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Feature Article of Thursday, 15 March 2012

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Guns, Germs and Ghana

Maybe we don’t need to invoke Professor Jared Diamond at this point. He made his point quite clear in his Putlizer-winning masterpiece–Guns, Germs and Steel–that necessity and opportunity (occasioned by the environment), rather than intellectual supremacy, is the reason why Eurasians prospered and Africans are still poor. Since 1997 when Diamond made the claim, there have been lots of intellectual exchanges among scholars, with some countering that the environment alone does not explain why some people are innovative; the factors that have actually accounted for development in the West are capitalism, individualism, political freedom, open debate and rationalism. Did we in Ghana miss out on any of these?

So far, none of these thinkers has spoken about laziness–that some cultures have not found economic success because they are lazy. Everybody I meet in this country is involved in some form of activity. Of course, sometimes not doing anything is also a form of activity, especially when there isn’t much to do. It makes it easier for us to work out the arithmetic. Yet, if in the midst of abject deprivation and sheer lack, a very poor person manages to feed a family of five, trying her hands at different kinds of trades, she is my candidate for a Putlizer or anything better, if the Booker is too much honour.

So I have been thinking about sister Florence’s situation for a long time. For nearly two decades she has been selling all sorts of things: kelewele, kenkey, iced kenkey, second hand clothing at a point, and recently pure water. At every point, she has remained industrious…to a fault. Without any business advice by any expert (that is if they ever know anything), she decided to invest and specialise in just one business, to see whether things were not working because she seemed to have her hand in too many options. Strategically positioned in a sort of educational hub, being sandwiched between two new universities, she borrowed money from a private source to set up a secretarial outfit where students paid for photocopies and other printing works. She also sells drinks…all sorts of drinks, including coconut.

What does she have to show for all the hard work? When I returned to the country last month, I was expecting to find her in a decent accommodation or at least in relative comfort. There have been a few changes around her. The economy seems to be prospering. There are banks everywhere these days. Even right in the belly of Haatso where she has lived all along, a new bank has set up a branch. Salaries these days are not miserable at all. In fact most Ghanaians working abroad are trooping home to take advantage of the economic boom. Loan companies are advertising for clients. It used to be the very rich who could afford to drive brand new cars. Not anymore. Suddenly $32,000 doesn’t seem a lot of money in Ghana. Three cars in a middle income household is not anything fantastic. And of course, even kayayees carry cell phones. It is almost a fad for every average-looking, disguisedly employed person to have two cell phones. So they laugh at the handset I use. It is too simple and has no wild features, they say.

People do not carry a poverty mentality anymore. When Papa Owusu Ankomah warned years ago that we were overselling our poverty case, folks didn’t see the point. Today, the mentality is different. You could work your way through the hardships and build a house for yourself or get a mortgage in an upper-middle class community. A university here, a university there, people are spoilt for choice. Never mind that it is not clear where the emphasis lies: mass tertiary enrolment to afford every willing soul higher education or there is real preparation to innovate for industry. Every working professional is taking an executive programme to enhance their skills profile. There is quality human resource here. Quality professionals live in relative luxury, making the claim that we are a middle-income economy plausible.

At the same rate, analysts believe these developments are cosmetic. The situation on the ground does not support the fine macro economic figures and the ‘unprecedented’ inflationary rate of 8.6%. You necessarily need to pay your way through almost everything. A ball of kenkey is still 40 and sometimes 50 pesewas, and trotro is cheap. Yet the likes of sister Florence are struggling. She still thinks owning a car is a distant possibility. But where in the world does everybody live in comfort and nobody struggles? Not even in Luxembourg. Some PhD holders in Toronto can hardly pay their rent. On the bare ground, only a few Ghanaians can look into the future with certain hope. Well, certain hope is a luxury at this point. Let’s limit ourselves to hope. Any kind of hope is better than certain poverty.

Fortunately, we don’t need to talk about guns these days, not even in a metaphorical sense. Well, at least not for now. Our very placid nature makes it almost unnecessary to invoke terrible images of neighbours slugging it out in an all die be die scenario. What about germs? We sure do. Besides, we should have found answers to Yali’s questions by now: why Eurasians have so much ‘cargo’ than New Guineans? Or perhaps how China became Chinese and Africans remained blacks. Do we start making almonds?

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin

bigfrontiers@gmail.com

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