GHANAIANS are not big on protest, violent or verbal.
There is stoicism among the people of this former British Gold Coast colony that militates against the land grab culture of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or the sort of machete-fuelled genocide seen in Rwanda. Instead, a mildly disgruntled contentment confronts national problems, be they self-serving and ineffective politicians, corrupt police, chronic traffic problems or (Ghana’s latest and current crisis) acute and seemingly insuperable power shortages.
A rolling nationwide programme of organised power cuts has been in place for more than a year now. In general, the weary citizens’ lot has been a roster of twelve hours of blackout followed by 24 of relative normality but the situation has, at times, seen that ratio reversed, causing communities to contend with a full 24 hours without power. At its worst, my son’s family in the upwardly mobile Accra suburb of North Legon has spent up to three days without power for lighting, cooking, air conditioning or the water pumps necessary to replenish taps and toilets, a situation which makes life unbearably difficult in the sticky heat of modern equatorial Africa.
But, in the eyes of European ex-pats, the nadir was reached when the national broadcaster suggested that its 24-hour programming might have to close at 10pm each night and resume at 9am the following day. A BBC World Service crew ventured onto the crowded streets of Accra seeking comment from the vox populi, most probably expecting an outpouring of anger at the privations wrought by the power outages.
Not so. Instead, the sound crew was met with the strongest symbol in Ghana’s protest armoury: a series of reluctant and certainly un-broadcastable shoulder shrugs. What comment they did receive was sanguine and curiously undemanding.
“Most of the cuts seem to happen at night,” said one interviewee (darkness falls along the equator at 6pm all year round). “So when I’m sleeping it doesn’t bother me.” Accompanied by a slight shake of the head, perhaps, and that ‘so what?’ of a shoulder shrug, national emblem of Ghana’s ‘protest’ movement.
Major industry, hospitals and the emerging tourist resorts are either cushioned from the extremes of the cuts by judicious area selection and by ownership of massive emergency gasoline-driven generators. But small retailers, bars and roadside start-ups are as badly hit as the general public.
Responsibility for the situation – a power famine as well as the booming Accra hinterland’s gridlocked traffic system – lies squarely on the shoulders of generations of politicians who failed to improve upon founding president Kwame Nkrumah’s construction of the Great Volta Dam, designed to provide power for Ghana’s heaviest-populated regions. Since Nkrumah the national population has increased four-fold while the continent’s hydro-electric wonder’s weary turbines require constant overhaul, with little in the way of increased capacity.
A few days ago and unexpectedly (but gloriously!) within my visit here, my second grandchild, Tyga Alexandra, was born. Two weeks premature, she had a touch of jaundice and was kept in hospital under the eerie blue light of UV lamps that straddled her cot but distorted my photographs of her first few days of life.
Then the power went off. Emergency generators didn’t stretch to sun lamps, of course. Should we worry? I asked a nurse. She looked at me as though I were mad. Then her shoulders hunched into that all-purpose shrug.
“At least now you’ll get your photographs without a blue tint!” she grinned.
“OH, GHANA!” wrote my son Timothy recently on his Facebook page.
“When I pulled up to the petrol pumps I had to hotwire my window open because thieves had ripped out the control panels a few nights earlier.
“I had five cedis in my wallet (about £1) and the fuel reserve light was on. ‘I couldn’t get to the bank,’ I explained, avoiding the attendant’s eye. ‘But I have to get my boy to school.’
“I watched the numbers tick rapidly up: three, four, five cedis … then, before I could say ‘whoa!’, six, seven, eight, nine cedis.
“‘Hey!’ I shouted at the attendant, ‘I said five!’ The attendant glanced anxiously across the forecourt in the direction of the manager’s office but didn’t stop until he hit 15 cedis.
“Then he smiled, nodded at my son and said ‘Don’t worry, this’ll get you where you need to go.’
“Oh, Ghana, Ghana!”