If I were to say to you…’Ghana’
What would you think of?
Africa? Poverty? HIV and AIDS?
I’m sure you’re not the only one.
I arrived in Ghana a little over 9 weeks ago now and specifically remember confessing to have no preconceived ideas or expectations of the country and its culture.
Looking back, that was a lie.
What I have come to realise since our arrival, is that a huge proportion of people in the West tend to generalise the African continent in its entirety rather than looking at the individual countries that create it. Lack of identity is unsurprising given that for the majority of nations, decolonization from European rule took place only last century (Ghana gained independence in 1957). The associated stigmas of poverty and deprivation, however, are fueled in part by drama thirsty media focusing on the struggles of the continent rather than the success of individual states.
Each country that lies within this great landmass has its own story to tell, making them identifiable in their own right. In Ghana for example, using your left hand to wave, point or consume food is considered a rude gesture, whilst clicking your fingers to gain someone’s attention is common practice. The country is peaceful, welcoming and radiates an organic beauty from within its people, environment and religion. It should be celebrated as such.
The dawn of the new millennium saw Ghana tear away from the archetypal stigma of African culture that continues to lynch the continent. This sub-Saharan country joins the likes of Ukraine, Albania and India in classifying as a middle-income economy, of which the threshold for qualifying is a GNI per capita of $1036 to $12,615, with Ghana’s currently standing at $1820. Such middle-income economies constitute five of the worlds seven billion people and roughly one third of global GDP. Therefore, although situated on the outer boundaries of MIC status, this development indicates a significant milestone for the West African nation.
In light of this promotion, aid flows into the country have fallen significantly from 6.09 percent of GDP in 2009 to 2.8 percent in 2014. This has contributed in part to Ghana’s fiscal independence as well as the emergence of several international development partnerships. Alongside this, Ghana has been hugely successful in eradicating extreme poverty, by roughly halving the number of people living below the upper poverty line (GH¢1,314 (£220) per year) from 53% in 1991 to 21% in 2012, again highlighting the incredible journey that the country has taken in addressing some of the most critical development challenges to which it has previously faced.
I can see these successes in many areas of life here in Ghana. As I commute to work each day, I travel along a tarmacked road towered with billboards advertising everything from feminine hygiene to multinational brands such as Coca-Cola. I sit among businessmen dressed in fine tailoring, eagerly checking their emails on smartphones, whilst children walk along roadsides donning Adidas rucksacks and Converse trainers – the capitalist contagion is taking hold at an astounding rate! Such experiences, although unexpected, enable me to make continued associations with life back in the UK and it excites me.
That’s not to say there aren’t differences between Ghana and other developed countries such as the UK, there is a significant wealth disparity here. A worldwide phenomenon, inequality is particularly present within the country and although it has been addressed by the MDG journey, there is still much work to be done.
My daily commute presents countless heart wrenching moments that leave me showing physical signs of shock – of which I try my hardest to mask. On my way to Tema station each morning, there is a homeless man dressed in what appears to be a loincloth, sat cross-legged on the pavement, singing his way through the mental disability to which he bares. His cowhide skin glistens in the sweltering sunshine, painfully accentuating his horrendously malnourished figure. When I reach Tema station, there are two gentlemen sitting in wheelchairs, one with a disfigured leg and the other with half his leg missing. In fact, I pass many homeless people on my route to almost anywhere in the city. They sleep under trees, trailers, cardboard and shop entrances and wash in the sewage drains that run along all major roads – drains almost certainly infested with faeces and disease.
From my seat on the tro tro, I watch women balance bread, water and fruit on their heads, with children strapped to their back, trying to sell goods to passengers along the road. I travel through shanty regions with houses constructed from scrap material and with children playing near the sewers, next to streets and beaches covered in domestic waste. There is no fine line between the rich and the poor here, the difference is staggering.
This is not a plea for sympathy, or an attempt to bolster the African stigmas I have discussed; these experiences are attempting to highlight the increasing disparity that exists between the richest and poorest fragments of society within the city. With little to no welfare system presently in operation, re-distribution of income that we (the UK) so take for granted is unable to reduce these overwhelming inequalities. Yes, we have homeless people in the UK and families that struggle to feed mouths each week, but what we do have is an infrastructure that provides clean, drinking water. We have adequate healthcare available whenever you need it, wherever you may be. We have a welfare system that provides social housing, disability benefits and free childcare, enabling women to return to work whilst building a family.
I for one admit to reaping the benefits of our system back home without fully appreciating the impact that they have on my life and the freedom and opportunity that they provide me. If I take anything away from this experience of living in Ghana, it will be to think twice about the public services I use each and every day, to which so many people in the world lack access.
Challenges Worldwide Ghana ICS Volunteer