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Opinions of Thursday, 6 September 2007

Columnist: Opare-Addo, Kofi Opare

Imagine Michael Vick Was Ghanaian

For most Ghanaians and surely most Africans too, the name Michael Vick could as well be the name of a recently discovered flying mammal or a powerful Western politician whose every word the rest of us must pay attention to. Or he could even be the inventor of the popular anti-cold inhaler, Vicks. In the midst of the hourly media onslaught over his bestial participation in an illegal pastime, dog fighting and dog killing, you get the impression that he wished he was anything but an American. Michael Vick is a high profile NFL quarter-back for the Atlanta Falcons.

A uniquely American sport, the National Football League (not soccer) for all its glamour and dominance in the USA, suffers basic a problem of arousing anything between complete dis-interest and contempt from the outside world whose leisure time is spent thinking about, you guessed right, soccer. So I know the odd Ebusua Dwarfs fan still wonders who the heck Michael Vick is. So let’s try this. Imagine Michael Essien, imagine the palpable fright his talent and tenacity inspires in the eyes and soul of his opponents. Now let’s just assume for the sake my poor illustration that, you wake up to the news that Essien, the self-effacing and ready to smile midfield star man you know, kills dogs who do not perform well in dog-fights he sponsors and gambles on for pleasure.

Obviously your first reaction would be horror, but I am wondering if that would translate into your favorite soccer star staring at a 5 year imprisonment and a truncated career. Ghana being Ghana, the worst he would endure could be taunts from fans that he uses them (the dead dogs) for “Sikaduro”. As you read this Michael Vick, the star quarterback, has pled guilty to dog-fighting and dog-killing both illegal in the United States. And also as a consequence he has, last lost his major sponsors Nike, and would refund over 20 million dollars in signing bonus. His 10 year contract worth some 130 million with the Atlanta Falcons is in the shredder. All this “wahala” over dogs.

It is tempting to roll on the ground with laughter over the way half of America was flailing its hands, hollering and foaming at the mouth over Vicks poor judgment, because your’s is a culture where pets eat leftovers thrown at them in the dirt, and the resident dog knows he is always an afterthought. And you know your dog would die in only 2 ways, become a road kill, or worse, be a delicacy for a Dagado neighbor across street. Oh, and I forgot this; your dog’s hard life include running away from boys whose many mischief include pelting anything from lizards to dogs for fun and target practice.

In the days when my old man was a cop at Wa, my brothers and I (there’s five of us) frequently saw these same eleven men whose blaze of glory, it seemed to us, was to hunt down dogs for their meat. Their bodies and heavily calloused hands may be weary from the day’s work on their yam and millet farms, but the smell of a well seasoned dog meal wafting through the humid savannah air always seemed to energize them to wild dances in the darkened alleys and backstreets where the feasts always took place. They would serenade and dance to tunes from violins garlanded by colorful duku (women head-scarves). In their happy and shrieking voices we would hear baa lala bun (the dog is laughing at the fire) at the severed dog head dripping with juices on the grill. Where and how these men got the dogs from was not a secret to anyone. Usually these dogs were turned in by owners looking to rid themselves of a sick or troublesome dog. Before you jump on me for singling out Ghana for my much of my examples, let me say I know it is much worse in Nigeria where everything that occurs in Ghana is on a much larger scale. And in Asia, in particular, the issue made it all the way to diplomatic circles. When in 1988 Seoul hosted the Olympics restaurants were banned from serving the delicacy in much of South Korea. For anyone from a culture where this goes on everyday, the Michael Vick case seems overblown and a waste of time.

But not too fast, there are three reasons why Michael Vick deserves his present misfortune. He is from country where pets, in fact dogs, have as much right as any breathing human. In a very capitalist environment where a clockwork pursuit of wealth, work and paying bills defines everyone’s life, keeping pets serves as a stress filter for people left emotionally bruised and drained by the daily grind and hustle. Your neighbor, just as stressed can’t stand talking to you for more than five minutes, but your dog would always welcome you like you are the only reason he lives. People here say pets save people from frequent trips to the shrink. According to the Center for Business Research at the University of Massachusetts, the pet food industry in the United States would be worth some 17 billion dollars by the end of 2008. Throw in the cost of Vet care, grooming and other supplies and you are looking at yearly expenditure of 40 billion dollars. With a statistic like that you wonder why any of the 74 million dogs living in the United States has an assured higher quality of life than anyone in Darfur? Which is why secondly, it looks outrageous for anyone who lives in a culture like that to harm anything people see key to their emotional balance. That makes him a murderous man.

And keeping a squeaky clean public and private persona brings us to the key, and the third part of the argument of the anti-Vicks crowd. You see this is the only country, I know, where public office is equally coveted and achievable by the CEO, the janitor and anyone whose vocation falls between. Where you and I come from both the athlete and all his spectators know that the trajectory of his career when the final whistle blows on it, would not take him beyond being a coach. With the dubious exception of Idi Amin whose accent to power after a failed heavyweight boxing career detoured through a Kampala army barracks I can hardly remember any very successful African politician who once was an athlete. A real one, not the secondary school kind (even I did that, ask Karl Tufuoh). George Weah came close though, in Liberia. A coach who killed dogs in his steroid and marijuana inspired playing days would always be forgiven as long as, week after week, he gets the results. Would you vote a man who once killed dogs into any pubic office? Not even in Wapani where dog meat is a delicacy, because over there dogs can sniff out their “eaters” from a mile away and would keep barking until that visibly mortified dog-eating man disappears. Can you imagine all the “doggy” questions that would hound you (no pun intended) on your campaign trail? Even more troubling for erring athletes could be a diminishing appeal as role models for kids.

Then, if you like, throw in for good measure, the curious fact that Vicks does not believe in his own medicine for failing performers. His Atlanta Falcons is yet to make it to the Super bowl (American Football’s equivalent of soccer’s World Cup final) since he was drafted in 2001, and by applying his own rule, he should be dead by now. Even an eight year old would tell you he is not fair.

In my years of reporting and writing I have seen worse from other high profile athletes and have always held the view that we can say all we want and they would do all the want. Hard wired into the DNA of these marquee sportsmen is also an enhanced capacity for the dramatic and silly. So occasionally, and for some frequently, the talented public face that we know and admire is a man with a tortured soul. The same fine sportsman who would help an old lady cross the street could also start a fight all by himself in an empty room. But my point here is not to explain the thought processes of “by heart” men who also strut their talents for our entertainment.

More important for me, as a wide-eyed African observing Americans wrapped up in a cultural firestorm, Vick’s “doggy” indiscretion provides another portal into Western sensibilities, especially to animals. Not to mention the deep cultural chasm it demonstrates between ours and theirs. Hard for me to understand how I could drive with a dog in my lap or how a German Sherperd would lick me on my mouth, but at the same time my family dog, Sherqui, until he was run over by a drunk driver was very well liked. And because our’s is a society with little or no regard for animals, except for their culinary importance, even my retired cop dad’s best effort to seek punishment for the killer went nowhere. He got away being drunk driver and got away killing a dog.

As a sports story, it reminds me of how athletes (in Ghana) with horrifying personal lives still walk free because the country’s sport governing bodies do not see why that should affect their lives in the arena. How unlucky for Michael Vick that he is not an African or Asian. When in December he returns to the court room to know what his sentence would be, he would remember the old saying “every dog has his day” in his case even dead ones do. For me I am in a cultural bind.



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