TIMOTHY BANKS, a British ex-pat living in Accra, documents some of the difficulties of living with a different set of moral judgments
CORRUPTION IS NOT EASY to explain to the uninitiated. Outsiders, beetroot red with indignation, always think there must be a simple solution.
But corruption isn’t like the Bad Guy in the western movie who rides into town and menaces everyone. It’s more like the cloned version of you that replaces yourself in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. By the time you discover the truth, it is too late.
Corruption occurs when people can’t pay their bills, and the authorities know it because the authorities can’t pay their bills, either.
And it isn’t always a case of big issues involving large quantities of money in brown envelopes: you might pay the policeman not to look too carefully at your car insurance, or slip the meter reader a few Ghanaian cedis to come back a month later, when money is not so tight. Or, having lost faith in conventional channels, you might seek introduction to someone’s cousin who works at the passport office.
This communal loosening of morals continues until no one can point a finger at anyone else for fear of being revealed themselves.
The local assemblyman came to our burger van tonight to ask for money. On our street there is little in the way of lighting. The street is new. It doesn’t even have a name. Or much in the way of a street.
All the plots were handed out by the government in 1987 when the whole area was bush. Now it’s a well-to-do neighbourhood where retired Big Men have built large houses in which to live when they are not in America.
“There is no security at all!” the assemblyman declares, adding proudly: “But I have built the police station at the end of the road.”
“Yes,” mutters my wife, looking up from her stocktake of the drinks fridge. “But when will the police move into it?”
“The furniture is coming tomorrow,” he replies, “but they won’t contribute. And we’ve done everything for them!”
For the first time, the assemblyman’s deputy speaks up.
“The lighting we have ready to go. But the people in the neighbourhood. . .” He shakes his head despairingly. “They are not serious. They won’t contribute.”
“And you DO need that lighting!” the assemblyman cries. “The potsmokers, I have driven them out. They are not happy with me at all. They say they voted for me, but they are bad men: Nigerians, Ivorians, Sudanese. . .”
“The Sudanese are here?” exclaims my wife. She sounds impressed, as if she’s thinking ‘I must bake a cake’.
“Oh, madam, they are around. And these people, they see a white man and they think he receives dollars from somewhere every day. I think you know what I am saying?”
Of course, we don’t know whether or not it is official policy to sell off streetlighting to anyone willing to pay cash for it. We’ll probably never know, nor receive a receipt.
But, all in all, the price is reasonable. And we probably do need those lights.
To drive the Bad Guys out of town.