in a TV talk show. I had also learnt of the date of birth of Police Chief K.K. Manfo. The news was that the PhD policeman did not want to grow past the retirement age.
I nearly walked past my sister and an old sweetheart, who were at the airport to receive me.
I had left Ghana a thin-figured gentleman with an inward-looking stomach only a few years ago. The figure they were seeing this time was a pot-bellied fat bloke, pushing his luggage through the arrival hall of the refurbished Kotoka airport. Before I would hug them, a man I knew not from Adam exclaimed from behind: ‘Oh you are back; it’s been a very long time since you left us.’ He followed me to my sister’s car and helped me put my bags in the boot. ‘Masser, it is very difficult here; would you be kind enough to give me something for lunch?’ I had pushed the luggage myself from the hall; so what was the ‘something’ for, I would ask myself. I asked my sister how much would be something enough for the guy. She grudgingly removed 1 Ghana cedi from her purse and gave it to the man, who had already started enumerating the problems in Ghana. He stretched open the cedi note and moaned: ‘Oh Director, this is not even up to 1 dollar. Chief, see to your unfortunate brothers; we are struggling.’ What did they need dollars for? We have a new currency which is still in its honeymoon period. In any case, 1 Ghana cedi is up to a dollar, at least in exchange rate terms. The value is another thing.
I was seeing the Tetteh Quarshie overpass for the first time. I thought that was a fantastic development that would sort out the vehicular traffic on the roads. I would later learn that folks who live at Adenta and beyond need to start their journeys to town at 5am, to avoid being caught in traffic. There were indications that the government was going to enlarge the roads, as has been done on the Kasoa high road, to bring peace to the people of Legon and its environs. At 37, I bought copies of the Daily Graphic and three private papers, including the Ghanaian Observer and Kofi Koomson’s Chronicle. I immediately flipped through the Graphic to the features column, to read George Sydney Abugri’s Letter to Jomo. I enjoyed reading those letters before I left the country. I liked his language and admired his masterful analysis of subject matter. I observed that the letter had changed in a way: it had reduced in length and the scholastic display of metaphoric language had given way to a more in-depth discussion of subject matter. I have over the years been trying unsuccessfully to copy the writing style of George Abugri. So, I wasn’t particularly enthused at the discovery. The Graphic itself had seen some improvement in aesthetic presentation: subheadings of the three most important stories in the issue are captured and displayed at the top of the masthead. The Ghanaian Times was looking more appealing this time. The tabloids had maintained their style: typically stereotypical.
Driving through town the next day, I was encouraged to see some decent architectural works sprawling in the capital. I was shocked to read on giant billboards advertisements by banks inviting people to come for loans. It was refreshing to hear that unlike before, anybody who receives a regular income, however little, could benefit from a loan facility from the banks without any collateral. In fact, my old sweetheart, a 28 year old auditor in an accountancy firm, had benefited from such a facility and was putting up a building at Kasoa. In five years, the banking sector had seen the growth of some international banks including UBA, GT Bank, City Bank, The Intercontinental Bank etc. The telecom sector was also booming. Spacefon had metamorphosed into Areeba and had now been born again as MTN. The competition in the sector had necessitated extensive advertising by the mobile phone providers. Onetouch was trying to touch the soul of every mobile phone user. MTN was all over, making an audacious presence wherever people were present. Kasapa was admirably cacophonous on TV. Of course, communication starts with a buzz, so the Buzz phone providers were also buzzing through the comfort of mobile telephony. There were visible indications that Ghana could dehipify herself if things were done properly. There was a lot of talk about meeting the needs of the poor and the needy.
You would mark that I have used the word indication with a great deal of faith and optimism, like a Pentecostal Christian. I needed to talk to people, to confirm things for myself. The consensus had been that Ghana was about picking up and if I packed and came home for good, I would find something useful to do with my tired degrees. Salaries were not that miserable. Things looked so promising that a friend of mine and an age mate had been able to afford a plot of land at East Legon and was raising a very provocative mansion. It is not very difficult for a middle-level income earner to buy a house through a mortgage. Well, it is very difficult if you are really a middle level income earner, if you know what I mean? Things were changing, an Assistant Superintendent of police had told me. I had been stopped by the police for carrying more than one person in my unlicensed saloon car. The 30,000 cedis a day number plate I had hired had insurance cover for just two people. Instantly, I phoned my ASP friend for some advice. He was emphatic: ‘you may be processed for court; these days, things are different.’ Sensing danger, the other friend in the car tried to bribe them. That made things a lot difficult for us: ‘you are the same people who would go and report that the police extort bribes from motorists.’ I could hear them asking my friend where I had come from. Whether they took the bribe or not is very easy to know: exclude the impossible and whatever remains thereof, however improbable, would be the answer.
So, I wasn’t surprised when I bumped into an old secondary school friend who had a horrible story to tell. He had been armed-robbed twice in a week. He had returned from an almost never-ending sojourn in Spain and was unlucky to have befriended a real Delilah of a woman, who had previously been the sweetheart of an armed robber. Had the lady given information to the robbers or they had robbed my friend for snatching their sweetie-pie? For, the same robbers raided him on all two occasions. Then, as if Damascus was not enough revelation for Saul, he had been sold a piece of land that had been resold and countersold to another fellow. The fellow is a top immigration boss. The land seller had become elusive in the run up to the confusion. I thought this land kalabule in Ghana had been sorted out. Couldn’t we have a body, a single body in each region that administers the sale of land? The chap who sold me my plot had been pestering me to sign a power of Antony, to enable him process my documents quickly. I knew he meant a power of Attorney, but I had to sign it all the same. The next day, I found a dotted line cutting through my land. I asked him who the trespasser was and he said they were traps for grasscutters. I wanted to say hello to those digital grasscutters who were cosmopolitan enough to play on cemented floor. Well, may be they had the power of Antony.
Not many things had changed in Ghana. The feeling in the air was that of tired optimism or perhaps, suppressed pessimism. The weariness and the fret on peoples’ faces were almost palpable in some cases and in others, easily imaginable. Children of school going age were still selling on the roads. Virile-looking young men selling their wares on the streets added to the vehicular traffic woes of motorists by making a human traffic of their own. I thought there was a body called AMA that regulates the activities of these sellers. A gentleman followed our car, begging me to buy wood carvings. ‘Dada, you could give these as presents when you go back.’ I pitied him when he said that nobody had bought anything from him that day. It was about 2pm and things didn’t look promising. How would a young man make a decent living this way? When would he save enough to rent a room and pay a dowry on a girl? When would he build enough capital and erect a shop somewhere? Could he ever make a contribution to his family and help pay the school fees of a nephew or a niece. He was persistent: ‘Boss, please do me a favour; buy one for me before you go. All those who come buy stuff like these.’ I wondered how he managed to know that I had come from somewhere. Had I betrayed anything? I impressed on him that I lived locally but he would not budge. I felt guilty that I didn’t buy anything from him when the traffic eased. He was a nice guy who would do better than selling on the roads.
I had bought air tickets to fly to Kumasi with Antrak Air. I had confirmed the date of my flight two days ahead of time. Antrak would not be flying that day and we hadn’t been informed. Those beautiful ladies had told me it was possible to go on the City Link flight if there was space; they would work out the financial issues between them. I was made to understand that it was a usual practice. When the plane arrived, a gentleman approached me that he would manage to get me a seat on the flight. When I was given the all clear to board the aircraft, the gentleman came demanding 100,000 cedis from me, for working out the seat for me. I gave him 5 Ghana cedis (50,000) and he looked me contemptuously in the eye and whisked it from my fingers. I could hear him cursing my family and my unborn baby. He had mistaken the pregnant woman beside me to be my wife. Meanwhile, I had had to buy a different ticket to go on the flight without his knowledge. I needed to collect a refund from Antrak later.
Must we pay for everything?