Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Hunger for Sale

by Elizabeth Ohene

For a brief moment, I thought it was an Oxfam advertisement. You know the type of poster that is pasted on the Oxfam shop front doors, guaranteed to melt the heart of the meanest miser.

I had indeed seen similar sounding posters on some Oxfam shop front doors in February this year when the expulsion of illegal immigrants from Nigeria was on "One (or was it two?) million refugees in Ghana, urgent help needed! Come in and give nothing too small!"

I used to stare at these posters in anger, frustration, despair, humiliation and a sense of guilt. I would stand there in morbid fascination this minute and then willing it to disappear the next moment. It surely cannot be my Ghana they are referring to. Bangladesh, Ethiopia maybe, probably Vietnam. Was it really so long ago that Ghanaian school children used to collect pennies to help starving children of other lands?

If I give up having one meal a day and donate the cost to Oxfam, would it help the situation? Was it obscene to drink a can of beer while there were two million refugees in Ghana?

I am not sure which came first, was it who refused to look in that direction because I could not bear it any more or was it just that such phenomena have an extremely short life span in the international community and press? Anyway, the next time. I willed myself to look, it had been replaced with a “Famine in Ethiopia” poster.

Of course, that was infinitely more comfortable, you could sit in the bus and keep your eyes resolutely averted to one side every time the bus approached the Oxfam shop. Ostrich like attitude? Maybe, but easier to contain your private grief, that way than the public humiliation.

In the meantime those non-Ghanaian friends who summoned up enough courage to bring up the matter, you had to face somehow and be brave. One can get totally paranoid on a matter like this-is it sympathy or a smirk you can see on the face of an old friend?

But you must find your voice somehow. There can be no such beings as refugees in Ghana. You simply do not understand; Ghanaian society is not like your society. Every single Ghanaian being expelled from Nigeria has a home in Ghana to go to. Even those of them who are destitute, each one has a family to go to and the family will not question that it has an obligation to provide him with a roof over his head and everybody will share whatever food there is with him.

The only problem I envisage is transportation and the closure of the borders, if only the regime in Ghana would open the borders there would be no crisis.

As it turned out one's attempts at "braving it out" turned out to have been an accurate assessment of the situation but it was not a victory.

Ghanaians had entered folklore as examples of miserable specimens of humanity, but nothing was ever going to blot out those images of hungry, exhausted and screaming masses of outstretched hands towards a half loaf of bread being distributed by inter national relief workers. That look of total, hopelessness on the faces of mothers, the accusing and forlorn look in the eyes of the children will never go away.


The same emotion that Vietnamese boat people evoked would come up every time the word "Ghana" was mentioned.

Arguments about whether Nigeria was right or callous, recollections of a similar order made in Ghana a decade earlier were futile. Ghana, Black Star of Africa, refugee, dredge of humanity, soldiers beating up the refugees when they finally made it "home". Just how do the scenes blend?

The headlines switched on to something more interesting like war in Beirut, British elections etc, the inner anguish persisted, the frustration mounted. You knew that the publicity about the refugees gave the wrong impression, you knew that the brave editorials in the Ghana press and speeches by Government members about no problems could not be worth much. Already there were serious food problems. Malnutrition and starvation were words getting current usage in Ghana, an extra million mouths was not likely to make things any easier.

Then one's worst nightmares became a reality. Between March and July this year, most parents had long become accustomed to one meal every other day so that their children could have one meal a day. Very soon "I had a glass of water for lunch" ceased to draw my smiles or gasps; it was too real, too often and too widespread. People started selling their personal possessions to be able to buy a meal, a transistor radio here, a pair of trousers there. It required three and a half days wages to be able to afford one kilo of meat at the government controlled price.

New words entered the Ghanaian vocabulary, a few would help explain the situation. Rawlings Accordion: visible skinny rib cages prevalent on old and young. Rawlings Chain: hollow necklines, Rawlings Drop: the phenomenon whereby skirts and trousers could not be kept up because everybody was half his size. Family heads became beggars - they could not face the hungry cries of their children.

Did these make headlines? No, but the revolutionary rhetoric did and the hunger stories remained in Ghana..


So what was it that started me thinking of Oxfam shops and international headlines? Yet another headline on Sunday September 25 in The Sunday Times of London "Hunger is a desperate daily reality for Ghana's 14 million people". My heart stopped, then I realised it was not a 'Sunday Times' headline, it was an advertisement for the September/October issue of the magazine New Socialist.

A closer look showed that it was really an advertisement for the chain shop of W.H. Smith. They said they had hundreds of magazines, come in and buy some. Of course they had me hooked, I had to get a copy of New Socialist; it looked like the hunger of Ghanaians had finally made it to the international headlines.

A similar advertisement appeared in The Guardian of Monday September 25, 1983.

I bought my first copy of New Socialist and carried it proudly out of my local W.H. Smith. My first anxious look through to the end and there did not seem to be one article on hunger in Ghana. What I did find under the 'Frontline' section of the magazine is reprinted here for the benefit of readers. The short article was by Ms. Victoria Brittain, described by the BBC World Service as "The Guardian's Africa expert."

The sentence about hunger being the desperate daily reality for 14 million Ghanaians does indeed appear, so I suppose I could not lodge a complaint with the Fair Trade Practices Department.

But hunger was not what interested the writer, the most important things in Ghana were two significant long term political projects: the opening of the University of Ghana as a cadre school for workers and Defence Committee militants and National Mobilisation Programme due to start next month.


The present food crisis is the fault of governments that had preceded the present PNDC. Not one word about the deliberate policy of the PNDC to stop all food imports at the beginning of their regime, a decision taken without any consideration of how the shortfall was going to be replaced.

Nothing about all foodstocks having been sold by heavily armed soldiers and Defence Committee members and the traditional women traders having been chased out by an unimaginative decree.

Or could it be that the readers of New Socialist are not interested in the hunger of miserable Ghanaians, for as long as "the revolution" is safe? What is a little problem like starvation among the population if "the urban workers" ...... will begin politicisation of the rest of the people.

It could not be that 'New Socialist' will stoop to the level of capitalist firms in adopting their marketing. tactics - why else was the whole magazine, being sold on a passing sentence in an article on Ghana more concerned with militants and politicization than with hunger - an issue that contained extensive interviews with the candidates for the Labour Party leadership, a dissertation by Mr. Tony Benn on why Labour lost and what it must do to win the next election and an article on the wooing of the Working Class and many more Socialist ideas.

Perish the thought that an attempt was being made to sell "New Socialist" on the empty stomachs and hollow cheeks of Ghanaians. I will blame it all on W.H. Smith, that is a capitalist venture and they are selling their wares and everybody knows that capitalists are not moralists, they just want to sell their magazines, if there is a sentence in one of them that will make people buy, why not flog it.

It worked on me, I wonder how many others fell for it - the old capitalist ploy.

In the meantime the hunger does persist in Ghana and very soon even the militants who currently get fed first with whatever the leaders leave before anybody else; even they might not be able to shout or politicize. The hunger will get to them.

As for the returnees from Nigeria taking enthusiastically to farming, a check in Nigeria will show that the majority of those expelled earlier in the year, are back with their friends and families.

They could not take the hunger or the revolution.

talking drums 1983-10-03 Hunger is a desperate reality for Ghana's 14 million people