DAY 18 THURSDAY 7th DECEMBER 2017. NAVRONGO, GHANA
Wechiga can be such a good host, an instinct he perhaps learned from his mother. This has been one of my most quietly enjoyable stays in Navrongo, thanks to his calmness at present, helped of course by his taking a long annual leave of about six weeks to coincide with my visit. Today we had a day like those we used to enjoy many years ago, riding out to pay respects to extended family members in the more rural areas, from which Akay herself hailed. Out there, a few miles from the now petrol-smelly town, just a bit of the old Navrongo that I used to admire so much still survives in the open, warm welcomes to simple, largely earth built compounds round their cattle yards and sculpted chicken coops. Nowadays though, every compound, however mean, touts a satellite dish. Twenty five years ago I watched the crowds of small children that would gather round a battery driven 12″ TV in a candlelit compound to watch the cheapest programming, on the one channel, most of which they couldn’t even understand as it wasn’t even translated from the original Dutch or German! Now there are multiple channels of absolute crap from the world – cheap glossy soaps from India and China, melodramas from Nigeria, dramas from Brazil (all flatly dubbed), materialist American trivia and homegrown junk TV too.
But not to spoil a ramble out in the villages with one of my own soapboxes… Wherever you visit water or food is instantly offered. People are probably wealthier than they were twenty five years ago, when I often felt I was eating the family’s own portions, but the gesture of generosity is still the same. People out there rely on their small farms and marketing for their sustenance, rather than rental incomes; there are less strangers and everyone shares the same cultural values. That’s what has gone nearer home, where I am surrounded by people from other tribal backgrounds renting rooms and bungalows and going off to work or study during the day, knowing nothing of the habits and traditions of those they live among.
We went to Pungu area, just a few miles from town to visit Balloo, the tailor in the market who is a cousin of Wechiga’s, and continued with him to visit other relatives on Akay’s side in a large mud built compound nearby. The old lady is mother of our neighbour, Cassia – herself, rarely here, one of triplets – the wife of Jorayam, another of Wechiga’s cousins. The old lady has a room in the old style, just as formed the old compound here. It’s a rectangular house of mud block, plastered with smooth mud; a low door, the flat roof supported on teak logs that are exposed on the underside. Into the crevices are tucked many twists of plastic bag containing small items, and a carving knife was lodged away from childish danger. The usual calendar curled on the wall with various religious bits and pieces and a Chinese battery clock with an irritating ring and, oddly, a selection of old handbags that already had seen better days before they suffered the depredations of Navrongo’s climate. Best to see for me, though, was the old lady’s piles of clay pots and collection of calabashes, just like those that Akay valued – the same pots that were thrown into and smashed in the pit that remained after the well collapsed here outside my round house when the original compound was razed. In these pots the old ladies kept their valuables, pots piled one on another, seated on moulded mud supports. I was so happy to find this disappearing scene as we ate rice and stew, three of us from the same pot, the sun burning down on the smooth cement outside while a sow and eight piglets rooted in the corn husks of the yard: evidence that not all is swept away of the old traditional life.
We rode off, to be stopped by shouts from a path side kiosk, where a group of elderly men sat, somewhat inebriated, insisting we join them for a beer. The usual dry season booze problem, but they were good willed and cheery, if very noisy. By now a chicken hung miserably from our handlebars, feet tied with fibre from a local plant, spinning and bouncing, suspended around the mirror – a traditional gift from one of the houses. Time was when we’d come back festooned with chickens and cockerels from our distant visits to pay respect to relatives. I even received one from the Paramount Chief one year, a signal honour that much impressed Uncle Gwea, a deep traditionalist. Now people appear to be more cagey with their generosity. It’s a different economy from the one in which you relied upon one another for communal support; with the rise of nuclear families and people living far apart among strangers those old customs don’t support the way they did and it’s every man for himself.
This will be my last day of peace so I was pleased for the opportunity to witness a vestige of what I came to respect so much in the old Navrongo culture. It clings on tentatively in distant villages. Tomorrow I will see the other side of Navrongo culture, the new one: an over-layering of a pastiche of old funeral customs by money and a show of wealth and importance. Tomorrow will begin the huge funeral of the poor mother of the MP who died back in September. What’s left of the woman will be brought back here in a vast opulent coffin and a blaze of glitzy glory, pomp and noise. The big men of this community will arrive in shiny RVs and expensive smocks and regalia to make abeyance, not to the deceased’s, more to the position of her son, a cabinet minister in Ghana’s government. Wechiga tells me that already the funeral grounds are said to be like a cattle market of presentations: cows, sheep, goats and everything expensive. It’ll be a political event on many levels; the place to be seen in town this year…
Still dosing myself as the world producer of mucus, my old friend and I repaired to our mango tree bar for a while, picked ‘the boy’ from school and spent an hour in the yard with the four and five years olds playing happily and noisily around us and a quiet hour chatting on my roof beneath the stars, blurred now by the seasonal Harmattan dust blowing from the Sahara. I’d like to remember Navrongo by this day for now, not by tomorrow when I shall probably witness the increased shallowness that the old traditions have assumed.
DAY 19 FRIDAY 8th DECEMBER 2017. NAVRONGO, GHANA
In many ways my expectations for the funeral were confounded, at least by the part of the proceedings I witnessed as the sun went down this Friday evening. Shallow..? Perhaps. Ritual and tradition..? A qualified yeeesss… Showy and glitzy..? Undoubtedly. The old traditions overlaid by the trappings and show that wealth brings? It was certainly that. It leaves me puzzled. The old traditions are still there, but so too are the ostentatious trappings of modern Navrongo, in which making a show, being seen; making things bigger than anyone else, than the previous funeral have all become so important. The modern Navrongo confuses me: if I hadn’t come to know the habits of a quarter of a century ago, perhaps I’d think all this is the culture…
It turned out, on hearing a huge call, “Navrossay..?” across the compound, that Perry and his wife actually had arrived, unknown to us all, late last night, after a fourteen hour drive from Accra, usually about eight hours, but the route that must be taken to avoid the damaged bridge is long and arduous, potholed and devious. The bridge – it turns out that a survey declared it unsafe, so it was closed without any warning, cutting off much of the north of the country, except by long, expensive routes – is causing much confusion and the increase of prices of many commodities, most of which will never, I bet, return to their previous levels. The other routes available are also afflicted with armed robbers. Whereas the central road, via the bridges, has had military presence deployed to deal with this threat, no one has thought to divert the police or army to protect travellers on the other routes! So it was that some time after Perry passed last night, a gang attacked the vehicles in which Kofi Adda, the MP and son of the old lady to be buried was travelling. Unfortunately for the armed robbers, the vehicles were travelling with an armed guard, one of whom rolled down his window, apparently to negotiate, and shot dead the robber toting an AK47 (cheap after Ivory Coast battles). The rest, youths armed with machetes, fled into the bush. The body was thrown into the back of one of the pick ups and carried to Navrongo for identification: summary African justice. Sadly, in these material days, robbery and break ins are rife. In my early visits we could roam about, leaving doors and bicycles unlocked. Now, with so many strangers about, we must be on our guard. Shaming the family is no longer a deterrent to a life of crime.
In a shiny white fibreglass coffin, heavy with chromed furbelows, large enough to be launched and sailed across the Atlantic, the remains of the old lady, who died, remember, back in early September – over four months ago – was brought back to Navrongo in a fanfare of sirens, car and scooter horns and drumming. She, or what was left of her (and I couldn’t help wondering how much WAS left!?), was ferried in the back of a blaring health centre ambulance all the way from the Tamale freezers in slow, clamorous convoy, the coffin squeezed across the interior, driven by a driver informally dressed in red tee shirt and with garishly bright underpants (his trousers were around his hips in that odd fashion) as he helped to unload the boat-sized coffin). The car was reversed into the yard of the old lady’s house, an original Navrongo house in the town centre, for her late husband’s father was one of the first Navrongans to ‘make good’ and he and his brother built the first ‘storey buildings’ in town, small blocks on two floors, with roadside balconies; built of mud and tree trunks, that must have seemed things of wonder like skyscrapers in those far off days. Now they disappear into the roadside melange of crude zinc-roofed shops, garish kiosks and mobile phone company livery.
As the car backed in, the yard filled with the thump of local goatskin drums and the deafening shriek of shrill whistles. Added to the siren of the ambulance, now feet away, confined in the narrow yard, the effect was extraordinary, almost hypnotic, and I had one of those ‘I’m here’ moments, when you sense the physical knot of excitement – now rare moments for me in Navrongo. People crushed around – I was with some of the socially ‘big men’ with chairs to one side of the yard, all of us dressed in traditional smocks, in which I am happy to disappear into the crowd, although as the only white man it’s impossible to hide.
The coffin was shuffled out of the car and carried into the house, accompanied by mind-numbing noise. We stood and sat to receive a conga-line of handshakes, depending on social standing. Many said, “Eh, Navrossay, it’s a long time!” Some of them I managed to recognise, including, by good fortune, the MP, whom I last met when he was in power as Minister for Youth and Employment, now a cabinet minister in charge of Water and Sanitation (I could have a conversation about Navrongo’s filth and poor sanitation!). Around us, young men splashed water to settle the dust of hundreds of feet; people greeted and spoke into inevitable phones, despite the cacophony. The inner yard was by now filled with noise, drumming and whistling, as women attended the coffin into an inner room. “Come, we can go now,” said our friend Lawrence, a retired Ghanaian ambassador under another political regime. We rose to leave, until Perry, conscious of precedent, reminded us we should first pay respects. We were important guests and the formalities must be observed.
Hands behind me pushed me forward, into the crush and noise of the inner yard and into a room decorated with flashy festooned silver and black drapes. Now the coffin was open and we reverentially circled the waxwork within, the remains of the old lady, long dead, her thick glasses balanced on her nose in a parody of life. I was reminded of filing past the yellowing Mao Tse Tung in his crystal coffin. Carefully copying others I bowed my respect and emerged into the now even noisier yard as the wardrobe-sized speakers had sprung to life, drowning the town centre in bass beats that shook my stomach. Happily, we moved away to the yard of the MP’s bungalow for refreshment – whisky, beers and tizet (starchy, gluey ground millet balls) and chicken. There we stayed a couple of hours, Perry and Lawrence kindly trying to return the conversations to English, ultimately failing as we all drank more and more. By 8.15, when the group began to ‘wind down’ I was ready to go. For the last part of the evening, as conversation waned, I counted ten of us around the table. Of those eight were on phones or tapping and swiping away at ‘social media’, one was asleep and the other – me – wishing he had either a wifi connected phone or the ability to doze off like my neighbour!
These days, ever popular Perry is sensitive to my needs, isolated by my lack of Kassem language, and offered me a ride home before he went back to join his colleagues. I’d have walked, but that is not Navrongo etiquette, so I took the ride home in his big Honda CR-V and he and Rose turned round and went back to the booze and chatter while I had a charming conversation with two small girls, passing in the night. Arabella and Pearl are 8 and 13, full of questions about my little house and life in England. “Take me to your country!” are constant demands. It is everyone’s dream to pick from the money trees in white mans’ land. To travel here explains much of why so many are willing to risk all in emigrating to what they see as the riches of our life. All they ever see, and all they know of our life, is portrayed in the mythical world of TV and drama and the seldom truthful stories of the ‘been-tos’, those who have been to Europe and come back with apparent riches, often despite severe privations during their stays, but able to look rich by the strength of small savings in hard Western currencies.
By nine I fell asleep, snorting, sneezing and wheezing in the dust-ridden night, after an interesting day during which my welcomes were genuine and warm and Arabella and Pearl’s innocent curiosity reminded me of just why I have continued to come for all these years, despite my cynicism of some of modern Ghanaian life. Wise Wechiga once said, “we watched you whites eating sugar, so we think it must be good. Now we want a taste of it too, even though we have no dentists. We just want to taste what you enjoy, even if we lose our teeth…”
DAY 20 SATURDAY 9th DECEMBER 2017. NAVRONGO, GHANA
“Is it too early for..?” and Perry waved his hand at the table where whisky, brandy and Guinness bottles stood. It was 7.30 – in the morning. To ribald laughter, amusement that I could be quite so quaint, I commented that usually my cut off point was at least 6.00 (in the evening) before I take such hard alcohol. But I am in Navrongo… I observed the custom of the country, even at this early hour on an empty stomach. It isn’t the first time and probably not the last but at least I don’t do this very regularly and my liver will, I hope, outlive most Navrongans’. Then, of course, I sip my drink like an elderly dowager, while everyone around me pours two fingers and gulps it straight down in one and soon pours another. With any level of nutrition this is hardly a good idea; with Ghana’s nutrition levels it’s plain dangerous.
That was how the day started. By nine Perry was off to funeral duties that ended some time in the early hours. For this funeral even the Vice President of Ghana came, flying in in a helicopter (doubtless at considerable expense to Ghana’s struggling tax payers), and about eighty Members of Parliament – about a third of the house, were in attendance, along with many of the country’s dignitaries. At the funeral grounds all were fed and watered – fifty crates of beer and a bottle of Black Label whisky for every one of the 35 tables (the remains – if any – of which were pocketed by guests). After all this, everyone drove their huge cars at speed on the moped-crowded, potholed roads of town. Wechiga and I agreed to avoid the tarred roads on our roaming around town today. Drink driving, while technically against the law, is the norm, and when you are a big enough personage, the authorities are easily bribable anyway.
A sum of over £25,000 was raised in donations to the funeral today! Plus all those cows and sheep… Of that the catholic church (richest organisation in the world… OK, I won’t get off on that rant now) made well over £8000, plus all the money they will have accrued from the collection baskets at interminable funeral masses from the poor public. It cost the country thousands of pounds in security and travel. I wonder just what percentage of the guests had even set eyes on the old lady that died – back in September? This funeral custom is an expensive business: millions of Cedis and thousands of hours of lost work time is expended on them every weekend; classes close because teachers are ‘at a funeral house’; shops close; officials consider paying respects to colleagues’ distant relatives of more importance than their work responsibilities. Well, I suppose it is ingrained in the cultural expectations of the country, but it does seem a costly business to an onlooker.
“Today will be BEEG harvest for the church!! MILLIONS!” Wechiga, while believing strongly in god, has (as I see it) a healthy cynicism about organised religion and all its business aspects – including the greedy charlatan ‘pastor’ businessmen that his wife, Mary, likes to follow.
Dust fine and thick as fog settled on the landscape, making the equatorial sun glow dimly like a full moon. Everything now smells of dust, my clothes, my mosquito net, the pillow. While it tempers the extreme heat to an almost bearable level, it is replaced by the discomfort of breathing and thick catarrh. Life in West Africa’s not easy.
Wechiga and I spent the morning fixing Rebecca’s screen door and then roamed about once again, content with our own company and not to be disturbed, despite it being a busy market day with giant funerals around. It does at least seem that funeral activities are migrating towards weekends. A text from Dennis told me that he had attended the out-dooring of a new baby, followed by a lengthy wedding ceremony, complete with mass, then a long funeral mass with about three thousand attendants, and still to come was the burial of that schoolmate and colleague. I’m glad I don’t have to spend my weekends in such duties.
DAY 21 SUNDAY 10th DECEMBER 2017. TAMALE, GHANA
“Fella, fella, gooood morning,” shrill all the small children in their ritual greeting to any white man, at any time of day. It’s one of the charms of life here in Navrongo. I am often attended by a trail of small people, but one of my pleasures on this 21st visit has been the company of my little smiling chatterbox friend Faith, who has accompanied Wechiga and I to Tamale today for his first adventure. Little boys should always be about five, by my choice! His excitement at the prospect of seeing his first aeroplane knows no bounds.
You either learn a certain patience in Africa or stay away. Often I have to put up with long hours of being excluded by my lack of language and most plans just don’t go the way you make them. We were late getting away, since Perry had assumed I would be leaving with him tomorrow for the ride to Tamale airport, so the hospitality at his house continued through the whisky and beer, tizet and soup to freshly slaughtered hens and guinea fowls toasted on a small fire of sticks. They’re palatable if the bird is young enough, barely ‘roasted’, directly in the flames of dried millet sticks, charred by the smoke that rises to mix with the fog above, and blackened and stringy. Not easy for weak European teeth. By 1.30 we finally left, walking to the roadside with Faith’s five year old legs slowing us a bit, to a puttering ‘mama camboo’ to the transport yard for a shared taxi to Bolgatanga. There we needed patience – two good hours of it, as we waited for four more passengers to join us in a comfortable, six seater people-mover on the two and a quarter hour ride down across the smokey, dust-shrouded bush lands to Tamale. The car was £1 more than the vastly less commodious minibus next to us, but finding four more willing to pay that extra pound took a long time: as long as it took to find eleven passengers for the torture minibus. Eventually we rolled south through the haze, as Faith fell asleep, sprawled across me, his heavy head on my arm for the next two hours. It was a comfortable ride (for Africa), although enduring the same Nigerian music video, on 3 minute 20 second repeat, for two hours, thankfully at fairly reduced volume.
It was dark by the time the lights of Tamale glimmered out of the haze. Here just a few degrees above the Equator, almost at the winter equinox, the day is just about half and half. We are staying with Gladys, always noisily excited to see us.
DAY 22 MONDAY 11th DECEMBER 2017. ACCRA, GHANA
Little Faith had a very exciting day. He’s an intelligent child who may well have picked up the innate wisdom of his father, and of his grandmother, Akay. His English speech has improved even in the two weeks that he’s been my small companion. Toady his cup was full, and I’d enjoy hearing the stories he will take back to Navrongo about the aeroplanes at Tamale airport. We arrived to find one loading on the apron, and the airport is a small affair – although it has gained ‘international’ status by providing flights to Mecca for the largely Moslem population of the Tamale region. He watched from the perimeter fence, 150 yards distant, as it taxied away and took off on the single runway and rose and dissolved into the dusty sky. Then with great excitement he watched me walk across the apron and enter another plane. Dennis had joined Wechiga, and they waited long enough for my plane to roar down the runway and rise into the air before heading back to town. Now, no doubt, the five year old wants to be a pilot!
So I said farewell to my two good friends – and my five year old mate – and returned to Accra. Perry, meanwhile, is battling his way south via the eastern route, across the Volta Lake on one of the old pontoons. It’s a route I haven’t taken but I could not risk not getting back in time for tomorrow’s flight to Kenya, so I booked my flight soon after arriving in the north, just in case. Well, it made for a pretty effortless way to travel and only added £75 to my bill.
Back in Accra, I posted a couple of packages from the airport post office, shocked by the cost of postage in Ghana. My cotton smock cost £14 to post home, as I don’t want to carry it to Kenya: it’s too bulky for a microlight traveller. I sent the printed cotton cloths to Leslie in Florida, postage at £37 being about double the cost of the 2.5 kilos of cloth. From the busy airport road I picked up the first tro-tro I required for my journey out to Perry’s house in the hilly sticks. When it turned out that the packed and battered tro-tro, twenty two passengers packed in with driver and ‘mate’, numerous bags, babies, head bowls and luggage, in what you’d consider a 12 seater minibus, would carry me all the way to crazy Kaneshie Market, one of the most chaotic places, way across the city, I decided to stay on board and not stop at Perry’s office for a ride with his son Philemon. It’s often the way that my obsessive independence, and consideration of others, albeit they are my juniors – and in Ghanian society my juniors are expected to serve my every whim to their great inconvenience – often this independence goes against Ghanaian hospitality. But I can’t help it: I had nothing better to do than battle through the traffic indignities with the poorer populous of this cheerful, helpful country. My ecological ideals revolt against the concept of someone driving me fifteen miles in ghastly traffic, when there’s a perfectly good alternative of public transport. Actually, ‘perfectly good’ is an appallingly inaccurate description! But it’s the option for the people and I am not very proud – which does count against me in the ‘first class’ society of this country. Bouncing cross country over potholed tracks that may one day be roads, is all part of the journey for me; part of my travel story.
By a remarkably uncomfortable, but quite efficient series of three dreadful tro-tros, I made it home to Perry’s bungalow on the hills, which was one of the first in the area, a quiet, airy place in those days, now filled with extraordinary, bizarre mansions of a million individual styles, if ‘style’ can be used with any more accuracy than ‘perfectly good’ for the transport options.
Perry, who stopped for a brief breakfast with us as he passed Tamale at 07.30, already over a couple of hours from Navrongo, is still ‘on the way, coming’, as Wechiga would say. When we last spoke he claimed to be making progress. I reckon the easy but expensive ride in a small plane, even weighted with an hour and a half in city tro-tros, was more comfortable than what will likely be fourteen-plus hours in a car on degraded roads. (NB. Later. It turned out to be 22 hours! Thank god I came by air. Perry and family reached home at 2.00am, largely because they kept company with their friend, owner of a big status car, but an inexperienced, deeply nervous driver. I rode with him a mile in Navrongo and was frustrated the other day by his elderly timidity and nervousness. I couldn’t have stood chaperoning him for about 550 miles of degraded roads at night..!).
DAY 23 TUESDAY 12th DECEMBER 2017. FLYING EAST OVER AFRICA
Flying east ACROSS Africa is a new experience, not that flying any which way at 37,000 feet feels any different, except for the line drawn on my map of the world. I am now on a five and a half hour flight to Nairobi. I am so pleased that I am not flying home, and then after a couple of days, flying back to Africa, as seemed likely thanks to the vagaries of international ticketing – especially happy as Somerset recorded a temperature of -13C last night.
My last hour in Ghana was stressful! After a relaxed day with Perry in his old congenial way, tired from his long journey, we wandered Accra, drinking a few beers until it would be time for my ride to the airport. He put me in the hands of a friend from Navrongo in the club house to which we had repaired for the final beers, for the friend would be passing the airport on his way home. Kotoka airport is pretty close to the city centre. But there the trouble started. The traffic of Accra in the mid-evening is often choked and chaotic but I have never seen it like this evening. At one point the friend, Bob, and I sat in a jam for half an hour, moving less than three hundred yards. I was getting stressed! Finally, in desperation, my host yelled at a passing motorbike rider and I leaped from the car and threw myself upon the stranger’s mercy and pillion. “Get me to the airport, please!” A motorbike can travel in Accra traffic where cars are trapped. Dominic, for that was the stranger’s name, rose to the occasion. We dashed and weaved through the traffic, falling in behind a police car with flashing lights for some of the way. A mile up the road, we discovered the blockage: a police petty cash Christmas collection point. Well, they would have told you they were doing their duty, checking papers, but I knew this was just pre-Christmas corruption. Dominic tried to weave through the police cordon: not the wisest move… It took ten minutes of fast talking, smile fixed on my face: “please may I speak with your senior officer?”; I am sure my friend didn’t mean to be disrespectful, he was just helping a stranger in need”; “Now, please, officer, can you be a good Samaritan and let me catch my aeroplane..?”
It worked in the end. I have travelled all these years in Africa and never yet paid a bribe! Not a bad record, I can tell you. The smile, the chatter, the appeal to their better nature, their uncertainty at just who this white man may be, not to mention the biblical ‘good Samaritan’ reference – it usually works. Dominic got me to the airport just twenty minutes before check in closed. He was well rewarded with a fiver, big money for him tonight – and he was just a passing private biker, not even a taxi bike. A good man helping a stranger.
So a final Ghana drama for 2017!
Visit 21 to Ghana… What to make of it..?
I have seen changes in Ghanaian life such as have never happened in history; changes affecting not just the few, but everyone and their entire way of life. I have been unusually analytical on this journey and reached some conclusions.
Young people, Arabella and Pearl were prime examples the other night, ask why my little round house has no electricity and I have to explain to them that even 19 years ago when I completed the building no one, not one home in the area, no institution in town except the hospital, had electricity. Just 19 years ago! They are open mouthed in wonder, taking for granted the changes I have seen within a short generation here, two decades that have seen the aroma of Navrongo change from attractive groundnut oil to sour petrol and moped fumes. Should I come back in another twenty years it will be choked with cars and commerce, always trailing a little behind the West – in progress and loss.
I have moved away from Ghanaians in my aspirations in life – or Ghana has moved away from me. My visits are generally somewhat disappointing to me now. Much of what I see here I find less worthy than all that I came to know two decades ago, perhaps seen then with the romanticism of feeling myself getting inside such a different culture. But I see now I could never be part of another culture when the only language we share is English – their second – and then only those bits people choose to translate. I can observe and note but I can’t really judge.
I found myself pondering the other day why it is I get so few visitors these days in my little round house? Time was, my mornings were busy with greetings and ‘sittings’ with neighbours and relations, an endless stream, often overlapping with one another, coming ostensibly to greet the white man but doubtless too to hear and spread the local and family gossip. I wondered if they have just become blasė about my visits, or bored by my presence, or just antipathetic to the family or me. My only morning companions to interrupt my diary writing – for Wechiga attends to his various animals and chores while Mary prepares the hot water and omelettes over her fire of sticks as I write – my only disturbances these days are chatterbox four and five year olds.
It’s taken a while for the likely truth to sink in. Everyone, but everyone, is ‘connected’ via their ubiquitous mobile phones, seldom out of hand. They constantly scroll their messages, chatter loudly (I never end a story here before interruption by some remote stranger demanding more urgent attention). The more quickly literate text with remote strangers even as they converse, (I saw a cyclist texting on Hospital Road the other day. Think about it: two hands and no eyes on a road busy with market traders: quite a feat! Drivers do it constantly). Everyone messages and checks on Watsapp and Facebook. This is the gossip channel now, this new ‘social’ media that has stopped face to face social intercourse even in this community, where it was such a huge part of life, and where the formalities of greeting and paying respects have become just a wave from a moped. That’s what happened to my busy, friendly mornings.
TV and media, and now the targeting by the invisible algorithms of the internet on their social media platforms, tell Africans that materialism is the only way forward. It increasingly gives every young person the universal dream: “Take me to your country”, where – the rest of the myth goes – life is so easy, the money trees so fruitful and possessions give status. I have had so many conversations on the universal aspiration to get to Europe. It helps me to understand why Africans risk their lives to get across the Mediterranean to the magical lands of pleasure and plenty. When your entire social value system changes in 20 years and education is generally low, how can you hope to adapt knowledgeably? How can my few words about the pressures of materialist Western life, of loneliness and cold, prejudice, lack of rights and unemployment sound like anything more than protection of my own riches, when I can afford to visit them, but they cannot hope to visit me, not to even mention the protectionism of the British visa system?
I am disillusioned how few of my liberal attitudes have rubbed off over the years on those around me in Ghana. I had a revealing conversation with Dennis and Gladys one night. There was a discussion about same sex marriage in the Ghanaian parliament, reported on TV news – well, ‘discussion’ is hardly apt…
“Homosexuality is WRONG! It is an abomination!” said Dennis and Gladys vehemently. The majority of Ghanaians, and indeed Africans are deeply sexist and homophobic.
“God made men first and then women!” So goes the religious dogma. Women are always second.
“No!” I argued. “If your god did indeed make men and women, he also made up to ten percent of humankind with other sexualities. It’s a fact! Did he make them to be unhappy? Is THAT your god?” But my argument falls on deaf ears, indoctrinated as my friends are by a deeply misogynist church.
Ghana lets me down more often now than it used to do. In this case, as an example, I don’t ask for agreement from educated people, just consideration that there are other views than the medieval church dogma written by men. The attitude here is that homosexuality is ‘learned’, a lifestyle ‘choice’, and can be ‘taught’ to young boys by corrupt homosexuals. “Well,” I am afraid I retorted, “your priests are deep into THAT! The abuse of boys in your church has even brought apologies from the pope himself!” It was a cheap jibe, I know, but my frustration was running deep against how little my liberal attitudes have rubbed off in twenty years. According to Ghanaians, men were created first, women second, as a sort of afterthought. Women exist for the gratification of men’s lust and for making babies. The idea that women may have sexual rights, needs or desires is considered nonsense and the concept of marital rape would be laughed out of court. Even educated women accept that they are inferior to men. It’s just in the genes, encouraged since childhood and shored up by a deeply male chauvinistic church. Liberation, even to the small degree it is happening in the West, is far far away, far, far away…
Maybe I analyse too much of the minutiae of the life around me and have become too critical to enjoy it as I used to. By taking my own moral stand all I do is alienate myself a little more on every journey. So the question becomes: do I maintain integrity to my own beliefs, or do I compromise and act out a part in which I don’t believe? I would have a more comfortable time if I did the latter, but it’s against my nature not to be honest: one of the qualities I admire most in others. Maybe I am better left with my memories of what I admired than my disappointments in the changes I see. It’s all very well for me, as Wechiga would say, I ‘have tasted my sugar and enjoyed it’. Should I try to deprive others, even when I know their teeth will fall out and there are no dentists..?
Well, it’s after midnight, flying eastwards at 37,000 feet. Towards Kenya…