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Opinions of Friday, 28 March 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: Where is the hospitality?

Forgive me, but is there still such a thing as the legendary Ghanaian hospitality? Are we still supposed to be most hospitable people on earth? Or we have lost that title too? Otherwise, someone should explain to me why our government is treating our refugee brothers and sisters from Liberia like they were the scum of the earth?

About 40,000 Liberians have been our guests for almost two decades. Escaping from the murderous hoodlums unleashed on them by the lunatic called Charles Taylor, we welcomed them into our land and provided them with the much-needed sanctuary. It was a very noble thing to do – a poor country with inadequate social infrastructure decides to take care of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable. We gave them a vast piece of land to live on. A good number of these refugees have only been told that they come from Liberia but Ghana is the place they know best. For them, Ghana feels more like home than their war-ravaged country. Our people have married some of them and they have married some of our people. Now we should have a good number of people who will proudly call themselves Ghanaian-Liberians (or Liberian-Ghanaians). The Buduburam camp, where most of these Liberians stay is regarded more like a regular township than a refugee settlement. According to the UN, it’s one of the best examples of how refugees should be treated.

We were taking care of our guests quite well until just a couple of weeks ago.

The lunatic Charles Taylor is out of office and is standing trial for crimes against humanity. Liberia is moving slowly on the road to recovery. The country has one of the most progressive heads of state in Africa and (thank God!) she’s a kind-hearted woman. The United Nations (which has been helping to take care of our guests) believes it’s time to wash its hands off the refugees. The UN thinks Liberia will not go back to the chaos and the madness that sent most of its citizens scurrying into foreign lands. In fact, it thinks that all Liberian hands should be on deck to help restore the country to normalcy again. And, of course, Liberia needs everyone of its citizens (except Charles Taylor and his ilk). So who in his right, patriotic senses will refuse to return home to help build his country?

Well, I think if I were a refugee (Tofiakwa!) and I was being asked to go back home with a mere $100 dollars, I would complain. What in heaven’s name is a man supposed to do with that amount of money? That’s how much Michael Jackson spends on lip gloss a day! Asking a refugee who is hustling but living quite comfortably in Ghana to go back to Liberia with a mere $100 is, to my mind quite insulting and cruel. So if I were refugee I would protest.

And that’s exactly what our guests at Buduburam did. I do not understand why the men did not take part in the demonstrations outside the camp, preferring to sleep in their tents whiles the women stood in the scorching sun to put their point across. Their case was simple: if you want us out of Ghana with a mere $100 dollars, don’t send us to Liberia, send us to a western country where, at least, we can get some opportunities to work and educate our kids.

On the surface this might sound like an unreasonable demand. Maybe it is. But I also think it is the cry of a desperate soul who is being forced to choose between life and death. And it was perfectly within their rights to protest. After weeks of silent protests have failed to heed much, the women decided to do something more dramatic: strip themselves naked. When I heard that the Liberian women had stripped themselves naked and were protesting at the camp, I said to myself: “optrex – what a sight for sore eyes.”

I wanted to go there and observe ‘things’ for myself. Can you imagine my disappointment when I heard that the demonstrators were mostly over 40? Considering that the camp is right besides a major highway, I think many of those who saw the women were quite disgusted by the sight of the vast array of ‘bobby pakyaa’ on display. The Interior Minister, Kwamena Bartels, went to the camp and saw those depleted muscles and got very incensed. Trust me, I think if he and many of those travelling on that highway had seen the breasts of young women between 18 and 25, they would have encouraged them to smear olive oil on their bodies. We might even have decided to turn the demonstrating Liberian women into a tourist attraction. “Come to Ghana, where Liberian refugees demonstrate naked...” That would have been the ad on CNN. But damn, who wants to see the breasts of 40- to 50-year-olds?

According to the Interior Minister, the women’s actions had endangered national security. Really? When did exposed breasts become a national security threat? If breasts were that dangerous, a lot of our ministers would have been assassinated by now!

Anyhow, with the breasts posing such a grave national security threat, the police were called in to arrest the women. They were forced onto buses (I hear some were even deceived that they were being sent to America) and taken to a very far off place called Kordiabe. I’ve been to the camp where the women are being kept. It’s nothing like Buduburam. For one, it’s not near a major highway. So even if they decide to strip naked again, they won’t offend anyone. Secondly, they are under police guard. They are not allowed out of the camp and visitors are met with a barrage of questions before being allowed in. When I visited Kordiabe, the refugees I was told by a police officer that the refugees were “being screened.” The result of that screening is that 16 of them have been deported and the fate of the others remain in the hands of those who think exposed breasts (especially the sagging ones – the sort A. B. Crentsil refers to as “bobby Pakyaa”) pose a national security threat. We shall see.

All I can do now is ask: where is the hospitality. After almost 20 years of taking care of our friends and brothers and sisters from Liberia, is this how we want the rest of the world to portray us? As the country that took away their rights to freely express themselves – even through demonstrations? And do we want to lose our so-called reputation as a hospitable nation, simply because Kwamena Bartels hates to see sagging breasts?

It’s amazing how in their words, our government wants to be given the credit for initiating dialogue for the formation of a Union Government of Africa but in their deeds they are treating our fellow African brothers and sisters like they were some aliens from Pluto. The xenophobia is shameful but it’s yet another reason for me to say that this United States of Africa will happen over my dead body.