Thursday, July 2, 2009

Patronizing Glance

As I write this, the “Warrior Wives Prayer Ministry” of greater Kumasi parades past my window in a sea of gospel music. Angry traffic belches abuse at them through overused car horns. Nobody really notices car horns anymore in Ghana, they are so omnipresent that people have learned to simply tune them out. There is a strong warrior tradition in the Ashanti: hence the title. The symbol of the region, and of the old empire, is the porcupine - which grow to large size here; around 200 pounds; and are decidedly aggressive if trifled with. The police arrive and do their best to placate enraged motorists. This parade had been pre-arranged (unlike the weekly tumult of Jehovah’s Witnesses who take the to the streets every Sunday, creating a literal audible “crack” of dawn), not that there is any evidence of this. Perhaps it is the mere presence of police; who generally only appear to extract bribes and then promptly depart, that would indicate that they exist at all. Indeed, the local preference to take justice into their own hands, even if it is at times misdirected, seems to render the professional police force null and void. They exist as an arm of corruption; while God’s law, in its vulgar Old Testament sense, prevails.

Which brings me to the nasty issue of patronage. Not to dwell too heavily in the negative; patronage systems abound in Ghana, as they do in most, if not all West African countries. While the patronage system is less pronounced, more compact, and overall, far less pernicious here in Ghana, than in say, Nigeria, but it remains intractable to every day life. Ghanaian society holds that who you know, what they can do for you, and what you can do for them in return matters a great deal when, at times, realizing the daily necessities of life can be at times difficult. While this can obviously at times, be the case in the West, though we don’t like to think of things that way – and people will always try to advance and/or protect their clan; and awareness of this is a necessity in Ghana.

I got to know this quite well as I began to interact regularly with the police. I needed some traffic statistics for a planning project I was working on*; it was a week of near daily treks to the central police station, in which, I spent a lot of time sitting around waiting, paying bribes, and not receiving information that the extent of the patronage system was really hammered home. Karmically, if I may put it that way, there was no reason to help me because I was a Westerner, an outsider, would likely be leaving the country, and patronage is less about leveraging immediate material advantage (although the police are happy to insist upon bribes – and most speeding tickets are resolved in fiery exchanges between drivers and officers, with threats of immediate prison brandished about, eventually to be resolved in a conciliatory handshake in which bills are almost certainly exchanged); but rather about forging long term patronage relationships.

So there I sat, watching Kumasi’s finest rip people off and get ripped off in equal measure. As the police seem to do very little in the way of actual policing, they tend to be regularly patronized by those that have acquired the instruments of “ancient oriental healing”. Thus, Western medicine and what are often very real scams – my favorite was a static electricity machine, with an electrode for reading “palm phenomena” in which through administering static electricity shocks and taking readings (indicated by a sound chip for a greeting card chirping away, what was quite clearly “Jingle Bell Rock”) everything from colon cancer to high blood pressure are diagnosed. While the readings are cheap, the suggested medications in the form of handily available from the “doctor” of palm phoneme, to avoid the diagnosed illnesses, come at far greater prices. The officers note that the medicine works “if you believe in it”, however I was not reassured when the “physician” pointed excitedly to, what appeared to be his kidneys while discussing colon cancer. Perhaps he was instead pointing to the organ that could potentially fail after protracted usage of many of these Chinese drugs and cures, the usage of which are now being viewed as a massive public health problem in West Africa. Indeed, it is the flooding of Africa with cheap (often fake or faulty) Chinese manufactured drugs and herbal remedies (some of which work, some of which don’t, and some of which cause horrible drug interactions with one another) is a problem my bribe dollars have now gone to promote.

And with this, one can see the true extent of patronage. One of the reasons China is making such in-roads in West Africa is that it is dumping many of these low-cost and “alternate” drugs on the West African market, often throwing in great stocks of them as deal sweeteners in International trade agreements. Price fixing of necessary medications on the part of Western pharmaceutical countries, and the belief in traditional medicines (like the Chinese herbs, sometimes work, sometimes don’t and sometimes cause other problems) are not helping the problem. Again, many people believe that as long as you believe in the medicine, it will work; which ties into an earlier post I write about Asante Occultism and all things seeming to be equally likely. It is funny that even when, a patronage system is delivering something that people know can be harmful to them, there remains the sense that, as long as you believe hard enough in it, it will work. In the end, that remains a funny thing about Ghana. People seem to want some reason to believe; and as long as you are willing to play ball, no matter how crazy what you have on offer, as long as future returns are in any way plausible, acceptance into the patronage system will be granted.

As for me, I eventually got something that vaguely resembles the traffic statistics I wanted by agreeing to try to help track down additional breathalyzer machines (which the police constable was shocked to discover were not simply available at the store in the Untied States) and by, of course, paying another bribe. The inspector assures me we are now good friends and I ever need anything, or for that matter anyone, “taken care of ‘small, small’,” as the expression goes, I know where to turn. Clearly, to master the system, I still have some way to go, but perhaps a palm phenomenon kit could sweeten the deal. This is the advice I bellow to the Warrior Wives as the police finally decide to begin clearing the road.

*Of which I may write something on this blog, as you read this, I will most certainly be back in America; however, I have some half formed ideas and “lost episodes” which I may write up over the summer – some even dating back to my time in Niger and for which I have a wider context to talk about them.

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