ghana gambles on high flying hopes

NKAWKAW, Ghana Carlos Ampeh couldn’t afford to jump off a cliff, but he wasn’t about to let white folks and rich Ghanaians be the only…

NKAWKAW, Ghana

Carlos Ampeh couldn’t afford to jump off a cliff, but he wasn’t about to let white folks and rich Ghanaians be the only ones having fun.

The 27-year-old student teacher had heard about Ghana’s annual paragliding festival, held for the last two years at Kwahu Ridge in central Ghana, where he grew up.

Since 2005 most of the passengers who could afford to fly in tandem with the paragliding experts who the government of Ghana brought in from around the world were oboronis — white folks, like the pilots, with disposable income and an adventurous streak.

Both years the five-day festival proved popular enough that the pilots couldn’t keep up with demand, so in 2007 the Tourism ministry bumped the price to 500,000 cedis, roughly $57 — very cheap by any standard in the world where paragliding is popular, but prohibitively expensive for lower and middle-income Ghanaians, like Ampeh, who make around half a million in a month.

“It’s too expensive by Ghanaian standards, it’s very expensive,” Ampeh said. “Any Ghanaian could not afford to do it on their own.”

So Easter weekend he borrowed money from his mother and a friend to supplement his own pocket and became one of the few adult Ghanaians able and willing, like the oboronis, to soar with the vultures that circle Kwahu Ridge.

The Tourism minister, Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey, has never paraglided.

But he recognized the potential for the sport at Kwahu and hired a South African pilot named Walter Neser to fly a canopy bearing the logo of the New Patriotic Party above the nearby town of Nkawkaw during the 2004 campaign for re-election.

“We wanted to do something different,” Obetsebi-Lamptey said during the festival launch on Good Friday.

“If you can get something like this festival going in will bring people, it will open their eyes — especially the businessmen of the area, who concentrate on trading. We want to give them this product.”

It seemed odd for a struggling African government to be subsidizing a leisure activity largely reserved for visiting oboronis, and almost suspicious when Obetsebi-Lamptey explained how Neser, now in charge of organizing pilots for the festival, had been hired as a political “consultant.”

“It is essential to get Ghanaians involved,” Obetsebi-Lamptey admitted. But he firmly backed his ministry’s $55,000 commitment, mostly used to cover the cost of flying in and accommodating pilots from Europe, South Africa and the US, as a wealth-creating measure for the region, especially if the festival becomes a highlight of the international paragliding calendar.

“If you want to harvest mangoes, you plant mangoes,” said Obetsebi-Lamptey. “If you want to harvest maize, you plant maize. If you want to harvest money, you plant money.”

But money won’t grow at Kwahu Ridge without people like Frank Gadzekpo.

A Ghanaian businessman who owns a real-estate firm and a mobile phone management company, Gadzekpo can afford to take his family on a vacation.

He visited Kwahu Ridge with three other families to watch the kids fly.

“The cost is not too much for middle-class Ghanaians like us,” he said. “There is an emerging middle class in Ghana because the economy has been stable now for six or seven years.”

Despite the oblique plug for the government’s handling of the economy, Gadzekpo said he is not a member of the New Patriotic Party.

But he applauded the government’s unusual approach — as long as the middle class in the urban centres of Accra and Kumasi is willing to participate.

“This is a unique and innovative way for the government to spend money,” he said. “Events such as this can be used to gauge the prosperity of a nation.”

The pilots flew 84 people over five days, less than half of the 185 who signed up to jump and received a refund instead.

Still, at 500,000 a head — 300,000 for kids under 18 or adults during non-peak hours — the festival generated revenue.

“It’s a good thing for my community if the profits from this are used for development to finish the road or something like that,” said Ampeh. “We need schools.”

But if the paragliding festival is to fly, it needs to be more affordable, he said.

“If the festival is for foreigners to come and enjoy and then leave, and we are to come and watch foreigners do their own thing, that is not fun. It’s not like a music concert or something.

“If there will not be some locals, (the festival) will collapse.”

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.

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