Tag Archives: ghana

Ghana’s Trailblazing University

16 May

My latest story for the African Courier is now online right here.

Upcoming feature in The African Courier

2 Dec

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Pleased to announce that my feature about the University of Development Studies, ‘Proudly Pro-Poor’ will be appearing in the December-January edition of the African Courier.

Watch this space, or spaces like it: http://www.theafricancourier.de/

Interesting Developments: Northern Ghana

15 Sep

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During my recent trip to West Africa, I visited three of the campuses of the University for Development Studies in Ghana. My first stop was its hot and dry headquarters near Tamale, where the Director, Gordana Kranjac-Berisaljevic, told me exactly how, since 1992, UDS has been helping the rural poor of northern Ghana. Their range of projects is remarkable: from setting up and running agrobusinesses to recycling plastics, from building dams to spreading literacy through theatrical performances, from preserving water resources to educating parents about the value of keeping their children in school.

The next morning we drove to Nyampala, a nearby village around which the Faculty of Agriculture has been built. On the roadside, women carrying trays of mangoes on their heads were faintly visible through the crimson clouds of dust whipped up by long-gone lorries. Roaming the green and floral campus were sheep and cattle belonging to UDS’s farm, meat factory and animal science department. Solar panels and rows of organic crops indicated UDS’s commitment to environmentalism.

There was just time for me to go on a walking safari of Mole National Park, which comprises 5,000 sq km of beguiling savanna. Of the 93 mammal species resident there, I was able to get bizarrely close to elephants, water buffalo, bushbucks, baboons and patas monkeys.

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We drove out of Mole along the jagged dirt road as the sun went down and the rain began to thrash the car. We almost got stuck in the mud several times, but eventually made it to Wa, perhaps the least-developed city in all Ghana. The Dean-in-Charge of that campus, Professor Bacho, told me that, while UDS has ‘a lot of links with Canadian, US, German, Dutch and Asian universities, Britain hasn’t shown much interest.’ For that reason, Professor Bacho cordially invites more British students to come to Ghana and work with UDS.

Press contacts
Gordana Kranjac-Berisaljevic: novagordanak@gmail.com

Mole National Park: info@molemotelgh.com

Photographs by C.A.R.

(Originally published on http://www.bgtw.org/)

Pan-African Lucozade (Ghana 06/08/13)

6 Aug

Having agreed to write a story about the University for Development Studies, I was driven to all three of their northern campuses to take pictures and interview important people. The Director, a friendly and fast-talking Serb called Gordana Kranjac-Berisaljevic, told me about the challenges facing the rural communities UDS supports. Flooding, bad sanitation, child labour, disease and illiteracy are just some of the problems that have been caused by north Ghana’s historic underdevelopment by both colonial and post-colonial governments. Until now, the political class hasn’t much cared about the plight of northerners because the country’s natural wealth – oil, gold, coffee, cocoa – has always been located in the south.

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At Nyampala, a campus deep in the savannah that is essentially an extension to a village that UDS is trying to lift out of poverty, I interviewed an earnest PhD student who was advising farmers not to use human faeces for fertiliser and “grey water” (sewage) to grow their vegetables. Nyampala also has its own slaughterhouse and meat factory which, mercifully, I wasn’t obliged to see in action.

After I’d done the necessary research, a Professor of Agrobusiness kindly drove me to Mole National Park. If I were to tell you that I had been on a “walking safari” in an environment where dangerous animals roam free, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d lost my mind. However, at Mole, most of the dangerous animals are also quite tame, but if they turn out not to be, your guide is armed with an old Lee Enfield rifle, so you at least have a sporting chance of not getting eaten, poisoned or crushed. Thus I was able to get relatively up close and personal to an elephant, six buffalo (a record this year, I’m told), and various baboons, antelopes and bush bucks.

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From Mole I took the bus to Kumasi, the leafy capital of the Ashanti region. By sheer fluke, when I went to the palace of the King of the Ashantis, I saw the King of the Ashantis himself, being carried around in his throne while men played the bongos and this fine-sounding bassy instrument whose name I haven’t been able to find out:

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The King’s subjects queued up to give him tributes of sheep, cake and bottles of Schnapps, a custom that goes back to the earliest European interactions with the tribe. I became quite intimidated as the speed and volume of the music rose and the enthusiasm of the crowd turned almost aggressive. After all, they regard their king as a kind of deity. Although there were other Westerners present, I got the sense that this was a private ritual to which outsiders were not really invited and were not expected to understand.

That evening I went to a “spot” or open-air bar. I was approached by Richard, an Ashanti tribesman who was swigging from a can of Lucozade. (Lucozade, baked beans and white sliced bread seem to be the abiding legacies of British colonialism in Ghana).

‘I saw you at the palace,’ said Richard, giving me an African handshake. This is not a euphemism for anything salacious but a handshake as you would recognise it followed by a click of the thumb and middle finger. ‘Did you pay your respects to my king?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘But I saw the ceremony.’

‘It is important for white men like you to understand Ashanti culture,’ said Richard. ‘It will stop you being racist.’

‘Actually I’m not racist,’ I said, a little uncomfortable. ‘And nor are all white people.’

Richard shook his head. ‘But I have seen on TV your football matches when the crowds do the monkey chants. So it is important that you know that we are good people and that family, tradition and loyalty are at the heart of Ashanti culture.’

‘I understand,’ I said, wondering if his insistent pride about his roots and his fear of what outsiders thought of them might come from the fact that the Ashantis, ancient and august people that they are, have often been repressed. The British repressed them in the early 1900s and the Ghanaian state has repressed them  ever since independence.

Richard patted me on the shoulder. ‘And I think you should marry one of my sisters so that you can understand Ashanti culture even better.’

I didn’t take him up on his offer, even though it sounded quite alluring about an hour later, when I’d had quite a lot more beer. Instead I went next morning to the Cape Coast where, for three centuries, millions of West Africans were captured, enslaved and shipped to the Americas. It is quite a sobering experience to be shut inside Cape Coast Castle’s “punishment cell” and stand on the very spot where up to 1500 slaves would be imprisoned until the last one died of starvation or disease. The museum does a good job of analysing the economics behind the Atlantic Slave Trade – and how so many entrepreneurs in the West did so well out of it – while explaining how this crime against humanity inspired Pan-Africanism: a movement intended to “unify and uplift” Africans across the world.

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At around this time, C-A and I had begun to realise that we missed each other. I was just about to return to Cote d’Ivoire to see her when I was offered a job as a visiting lecturer at the Eagle Vision Institute in Accra, best described as an adult education institute that helps Francophone Africans learn English. In return for my “BBC voice” and pronunciation and creative writing classes they’re putting me up in a nice hotel, paying for my transport and giving me a decent wage by local standards. Despite her reservations about the Lucozade and baked beans diet, C-A has returned to Ghana to be with me, and we’re getting on famously again.

Last night I lucked out once again. The National Theatre was hosting the finale of Panafest, Ghana’s festival of Pan-Africanism that happens about every two years. I saw the National Dance Company perform a narrative routine about colonisation: the arrival of a European wearing a scary V for Vendetta-style mask, his introducing of alcohol to Africans (which makes them promptly fight amongst themselves) and his eventual enslavement of them. The energetic fight routines and intricate dance moves were accompanied by bombastic tribal drumming. Later on, Ras Caleb Appiah Levi, perhaps the country’s most famous Rastafarian musician and owner of the smoothest voice since Barry White, headbanged his dreadlocks through a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’.

Throughout the proceedings, the MC David Dontoh discussed the history and meaning of Pan-Africanism, at one point quoting Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President and devoted African nationalist, on how Africans must become self-reliant and take responsibility for their own fates. “And have we achieved this, ladies and gentlemen?” asked Dontoh. Uncertain laughter rippled through the auditorium.

(Photos by C.A.R.)

Christ the Redeemer: Battery Specialist (Ghana 27/07/13)

27 Jul

Stating in my last blog how trouble-free my trip had been so far turned out, just the very next day, to be the kiss of death. After crossing the miserable border with Ghana in the pouring rain, we found ourselves being hectored by some local equivalent of a hillbilly. He was cross-eyed from booze or genetic mutation or both and could barely speak either French or English. We managed to work out that he wanted a 1000 Franc tip for helping us across the border (which he hadn’t done) and that we would get into trouble at a checkpoint later on if we didn’t pay him another 5000 Francs (also complete nonsense).

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Even after we’d climbed into a minibus bound for Accra, he continued waving his finger and shouting at us. I managed to control my temper all the way up to when he started to dig his finger into C-A’s shoulder and say some horrible things to her in broken French that even now she refuses to translate for me. I clenched my fist at him, shouted ‘Arrete’ in his face and informed the other passengers – all of whom spoke good English – that I was now going to either call the police or smash the guy’s stupid fucking face in. Of course I had absolutely no intention of taking the latter course of action, but it seemed – momentarily – to work because the guy backed off… Except all he did was creep around the van and start haranguing us from another angle.

“Can’t you just give him 1000?” said the old granny in front of me. “Then we will be rid of him for good.”

“But if I do that,” I replied, “it will show him that bullying and intimidation wins, that it gets results.”

The guy kept on at us, his voice going hoarse. I started to wonder how desperate his situation must be that he would go this far for a sum of money that, even in this part of the world, just about buys two croissants.

The other passengers turned to me and chorused: “Please would you just give him 1000?”

“But I don’t owe him anything,” I protested. “And he has basically assaulted us. Why should I reward that?”

“Please,” they said. “Then he will leave us in peace.”

I took a note out of my pocket and the man suddenly stopped shouting. He smiled pathetically and brought his hands together in a prayer-like gesture.

Tu es desolee?” [probably sic; you know how bad my French is. But whether it was as bad as the hillbilly’s, I don’t know] I growled at him. “Are you sorry?”

He stuck out his lower lip like a naughty kid.

I pointed to C-A who had covered her face with her hands, probably wondering what on earth she was doing in a situation like this with a crazy white man like me. “Tu es desolee?” I said louder. “Are you sorry? Say sorry to her.”

He muttered something that I didn’t hear.

“I can’t hear you! Ecoute pas!”

The granny said, “He’s sorry. I heard him say it.”

I screwed the note up and flung it at him. He caught it and said, “God bless you sir.”

Non non non,” I replied. “Don’t think that bringing fucking God into it makes everything better. Tu es le diable. Now fuck off.”

And off he fucked, at last. Some of my fellow passengers turned to me with scowls on their faces. I had forgotten that a recent poll found Ghana to be the most religious country in the world.

I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I’m not proud of my behaviour, but at the same time, everyone has their breaking point. And saying what I said was infinitely preferable to some kind of physical confrontation which, being a total weakling, I probably would have lost.

I spent the drive to Accra in silence, no longer angry with the guy, just depressed about how he was prepared to do anything for money probably because he had to in order to survive. This at least made him better than stockbrokers or arms dealers.

True to the poll’s results, almost every building I saw in south Ghana – whether its function was directly religious or not – bore some reference to Christianity: “Lamb of God Cosmetics”, “Risen Lord Catering Services”, “Christian Wound Centre” are but three examples. Perhaps if I had visited “Christ the Redeemer: Battery Specialist” I’d have got a scoop on what Jesus has been doing since he returned to Earth. On Sunday mornings reggae hymns blare from taxi radios and churches boom with gospel music and preachers who sound distinctly like James Brown.

It was in Accra that C-A and I decided to part company, at least for the time being. It was all very amicable. One reason for our split has been politics. In an ironic inversion of what some might regard as the natural order of things, she – as a trained accountant and former owner of a women’s accessories business – is a firm believer that the free market will save her continent whereas I am – and always have been – a devout Third World liberationist. While in Accra, I insisted on spending more time than might be healthy at the brutalist tomb of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and self-styled “African Lenin”. Nkrumah oversaw Ghana’s rapid industrialisation, founded a welfare state and worked (in vain) to establish a socialistic “United States of Africa”. All this was far too godless and commie for the Americans, so they backed a military coup which deposed him in 1966. On display near the tomb is this unflattering statue of Nkrumah, which was beheaded during the coup:

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He counted such black radicals as CLR James, WEB Dubois, Nelson Mandela, Frantz Fanon and Muhammad Ali as personal friends. He also, according to one of the more surreal photos in the tomb, danced with our current Queen and managed to tolerate the Duke of Edinburgh for longer than an hour.

But now Nkrumah must be turning in his tomb, given that, since Ghana’s embrace of global capitalism, his countrymen can be seen starving on the street not a hundred yards away from his resting place and his famous phrase ‘Pan-Africanism’ has since been appropriated by Africa’s biggest investment bank. Later that day, I got talking to an intelligent young politics graduate (and part-time rock-gospel singer) who told me that successive governments had slowly destroyed Nkrumah’s welfare reforms and public spending initiatives. How had this affected the graduate? He’d been looking for a job for the last six months while sleeping on his uncle’s floor.

On Marcel’s say-so, I got in touch with the University for Development Studies, talked to a very pleasant Serbian woman called Gordana and agreed to write a story about UDS’s good work (they run all kinds of projects ranging from literacy to well-digging in the underdeveloped north of the country). In return, they offered me accommodation and transport to their three campuses.

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The north is very different to the south. It’s hotter and dustier, and has crimson dirt tracks instead of proper highways. The ancient mud-and-stick mosques and large numbers of young women in hijabs riding on scooters reminded me more of the Middle East or North India than anywhere else in Africa I’ve so far seen.

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Next episode: more about the UDS gig, seeing the King of the Ashanti tribespeople, getting up close and personal with an elephant and a “visiting lecturer” post I’ve been offered at a language school that helps Francophone Africans integrate into Ghanaian society.