African nations need big dreams – Charles Onyango-Obbo

A couple of Kenyans who were in Accra for the first time found it a little slow. That is not surprising. Outside the souks of Marrakesh and Cairo, or the Nigerian commercial capital Lagos, there are few places as frenzied in this fair Africa as Nairobi.

The difference in pace, however, does not always translate into better outcomes or reveal differences between nations and societies. As someone who has been in and out of Accra a couple of times over the years, one of the key differences I noticed this time is how much the funeral political economy has grown.

Funerals were always a big deal in Ghana, but they have become bigger. I noticed this time a few matatus and buses carrying obituaries of the dearly departed. 

Visualize the whole back of a mini-van or side plastered with the praise of someone who has passed on, and the funeral arrangements. It is a new revenue stream for transporters, but presumably, a loss for the newspaper classified pages.

Imagine what would have happened to you a few years ago if you had gone into a strategy meeting at a business media house in Nairobi, and told the leadership that they should lower their revenue projections from obituaries because matatus are likely to be taking most of the money. You would have been thrown out as a clown and joker.


‘The Year of Return’

One result of this burgeoning funeral political economy is that people in Accra talk of “funeral traffic” as a thing, and plan meetings and other activities around. When a funeral of some eminent son or daughter of the soil is on, some streets and roads of the capital are like the movie scenes of people fleeing a city from an alien invasion or next-level hurricane.

It is hard to figure out the explanation for this new relationship with death and burial, but if you have paid some attention to Ghana in the recent past, you will be struck by how more highly Ghanaians think of themselves – or at least their country. 

Not even three years ago when I was last involved in a major conference event in Accra, did I hear so many people say “Ghana is the centre of the world” as I did this time. Ghana’s well-spoken President Nana Addo Akufo-Addo at the opening of the Kusi Ideas Festival also slipped it in.

In the past, some Ghanaians saw their country as the centre of West Africa or Africa, with their Nkrumahist pan-African credentials. But now it’s the world. And they say it with great ease. There is a new self-assurance all over the place.

It has probably served them well. At our hotel, over 60 per cent of the people in the big breakfast restaurant on most mornings were African-Americans. I had never seen so many African-Americans in a single place outside the US as I did at our Accra hotel. 

Part of it goes back to 2019 when Ghana hosted a notably successful “The Year of Return”, a year-long series of activities to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in Virginia in the US. It encouraged the wider African diaspora to come to Ghana to visit, settle or invest. 


Centre of the Black world

Recently, I read that the top destination in the world for people of African heritage in Europe is Ghana. So successful has it been that it has gone to “Beyond The Return”.

Ghana likely feels it is the centre of the Black world. And as the Black world is set to be the biggest in the decades to come, it might rightly feel it is on the way to being the centre of the world. 

In many ways, it talked itself into that position, with little more than a slogan and some action to match it.

And that precisely is it. One lesson Ghana today teaches us is that a people and country, cannot become what they can’t imagine themselves to be. A people that dream small of themselves, can’t find greatness. That imagination and vision do not need to be based on evidence of past accomplishment, or national competence.

Sometimes a gamble or a lie that a country or its leaders tell themselves can be as good. For as the French military strategist and ruler Napoleon Bonaparte once famously told his general when they asked the strategy of an impending battle, that it was to get to the battle and see what happens. The French won.

Someone I know applied for their American passport from Nairobi. It came and she went to pick it from the embassy. There were all sorts of brochures inside the packet, but the one that caught my eye said something like “Now you have your passport, the world is at your feet”.

So there it is. America is the world’s leading superpower for many real reasons. A cocky belief in its greatness seems to be part of it. So might a future Ghana’s.

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