Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ghana: The Juxtaposition

With this post, I restore service to this blog after a multi-month lay off. The less said of my somewhat acrimonious departure from Peace Corps, and bout of malaria to boot, the better. Through providence of some form I now find myself in Kumasi, central Ghana, working as part of a Research and Development unit at a teaching Hospital. I’m also wearing a second hat, as I will be pursuing my research project in Urban Planning in West Africa – more on which is assuredly to come.

What first stands about Ghana is its habitability. Certainly, it’s hot - Africa is hot – but its not the same sort of oppressive knock you on your ass and drag you all around the block heat that Niger visits upon its denizens. Ghana has the advantages of relative government transparency, stability, a viable coast on the Atlantic, excellent agricultural land and a mixed export economy. Ghana is lush, almost central African in its climate and greenery (with the exception of the stretch of Sahel that runs through the very North of the country). Ghana is considerably developed, and a long-standing bastion of stability in the region. The first country in Africa to gain independence from its European colonizers, Ghana has seen fifty years of relative "popular", though not necessarily democratic rule. Nkrumah's regime proved to be initially popular - he was a dictator who was always said to have "made much of elections".

 Most Ghanaians will tell you that his greatest sin was sticking around just a little too long after his natural expiration date. The same can also be said of the country’s two other nominal dictators: Akuffo and the still popular Jerry John Rawlings. Many Ghanians feel that partisan politics have done more damage to the country than the various militarily backed regimes have, resulting in mass support for many of the coups d'etats -. This has been so much the case that even after running the country through the military between 1981 and 1991, Rawlings was able to stand and be "re-elected" by a wide margin once Democracy was restored in 1992. A recent contested election has now seen the peaceful passage of power towards the opposition party, headed by the politically awkward John Evans Atta Mills, ending decades of PNDC dominance of Gold Coast political discourse. Many still have yet to make up their minds on Mills.

While Accra on the coast is choked with people – and is seeing a massive migration based population boom (which makes it an ideal candidate for my study), Kumasi, where I live, is far more pleasant. While streets are crowded and traffic can remain a nightmare, one does have the same feeling of congestion - a somewhat phlegm laden collapse of the windpipe that one feels in Accra on the streets of Kumasi. Kumasi gives its denizens some room to breathe, and this is crucial. It is located at the heart of the old Ashanti Empire, and many tribal customs dating back thousands of years are still at play, though the context for many of them has been shifted.

The bus ride from Accra to Kumasi was as pleasant as African mass transit gets (despite a multi-hour delay caused by a wheel well breakdown and the need to wait for a second bus.) Ghana, or all places boasts some absolutely beautiful rest stops – ones that would make even the Western world envious. I initially believed the stop to have been a heat-induced hallucination, until a Canadian missionary I made friends with on the ride reminded me, “welcome to heaven in West Africa.” He seems to have got it about right. Though Ghana is still a very poor country there is a genuine feeling of progress that seems to continually reinvigorate things. People are very friendly and incredibly hard working. There is a real protestant work ethic at work here. Which bring me to…

One of the more striking things about culture in Ghana is its religiosity. This is a country that is wantonly Evangelical. Gospel music pours from stereo systems and cellular phones. Most cars on the road boast large, emblematic placards praising Jesus. Most meetings begin with prayer and woe falls upon he who does not attend Sunday service. Services, deemed charismatic services - take on an almost Afro-American black gospel feel (though they are still very African) and are filled to brim with music, singing and dancing, and fiery sermons. A recent service I attended (again, those familiar with my now well-documented religious “predilections” take note, one really hasn’t a choice whether one wants to attend church or not if one is to integrate into the community) saw a visiting minister from England by way of Nigeria (if you can follow the logic – and there is a lot of very predictable baggage with Nigerians) expound on the virtues of wealth. The gentleman pointed out that the almighty indeed wants us to be wealthy and enumerated his own wealth, and making light of his Mercedes SUV that he apparently terrorizes his newly adopted London suburb with, between being hauled before the authorities for what came across as domestic violence (this was let slip through a failed analogy involving a “friend’s” dealings with the London Police Force - as related to personal completeness through God’s love through some discreet logic that I cannot even attempt to begin to comprehend, let alone master).

Certain biblical passages dealing with the vacancy rate in heaven for rich men and camels passing through the eyes of needles crossed my mind, and I was relieved to discover that the irony of the proceedings did not appear to have been lost on the other parishioners. How many rich men mounted on camels can dance on the head of a pin; and does this number supersede that of the number of angels to do the same? Which of them will pay more for the privilege? Such are the theological calculations of the plutocrat, but I digress. This parish was a small pleasant one, and apparently things get far more “energetic” at some of the mega churches, so for this I am thankful. The live band was also brilliant, working some traditional African poly-rhythmic renditions of what could otherwise of have been bland post modern (and surprisingly very ‘white’ sounding) gospel and perpetually injecting what can best be described as lightning into the proceedings. If going to church means listening to the band play every week, in the words of Moses Herzog as he discussed the possibility that he was losing his mind, “then that’s alright with me.”