I first heard of sakawa at an internet cafe at Ashale Botwe, that vibrant Accra suburb
In those days when wifi was a prized possession in Ghana, if one needed to send an email or read emails sent to one, one had to go and queue at an internet cafe, hire a booth and buy “net time”, before one could go online.
Obtaining access to the web was only the beginning of one's woes. The internet cafe guys tended to cut one off at crucial times.
“You have 10 minutes left” would flash on your screen as you worked. But you were likely to get cut off after only 5 minutes. So you bought more time than you needed.
The many young men who flocked to the cafe, making it difficult for one to secure a booth, called this practice “sakawa.”
“Yes”, (the guys would say). “As for this place, it's sakawa oh! Sometimes, the electricity will die before your time finishes and if you want to continue from where you left off, when it comes back on, it becomes an argument. Tweaah! Na sakawa!”
Ok, so why were they flocking to the internet cafe?
My late and lamented friend, Peter, wouldn't go to an internet cafe at Tema (where he spent his last days) because “it's full of young louts watching pornography!”
“Yes. You get into a booth and you get online and someone has forgotten to exit from a porn website, and the first thing that meets your eyes is the nude picture of some girl the previous occupant of the booth thought was pretty! It's disgusting.”
Actually, Peter was wrong. I learnt later that the “young louts” were not watching porn at all but downloading porn pictures and photo-shopping scenes of Ghanaian life into them, and sending the pictures abroad to titillate rich old white men who thought they had obtained beautiful “Negro” girl-friends in Ghana.
“It started in Nigeria and has now reached Ghana”, I was told. “In Nigeria, they call it '419'. Here it is called sakawa.
“The scam operator sweet-talks in real time, a "pen pal" overseas, whose email address he's managed to get hold of. (From a 'Lonely Hearts' website, for example. )
He'd pretend to be a girl who's fallen in love with the foreigner, through the way the foreigner describes himself and sound in textual conversation. Then, when the scammer thought the correspondent had been adequately “hooked” by the pornographic “talk” he engages in with him/her, he would suddenly absent himself for some days (depending on how addicted he thought the correspondent had become and how strongly he'd miss his "girlfriend".)
The scammer would then resurface, sporting a fantastic sob story.”
“Yep. A friend had asked her to deliver a parcel to someone, and she'd agreed to do so. But the parcel had contained Indian hemp (“known locally as 'wee'!”).
“Unfortunately, the Police were combing the area for drug users. They had (sob!...sob) seized the parcel and opened it. They found wee inside it. Now, they were threatening to take her to court. She would go to prison for ten years....! (sob....sob)”
“Ten years? That's crazy.”
“Yeah. Ten years! That's the law here. (sob....sob). B---b---b---but...”
“B-b-b-but they say that if I pay a bribe of 4,000 dollars, they will let me go free.”
“Four thousand dollars?”
“Yes! Four thousand dollars. And they want it by tomorrow. Or no deal!” (sob....sob....sob)”
“Four thousand dollars? By tomorrow?”
“Yes. Or I go to jail. For ten years!”
“Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“I just don't know what to do. Ten years!”
“What are you going to do?”
“You know I have never asked you for anything before. But if you can help.....”
“Four thousand dollars? Even if I could lay hands on the money, tomorrow is just too early? How would I get it to you in time, in the first place?”
“Oh, would you like to help me? I swear as soon as they drop the case, I would come to Switzerland/Germany/Denmark/Dubai and be your lover for ever! I'd do ANYTHING for you! As for the transfer, it would be easy. We have Western Union here. And we have Expressmoney.Just Google 'money+transfer+Ghana'.It would be easy and I would kisskisskisskisskiss you! Kiss you everywhere you like!”
“Ten years in jail? That's monstrous.... Look, I'll see what I can do.... Do you have a bank account? Sending cash is frowned upon here because it's so risky!”
“Oh, I would thank you. I don't have a bank account myself yet, but my brother has one. Should I go and ask him send the details to you?”
“All right. How long do you think you'll need?”
“Only one hour.”
“Ok, I shall make sure I am sitting by my laptop in one hour's time.”
“Oh John! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you a thousand times.”
“Not at all. I couldn't let you go to jail for ten years! Ten bloody years!”
“ Hmmm! I am almost dead already with fear. I hear the police are in league with the prison warders and if you're a pretty young girl, they just sell you to the highest bidder. They send you to men, as if you were going out to work somewhere to reduce your time in jail. It's terrible!.... In fact, they tied something at the police station but I resisted strongly!”
“Geez! Jail time for young ladies can be very bad even here, how much more Africa? Ok, look. Let's connect in an hour. Bye for now!”
“Kiss! Kiss, John! See you in an hour.”
Reader, that's classic sakawa in Ghana for you. So, you will see what a serious injury the NDC presidential candidate, Mr John Dramani Mahama, has done to all indigenous Akyem people by associating them with sakawa, just because he suspects that a project proposed by a Government headed by an Akyem man, does not meet with his approval. Akyem sakawa boys, he said, is behind the scheme.
But it could well be that many Akyems don't approve of it, either!
Are all those connected with the scheme Akyems? If he doesn't know (and there have been few details about that, so far), doesn't describing the scheme as an Akyem sakawa boys project libel all Akyems?
Mr Mahama holds a postgraduate diploma in communication studies, so he should know how dangerous it is to make references to whole groups of people by the wrong choice of words.
Mr Mahama, I want to tell you this: am an Akyem and I have never committed sakawain my life. Yet any time someone hears that I am an Akyem, he or she would be justified to link me, even if only subconsciously, with sakawa, thanks to you!
By exposing a section of the people you were once privileged to rule to such ridicule, have you not proved yourself unworthy of the trust of all the decent members of Ghana's populace? Did you not swear to be fair to ALL of Ghana's people, as President? It's a shame that you have done this.