Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Ghanaians

It was the best of receptions; it was the worse of receptions.

On Sunday this past weekend, I was heading into Accra to a very nice 5-star hotel downtown where I happen to have snagged the wi-fi password, and have been known to camp out for hours enjoying the air conditioning and some of the fastest internet I have found in Accra. Door to door, the trip takes me anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes depending on traffic, with the first leg of my little journey being the 15 minute walk to the junction with the main road (Spintex Road) where I can hop on a tro-tro heading downtown. On this particular Sunday I had done laundry (by hand) earlier in the morning, and so, my trip into town was right smack in the middle of the day. Perhaps poor planning on my part, but the difference between dawn and noon is more like the difference between really hot and really really hot ; either way I am dripping with sweat 5 minutes after stepping outside.

So there I am walking down the familiar copper-red road, kicking up dirt dust with every step, the noonday sun relentlessly beating down on the back on my neck, sporting my trusty yellow backpack with laptop inside, when the brake lights engage on the back of a car that has just driven past, and it pulls over to the side of the road. I continue walking up alongside the car, as the driver leans over to roll down the passenger side window. He is a middle-aged Ghanaian man with a bald head and a kind face. I lean into the open window as he enquires “How far are you going?” “Just to the junction”, I reply. “Hop in.” he declares, “It’s too hot out to be walking long distances.” I respond with gratitude, as I open the door and take a seat. I have made that walk between the junction and my house at least a hundred times so far, and no one has ever pulled over to offer me a lift.

When we arrived at the junction, I said “This is great right here. I can catch tro-tro into Accra at this stop. Thanks so much.” To my surprise, he enquired once more “How far are you going?” to which I replied “Downtown Accra.” He said “So am I, so just stay in and we’ll go.” So, I did. On the 20 minute drive that ensued, I learned that his name was Andy, and that he lived right around the corner from me with his wife and three children (two of which were born in the U.S., and so, are U.S. citizens). He was in the “relocation business,” which, as he explained to me, was basically like a professional moving company that specialized in moving diplomats and aid workers between Ghana and their home countries. He was headed to the immigration office on business, which happened to be right around the corner from where I was headed. “How do you see Ghana?” is the standard question I am always asked, so I spoke of my work and my time so far, and we both agreed that, from a development perspective, Ghana is a very exciting place to be at the moment with lots of promise for itself and to be a leader in Africa as a whole. When he learned that I was American, he spoke of the U.S.-funded highway that is being built West of Accra that will do wonders for traffic, once completed.

All in all, it was a very pleasant trip, and Andy and I exchanged phone numbers outside the Ghana immigration office where he dropped me off. Having met a very nice man and been saved about an hour trek, I walked the rest of the way to the hotel in quite a good mood. Andy was the epitome of what I have come to know as the kindness of strangers in Ghana. But, as I was soon reminded, it is the kindness of MOST strangers. On the sidewalk just outside the hotel, I passed a tall, skinny, dreadlocked man who gave me a scathingly dirty look for no apparent reason. Even that could not damper my spirits; however, it did remind me of another, much less inviting Ghanaian I had encountered months earlier.

Towards the end of my first month here, Dennis and I found ourselves at the bank under another viciously hot midday sun. He was making a very large transfer of funds from another bank, and it was taking a while. Like most bank experiences so far, demand for services far outstripped supply, and the line was out the door. Not able to go inside and also unable to stay in the suffocatingly hot car, I decided to just sit on the shady curb next to the ATM. After a few minutes, dreadlocked man of slight build wearing sunglasses came up to use the ATM and started talking to me. At first it seemed friendly, but I soon realized that his intent was anything but. The short conversation went something like this:
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine. And you?”
“ Good. So, what are you doing in Ghana?”
“I’m doing public health work with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana.”
“Working for pharmaceutical companies…that sounds about right.”
“No, not pharmaceutical companies. I work with pharmacists…Ghanaian pharmacists.”
“Where are you from anyways?”
“I’m from the U.S.”
“Oh, the United Snakes of America…that makes sense.”
“Listen, I am here working with a local Ghanaian NGO, with Ghanaian pharmacists doing public health work to try to make you and your fellow countrymen healthier. I don’t appreciate those United Snakes of America comments like that radio host uses.”
“Ha. Listen buddy. I think you should probably get out of Ghana.”

At this point he was finished using the ATM and turned to leave. But not before forming a gun with the thumb and index finger of one of his hands, pointing it at me and saying “BANG!” So, trying to be the mature one and take the high road, I just resorted to some good old sarcasm as he walked away: “Very nice to meet you too! Have a great day!”

The “United Snakes of America” phrase, I know, he had stolen from a very popular radio talk show host here in Ghana who calls himself “Blakk Rasta”. The show, which airs every day around lunch time, consists of about two hours in which the Blakk Rasta rants about the “white man” and the “imperialist devils from the West.” (Phrases in quotes taken verbatim from his script.) I have never heard him interview a guest or take callers; it’s always just him talking into the microphone. It’s a fantastic feeling to get into a packed tro-tro and hear his program on, only to smile broadly at the people around me. While it would be great if every single Ghanaian held a favorable view of Americans, like power outages and unrelenting humidity, I chalk it up to “all part of the experience” and try to learn something from it. And, indeed, in this case, there is much that can be learned.

I was first introduced to the Blakk Rasta when Charles had the radio tuned to his show as he drove Dennis and me to a meeting a few weeks after I arrived. Dennis explained that the show was very popular among all demographics, and that the Black Rasta was a college-educated man. The first segment of that particular show featured a history lesson of the life and death of Patrice Lumumba: a Congolese independence leader and the first legally-elected Prime Minister of post-colonial Republic of the Congo, who was arrested and killed with the likely support of the Belgian (and possibly U.S.) government(s). Like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, he was a supporter of Pan-Africanism, and to the surprise of no one, the Black Rasta went on for about 15 minutes to lionize Lumumba as a martyr and demonize the West. The second segment was much less structured than the first, and he went on a tirade against the “IMFWorldBank” for another 15 minutes. The basic take-away was that the “IMFWorldBank” has more control over Ghana’s development than Ghana does, and that is a deplorable state of affairs. It was simultaneously a shot at the multilateral development agencies (and, by extension, all Western countries that donate to them) and the current administration in Ghana.

Now, there are a few interesting things about this broadcast on which to reflect:

1.) Blakk Rasta does make some good points. On Patrice Lumumba, yes, the U.S. and its allies did certainly play a role in the deposition and/or killing of some world leaders of sovereign nations, especially during the Cold War, when the Republic of Congo was getting aid from the Soviet Union. These actions are undoubtedly regrettable, and according to the CIA, they don’t do that sort of thing anymore. It is, however, a little much to canonize him, since he did very little that could be considered good for his country while in office. On the other hand, he did implement policies that precipitated a terrible civil war.

2.) The whole “United Snakes of America” phrase is hilarious when put into context. You see, in addition to being a radio show host and DJ, Blakk Rasta is also a reggae artist. His biggest hit single to date, is titled “Barack Obama”: a song he made supporting Obama in the run-up to the 2008 election. When Obama came to Ghana in July of 2009, Blakk Rasta was accorded much attention due to the song. He was interviewed by CNN, the BBC and other Western news outlets, in addition to having lunch and a photo op with the president: an experience he called the pinnacle of his life and career.

3.) His anger at the “IMFWorld Bank” is not completely unfounded, but needs to be much better informed. It is easy to rail at the two multilateral institutions, as they have dropped a lot of money here, with some questionable results. Development is a tricky field; not everything is a success story; and it is very easy to point the blame. That being said, they are completely different institutions with completely different mandates, so you undermine your credibility when you just say “IMFWorldBank.” As in: “The government needs to stop pandering to the IMFWorldBank and have a greater say in the projects that are being implemented.” To Blakk Rasta and many other Ghanaians, these institutions represent some sort of extended colonialism, and there is no difference between them. And he equates the government taking their assistance as being controlled by them and by their agenda. (The meeting Dennis and I were being driven to as we listened to the program was sponsored by the World Bank.)

While the overwhelming majority of Ghanaians I have encountered lean towards Andy’s view of the West, I am constantly reminded, through almost daily scowls I receive from passersby, of those on the other end of the spectrum like Blakk Rasta and the man at the ATM. And, after all the atrocities committed by the “white man” against Africans, I can’t say that I don’t see where they are coming from. (NB: Not all Rastafarians are vehemently anti-West. I participated in a fantastic moonlit drum circle on the beach followed by intense what-is-it-all-about conversations with some very friendly, thoughtful Rastas. I don’t want to paint a wrong picture.)

For me, it is interesting to note how much homage is paid to the views of Blakk Rasta, even by those who don’t agree with what he espouses. In an extreme light, he can be blindly anti-West regardless of the issue at hand and allow that bias to cloud his judgment, never capable of objectivity. However, in a moderate light, he can stand for not eating all that is fed to you without questioning it, for national pride, and for sovereignty, and I think that this is what Ghanaians across the political spectrum can relate to. Indeed, it is exactly this phenomenon that I have seen manifest in many of my work meetings here. Ghanaians, like any other nation of people, are proud, and one of the biggest lessons I have learned is that donors and other “development partners” (the catchphrase du jour) cannot underestimate this sentiment in their policies and interactions with their developing country colleagues. To do this (development) right, by building consensus, takes time, and local stakeholders must be involved in ALL stages of the process: from policy development to implementation. In one of my next blogs, I will discuss how ignoring these lessons might spell failure for a very exciting and promising initiative being piloted across Africa this year (including Ghana) in malaria control.

Ghanaians like Andy look at my skin, and think about the new road that U.S. dollars are helping to build. They want to talk to me and know what sort of work or study brings me to their country. Ghanaians like the man at the ATM look at my skin and they think about the killing of Patrice Lumumba and the development failures preached by the Blakk Rasta. They want to talk to me to tell me to leave their country. It is the best of receptions; it is the worst of receptions. You just have to take the good with the bad (add a few other clich├ęs), walk it off, and keep on going.

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