Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Ghana - Signs Of The Times

by Elizabeth Ohene

The main evidence why the current verdict on Ghana is "things are much improved" is that goods are on display in Ghana's supermarkets. The writer looks behind the scene on apparent and illusory developments.
The Ghana National Trading Corporation, better known really as GNTC to Ghanaians (it is the state-owned supermarket chain), has been placing full-page advertisements in the national newspapers.

That really should not be anything worth mentioning except, of course, that this is a country and a supermarket chain where for the past many years, if there was anything to be sold, it was kept underneath the counters and behind closed doors and was available only to a select few.


The uninitiated will say, "What is the big deal?. Supermarkets are meant to sell precisely such items and much more, and so if the shop is not having a sale, what is noteworthy then?" The relevance is that it is, indeed, a sign of the times that a supermarket has goods enough to advertise. That is the main evidence why the current verdict on Ghana is "things are much improved". What that quote translates into is that you can see on open display canned fruits, tinned foods of various description, whisky, brandy and other items that had once been labelled by the 'revolutionary' Rawlings regime as signs of "the decadence that the politicians had brought to our country".

Whether the majority of the people can afford to buy these items or not is not considered important in present day Ghana. Images are more import- ant. Appearances are the vital thing. There are available in Ghana everything that money can buy. The important thing is availability, it does not matter whether it is affordable by the majority. Such considerations have long ceased to matter. They were important when the politicians were in power and those who cared about the suffering of the people went to great lengths to point out that the government was providing only for a privileged class. Privileged classes are accepted and thrive today.

The boutiques that used to sell expensive clothing for the select few in the bad old days are thriving as never before. Some of the old ones have gone under and been bankrupted, their stock of goods seized by revolution- aries who were convinced that it was obscene to sell one ladies dress at C3,500, those boutiques that were closed invariably were unable to pay. the necessary bribe to the big men at the State House or had protectors. among the revolutionaries. But many new ones have emerged and they advertise and they sell dresses at C40,000 each and more. They sell ladies shoes at C25,000 a pair and they will sell flimsy cotton blouses at C16,000 and the obscenity grows and provides evidence that 'things are much improved in Ghana'.

The Head of State himself still keeps to his camouflage fatigues much of the time, but it has become more of a camouflage, for, the lean and hungry look of the pre-power days is gone, replaced by a fuller and rounder Rawlings.

The most popular car on the streets is the new Mercedes 190 series, called the 'Baby Benz'. The revolutionary regime must necessarily improve upon the 'Golf' of the Acheampong era and the Honda Accord and Peugeot 504 of the Limann era. The Datsun Stanzas, imported by the PNP administration but which they could not use before their ouster, which characterized the early days of the revolution have almost all disappeared from the roads, the majority crashed by reckless revolutionaries and others destroyed by equally committed revolutionaries who could not spare the time to check the water or oil levels of their newly acquired cars. Rumours that the cars were driven with no regard to their well being because their new owners did not pay for them and had free petrol and were often supposedly operational on duties and the drivers were accountable to no one are, of course, inspired by enemies of the revolution.

And so the 'Baby Benz' has become the revolutionary car, the symbol of the people's government. The Head of State himself still keeps to his camouflage fatigues much of the time but it has become more of a camouflage, for the lean and hungry look of the pre-power days is gone, replaced by a fuller and rounder Rawlings. The speeches he used to make in the early days castigating the politicians for having grown fat in office, must surely be coming back to haunt him now, as he stares in the mirror at his expanding midriff and rounded cheeks.

If, indeed, the "Rawlings Chain", "Rawlings Drop" (the hollow collar bones and skinny rib cages) of the 1982-83 years have indeed been replaced in the "Rawlings Overcoat" (Time magazine) then the clearest evidence lies in the leader himself and his immediate friends and colleagues. Even ex-Capt. Kodjo Tsikata seems to have abandoned his usual mode of dressing. The perennially too short pair of trousers that always looked like they were handed down from an older brother, or the muted Safari suit, are no longer the preferred attire of the “intellectual father” of the revolution.

Recent pictures of the Special Adviser show a rounder person actually wearing Western suits suspiciously so well cut, unkind people might think that when he makes his stop-overs in London he pays discreet visits to Savile Row.

One of the "available" items, freely on sale now, is the 'dumas cloth' - for the first time in many years, Makola women are actually carrying the cloth on their heads and ringing the little hand bells to try to coax people to buy. The prices range from C1,500 a half piece for the Made in Ghana ones to C5,000 a half piece for the Dutch dumas.

It is noticed and commented on by many that the female members of the regime seem to have a strong preference for the 'Dutch' version and that their seamstresses charge up to C3,500 to make one 'slit and kaba'. Your average woman pays C1,500 to the way-side seamstress to make her cloth. The village women, the famed rural dwellers are still selling their old cloths and those prized ones they had bought to keep in their trunks as part of the family heirloom. The important thing is that cloth is now available on the streets, the prices don't matter.

The way June 4 (the date of the first coming into power of Flt-Lt. Rawlings in 1979) was marked this year also gave a clear indication of the signs of the times. Summed up in newspaper headlines as "Fun and Games" galore, obviously even though in his speech the Leader of the Revolution SAID that there was not very much to celebrate, in fact they celebrated. Even before the big day The Mirror carried photographs on its front page of Flt-Lt. Rawlings riding a horse and the IMF guru Secretary for Finance on a bicycle "practising for the big day". Flt-Lt. Rawlings and his colleagues obviously felt that into their fourth year, they deserved to relax and celebrate. They organised fun football games, athletic competitions and general merry making.

But then maybe appearances are deceitful.

Carl Mutt, that veteran wit of Ghana journalism, wrote a piece in his column in The Mirror. Commenting on the expulsions from Nigeria and the persistent Ghanaian characteristic of leaving the country to go to foreign lands, however remote and unwelcoming, he wrote a satirical piece on what must be the ultimate in inaccessibility and inhospitality. Entitled 'Down Falklands Way' Carl Mutt wrote that he was arranging with the British Prime Minister Mrs. Margaret Thatcher to recruit Ghanaians to go to the Falklands Islands to help solve the British problems.

The very next week the entire readers' column of The Mirror was devoted to letters from readers offering themselves for inclusion in the Carl Mutt Task Force. They gave their full names and addresses, their academic qualifications and all other vital statistics and they did not think the original article was a joke. If they knew where the Falklands were or what the conditions were, they did not indicate, but they were enlisting…

Once in a while though the regime does remember to pay some attention to the farmers and other "have nots" for whom the revolution was supposedly launched. The producer price of cocoa was recently increased for the poor farmers.

A head-load of 30 kilograms was increased from C900 to C1,698. A most generous increase indeed, one might think. Except that the Free Press put it all in perspective. The paper wrote "Incidentally, 30 kilograms of fish sells at over C3,000. Unlike those in the fish industry who manage whilst on the high seas to sell some of their fish for foreign exchange, the cocoa farmer’s safest and best option is to sell cocoa to the Cocoa Marketing Board Those in the timber industry obtain a 20% foreign exchange bonus on whatever they export."

Oh, by the way, the wife of Leader of the Revolution, Mrs. Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, speaking in her capacity as President of December 31 Women's Movement made a forthright speech recently urged people to "challenge all who they have any evidence of corruption our midst to come forward so that necessary sanctions can be against any who have flouted principles of this Revolution."

Whether there will be any people coming forward to point out that all those able to buy a half piece of dumas and have it made must necessarily be magicians, only time will tell

talking drums 1985-06-24 kwame nkrumah Gold Coast end of empire