07.02.2004 Feature Article

The Clueless Society

The Clueless Society
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Quite a few merchants in Accra – especially those at some Shell and Mobile shops – must by now have marked me down as a difficult person to deal with. “The man who always fusses over nothing,” they have probably labeled me.

But no one fusses over nothing. Unless they are crazy. And I’m not crazy. So I must have a perfectly good reason for fussing.

And that reason, quite simply, is change – you know, the change that every merchant is legally and morally bound to give you when you pay them with your hard-earned money. That change.

It so happens that too many of these merchants have a nasty habit of trying to short-change you, literally, every time you pay for items you have bought.

Consider a recent encounter I had with one of them. She told me my bill was ¢6,000, whereupon I handed her a ¢10,000 note. After fiddling through the till for a while, she dumped some loose change into my palm and declared meekly that “it is left with ¢250.”

Me: So add it to it; what’s stopping you?

Merchant: I don’t have it.

Me: Well, get it!

Merchant: That means I’ll have to go outside, and I’m the only one here.

Me: Well, that’s your headache, not mine. Just get me my damn change, every cedi of it. (By now, my restless two-year old daughter was mid-way through her Refresh drink, and so giving back the items was out of the question).

The merchant went out to one of the petrol attendants and came back with ¢150, once again reminding me of the obvious deficit. But I would not budge.

She seemed shocked, even confused, by the fact that I should insist on getting what seemed an insignificant amount of money. But she had no choice. She looked through her handbag and, voila, there was a ¢100 coin!

She thrust it into my hand, obviously upset that I didn’t allow her to rip me off as she evidently did scores of other customers daily. (¢250 from 40 customers a day is more than the daily minimum wage!)

Two hundred and fifty cedis of course was nothing; in fact, I lost it in my car somewhere between the shop and my house.

But this was about more than money. To me, such irresponsible behaviour (even where some, not all, of the merchants are tricksters) reflects a larger problem of a society where not being prepared for anything, not being even marginally well organized in anything we do, seems to be the very embodiment of our collective existence, our very being as a people.

These are the evils that stand between us and progress, not witchcraft or “enemies” who require prayers of exorcism from fly-by-night pastors (“pastas”!) in two-toned shoes sweating profusely in their polyester three-piece suits in the blazing African sun. Deal with these problems and you’ve solved half of the problems of this country.

The problem goes beyond the world of business, of course; our social and political lives are equally contaminated by such egregious cluelessness.

Take the case of funerals, a time-honoured and favourite “pastime” of many a Ghanaian. I’m yet to attend a single funeral in Ghana where confusion and disorder did not reign supreme.

Besides the usual late start, there is the standard family feud and organizational disorder. The dead body may still be at the funeral home because the dead man’s children can’t agree on what colour socks to put on him.

His children from Holland want an orange colour; those from England want the sock with the Union Jack on the sides!. And since in all likelihood they are the ones financing the funeral, everyone must defer to them and their silly whimsies.

As for food, yes, it may be ready, but expect the plates and cutlery to be locked up in somebody’s room across town with that somebody nowhere to be found. There are soft drinks, too, but the deep freezer is not working and no one thought about buying ice. Take it hot, just as the white man meant it to be drunk, dummy!

God sure must wonder on occasion where he went wrong with us, like a caring father would if he gave his children every opportunity in life and they end up as a bunch of losers.

And then there is the comedy that passes for politics in these parts. See, for example, some Parliamentarians on TV complain about “lack of logistics” to work with. “We have no offices,” wails one. Another chimes in: “We often meet in the hallways!”

Just imagine: Brand new $20,000 cars and no place to call an office! Only in Ghana.

Recently, the ostensibly cash-strapped Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to go a-begging for common equipment like fax machines and printers from China. Yet, the government had no difficulty, only a few months later, sending the vice president and an entourage; the minister of Trade and Industry; the CEO of the Ghana Investment Promotion Center; the Minister for Private Sector Development; a deputy minister of Information; and an assortment of government officials to the so-called Ghana Expo 2003.

Meanwhile, remember, we have a high commissioner in London whose presence at the Expo (“fiasco”) would have cost this HIPC and ever-begging country pennies!

The waste involved is even more shocking when you consider that they went to give speeches, inspect displays of Bolga hats and Alomo Bitters, and of course wrapped it all up with the standard shopping for self, relatives, and, who knows, an alomo or two back in Ghana!

Ours, then, is a looped comedy of errors, fascinating, baffling, giddy, and of course hilarious in all its insidious manifestations. It is also tragic, remember that.

And so it is that nearly half a century after independence, we still don’t know whether we are going or coming. We are certainly on the move, but we are doing so in circles, cluelessly and of course blissful in the expanse and depth of debilitating ignorance, or, rather, deliberate stupidity.

“Forward ever, circles never”?

Osagyefo, where are you? Something sure went wrong on our way to the economic kingdom!

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