Opinions Tue, 21 Aug 2007

The Changing Face of Ghana

God is doing wonders in Ghana

That there are thousands of churches these days in Ghana is a well known fact. There are church groups in every nook and corner of the country. People worship in make-shift structures while others meet in magnificent edifices like the Action Church headquarters (business is booming) on the Spintex road in Accra. One wonders if it is the same God being worshipped. Many of these churches, mainly of a Pentecostal or charismatic nature, call themselves international, perhaps reflecting the setting up of branches in Ghanaian communities abroad. They have all kinds of funny names: Target Church, Holy Ghost Fire Church, etc. Some of them are headed by prophets. If you thought the days of the prophets ended in the Old Testament, you must think again. The traditional churches are also still very much alive. Catholic priests no longer drive little VWs but huge 4-wheel drive vehicles. The lord's work requires them to be able to travail the most difficult terrain to win souls. Sundays see many Ghanaians turn out in their best. Everybody is going to some kind of church.

But the drumming and singing are not limited to Sundays. Residents in some areas have had to protest against the noise from churches even on weekdays. Some churches meet every day of the week! The Muslims are on the march too. There are more mosques today in Ghana than ever before. Foot preachers are still in abundance. You see them at the lorry parks vying for places with people selling medicines that can cure all ailments. Sometimes, they set up big loud speakers at these lorry parks and, at full volume, preach their sermons into the air. Nobody arrests them! The proliferation of churches is not a specifically Ghanaian thing. The same story is being reported from other African countries, and, indeed, from the rest of the world. We see branches of such churches in Ghanaian communities abroad with pastors from Uganda, Congo, Burundi or wherever. God is really doing wonders in Africa, indeed, in the world.

It is not only churches that have invaded our motherland. There are now more banks and insurance companies than ever. All of them are competing for the ordinary man's savings in a country where people can hardly make it to the second week on their monthly salaries, let alone have any left to put by. Other proliferations abound too. Anyone who has not visited Ghana for the last 15 years will be surprised at how many petrol companies there are in the country today. The names are varied – Allied Oil, Graza Oil, Fraga Oil, Oanda Oil, Nasona Oil, Glory Gas filling station, Star Oil filling station and lots more. All of these in competition with the traditional ones you and I know of. Things are becoming more and more mechanised in Ghana but at petrol stations, there are still petrol attendants to fill your tank for you and get paid in cash.  And there are more universities in Ghana today than ever. Many of them are private and more are being set up by the day! In my day, the idea of a private university was unheard of. Not any more. Enterprising people who in the past would set up a private commercial or secretarial school now go straight to establish a university. The quest for knowledge is so great that all these private universities get enough students willing to pay to sustain their activities. They say the established universities are no better at tuition than the private ones. After all, it is the same lecturers from the state universities who do private teaching there to make ends meet. They call it galamtsey. The need for accommodation for all these students has spawned off a profitable industry of hostels exploiting needy students. Meanwhile none of these universities has made it to the top 500 of any global league table of universities (Click here to see). Let me just mention a few more proliferations in our country without describing them. There are now more FM stations, more newspapers, more football clubs, more fast food outlets (fried rice and spring rolls), more internet cafés, more home grown NGOs (imagine the poor helping the poor!), more brands of beer, and at least 100 different types of toothpaste with names you've never heard of before. Indeed, there is more of everything in Ghana than ever before!

Ghana is becoming more and more like Europe in certain ways.

Take television for instance. There are now 3 (or is it 10?) stations available to most Ghanaians, and the rich can get cable TV and watch all the channels we watch here. The local stations are showing European type programs. There are quiz shows even if the studio setting is not as sophisticated as the ones we see here. There is even reality TV. There are re-runs of South American soap operas that are avidly watched. Music videos come like on MTV with a Ghanaian touch. There is a lot of religious music on television with the singers dancing in almost similar ways. But by far the most watched program, perhaps apart from live football, is the so-called Nigerian movie. These are shown, and watched, every day. These films are no better than the Osofo Dadzie series we watched in the 70s. The plot lines are extremely simple and the subject matter most often has to do with juju, disappointment in love, or mothers-in-law angry with their daughters-in-law who are not getting pregnant. But Ghanaians, especially the women, consume it all. Ask about a Ghanaian film and they tell you Ghanaian filmmakers are not as good as the Nigerians. So the Nigerian movie stars have become big celebrities in Ghana, which, perhaps is their second largest market. Ghanaians are so engrossed with Nigerian movies that they don't enjoy Hollywood anymore. There is a class angle to watching Nigerian movies, however. Because these films are mainly watched by the semi-illiterate, educated Ghanaians do not watch them, or rather, make sure they are not seen watching them. Why jump with simpletons who understand only the simplest plots? Ghanaians really do love their television. Reception is very poor in most homes but that doesn't deter people from being assiduously glued to their sets. There are antennas on crooked bamboo poles dominating the skyline of all towns and villages in Ghana.

Twi, Twi, everywhere

The daily newspapers are now bumpier than before. Daily Graphic often has 48 pages – a far cry from the 16 page dailies we read in the 70s. The paper is full of advertisements including some badly written ones. The journalistic language, especially on the sports pages, is still the same cliché-riddled one of by-gone years. Ghanaian football teams are still ‘locking horns’ with each other and attackers are still scoring from ‘goalmouth scrambles or mêlées’. Free newspapers are yet to make their debut. Have you ever wondered why there are so many billboards in Ghana? Everywhere you turn your head in Accra, Kumasi or Takoradi, there is a billboard blocking your view. They are advertising all manner of goods and services. Some of them are so huge you wonder why they were allowed. And for all you know, such huge billboards are only advertising toilet paper! In fact, many of these billboards are artistic nightmares. The city council makes a lot of money on them. That is why they also allow smaller signposts all over the place advertising the locations of businesses even if they are a nuisance to motorists.

It seems it is only now that Ghanaians have discovered FM broadcasting. These stations are all over the place. The two most popular program types on the stations are phone-ins and discussions. The discussions are often very heated affairs with everybody shouting at each other at the top of their voices. Then there will be a break for music, which is invariably some local gospel or hip-life. Of course, there are lots of advertisements on radio too. In fact, I don't know of any other country which produces so little and yet advertises so much!

The language spoken on these stations is often Twi or a mixture of Ghanaian English and Twi. Twi is fast becoming the second official language in Ghana. In many instances, it is the language of choice. Twi is now spoken everywhere in Ghana. Even the radio announcers in the Volta Region speak Twi. Ewes, Gas and other language speakers in Ghana are quietly acquiescing in the domination of their language by Twi. You enter a taxi and the driver speaks to you in Twi. Maybe at the end of the journey, an involuntary interjection will escape from his lips which will reveal to you that he is your tribesman. Gas and Ewes, especially in Accra, are now speaking better Twi than ever but the Akan is not speaking any other language apart from Twi. He doesn't need to. The Makola woman claims if she doesn't speak Twi, she can hardly sell a thing. We are witnessing the historical process whereby one dominant language gradually kills off the others. It may take a long time but in some 50 years time, I can foresee languages like Ga, Nzema and Dagbani becoming quaint little languages spoken in the countryside by the very elderly. Everybody in Ghana will be speaking Twi as their first language and parliament will conduct its activities in Twi. That need not be a bad thing, actually - as long as the speakers of the minority languages do not feel that the dominant language is being rammed down their throats and they are being made to pay, in subtle ways, for their inability or unwillingness to speak it. Ewe and Hausa may yet survive. They are more international than Twi.

Driving in Ghana

A whole chapter can be written about driving in Ghana. The roads are being improved especially in Accra and Kumasi. But the greatest problem in Ghana with driving is the drivers. Ghanaian drivers are very adept at manoeuvring vehicles through tiny places in crowded areas. But they seem to know little else. It seems the measure of how well one can drive in Ghana is how fast one can go. Ghanaians by nature take their time in doing many things but when it comes to driving, they are in a big hurry. The fastest anybody is allowed to drive in Ghana is 100 kph on the Tema motorway. But more often than not, drivers can be seen doing 120 or 130 on roads not half as good as the Tema motorway. All they need is a good stretch of the road without any of the country's numerous road control bumps, to press their gas pedals as far as they can go. Often a driver who is being overtaken sees it as a challenge and simply increases his speed instead of making it easier for the one overtaking.

The newly constructed roads in the cities are very well marked but nobody seems to mind about these markings. It is obvious many drivers don't even know what many of these marks mean. When it comes to driving, as in certain other things, even Ghanaians who lived abroad for several years and acquired other habits quickly fall back to the rhythms of the old ways. It is a very common thing to see motorists parking their cars by drinking spots, stuffing themselves with a few bottles of Ghana's very tasty beers, jumping straight into their cars and driving away. The police have no ability or resources to check traffic offences. If they succeed, against all odds, in arresting you for an actual traffic offence, you can still always get away with a bribe - always! No doubt road accidents remain the fourth largest killer in Ghana. There are now more cars in Ghana than ever. The lorry parks in Kumasi and Accra haggle for passengers even more than they did in the good old days. At Asafo market in Kumasi, you may sit in an Accra-bound vehicle for hours before it gets filled up. The bookmen entice you with vehicles with 'double back tyres' or air-conditioned buses where there are no middle seats! Most of the vehicles in Ghana are second hand cars imported from Europe – the so called 'home-used'. There are no roadworthiness tests worthy of the name in Ghana. Sometimes, the mere fact of your being able to drive your vehicle to the test centre can be taken as enough proof that it is roadworthy. At least 80 per cent of the vehicles plying Ghana's roads are rickety structures that will never be allowed on the roads in Europe. Vehicles break down in the middle of busy roads and the mechanic goes under to try to fix it right on the spot. But why, for goodness sake, are the DVLA and vehicle insurance stickers pasted on windscreens so big? Can't they still do the same work even if they are a quarter the present size? They cover some of the vision of the driver and almost all of that of the guy in the passenger seat.

Why are we Ghanaians so noisy?

It is strange how we fail to notice certain things about ourselves until we take a distance from it. I will mention only two. I have lived in Ghana for more than half my life but it is only now I fully appreciate how noisy we are. In Ghana, there is noise everywhere. Walk the streets of Accra and you can hardly hear anything on your cell phone. The noise around you is overwhelming. It is coming from record sellers playing their music at the loudest, cars honking their horns, and street vendors shouting out their wares at the top of their voices. Have you noticed two Ghanaians discussing a simple thing? It is as if they are quarrelling. You can't go into a beer bar and take a bottle with a friend and discuss serious matters of life. The noise coming from the record player is so loud you can hardly hear yourself think, much less what your compatriot is saying. Wait your turn at a public telephone booth and you'll hear every single word the guy on the phone is saying. Maybe he is talking to a relative in Europe and thinks he must shout to be heard across the oceans. Why are we Ghanaians so noisy? The second thing that struck me this time around is how often we Ghanaians pee by the roadside. Yes, I've done it before and I still do it but it is only now that it looks strange to me. Men, women, children, dogs, goats, everybody in Ghana pees by the roadside. I was surprised to see a woman in Madina outside Accra with a load balanced on her head and a child strapped behind her back, in full view of everybody, just bend down by the gutter and urinate into it! Ok, she was not the minister's wife, but … This was yet to be surpassed by the trotro driver who had stopped for a red light and took the occasion to quickly leave his car to pee into the nearest gutter running back to drive away after the lights had long turned green and the motorists behind him had shouted themselves hoarse. Peeing by the roadside is so common that even white tourists also do it! Meanwhile, there are numerous 'Do Not Urinate Here' signs all over the place but very few signs showing where you should urinate.

The face of poverty

And the face of poverty is all over the place despite all the efforts of HIPC. Forget about the few Ghanaians you see in the latest Benz and BMW cars. These are the political elite, the NGO rich, or the cocaine lords driving their pampered children to air-conditioned classrooms in schools where the fees are paid in dollars. The fact is that the majority of Ghanaians are still living in abject poverty. The proverbial dog-chain seller is still very much around the streets of Accra. People sell everything in the roads and by the roadside in Ghana: under-aged boys who should be at home playing video games are selling one pack of chewing gum all day in the scorching sun, little girls who should be in vacation classes are selling plantain chips, oranges, pure water (which is far from pure), and anything that can be sold. One wonders how much they make each day, and where they sleep at night. As you sit in your car watching these very wretched of the earth pleading with you to buy from them, you will feel close to tears especially when you remember the privileges of European children. And you can buy almost every imaginable thing by the roadside in Ghana - single and big double beds, used cars and handicapped wheel-chairs, potted plants, even dogs and cats! Poverty can easily be seen in the construction works going on. Ghanaians still put up tall buildings painfully block by single block! Even large construction sites have only one or two rickety cranes. Scaffolds are mostly bamboo sticks which, by the way, you can buy by the roadside. There are many abandoned projects like the huge structure from the 70s in that expensive area near Barclays Bank, Makola Branch. People have mobile phones but can hardly afford to buy credit. So the phone companies split the units into tiny bits. When you see a 'Credit Transfer' sign, go there and you can buy mobile phone credit for as little as 2 minutes. Those who cannot afford even that will 'flash' you. When they do so, they will expect you to call them back at your expense so that they can tell you their needs. In the villages, the dilapidated buildings of your youth are in an even greater state of disrepair. But they are still being used. The elderly there plainly ask for money, sometimes just 1000 cedis to drink akpeteshie. Poverty has bereft the old, those not yet dead, of all respect. It was not like that in my youth!

Accra is expanding – on the sides.

High rise buildings in our capital city are few and far between. Skyscrapers, characteristics of real city skylines, are absent. There is some progress but it is very slow. Neither government nor private companies can build huge blocks of flats for the people to hire and live in until they die. Ghanaians are buying their private plots to build their private houses in their private ways. These are often single storied villa-type houses. The houses in an area have nothing in common architecturally with each other apart from their having walls and huge iron gates. The lateral expansion of our cities means many new residential areas often have no proper access roads or a common sewage system so the cities become dirtier and dustier. A lot of valuable space is being wasted by these single houses inhabited by single families.

Tourism is on the increase.

One can see many white faces on the streets of Accra and elsewhere. For the first time in my life, I also did Ghana like a tourist. I visited Cape Coast castle, went all the way to Takoradi and on my way back to Accra, I took in the Kakum national park. I did the Kwame Nkrumah mausoleum and got close to the magnificent structure that houses the great man's tomb. The grounds are beautiful. The only disappointment is the man's museum. It is a simple structure full of different versions of his books and many black and white pictures of him and other leaders from the 60s. There is the desk he used at the Flagstaff House and a few more personal items. The collection is poor, to say the least. It is clear that in the euphoria following his overthrow, we destroyed most of the things that would have served today as a reminder of him. Cape Coast Castle was great to visit. I don't know if I was unlucky to have joined a group led by the worst tour guide they have. He repeated himself so many times it was a mystery he didn't realise it himself.

Kakum national park is an experience. I did the famous canopy walk – and survived it to tell you this story. Of course, you're reminded over and over again that it is the first and highest canopy walk in Africa. But why does it have to be so long at almost 400 meters? You are supposed to admire nature at the tree tops when you are so high up, but you'll be so frightened you won't have time to admire anything, only praying to reach the end of your ordeal. If you have vertigo, please do not attempt it.

...where all the streets have names

And so I come back to a country where all the streets have names and lights. There are no pot holes and you can hardly see an open sewer. The pavements are free of hawkers and even the traffic jams are orderly. Nobody is yelling at the top of his voice. Everything works here and there is no 'power shedding'. But this is not my country no matter how long I stay here and what rights I have. This is why I doff off my hat to the ordinary Ghanaian back home who has not (yet?) left the country. She is struggling hard to make ends meet but it is through the efforts of such people that the country of my birth, which I will one day return to forever, will be there to welcome me.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Sapathy, Kofi