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Opinions of Thursday, 15 October 2015

Columnist: Elizabeth Ohene

The difference between noise and silence

I got back to Kotoka International Airport late evening over the weekend and into a less than pleasant welcome. It was all going so well. There I was at the airport and into a much bigger and pleasant Arrival Hall than I had been the last time.
The ongoing works were finally showing some results and I was ready to feel that the Akwaaba written at the entrance of the Hall was truly meant.

I went through all the many officialdom stops without much drama until I got to the very last encounter where there were two men checking luggage tags. The man made no attempt to check the tag on my bag; he pushed his mouth into my face and barked at me: “So what have you brought for us?” I pretended I hadn’t heard him and tried to walk on; he blocked my path and growled: “you must give us something even if it is some small money”. I tried to contain my outrage as I said in my most polite tone: “excuse me?” and wondered what my next step was going to be if the official persisted with his demand.

Luckily for us all, the drama being played out came to a sudden end when the couple following me was waved on and I joined his group. I must confess I hadn’t been confronted with such blatant demand for a bribe for a long time. And in reality, what this man had tried to get from me did not qualify as bribery because I was not looking for any favours, I hadn’t broken any rules or regulations, I hadn’t done anything wrong and I wasn’t looking to do anything remotely wrong for which reason I would give him money to be given an advantage. I was simply a very tired old woman who had been up since dawn and been travelling on various trains and planes and having got home, was determined to be in a good mood because we had an enlarged refurbished Arrival Hall.

I had been in Lillehammer, a small picturesque town in Norway, for five days attending a conference and I was, therefore, very ill-prepared for such an encounter on arrival. Norway is one of my favourite countries. I like the orderliness and I always feel ashamed that they can be so well organised and we are so chaotic.

Population growth and development
I have always put part of the blame for our many problems in Ghana on our unsustainable rate of population growth; and I cite Norway to back up my argument. If you have heard me on this a few times before, I apologise but it needs to be said. At our independence, Ghana and Norway had about the same population, that is just around five million; and now some 58 years later, Ghana’s population is 28 million and Norway’s population is just over five million.

There is no point in trying to go and learn lessons from Norway on how they deal with their oil revenue when we have a population growth that is so completely different from theirs. It might well be that they are able to manage their money better not necessarily because they are more honest than we are but simply because there are a fewer number of people to spend the money on.

These five days in Lillehammer have only served to reinforce my strong views on why Norway works and Ghana doesn’t. During such moments I resign myself to not comparing Ghana with Norway. The conference I attended was the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ICIG, and our man of the moment, investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, was there, wowing the crowds.

Demanding money at Kotoka Airport
As can be expected at such a conference, and because of the recent events about our judiciary, Ghana was a much quoted example on many lips. I tried to move the conversation on by suggesting that the exposé had been such a traumatic experience that salutary lessons had been learnt by all. I propounded the theory that the “Fear of Anas” would make people hesitate about demanding or accepting bribes. Admittedly, the exit route at an airport is not exactly the same as a judge’s chambers but it was obvious the man checking the luggage tags at Kotoka airport had no fear of being caught on camera demanding bribes.

I suspect that coming from Norway probably made me less tolerant of the conditions that I was confronted with on arrival back home. In their hotels, broadband Internet services are offered free and considered standard, like clean towels and shampoos. A far cry from the conditions I had been faced with in the three weeks I had been travelling around Ghana before the Norwegian trip. The strong, free, uninterrupted Internet services are offered on the trains, airports, all public places.

Order versus chaos
The thought has crossed my mind that it was a thoroughly pointless exercise trying to compare Ghana with Norway. It is hot here and it is cold there most of the time. The average temperature in Lillehammer the five days I was there was 5 degrees Celcius and when I landed at the airport in Accra, it was 27 degrees Celcius.

Lillehammer has been a host city for the Winter Olympics and we are never likely to see snow in Accra ever. Over there, nobody litters anywhere, nobody walks on the public lawns and drivers stay in their lanes; over here, it is perfectly okay to put rubbish on the street and it is one of our fundamental God-given human rights to set up a market at every traffic junction.

But I discovered I was not the only person indulging in the comparison exercise. I spent some time with two young Norwegian journalism students, one of whom said she had spent two months last year at the University of Cape Coast. She said she had absolutely loved her time here and she showed me photos of herself taken wearing clothes made from our local fabrics and in our styles. The one who had never been to Ghana, asked me what I thought the difference was between Ghana and Norway. Before I could give my answer, which was: chaos and order; her friend said: noise and silence.

Maybe chaos and order, rhyme with noise and silence. And it is only in the noise and chaos that an official will dare bark at you at the airport to demand money. We can do with some silence.