As you well know, Ghana celebrated its 59th anniversary of independence yesterday. An occasion many call a feat because we have done so largely without the violence and instability that mar the histories of many African nations. And yet, the day before Independence Day, I felt nothing. The morning of Independence Day, I felt nothing. Actually, I forgot it was independence day until a whole two hours – i.e. 120 minutes – after I woke up. I also just read the 59th anniversary speech President Mahama delivered. This is a first for me. I usually look forward to March 6 – not because it’s Independence Day, but because its yet another occasion to paint the town red, gold and green. To indulge in and celebrate my Ghanaianness to the hilt. I wore black and white yesterday. Although my choice of colors was not a conscious decision, I see now that it was fitting of the ambivalence I felt about my country’s independence celebration. Maybe it’s because the nostalgia and homesickness which has accompanied the day over the last decade is nowhere to be found now that I’m home.
The question that stayed with me and was echoed by others throughout the day was this: What exactly are we celebrating?
There’s a scene in the popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy where one of the lead characters, a doctor, dies. In a state of the art hospital. Because of another doctor’s negligence. I watched that episode. While Grey’s Anatomy fans worldwide were behest with sorrow about the actor’s exit from the show, I was riled up for another reason entirely. Because it’s not just a TV show. It happens. Daily. Right here in Accra and all across Ghana. Able-bodied men, women and children, people, die of ailments, not because they are incurable, but because someone somewhere is not doing their job. In my riled up state, I wrote about the scene on Facebook and got a chastisement (?) for not giving a spoiler alert. In my defense, I didn’t know Ghanaians were big on the show until that day and my reason and argument for why it was important to share that particular scene was not taken lightly. “You could have warned us,” they said. Point taken.
Yesterday, while President John Mahama hosted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and, I’m sure, a bunch of other dignitaries, I remembered that scene. My sister and I went to see an uncle and aunt who had recently visited the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Ghana’s so-called “premier health care facility”. They had taken their youngest daughter, a one-year old, to the hospital for treatment after she turned over a bowl of hot water on herself and sustained burns on her arms and legs. Their narration of their experience was heartbreaking. Not only did they have to wait over 12 hours at the hospital, with a screaming baby and no offer of first aid or a general check, they also had to purchase practically every single item that would be used to treat the child: from the plaster to the gauze to the ointments to the cotton balls, you name it. Every single item, at about twice the actual cost because someone in the hospital is operating a monopoly of sorts. Their bill ran up over 1000GHS (about $300), none of which the Ghana Health Insurance Scheme helps cover, and they are not even done yet with the cleanings, dressing and treatment. The only positive in all this? That they had thought to take their daughter to a clinic nearby for first aid before heading to Korle Bu. Without that, the child’s burns would have been infected and her condition much worse.
The nurses who checked them in told them they needed to wait for someone from the plastic surgery department to tend to them. And yet, the nurses never even sent the child’s file to the department nor did they call to notify that someone. All this, while my aunt and uncle struggled with their child who screamed in pain. They eventually returned home only to come back the following day for another 8 hours or so of waiting. In the end, they had to call a doctor friend at the hospital to enquire about process and it was she who made sure they were taken to the right department. Once there, another struggle began – finding a bed for the child. Until then, my aunt sat with her daughter in a hard plastic chair in a crowded, sweaty room, with children with all degrees of burns and parents besides themselves with hopelessness. How is it possible for anyone to see a child in pain and ignore them or at the very minimum, not try to make them comfortable? Very possible, apparently.
My sister and I sat with my aunt and uncle, listening to them share the different stories of the burn patients in that children’s ward – from the little girl who insists that the palm nut soup which burned her from the shoulders down was poured deliberately on her by a neighbor, to the little boy whose entire body is disfigured because one of his mother’s in-laws decided that pouring acid on her brother’s wife and his child was the best way to resolve a family dispute. Endless stories of pain, suffering and injustice, with no sign of assistance in sight. Apparently TV3 had visited the ward to interview some of the patients, but in the end, they only showed photos, neglecting the hours of footage and real stories that had been shared with them. Many of us pass by the Korle Bu Hospital daily and yet few know the horrors within. As my uncle said, you just have to pray for good health and take care of yourself and family as best possible, because if you go there, it’s practically a lost case. I won’t even ask where the Minister of Health or the government is in all this. Thousands live this way and thousands die this way. Because mediocrity and “it’s not my job”.
While I celebrate the fact that Ghana will begin issuing 30-day visas on arrival to nationals of AU member states in July 2016 – a plus for local tourism and regional integration efforts, especially if reciprocated – I cannot help but wonder if we are emphasizing too much on the external. I’ve always said that the one thing Ghanaians seem to consistently care about is our reputation – and by reputation, I mean externally. Internally, we know that we’re not scratched up to all that we supposedly are. We know that a lot of what is out there is mere talk. We know that our PR machine is well-oiled and running strong. And that many of us brand our way into that which we’re not. That’s why 2014-15 was, in my humble opinion, iconic when it comes to recent Ghanaian history. It was the period our PR machine failed us and most of our dirty laundry flew off the drying line and into the compound of the international community. From the $3million Brazil World Cup airlift to Anas Aremeyaw Anas’s exposé on corruption in the judicial service to the endless complaints about dumsor to the Accra floods, each incident forced us – if only for a moment – to stop playing to the international audience and focus on internal affairs.
Does this mean that everything is going wrong in Ghana? Not necessarily. There are many things that we should celebrate about our nation – every day, not just on “independence” day – and at the top of my list is the rebirth of creativity, the creative industries, and the people behind them. Ghanaians have always been entrepreneurial. The fact that many are still operating businesses in a climate which, quite honestly, has become increasingly unfriendly is testament to this fact. There’s also a shift of sorts in the discussions Ghanaians seem to be having online – people are beginning to focus on the issues, to share their real stories in this hard economy. Surprisingly, I’m seeing more of that on my Facebook timeline than on Twitter which was the go-to platform for candid, intellectual conversations. And there are initiatives like Odekro that are highlighting the importance of an informed citizenry, of enforcing transparency and accountability. Art by companies like Creo Concepts are creating a unifying force of sorts while highlighting elements of Ghanaian culture.
There are many other personal and collective stories of how Ghanaians are navigating a tough period in our history, but in order to move forward as a nation there are two key changes that need to happen. The first is kicking mediocrity to the curb; something I have written and spoken publicly about many times. Until we retune our thinking on “how things are done” in Ghana and strive for excellence we’re fighting a losing battle. The second thing is how we identify as Ghanaians. In the past three months I have had about five conversations with strangers based on ethnicity. “What ethnic group are you from?” often follows a “hello” in Accra. I’ve made it my personal mission to challenge that kind of thinking and so my response each time has been “Why should it matter?” No, really, why should it matter? Do we really need to know someone’s ethnic group or high school in order to decide how we treat (or charge) them?
“The name “Ghana” means something in the world outside of our national borders. It represents a kinship, a determination, a disposition, a resolve, perseverance, dignity and integrity.” – President John Mahama, 59th Independence Anniversary Speech
In his speech yesterday, President Mahama spoke about what Ghana and being Ghanaian means. As far as I can see, we don’t have a true sense of Ghanaianness. We have moments where we identify as Ghanaian – like when Azonto was a global dance phenomenon or when the Black Stars show their prowess – but no true Ghanaian identity. The Nigerians, for all their numerous ethnic groups and internal divisions, have a strong identity. The Senegalese, do too as do the Kenyans. But Ghana? What’s the first thing you think about when you think Ghana? And is that thing consistent or does it depend on wins or losses, applauds or jeers? When someone approaches you or someone excels, do you think NPP/NDC? Why? In an ideal world, we would look to our national symbols for our sense of identity; the national flag, the national anthem, and the national pledge. But few of our representativess know how to sing or recite the last two, and I’m willing to bet even fewer Ghanaians do percentage-wise. Do you? Why or why not?
We cannot build our identity on quick sand, the castles are bound to fall. Until we have that thing or those elements that inspire a sense of collective identity we will always think and act as units, as people in competition with one another and not as a people making history together. We will always put the present over the future, exchange the heritage of generations to come for the immediate gratifications of the present. We will continue to celebrate past laurels – first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence, yay! – without adding to our achievements as a nation. Ultimately, we might have very little that is worth “celebrating”.
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”— Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia
What does this mean? It means that each of us has a choice. That we need to decide how we plan to interface with our country over the next year. Personally, I plan to do more coverage on our issues, to ask the questions and put forth my opinions regardless of how hopeless or inconsequential things might sometimes be. And to engage as much as I can on the issues, man. The issues. What about you, fellow Ghanaian? What’s your pledge to Ghana in its 59th year? How are you going to help us do and be better?
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Written by Jemila Abdulai. Photos by Emmanuel Bobbie.
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Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.