Root for Ghana to Advance

06/16/2014 11:20 AM

06/16/2014 11:21 AM

I wrote this column for the News & Observer eight years ago when Ghana first played the United States. It still holds up today.

Root for Ghana to advance

News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Author: Joseph Neff

RALEIGH--Ghana could very well beat the United States in World Cup soccer today, a measure of how far the West African nation has come in two decades. The wheels had literally fallen off the Ghanaian economy when I arrived there in 1984. Most cars and trucks were perched on cinder blocks -- there weren't any tires, though tires wouldn't have made a difference, because the gas stations were empty. And the bars were stacked with cases of empty beer bottles -- no foreign exchange for hops or barley. Vaccines and antibiotics were scarce, and outdated if found. Electricity and running water were an occasional treat in the capital and virtually unknown outside it.

Ghana, once the pride of Africa, the first sub-Saharan nation to declare independence, had ground to a halt. The colony known as the Gold Coast had squandered its riches. The year before I arrived to serve two years in the Peace Corps, the United States hadn't sent in any volunteers, because food and medicine couldn't be guaranteed.

Ghana's story was a familiar African litany: high hopes at independence giving way to corruption, Cold War superpower meddling, a string of coups, inept government, boneheaded economic policies. The country's ruler, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings, had seized power in 1981 and styled himself a revolutionary who would purge the old, corrupt ways. Rawlings had turned to Libya and Cuba for guidance; those helpful nations responded with bad advice. Even the tiny village I lived in boasted a "Committee for the Defense of the Revolution" along Cuban lines.

The village elders ignored the CDR and the tipsy bricklayer who tried futilely to run it. The elders didn't want a CDR. They wanted to work and feed their families. They wanted roads, gas and a marketplace to sell their cocoa or tomatoes or corn or pineapple.

A dollar was worth 2.75 cedis at the official, mandatory exchange rate. The real exchange rate on the black market was 90 cedis. It was no wonder there was monetary meltdown and no gasoline. Ghanaians weathered the adversity with grace and humor; they dubbed their protruding collarbones "Rawlings necklaces."

To his credit, Rawlings never promoted himself from the rank of flight lieutenant. And he quietly dumped the Libyans and Cubans and called in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

To make a long and complicated economic story simple, Ghana slowly clawed out of its economic pit. Now the roads are choked with the problems of growth, such as traffic and pollution.

Would that the other African nations in the World Cup faced such problems.

West of Ghana is Cote d'Ivoire, dragged into civil war by a president keen on ethnic cleansing. East of Ghana is Togo, run since 1967 by a ruthless and clever thug, Ghassingbe Eyadema, who had the courtesy to die in 2005. His son runs the place now. After decades of civil war, Angola has peace, finally. But it's run by a kleptocratic posse pocketing billions in oil revenue while most people worry about cholera, unexploded land mines and tomorrow's meal.

And Ghana? Foreign investment has grown steadily and incomes have increased. Since 1996, it has had three pretty-much-free elections. Newspapers investigate and criticize the government. Talk radio has taken hold. (When I was there, the government sold cheap "Talking Bird" radios that tuned in only to government-run propaganda stations. They didn't take calls, and the phones didn't work anyway.) A truth commission investigated the abuses of the Rawlings era; the former head of state was publicly questioned about his human rights record in televised proceedings.

I don't mean to paint an overly rosy picture: Ghana still wrestles with poverty and corruption and deforestation and disease. But the country has been moving steadily toward a democratic, market-based economy and the rule of law.

So Americans should root for Ghana. Maybe not on the soccer pitch, but in the world arena. So much of our foreign policy seems about rooting against people: the prickly French, the paranoid North Koreans, the frustrating Iranians, the maddening Saudis.

Ghana is an easy place to root for. Twenty years ago, kids in my village were named Kennedy and Roosevelt and Truman. I don't know if they're naming children Bush or Clinton -- I haven't been back. But I know Ghanaians are friendly and hospitable to a fault. In the language I learned to speak, Twi, the word for stranger is the same word for guest.

Think about it: Strangers at your door? Invite them in and ply them with food and drink and kindness. It's hard to root against that.

(N&O reporter Joseph Neff taught beekeeping in Ghana from 1984 to 1986. He can be reached at


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