Note: This was written last Thursday evening in a hotel in Ghana in darkness (thanks to a power cut). Another blog entry will deal with the purpose of my visit. The following entry deals with what was on my mind at the time.
I am the ‘abruni’, the ‘white man from far overseas’, the fish out of water, the ancestor of one-time colonial masters …
This is my third visit to Ghana. I feel that during the time that I have spent in this enchanting country, I have got to know the people, the culture and the language to a much greater extent. Yet, there have still been occasions on this visit when I have been overwhelmingly convinced that I have barely begun to understand this land of complexity and contradiction.
In the morning of one day, I see students completing mock Mathematics examinations in the medium of English (a second or third language in addition to their mother tongue) which appear to include equations surely known only to Einstein and his ilk.
School dormitory: triple bunks packed into what used to be a classroom
Yet these are the same students who sleep 48 to a room, who wake at 3.30 a.m. every school morning to clean the student showers and toilets and sweep the grounds with primitive brushes, who study in classes of at least 60 in temperatures of over 30 degrees, who snake across the school grounds, adroitly carrying buckets filled to the brim with water on their heads to wash their uniform for the week ahead. In the afternoon of this same day, I see at first hand the communities where some of these students come from: simple clay buildings, often in the grounds of semi derelict or incomplete buildings that once were dream projects, but are now concrete shells. There is so much of potential here, so many young futures that promise so much.
Bright future: Meeting the student prefect team
Yes, in so many ways this is a land of positivity, but daily life is lived against a backdrop of adversity and harshness. The climate is oppressive and the basic infrastructure is fragile, as the recent years of power cuts have demonstrated. Yet, the people (on the surface at least) adopt a resilient, communal response. They just get on with it.
And this is not where the contadictions end. The people are as attached to their smartphones as anywhere else in the world, yet the cars they drive are often unroadworthy, dented and relentlessly punished by the Ghanaian roads which are often seemingly no more than a complex network of yawning potholes interspersed with ribbons of tarmac.
The vast majority of the people here are multilingual, yet I write this in darkness as we suffer another power cut, one in a series of power outages that has peppered the last three years across the entire country.
Ghana is an assault on the senses. (I’ve decided that Africa has an aroma all of its own, which I have termed earthy musk) It is also an assault on your sense of perspective. Contradictions live side by side, seemingly mutually coexisting fully aware of the other and willing to nod to each other every morning.
I sat in a speeding car this afternoon that swerved across the road to avoid potholes, as I listened to my four Ghanaian companions singing and tapping along to Phil Collins singing ‘Another Day in Paradise’. The backdrop to this was a typical Ghanaian scene of young boys playing football with goals formed from sagging bamboo poles, women of the village washing clothes and pounding fufu by the roadside and men sat next to makeshift stalls of bananas. Students who arrive to school in clean, well pressed uniform walk past their pre school counterparts who sit in the earth surrounded by wandering poultry and stray dogs.
As I return to the UK, the line ‘Think twice. It’s just another day for you and me in paradise’ has never cried out with as much ferocity before.