Wednesday, February 2.
Words, words, words.
The last you heard from me, I was at the arrivals hall at JFK; before that, somewhere in Zimbabwe. This blog, despite the best of intentions, will never be what I want it to be. In my own flighty, fanciful way, I’ve harbored the idea that I might somehow find the time, energy, and verbiage to continue with the sort of long-form travel writing that buoyed me in Rwanda and DRC early last year. This has been a very stupid assumption on my part. As I learned first in Botswana, then in Zimbabwe, travel comes before travel writing. To consistently write 4,000-word daily updates from the Heart of Darkness, Inc., is too superhuman a feat for this lowly tree sloth of a writer. I should’ve learned my lesson in Botswana; I should’ve learned it by now.
But I haven’t, is the thing. I’d like to say that I’m shifting tactics, redefining myself as a writer, charting a new course in 2011, etc. But instead I’ll say that I left Johannesburg – dear, dirty Jozi! – for Ghana last Tuesday night, planning a leave of indefinite absence in West Africa; that negotiating the parking levels and escalators at OR Tambo continued to tax me and my good friend Naomi, despite all our practice during departures and arrivals past; that 30kg of checked baggage hardly seemed fair to a young bibliophile who refused to leave South Africa without his Dostoevsky; that a good deal of repacking ensued to spare me the R150/kg excess-baggage fee, and that the airport staff were good-natured about the fact that moving 3kg of books from my checked luggage to my carry-on wasn’t exactly lightening the plane’s load, really; that I met a lovely young Scottish girl who had come to Joburg to find the South African father she never knew, and who asked, when I said I was going to Ghana, “Where’s that?”; (that my dear old housemate Amy, for that matter, asked before my departure if I was driving there); that I had an emotional moment in the duty-free shop, buying my last package of biltong for the foreseeable future; that I exchanged kind words with the man who sat beside me on the plane, a young Ghanaian who was living in Johannesburg with his three-year-old son (“That one, he loves Jesus”), and was returning to Ghana for the first time in eight years, and read a pamphlet full of smiling white people called Realities of Rapture with great interest, and sung lullabies to his son, who had a cast on his little spindle of an arm, the reason for which was apparent as he rough-housed his way around the departures lounge at OR Tambo; that this man said “Thank you, Jesus!” three times triumphantly when the plane touched the runway, and other passengers wagged their hands and applauded; that I walked into a wall of wet, tropical heat on the tarmac, still harboring lurid fantasies about a certain hip-swaying German stewardess, contacts stuck to my eyeballs, hair rapidly frizzing, city dark and silhouetted in the pre-dawn hour; that few would shed tears if they ran a bulldozer across the weather-stained, low-pile-carpeted gloom of Accra’s Kotoka International, the hot rumor around the taxi stand being that a newer, bigger, better airport is being developed along the waterfront, allowing Kotoka International to be downgraded to Kotoka Regional, and perhaps allowing future generations of international travelers to be spared the pervasive gloom of my first few minutes in Ghana; that neither Kofi Atiemo, my dear Ghanaian friend, nor his heroic- and Hellenically named friend Achilles, were waiting for me in the all-purpose main hall as planned; that after much shunting about to the Internet café and text messaging at roaming rates, shepherded by a very pleasant young Ghanaian (“Even other Africans that come here, they say Ghana is the best”) who was no doubt crestfallen to receive nothing for his efforts, Kofi arrives, smiling and apologetic, clasping my shoulders with great feeling, and walking with me into the muggy heat outside; that for the past nine months since arriving in South Africa, every adventure north of the Limpopo feels like a sort of homecoming; that the city’s pre-dawn sprawl, just beginning to rouse itself on a Wednesday morning, is vast and impressive; that the silhouettes of men on bicycles pass on both sides of the road; that the butterflies in my stomach portend both excitement and anxiety in large measures; that the adrenaline rush begins to peter out, and I’m nearly incomprehensible with fatigue by the time we reach Kofi’s place in the suburb of East Legon; that the bed in the guest room is neatly made, and I’m happy to spend my first couple of hours in Ghana catching up on my sleep. In short, that I’m about to embark on another failed verbal odyssey.
It’s after nine when I get up, heavy and drugged, bumping into stuff and tripping over the luggage I’ve strewn across the bedroom floor. Kofi, himself up at four to retrieve me from the airport, is conked out on the living room sofa. The heat is everywhere, it has a physical presence, it’s like someone who keeps bumping into you on the checkout line at the supermarket. They say, too, that this is the dry season. I’ve ostensibly arrived in Ghana as a two-week stopover en route to Burkina Faso, where I’ll be covering the biannual FESPACO film festival for Variety. But I know enough about myself to know that even a short two-week jaunt – even if I never make it out of Accra – will be full of encounters, adventures, intrigues. Rise and shine, Atiemo! Kofi, long and limber, square-jawed as an Easter Island statue, grins sleepily and pads into the kitchen to root through the fridge. This is another chapter in our strange, serendipitous friendship. I had met Kofi during the World Cup, in Rustenburg – grim, limp, colorless, lifeless Rustenburg – for Ghana’s memorable second-round match against the U.S. He was sitting in front of me on the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the stadium. We engaged in some good-natured trash-talking, Kofi dissecting formations and strategies with aplomb while I – Americanus ignoramus – more or less grabbed my crotch and said, “Suck it, Ghana!” At the stadium gate we parted. The next 120 minutes are well-documented. Afterward, on my way back to the shuttle bus, picked out in a crowd of 40,000-plus, there was Kofi again, Ghanaian flag draped across his slender shoulders, joyful grin on his face as he fielded calls from Accra. In spite of the game’s outcome, it was a happy reunion. Life’s joys always trump football’s disappointments, and it is, when you get down to it, a small continent. Though FESPACO was hardly a blip on my radar at the time, I knew I would make it to Ghana eventually. We exchanged numbers and promised to reconnect in Accra somewhere down the line. As with so many friendships I’ve made these past few years in Africa, our meeting seemed like a gift from providence.
Six months later, spooning instant coffee into a mug in Kofi’s kitchen, I am dazzled by how things have come together. The timing, too, has worked out for Kofi: a pilot for a Nigerian airline, he spends most of his time in Lagos. My arrival coincided with a two-day break from his job. He flew into Accra on Tuesday morning, stocked the cupboards with biscuits and cereals, filled the fridge with fresh tropical fruit – mangos, pineapples, coconuts, papayas – and made enough preparations for me to get settled before he returns to Lagos on Thursday. “Please, feel free,” he says, repeatedly, with the dearest, deepest sincerity. I promise to feel free. He gives me a grand tour of the house, a massive villa of poured concrete that is only beginning to take shape. It looks like enough to sustain the entire, extended Atiemo clan. Ours is just a small guest house in the back; the main house is a maze of dusty rooms and stairways, the concrete still looking fresh, piles of rubble and bricks in every corner. Regina, the housekeeper, a stout woman in a loose, shapeless dress, is sweeping one of the rooms. She is a matronly woman of indeterminate age, her cheeks scarred, her eyes lively, her wig stiff enough to stop a bullet. She takes my hand with great feeling. Two workers, David and Daniel, are clearing rubble in the yard, barebacked in the early morning sunlight, all muscles and laughter. I catch them sneaking curious glances at me, their eyes full of hope and wonder, as if a thunderbolt just delivered this strange, fantastic houseguest into the yard. I am exceedingly pleased to meet them. In the back Kofi shows me the irrigation system he designed himself, the cisterns and gutters catching rainwater to feed the lawn and the small plot of maize he’s planted. “We are trying to be green,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh. Inside he shows me the souvenirs he has collected on his travels: cloth dolls from South Africa, wood carvings from Senegal, a framed “Irish blessing” he bought on a visit to Dublin (“As you slide down the banister of life, may the splinters never point the wrong way”). I offer my own addition to his collection: a Team USA soccer jersey, a reminder of our memorable meeting in Rustenburg. He tries it on in the kitchen – a perfect fit. Outside the birds are singing, a strange marvelous trilling that gives this morning a joyful soundtrack.
We’re a long way from the city center, in one of the countless suburbs growing like wild mushrooms around Accra’s fringes. They say this is a city of three million, but as with so many statistics in the developing world, it’s hardly more than a hunch, a wild shot in the dark – who can say how many new arrivals are flooding into the city each day, cousins from Kumasi or nephews from Takoradi, unstatistically sleeping on spare beds and floors, looking for work, enjoying the hospitality of some distant relation while the promises of the city and a better life wait beyond the front door? The growth is staggering, on every plot of land there seems to be a new foundation being laid and a new house being built, a skeleton of concrete walls with rickety scaffolding climbing the sides like ivy. When we go back to our frosty northern climes, we would do well to tell our friends how many houses are being built in the tropics – how many burgeoning middle classes in Accra and Harare, in Beira and Blantyre, in Mombasa and Butare and Gaborone, are building houses and filling them with televisions and washing machines and air-conditioning units and living room sets.
They are buying cars, too, used imports from Europe and the States, hatchbacks and compacts, luxury sedans, all of them congesting the narrow arteries feeding from Accra’s far fringes into the city center. Like most African metropolises, Accra wasn’t designed to sustain its long-term growth; no doubt the British colonizers who first laid out the city couldn’t imagine this 21st-century sprawl, the car-buying masses, the tyranny of the tro-tros – Ghana’s minibus taxis – as they careen through the city streets. And so traffic defines life here, it frames the day: during the morning rush hour, says Kofi, it might take two hours to get from East Legon to the city. You plan your days and nights around the frenetic illogic of getting around. For the TV industry conference I’ll be attending next week for Variety, at the swish La Palm Hotel, Kofi suggests either tagging along with his friends – who leave the house at half-past five to avoid the worst snarl-ups – or waiting for the traffic to thin after nine. There is no middle ground: leave early, leave late, or spend the morning tearing out your hair.
For now, on my first morning, the commotion and clutter is less a source of frustration than wonder. The road is lined for miles with shops, an endless market of fresh produce and auto parts and cheap Chinese-made sneakers and blue jeans and pottery and plastic bins and metal doors and spare tires and furniture being sawed and planed in the shade of a mango tree. Colors erupt everywhere, the bright carnival colors of life in the tropics: the cheap print dresses dangling from wire hooks outside the shops, or clinging to the shapely curves of a woman boarding a tro-tro. Bolts of kente cloth are displayed like museum pieces. These are trotted out by Ghanaian women on special occasions – not the cheap workaday fabrics imported from China that sustain them through their daily grinds. The elaborate woven textures of the kente are unmistakable, irreplaceable: if you were to give a woman a knock-off kente as a gift, says Kofi, no doubt it would be looked upon as an insult. And there is no fooling these Ghanaian women, the ones mashing cassava and selling fried plantains on the side of the road, or wiping a smudge off a child’s cheek, or rifling through the piles of dresses outside shops like God’s Favour Ent.
God is everywhere in Ghana. He is on the posters and billboards advertising retreats and revivals and anointings and prophetic ministrations and prophetic services, and in the names of the shops selling everything from wigs (God Is Our Refuge Beauty Salon) to watermelons (By His Grace Foods) to metalworks (Zion Iron). He is in the endless varieties of churches, too: Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Global Evangelical Church, Jehovah the Creator Ministry Int., Heavenly Members Church Int., East Legon Church of Christ, Believers’ Faithword Ministry, Charismatic Action Bible Church, International Central Gospel Church, The Lighthouse Chapel Intl., Trinity Baptist Church, Agape House New Testament Church, Word of Fire & Miracles Ministries. Kofi, the son of missionary parents, is deeply religious himself, but he’s put off by the glammed-up billboards we pass, the smiling pastors in Teflon suits with dangling gold crucifixes. “I wish more people would find their own way through the scriptures,” he says. As in so much of Africa, God is big business here in Ghana; with a little bit of elbow grease, just about anyone can call himself a bishop, start a church, and pass around a collection plate. Kofi fears too many worshippers are losing their way. For the preachers of these start-up denominations, the appeal is as great as the profits. It is not by coincidence that the neighbor’s house in East Legon – one of Accra’s choicer new suburbs – was sold by a government minister to a “reverend father,” according to Kofi. In one fell swoop, my friend has proven one of my more time-tested axioms of my travels on the continent: if you see a fat man in Africa, he’s most likely a priest or a politician.
It is a day for errand-running, for getting me acquainted with the city that will be my home for these next few weeks. We drive across town to the campus of the University of Ghana, in Legon, founded in 1948 as the University College of the Gold Coast – the former British colony’s first institute of higher learning. It is a model of colonial planning, with handsome tree-lined boulevards and whitewashed university halls crowned by the terra cotta tiles of a different era. Years ago, Ghana’s public universities were the pride of the nation’s celebrated education system, and among the best on the continent. But standards have declined, says Kofi; the university is increasingly being pressured by the rise of private colleges. Facing a financial crisis, UG has considered introducing a fee-paying system, which would essentially allow wealthy students to side-step the rigorous competition for admission by paying the full tuition fees for their course – a slap in the face to the thousands of hard-working students whose educations are largely subsidized by government funds. Driving across the campus we pass Commonwealth Hall, a notorious all-male dorm, says Kofi, famous for its elaborate hazing rituals. Inside there is a shrine that the students allegedly use for juju rituals. During exam periods, he says, they’re known to leave eggs and alcoholic drinks out to appease the spirits. We are a very long way, I observe, from the Patagonia vests and acapella groups of my own New England alma mater. Outside the institute for African studies, there are statues of Kwame Nkrumah and other heroes of the independence struggle. Leaving campus we pass a large billboard, weathered and rusted, no doubt funded by some ambitious American NGO a decade ago: “Don’t rush into pre-marital sex. You could get infected with HIV/AIDS.”
Heading back into town, traffic is at a standstill. Beside us a pastor in a threadbare blazer is packed into the back of a tro-tro, elbows pressed to his sides, Bible in his hand, preaching wildly. A billboard of a suave, smiling man in a Mafioso-style suit says, “Archbishop declares 2011 your year of unstoppable favour.” Hundreds of hawkers work the road, selling water sachets, hair brushes, washcloths, rosaries, glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, flavored yogurt, maps, posters of pouting girls (“Cute and stylish babes”), headphones, desk lamps, coat hooks, hangers, matches, toothpicks, dental floss, chewing gum, lint brushes, Chinese fans, dog collars, kites, belts, shoe polish, sunglasses, binoculars. A haggard man holds a dry-erase writing board with the words “Writing Board” written on it. The heat is like a wet blanket on your face. At a traffic light a young girl weaves between the cars pressed bumper to bumper, holding a blind woman by the wrist, rapping on windows and asking for change. Across the intersection is a massive billboard for a new housing development called Buena Vista Homes. Beggars with twisted, polio-ravaged legs push their wheelchairs back and forth, back and forth, their depleted faces past the point of any appeal, as if they’re simply there for us to bear witness.
For all its chaos and clamor, central Accra is governed by its own sort of logic. Some unspoken agreement seems to bind the drivers as they send their Morse code of beeps and toots into the hazy air. The principal roundabouts – 37 Circle, Nkrumah Circle – bind the city together. So long as I know my circles and junctions, says Kofi, I’ll be able to navigate Accra without too much hassle. He turns into Nkrumah, cuts off and gets cut off in turn, honks, makes exasperated gestures out the window, laughs, grabs a tissue to wipe his face. A few traffic cops stand amid the perilous to-ing and fro-ing, tooting their whistles and waving more and more cars into the melee. Pedestrians make mad dashes across the street. What would Nkrumah himself, the father of independence, think of this circle that bears his name? A legacy of bad air and bumper to bumper traffic. A dried-out fountain that only gushes on holidays. A ragged “Merry Christmas” sign hanging limply on a fence. And yet the traffic isn’t without its own sort of magic. Just as the dry, dusty harmattan winds suddenly blow in to provide some respite from the heat, the bottleneck unclogs, we shoot like a champagne cork from the roundabout, and off we go, barreling down the road fittingly known as Liberation.
More than 50 years have passed since Kwame Nkrumah lit the match that set Africa aflame, yet it’s only a short drive down Liberation from Nkrumah that we see one of the grandest follies of the modern Ghana: Golden Jubilee House, the gaudy presidential palace built by former-President John Kufuor at an estimated cost of some $50 million. Kufuor defended the ostentatious house and its ostentatious price tag: “Even in a hamlet everybody knows the chief’s house,” he told the BBC at the time. You certainly can’t mistake this chief’s house, built to resemble a traditional Ashanti stool (a much-revered cultural symbol, inspiring such sayings, according to my Lonely Planet, as “There are no secrets between a man and his stool,” and, when a chief dies, “The stool has fallen”). Kofi says the construction of the Golden Jubilee House – completed just weeks before the 2008 elections – was a sign of the arrogance of the then-ruling NPP government. Nana Akufo-Addo, Kufuor’s groomed successor, took victory for granted; the Golden Jubilee House was the NPP’s gift to itself. But the people reacted by voting John Atta Mills and his NDC into power instead. “I would not say that the NDC won the election, but that the NPP lost it,” says Kofi. Part of Mills’ platform was based on a reduction in wasteful government spending, as exemplified by Kufuor’s Golden Jubilee and the controversial plans to purchase a new presidential jet. It perhaps did not bode well, then, that two years later, after the NDC suddenly found itself in control of the purse strings, Mills decided a presidential jet wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. In October he inaugurated a new jet with a $30 million price tag attached – a far cry from the “austerity measures” he promised on the campaign trail.
By late afternoon our errand list has dwindled. Kofi has dropped off the laundry, picked up a new car battery, and found me a pharmacy selling cheap, generic anti-malarial pills. Despite the traffic and appalling heat, it’s been a good day. We stop for lunch at a Western-style coffee shop in Labone, one of Accra’s swanker precincts, which is air-conditioned to a sub-arctic chill. I make a note of this place, Melting Moments, for future reference. On the wall a flat-screen TV is showing al-Jazeera’s broadcast from Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of protesters have packed into Tahrir Square. It is the first live footage I’ve seen of the Egyptian uprising, estranged as I am from TV in my African life. It is mesmerizing. In the span of a few weeks a decades-old order has been entirely upended. I’m gratified to think that, in the policy circles and think tanks of Washington, no one saw this coming. Hillary Clinton, seeing which way the political winds are blowing, has quickly reversed course on three decades of pro-Mubarak policies and urged the Egyptian government to speed the process of democratic reforms. Thousands are in the square, singing and chanting slogans. Somewhere in Sharm el-Sheikh, Mubarak is tugging on his collar and pondering his next move.
Two men at a nearby table are watching the TV, offering a running commentary on the events and what they mean for the continent. One of the men offers a bitter laugh – the sort of laugh I’m accustomed to when Africans talk about politics – and suggests that African protest movements always lose steam because the opposition leaders are killed before they can organize. This, I suggest, is a slap into the face to the security apparatuses of the Arab dictatorships, who have been known to kill, torture and imprison more than a few opposition leaders of their own. But the mood in the café is probably being shared in countless thousands of cafes and bars and living rooms across the continent. What are the prospects of a Tunisian- or Egyptian-style uprising in Africa? Why aren’t millions of Africans in the streets, bringing down the corrupt regimes that have, in so many cases, reversed the course of development, so that a young man in Cameroon or a young woman in Senegal is most likely worse off than their parents were a generation ago?
I offer my own theories, mostly cobbled together over a few days’ worth of headline-scanning and ruminating. For one, while I’m wary of giving too much credit to social media – and would never, even under the worst sort of duress, use the term “Twitter Revolution” with a serious face – I think there’s something to be said for how Facebook and Twitter have galvanized protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, not so much driving the protests, I suspect, as complementing them and allowing them to maintain their momentum when disparate, spontaneous protests might otherwise fizzle. (It is easier to gather courage in Cairo when you know millions are joining you in Alexandria, Suez – not to mention Algiers, Tripoli, and Samara.) This isn’t to say millions in sub-Saharan Africa aren’t connected (though in smaller numbers) and friending each other on Facebook and posting videos of cats falling off things on one another’s Walls; but I suspect there’s something about the combustible mix of social networking with an energized and engaged civil society that gives sites like Facebook and Twitter their, er, revolutionary potential. In Kenya, for example, Facebook is a popular rallying point for protesters and activists. Text-messaging services were engaged to prevent the spread of hate speech and violence during last year’s referendum. Kenya is, I think, a special case, both because of an especially vibrant civil society and a developed and innovative tech sector. (Think mPesa or Ushahidi.) Kenyans aren’t just connected; they’re doing something with that connectivity. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, both low Internet penetration rates and relatively weak civil society structures make online activism less likely to succeed. (Am I overreaching here? Please, if you know more than me – and you probably do – weigh in.)
More importantly, Egypt and Tunisia are ethnically homogenous states. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this when looking at post-colonial African politics. Regardless of whether or not Arab identity is a fundamental rallying cry in these Middle Eastern uprisings, there certainly hasn’t been an ethnic wedge to divide protesters. Can the same be said south of the Sahara? As a journalist in Africa – I believe it was Howard French who said this – it’s always necessary to do your “ethnic homework.” What are the tribal groups? What are the animosities? What are the historical divisions? Ethnic rifts – whether complemented or exacerbated by economic and political motives – are never far from the surface of post-colonial conflicts in Africa. The divide and conquer methods of the colonialists have been neatly adopted by the continent’s post-independence rulers: today’s leaders and political aspirants in Africa can play the ethnic card better than the most calculating colonial governor. Sowing the seeds of fear and mistrust is often just a case of raising the specter of Otherness – something that appeals to all of our baser instincts. (See Party, Republican.) Is it possible to imagine widespread popular uprisings in Africa today without first imagining the concept of a post-ethnic state?
I let these ideas fly in the café – we whites in Africa sure are good at our Grand Unifying Theories. Cautious murmurs of agreement all around. It’s not without a certain historical irony that we’re having this talk in Ghana, a country that, more than half a century ago, lit the match that set Africa ablaze. Certainly this continent is no stranger to revolution – a contagion that moved as rapidly across Africa in the ‘50s and ‘60s – sans Twitter, FYI – as it’s moving across the Arab world today. What is Africa’s 21st-century tipping point? Is there a new generation of Nkrumahs, Lumumbas, Nyereres, Kenyattas and Cabrals waiting to strike the next match? There will be much for me to say in the days ahead, I suspect, about Ghana’s historical place in the African independence movement, and what that means for Ghana today. But on some level, I ask my friends, isn’t Africa moving in the right direction? (Unifying Theories!) After the post-independence euphoria faded, and the ills of modern governance set in; after the carousel of coups d’etat and corrupt leaders, and the bankrupt decades of Band Aid and Bretton Woods; after all the failed ideologies and -isms of 50 misspent years: aren’t things in much of Africa starting to look up?
It is, I’ll admit, a question I myself can’t answer without great ambivalence, not least because so much of my evidence to support it is anecdotal. (Social scientist, I am not.) But to go back to my first day in Accra, and its congested roads and construction booms – a scene I’ve witnessed in dozens of big and medium-sized African cities – isn’t there an important story about opportunity and growth being told?
One of the men, Lovemore – a Nigerian writer, as it turns out – shakes his head. Ghana, he says, is a prime example of what’s wrong with Africa today. Already the government has refused to be transparent about how it will spend its oil revenues. There’s no clear strategy on how the country will develop a robust, diversified export economy – just a bunch of platitudes about building a “better Ghana.” What Mills and company are doing, says Lovemore, is cultivating a middle class of consumers. They’re not creating jobs or developing industries; they’re just teaching people to spend. On some level, this might be a good thing: if people are spending money, it means they’re most likely earning it, too. But the country lacks a vision, says Lovemore. It’s already mortgaged away its first year of oil revenues for fast money. So is this good news for Ghana? Will the country’s leadership find a way to invest in and develop a structure on which their vision of a “better Ghana” can be built? Or will they simply follow in the footsteps of so many of this country’s failed leaders?