My Ghana International Airlines flight departed about two hours late. Waiting at Gatwick, London’s “other airport”, at night is an experience no one should court easily. By about 11pm, all the restaurants had stopped serving. The stress of taking a second taxi to Gatwick (after the first had departed unceremoniously because I wasn’t quite ready when it came) needed to be deleted. But without a restaurant open, that wasn’t possible. And it is not advisable to get drunk before one flies.
Once in the air, we were very well looked after and the flight was pleasant and event-free. The pilot apologised for the delay in departure and explained that the incoming flight had been late and there was nothing they could do. Leg room was more than adequate; the food was superb (if you had an appetite for it at 2am, as I had – I had only nibbled at something small, as usual; flying makes me behave oddly). We touched down in Accra smoothly. And straight away, I encountered a “Ghanaianism”. Despite knowing that Ghana was being invaded by hordes of people, whose goodwill can earn the country millions in tourist income, it hadn’t occurred to anyone to replace the old airport bus that carts passengers from the aircraft to the arrivals’ lounge, with something better. The bus groaned when the driver released the clutch in order to move, and it groaned even more painfully again when he stopped. It didn’t have enough seats and so I had to offer mine to a lady who had two kids with her. It didn’t seem to be air-conditioned. We have a Ministry of Tourism, but in its ambitious plans to increase the number of people who want to visit Ghana, a comfortable and even luxurious welcome that could be ensured with a few additional investments, doesn’t feature. First Lesson in Ghanaianism: in our scheme of things, many things that ought to be present as a matter of course, are unexpectedly absent.
So one asks, who gave the contract to the bus company that runs the bus service at the airport? Just because ministers are driven by their cars straight to the VIP lounge, shouldn’t they be kind to what goes on in the world outside their tiny circle? Kick ass, men. People are disgracing our beautiful country and they shouldn’t be profiting from that.
On the aircraft, we had been given landing cards to fill in. I found that the old card (circa 2005) which was based on the British landing card and only asked for your most essential particulars, had been replaced with a very long thing that asks a lot of questions. Who reads all those answers, one wonders? Did the Latin American drug smugglers who came into Ghana and set up home, dealing in tons of drugs, not fill in forms when they arrived? Did the forms enable the security people to arrest them? Nonsense: leave innocent passengers alone and concentrate on real detective work that can trap drug dealers and other criminals.
At the arrivals’ hall, too, one encounters Ghanaianism Lesson Two: there are only two toilet cubicles for men. When an aircraft begins its descent to land, its toilets can’t be used. So if 50 male passengers with prostate trouble (for instance) get into the arrivals’ hall, what will they do? They are already anxious, looking for their passports, trying to discover which queue of passengers to join. Yet if they want to have a pee, they will have to wait. Something not there that should be there is a urinal with a long array of basins. One wonders, who approved the architectural drawings of the arrivals’ lounge? Kick his or her ass for lack of imagination. You want to save money so you put two cubicles in an airport expected to disgorge over 200 passengers at a time? Madness.
The immigration and customs people are both very pleasant and I am soon on my way. Immediately, we encounter the “Obama traffic jam”. The American president is a whole 12 hours or so from arriving but because people anticipate the mother of all traffic jams when he lands and many roads are closed, everybody is trying to get things done quickly and go home. I decide that I should skip going home and go straight to the Ministry of Information for my accreditation. I am told to “go and come back at 12 noon”. Ghanaianism Lesson Three: There are always things present that shouldn’t be there. This delay shouldn’t be there because as instructed by the Ministry of Information, I sent in the information for my accreditation by email long before my arrival.
What do I do? I can’t go home (to Ashale Botwe) and come back at 12 noon in this hellish traffic jam. We drive to Ma Tante Marie restaurant, North Labone, to have breakfast. We are early, but eventually, we get something nice to eat and we make our way back to the Ministry of Information. A nice lady there gets me a card. That is supposed to get me in to Parliament House to hear the Obama address. There is no mention of access to the airport or to Cape Coast, where the Obamas are to make a very important visit. But the atmosphere in the Ministry of Information – with accreditation having become almost a marketplace affair, does not encourage argument, and I quietly make my way home. Next morning, I find that the nearest I can get by car to the Accra Conference Centre is the area near the house of former President Jerry Rawlings. I walk and walk – joined by other invitees – and we make it to the main Conference Hall gate in about 45 minutes. I follow other people and present my card. The girl at the table inspecting the cards takes one look at it and says, “You have to wait.” Ghanaianism Lesson Four: not everything that says something can deliver the something it says it is going to deliver. My card says it will provide entry to the Conference Hall and that “guests should be seated by 12 noon”. (The time stipulation is in green ink, which to ordinary eyes like mine, appears to lend some weight to the card).
I wait and I wait. Every time I re-present my card, I am told to wait and that someone from “inside” will come and take me in. One lady from Burkina Faso radio is in the same boat with me. She is almost in tears. “I’ve come all the way from Burkina Faso to see Obama and you won’t let me go in?” There is a lady from the BBC French Service. The scene, as we, the representatives of thousands of people, wait while people who are only going there to see things for themselves and no one else are allowed to go in, is scripted from the gates of hell. I wait for almost two hours. There is nowhere to sit and wait and my legs are beginning to suffer from cramps. I am sorely tempted to leave and let the Ministry of Information have their Obama to themselves and eat him if they like. But I started journalism from the lowest rung of the ladder – as a cub or apprentice reporter – and the rule in that job is, have patience always and wait, if necessary, until the very last person has left – but do get the story you were assigned to get by all means.
Someone whispered to me, after a while, “There is Mr E. T. Mensah inside there. Go and show him your card.” Mr E. T. Mensah is the former Greater Accra regional minister. I went and tapped him on the shoulder and mentioned my name. Without a word, he took a card – different from the one I’d been given by the Ministry of Information – and handed it to me. I went inside and queued with a host of people to pass through metal detectors. Soon I was in. I found about three empty seats beside me. They remained empty throughout Obama’s speech. In Ghana, things meant to be given to people are hoarded away from their legitimate owners till they become useless. But I was determined not to be depressed by the morning’s experience. I found many friends in the hall and greeted them warmly – Albert Osei (former diplomat), K. B. Mensah (formerly of the BBC), Patrick Smith of Africa Confidential – and we joked and laughed.
Then the entrances began. The first woman Speaker of the Ghana Parliament, Mrs Bamford Addo... and so on until Presidents John Atta Mills and President Barack Hussein Obama made their entry. Ghanaianism Lesson Number Five: The country is full of nice surprises. Obama is heralded by a trumpeter who is able to articulate the word “Obama” quite distinctly: “pah-PAH-pah!; pah-PAH-pah!” Everyone is amused, including President Obama, who remarks that the guy reminds him of Louis Armstrong. As the two national anthems are played, I am filled with equal pride. I remember the US of Carl Lewis and Flo-Joe among others – the superb athletes whose victories at the Olympic Games and other world events made the American national anthem heard all over the world, but returned home to a country reeking of racism. Now a black man, Barack Obama, was president, and we all could salute him without reservations.
Could three people buried close to where Obama made his speech – W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah, each of whom had his tussles with US imperialism – ever have envisioned the US electing itself a black President? Ah, how the world changes! Obama akwaaba (Welcome Obama), said thousands of posters. I could join those who wrote the posters wholeheartedly.