1980s >> 1988 >> no-1004-april-1988

Letter from Ghana

Having now lived in Ghana for more than two months it is time to try and fit this totally new experience together with the socialist ideas I used to discuss (what seems like such a long time ago) at weekly meetings of The Socialist Party in Bristol. I came to Ghana with VSO, not so much to make a great contribution to the world’s problems but for personal reasons. I wanted to travel to a third world country not as a tourist but to work. I wanted to change from the nine to five job that I had had in England for the last twelve years. So I ended up becoming a trainer with Ghana’s National Service (not a military service but a compulsory community social service). training school leavers and graduates to do Primary Health Care, which largely means health education, in rural districts.

I now live in a very rural district myself in a pretty basic way. 1 live in a small village in the chiefs compound – no electricity and having to boil river water to drink, defecating in a pit (quite a luxury here) down a path which has to be carefully inspected for snakes.

I am sure that all of us advocating world socialism would find it useful to travel and live in the third world for a while to begin to understand some of the enormous problems facing the case for world socialism. We have to understand that the vast majority of the world’s people come from very different starting points, not just geographically but differing social, economic and political structures and. most importantly, different ways of seeing the world.

The difference I think is most important here in Ghana has to do with people’s sense of their own powerlessness. A terrible brand of fundamentalist Christianity has been laid on top of already existing traditional beliefs in the powers of ancestors and gods over the details of people’s lives. Here is just one example: last week I was waiting for my Twi lesson and my teacher did not turn up (Twi is the local language). He is a trained teacher teaching at the local village school and I had just seen him the day before. He had not come, I was told, because his sister-in-law was very ill – someone had put a curse on her and he had to take her to the other side of Ghana to see a famous fetish priest.

One of the things I first noticed in Ghana was the absence of the political posters or graffiti that you see in so many foreign countries. Instead, everywhere are slogans about the power of God. the need to accept God’s will and not to put your trust in humanity. In a country where the vast majority of people only live just above subsistence level there are perhaps many reasons why people do not concern themselves with national politics. When people here think of improving their material conditions it is in terms of managing to make a little more money by selling in the local market or by doing a deal with a friend rather than joining up with a group of people who advocate more radical change.

The Ghanaian government, the PNDC or Provisional National Defence council, under J.J. Rawlings is claimed by many to be a great improvement over previous governments and over many others in Africa. However, no elections have been held since he came to power in 1981. although this is supposed to be a transitional stage and local elections are to be held in October 1988. But candidates are to stand in their own right only and no parties are allowed. Candidates will be elected on the basis of local projects they propose – a new school or a new health centre perhaps. None will be seeking a more radical change. Since I have been here I have heard no one question this absence of political parties and in fact voter registration, which is to end at the end of this month. November 1987, is still at very low levels.

As far as I can discover new reformist policies in health, education and social services are in theory in the direction of greater fairness but there is no money to finance them. The poorest families still have to pay for schooling and medicines for their children. Of course this will change under socialism. Health care and education, as with everything else, will be freely available according to need, not ability to pay. However strongly I have argued in the past that a socialist system is both desirable and possible, I have had trouble enough to persuade my English friends. Here, I feel, it is even harder. ‘Socialism’, as it exists in this part of Africa, is the top-down imposed variety and often associated with the Eastern bloc or Libya.

Socialists maintain that the experience of capitalism as a member of the working class leads people to question the system. But here the subsistence farmer will not experience capitalism in the same sort of way. Although big business affects them – world cocoa prices, the cutting down of their forests for timber export – the connections are not clearly seen and most people’s economic worlds revolve around their own small-holdings and market trading.

The women that I live with make peanut toffee and buy long bars of soap which they cut into pieces to sell. They sell to friends and relatives and one thing that 1 have come to understand is that buying and selling is about the best fun they have in their lives. There is none of the English embarrassment about money — several times people have quite unashamedly looked in my purse and cheerfully commented “You’ve got a lot of money in there”.

At the village level people do have experience of rich people. The chiefs of villages, especially if they have large farms, may be rich but their households, such as the one where I am living, may be filled with relatives who have almost nothing. In Ghana the chief’s money is passed around when he dies – in ways that are studied by anthropologists – to his sister s sons.

Also I notice great divisions between the sexes and their roles. But even so this is not clear-cut for, although women do not own the land, they are involved in trading and as traders can become rich and powerful. In the household however, women work, cooking, caring for children, while the men sit chatting and drinking together, waiting for their food to be brought to them. I have talked to women about these hard-and-fast sex roles which seem, from my position, to mean a lot of hard work and drudgery for women and they smile at me good naturedly for having such strange ideas.

So the question I keep asking over and over again is. what needs to happen before people react to inequalities and oppression and begin to realise the possibility of a better world which they can bring into existence themselves? I wish I knew for Ghana and I wish I knew for Bristol – and whether the answers are different.

Naomi Roberts

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