August 25, 2007
Last run out to Moti Mahal, now that we’re less than a week from leaving Kumasi. Moti is an oasis in the the midst of Ghana’s culinary desert; a fine Indian restaurant that serves the best tandoori chicken, sagwala lamb, jalfrezi prawns and garlic naan this side of Nitin’s mom’s kitchen.
Trish and I have both commented on these digital pages about the food in Ghana. Me more than her, and my comments have been more complaints, because, truly, she likes fufu better than I. But we both relish Moti when we can get it. ’Twas a worthy feast, complete with a Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon chosen by our French roommate, Christophe — a man known for his palate.
But enough about the meal. This note is more about our impending departure and a certain aspect of Ghanaian life I will not miss.
When Christophe was driving back to his place with we three other oburonis as passengers we were stopped, like all the other cars on the road, at a random police checkpoint. Armed robbery is on the rise in Kumasi and the cops put up these roadblocks for the ostensible purpose of checking for suspicious-looking characters. In practice the authorities have a different agenda. But regardless, oburonis, in cabs or their own cars, are routinely waved through. The argument could be made that some Westerners are making trouble in Ghana, but not the kind the cops are supposedly looking into at roadblocks at night.
This time, however, the young man in the blue uniform with the Kalashnikov strapped across his chest motioned for Christophe to stop. This was unusual, not only because it was a white guy driving a car full of whites, and so beyond suspicion of such petty crime, but also because Christophe’s car has diplomatic plates that typically grease the wheels a little bit.
The cop gestured for Christophe to roll down his window. He had a certain look in his eye and a smile — more of a leer — that I’ve seen some cops, customs officials and immigration officers use. It is unpleasant.
The cop stared at Christophe for a moment, then asked, “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Christophe said, after a pause.
There was another pause. The cop kept staring at Christophe, who didn’t inquire into the state of the cop’s well being, as he seemed to expect.
The pause drew out and then the cop said, “I am hungry.”
It was this moment, this exact moment that exemplifies the trouble with Ghana: a young guy in a uniform with a big gun trying to make a few cedis by intimidating passersby. This is the very thing that the Ghanaian media tells us the Ghanaian government is ‘urging’ its public servants not to do. But there’s no mechanism of prevention, or at least none that is taken seriously, for corruption reigns. On an average Saturday night on an average street in Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, this average cop didn’t think twice about abusing his power and committing a crime. It’s the way of things, especially for police. Who knows what kind of graft his superiors commit.
His mistake, though, was thinking Christophe some newbie oburoni who’d spent little time in Africa and would be unaccustomed to such situations, and thus easily intimidated and compliant. But Christophe has lived in Africa on and off for almost 10 years, six of them in Nigeria, and knows how to play this game.
It took less than a minute. Christophe said nothing, just kept looking at the cop, giving him ample opportunity to back away from the solicitation.
The cop wasn’t too bright, but determined. “I am hungry,” he said again.
“May I go now, please?” Christophe replied.
“I say I am hungry.”
“And I’m asking if I may go now, please.”
The faux-friendly smile disappeared. His bluff was called and the cop had nothing. In the seat behind Christophe I watched him thinking, ‘What? What are you gonna do?’
He gestured with his head. Christophe said thank-you, rolled up the glass and drove on. I turned my face away to hide my derision.
I bet that cop made decent money that night, but not from diplomat oburonis. Petty authorities like traffic cops take their bribes from the poor and indigent, people they can really intimidate because the subtle threat of violence is real — and not so subtle if someone of lower caste puts it to the test. Stories of police brutality are almost as common as stories of police corruption, and it’s always the meek and defenseless getting the shit kicked out of them once again. Such is the division of haves and have-nots in Ghana, West Africa’s model of political and economic progress, as it celebrates it’s 50th year as an independent nation with the slogan: “Championing African Excellence.” Right.
I feel no guilt about this state of affairs, or for the iota of truth in the policeman’s attempted theft— that he is a poorer man than we whites with our full bellies driving home after dinner. After eight months in Africa my shame is spent (not that I ever felt much for corrupt cops). I’m not here to feed anyone, equilibrate wealth or even change the colonial history of my exploitative ancestors. I’m not here at all, much longer. (G)