Fri, 19 Apr 2024 Feature Article

Not in Defence of Ghana Airways

This is an old satire from my archives. First published in the now Defunct HORIZON Magazine, circa 1996.
Not in Defence of Ghana Airways
19 APR 2024 LISTEN

The long queue at the Ghana Airways check-in counter didn’t intimidate me. I have experience hustling around Lagos. With very little effort, I elbowed, kicked, punched, Kung-fued, and Tae-Kwon-doed my way to the front of the queue.

Accra citizens are very funny creatures. In Lagos, people are looking for an excuse to fight. In Accra the opposite is true – people will do everything to avoid a fight. In Lagos, if you accidentally stomp on someone’s foot, he’ll lash out in return. In Accra, chances are great that if you purposefully stamp on someone’s foot, he’ll smile and say, “Sorry, masser.”

The gorgeous lady manning the counter has one of the widest smiles in West Africa. She was unlike those processed airport girls who smiled mechanically. Her strong, white African teeth, sparked and illuminated the whole of Kotoka airport. I was impressed.

I beamed back, “Sunshine, I’d like to check in.” I said, waving my ticket.

She radiated another smile, “Sorry, sir. We’ve closed for today.” She was counting the ticket tags and Boarding Pass stubs.

I checked my watch. Did I make a mistake with the time? I re-checked the ticket. No, I didn’t make a mistake. The flight was at 23:45, and check-in at 18:00. I re-checked my watch, and it was just a little over 16:00. No, I didn’t make a mistake. Why is the beautiful one telling me that they have closed for the day?

“Is this the counter for the London Flight?” I asked, wiping perspiration from my face.

She gave me another toothy smile, “Yes, sir. It is.” She is really a good-looking dish. If only circumstances were different!

“Sunshine, you just can’t tell me that you have closed.”

She smiles, “And why not, sir.” Was she having fun at my expense?

“It is just past four o’clock. Check-in was supposed to be at six. You cannot tell me that you have somehow mysteriously checked in every passenger for a flight that is still about nine hours away!”

“Actually, we have done it, sir.” For some strange reason, she was bemused.

Nothing made any sense to me. Several of the passengers were nursing their own anguishes. I looked around me, some passengers were holding their Boarding Pass tags like hard-won prizes. “Sunshine, please, this cannot be. I have got an OK ticket and I am two hours before check-in time. Who took my seat?”

“Your seat,” she laughs. “No one took your seat. No seat was allocated to you, in the first place. You have an OK ticket, and so do the others. You came two hours earlier, you undoubtedly think that’s some record, sir. But some people came two days earlier and have been sleeping here since then. How about that?”

“Doesn’t an OK ticket mean anything around here?” I was grasping for straws, any straw.

“It means that you are OK to struggle for a seat, sir.” Her face was wreathed in smiles. She was really having fun.

I was flummoxed. She was thoroughly enjoying herself.

“Please, I have got to get back to my job,” I shouted, still fishing for straws.

She laughs more, her large eyeballs glowing like fireflies on a very dark night. “I think that you are too honest for yourself, sir.”

Is she going to do something after all? “What do you mean?”

“‘Going back to my job,’ is the main reason given by the honest folks around here. Others gave more profound reasons. Want to hear some of them, sir?”

“Tell me.” I found myself saying.

“Some are going back to their pregnant husbands, even when you can clearly see the hubby huffing like a caged chimpanzee. Some have their mothers on operating tables in obscure European hospitals. The Yankees are forever yelping about degrees and semesters. The Ghana-Briticos are worried stiff about legal this, expiration that. Those in Belgium are a different kettle of fish – they always look so sad that you wonder why they bother to go back at all. The Amsterdam ones always have a son falling into a canal. Makes you wonder why the Dutch authority doesn’t put a quarantine on them. Those in Switzerland and Germany are really the crazy bananas. Miracles also sometimes happen here, sir. Many healthy-looking young men suddenly become cripples – attacked by ailments that could only be treated in Europe, urgently, of course! We’ve seen them all. People like you who either have a problem telling a lie or are poor actors always tell us that they are going back to their jobs. I feel sorry for you as I felt sorry for them, but there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing anyone can do.”

I tried bribery. I fished out my wallet, took out some impressive wads of cedis, and showed them to her. She laughed at my clumsy attempt.

“Unless you intend paying me for other services,” she said suggestively, “you better keep your money. No one, not even God Almighty himself or herself can help you.”

Just then a short, rotund man in an important-looking uniform materialized with some important-looking documents. He spoke rapidly to the lady who kept her cool composure. Her smiles could melt ice. The man finished his apparently important business and turned to leave. The lady winked at me conspiratorially, “You can try and explain your problems to him, he’s high. I don’t mean on cocaine, sir.”

I didn’t have time to thank her, I turned but the important man was nowhere to be seen. She pointed her hand and I saw him lumbering towards a staircase. I pushed myself through the crowd, felling some passengers in the process. I didn’t bother to listen to their apologies. I accosted the man on the fifth step and stepped right in his path. “You work here, sir?” I demanded.

He eyed me suspiciously, “Yes, I do. I am in charge of Ghana Airways PR. What can I do for you.” His face was a crimson of smiles. Where do they teach these people to smile like this?

“Sorry, I have got big problems which I think must be resolved now before something drastic happens.”

He laughed the more. I think the Ghana Airways staff smile differently. Why don’t the other airlines send their staff here for training?

Even the stewardesses at KLM, with their astronomical prices, smile like programmed machines. “Let’s find ourselves a more comfy place, what do you think?”

What do I think? Do you argue with anyone who wants to make you comfortable? I followed the PR man along a long corridor with a well-worn carpet. We passed several doors that looked the same. We finally emerged at his well-appointed office on what looked like the first floor. PR-man showed me into a well-lit, well-furnished room. There were all the paraphernalia of modern offices – glowing computer terminals, maps of the world – several of them, radiophones, mobile phones, teleprinters. The furniture was plush. There were also various diplomas hung on the wall. Ghana Airways spares no effort to make its spin doctor comfortable. I settled into a sumptuous leather chair, PR-man took another and dragged it to face me. He went to a wall fridge, “What would you like to drink?” He called out.

“Iced-cold water,” I said. My throat was parched from all the excitement.

“You don’t know what you’re missing.” He poured water into a plastic cup and put it on a side table beside me. For himself, he poured two airlines’ whiskey into a plastic cup and poured some Mandigo Bitters on it. He raised the cup and toasted, “May all our problems vanish.” He downed the drink in one long gulp. I was impressed. He flung the cup into a waste basket, belched contentedly, and sat down.

“Now, we can tackle any problem. Let’s hear about the problem.” He said confidently.

I narrated my ordeal afresh. Although he didn’t interrupt me, he shook his head sympathetically several times. I finished my narration and he shook his head the more.

“This is really a perennial problem. You just don’t know how sorry we are for all the inconveniences we are causing our customers. No one can feel our torment, no one. The problem has been engaging our attention since the dawn of time. My heart really grieves.” He said with appropriate sadness.

“But it looks simple to me.”
PR-man sat straight in his chair. “How?” He wanted to know.

“I guess since you know the number of planes you have and also know that each plane has a finite amount of seats, simple arithmetic should do the trick.”

PR-man, whose name tag says he’s Courage Agble, shook his head sadly, “Finite planes and seat, simple arithmetic. How I wish things were so elementary. To the uninitiated, it all looks so simple.” He touched his almost bald head, “See, my brother, before I joined this company three years ago, I’d more populous hair than you. I am suffering from premature baldness, all because of the stress. It is not all that easy.” There was a hint of sadness in his Ewe face.

“Is it not just a matter of booking passengers to fill the number of seats you have? What is so complicated about that? Any kid can figure out what to do. And since I see your glowing computers, I wonder what you are doing with them. Even a beginning BASIC programmer can wake up a decent program in twenty minutes to handle your booking. At least the computers will ensure that you do not give your passengers OK tickets for imaginary seats.”

“In an ideal situation, that is how it should be. But we are talking about a purely theoretical, abstract level. Sadly, we don’t operate on that level.” Mr. Agble’s face still registered sadness.

“Why can’t it be done the way the other airlines are doing it? I choose to fly Ghana Airways for purely patriotic reasons. I guessed my patriotism had been misplaced. Should I wave a Ghanaian flag when the boss gave me the sack? The airlines from what we call advanced countries have a very simple system that does not conjure up seats from thin air. What’s wrong with Ghana Airways?”

“All the analyses you made overlook one important, even critical point: The Ghanaian Factor.”

That was a new terminology for me. “The Ghanaian Factor.” I wondered out loud.

Mr. Agble eyed me with sadness. “Yes,” the PR man answered, “the GF is that little-known, little-analyzed point that has been the undoing of a great many projects. You fail to factorize it into your calculations at your own peril.” He was still talking in riddles.

“Can you please explain this mysterious beast to me?”

“The Ghanaian Factor, GF, for short is that peculiarity of Ghanaians to break rules and regulations or, at least, bend them.”

“We are not passing the bucks here, are we?” My voice was heavy with sarcasm. “What has the breaking of rules and regulations got to do with over-booking passengers and turning your airports into a Trotro bus station?”

“It has everything to do with the problems our organization is facing and also the inconveniences we cause customers like yourself. In a system whereby everyone can read and obey simple rules and regulations, and whereby no one is asking for special treatment, even a badly designed system will work like magic. Introduce GF into even a perfect system, I bet you that it’ll go awry in a few minutes. We have a situation whereby everyone thinks that he’s more important than the rest of us. Everyone is clamoring for special services. If no one thinks himself or herself too important to warrant special treatment, our problems will be solved. But our people suffer what could only be described as ‘bigmanism.’ I need not explain that I guess. I am sorry to say it, but this ailment is more pronounced among those of you from outside. One would have thought that living in disciplined societies would have broken some of the Ghanaian instincts, but sadly this is not so. Everyone who manages to get out and clean some toilet in Europe comes back to Ghana with some wads of dollars and thinks of himself as God. Let me give you specific instances:

“One, you have to remember that we are a semi-autonomous airline. Government officials on important state businesses have to get a seat. So are officials from established institutions. How do you refuse to carry them? Any one of them carries enough weight to make you lose your job.

“Every Ghanaian that I know who has traveled outside looks down on his never-been-to compatriot. As soon as they have enough money to buy their baggy trousers and leather jackets, they rush down to show off. Of course, they speak stupid slang even if they have been abroad for just one year. Heaven helps those hapless staff who try to make them see reason. The nature of my job takes me outside Ghana quite a lot. I see the same Ghanaians shivering at the sight of airport porters in Europe. Even they are afraid of the Ivorien police. Yet, when they come back home, not even our M.D. can talk to them.

“Again, we are the only airline in the world offering 30kilo, you’d think that would please our compatriots. But instead of showing some appreciation, they simply increase their tonnage. They will be packed with almost everything in their villages and expect to beg and cry their way in. And what about the hand luggage? I’ve seen with my own eyes several oversized bags being passed for hand luggage. One man cannot even carry his ‘hand baggage’ alone. Yet he was begging and threatening to carry it aboard. That was after he had checked in with about sixty kilos.

“The sad affairs are not limited to oversized luggage alone, there are still those who wish to cling to archaic and incomprehensible traditions. We had a Frafra man the other day. He was visiting his daughter in Switzerland. Among the hocus-pocus, he packed in his ten sacks were calabashes, fula, yam, cassava, coco-yam leaves, maize, amulets, concoctions and what have you. As though that were not enough, the man came complete with two live goats. You and I know that Switzerland is among the world’s leading meat exporters, but the man thought his daughter was not eating enough meat. He hadn’t seen the daughter in four years, so he was going to shower her with gifts. We tried to explain that the Swiss health officials would not be allowed his gifts into their country. He couldn’t understand why. When we asked why the goats were belching like mad, he claimed that since it was Ramadan, the goats must wait until sundown before they are fed. A good Muslim, he informed us, should also allow his animals the full joy of Ramadan.

“And there was this chief from a village around Dunkwa-on-Offin. It was in December and the chief was dressed only in his traditional garb – a long Kente wrapper. He came with a full complement of Okyeames, drummers, bush doctors, praise singers, court jesters, and concubines. He was carried on the shoulders of four hefty, naked men. The chief’s posse informed us that their custom forbids his feet to touch the ground. The four hirelings were to carry him to London. Needless to tell you that he forgot to buy tickets for them. Don’t even talk about visas. They were all to travel on his ticket. Of course, they wanted to perform the traditional rites of slaughtering a sheep and smearing our plane with its blood. There was a big hullabaloo when we rejected their requests. “How about a room for the chief to service one of the concubines?” One of the hirelings asked, explaining that another of their antiquated customs demanded the chief ejaculate before embarking on any journey. That was, of course, out of the question. We are running an airline, not a brothel.

“You see, these are some of the problems we are facing. I told you that it may appear simple from the outside, yet appearance could be very deceptive. There is a big difference between appearance and essence. How do you figure all these peculiar factors into your computers? How do you program your machines to take cognizance of these idiosyncrasies? If the economy is not in its parlous state, I’ll be looking for another job. Anyone is welcome to this stressful, thankless job.”

When I looked up, it was past midnight. Mr. Agble's sweet voice had completely hypnotized me. There is no question of my flying today, if only because the plane has departed. I hope that The Beautiful One will still be smiling downstairs.

PS: Until it ceased operations in 2004, Ghana Airways was the pride of Ghana. Established in 1958 to fly the flag of Ghana, the airline began life with a Havilland Heron propeller plane, later joined by a mixture of Western and Soviet Union planes. Unfortunately, the airline beloved by patriotic Ghana was crippled and ran aground by corruption and inept management.

Sadder still for the country, the officials who bankrupted the airline went Scot-free and are probably enjoying their pensions for a job that was not well done!