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And all the jokes are cruel


From way back I have been friends with a world-famous crop scientist. He is wonderful. An academic who, according to his colleagues, is very good at both the theoretical and practical aspects of his work, he is also self-assured to a fault and wickedly witty. However, like the rest of us lucky enough to have such opportunities, he is busy globetrotting to sell his competence in other lands. They probably do not need him as much as Africa does, but the elusive dollar-pound-mark-yen helps ease the rough edges of living at home in Africa. He is hardly ever home but then, as our people say often with a shrug and a trace of bitterness: ‘What for do?’ Another long African story.

The elusive dollar-pound-mark-yen helps ease the rough edges of living at home in Africa

Ours is one of those long-distance friendships kept alive with every-now-and-then meetings, chance or planned. It is relaxed and, I hope, mutually supportive. And mercifully ‘low maintenance’. We shall call him Peter Obamakuyi. Peter and I had not met since my last year of living in Harare, Zimbabwe, when he had come through for a conference. So it was a pleasant shock when the phone rang recently at my home in Ghana, just before our last combined parliamentary and presidential elections, and his low, broad voice came through the wires. I later learned that he was in Accra in connection with one of his international consultancies, something to do with rice or sorghum.

As soon as he had confirmed that it was me at the other end of the line, his greeting was: ‘Ama, God loves you people.’ ‘Which people?’ wondered a startled me. ‘You Ghanaians,’ was Peter’s very quick response. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked again, rather lamely. He replied: ‘This is the year 2000, in Africa, and this country has been stable for nearly 20 years. Ghana is actually getting ready to run its third successive democratic elections in eight years, Westminster style [hm!]. Oh, yes, God loves you Ghanaians…’

A long time ago, I had thought that I was used to Peter and his surprise declarations, observations and gifts. But this package was big, even coming from him. ‘But…but…but…’ I could only stammer at that stage. ‘Ama, no buts,’ Peter cut in confidently and smoothly. ‘So please, first accept my humble compliments on behalf of your country, and then let’s move on to the question of when we can meet. Depending on when you’ll be free we could have either lunch or supper. I think supper would be more…’

I was not yet ready for that old charm of his. ‘Peter, how can you say we are doing well in Ghana? You have just been driven from the airport to your hotel. Where else have you been? What have you seen? Whom have you talked to?’ I was feeling irritated. ‘How long have you been in town anyway?’ I exploded.

Peter chuckled and asked if I knew how many times he had visited my country all those years I was away. That was below the belt but I had asked for it. Not that I was in a mood to quit. So with a self-righteousness acquired from two years of living again in Ghana I reminded him of the fuel crisis; of the rock-bottom state of our currency, the _cedi_; of the minimum wage that could not buy two cubes of sugar.

‘Please calm down and listen.’ This was an order from the avuncular Peter. ‘I mean it when I say that God loves you Ghanaians and that you are doing very well.’ He paused for effect. ‘But, when I say that I don’t mean that Ghana is in a league with Japan or Sweden or Switzerland. I think Ghana is doing very well compared to Burundi, the Congo or Sierra Leone!’

We laughed the laugh perfected by Africans and people of African descent everywhere over the last 500 years. The kind we do to stop ourselves from crying.

I burst out laughing, Peter joined me, and we have not stopped laughing since. We laughed from relief, from grief, from fear and from anxiety. We laughed the laugh perfected by Africans and people of African descent everywhere over the last 500 years. The kind we do to stop ourselves from crying.

The fact is that somewhere deep in me, and like any other good Ghanaian, I probably agree with Professor Obamakuyi that God loves us. We had proof of this during our recent combined elections.

For several weeks before, every Ghanaian, including my seven-year-old niece, went into a nervous sweat and our collective stomach knotted up with anxiety. So, scared as we were, what did Ghanaians do? We just prayed. We prayed everywhere, morning, noon and night. Our request to God was humble and short: help us have free, fair and peaceful elections with no violence either before or after. ‘And please, God,’ we always concluded, ‘let whoever loses accept defeat gracefully.’ Our prayers were answered, not once, but twice. When none of the presidential candidates had the constitutionally mandated 51 per cent from the first voting to win the presidency outright, a run-off was scheduled later for the two top candidates. Apart from some early-morning hiccups, this went off ‘textbook smooth’.

Now that it is all over we are settling down to enjoy the jokes. One local comedian insists that in Ghana ‘free and fair elections’ clearly means that ‘all the parties are free to cheat fairly’! Then there is the one about a young hawker of used socks. After the announcement of the presidential winner he was seen dumping his wares in the middle of the road while screaming joyfully: ‘Positive change! Ah, all our troubles are over!’ Nobody even bothered to look at the expression on his face as a crowd rushed and began scrambling for his goods.

*Ama Ata Aidoo* is a writer based in Accra, Ghana. Her latest publication is _The Girl Who Can and Other Stories_.

New Internationalist issue 333 magazine cover This article is from the April 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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