The Debt

kwame-nkrumah

True story: I once met a taxi driver who explained Ghana’s developmental woes to me in simple spiritual terms.

Taxi drivers have all the answers, but we don’t hear them. Accra is noisy, and we like our rides quiet. Or we have just been raised to speak to people, rather than listen to them.

The way he told it, to perform a feat as epic as black independence from a hundred years of white rule, Kwame Nkrumah obviously cut a deal with a spirit:

A blood oath.

Citing biblical chapter and verse, the driver broke down how blood oaths are like loans except instead of borrowing money, you borrow power. As with a loan, you must put down a deposit: the more the deposit, the more power you receive. Nkrumah needed a lot of power to pull off the miracle of African independence.

So he pledged to the spirit the souls of all of Ghana’s unborn children.

The risk must have seemed small: Nkrumah believed in his plans for our fledgeling nation. He would have little trouble securing whatever was needed to alleviate the debt.

Unfortunately for us all – the driver explained – Nkrumah was exiled and died before he could repay whatever debt he owed.

And so our nation is destined to forever be stuck in developmental purgatory until we discover what the debt is, the spirit to whom it is owed, and settle it.

Multiply

A Holy Man was once chased far from town by a crowd of a few thousand people, each of whom wanted something different from him:

Health. Purpose. Freedom. Signs. Wonders.

Touched by the weight of their need, he walked among them and healed as many as possible for as long as he could. But that only satisfied a part of the crowd. His apprentices grew concerned: the sun was setting, their location was remote, and, unless they left immediately, all the food sellers would be closed before anyone made it back home.

The Holy Man heard them out, balancing patience with impatience. Had they not heard this story before? He asked if they had any food they could share out, but all they had found was a small stash of bread and fish donated by a little boy:

Five loaves and two little fishes.

Though his apprentices were an often-bumbling bunch, he could tell they were being sincere. But he knew how unlikely it was that – in a crowd of thousands – the only person with any food was one boy. He knew what he had to do, but wished he didn’t: he wished they would all just believe. But people have a need for spectacle.

They need to be fed.

So, he had his apprentices each find a basket. Then he had them calm the crowd down, seating everyone in groups of fifty. And once they were the only ones left standing, he said a prayer of thanks; asking God to bless what the little boy had so selflessly shared. Then he broke each loaf and put a little food in each basket, asking his apprentices to make sure everyone received some. They stared at him, but he smiled and, having learned to trust that smile, they went.

And that’s when the miracle happened:

The baskets went around, those who lacked took and, inspired by the example of a selfless little boy, those who didn’t lack gave. And there was so much that each of the apprentices brought back a full basket. They marvelled, and the people – having each received what they needed – left.

And the Holy Man shook his head and smiled at how these events would end up being told.

>Feature: The Wolves Chasing Our Children

>If someone asked you to name an English word coined by ancient Greek poets from their words for child and friendship; a word which inspired the fables Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs amongst others, you would be forgiven for thinking of something sweet and innocent.

Paedophilia‘ would probably be last on your list of guesses, if it occurred to you at all.

However the word does indeed stem from the ancient Greek words for child (‘pais‘) and friendship (‘philia‘), and whether you realized it or not, you were being warned about sexual predators every time you were tucked into bed as a child with stories of little children being chased for food by wolves and wicked witches.

The abuse of children evokes very strong reactions, even in jail where paedophiles are often sectioned away from other inmates for fear of retribution and death. It would seem that even serial murderers and rapists find the idea of someone abusing children too much to stomach.

Two stories made the headlines last week involving Britons accused of sexually abusing Ghanaian minors. The sad fact of the matter is that their stories represent the tip of a nasty iceberg. Where paedophilia is at least as old as the tales it has inspired, sex tourism is a more recent phenomenon: a negative by-product of the ever-smaller global village we live in today in which cheaper air fares, lightening-fast emails, and instant access to information conspire to bring us ever closer together.

The combination of paedophila and sex tourism is particularly sinister. Beyond the abuse of the trust of the child, it also represents the abuse of the poor by people from wealthier countries. Asian countries (the most prominent of which was once Thailand) used to be their destination of choice. However, with awareness and economic advancement leading to clamp-downs on such activity in that part of the world, another continent has started looking increasingly attractive:

Ours.

If you were in any doubt how easy it is to access African children, cast your mind back to last week’s news story involving Zoe’s Ark, a French charity some members of which are currently being held in Chad pending trial for kidnapping Chadian children and attempting to smuggle them abroad as Sudanese orphans.

Science is still trying to explain paedophilia. Experts suggest that some people suffer a developmental disorder in which they do not stop being attracted to children after their own childhood ends. Others suggest that traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to an over-compensation of love for children, which manifests itself in sexual attraction. These are but two of many explanations though.

While the scientists figure things out, it falls to us be aware and to protect our children; not just our own children but those around us, especially the most disadvantaged as they are more vulnerable to people with big wallets and evil intentions. Parts of Ghana’s tourist industry are already rising to the challenge. Staff at Novotel have, for example, been trained to apply procedures aimed at completely eliminating sexual tourism involving children in line with the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. Anyone interested in finding out more or getting more involved can contact local agencies like the Ghana Working and Children’s Protection Association (GWACPA) and the Ark Foundation, or international groups like UNICEF for information and advice. Of course, the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (formerly WAJU) of the Ghana Police Service can be contacted immediately in critical situations.

If you see something suspicious, say so. Look away too long, on the other hand, and by the time we lift our heads out of the sand, witches and wolves may tell tales of Ghanaian children abroad that will not have fairy tale endings.

Links

Ghana Working and Children’s Protection Association (GWACPA): 021.252.600
The Ark Foundation: 021.511.610
UNICEF: 021.773.583
Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU): 021.662.438

This article was printed two years back in the Sunday World newspaper

>Between the Lines: Ghana vs the Global Economic Meltdown

>The last time I wrote about the global economic meltdown, our media was stuck on the general elections and its aftermath, skipping back and forth like music from a scratched record. Another day, another media obsession. Last week, it was which make of motor vehicle our former leader should spend his post-presidential days driving around in.

Interesting…

… but back in the real world. The global financial crisis remains the single biggest story there is, looming over the African horizon like a slow-but-steadily approaching giant. It is not often one gets the chance to revisit a topic so soon in a column, but so much has been written and said about the downturn since I wrote ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Downturn?’ that the topic warrants a second look. It has been very hard to make sense of it all though.

Take, for example, last week’s declaration of confidence in Ghana’s economy from 519 Ghanaian CEOs from all ten regions, according to the Association of Ghana Industries’ (AGI) most recent Business Climate Survey. With an optimism so boundless that it cut across all sectors of the economy – especially finance, banking and insurance, and agriculture – our business leaders have spoken and, like Americans voting for Obama, they have chosen hope over fear.

Looking at agriculture, perhaps their confidence is justified. Agriculture aimed at domestic markets is less exposed to the international economic climate. Sales of Fairtrade products in the UK too continue to grow in spite of the recession, which is probably why Cadbury announced last week that it would triple the amount of Fairtrade cocoa it buys from Ghana paying a guaranteed minimum price even if it rises above the open market price for cocoa.

Our banks too have few investments, if any, in the problematic financial assets behind the global crisis. If there is anything to be fearful of, the business executives surveyed by the AGI ranked inflation as the biggest, followed by high costs of credit and high taxation levels.

On the same day the AGI report came out, Reuters was reporting that Ghanaian inflation rates had surged by 20% to their highest peak since 2004 and the Ghanaian Cedi had lost more than 30% of its value to the dollar in the past year, on account of widening budget and current account deficits. Just one week before that, the international ratings agency Fitch revised its rating of our economic outlook from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’.

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit ended last year by including Ghana on its list of the world’s fastest growing economies, predicting that Sub-Saharan Africa will perform better than other emerging regions. Last week however, we had the World Bank’s Vice-President for Africa, Ms. Obiagelli Katryn Ezekwesili, stopping by the Castle to warn President Mills and all Ghanaian people to brace ourselves. Her message in a nutshell? The worst is yet to come.

Ezekwesili predicted that the Mills administration would have considerable difficulty implementing its budgetary projections on account of a reduction in the otherwise massive sums of money that pour into Ghana from wealthier economies. As if to underline the seriousness of her prediction, the World Bank – not usually so free with its wallet – announced that it would loan Ghana up to 1.2 billion interest free dollars over the next three years to help to buffer different sectors of our economy from the crisis, accelerating an immediate payment of 250 million dollars from Ghana’s allocation within the Bank.

Breathtaking stuff.

However, Ezekwesili cautioned that the bank’s assistance would be predicated on a number of economic factors including far-reaching budgetary reforms. Maybe I’m wrong, but that has a strong whiff of conditionality about it and is now really the time for the Western-lead World Bank to be preaching conditionality when they so royally screwed up the world’s economic system? I think not. As South African Finance Minister recently put it, “If an African country would have been the cause of the crisis, the IMF would have been at you like a tonne of bricks.”

As it were, the IMF was busy last week convening a summit of Africa’s Finance Ministers in Tanzania (from where Manuel spoke). According to the IMF’s Managing Director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (popularly known as known ‘DSK’ and not to be mistaken for a Western corporate fat cat), the African economy would indeed buck global economic trends and grow… but only by 3%.

I am not as good with figures as I try to be with words but one BBC correspondent put this all in a context that even I could understand:

… suppose the population of the region continues to grow at 2.4%, as it did in 2007. [Then] with economic growth of 3% it would take 118 years to double output per person. At 6% economic growth it would take 20 years. At 9% – the kind of performance China has achieved in recent years – it would take just 11 years.

In summary, 3% growth will not do much to help the African on the street for a long, long time to come.

It is a crime that, in spite of our collective efforts as a nation to move our economy forward over the past decade or so, a crisis that we had no hand in causing looks set to derail us. It is a very good thing that we are not due to produce oil for another three years. Demand for exports and industrial commodities is currently falling faster than fufu down the throat of a Ghanaian CEO in a chopbar. China predicts that things will pick up by 2010 but anything could happen over the next few months: no one really knows. In the meantime, we can at least import crude oil down from the ridiculous peaks it hit last July. Hopefully, this means that fuel prices in Ghana will fall (but I doubt it, President Mills. Hmm?)

For all of the schizophrenia in the media about our prospects, our country and our continent remain the world’s last real land of opportunity. It is even possible that growth here is what will rekindle growth elsewhere in the world, something that should be of inspiration to our super-rich, our mega-poor and to all the people in-between.

Things are indeed going to be tough, but – to use the popular pidgin words of wisdom – “wettin Ghanaians no see before?

>Feature: Waiting for Bono

>An African traveling abroad would be surprised by how his or her continent is seen by others, a “scar on the conscience of the world” as Tony Blair once famously put it. We do not smile much here, apparently. No: we are too busy razing villages to the ground, putting guns into the hands of children with big innocent eyes and bigger bellies around which swarm flies of the ‘house’ and ‘tsetse’ varieties. We spend our nights singing and dancing against colorfully sunlit backdrops, spreading disease through sweaty, primal sex, or with help from mosquitoes, who swarm around the swamps and safaris where our rich wildlife is to be found. Did I miss anything? Oh, of course: we are waiting. Africa is waiting for enlightened and well-intentioned Western talk show hosts, musicians, actresses, NGO workers, retiring statesmen, and philanthropists to come and save us.

Mostly from ourselves.

Obviously this is not the entire picture. There has come to be such a thing as a middle-class African. The ‘middle African’ is underrepresented in literature and commentary on Africa though. Perhaps he or she is an embarrassment. Having relative wealth on a continent where most people are poor is perhaps not a thing to be celebrated. Never mind the fact that most middle Africans started out poor and worked their way up: the ‘African Dream,’ if you will. Instead Africa is depicted as a basket case into which aid is poured and largely lost. Africa needs saving… and we are apparently not the ones to do it.

Last weekend, I attended a memorial where the deceased’s family announced that they would construct new Class One and Two blocks for pupils at the primary school that the deceased attended as a child. It was a simple, beautiful gesture in that it went beyond the usual donation to extended family members that represents most social philanthropy here in Ghana. The extended family system is probably the closest thing we have to a welfare state here: an institution with wide responsibilities towards the poor. Some churches also make important charitable contributions but many are less interested in solving the suffering in their surroundings than they are about keeping congregation members who drive from far away content. I think it is distasteful that churches can be erected in residential areas and show no concern for people who live in those areas, but that is another topic for another day. Going back to the extended family, people often complain about ebusuasem but it would be worth keeping in mind parts of the Horn of Africa where the system is so dominant that family members have strict obligations to contribute money as soon as it is needed and to house any extended family member who shows up on their doorstep, even while abroad. We have it good here.

Money sent home by family members abroad outstrips into insignificance the amount of aid sent year by year by foreign donors. However, putting remittances aside, what about acts of philanthropy from wealthier Ghanaians living right here in Ghana?

When floods recently hit the North, it was interesting to see television spots asking for money from ordinary Ghanaians. I wondered who would heed the call. The vast mass of people here are indeed very poor. Everyday I find myself in awe of African entrepreneurship and resourcefulness: the things that ordinary people do to get by. How people live on the little that they earn. I can only imagine an expansive system of credit where people fluctuate between being poor and less poor: whoever finds him or herself less poor at any moment in time lends money to someone poorer until their situations reverse; a system bolstered by gifts or loans from wealthier extended family members. Perhaps taking an overdue cue from the mobile phone industry, banks that were once exclusively obsessed with chasing the wealthy have woken up to the fact that there is money to be made from the poor, and are now falling over themselves to learn how to talk that sweet microfinancing talk. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing, but the credit industry is about to explode here, and Unique Trust is only the beginning.

Fast becoming an adage as wise as any ancient proverb, “African solutions to African problems” makes a lot of sense. Whatever people’s good intentions (and dodgy perceptions) are on the outside, ultimately we are our own responsibility and if we are ever going to spread our wings, it will come from encouraging the African entrepreneurial spirit. Not from buying into other people’s perceptions that it does not exist.

In real terms this means things like blocking the bureaucracy and bribery it takes to start and maintain businesses here; fighting for fairer international trade rights; celebrating successful businessmen and women instead of always attributing their achievements to drug smuggling, corruption and witchcraft. In the run up to the general elections, we must look out for leaders who preach these messages and can demonstrate that they mean it. Leadership aside though, there are simple things we can each do like supporting local products over imported goods, and – in line with the spirit of the Christmas season – giving. It’s a struggle with no easy way out, but in the long run, as a nation and a continent, we must learn to rely less on aid than we do on our ability to save ourselves.

Forget about making poverty history. Let’s make Africans rich.

This article was printed in Sunday World on November 11, 2008

>Between the Lines: Waris Dirie

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The first time I interviewed anyone, it was the model Waris Dirie. The venue was the BMG building just off Time Square; all lights, bustle and money, money, money. We must have been close to the top floor; the view across the New York night skyline was incredible and I couldn’t help but wonder how many times music executives like Sean Combs had been up here in and out of business meetings with their bosses.

Tonight however was to be a night of pleasure, a function organised by the NGO Equality Now celebrating the lifetime contributions of Gloria Steinem and my mother, Efua Dorkenoo, to the pursuit of women’s rights. I was surrounded by some of the hardest working people in human rights today but being the superficial boy I was at heart, I was soon scanning the room urgently in search of something, anything to look at:

Sorry.

She walked in and caught my eye immediately. Wearing loose brown trousers, a figure-hugging white cotton blouse, a yellow silk scarf tied sideways around her neck and a purple straw hat, you could tell the lady had a way around a wardrobe. I tried catching a glimpse of her face from under the shadow of her hat. As I did I was immediately struck by the experience betrayed there and for a split-second I wondered if she was as young as she seemed. Later on we were introduced and, along with my brother and the poet Sarah Jones, we chatted until the night came to a close. As people started saying their goodbyes, she turned to me and gave me the warmest hug. When I asked her if it was an East African thing, she looked at me and smiled. “No” she corrected me; “it’s an African thing”. That was my first time meeting Waris.

Meeting her again was all sorts of drama. A fashion shoot clashed with a previous engagement. Then her favourite Turkish baths were all booked up. Eventually she invited my family to her Brooklyn apartment, promising to cook us up a storm. Inside, the paint, ladders and cloth over furniture said she had just moved in but you could already tell how simply she was going to decorate the place. No marble floors, gold taps and encased enlargements of photos from old fashion shoots. Just plenty of books, shoes, some African art and a box of CDs lying in the corner on the wooden floor. Most might think that this is simple living for a supermodel but Waris’ background is not like that of most of her colleagues.

Born into a tribe of nomadic Somalian herders, she spent the first years of her life moving from place to place in the desert- a far cry from life in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Ask Waris when her birthday is and she will tell you she doesn’t know exactly. It was more efficient for her people to base their movements and daily lives around the seasons and activity of the Sun, crucial factors behind the growth of plant-life the herds needed to graze on. Daily life, she says, was hard. As a little girl she “had to build pens, milk the cattle and lead over sixty sheep and goats out into the desert everyday to graze”. Around the age of thirteen she left her family for the first time, running away barefoot to Mogadishu to avoid being married off by her father. Living with family there she worked as a servant and a construction worker before grabbing an opportunity to be a maidservant for her uncle-in-law, the Somali ambassador in London.

Arriving in London she had no knowledge of English and was too busy working to find any time to learn. It was in performing one of her tasks, taking her young niece to school, that a photographer whom she thought of as “this strange man who would stare at me all the time” spotted her. He one day gave her his card and a few years later, when her uncle’s term had come to an end and she was out of a job, she went to see him. He was a photographer and the photo he took of her was to be her first in a career starting with appearances in music videos and leading eventually to Revlon adverts alongside Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. To date Waris has graced the covers of most if not all of the big fashion magazines and her biography ‘Desert Flower’ has been a bestseller in bookstores the world over. This desert girl has come a long way.

I asked her what life is like being an African in the modelling business and whether other African models she met were competitive or warm towards her. “When you are out there and you meet different people, you’ll quickly know who is African and who isn’t. There’s a warmth and a vibe around them, and when we see each other we say hi and all that, it’s just different. To be black in this industry is to be the future. We have a new look and everyone is tired of seeing the same old faces. We are the future, just like in music”.

I had gone through her CD box earlier to find a pretty impressive collection. Starting us off with the Gypsy Kings, by the time the food was ready we were listening to Zap Mama and D’Angelo. She described music as being ‘like water and breathe to her’, so I asked her if she would ever consider singing, like Naomi did some years back. She starts laughing.

“I would love to be Sade! They don’t play that kind of music on TV anymore” she laments. “It’s all so mainstream. It would be nice to have  a channel playing music from the world over. I’d do it myself if I could. I’d love to do a TV show”. I ask if she’s serious. “Yeah, that would be wicked! You just watch. One of these days I am going to come to London and do a TV show. Maybe some acting too. As long as I have control”.

Control is something very important to Waris and it comes up in our conversation again and again. Lack of control over what she is doing is something she says will eventually lead her away from fashion and modelling. I point out that earning enough money to lead a comfortable semi-bohemian lifestyle in a new Brooklyn apartment can’t be such a bad thing, to which she responds that she doesn’t really like it in New York. “I find it too fast, too superficial, there is something selfish about the place. I would love to move to London… Brixton, yeah… or somewhere simple in North London. I remember London. I used to be on one of the train-routes all the time,  the grey one… yeah, the Jubilee Line”. She recounts to me the experience of being stalked all the way home by an insistent admirer she bumped into on the line once, before she became a model: “Anonymity would not be a bad thing”. When I ask her if there is anywhere in the world she would like to go to that her career has not yet taken her, she replies without hesitating, “Thailand. It looks so beautiful and very natural. I love nature and animals. I grew up around it. It reminds me of home”.

Somalia is in the news. A famine is sweeping across the horn of Africa and many thousands of people are dying. I ask her if she ever thinks of going back, perhaps to give her four-year-old son, Aleeke (asleep in the next room), a taste of home.

“I feel so helpless (about the famine), like I should be there. I do want to go back… although I have been warned that I could be kidnapped and maybe even killed”. Waris has suffered something known as female circumcision, or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), that is practised not just in parts of Africa but across the world including the West. In one of its worse forms, young girls are forced to undergo gruesome coming-of-age ceremonies in which parts of their external genitalia, including the clitoris, are cut out (using a sharp, hot stone or a knife); vaginas sewn up leaving a small hole through which to urinate. Some years ago an operation took away a lot of the pain, but the damage is irreparable and Waris will never be able to truly appreciate the pleasures of sex.

Today she is a Special Ambassador for the United Nation, and the face of its campaign against FGM. She says the response has been nothing short of inspiring, “… nothing but love. I have received letters from so many people thanking me for speaking out about it”.

On the other hand there are those who displeased by her candour. Hers are a very private people and even those who agree that FGM is a malpractice feel that she should not air their dirty linen in public: “I am not ashamed about it and I am not ashamed to speak about it, though some others are” she says exasperated. “Besides the ones talking are usually men and they can’t know what they are talking about because they are not the ones who have to feel it”.

I wondered what she thought about men on the whole. She smiled at me and said “I just don’t have time for men right now. Sorry… maybe later!”. She paused for a second, and then she laughed. I reckoned she was bluffing, but the meal was ready. It smelled great:

The interview was over.

>Between the Lines: Valentines in Technicolour

>I was once standing in line at London cinema with a recently-married friend I had not seen since her return from honeymooning in her native South Africa. The African behind the counter was all smiles as my friend bought her ticket. Then he was hit by a bad and sudden case of constipation. Or maybe he found my attempt to offer him money in return for a cinema ticket offensive. I could not figure out what the problem was and so I took the ticket, shuffled into the cinema with my friend and enjoyed the movie. Afterwards I saw the same man looking at me, gossiping with his colleagues, and as my friend and I walked past them towards the exit I picked up the words ‘sell-out’. Only then did it occur to me that I was being judged because my friend, in case you had not guessed it by now, was white.

Interracial relationships can be sensitive things. Black women in particular have huge problems with the idea, regularly hurling abuse at black male Hollywood icons with spouses of any colour besides black. Whenever I ask for the reason for all the neck-snapping, I hear arguments along the lines of:

a)    There being too many beautiful and intelligent black women around to justify seeing white women;
b)    Diluting the strength of the black gene pool;
c)    Black men feeling inferior about their race; and
d)    Creating mixed-race children who will grow up to be confused about their identities

My girlfriend is Ghanaian with a dash of Dutch and a whole lot of African American thrown into the mix. I am very much in love with her and will one day… well you can probably guess the rest so I will spare you the details. The interracial thing got me thinking though: would I feel the same way towards my girlfriend if she was not African?

I am not a womanizer – I swear – but I have dated women of different races, colours, religions and nationalities in my time. My family still call me ‘Kofi Annan’ and the nickname has nothing at all to do with my diplomacy skills. I date whoever I connect with, whatever their colour, and it is with a straight face that I tell you that I had feelings for each girlfriend I ever had, black or otherwise. So here’s my cedis’s worth on each of the arguments above:

Too Many (Beautiful and Intelligent) Black Women
This is true. I DJ, a hobby that connects me new people all the time, several of whom are beautiful, black, female and really, really smart. To expect that beauty and intelligence are all it takes for two people to connect though would be like having your parents introduce you to some random person from up the street and think that you should bond because you share a street name in common. Race might give you some shared experiences but even that depends on where you come from and who you are.

I once went out with a Greek girl and I always felt conscious of people looking at us when we walked or sat down in public, hand in hand. Maybe it was my imagination. We had a lot in common but our relationship did not last very long. True: her mother did not like me, but in the end it boiled down to her wariness of black men. She felt that black men viewed white women as being easy. Try as I might to persuade her that I wanted her for more than her body, that insecurity festered in the back of her mind so persistently that I eventually gave up on the relationship. The issue was as much one of race as it was one of trust, something just as important in a relationship. Would such an issue have arisen if she had been black? Perhaps not. On the other hand though, all women have reason to be insecure that a guy is only interested in their bodies. In this instance my ex decided to shade her reasoning in race. For a black woman, it would might have been shaded in black male infidelity.

Same difference.

Inferiority and Diluting the Strength of the Black Gene Pool
The argument here is two-fold: the black gene is a dominant gene and by procreating with white women, black men are letting the race down and creating weaker children. Furthermore they date ‘away’ in the first place because they feel inferior about their race.

The ‘black’ gene is dominant in terms of colour but that’s about it. Black children are not automatically born stronger and taller. Some black people from some places are really tall, some are stronger or faster than the average Joe; some have rhythm, some can dance, some are well-hung… some are not and some cannot

Let us please not dignify the same kind of eugenic thinking as the Nazis did: Jesse Owens already disproved all of that. If anything racial ‘purity’ results in limited gene pools and inherited illnesses of the kind that plagued the royal families of Europe.

As for inferiority, I concede that there are some black men who have the bizarre tendency to think better of themselves because they are dating white women. That said I refuse to think that EVERY black man who goes out with a white woman is a victim of that. Maybe a black man who goes out with only white women, or a black man who dates white women but screams “Dolly-Anne!” or some other Country-and-Western-sounding name whenever he has lays down with his girlfriend (whose name is actually Akosua), but surely not every black man.

For some people blackness is the thing above all else by which they define themselves and so it would be hard for them to date someone who has not been through exactly the same experience: I dig that. However there are other black people for whom blackness is an important part of a whole that is defined by more than skin tone. Identity-wise I am African before I am black and black before I am British, and I would date a non-Ashanti Ghanaian girl, an African who is not black, a black girl who is not immediately African, and a British girl who is not black. It really depends on the girl and on what levels we click.

The Children
When black men in Britain marry English women, they are usually outnumbered by there being more members of her family being around than there are Africans. They sometimes begin kowtowing to her family and their way of life, leaving the children to be raised by the norms of a white society that will eventually label the children black. This can understandably cause the kids some confusion.

I know a Nigerian-English girl whose Nigerian father banned his English wife from taking their children with her to a group of English wives in Nigeria because he felt that in such a club, his children might think of themselves as something other than Nigerian. For him, it was important that his children learnt to understand and embrace their Nigerian side, if only because it would anchor them later when they encounter their English side. Take Tiger Woods. When asked about his ethnicity, he famously explained that he is not black, but rather he is both black and Asian. In doing so, he was acknowledging that his Asian mother, her family and her values also had a role in the development of his sense of identity. Barack Obama won the American presidency on a similar platform.

One thing against interracial dating is that a relationship is hard enough without adding further problems. Isn’t that the kind of thing we should fight if we want to see Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ come to more fruition beyond just Obama? People of different races who are genuinely into one another deserve our support, not our criticism.

So would I feel the same way towards my girlfriend if she wasn’t African? Probably not: if she had not been raised an African she would probably have gone through different experiences that would probably have resulted in her becoming a very different person.

Yet it is both naïve and depressing to assume that two people should have a better chance at a successful relationship simply because they are both black. In thinking that way, we are viewing ourselves exactly as those who hate us see us: as one indistinguishable mass of people who are all the same.

Clearly, we are not.

>Feature: Living for the Dead

>I recently saw a comedy in which two women-obsessed protagonists paid a visit to their mentor, only to find that he had given up gatecrashing weddings (to chat up women) in favor of crashing funerals. As he put it, “grief is nature’s most powerful aphrodisiac.” While I laughed at the character’s sheer sleaziness, it occurred to me that ‘funeral crashing’ is not such a laughing matter in here in Ghana. In fact, it is probably the norm.

Death is Ghana’s national pastime and Ghanaians spend most weekends of the year drifting from one funeral to another. Where the West has its ‘Wedding Planners’, Ghana has ‘Funeral Contractors’: people who are paid to take care of everything from the announcement of a late loved one’s ‘Calling to Glory’ (or ‘Transition’ or ‘Home Calling’) to the hiring of ‘professional mourners’ to wail more loudly than everyone else at the burial.

In a way, it is very beautiful; something linking us to a cultural past that we have otherwise forgotten. It is a profoundly African thing to venerate one’s elders, and crossing over into the world of the ancestors once inspired the Pharoahs to have the Pyramids built to house their mummified bodies and focus their energies towards the skies; pyramids that people dedicated (and lost) their lives towards building. Funerals are part of the very fabric of African society as a whole. More so than weddings and births, they bring extended families together, pulling people in over air and sea to share in each other’s grief and be there for each other. If you are ever to bump into family members you never knew you had, chances are that you will do so at a funeral.

Sadly, there is a dark side to our obsession with the Dead. It is surprising that the people of a nation still emerging from being a ‘Highly Indebted Poor Country’ should spend so much on death. Bodies can lie in morgues for months amassing debt while loans are secured to finance funerals far more elaborate than they are reflective of the lives of the deceased. At the funeral of the late MP, Ms. Hawa Yakubu, the Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra – Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle – expressed concern about our funerary culture, saying that “Funerals have become extremely extravagant… It is insensitive to the plight of the bereaved families.”

The matter has even been debated in Parliament, prompting Minority Leader Alban Bagbin to complain that “we are investing in the dead rather than the living through expensive funerals.” After spending money on thirteen different mourning cloths in one year, the Honourable MP for Ashiaman, Mr. Alfred Agbesi, went as far as to suggest the introduction of one cloth for all funerals, arguing that “after spending on expensive cloths, coffins and keeping the corpse in expensive morgues, the widow and children are left with nothing and are expected to fend for themselves.”

Ghanaians have become very good at celebrating each other’s religious holidays, but perhaps notes should be exchanged between the nation’s two biggest religions on conducting funerals as well. Muslim tradition holds that the dead must be wrapped in white and buried after a maximum of three days. Biblical ambiguity over the matter however appears to have given Ghanaian Christians more creative license than they can handle.

Surely a funeral should be a simple, heartfelt celebration of a person’s life by people who knew and loved that person; not a symbol of status where far more wealth is spent on a person than they ever received in life.

This article was printed in Sunday World newspaper on November 4, 2008

>Between the Lines: Hating Qaddafi

>Earlier this week, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi probably picked up an expensive-looking pen and drew a fresh line of ink through yet another item on his bucket list:

#1234: Rehabilitate my image in the West
#1235: Get crowned King of Kings… (or at least King of all African Kings)
#1236: Become leader of the African continent (or at least AU chairman)

#1236: Unite the African continent

When I reported on Qaddafi being ‘crowned’ African Union chairman early last week, my blog was flooded with more comments than I will admit to being used to, and the verdict on his AU chairmanship was as split down the middle as a Ghanaian first-round election result. On the one hand are those who think that Qaddafi’s chairmanship will give much-needed momentum to the realization of African unity that the African Union is supposed to be moving towards (whatever form that unity eventually takes). On the other hand though are those whose opinions of the man run the gamut from mild distrust to utter disgust.

One friend pointed out to me Qaddafi’s responsibility for the death of a number of her family friends. Libya’s human rights record indeed remains somewhat dismal to this day. Others accuse him of sponsoring wars the continent over, and look to his shoddy human rights record, his schizophrenia over being Arab or African, and the gulf between his lofty pan-Africanism and the treatment of black African immigrants in his own country. Stories haunt newsrooms here of Ghanaians being mistreated there. As recently as last month, two Ghanaians were executed for murder there – another remaining on death row – after former President Kuffuor was unable to secure their release through diplomatic channels.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Richard Dowden – director of the UK’s Royal African Society – offered another perspective: that Qaddafi’s AU chairmanship “… says a lot about what African leaders think of the African Union. It was hoped that it would give great new leadership to Africa, create a sense of pan-Africanism even if they were not going to unite politically… it has got all these aspirations to be a club of democrats [but Gaddafi] is a man who has been a dictator for 40 years.”

As Qaddafi himself once famously put it, “revolutionaries do not retire” (words no doubt sweet to a certain former Ghanaian revolutionary leader’s ears). Whether or not this is so, the self-proclaimed ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution’ clearly has many more people to persuade of just how brotherly his revolution really is.

The African problem with Qaddafi extends as far back as the Seventies. It may come as a surprise to many that Libya was one of the founding members of the OAU in 1963. After the 1969 coup that brought him to power though, Qaddafi had pan-Islamist ideas and was interested in the uniting of Arab nations. To that end he not only called for the creation of a Saharan Islamic state – trying (and failing) to set up first a Libyan-Egyptian-Syrian superstate and then a merged territory with Tunisia – but also underlined his unfriendliness towards sub-Saharan African leaders by offering resources and support to any movement that approached him with an anti-government cause and an empty bank account.

To be fair to him, many sub-Saharan African leaders at the time were not worth defending. Qaddafi’s largesse however extended to almost any minority or left-leaning political group at the time. He offered support to both Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid African National Congress and to the Irish Republican Army (IRA); to ‘Lula’ da Silva (yes: he who is now Brazilian president) and to paramilitaries in Nicaragua; to Namibia’s SWAPO, and to Taylor in Liberia and Sanko in Sierra Leone. Today, he is still rumoured to sponsor rebel movements in Darfur, Cote D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. As diplomatic relations with Tunisia and Egypt (the latter by then a friend of Israel) evaporated, he even began sponsoring subversive activities in other Arab countries.

Come the Lockerbie bombings, after which the world reached the end of its collective patience with Qaddafi and imposed economic sanctions and a diplomatic blackout on Libya, it would take the intervention of two Africans – Nelson Mandela and our own Kofi Annan – to open Qaddafi’s fist (as Obama might put it), leading to the beginning of Qaddafi’s rehabilitation within the international community.

Qaddafi had already thrown his (often unwelcome) weight behind pan-Africanism by this time and (contrary to the perception that he changes his mind between being Arab and being African – which are not in fact mutually exclusive) he has been fairly consistent ever since. He has shown African leadership before, personally financing and convening the session that would lead to the Sirte Declaration in September 1999 (Sirte being where Qaddafi was born) calling for the establishment of a more effective African Union to replace the OAU. The latter had already become known in international circles as the ‘Dictators Club’.

Qaddafi has since been arguably the strongest advocate in the Union for the realization of a number of pan-Africanist dreams: a single African military force, one currency and a single passport to facilitate free movement of Africans all over the continent. (In response to this someone commented on my blog saying, “Of course the guy would advocate for a unitary passport for Africa: how else would he move his fleet of Hummers from his tent on the dessert to Jo’burg…”)

In a sign of the kind of acceleration that Qaddafi has in mind, the AU is already putting in place new structures that, while not taking away sovereignty from member states, may mark the start of that very process. In Qaddafi’s own words:

It is a government of the union. It is an authority, a government. There will be secretaries … coordinators for various policies, like defense and foreign affairs and defense policies and foreign policies that are divergent and we will coordinate everything and our defense policies for Africa.

It is perhaps fitting that this should begin one hundred years after the birth of a man who dreamed a similar dream. Qaddafi appears to have tapped into Nkrumah’s ability to dream big, both when it came to pan-Arabism and now with pushing forward the pan-Africanist agenda. Qaddafi is however not Kwame Nkrumah. While Nkrumah certainly had his fair share of flaws, Qaddafi has a history far more chequered to undo and as a Ghanaian I hope that simultaneously improving human rights and Ghanaian-Libyan relations makes his bucket list.

Making the African Union work towards genuine unity would also be a good start though.

>Between the Lines: Kufuor Lies in the Eye of the Beholder

>It always amazes me how just how different the same thing can look depending on your point of view. I have been having these fascinating telephone conversations with my mother since I moved back to Ghana three years ago. Travelling to London to study in the Sixties, my mother has since spent most of her time abroad – first in London, then Geneva, Cape Town and back to London – in a lifetime dedicated to improving the lives and health of women and children, for which she has won awards galore. She leads too busy a life to come home as often as she would like to and so when I moved here, it was inevitable that we would begin comparing notes.

My mother’s viewpoint on the state of Ghana is considerably more pessimistic than mine. She cannot see past the pot bellies she sees protruding before corrupt African politicians doing the rounds in the British press. Corruption and stagnancy no doubt remain rife in this little country of ours, but I interact with too many good people dedicated to improving things here to be completely pessimistic. Even if it moves at a snail’s pace, progress still lives here.

Judging by the media coverage we receive abroad, our friends abroad are even more optimistic than I am about Ghana’s prospects. We started out pretty well with our early escape from colonialism. After Nkrumah though, we descended into what I call ‘the Lost Years’. Coup. Republic. Coup. Coup. Coup. Republic. Coup… You get the picture. To the international eye, we were indistinguishable from all the other countries going up in smoke across the continent. I remember the exact moment when our fortunes changed though and Ghana stood apart from its neighbours again. It was after Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari put two goals at the back of World Cup net.

Seriously.

I am not the biggest football fan in the world, but I was in a Ghanaian-owned bar in Britain at the time and, before the match, I and a room full of fellow Diasporeans listened with annoyance as the commentators kept on referring to our boys as “the Africans”, barely wasting their breath on explaining the impossibility of an African win over the Czechs. They ate humble pie that day and thereafter, even the most uninformed Brit knew where Ghana was on the map.

After the World Cup came Ghana@50 and we found ourselves on the cover of magazines from Focus on Africa to The Economist and even Time. We hosted every conference imaginable, discovered oil off our shoreline, came close to winning the African Cup of Nations, had former President Bush visit us (and apparently not give a damn about our oil) and then came the high drama of our recent elections. With that much to report on, the foreign press feted us. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of its Zimbabwe coverage they gave up to cover the election and its aftermath. Fellow Ghanaians rejoice, for we became that rare thing: a positive African story. To be exact, we were an island in a region of instability, led by our soon-to-be former ‘Gentle Giant’, John Agyekum Kufuor.

Oh, how they loved our John.

To many a Ghanaian today, Kufuor’s name evokes mixed feelings but, even after an African Union chairmanship that failed to bring about Nkrumah’s dream of African unity and his failure to bring peace to post-election Kenya (where I am reliably informed he is revered as something close to a saint), Kufuor was the belle of the international ball and the suitors duly swarmed. In an article by their West Africa correspondent last week, Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk described Kufuor as having “halved the level of poverty and increased the number of children by almost a quarter… a rare African leader who fought corruption in his government and retired without challenging his country’s constitutional two-term limit”. My internet connection is so slow that, before his picture loaded up on my screen, I am sure I read something like ‘a Good Man in Africa’ written in the picture’s space. With awards from Liberia and Chatham House under his belt – in addition to being Time’s 41st most influential man in the world – a highly lucrative post-Presidential career seemed a shoo-in.

While some were pretty peeved with the Presidential Awards last year – not least Kufuor’s own – and it raised a few international eyebrows, scoring a story on the BBC World News website for example, those very same brows fell as soon as it became clear that he would indeed step down as President at the end of his second term, something sadly rare on our continent. He carried himself quite well through the elections but the first sign of trouble was the controversy surrounding the extravagant scale and cost of renovating the-House-formerly-known-as-Flagstaff. I realized that the story had escaped our borders when, after watching the BBC news that morning, my Nigerian friend in London felt compelled to send me a text to say that he “thought that Ghanaians were better than that”. Internationally speaking, Kufuor’s reputation remained close to Clinton-like non-stick Teflon though and thereafter, Ghana stayed off the international news wires until the extensive attention given to our successful elections, from the heated run-offs all the way through to Kufuor’s last day and his controversial pardons and pay raises. Tsatsu, it seems, was not that internationally important but Kufuor’s pardon of former First Lady Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings made a couple of international headlines.

Then came last week.

A colleague of mine suspects that the Chinery-Hesse Committee were anticipating some haggling and so they came up with what they knew was an unreasonable list of gratia demands. Unfortunately – according to the theory – our Parliamentarians were in so much haste to safeguard their own packages that they dropped the ball, letting both the Committee and the people of Ghana down. Minus points, Parliamentarians.

Whether or not he played a role in it (and I am playing Devil’s Advocate here), internationally speaking the egg seems to have landed in the former President’s face. I was (again) surprised when I saw the story pop up on both the BBC and VOA websites, but when it made BBC World’s television news the following morning, I knew there was trouble. Ghana is still doing fine. Kufuor, for the first time though, is not and having surrogates ask for a few less cars is probably not going to wash. Not at home anyway.

Whatever the outcome, to the international community, it is only another disappointing African story. It did not even register on the Guardian or Independent websites, usually relatively good at reporting on Africa. If Kufuor’s post-Presidential employability dries up then we will know that the international community sees things through the same lens that most Ghanaians probably do right now. Somehow I doubt it though. If Obasanjo can get a UN job after his shambles-of-an-outgoing-election, then I doubt that Kufuor will lose much sleep over this. The story will become little more than fodder for conversations with my mother.

Except, this time, the foreign press she follows will describe a Good Man in Africa, while I am the one joining my fellow Ghanaians in scrutinizing the ex-Presidential belt size.