The day I drove out of Kumasi for the last time a friend asked what adjective I would apply to Africa after living there for eight months.
My first response was to invoke the wisdom of renowned Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who reported from across the continent over three decades and wrote in The Shadow of the Sun that African societies are far too diverse to be pigeonholed. “In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”
Fair enough, my friend said. But what about Ghana, the country where I’d spent most of my time?
What word best described the culture I’d been living in?
I thought for a moment, then answered: “Paradoxical.”
Ghana — and probably many African nations — is a culture of paradox.
Two concepts, often contradictory, underpin many of its social institutions.
For example, Ghana practices democracy. Every adult is allowed to vote and the country’s 1992 constitution protects civil liberties for all.
Yet when it comes to government, tribalism prevails. Political loyalty extends along ethnic lines and government patronage reacts accordingly.
Civil rights of the lower-downs on the social hierarchy are not always respected. Some are beaten by police; others are persecuted by government policy.
This political divide is chiefly between Ghana’s industrialized Christian south and its underdeveloped Muslim north. The unwritten rule is, if you’re not wealthy and with the right tribe, party and religion, don’t expect the ruling government to work for you.
Religion is the other most significant paradox. Most Ghanaians are Christian, some are Muslim, but almost everyone observes traditional animism that contravenes the orthodoxy of imported religion.
Spiritual forces influence daily life, and even the most devout Christian might fear an evil curse and attempt to dispel black magic with witchcraft that would be considered heresy in an orthodox church.
Often the paradox takes an ironic turn. When a person falls ill, whether from an evil curse or just plain old bacterial infection, he or she does not want to go to the hospital, which is known, not as a house of healing, but the place people go to die.
Street signs raising awareness against the dangers of HIV/AIDS are everywhere, yet the negative stigma associated with AIDS is so powerful the World Health Organization warns that statistics are unreliable because people who should won’t take a blood test, and those who do don’t admit a positive result.
Education, we are told, is the key to progress in all these social strata. Five months ago, Ghana’s government extended high school to four years.
Yet high school is only available to kids whose parents can afford user fees. Even so, teachers are underpaid and often don’t show up, leaving students unsupervised in schoolrooms that become more about play than work.
Those are the kids actually enrolled in classes. Ghana has a huge, uncounted child labour force even though the constitution forbids children from working and requires them to go to school.
Despite these paradoxes Ghanaians are incredibly proud people. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African nation to declare independence from European colonial masters, and it has emerged as the flagship of political stability and economic progress in West Africa.
Yet many Ghanaians wanted me to help them get out, to immigrate to Canada.
The reasons they gave were poverty and corruption. More often than not, a politician, police officer or petty government official in Ghana pads his meagre income with meagre bribes solicited from his poor countrymen who are already struggling day to day.
Thus the most poignant paradox, and the saddest from a traveller’s perspective, is the double edge of Ghanaian hospitality.
“You are welcome” is a common phrase a foreigner hears in Ghana, from momentary associates as well as those destined to become friends.
Yet nearly every friend I made wanted something from me. If it wasn’t my possessions or remaining currency it was a Canadian address for an immigration form, or a white woman to be taken as a wife.
I can’t really blame Ghanaians for seeing a white man as a conduit to prosperity, or for any of their paradoxes. After all, what example do they have to follow?
Everything African must be viewed through history’s lens, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade and subsequent colonialism robbed Africa of much potential.
The shame of those exploitations belongs to the ancestors of my heritage. That fact is ever-present for a white man in Africa.
None of us will ever know what might have been.
Small wonder that Ghana’s problems are found all over the industrialized world, where politics are corrupt, religion is false, medicine fails, kids don’t learn, pride is a facade and friendship becomes a transaction.
Westerners suffer the same paradoxes. Ours are just subtler, harder to spot.
Ghanaians therefore have as much reason to hope as the rest of us.
And they do. It takes patience to understand why.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran has spent the last eight months living and writing in Ghana.