For the 17th time since its independence in 1957, Ghana has turned to the IMF to assist in the management of a financial crisis. Failure has been recurrent, but this time around the blame has been placed on external shocks, like the COVID-19 pandemic, government failure to invest in agriculture, free lunch and high school programs, and dollarifacation, to name a few.
Across the country, young adults experiencing an unemployment rate of up to 32% are feeling the pressure of their perpetually stuttering economy. Some of them have moved out of their homes for greener pastures; and of that subset, some are able to work jobs that allow them to pay crucial remittances back home. Many people still have been beaten and starved in the Sahara, and have drowned in the Mediterranean.
The experiences in between life in Ghana, death at sea, and life abroad, are varied and plenty. I spoke to two friends about their experiences.
ACCRA, Ghana — At 6:00 p.m., the call to prayer for the Maghrib, the second to last prayer of the day, sounds loudly through Brenya Ave. At the house that’s home to the big cell tower, visible from anywhere in the neighborhood, Sebastian Sam continues his work. He is not Muslim, and he has animals to feed. While his co-workers rush to grab prayer mats and fill water kettles to cleanse themselves before the evening prayer, Sebastian pushes a wheelbarrow through the feeding trough in front of the cow pen.
A cell tower in Accra. Personal archive.
Sourced from street food vendors around Accra, Sebastian chucks watermelon rinds or cassava ends, or whatever else he and his co-workers could find that day, into the trough. Sometimes he slaps away an overly excited cow when it gets belligerent, fighting and hogging the take for itself. After the animals are fed, he grabs a seat in a back corner next to the pen and talks on the phone with Baps, my uncle and his business partner, who works construction in London. Sebastian says Baps calls him everyday.
“We’re seeing the outcome, if their growing or losing weight. We just talk,” he says. At this point, Sebastian has been working with the animals long enough to be able to tell how they are feeling, and how well they will eat, from the tilt of their heads.
All the cows have names, like Fresh Boy, Blows, Slow, and Tempo.
“We want to name them funny names so we can remember them,” he explains. One of Sebastian’s favorite cows, Akuffo Ado, is named after Ghana’s sitting president. It’s a stout, pudgy, short horn, with smart red hairs covering its crown, that makes up for its lack of stature with clumsy aggression.
Sebastian tells me he has grown to enjoy agriculture. He says when he gets the chance to travel abroad, his goal will be to come back and expand his business from the six cows he owns now.
“Beef products,” he explains.
He tells me about Ousman, a former neighbor that left Ghana for work at a factory in Japan, and the multi-story apartment building he’s slowly constructing, floor by floor, across the street.
“Does he speak Japanese?” I ask.
“Yea. Lets say 12 years he’s been up there learning Japanese,” Sebastian replies.
Sebastian’s goals are simple but intricately connected. He needs a passport and he wants to be a politican. He needs a visa. He wants to be a farmer. He wants to study Political Science; he needs to transfer out of Geology, Archaeology, and History. Ultimately he doesn’t want his children to grow up the way he did.
Half joking, he calls it the life of a street boy.
“When you say a street boy it means, you wake up, you don’t depend on your parents for anything.” He was a momma’s boy when he was younger though, he admits.
Today aged 21, he wakes up at 5 a.m. everyday to feed the cows their first meal. On school days, after he showers, he calls a friend with a motorcycle to give him a lift to school at the University of Ghana, Legon. Classes start at 8 a.m. but he gets to campus a little after 6 a.m. He says he doesn’t want to get insulted by his professors, who make a show of embarrassing tardy students.
“They kick people out of class. When someone messes up, the lecturer won’t come for two weeks,” he laughs.
When asked whether students report their professors to the staff, he sucks his teeth.
“Here is Ghana oh, Ghana who are you going to report?”
Sebastian Sam. Personal archive.
When I ask how he’s going to turn a degree in Archaeology into a career in politics he scoffs.
“I said Ghana here, when you have money, you can do politics not only about the school. When I have my own money, I’ll come back and do politics.”
Sebastian’s best shot at going abroad is his brother Kenneth who has an American girlfriend. He says she wants to take Kenneth abroad, but that Kenneth cannot lean entirely on her grace.
“You see my brother is a man.”
When the time comes, Sebastian plans to sell a few of his animals.
“I can sell my cows and just give him the money and he can do everything. When he goes, I can just take my money back,” he explains.
For Sebastian, big men are made abroad, and he is determined to get there one way or another — whether it’s the U.S., the U.K, or maybe even Japan.
Kwabena a.k.a Anthony Agyei
TOULOUSE, France — It’s the middle of the city’s hottest summer in decades and Anthony Agyei marches a horde of bubbly, sweaty, exchange students through Toulouse on a muggy night. He directs them onto a bus headed downtown, then leads them off, back on foot and through alleyways into a cobblestone-floored, cul-de-sac of clubs and pubs. His favorite one is packed to the brim; every so often a young, drunk, Toulousain tumbles onto the sidewalk from its open door, squeezed out by the movement and the mounting density inside.
“Would you believe that was my second time ever in a club?” Anthony asks.
Part of his horde, I ask how he had directed us so well.
Anthony tells me about, Nicholas Eschuffe, a native Frenchman he met by complete chance when he first arrived in France.
“He had a car, but sometimes he would say come lets go for a walk,” he explains. That’s how he got familiar with the city.
For his first year and a half in France, Agyei rented a room in Eschuffe’s home in quartier Croix de Pierre, near the Garonne River.
“They have big people over there.” he says, “It was a nice neighborhood.”
Now completely independent, Anthony lives in a small student apartment in Mirail, a few minutes walk from the University of Toulouse, Jean Jaures, where he earned his C2 certificate for proficiency in the French language.
These days he takes the underground metro downtown to the University of Toulouse, Capitole, where he studies law.
A couple doors over from his apartment in Mirail, there’s a Ghanaian masters student who pops in on Anthony every so often to make sure he’s having his fair share of European fun. Anthony is a busy guy and they mostly play video games together.
“I just beat him at FIFA and laugh at him,” Anthony explains.
He bought his PS4 to better connect with the kids at the association where he volunteers. Over games of FIFA he says they are more likely to open up to him about the going-ons in their lives they can’t discuss with their parents.
Anthony says he has dealt with situations where kids that he’s tutored have turned to dealing drugs.
From at-risk kids in Mirail to Northern Ghanaian shea butter producers, Anthony offsets his big ideas with hard work on the margins. He chooses not only to dream about solutions to the problems around him, but to engage intimately with them and the people they affect.
On the weekends he goes to some of the kids’ homes to tutor them in English and a few other subjects.
Before he left Ghana for the exchange program that brought him to France, Anthony was a third year Political Science student at the University of Ghana, Sebastian’s current school. He wanted to go to Benin, and he even had a scholarship, but his father advised against it, insisting that France was the way to go.
As a local banker, Anthony’s father helped people save their money and used their savings to make small loans with low interest rates to people in need.
“I felt he wasn’t making much of an income to really fund my education abroad – so I was like man, let me just go to Benin on scholarship and come back and do something,” Anthony explained.
“I never thought of Europe. Never in my life,” he replied when I asked about his expectations for France. His mother, a trader, had taken him to London on business when he was younger he admits, but he says he had to be reminded about the trip by his father. He had no memories of it himself.
Since childhood, Anthony had dreamed of living a simple life in the North of Ghana, where the typically quiet and nomadic existence, the opposite of his busy hometown Konongo, near Kumasi, appealed to him.
“The Kumerica vibe,” he laughed.
He explained the stereotype of the Ashanti man or woman returned to Kumasi after working a shift abroad.
“They come back with the swag and everything — big ass sunglasses.”
Anthony Agyei. Personal archive.
Before he left Ghana, Anthony was beginning a tilt into politics, conducting radio interviews and explaining policy in the local language to listeners. One of Ghana’s two biggest political parties even offered to fund his education but he wouldn’t say which one.
“I was going into politics and he was scared for me and everything,” Anthony says about his father.
In Toulouse, however, politics seems to be finding its way back to him.
“I’ve gotten the chance to collaborate on immigration issues at the highest level, with the mayor’s office and other things. I’ve met the regional president. I’ve met the mayor of Toulouse. I’ve collaborated with even the president of Ghana.”
Anthony was invited to a dinner with the President when he visited France in October 2022 because of his work with the Ghanaian Embassy in Paris.
For Ghanaians in Toulouse, Anthony organizes weekend retreats that allow them to file crucial paperwork with officials from the embassy, while educating them on their rights as immigrants – especially when they are in the country illegally.
In spite of his work, Anthony doesn’t hold back when he discusses immigration from Ghana. For those past a certain age, he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
He says younger people have the drive to work the type of hours for the poor wages offered to immigrants, that a lot of adult expats lack.
He tells me about a man he worked with who was making 50,000 cedis, or $4,000, a month in Ghana working in fiber optics. Even though he was making a good living in Ghana, the man still moved to France with no knowledge of the language and no contacts.
“Your people back home are going to be worried about you.” he explains, “It makes it hard to send anything back.”
Ghanaians in Toulouse. Personal archive.
When I ask if he’s going to stay in Toulouse after his program is over, Anthony says he doesn’t know.
He doesn’t see himself staying in France for a very long time but he feels useful there. He has ideas for projects he wants to do in Ghana, but he feels he lacks the right people to help him carry out his vision. It seems like his network is much more potent in Toulouse.
There isn’t much distance between Sebastian and Anthony’s goals; they are both young, aspiring politicians who want to see change in their country. Where they differ is access. Sebastian has access to people that affirm his identity, and who understand the issues intimately.
Meanwhile, Anthony has some access to policy makers, and mechanisms like the embassy, with the potential to influence change. Anthony’s limited access to people on the ground back home, and Sebastian’s limited access to the resources that would make his path to politics clearer is a microcosm of the dichotomy that exist for Ghanaians at home and abroad; It seems you can only have one or the other.
Featured Image: Photo by Ifeoluwa A. on Unsplash
Edited by Steven London
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