I left Ghana, the land of my birth, 20 years ago when I was only a teenager. But sometimes it feels as though I never left. The culture, the people, the sounds, and even the smells of my homeland are forever present in my life.
In the last decade, I have made certain to stay abreast of the social, cultural, political and economic changes redefining the country I call home. It is important for me to do so. Ghana is changing, and every visit reminds me of this fact. It is no longer my father’s Ghana. And it is hardly the Ghana I knew in my salad days.
Indeed, when I picked up my copy of Nana Awere Damoah’s ‘I Speak of Ghana,’ I did so not because I was compelled by the chorus of exaltation the book has received from friends and admirers of the author. I did, not because, by most accounts, Damoah is the finest of gentlemen. A book of art, they say, is a self-portrait of its author.
No, I was motivated to read ‘I Speak of Ghana’ by the same consistent force that compels me to tune in to Ghanaian radio stations, read its press, and listen to its popular music; the subject is intimately familiar, and familiarity breeds interest. Anyone who speaks of Ghana speaks a language I understand.
But, hold on! Imagine a native Californian, who has never stepped foot on Ghanaian soil, attempting to make sense of what ‘Sikaman,’ ‘kotimen,’ or ‘KVIP’ means or what the author refers to as ‘Vanderpuije’s Accra’ or ‘ecomini.’ Either Damoah assumes everyone who reads his book knows the story behind the late president John Atta Mills’ public mispronunciation of the word “economy,” or that he simply doesn’t care whether the reader knows. I suspect it’s the latter.
In any case, while I maneuver the early chapters of Damoah’s essays, such as Fearful Things and Ghanaman Prose with great ease, the over-usage of local jargon is certain to confound any foreigner unfamiliar with those terrains, and especially since the author makes a haphazard effort to explain them. Clearly, the early chapters in ‘I Speak of Ghana’ are sermons narrowly tailored for the choir, the Ghanaman, with complete disregard for an inquisitive outsider.
That seems intentional. It has to be. Of the 26 essays—including a poem – in the book, nearly all are devoted to pointing out the deeply flawed habits and thinking of the Ghanaman. A few, such as ‘Are We Really Ready for the Oil,’ ‘Brown Leaves Fall, Green Leaves Fall Too,’ and ‘The Future Started Yesterday and We are Already Late,’ double as advice columns, designed to motivate the Ghanaman and their leaders to change their ways.
One essay, though, appears to have wandered into the book by mistake. Perhaps, it lost its bearings in the Volta Region, a part of Ghana that Damoah and his family toured. Sure, that adventure makes for an interesting travel story, but ‘I Speak of Ghana’ should have never been its destination. To say it is misplaced is being too generous – and that also goes for the order in which the essays are presented.
Still, if you can look past the untidiness of the essays, Damoah manages to do some special things in this book. His patriotic fervor is particularly infectious. I love how much he loves Ghana.
But here’s my biggest take-away from I Speak of Ghana: It’s a message I have never heard any Ghanaian leader espouse. It is the urgent message Damoah sends to young men and women who, he writes, “are causing wealth loss to their generation [by] sitting on inert ideas, bottled-up potential energy and scratching the ground.” He writes that young people in Ghana “are so disillusioned they live life without any urgency.”
Damoah’s message reminds me of an article I read recently by an economist – It was an open letter to everyone under the age of 30. The author starts by narrating an old story about a man taking a smoke break with a non-smoking colleague.
“How long have you been smoking for?” the colleague asks.
“Thirty years,” says the smoker.
“Thirty years!” marveled the co-worker. “That costs so much money. At a pack a day, you’re spending $1,900 a year. Had you instead invested that money at an 8% return for the last 30 years, you’d have $250,000 in the bank today. That’s enough to buy a Ferrari.”
The smoker looked puzzled. “Do you smoke?” he asked his co-worker.
“So where is your Ferrari?”
The lesson from this exchange, which is identical to Damoah’s message to Ghana’s people, is that time is one of the greatest assets a person owns. The economist -author said it’s the biggest financial asset that most people are not even aware they own.
What you do today will determine whether you are able to turn cigarettes into Ferraris and Damoah’s ‘Sikaman’ into the land of opportunities.