Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

It's Official - Hunger At The Top

Elizabeth Ohene

The other fact of life that was given a stamp of official acceptance is starvation and the practice christened in Ghana as "AFFECT".

Starvation ceased to be a rude word when the Peoples Daily Graphic quoted Madam Fathia Nkrumah (widow of the late ex-President Kwame Nkrumah) as saying that she was going back to Egypt, because she "was starving".

She was also quoted as saying that she had had to sell her engagement ring to be able to pay her child's school fees in London. With this one utterance, Madam Fathia had made official what most Ghanaians have come to accept for a long time.

The selling of personal properties to be able to afford everyday needs has become normal reality in Ghana.

The onset of middle age in women in Ghana used to be characterised by the practice of buying "dutch wax prints'' and "putting them in a trunk" towards old age, the arrival of grandchildren who would use the cloths as sleeping bags and the time of death, for it was supposed to be a mark of irresponsibility for a middle-aged woman to die and not have new or scarcely-worn cloths neatly piled in a trunk. These cloths, family heirlooms passed down through many generations in the poorest of homes, prized beads, have all been regularly sold now for some time to find money to buy food.

Those who had no such things sell an extra pair of shoes, a transistor radio bought during better times, a refrigerator that the wife had thought she could not live without, an extra saucepan bought to fry a mother-in law's recipe in, even the trunk that one took to boarding school.

Every and any item was put on the market, their values varied of course, some had gold sovereigns that had been in their families for years, some a velvet cloth they had inherited from a favourite aunt and some, a shirt that had been washed half a dozen times but which can still fetch the price of a day's meal for the family.

To start with, it was all done most discreetly, you did not admit that the transistor radio was yours, a friend who arrived from Germany had given it to you to sell, some old lady in your village had asked you to sell her "aggrey beads" for her, and the gold necklace and the ring and the "complete Works of Shakespeare" given to you as a Literature Prize in Form Five..........

After a while, no explanations were asked or given, a little sad and knowing glance, muted tones "how much?...... Five? Okay, I'll see what I can do. Will you take four?. Please make it four and a half".

Transaction concluded. For each figure mentioned, simply add a thousand, Ghanaians had become so embarrassed by the worthlessness of their currency, they do not bother to add things like tens, or hundreds any more, if you ask for the price of something and you are told "five" do not make the mistake and think the price is five cedis; "five" is understood as "five thousand cedis". It is this practice of selling personal goods that has come to be known as "affect".

Now that even Madam Fathia, honorary guest of the state has admitted to practising "affect" it means that the "Ghana situation" has finally reached the level where the rulers might take notice.

One only hopes that Madam Fathia was able to get a good price for her engagement ring for surely, there must be Kwame Nkrumah devotees around the world who will be willing and able to pay very fancy sums for the engagement ring that the Osagyefo gave his child bride!

As for her "starving" in the sense that most Ghanaians have been starved and become emaciated, one should hope that Madam Fathia was indulging in a bit of hyperbole which she is rather fond of.

This writer recalls an earlier interview that Madam Fathia gave to a Nigerian newspaper back in 1979 in which she bemoaned her situation in Ghana and complained bitterly about having been treated shabbily by Ghanaians.

According to that article, even at that time, things were very hard for her, her car was forever breaking down and on one occasion when it had packed up on her again on the way to an official function, a kind Lebanese was the only person who came to her rescue and later gave her a car.

At that time many people felt and said that the state had been generous enough with her. The house in North Labone that was constructed for her when she came back to Ghana had been built on land that had been reserved for shops for the area and many people in the neighbourhood had never got over that, and her police guards, servants, cook and ladies-in waiting did not give the impression that she was hard up.

An even earlier incident back in 1977 had convinced this writer that Madam Fathia would never adjust to not being First Lady of Ghana and living in Flagstaff House. The most exasperated mood I saw the late Colonel R.J.A. Felli in, was when as Foreign Affairs Commissioner he had to put up with what I was told, was one of Madam Fathia's regular complaints about how the stipend the state was giving her was inadequate.

But if all that was not enough to convince me of her complaints, I was witness to an incredible performance by Madam Fathia on a hot Saturday afternoon at a hairdressing saloon in Accra. As women would do, she started telling some dreadful things she had had to put up with in life: "That my husband, God rest him wherever he is, but he was a ba-ad man!, a bad man, do you know that when he was alive, when I came to Ghana he would not let anybody do my hair for me, he told me that Ghanaian women are bad and if they touch my hair, they would make juju on my hair, so I always had to do my own hair......."

Shocked, embarrassed and silent in the saloon, many could have told her a few reasons why the Osagyefo did not want her to be unduly friendly with Ghanaian women...... but then most people in that saloon were just hoping that she did not repeat such "scandalous" titbits about the Osagyefo to the hearing of some of his more devout followers.

All such make me acutely aware that it is quite likely that Madam Fathia has not yet been transformed into a Twiggy nor maybe got a Rawlings Accordion yet. But there is no doubt that she has at last become a "Ghanaian" woman in reality, selling her engagement ring to be able to pay her son's school fees. Except of course that when they sell their clothes, it is to buy food for starving children.

Recently, a lot of fuss was made in Accra about the anniversary of Kwame Nkrumah's birth. Many commentators tried to draw similarities between Kwame Nkrumah's works and what is happening in Ghana currently. Comrade Kojo Tsikata's Nkrumaist credentials were dusted up and paraded.

People went to great lengths to show that the PNP which had claimed to be the successor to Kwame Nkrumah's Convention People's Party did not act remotely like the C.P.P. It is the PNDC, infact, which has finally taken up what was so rudely interrupted in February 1966, the argument was made.

It will be interesting to see how these true Nkrumaists react to Madam Fathia's charge that she is starving and to her claim that the Ambassadors of Guinea and Egypt have been looking after her. In the scramble to claim the status of legitimate heirs to Kwame Nkrumah and his CPP, is there a place for his widow and biological children?

The temptation is very great to welcome Madam Fathia to the status of Ghanaian womanhood who must have been the one in the song: "I saw a woman on bended knee, cutting cane for her family........"

See slso: It's Official: Cedi is Devalued

talking drums 1983-10-24 Nkrumah's widow starves - Rawlings stabs press in the back