Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Debt Foretold

Asked if she would use a credit card if one were given to her, Ms. Zhang looked confounded. "What's a credit card?" she asked, adding, "We have everything we need."

China's Economy, in Need of Jump Start, Waits for Citizens' Fists to Loosen
Indeed, I ask. Indeed. Ms. Zhang has vocalized the existential question of our age. What's a credit card?

Everyone is asking similar questions these days. "What's a bank?", for example, is something that markets the world over are pondering. We're finding out that there are many things that are bank-like entities — from insurance companies through mortgage companies to even car companies, and others, nominally called banks, that had very odd ideas about what a bank was actually supposed to be or do. But I digress, let's stick to the matter at hand: what's a credit card?

Well the credit crunch hit home in a minor way last week. The message, delivered in a plain white envelope, was resonant in its simplicity:

Dear Mr O. Amaah

We are writing to you because we noticed that this credit card account hasn't been used for at least [redacted] months. We believe this may indicate that the account no longer meets your financial needs. With this in mind, the account has been closed.

[redacted closing pleasanteries]

So there you have it, ever so pithy. It kicked the bucket; there's one less credit card in the world today. A little piece of plastic was duly snipped, shredded, and recycled. And that was that, you might say. Still, there's a tale lurking behind that note, a petit divertissement perhaps, an object lesson about the current global reassessment of risk, or if you are so inclined, a parable about the meaning of credit. Consider the following credit card toli a chronicle of a debt foretold...

ephraim amu 20,000 cedi note

My introduction to Generation Debt (USA edition) was with a First USA credit card that I signed up for sometime in 1994 in order to finance a conference that a bunch of African students decided to put on that year. Not being favoured sons and daughters of Harvard, donors were not being forthcoming with spare change to help our efforts. But we were bloody minded enough to want to put Africa on the university's agenda, for a weekend at least — we knew our limits. So I picked up the three credit card applications that had been crowding my university mailbox, filled and returned them in their glorious postage-paid envelopes.

I have to admit, I was shocked when a sleek credit card duly arrived in the mail a week later. I was doubly shocked when I saw the number of digits in the credit line assigned to me. I still can't believe that a bank would extend almost $12,000 of credit to a mere African student who was earning $8.50 an hour working weekends as a dishwasher in the Harvard dining halls. Well, this meant that the show would go on, my $300 bank balance be damned. I dug this plastic exemplar of American bravado. Sidenote: one of the other applications had been promptly rejected, and after a longer period, the third was approved (with a credit line of $500).

Incidentally the first purchase made on this card — and the card's claim to fame, was a plane ticket for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to bring her to the conference. At that time she was a humble bureaucrat at the United Nations Development Program who, if I remember correctly, had initially suggested that she would even contemplate driving up from DC if we could find someone to car-pool with her... You'll recall that Liberia and Sierra Leone circa 1994 was prime warlord running riot material. She, in contrast, simply wanted to talk to the students. How refreshing.

Anyway, the eventual budget for the conference was around $22,000 of which approximately $15,000 was put on credit cards that were bestowed on yours truly over the next two months.

Now I see you shaking your head. I understand. It's OK, go ahead, shake your head, titter away. I can handle a lot of head shaking, rolling of eyes and the like. I certainly am shaking my head as I remember the things I charged on that card. You see, thrift runs deep in my family. Further, there's a certain conservative streak and reputation that is very much belied by this, my first encounter with a credit card. In mitigation perhaps, I'd note that I was just a year past the sophomore stage so you could place this anecdote under the banner of youthful indiscretion.

10,000 cedi note

Returning to our original question — remember we're trying to clarify things for Ms. Zhang — what can we say so far?

Well a credit card is claimed to have something to do with meeting financial needs — that is what my credit card company suggested even as they terminated our dalliance.

The anecdotal evidence also shows that a credit card is something that changes one's relationship to risk, and indeed risk assessment.

A further reality illustrated here is that a credit card is something that allows sophomoric impulses to move beyond mere bravado to full-blown fiscal train wreck, all within a 25 day (or 20 day) billing cycle - for these things can change at little notice per the small print.

It turns out that there's nothing like having $15,000 bills to concentrate the mind - well at least to concentrate my Ghanaian student mind. It also turns out that, statistically speaking, credit card debt doesn't concentrate the minds of most Americans - students or otherwise. It must be a cultural thing. It is confounding, isn't it? A credit card is a puzzle.

Suffice to say that I sweated a lot for the next few months as I applied to various funding sources to try to get reimbursement so that I could pay off my credit card bills. That $15 minimum payment that was cheerily suggested to me seemed a little out of proportion to the actual bills in question, on the order of a thousand times the amount of said bills. A credit card is a hassle.

If you were in Cambridge in those heady months and had even a faint whiff of money about you, you would have made my acquaintance. The idea was that I'd beg, steal or borrow to repay this debt. I visited more foundations, Harvard-affiliated or not, wrote more letters, made more phone calls, appeared in more student council meetings or board meetings, than I care to remember. I discovered reserves of argumentation and negotiation skills that I never knew I possessed. Some looked for polish in the presentation and others wanted you to dance for the money. I had no shame, and was chameleon-like in my affectations. For a surprisingly large number of organizations, it appeared that it paid to look very skinny, malnourished, child-like and/or poor - there's a certain image of Africa that loosens wallets. Normalcy wasn't a feature that they cared for. Well, I obliged. I remember someone wondering aloud why we needed to bring all these mid-level African professionals (Johnson-Sirleaf, Djibril Diallo etc.) to the conference when an expert like Samuel Huntington was available (and local). I kept my mouth shut. A credit card is a hustle.

10 cedi note

I learned a lot in those days about money, power, time, and especially about debt. On the question of time, I learned one of Einstein's dreams about the perception of time: there's that notion of time dilation as evidenced by the interval between when someone says they will give you money and the actual moment when you receive said money. A credit card is an alarm clock of sorts.

There were many lessons learned, perhaps too numerous to enumerate here. The American facility and close companionship with debt will forever remain a source of fascination to me.

My sweat paid off, money trickled in, the conference went on and I managed to pay off those initial credit card bills on time. A couple of months later, I got another letter from First USA: the credit card company duly increased my credit limit to $15,000. A credit card is a dream.

When you read about the psychology of conmen, you'll find a lot about misdirection in language and verbal framing. They fact that they call it "credit card" is quite a tell when it is actually a "debt card". The verb credit has positive associations of honour and achievement that enable the crucial leap of faith. Truth in advertising, if you will. A credit card is a confidence game.

The Story of O

Having a long and hyphenated name, I was always wary about using my now dearly departed credit card - even as First USA's issues in the realm of e-commerce were being worked out. For one, my full name didn't fit in the required space on the card's front so the first part of my last name became the initial O, and a new identity was minted, Phoenix like. For fifteen years, an entire area of forest and countless trees have been sacrificed to the cause of junk mail offers to that guy with the O initial. I tell you, Mr O. Amaah has been positively deluged by marketing offers after First USA promptly sold my details to its marketing partners. A credit card is an alter ego.

1 cedi note

Returning to our story. In time, First USA was bought up by Bank One which was bought up by Chase Manhattan bank (later renamed Chase), which was bought up by JP Morgan to become JP Morgan Chase. The card name changed accordingly. A credit card is a chameleon.

When I lost my wallet and bag a few years ago, and tried to cancel the card, I had to go through a whole rigmarole with customer service trying to determine what the name of the card was. I always remembered it as my First USA card but there were at least four different entries in their records. Who knew? A credit card is a complication.

I am not one for debt. I had this card for almost 15 years but I found myself preferring the second card which, you'll recall, came with a lower credit line and on which my full name could be printed on its front. I only use credit cards as a convenience and am one of those termed deadbeats by the credit card industry, ergo one who pays his bills in full.

Truth be told, I stopped using it because of fickle and aesthetic reasons. I didn't want to pretend to be Mr O. Amaah any longer. I was skeptical of that entire identity conjured up out of missing pixels and thin air. A credit card is a sleight of hand.

Still, I kept the card around for sentimental reasons – you always remember your first credit card, your lost virginity in commercial debt. It was the prodigal card, or perhaps the card that the builder refused in biblical terms. Well no longer. My credit card is dead.

JP Morgan Chase received a bailout in the form of a $25 billion equity injection from the United States Treasury under the authority of the TARP legislation. Presumably as the company absorbs its Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual acquisitions, the bean counters have decided that hoarding cash is the name of the game. Risk managers the world over are doing much the same thing – that's why they call it a credit crunch, innit? They no longer relish the prospect of yours truly being seized once again by a seminal lunacy and taking advantage of the now $23,000 credit line that they had since extended to him. Oh well, their loss.

I suspect it will take a few years for Mr O. Amaah to stop receiving junk mail. While I might (briefly) mourn my First USA card, I can't wait for my alter ego's disappearance. In the grand scheme of things, I'm doing fairly well in life. I have health and loving family and friends. I applaud those faceless credit assessors for cutting me off — even if abruptly and without notice. I'll echo the words of a confounded Chinese woman:

"What's a credit card?" Adding later, "We have everything we need".

A credit card is a debt foretold.

one cedi note

Light Reading

Credit in Film

One of my favourite films of the 1990s is the Dutch film Karakter (Character). It's a tale of Oedipus meets Inspector Javert with the prospect of bankruptcy looming and debtors' prison. A wonderful period thriller founded on the themes of identity and duty — the duty of repaying one's debt; that Dutch sense of rectitude.

Soundtrack for this note

Some music for the soul.

Next: What is a bank?

Some further context

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Drum Magazine Ghana 1969

Belatedly, some notes on the year 1969 in Ghana, as viewed through the lens of Drum magazine... (see slideshow)

drum magazine 1969 collage covers

I spent some time scanning images from a year's worth of issues of the Ghana edition of Drum magazine. Truth be told, losing myself in the pages was a bit of escapism. I wanted a glimpse of my parents' world, of their aspirations and of the culture from which I emerged. Those pages were a good source of any manner of cultural artefacts and goings-on in the country. Call it nostalgia, call it social anthropology, call it a poor man's history, or perhaps I was simply fascinated by the advertisements. So. Drum Magazine. Ghana. 1969. Here goes.

1969 was an election year in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah's one-party regime had been overthrown and civilian rule loomed. But that was by the by - the magazine was typically focused on lighter issues. By way of background, Drum magazine is most known from its South African roots but it also had Ghanaian and Nigerian editions from the late sixties until the eighties. The equivalents would be Ebony, Jet or say Essence (alternatively think of Hello and Paris Match) ergo, none too weighty society papers. A good place to start then would be "Drum's fabulous contest to find the prettiest mini-skirt (and its wearer) in Ghana."

drum january 1969

The singer Rose Small's pink mini-dress "proved irresistible". Her testimony was eloquent:
"Minis are gorgeous and I adore them. With the right figure, pretty legs and a lot of taste a girl simply looks wonderful in a well-made mini. I believe that for a long time to come minis will continue to be ravers.

I wear minis because I feel free in them. In any case what's wrong with showing just a wee bit of thigh? For parties, for casual wear, for public outings when I appear on television or nightclubs my dress is either four inches or six inches above the knee. I have no fixed notions about the length anyway. On a day I feel gay I just slip on a six-inch-above-the-knee dress.

Of course I do not fancy very complicated fashion make-up. For the mini which won the competition I just asked a dressmaker... a fan of mine... to make me a six-inch mini with a matching long-sleeve blouse. That's all. The important thing is the poise and grace which I think I have. The mini cost only eight new cedis to make. No fuss, no mess!"
Dig the insouciant language of the liberated. Others however took offense, Ghana was (and perhaps still is) a fairly conservative society:
"The mini-skirt which you have so irresponsibly patronized is becoming a nuisance in the country"... "most of the girls who put it on do not have the good legs, the shape and poise to do justice to that weird dress of yours".
The fashion spreads contrasted the mini-skirts and bell-bottoms of the time with the more traditional cloths (Dutch wax, batiks and other fabrics).

made in ghana

We see the marketing of the Kenyan fabric named Maridadi (from the Swahili word meaning bright and colourful) and its Ethiopian analogue.


Teijin Tetoron, the Japanese polyester brand was trying to make a splash - without much success, as it turns out, cotton works best in our tropical lands.

There was plenty of eye candy throughout the magazines.

miss may - Monica Edwards

On the perennial question of hair, the influence of Motown was felt with Supremes-styling presumably taking over from the corn roll of yore.

hair fashions 1969

This same dynamic is at work 30 years on, as the following posters from 1999 show.

tradition and modernity - ghana hair fashions 1999

Imagine an academic paper: Tradition and modernity, the sociology of hair in post-colonial Africa.

The alternatives were afros and going au naturel of course. Wigs were for the more adventurous - brand 99's wig spray advertisement proclaimed that it was "Ghana's favourite lacquer".

Head scarves abounded, the older, traditional duukuu that had given way to European headgear before independence was now reinvented as the lappa cover cloth.

hair fashions lappa 1969

Timothy Burke made his name as a social historian studying advertisements in Zimbabwe in Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. There is much of the same material here. There was soap, lots of soap, Lux Soap would weigh in against Rexona and its ubiquitous cover girl. Omo competed with Surf.

blue omo 1969

Skin lightening products were popular (well at least they were heavily advertised). Fela would sing Yellow Fever a few years hence and bemoan the extremes of the practice. It's not just Africa however and not simply old history, the same thing happens in India and China today. "You deh bleach, oh you deh bleach".

nku cream

A yearlong series on sex education draws a big response from readers, dealing as it does in straightforward terms with everything from birth control and family planning, the pill and other contraceptives, midwives, child birth, relationships (pre-marital and otherwise), passion and even prostitution.

Healthcare advertising is also much in evidence. Presumably the infant formula and powdered milk of the time wasn't contaminated with melamine but the hard sell about infant nutrition was well on the way as breast feeding was deemed passé.

cow and gate

Cod liver oil remedies compete with Milk of Magnesia treatments. Vicks rubs elbows with the various potions and herbal bitters that form the bulk of traditional medicine. The same competition between modern pharmaceuticals and traditional practitioners continues to this day and all now have large advertising budgets. As one would expect, we find adverts for various malaria treatments - Nivaquine gave "sure protection", Resochin claimed to cure malaria. Bayer, Merck and others were targeting Africa.


Ghana Airways was continuing its expansion - by the mid 70s it would begin its inexorable decline (it died a few years ago) - well, we could all dream in 1969.

ghana airways 1969

Next to ads about Westinghouse air conditioners or Fan ice cream (which had been launched on the advice of Dr Fred Sai and was instantly favoured in generations to come), you'd find much about beers of course. Star beer and Club lager had large budgets and blanketed much of the magazines. It was all about the good life. The culture and politics of alcohol have been much studied in Ghana. Schnapps was less in evidence but featured - it is used in libations and many of our ceremonies.


My clear favourite is Pepsodent toothpaste with Irium. Be progressive and dig the production values and the light skin.

be progressive use pepsodent

There was a vigourous music scene and perhaps a golden age of music in the country. On the highlife side of things, E.T. Mensah and his Tempos competed with Jerry Hansen and The Ramblers band who were more in the vein of King Bruce's Black Beats. These newfangled Ramblers stepped things up and "brought back the boogaloo" from London and the States.

The Professional Uhuru Dance Band featured the guitar dexterity of Stan Plange. The GBC Band roughed it up with The Revellers, Railway Dance Band and the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation Band. The Aliens Band, The Planets, the Black Santiagos rounded out the cast. The Sierra Leone Heartbeats, fronted by Geraldo Pino had set up shop in Ghana after the coup and found a receptive audience for their brand of soul music - echoes of Motown were in the air. Paradoxically The Soul Messengers' tour was judged a failure - the competition was too fierce.

e.t. mensah and Geraldo Pino of Heartbeats

Every issue featured the obligatory society puff pieces (sundry ceremonies, weddings, durbars and funerals). Memo to self: finish the long overdue toli on African ceremonies.

The Ga chief, Nii Bonne, the so called "Boycotthene", who made a stand against inflation and organized a national boycott in 1948 against colonial rule, died during the year and his funeral was a major marker. It was unusual for traditional rulers to feature in the independence or nationalist movements but Nii Bonne didn't recoil. You may recall, my previous commentary about E.T. Mensah's song, Inflation Calypso, which marked that episode in lilting music.

nii bonne boycotthene

On funerals, the thinking was that "it costs too much to die". A certain Moses Ababio in Somanya bemoaned 'senseless, prestigious funeral ceremonies'. Millicent Adamafio in Sekondi chipped in:
'grandiose and extravagant preparations must be condemned in the strongest terms. Some people have become full-time mourners, showing their faces at almost all wake-keeping services. Their explanation is that the more one attends such functions and registers his condolences, the more sympathisers one gets when he is bereaved. In fact there are voluntary organizations whose sole purpose is to give moral and financial support to members who are bereaved'
Others countered:
"what is wrong with a nice colourful and impressive funeral for a loving relative whose face we will not see again. The dead are an important subject in our tradition and should be accorded the due ceremony and honour they deserve".
You'll see much the same debate if you read today's Ghanaian newspapers.

There's a cultural point to be made here. Those "voluntary organizations", those funeral societies are very much tied to the informal sector in the economy. This has always been true and was even moreso during military rule. It was said that during the worst of the Rawlings years the funeral industry was the only growth industry. They provided not only social comfort but financial support. Beyond that, the susu collectors that deal with money management in our markets are intimately coupled with these informal societies and their financial arrangements are our equivalent of the shadow banking system, the essential glue that underpins the Ghanaian economy. Many analysts of the Ghanaian scene seem to dismiss these cultural organizations too readily. The financing of funerals and weddings would make a great dissertation topic for a budding economist or social historian of Ghana. Those considering technological solutions such as mobile payments and the like would do well to start by examining what makes these organizations so effective.

The formal banking and financial sectors were big advertisers, trying to convince the unbanked to start accounts after the hard times under Nkrumah in which banks had fallen out of favour. There was a concerted campaign targeting market women, young professionals, textile workers and entrepreneurs.

dede becomes a market trader

On ceremonies, there were scenes from the Oguaa Fetu Afahye celebrating the peoples of Cape Coast - the Oguaa traditional area. The headlines: custom and taboo take their turn.

custom and taboo take their turn

The original founders of Cape Coast were said to be the Bentsils and Inkooms who migrated from Sekyere and Techiman and settled in Effutu, nine miles north of Cape Coast. The wandering Effutus soon began to explore their new environment and through the trapping and marketing of crabs, pitched themselves a settlement in this part of Effutu Kingdom called Cabo Corso (Cape Coast) by the trading English and Swede settlers and Oguaa or Gwaa (market) by the "natives"... There were images of "top-level fetish priests" performing the annual purification ceremony (Wohyefa) at Prapratem. These were "top-level", not your garden variety fetish priests.

Closer to my family home, there are the celebrations at Aburi and the Akuapem "mountains" with welcome images of Nana Kwame Fori II, Omanhene of Akuapem, and Nana Dokua II, Queen Mother of Akropong. Family...

nana dokua II Queen Mother of Akropong

Jimmy Moxon was also in attendance, by then he had already spent 25 years with the Akuapems. The so-called "Gentleman Chief" had moved from England and was known by his official name, Nana Kofi Obonya. At other events, you could catch glimpses of members of the Oddfellows Lodge and of various Freemason societies dressed in their distinctive attire.

There was much about student life (the writers were not far removed, if at all from university). Siren, the journal of Mensah Sarbah Hall, University of Ghana, Legon did a satirical end of year issue featuring a cartoon strip that gave rise to the "Wankye Wankye Scandal" - and consequent student riots...

The strip was denounced as 'pornography', students were duly suspended, campaigns were mounted to have them reinstated, demonstrations were started. Things got out of hand.

Wankye Wankye Scandal Student Riots at Legon

Reading closely you realize how benign the commentary was, young male students frustrated at the lack of internalists - 'internalists' being those female students who dated fellow students. There were complaints about "the young lecturers who openly fish in the limited pool of Volta Hall - and in the female wing of the controversial Sarbah hall". Student militancy prevailed however. The riot police had to be called in to calm things down. Dig the uniforms.

police called in to student riots at legon

When the mood swings there are even looks outward to the deadly costs of the Biafra war in nearby Nigeria. Nelson Ottah termed it a "descent to the abyss" and was shocked by what he saw in Ojukwu's Biafra.
A great magician was abroad, and many things that had no relation with reason were happening. So it happened that the whole people got up like a herd of sheep and followed to their own destruction.

It was all grotesque. it was all an extravagant imbecility. It was all a gigantic political swindle. It was all first-class mass-hypnosis. But it needs an explanation.
On Ojukwu, he didn't mince words:
"the man is a nihilist - a nihilist uninhibited". A magician who "found it so easy to take fourteen million intelligent people down the path of folly, vanity and destruction."
A young Cameron Duodu takes a trip to America at the height of Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers' confrontation with The Man. One gets the sense that he was really there to check out jazz groups like the Sonny Cox Trio or watch Le Roi Jones catching the spirit in live performances but he found that there was no escape from race in his travels in the United States. As he put it: "I see the beauty evaporate". It is interesting to read about America's civil rights trauma through the eyes of a Ghanaian journalist. He titled his pieces America the beautiful with no little irony.

eldridge cleaver

Ghana was looking towards space - playing off the Soviet achievements against the USA's Apollo prowess (the moon landing was duly celebrated) - well anyone could dream and there were even nuclear ambitions (since revived in 2008).

moon - floating in space

On Politics

General Ankrah resigned and handed over to General Afrifa early on in the year. The die had been cast however, and the transition to civilian rule would account for much of the year's manoeuvering.

general ankrah resigns II

The Akuffo-Addo commision enjoined that "never again should there be any tyranny in Ghana... little purpose can be served if, having set up a democratic Constitution, we allow anti-democratic forces to overthrow or even attempt to overthrow the democracy that the Constitution ensures." A Constituent Assembly was sworn in to draw up a constitution taking into account its recommendations and those of the general public.

Lt. Gen. Ankrah would state 3 principles to inform the new Constitution:
  • The freedom and liberty of the people and their enjoyment of fundamental human rights
  • To eliminate the possibility of the return of tyranny and dictatorship to the country
  • To prevent the abuse of the Constitution through frivolous and ill-conceived amendments to it.
That last was a reaction to the deposed President Nkrumah and "his disrespect of the Constitution and the frequency of amendments which rendered it a simple tool in his hands for the perpetuation of his rule". With hindsight, the worries about tyranny would prove prescient - Acheampong and his band of rogues would mount a coup in 1972.

There was lots of campaigning and electioneering and much of it would feature in Drum's pages.

election 1969 candidates

K.A. Gbedemah, finance minister under Nkrumah's CPP was exempted from the vetting conducted by the NLC and threw himself into the campaign with the National Alliance of Liberals (NAL). The association with Nkrumah would harm his performance. The "bearded, bespectacled, mystic-looking Dr. Willie Kofi Lutterrodt" didn't make an impression with his People's Popular Party. Joe Appiah broke with erstwhile colleague, Dr. K.A. Busia and the Progress Party, and founded the Nationalist Party on a platform to economic revitalization and promises to cocoa farmers. It would unite with the Ghana Democratic Party and the All People's Congress. Ex-minister P.K.K Quaidoo led the Republican Party the Dr. de Graft-Johnson led the All People's Party, these last two merging and forming the All People's Republican Party. Their manifestos make for interesting reading.

The elections would be won handily by Busia's Progress Party - the heavyweight brain-trust and shrewd electoral tactics proved overwhelming. Having B.J. Da Rocha on your side counted for a lot on the campaign trail.

election 1969 handover

Ajax Bukana, the irascible trickster, rabble-rouser and all around general entertainer launched the Mosquitoes Protection Party during the 1969 election. His platform was thoroughly ludicrous but brought some very welcome levity. The minstrel tradition had reached Africa and found fertile ground.

ajax bukana

On Economics

There were complaints about smuggling - Ghana's economy was still dislocated. There were many scapegoats:
"we are asking them not to have a special liking for the Syrians, Lebanese, Indians and Nigerians who are mainly behind the illegal importation of cases of liquors, tobacco, used clothing and cotton prints".
These days, the additions to the list of convenient scapegoats in the Ghanaian discourse are the Liberians who arrived as refugees over the past 15 years. If you press a little harder, some might mention the Chinese but so far their impact on the economy hasn't drawn populist rebukes.

Early on in the year there was the so-called Railway Rumpus - labour disputes with the Ghana Railway and Ports Workers trade unions going on strike. They would face harsh treatment from the NLC - a military government, even a benign one, by definition is not very sympathetic. G.K. de Graft Johnson was then General Manager of those government-run enterprises and had a hard time balancing negotiations with the unions and keeping things running.

Mark Cofie, who started an empire of car garages, becoming an agent of Japanese car companies and dealing with repairing most of the American cars in the country, was given a glowing profile. A consummate entrepreneur, he had grand visions of a Ghanaian auto industry. In retrospect, it wasn't to materialize but he at least made a go at it.

the 1969 car models

On cars... the Hillman Hunter, the Honda S 800, Peugeot 204 Brake, the Mercedes 230 S, the Ford Cortina 1300, the Rover 2000, the Volvo 144 S and of course the Fiat 125 were all available in local showrooms. I still have fond memories of my Uncle Mike's yellow Fiat 125 which somehow survived well into the 1980s. Those Fiats were as indestructible as the Peugeots.

trust the fiat 125

It wasn't clear how popular, or indeed how reliable, Soviet cars like the Moskvitch 408 were - the adverts made sure to note that there were plenty of "spare parts and excellent service available". Sidenote: Ghana had turned towards the Soviet Union in the previous years under Nkrumah - socialism with an African face was the slogan.

The slogan for Chrysler trucks and vans was "Engineering in Action". These days it's more like engineering inaction - and the prospect of bankruptcy.

There were many articles stressing the importance of vehicle assembly in developing countries, for example the Bedford VAM 23 motorway bus assembled locally by Africa Motors. These were the successors to the venerable, bone-shattering Mammy Trucks.

bedford vam 23

The recently opened Akosombo dam was meant to enable a new era of power and support the development of fledgling industries. "Abundant power for Ghana's new industries" read the headline. Manufacturing didn't take off however, and these nascent efforts would falter in the decades to come. It is only forty years on that these same aspirations seem to be taking off in any sustainable fashion. Still there is much on the various factories that were sprouting up.

Reports on the poor and often non-existent infrastructure in the Volta region make for depressing reading: no drainage systems, no street lighting, no water supply (only 8 percent with access to good drinking water), poor feeder roads, few doctors and so forth. The proximity of the Akosombo dam seemed to be of no consequence. A few gestures were being made to promote places like the Wii waterfalls and the mystery rock of Akosombo as tourist venues but the capacity wasn't there yet - indeed it has taken decades for some of those ideas to come to fruition. Certain parts of the country were being left behind and some would exploit the resulting grievances for political gain.

The environmental degradation of Keta and the anxiety of its harried inhabitants were a concern. Those who live between the sea and the lagoon will always find grievances. In any case, some of our best poetry has come out of their predicament, witness Kofi Awonoor's wonderful poem, The Sea Eats The Land At Home.

education church or state

The obligatory photo of African school-children in morning prayer raises the issue of church or state. The big question was "whether the churches should continue to manage schools with local, urban and city councils or should the management of all educational institutions come under a unified system to be directed by the Ministry of Education". It was noted that
"the churches spearheaded the drive for education in Ghana... in 1737 the Danish chaplain attached to the Danish Castle at Christianborg in Accra sent two boys from the Castle school to be educated in Copenhagen. Again in 1828 the Danish governor at Osu, Accra invited the Basel Missionary Society in Switzerland to take up missionary and education work in Osu and its neighbouring districts."
During Kwame Nkrumah's reign, his government introduced party politics and the notorious Young Pioneers Movement. A relevant tidbit: when "Rt. Rev Richard Reginald Roseveare, former Anglican Bishop of Accra criticised the Movement's ungodly behaviour at a church synod, he was instantly deported from the country".

The public/private conundrum is very much in the news in today's Ghana, private schools are all the rage, often funded by churches. The jury is still out as to their effectiveness and the question of standards; the Ministry of Education still has to reconcile unyielding demand for public education with limited resources; worse, everyone has an opinion. The easiest way to get any Ghanaian talking for a good hour is to broach the topic of education, we all wax eloquent about what is to be done.


In 1969, the Sukura neighbourhood of Accra was gaining a reputation for crime and squalor even more lugubrious than Nima. Forty years on it is the aptly named Sodom and Gomorrah that takes the prize as Ghana's school of hard knocks, the place you terrify your little kids about the prospect of leaving them there. Of course this is all a matter of perception, the settlement of shantytowns always gives rise to dark hints of nefariousness by the establishment. Drum was firmly of the establishment and would editorialize about the problems of slums, runaway children and other social ills.

Looking towards East Africa, there is a feature about Pope Paul VI's visit to Uganda - and the story of the Ugandan martyrs. This would be juxtaposed with commentary on Mumiani, the legend of death - the blood sucking myths in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. This is about the "ghoulish people who murder for medicinal purposes". The feature recounts the superstition and bloodshed that swept Tanzania in the 1959. The derivation is from "the dark-coloured gum-like substance used by Indians, Arabs and Swahilis as medicine and said to be brought from Persia". Mumiani were viewed as colonial agents so the myth and that kind of mob justice began to fade in the post-colonial era. Our souls were perhaps contemplating other articles of faith.

mumiani legend of death

Society Profiles

Dr Stephen Addae receives a great profile showing off his laboratory work. He was gathering materials and experience for his later opuses The History of Western Medicine in Ghana and The Evolution of Modern Medicine in a Developing Country. These tomes are bibles for historians of science and medicine, I should know, I'm married to one.

Pete Myers, the presenter of the BBC's Good Morning Africa whose "swinging career began in an Accra nightclub", was worth a lengthy treatment as an exemplar of the Ghanaian affinity with cosmopolitanism. Born in India, brought up in Caracas, Venezuela, he moved to Ghana as a teenager. He identified strongly with his Ghanaian associates and loathed the way that other expatriates conducted themselves in the newly independent country.

pete myers for president

An interesting tidbit: he became a broadcaster after his friend Smokey Hesse who hosted the 50-minute Jazz Club on Ghana Radio got run over by a bus. He filled in for his friend after that tragedy and came to make a living as a radio presenter. He began to organize Friday discotheque sessions at the Metropole nightclub in the center of Accra, the club rapidly became the center for rock-and-roll and teenage fashion and even inspired mothers to write to the papers that their daughters were being misguided by the "decadence". It bears reminding oneself that Accra used to have a vibrant nightlife.

He went on to direct the Africa's first ever musical, Obradzeng, with sculptor musician Saka Acquaye and Beryl Kari-Kari, dancer and choreographer. After its initial dismissal by Nkrumah, the whole orchestra and 85 dancers were subsequently taken to Russia on one of the Premier's trips. Back in London he started working at the BBC, hoping to change its "colonial mentality" and "the way it talked down to the audience". His efforts were rewarded and the audiences responded to him.

drum july 1969

In contrast to Myers' positivity, consider Geoffrey Bing, the former British Labour MP, who became one of Nkrumah's confidants, first as a constitutional adviser and subsequently as his Attorney General. He of course helped pass "the obnoxious Preventive Detention Act which came to rob Ghana of some of her best brains - it killed the celebrated Dr. J.B. Danquah". Unable to bring authoritarian socialism to Britain, he was glad to have an African playground to test out his ideas. A man who always operated in the shadows, we should compare him perhaps to those faceless European advisers to Idi Amin in the 1970s. After being thrown out of the country as a result of Nkrumah's overthrow, he would head home. Despite his fawning 1968 memoirs, his attempts to return to the political scene in Britain came to naught in 1969.

Baba Yara, Ghana's greatest footballer, the "King of Wingers of West Africa" would die on May 5, 1969 after sustaining a spinal injury in a lorry accident at Kpeve in 1963, three months of treatment at Stoke Mandeville hospital had done nothing to improve his health - nor had the local prophet healer, who had offered his services once he returned to Ghana, been successful. Thus his last six years of life were spent bedridden. Asante Kotoko, the Real Republikans and, of course, the national team, the Black Stars had suffered a grievous loss. The scenes commemorating his life leap off the page.

baba yara

Born in Kumasi on October 12, 1936, it was in 1955, his debut year for the national team that he wore the number 7 jersey of the Gold Coast team which massacred Nigeria by 7-0 at the Accra Sports Stadium. Yara scored two goals and was the architect of four of the seven. Decades later his legend as a fearsome attacker is as glowing as say that of the magic hands of goalkeeper Robert Mensah. Those who saw him play wax rhapsodic to this day, my uncle Emma has been known to go on for a good hour about that golden era and those stars. The Baba Yara sports stadium in Kumasi is a testament to his memory.

john mensah sarbah

There's an interesting profile of the great Ghanaian nationalist John Mensah Sarbah, born on June 3 1864, who died on November 6 1910. A lawyer he was the first native of the Gold Coast to qualify as a fully fledged barrister-at-Law. He argued against the obnoxious Lands Bill of 1897 which would have placed all public Lands in the Colony under the Colonial Government. It was never passed after legal argument and petitions to Queen Victoria. He waived his retainer for that case saying "I seek no reward in serving the land of my birth" He wrote a treatise on The Fanti Customary Laws in 1897 and the Fanti National Constitution in 1906. The great hall at University of Ghana Legon is named after him in his memory for his educational works. This included his founding of the Fanti Public Schools Limited which eventually became the present Mfantsipim School in Cape Coast. He designing the school's crest and its motto "Dwen hwe kwan - think ahead of time".

There's all that and more - like any society magazine Drum was sometimes shallow, other times profound and even on occasion sublime. Consider this a profile of a country in transition, between military rule and democracy, full of hope and navigating between tradition and modernity.

Ghana is headed to elections in the coming weeks and, from the outside, much of the discourse is akin to that seen here in 1969: great promise amidst reminders of just how far we have to go. I can only hope that my fellow countrymen take heed of those who paved the way for them and remember the words of John Mensah Sarbah: think ahead of time.

drum march 1969drum april 1969

drum june 1969drum august 1969

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maxwell's Suite

For the record, the best $3.13 I've ever spent was for a copy of Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite in May 1996 dug out of a remainder bin in a dusty record store (now defunct) in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. I remember very clearly looking at the cover and deciding to buy the record on the sole basis of the title, thinking to myself: this is surely some soul music. I was 9 months into my first job and this was the first bit of whimsy I had indulged in all that time, the first thing I had bought for myself beyond bare necessities in all those months. For some silly reason I had worked myself into a state of thrift, subsisting at times on those "bags of burgers" that were the rage at McDonalds - 10 cheeseburgers for something like $4. Well I digress, we'll tackle that toli later... I remember also the look of interest as the guy at the counter rang up my purchase: "Looks like some soul, let me know what you think of it".

When I got to my room, I found the turntable, played the record and discovered that I was in possession of some exceptional soul music, a suite, a trip. This was a new voice that demanded attention, someone I would be proselytizing for even if he wouldn't need it. Looking at the credits I read names that gave me further comfort: Stuart Matthewman of Sade looked to be a key collaborator. Amp Fiddler and Wah Wah Watson were among the musical cast. I dug the voice, I dug the production values, I dug the sound, I dug the message, I dug the execution.

A mood lifted by the time I wore out the needle on the turntable that day. My immediate favourites were Til The Cops Come Knockin' and Lonely's The Only Company; I could identify with the vague longing and perhaps sense of obsession — young adults. Lots of things were resolved to the sounds of the album in the next few months. For one I decided to buy a cd player, that I deserved to have more than that gray room, that — well, lots of things you know.

maxwell urban hang suite

I returned to the store a few days later to buy a cd copy and gave my report to the guy. We listened and talked our way through the album, talked music like those who share our affliction do - for example comparing Maxwell to that other guy, D'Angelo, who seemed hungrier. If they would be MJ and Prince in coming years, we wondered who would be their Madonna. The guy was an R&B traditionalist and kept trying to get me to buy that Brian McKnight album - I kept demurring, that thrift thing. Then he played New Moon Daughter for me and I kicked myself for having been so out of touch that I'd missed out on the release of a new Cassandra Wilson album. I decided to try to do a guest show at WHRB, to get back into things.


There I was about to simply review the concert I attended last night and all of these things came out.

Music is like that. It's a social thing, conveying a sense of time, of place and of comfort. It triggers memories. It's that thing we call soul. I could go on about the vicissitudes of that year, about Boston, about friends and family, about jobs, the travails of finding an apartment and more. All those things came flashing back. I won't though. I'll simply note an album that was part of that year's soundtrack, a mood marker. And I'll hold on to that detail: the album cost $3.13 after tax.


So yes, The Cousin and I were warmed by Maxwell and his 10 piece band last night at the Paramount in Oakland. Escapism from the work week for 3,000 or so souls. It was well worth it. It was, to recycle that phrase I've become fond of, a comfort suite.

I'll leave the detailed reviews to others. It was great show like all others in this tour. The horn section gave an organic feel, the guitars and bass were just right, the percussion was on point, the background vocalist gave nice accents. Briefly stated, the band is tight. When you think about Maxwell, don't just think of the man, the band is as important as the front man. All of them are enjoying the comeback and the overwhelming love from the audiences.

maxwell showman

They played most of the favourites from his songbook and previewed a few new songs. His falsetto is still as pure as ever, he can do the Sam Cooke thing when he wants, or the Prince thing, or the Al Green thing, or the Marvin Gaye circa 1974 thing. There's the dancing and showmanship ala James Brown, he's no longer as skinny obviously, but he still gets down. If he was Mr Mellow Smooth in the past, there's now an additional edge to the performance and to the sound. There's now some experiential blues in his brand of soul. He still thinks in terms of suites, of capturing a mood, and will run with that feeling through its course.

Most of all there's the warm feeling in the music - it's like that groundswell that builds when Maze featuring Frankie Beverly come onstage in D.C.. It's in the crowd too - everyone knows the lyrics and wants to be seduced anew. By the time he got to covering Al Green's Simply Beautiful, he was simply making his intentions explicit. Call it melodious melodies or sensual soul - to pick titles of mix tapes I've made featuring Maxwell.


The ladies in the audience were all captivated. The panties were thrown on stage. The atmosphere was headier than a Robin Thicke concert. As expected, The Cousin paid me no mind throughout the concert, absorbed as she was in the aura like many others in the audience. I laughed at some of the scandalous things that those two women in front were screaming. It wasn't just nostalgia however, the music was truly that good. This Woman's Work made me tear up, Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder) hit the soul spot. Sumthin' Sumthin' got us dancing. Lifetime made us sigh. What more could you want on a Tuesday night?

Seven years is a long time out of the limelight but brother man delivered the goods. He's back. The demons are conquered. It was worth it. There'll be more suites in the near future and everyone is on notice that he'll be setting the bar high for all to follow. I'm expecting the same elation when that other guy finally resurfaces but for now, pound for pound, Maxwell's a heavyweight soul champion.

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