Feature Article of Friday, 30 March 2001

Columnist: Ellison, Kofi

A Rejoinder to The WSJ Article...

"Tangled Roots: For African-Americans In Ghana, The Grass Isn't Always Greener"
By Dr. Kofi Ellison
Ghanaians in the diaspora, are still fuming over an article that was published in the March 14, 2001, edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article, written by Gregg P. Zachary under the headline: "Tangled Roots: For African-Americans in Ghana, The Grass Isn't Always Greener", sought to highlight the lives and activities of the hundreds of African Americans who have 'emigrated' to Ghana. That would be an interesting reading considering that at least a thousand African-Americans have 'permanently' settled in Ghana, and nearly ten thousand African-Americans visit Ghana yearly. Indeed, Ghana is the destination of choice for African-American tourists who visit Africa. African-American oriented Radio stations, newspapers, and churches in Washington, D.C., and other major American cities tout successful visits to Ghana or as they say, "the motherland", thus fueling more interest! Ghana has been assisted in so may ways by African-Americans since independence.
However, the article elicited mainly protests and opprobrium from Ghanaians and African- Americans alike. For Ghanaians, the article was deemed derogatory for its emphasis on the negative aspects of our underdevelopment: 'rampant malaria', 'electricity and water interruptions', and 'corruption'. By emphasizing African-American frustrations with the provision of services in Ghana, among other issues, the African-Americans felt Gregg Zachary's article could antagonize their hosts; and undermine tourism! Thus, both the Ghana government, and the African American Association of Ghana (AAAG) had to disown much of what was written. Mrs. Victoria Cooper head of the AAAG, and Mr. Akhbar Muhammed, the AAAG spokesman called for a retraction.
Ghanaians in the diaspora were similarly outraged. Short of calling for Gregg Zachary's blood, Ghanaian Internet sites encouraged people to flood the Wall Street Journal with e-mail letters and telephone calls to protest the 'biased' reporting. Such was the outrage that Gregg Zachary (who lives in London) had to personally engage in written discussions with Ghanaian contributors at a Ghanaian Internet forum where he was grilled as to his motives for, to use a Ghanaian proverb; pointing his left finger in the direction of our father's village! Needless to say, much of the debate was not civil; and as happens on that particular website, the debate degenerated into the unprintable!! As I write, Gregg Zachary was also expected to appear on an Accra (Ghana) Radio station for further discussions on the issue on Friday, March 30th.
Indeed, Ghanaians in the diaspora had every reason to be incensed at the way the article portrayed events in our great country, especially when one considers the outlet used to air our dirty laundry. The Wall Street Journal is the most important business and financial daily in the world, and it is also the most widely read newspaper in the field. By unwittingly portraying Ghana negatively, and Ghanaians as unfriendly and hostile to 'foreigners', especially of a group that wishes to live and invest in Ghana; the article could do irreparable harm to Ghana's image in so many areas. Rather than emphasizing the negatives aspects of Ghana's under-development, a problem that our newly democratically elected government has vowed to tackle, Gregg Zachary could have delved into some of the many positive aspects of Ghana and Ghanaians which I am sure he benefitted from during his visit. Were Mr. Zachary so inclined, he could have done a ton of good to his readers who would be interested in exploring investment opportunities in Ghana.
Among African countries, Ghanaians stand out as a peaceful, hospitable and friendly people. This view of Ghana is supported by reports coming from investors and tourists alike. As the Americans are wont to say, image is everything. Irreverent remarks such as the one in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) must be countered in order that Ghana's image is not sullied. Americans and other Western countries spend millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying, and image-makers to ensure that their credibility as secure edifices of stability and free enterprise remain unchallenged. The universal condemnation of the article by the Ghanaians in the diaspora must be seen in that light.
The security of investments and ease of transfer of funds to and from Ghana is comparable to what obtains in many developed countries. For the discerning investor, the high cost of life and property insurance in neighboring countries - brought on by armed robbery, kidnaping and civil strife - is another incentive in investing in Ghana. It is significant to note that the WSJ article's only mention of death in the African-American community in Ghana, was caused by natural factors, and not as a result of a drive-by shooting, or car-jacking which the immigrants were accustomed to in the United States of America.
The writer interviewed African-Americans who said they felt betrayed by the unfulfilled promises of citizenship promised them by the government of Ghana. That promise of citizenship refers to a statement of the moment made by president Jerry Rawlings during a Press Conference with president Clinton at the White House last year. President Rawlings did not consult the Ghana Legislature on the matter, and thus the promise lacked any legal basis. Neither are the issues of African-Americans being denied citizenship in Ghana, or having problems in renewing their resident visas (permits), peculiar to that group only. Ghanaians who have become naturalized citizens elsewhere face similar problems. One hopes the new government will address these issues. But it must take a complete fool to believe Gregg Zachary when he writes that one African-American is stranded in Ghana because his visa expired; and he cannot therefore leave Ghana!
The article quotes one Yvetta Shipman, (formerly of Atlanta), regarding her frustrations at not being accepted as "a black sister" after three years sojourn in Ghana! A debilitating aspect of the African-American imagination of Africa, and hence Ghana, is the romanticism, and sometimes the naivete that attends their view of Africa. It is not as if our African-American 'cousins' are returning to Ghana after a few years trip to America; to be recognized by uncles, aunts, and other relations. At least four hundred years has lapsed since the initial "forced migration" (to borrow historian Joseph Inikori's phrase on the subject of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) to America. It shouldn't take a dose of reality to understand that it is the children of the 'new immigrants' who will be truly Ghanaian, just as say anyone born and bred from, Asuonwun in Asante! African immigrants in America report similar frustrations in their relationship (or lack of it), with African-Americans in the United States of America.
And Ghanaians have also suffered from some of the indignities that African-Americans have been subjected to in the United States of America. A noted example is the treatment meted out to the late Mr. Komla Agbeli Gbedemah. As Ghana's Finance Minister, Mr. Gbedemah travelled to the United States to conduct official government business. According to a New York Times report of October 9, 1957, Gbedemah was refused service at a restaurant in Dover, Delaware; because of his skin color. It did not matter that Mr. Gbedemah had officially hosted the then U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon and the official U.S. delegation to the Ghana independence celebration at a feast in Accra, in March 1957. One of the greatest Americans of any color, W.E.B. Dubois lived, died, and is buried in Accra! We have ties that bind. But African Americans must show restraint in their expectations while in Ghana, as further affirmation of their commitment to Ghana, and Ghanaians. They must not be seen as retreating to the United States (as some of the 'immigrants' have reportedly done) at the least perceived injury to their pride and sense of purpose; and then spread unfounded rumours about life in Ghana!
Furthermore, African-Americans return to Ghana, not as Black people imbued with African ideals and culture. Rather, African-American return as know-it-all Americans; and products of centuries of being brainwashed about Africa. Most of them still subscribe to the racist Western view of Africa as a jungle inhabited by Tarzans gallivanting from tree to tree! African-Americans have also bought into the romanticism of being descended from "Nubian" (i.e. African) Kings and Queens. It is inevitable therefore that some of them would expect to be treated as Princes and Princesses upon their return to the "motherland"! That is not reality.
Should our African-American 'cousins' shear themselves of whatever romantic pretenses they harbor about Ghana (and indeed Africa), and resign themselves to the reality of a 'Third-World' situation, that is completely 'unlike America', perhaps the initial culture shock will subside into a more mature relationship. That way, even some of the 'most alienated and bitter cultural migrants' from America will indeed find a home in Ghana. Above all, Ghana should endeavor to attract the upper-crust of American society to invest in Ghana (Black or White!); and not rely only on the "Black Hebrews", "Nation of Islam" zealots, and retirees looking for sun and fun; who flocked to Ghana under Rawlings!!
Neither do African-Americans have a humanitarian record once they are accorded citizenship in Africa. The last time African-Americans were granted outright citizenship in Africa, the effect was the diminution of the African as savage and uncivilized, worthy only to be colonized, and treated as second-class citizen. That happened in Liberia since the 1820's when freed slaves made their home in those parts. In 1926, the League of Nations had to censure the (African-) Americo-Liberian (as the freed slaves and their descendants called themselves) government for operating a system of forced labor on the 'natives', that was akin to slavery. It took the Samuel Doe coup d'etat in 1980 to right the wrongs in Liberia.
African-Americans can be a great source of investment in Africa, but there is no greater example than by their lack of similar investment in black neighborhoods in America!!
As a developing country, Ghana is afflicted by all the symptoms of under-development, yet the tendency to emphasize the negative aspects by the Western Media is mind-boggling. Gregg Zachary's attempt to introduce Ghanaian guilt in the slave trade in his article on the lives of African-American immigrants in Ghana is typical of ongoing attempts by the West, to shift "the slave trade blame-game" to Africans to assuage European and American guilt. It follows among others, earlier American TV documentary pieces on slavery such as those by Arthur Kent on the History Channel, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on public television's PBS Channel.
The gist of the new argument is that "without African participation, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade could not have been possible". That is simply hogwash. It is as if the Europeans sought African agreement before building the ships, the chains, the Forts, and all the instruments needed to effectuate the nefarious trade. Or as if Europeans sought African views at Berlin 1884 when the partition and colonization of Africa was discussed and planned. Did African concerns matter in these two wholly European enterprises, intended to benefit Europeans and Americans? The Slave Trade was a European enterprise into which Africans were dragged as bit players! Six years ago, a delegation of Ghanaian Chiefs led by Nana Oduro Numamapau, the Paramount Chief of Asumenya in the Asante Region did in fact travel to the USA to deliver an apology to an African-American group for Ghanaian Chiefs' role in the slave trade.
It can only be surmised that African guilt in the slave trade is being employed in order to drive a wedge between the African-Americans and Ghanaians, in this instance. Thus, the article could have the unintended consequence of destroying the fledgling tourism business in Ghana, by casting Ghanaians as ancient slave traders, and currently hostile to the descendants of slaves who have returned to the "motherland"!
As a people, Ghanaians relish debates, criticisms, and differing opinions. We are our own harshest critics. Several of our idioms and proverbs such as "Ti Kro Nko Agyina", "Dua Kro Gye Mframa a Ebu", all speak to the dangers inherent in not accepting advise and criticism. Ghanaians are aware that much of our roads are savaged by pot-holes; that our public health system is in disarray; and that corruption inhibits the deliverance of prompt service in the public sector. Such issues are debated and written about endlessly in the Ghanaian newspapers, and discussed on radio and television. Indeed, the government is taking adequate measures to redress these problems. Hence, Gregg Zachary's article is pointless and retrograde, in its portrayal of Ghana in rather negative tones at a time when Ghana is at the forefront in Africa's march to progress and development. Activities to which investors such as the readers of the Wall Street Journal have been invited by the new Ghanaian administration to participate.
The new millennium presents new opportunities and challenges for Ghana. Ghana has just had peaceful elections, and inaugurated a new a president to office. The country enjoys peace and stability which are sine qua non to political and economic development. Gregg Zachary and the Wall Street Journal could have emphasized these positive aspects as a good service to its numerous readers who may wish to invest in, or visit Ghana. By deciding to focus on the trivial, and rehashing non-existing tensions, Gregg Zachary provided a disservice to his readers by continuing the inordinate and pernicious practice among the Western media to ignore everything but the negative in Africa. Such a view can only derail Ghana's attempt to entice foreign investors to assist in the development of the country. And that would be unfortunate!!!