Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Trip to Africa (2)

Older Accra, where shop house arcades look like Arab Street in Singapore, 1984. The same colonial architecture -- here the plaster is encrusted or broken, and there is trash on the sidewalks, and people seemingly idle in their empty time. The nearby buildings, instead of Singapore's air-cooled towers, are shacks of plywood scraps that stretch for miles. Looking at both places is like viewing two paths from the same start.

Stuck in traffic at the slums, hawkers of cigarettes, Kleenex, videos, plastic sacks of water, antennas, power cords and ironing boards, walk ceaselessly past. You are in one place, so why shouldn't the mall move around you? Their hope reflected in the shop signs over the converted cargo containers: "God's Time Fashion," "Why Can't I Thank My Jesus Videos," "Lord is My Shepard Saw Sharpening." Or, more starkly, on the rear window of the minibus ahead of me, "After Death Judgment." A large chalkboard at the entrance to the slum, next to yet another Internet café, has the final score of the Chelsea-Liverpool soccer game.

There are goats grazing in the medians of the roads, a cow foraging on busted concrete at the shoreline, chickens free to wander on the steps of the Trade Ministry. Life that might seem quaint and picturesque elsewhere is an antic threat when it comes here, the lunacy of a peasant village slowly taking over a city.

The Chinese are everywhere, buying oil and other minerals, building roads and government buildings, filling the markets with Chinese products. Local textile makers can't compete with the Chinese, same as in America. I note that Chinese foremen run their road-building gangs even on May 1. No one notices the irony.

A Nigerian booster tells me to tell my countrymen to come share the boom. "Americans just get here and talk about how the toilets don't work. The Chinese are already out in the villages." After he is done building six more television stations he will build a movie house showing only Chinese films.

Living in the modern world means embracing contradiction, moving through continual discontinuity, but one notices it better in places like this, or Mumbai, than in London or San Francisco. A telecommunications provider in Accra, K-Net, operates out of an office that seems closer to a quiet corner of a "Mad Max" movie than it does to a Verizon network operations center: the latest equipment is patched to gear 10 years old, and a shed in a back is floor to ceiling with parts cannibalized from even older systems. Some of Ghana's biggest companies rely on them. Supposedly incompatible software packages are hooked together by clever college dropouts, for the sake of putting through the signal. The signal is power.

I have dinner with a man from upcountry who now lives in Accra. Growing up, he sold tooth-cleaning sticks in a market, and dreamed of becoming a dentist. He saved his money and now teaches at a hospital, and runs a software company on the side. He tells me that five hours of sleep is a lot for him. He answers each of my questions with "Yes!" and "Very good!" before he answers. The new dreams tumble from him: An office complex in the country that is solar powered to avoid the terrible government grid, villages of children fed and educated, complex software projects for small businesses. He has no time for African business practices, African mismanagement, African corruption. As I am talking to him I am overwhelmed by the drive. I cannot decide if I am talking to a man on the verge of greatness or bitter disappointment. The dreams and mania of capitalism seem unstoppable.

A drive along the coast to the Cape Coast castle, a processing fort in the slave trade years. All along the coast are slums, prisons, fishing villages and piles of trash. The better homes are inland. It is an older sense of the ocean, the fearful place where land ends. Our love of the shore, our value of it, is a mark of our security. There are a few hotels by the shore, however, where people enjoy the waves, and a few Ghanaian émigrés have retired home in seaside villas they build. Many more are under construction.

I ride with an American who first came here in 1973, and has been involved in USAID, diplomacy, and private business. He has traveled and worked in enough countries that he has strong opinions about Benin, Sao Tome, Swaziland. He has seen bitter disappointment, lost personal friends to political violence in several countries. I ask him what he has learned, and how he can stay positive. "I have learned that it is only a life," he says, and repeats twice, "It is only a life."

"I've understood the psychology if civil wars and coups," the American official, a black guy from Canton, says. "It's wrapped up in the broken promises of the expectations of people who start out with a vision for their country. One emerges as a leader, and 15 others are bitter. They think they are smarter. He starts making decisions as a strong man, without any checks or cooperation. It alienates them and shames them – there is a sense of betrayal, of personal rage."
Our SUV speeds past the shanties and the mud huts, the roadside hawkers of giant snails and roasted grass cutters, which a kind of rodent the size of a small deer. "We put civil wars around the power struggles of a country, but it's just about four guys really," he says. "It's a few individual personalities."

In other words, it's only a life.

He thinks the solution lies in paying off the politicians, guaranteeing them a life and an income after they leave office. We give them an endgame, just as we let our American leaders become highly paid lobbyists, speechmakers at $100,000 a pop.

Cape Coast castle is one of the best-preserved remnants of the old, mysterious Africa's trade in gold, ivory, spices -- and humans, a business with the Europeans that lasted from 1482 to 1807. People were one of the last big products incorporated into the network. They became a bulk of the wealth once the Europeans figured out that they could cut out the Arab middlemen who for centuries had been buying slaves from local people and transporting them across the Sahara.
The ocean is stunning, with 8' waves crashing on the rocks a few yards from the whitewashed castle walls. The site was chosen so that large vessels could not come close, and slaves and other goods were transported in longboats.
The holding rooms are 20x40 with three small openings to let in the rain, used for drinking and washing away the leavings of up to 60 captives at a time. In 1993 archeologists discovered that the dirt floor was 14" above the original stone floor – people had been walking on the composted food, leaves and human waste that accumulated over centuries of trade. The compounded lives.
Our guide, a Ghanaian, was at pains to minimize any local complicity in the trade. Yes, local people worked on the fort, but they did not know its use. The Europeans collected small numbers of people from lots of areas, so the cells became a Babel, and there could be no rebellions. At every turn, the Europeans tried to divide and conquer, he said. What unity there was in the kingdoms was not clear, however.
He often pauses in the monologue for self-examination. "So what I am telling you is…" "I am simply saying that…" "The very truth is that…" It seems like he is stopping to examine his own speech, eager to show its value. The tourists nod, suitably awed and shamed by the relics of suffering.

There is more contradiction and discontinuity. It is impossible to trust anyone who cannot admit the continuous life of evil in all our history, and fear those who believe we are just a few decisive steps from ridding ourselves of it.

Moonlight on the waves seen from the hotel bar, silver on the dark water and the sea spray. The humidity fills with salt and sea spray, and when it catches the moon we are in silver air. Back in my room, the maid comes to turn down my bed. She brings a chocolate bar and a can of Raid.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

You do get around.

Thank you for writing about this. Looking at the mix of bitterness and hope, facing the history of evil...and looking at the current landscapes, the people alive in it all now.

I will keep thinking about this and how "it is only a life" to that man. I'll think about how I deeply value the one single life, of anyone, yet also sense how this one life mixes with them all. I don't know what he knows, though, or what you know.