Saturday, July 11, 2009

Back in Ghana, with Barak

I returned to Ghana on Tuesday from 17 intense days in Europe, just in time for Obama's arrival yesterday. I will perhaps share some stories from what was my first trip to "the continent" later, but now, having just watched Obama's speech to parliament in a dingy bar next to my office, I feel compelled to record my impressions.

If you didn't catch it, Obama divided his speech into four sections: democracy, "partnership", health care, and leadership.

My small sample of about a twenty drunk Ghanaian men were intensely interested in the first section on democracy, and they carried on heated debate throughout. On the parts about elections, their pride in Ghana's democracy was on full display. Sections on corruption also resounded, with one man (shackily) getting to his feet to shout something or other in Twi.

The partnership section was about approaching America's relationship with Africa as a partner rather than a patron. The sections on oil wealth and other Ghana-specific issues were paid close attention, but as soon as he started talking about clean energy people started zoning out, leaving and talking on cell phones. They didn't care about or understand his focus on clean energy -- to them, plain old energy is enough. The focus on something they weren't interested in, but should be, felt patronizing.

People started coming back during the health care section, but the energy that was present at the beginning of the speech was gone. They ordered more food and drinks, and spent more time checking out the Obrunis in the back than watching Obama.

The section on leadership brought everyone back, and brought me back to another "I can't believe this man is president" moments, intensified by an "I can't believe an American president is so well respected in Africa" moment. As my friend and I choked up in the back, a chorus of church-like "yes" "mm-hhmm" and "amen" rose from the Ghanaians in the front as Obama called for young Africans to stand up and take hold of their own legacy. They were exactly the young Africans he was speaking to, and it was stunning to see their iron-clad support for his words. The terrible irony was that they were also hopelessly drunk at 1 pm in the afternoon. Perhaps it was their children he was speaking to...

I left clearing my eyes and feeling so lucky to be living in this moment.

The other lasting impression that I took was just how little transnational sentiment there was. People really drifted over anything that wasn't specifically about Ghana. Even the way the women thanked him after his speech and asked him to come back to Ghana soon made it seem like they were more interested in the fact that he came to Ghana than the fact that he announced a major paradigm shift in African policy. To Obama, this was a visit to Africa. To Ghana, it was a visit to Ghana. Our friends in the north of Ghana organized a huge (misguided) campaign to try to get Obama to visit their impoverished region. To people in the north, Obama visited southern Ghana. I don't know what to take from this, apart from maybe the lesson that, when you have enough of your own problems, it's hard to pay attention to anyone else's. I can't escape the feeling that this attitude is important and unhelpful.

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