I wasn’t sure what to expect when we returned to Ghana. In some ways, I feel so much less prepared than we were last year, in other ways, I know exactly what to expect. We brought back new underclothes, coffee beans, lots of presents and an inverter-battery charger that Suzanne’s brother Reg (Henry) sent us. This inverter converts 12 volts to 220 volts, and charges 12 volt batteries from 220. Needless to say, I’m excited to get this thing wired up, to connect it to large deep cell batteries to run the fans when the power is off. Reg and I have always been interested in Solar Energy, but, as for me, I could never justify the investment, however now, or at least last spring, I had justification.
This fall, the weather has been wonderfully cool. It is the rainy season, the one that didn’t happened our first year, so the rains come soft, gentle every few days. Accra cools off for a few days. I read in the Daily Graphic that the water level in Akosombo Dam is even above its critical point, something it has not been since February. Even so, we still have a twice weekly light off from 6-9pm. All it means to us is a dinner by candlelight, but it has me thinking, is it worth the expense of setting up the batteries and inverter, if the load shedding schedule is about to end, or is this just wishful thinking. The rain has also caused massive flooding in Northern Ghana, wiping out complete fields and villages that had been suffering a terrible drought.
While we were gone, the currency changed. The cedi was redominated, meaning they chopped off four zeros, so instead of the largest note being a 20,000 (worth about $2), the largest note is a GH 50 (worth about $53, known as half a million in old cedis). Ghanaians like to joke that the New Ghana Cedi (GH) is stronger than the dollar. Though the advertising campaign slogan was “the value is the same” we have seen evidence of inflation, with prices slowly creeping up. The dollar to cedi exchange rate is also inching toward 1:1 (or should I say centimeter-ing , it’s a metric system) . Prices are a curious thing, mostly, people still quote in the old currency, so when buying something this morning, the price was quoted as 10,000 (meaning one new Cedi). People seem comfortable with the conversion in their head, and change is given in a curious mixture of old currency, new currency, and mixed coins. Having coins of some significant value is something new here, previously the largest coin was worth about a five cents, but now they have coins worth 1,5,10,20 and 50 cents causing people to complain about their noise, as they jingle in the pocket.
Our market ladies, friends, Ashesi people, and church friends are excited that we are back. They always make a point of saying “Welcome Home”, looking us deep in the eyes to see how we react. I’m sure we are supposed to go around and greet people officially more than we have, but it’s a part of their culture that we’re still not comfortable with. However, I did go greet the presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Ghana.
Another big change is our new embassy, called “The New America Embassy,” which is only a few blocks from our house. This should be more convenient , except that the security of this fortress is crazy-tight. The new embassy is a consolidation of seven different embassy buildings from around Accra, all put into one grand, if intimidating building. It is tight in there, and there is little parking. Where as I used to be able to check in and exchange money and pick up mail in an hour, including travel time to two different locations, these days it takes just that long to get through security, and then wait for a two different building escorts, and I am within walking distance of our house.
[Would have liked to put a pictures of that new fortress but its illegal to take pictures]
Other changes over the summer, include ownership of the largest cell phone service provider. Some years ago it was Ghanaian, but was then bought by a Lebanese company, and over the summer a South African company. Each change involves a name change and so over the past 10 years its been SpaceFon, SNAP, Areeba, and now MTN. While it really doesn’t make a difference to us in terms of service, these changes do underscore the fact that many of Ghana’s most profitable companies are foreign owned. For me, the most impressive thing about this change is its completeness. Understand that Areeba was the best advertized product in Ghana. A completely unscientific guess would be 20000 little stands selling phone cards, billboards, flags, signs were impossible to miss in Ghana, and suddenly, within days, as I understand it, they were all replaced by MTN signs. The magnitude of this changeover is impressive, especially for Ghana. I can’t figure out how they did it.
I don’t know yet how to classify the South Africans, as they are a late entry to the Ghana’s business economy. The Lebanese and Indians (who have been here a while) are easy, they are the traders, the large scale importers of dry goods, and merchandise who run these western all-in-one big box stores. They look at Africa, particularly Ghana and see a land of opportunity, a place to make money and so they invest in it, with expectations of returns. The West also invests, but without those expectation, and I wonder sometimes how much good we are doing here. Asia also invests, but in large scale infrastructure projects, like roads, or the new $600m Hydro-electric dam.
I know my critique of the West’s aid is harsh, that I don’t see its aid because; as they say here “It’s not for me.” But as for the Lebanese, Indians, and now South Africans who are here to make money, it is clear they seek after those who have it, and that would be me and oh about 2000 other obrunies here.