FROM GHANA from the desk of our Editor-in-Chief, Bernard W. Saunders: An in-depth commentary on Ghana today.
Popcorn, Plantain, Sorrel, Oranges, Limes
© Bernard W. Saunders 12/15/13
Ghana is a nation with a noble and ancient history. Blessed with mineral wealth: gold, rubber, industrial diamonds, silver bauxite, manganese, timber and hydro power. The soil is rich and fertile which has turned Ghana into one of the worlds leading producers of cocoa, not to mention coconuts and its by products (oil, water, milk, meat, kindling) , as well as pineapples and papaya.
A nation the size of the USA state of Oregon, it has 25 million people with an entrepreneurial spirit. According to the CIA Ghana web site over fifty percent of that population ranges in age 0-54 , almost evenly split between males and females.
Ghana’s coastal waters have an abundance of fish that supports the villages along its coast, and also attracts commercial fishing trawlers from around the globe.
Fortunately, or unfortunately given the sordid history of major oil companies and producer nations (see Nigeria, Ecuador, Alaska, the Gulf coast of the USA), oil is being pumped off of Ghana’s coast. The government of Ghana being well aware of the “oil curse” that has befallen so many producers, is understood to be putting measures in place to protect its population and its patrimony much to the dismay of those companies and host nation such as the USA.
The agricultural sector consist of mostly small family farms. These family farms are pressured by multinational agricultural giants for export related produce. Those multinationals are being joined by nations like China, and India that are buying huge tracts of land to feed their own burgeoning populations.
The entrepreneurial sector, like agriculture, consist mainly of small businesses, shops and vendors numbering in the thousands, who continue to thrive despite the pressures of supermarkets and shopping malls.
The family remains the foundation of the social safety net. Here where I live in the Cape Coast Central region I get daily reminders of the can do spirit that seems to permeate the society. With the caveat, that there are exceptions to every rule, everybody seems to work at something, from earliest age to the elderly.
The one bedroom adobe colored chalet I lease sits in the midst of gardens of corn, cassava, okra, and tomatoes. My neighbors chickens and roosters, no respecters of property roam freely.
I drink fresh coconut water and eat fresh papayas from the trees in my yard . Morenga one of the latest miracle herbal cures “discovered” by the West, provides me with hot tea twice a day from the leaves of the two morenga trees also there.
The property is bordered by a major two lane black top highway with a continuous flow of heavy trucks bringing the worlds finished products to Ghana, and what Ghana produces to the world; e.g, huge logs going out, huge machines coming in.
The “old road” also borders the property. This road is red dirt clay pitted with a moonscape of potholes that can snap an axle or an ankle of a careless driver or walker. When it rains, the mud can suck your foot wear off of your feet if you are unaware.
The black top highway is symbolic of the emerging Ghana. The old road is a connection to its past. Along the old road a cobbler walks with the tools of his trade on his head, to the beat of a rhythm he taps with one tool against another; tailors also can be seen with sewing machines on their heads; the grinder will sharpen your knives, cutlass/machete (it is pervasive, everyone seems to own or carry one), calling attention to his services in a sing song voice; women carry loads of banana, smoked fish, yams the size of your arm, large wood loads, sandals, and just about everything else imaginable.
The children from the local village are on the roads as early as 6 a.m. Walking to school in their neatly pressed yellow and blue uniforms, some with their book bags on their heads, chatting happily, accompanied by the tweeting of the birds that are seen in a remarkable variety, and a rainbow of colors.
At the end of the school day, many of these same children, put down their book bags, change clothes, and become vendors of popcorn, plantain chips, sorrel (made from a red flower in the Hibiscus family) with just a little bite to it), limes, oranges, pineapples and lemons.
They walk the roads for long distances often until after dusk frequently coming into my yard with their products selling at the USA equivalent of .25 to .50 cents for a bag of popcorn or plantain chips. The majority of the school age vendors are young girls. The oldest who has come into my yard is 18. The youngest barely 10 if that old.
There is an aura of innocence about them. The whites of their doe like eyes,are startling bright against their dark skin glistening from the heat and the produce they carry with a twisted cloth serving as a cushion between their closely cropped natural hair and the produce laden trays carried seemingly without effort.
Although even 4 layers of popcorn stacked in a metal bowl 6 inches in circumference is not weightless as I can attest to when as is the custom I help lift the loads off and on their heads. If popcorn is not weightless, imagine walking for miles with two layers of pineapples on your head on a tray the size of a large pizza pan.
It began for me with the 15 year old popcorn vendor. She came to my attention when she stood behind a column listening to a lecture by one of the leaders of the expatriate community who was addressing a group of touring college students, largely of European lineage on the enslavement of Africans, during the Arab and European triangular trade, and its ongoing affect on Africa and its diaspora, which was created largely as a result of that chattel trade in enslaved humanity into the western hemisphere. I gestured to her with hand signals encouraging her to listen.
The next time I saw her was when she came through the brown picket gate that leads into my yard through the fields of corn from the old road. I purchased some popcorn and she left. She would return again and again sometimes complaining of hunger. Once she stretched out across the concrete floor of the porch to rest before moving on. Then the tales of her mother’s illness and the need for support (money) for medicine and food began.
Popcorn girl would be joined from time to time by another girl in her age group selling plantains. Popcorn returned once with a tale of having lost her change purse containing her days receipts. Face screwed up, practically in tears she moaned that if the money was not replaced she would be beaten by who ever it was she was selling for.
Naivety, compassion and ignorance make the new comer although forewarned susceptible to such blandishments. I replaced the 10Ghc the equivalent of $5.00 she allegedly had lost.
Popcorn’s request for support, the operative term used here for money began to escalate with written request from her mother that peaked at $175.00. When I wouldn’t provide that sum, her face sadden, she again looked on the verge of tears,saying she would have to travel far to collect the money from one of her “aunties”.
In her regular business rounds she has been seen by sources walking miles from my location with her popcorn on her head. Thus I was not surprised when she did not come around for a while. That did not stop plantains from coming. She too was to come with a similar tale one evening almost verbatim. I replaced that also.
Interposed with sale visits from the young folks would be those by one of the elders from the same village that the school children seen on the road came from. I had met him at the end of my 2011 visit to Ghana when an associate introduced me to him telling him I was interested in housing.
The complexity of absentee ownership situation of the partially completed cinder block structure was more than I could wrap my head around, given that I was leaving Ghana in a matter of hours. I left it with my associate and returned to the States. The elder would return when I did in 2013.
Back to the vendors. The first group of popcorn and plantain would soon be augmented by a different group, lets call them, plantains, and sorrel. Who in turn would be joined by oranges and limes. This group was not only getting younger but they added a new twist Christmas envelopes for their Sunday school class holiday program. First two seekers with envelopes, then four, then six.
I must admit that last piece caused me to lose control telling them to tell whoever was sending them to me that I was not a bank and if they came I would tell them myself.
When oranges the second youngest of the second group came with the same tale of woe, adding a need for food for emphasis, and I noticed her other three companions squatting down and hiding in my neighbors garden, I drew the line.
Although I was to apologize to the oldest girl with the envelopes for shouting at her, and gave her 2GHC (USA $1.00); the hiding and the crouching was the last straw and I told them so. None of this has stopped either group from coming into my yard, including the returned original popcorn seller. Now group one took it upon themselves to inform me that group two were bad girls; and that they, group one, were not.
On one occasion when the village elder stopped by for support to rent a tent for a funeral, or to buy “moola”, also known as “kill me quick”, a distilled local drink, I asked him about the propensity of some Ghanians to send their children out in such a manner.
This is a man of my seventies age group, who came of age during British colonial rule. He said that during that period children would go to the Brits and get a few shillings for food and water. The British have gone, but what I have categorized as the “gimme” attitude among a segment of the population remains. Sources tell me that there are segments in Ghana today who long for the return of British rule.
Not all Ghanians think or feel that way about the British. One of my associates sums up the British legacy this way: They left us poor, with the bible and a deep distrust of one another, following independence.
Another Ghanian source, who was trained by her mother in the same vending system to be a trader, calls the behavior of the girls claiming hunger “shaming their mothers”.
“Look at them” she states, “they are wearing sandals, clean clothes, and are well fed”. The money they ask for, I was told would go for other things the girls want.
Well one might ask: what about the boys in their age group? Some boys also vend. Others can be seen walking the roads with cutlasses/machetes looking for work. The cutlass is the most prevalent tool to be seen. It is used for every conceivable purpose: cutting grass that can grow as tall as an adult male; trimming trees; harvesting coconuts; surgically opening the coconuts for the water and the “meat” inside.
The boys hunt with their machetes, using them as shovels to dislodge grass cutters from their lairs, before stunning them with the flat side of the blade. Grass cutters are a rodent that look like a large rat, or a squirrel without a bushy tale, that is sold on the sides of the road, roasted and eaten. The boys also sell crabs, fish and sundries. There are also the ever present coconuts, that when empty and dry are used as fire wood.
This is a nation where re-use, re-build, and repair are by words. The vendors on the roads today are the traders, and market women of tomorrow.
They with the small family businesses and farms remain the foundation, the building blocks of the Ghanaian economy, even as Ghana evolves into a world class market economy.
If this evolution is in the best interest of popcorn, plantain, sorrel, oranges and limes; and the welders of the machete/cutlasses, only time will tell.
When they are not in school, or working, they are clear on what they want: education, jobs and opportunities.
I pray that the nation listens, that the young people are heard, by people in authority, for their future and that of Ghana are inseparable.
And in a land where it is difficult for me as a “new be” to discern what truth is- that is the truth.