August 23, 2007
“You should know how Ghana is by now,” Fiona, the immigration officer said when I failed to fill out the form to her liking. “Ah –hein,” I affirmed with the characteristic drawl that comes easily after living and working with Ghanaians for several months. And so I obliged, made up some more reasons for why I want to stay in the country and slowly and deliberately replaced the cap on my pen.
Fiona smiled, took my money and added my form and passport to a pile of papers at the corner of the desk.
Fiona and I haven’t always been so friendly. She was the same officer who ordered me out of her office six months ago. I asked a question, she didn’t respond, so I asked again and refused to give her money. She drew a line through my form and told me to get out. Thankfully she only meant her office, not her country.
Fiona is like millions of Ghanaians in positions of power that are real or perceived. She uses her position to its fullest, somehow exacting revenge on anyone who has tried to subdue her or exercise their own authority. Everyone has power over someone: the gatekeeper on campus over the pedestrians; the elderly sibling over the younger; the 12-year-old who decides where tro tros may and may not offload passengers at the tro tro park.
Order is maintained when people listen to those wielding their tiny share of power and when those using their power aren’t abusing it. It’s an equilibrium not easily maintained in a hierarchical society.
Take the police, for example.
A man, a woman bearing a small child and me, the foreigner, all run to get into a taxi. There are three available seats. Perfect, I think. Just then a police officer runs up to join the queue to get into the car. He pushes the woman and child into the car and tries to push me aside. I say ‘Excuse me’ and he pushes again. I brace myself against the door to keep my balance, and my place. I don’t offer politeness a second time. He yells at me. I ignore him and sit down.
I encounter authority every day; from who gets to serve the oburoni her fried dough ball in the morning to the order in which people can speak at story meetings. Interviews are a veritable dance with people in power to prove that you are worthy. Nothing is done without first seeking permission from somebody important.
The numerous stories about police brutality that I’ve both witnessed and worked on with reporters are testimonies of a system where people are clearly abusing their authority. Not all abuses are life and death though. For example, I have friends who aren’t able to get into university because they don’t know someone high enough up in the chain of command to bribe.
Although I may complain about having to walk around a gate instead of through it, or grumble at the occasional police extortion of money from drivers of cars I’m riding in, rarely do I witness the kind of authority abuses that let’s say, for example, a woman from the northern part of the country with two kids hanging off of her walking the streets of Kumasi experiences. (T)