Feature Article of Tuesday, 8 May 2012
Columnist: Kwesi Atta Sakyi
- Reminiscences of London in the 70s
By Kwesi Atta Sakyi 8th May 2012
It beggars disbelief to reflect and contemplate the horrendous discrimination meted out to Ghanaian emigrants when they live outside their country, and also when they return to their own God-given country. It is simply mind boggling. A Diasporean is any person who comes originally from a particular country but now lives and plies his trade outside his country. Thus, all Ghanaians in the Diaspora, are made up of Ghanaian citizens living outside Ghana in the UK, USA, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada, Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy and other parts of the world. The mentioned countries above hold the majority of Ghanaian émigrés or guest workers. It is not easy to live outside your country because of cultural shock, immigration blues, climatic changes, differences in food and social habits and mores, language barriers, racial prejudice, financial shortcomings, joblessness and many restrictive practices. It is estimated that between 2 to 3 million Ghanaians are in the Diaspora, with the majority emigrating during the late 70s and thereafter. The pre-Rawlings era emigration was not massive, and it was principally to places like Germany, Canada, UK, USA and Eastern Europe, mostly for studies. The Agege Gravy Train predated the Rawlings era as, as early as 1977, many Ghanaian teachers, construction workers and social workers, began heading to Nigeria in droves in search of the elusive golden fleece in that oil-rich country. These latter wave of migrants from Ghana were asylum seekers and economic refugees, who were fleeing from unbearable political and economic hardships in Ghana. From Nigeria, some directed their search for the golden fleece to the north, and went to places like Libya and the Middle East. Currently, there are some Ghanaian contract workers living in Dubai, UAE, Kuwait and Lebanon. In the 80s, we heard of schemes in the UK where short term jobs for picking fruits such as strawberries were available. Many went for these six month stints but after their contracts ended, they got lost in transit. In September 1973, I went to London for the first and last time in my life, to attend a Billy Graham Spree Convention at Wembley and Earls Court for 10 days, but did return to Ghana because, as a man of honour, I saw no point in abusing the privilege given me by my Church, the Methodist Church of Ghana, which had sponsored me. Of course, I also wanted to prove a point to the British High Commission in Accra that I was genuine in my pursuit and not like other unprincipled opportunists who will stop at nothing in grabbing such breaks to overstay their welcome abroad. My UK Visa was for six months. At the youthful age of 23 years, and with a teaching career and my A Levels, I was very comfortable in Ghana at the time, as London looked strange to me in terms of cultural norms. I met some Nigerians and West Indians in London who were cursing themselves all the time, and asking me what I was doing in London. I took the cue and vamoosed quickly after the religious convention and a tour of London. I guess London has changed a lot since 1973. I visited places like Buckingham Palace, where I was privileged to watch the trooping of the colours. I visited Westminster Abbey where I signed my name in the visitors’ book and saw the tombs of Samuel Johnson and others inside the ancient cathedral. I went to Trafalgar Square to
see the white marble statue of English hero, Horatio Nelson. There were many pigeons and white tourists around, taking a lot of photos and enjoying their holiday to the maximum. I used the red painted double-deck London buses, and saw huge posters for bus conductors at a wage of 33 pounds a week, but I did not fall for that. I went by the tube or underground train at Victoria Tube Station to visit places such as Kew Gardens, Piccadilly Circus, Shepherd Bush, Olympia, Charing Cross, Hammersmith, St James Park, and St John’s. London then was a mixture of very ancient buildings and the modern. I liked so much the greenery and beautifully laid out parks and rest places within the city as they were well looked after and manicured, or they looked trim and trendy. I enjoyed the red, gold, pink and white flower beds that adorned the streets of London and made the whole place look ethereal and unreal, like heaven on earth or the biblical paradise. What however put me off, was the high cost of living, especially buying my lunch from the restaurants, mostly hot dogs, chicken and chips or fish and chips. When I heard the term hot dogs for the first time in my life, I nearly froze, thinking that the white people should be crude to be eating dogs. After my enquiries and asking around, I learnt the truth that hot dogs are just loaves of bread with pork or beef fillings. I rode in those big black taxis which looked like Rolls-Royce. I can still imagine rich coloured red and brown leather interiors, where you sat comfortably at the back of the cab like royalty, and you were driven around by a uniformed chauffeur in black, who looked like those undercover agents in the Sherlock Holmes series. London buses and trains, as mass transit units, were and are very efficient as they keep to their time schedules and routes. They have what is called ruthless sticking to clockwise regularity. When I used the underground trains or tube, it was sometimes confusing underground to know which platform to go to for your train, and it was really fun having to use the underground escalators to cross over to the right platform. The trains were exceedingly fast and they stopped over for say minutes only and they whizzed past like bullets when the doors were automatically shut. You got to be sharp in getting on them. I marvelled very much at the maze of electrified train tracks and wondered then what an accidental fall on them would mean. I was thrilled by the air and suction force which emanated from the tunnels prior to the arrival and emergence of the trains. Signs and directions were all over and as a visitor, you had a map to look at in case you got lost. The cavernous tunnels and massive well-lit halls underground were a marvel to me then. People were not that friendly on the trains, as some whites avoided sitting close to me and those who did, plastered their faces with the massive
London newspapers they were reading, like hares burrowing into their escape routes. If someone was generous and kind enough to strike a conversation with you, it was always on the subject of the weather being this or that. Humdrum, dry, trite and banal. It was unlike the vivacious chatter and open convivial camaraderie back home. When we went back to the convention site for the presentation sessions, we were weakened in our spiritual resolve and meditation by white hippies with ruffled hairs and shaggy clothes kissing all over in the halls. We had many famous celebrity bands in attendance such as Cliff Richards, Johnny Nash and the Cholerina Choir Group from Sweden, in their long-sleeved golden sweaters, with polo necks and denim blue jeans to match. They sang well with vim and gusto, reminiscent of the inimitable ABBA Group. There were thousands of us convention attendees, from all over the world, assembled in London that Fall. It was awe inspiring to see a sea of heads, mostly whites, in a huge place like Olympia or Wembley, jam-packed with a concourse of congregants, chanting songs like, He got the whole world, in his hands, he got the whole world, in his hands, he got the whole world in his hands, and Halellujah, Halellujah, Halellujah, or Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, he died for you. Oh, there was a lot of religious fervour in the air. Some of us from West Africa were staying at Richmond Baptist Church, at Shepherd Bush, and being hosted by a young white British couple. There were two of us from Ghana, with the other guy being a Mr Koomson from Sekondi. The Nigerians in our group gave the hosts the nightmares as they were simply non-conformists to simple housekeeping rules. At breakfast, which was gratis, courtesy of our hosts, we were told either to choose an apple or a banana, but the Nigerians would have none of that and chose both. We had cornflakes with milk, bread, butter, cheese and jam. The Nigerians will jam all together on their slices of bread, to the utter consternation and bafflement of the hosts. We were encouraged to buy block tickets to the tubes and buses which would last us the whole ten days in London. What a joy ride I had when I got lost once and I went to many places, free riding. I remember I did dry cleaning on my body for three days at a stretch, as there was no geyser. Hey, on the third day, my body was itching very badly, as if some red ants had been let loose on me and I ran like mad to the cold showers to rub my body all over with my sponge and soap. What a relief. I learnt a hard lesson, not to skip a bath even in inclement weather. I met a very beautiful black lass from Barbados who took to me. She was called Roselyn Ijeoma Browne. She became my very close friend and I remember a prank she made us play on the organisers. Close to the stage upfront, was a reserved area for VIPs , where the bands and dignitaries sat. When we approached the place together to have a good view of proceedings, the girl told me we should say we were a couple, representing the press from Ghana, and lo and behold, the organisers swallowed our bait, hook, line and sinker. (I guess I have had this streak of journalism in me since childhood, and I think I took a wrong turn in my career to be a teacher. Never mind, teachers and journalists have a lot in common, as they all research, write and disseminate knowledge.) We stuck together thereafter until the end of the convention, though only on platonic and cupboard love basis. Ijeoma kept writing to me in Ghana several times thereafter, but like all such casual and chance meetings, the friendship ended because of my perhaps cold attitude. But she was such a beauty and very intelligent. These are some of the dilemmas and challenges in the Diaspora. I remember once on the underground train, an elderly and respectable white gentleman in his 60s, approached me and lit up a lively conversation with me. He had worked in Koforidua in Ghana some time back, and he had fond and nostalgic memories of Ghana. He was one guy I found open-minded and warm, like an African. On arrival at Heathrow that September 1973, an old lady approached me to interview me, with a pen and notepad in hand. She asked me why I was in London, how much I had on me, where I was going to stay, among many other intrusive questions which were not welcoming at all. Perhaps, if a stunning and vivacious young lady had conducted the interview, it would not have been that agonising, as it would have been a tonic and a palliative. It was like I was not welcome to Britain. That reminds me here of Eddie Murphy’s film, Coming to America. London was not that rainy in September, and I did not have the winter encounter, which pained me so much. After ten activity filled days, we said bye to London and emplaned at Heathrow Airport. Again, I was given an exit interview at the Airport and asked why I had to leave so soon. I guess I should have answered that I was short on cash and did not fancy eating hot dogs or fish and chips all my life in London. From then on, I made up my mind only to travel abroad for education or sight-seeing, and not for a permanent stay, as I am stuck in the African groove and ways of life, no matter how crude and rude it looked. London hosts the Olympiads this July, 2012, and I wonder how it will look like since my last visit in 1973, some 39 years ago. That year in 1973, Ghana Airways was flying high. We flew in the luxurious VC 10 plane and made a stop-over in Rome on our way to Accra. Hey, Rome Airport was very far from the city. I admired most their sky-blue marble floor which shone like a mirror, and I bet I could see my reflection on those spick and span floors! Up in the sky on our way from Rome, heading back to Accra, I saw from the plane the Mediterranean Sea, full of countless tiny islands and the Sahara Desert was awesome with its bare sand dunes, which looked pinkish from the sky. My A Level Geography studies came in handy, and I began looking for all the desert landforms such as wadis, yardangs, zeugens, monadnocks and inselbergs, oasis, barkhans, and aquifers. The flight was very uncomfortable for me, as I experienced excruciating pain in my ears. On complaining to the Ghanaian crew, air hostesses or flight attendants, they gave me some sweets to lick around as a palliative, but all to no avail.
Whenever I arrive at Kotoka Airport, I see a lot of improvement to the infrastructure and the procedures, which are more welcoming and much more simplified. However, my beef is with the gargantuan customs duties which we have to pay when we declare our goods at the ports. The penalties exacted are too exorbitant and unwelcoming. They are indeed very cruel, as if questioning you why you choose to travel out. When you go to the banks to cash your TCs, you meet nonchalant staff who give you the run-around, and start inventing all sorts of reasons why your TC cannot be cleared in a short time, and that you have to deposit it in an account. You live outside Ghana and you are disenfranchised. You cannot partake in decision making because the constitution debars you from voting or standing to be voted for, because you are required to have a minimum residential qualification of 5 years. At every turn, you find that the Ghanaian at home is hostile to you when he hears that you have come from over there. At any least opportunity, they want to fleece you of your hard earned money. These are the sorts of things which put off some Ghanaian Diasporeans, and they vow never to come home or touch base. I do not blame them. However, east, west, home is best. As the presidential elections are coming in December this year, we want to hear from the contending political parties, their manifestoes and take on these burning issues. We Ghanaian Diasporeans have done a lot for Ghana in terms of our remittances and contributions to the growth of the Ghanaian economy, so much so that we deserve a nominated seat in parliament. Remittances are the third foreign earner, apart from cocoa and gold. I will like to be unanimously declared Ghanaian Diasporean MP Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. Mail me your thoughts.
By Kwesi Atta Sakyi