Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 3

Accra (Ghana - Dodowa (Ghana)

With The Amazing Race 17 still in greater Accra (Ghana) this week, I talked with my old friend Matt Meyer about what it’s been like for him to travel in Ghana, both on business and on multi-generational family vacations with his parents and children:

EH: Does it surprise you that the race started its visit to Ghana at the Kwame Nkrumah memorial?

MM: Yes and no. Absolutely anyone who’s not Ghanaian who comes to Ghana and talks to anyone about anything regarding Ghanaian culture (such as the amazing kente cloth) will wind up at the National Arts Centre. Once you’re there, it’s hard not to notice the Nkrumah memorial park. It’s a big empty space next to the arts and crafts market — a park, but without trees — with a bunch of large architectural symbols scattered through it including a large statue of a person. You can’t miss it, or fail to wonder, “Who is that dude?”.

From the time of the coup in which Nkrumah was deposed until perhaps 20 years ago, it would have been unthinkable that this memorial would have been built in its current form. There was a widespread perception that Nkrumah wasn’t a champion of the people of Ghana, but someone who espoused an internationalism that didn’t necessarily serve the Ghanaian masses.

Ironically, it was a military man, Jerry Rawlings, who helped rehabilitate the memory of this champion of nonviolence. Today, most Ghanaians would acknowledge the extent to which they and many other Africans owe their independence to Nkrumah.

EH: You’ve been to the Nkrumah memorial several times over the years. What’s it like?

MM: Every time I’ve gone back, they’ve added more things to it. What’s there today, most importantly, is a fairly well maintained one-room (air-conditioned!) museum of both artifacts and historical documents about Nkrumah, his life, and his significance. It’s often overlooked by visitors because it’s small, but the museum is well worth checking out. Even if you don’t already know anything about who Nkrumah was, it gives a pretty good introduction.

I’ve been there three or four times, and it’s always been well staffed. The museum guides aren’t pushy, but if you ask, they’ll be happy to answer your questions and can give you lots more information, even about formerly taboo subjects like the role of the CIA in overthrowing Nkrumah. (In addition to the newer, intact, main statue, several statues of Nkrumah that were beheaded at the time of the coup have been re-erected elsewhere on the memorial grounds.)

You’ll get the message that Nkrumah was the “father of the nation” just by walking through the park, but if you go into to the museum you’ll get more of Nkrumah’s internationalism.

There is also a separate little store, worth checking out if you like political souvenirs and memorabilia, that has “Nkrumah kitsch” as well as copies of his books.

EH: Do local Ghanaian’s visit the memorial much? What do they think of Nkrumah today?

MM: Locals go there for a special events, school field trips, and the like. But there’s an entry fee, so it’s not a place they go often or just to hang out.

I think Nkrumah has been completely rehabilitated in the national consciousness. There was and is criticism of many things he did, but Ghanaians recognize and honor Nkrumah as a smart man, a dedicated man, who believed that all Africans should be united and in control of their own lives.

When the coup took place, there was a national base of support for it. Nkrumah was caring more about the world than about the world at home, so there was genuine domestic discontent.

It took a while for people to reconsider, to say, “These military governments haven’t gotten us anything better than we had during Nkrumah’s presidency. And Nkrumah was much more than one of the founders of Ghana. Look at what he wrote — those predictions about neocolonialism have come true.”

EH: You’ve traveled to many countries in West Africa. Ghana isn’t top-of-mind for most visitors to the region, but you recommend it as the best single country for a foreign visitor interested in understanding that part of the world. Is it just a sentimental favorite for you, or are there other reasons?

MM: First, they speak English. It’s not just a second language or a link language, but a language spoken by many ordinary people. Far more people in Ghana speak English than in India, where I’ve also travelled. That makes it easier to get around, of course. It also means you can talk to a wider range of people, and learn more about what they think.

Second, there are well-developed routes and places where foreigners (especially but not exclusively those of African ancestry) can experience and learn about each of the major phases of African history:

  • Slave-trading castles along the former “Gold Coast”: I’ve been to similar historical sites in other countries (including the the best known, Goree Island in Senegal, which “The Amazing Race” visited in season 6). But to me, they don’t compare with those in Ghana in their accessibility (including to foreign visitors who aren’t of African ancestry), and in managing to acknowledge and deal with the horror while also going beyond it to the necessary catharsis.

  • Sites and sights of ancient African kingdoms and their cultural and historical contributions, including the former Ashanti capital at Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city.

  • A modern society with post-independence infrastructure and technology projects to match, most obviously visible in parts of Accra itself and at the enormous Akosombo Dam.

So you can go from ancient Africa through the Middle Passage to modern Africa and its accomplishments, in one country, in a few days, accessibly, in English, in a fair amount of safety and comfort. I don’t know where else you can do that.

EH: You’ve led delegations and groups of foreign visitors to Ghana. What’s typically the biggest surprise or the thing that’s most different from first-time foreign visitors’ expectations?

MM: Don’t expect ancient tribalism. Expect a proud and modern society — with all that that means, for better and worse. But if you get the chance, go there and see for yourself.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 10 October 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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