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28.10.2008 Feature Article

Canada, As I Have Never Known It: A Londoner’s Story

Suddenly I find myself unlearning everything I have learnt in the past six years in the United Kingdom. At the same time, I feel a deep compulsion to regurgitate everything I have unlearnt and learn them again, because the United Kingdom and Northern America are the same, because they are so different. It is much like the war that was lost only because it was won; a distasteful paradox that is at worst a truism. So, after bearing with the bland monarchy of Great Britain and enjoying all the goodies that come with warefarism, I see myself as an economic unit in Capitalist Canada, where everything is paid for-necessarily. A mobile phone is a luxury (65% use mobile phones, as opposed to Britain's 96% or more) and Canadian banks charge customers when they use the ATM, a service most of us abused in England. As I contemplate whether to sign a three year contract with a mobile phone provider and pay to receive calls on my own handset, a 'telephony suicide' that would be met with fierce public demonstrations in England any day, I am awoken from a Pound-induced economic slumber by the Dollar currency. And of course, I am learning new vocabulary items. Downtown is the UK version of Westend, or the business centres of the city. A transaction at a Canadian bank means withdrawing money; a cash deposit of $1Million is not a transaction. I guess that is banking. I am also getting used to how the various denominations of the cent work, some of which come in quarters (actually pronounced quarers). The Loonie ($1) is the British version of 1Pound. The difference is not the value; the real difference is that whereas a pound could get me hot chips with a free wooden fork in the UK, the loonie doesn't seem to have any value for the stomach. That is because, nothing really goes for a dollar; it's a dollar plus the tax on the item. Predictably, 1 cent is as insignificant as 1 penny in Britain.

So, what on earth am I in Canada for? Two Canadian old ladies I met on the Thomas Cook flight from London, Janet and Dorothy, had asked me the same question. When it becomes necessary for a sane man to describe himself as a successful failure, then there are more questions than answers. And in my case, there are too many questions, so that description is quite charitable. I have often thought myself a failed achiever. Not that I have failed to succeed in everything; I haven't achieved much in time. There is all the difference. Perhaps, that is part of the reason why I am in Canada: To succeed in what I failed to achieve in London. Great Britain was great in many ways: very good newspapers, noisy but reliable trains everywhere, cheap bus tickets, cheap mobile telephone system and chicken and chips shops scattered all over. The English are nice people too. At least Jane Hobbs, the most beautiful woman in Portsmouth, was warm in every conceivable sense. And, of course, I miss Prime Minister's Question Time dearly, a lively debate that extolled the talent of British politicians. At the end of it all, there was always the 'innit', the British version of 'isn't it', a slang that captures everything British. And finally, I don't have to say 'cheers mate' to people in place of 'Thank you'. Other versions of 'Thank you' in England were 'Talla or 'Ta' for short. Canadians think it funny when they hear you 'cheering' about nothing.

Still, the question the old ladies asked presses for a response, and I feel an innate obligation to dignify it with a good answer. A not-so-well dressed Asian gentleman on the flight had begged me to swap seats. He wanted to sit close to his long lost friend he had chanced on at the airport. I didn't see any reason why I should deny the chap the favour. A few meters away was an empty aisle seat beside two old ladies. One of them had worked for the Canadian government's foreign office in London in the 1960s, where she met President Kwame Nkrumah. She was a young girl at the time. They were as chatty as Ghana's senior citizens. At 80 years old they would pass for 60; they showed graceful agility but they talked with the wisdom of an informed octogenarian. “What were you doing in Britain”, one of them quizzed. That question was also quite tasking, because my CV says something very different from the answer I would normally give. Our conversation ranged from race to poverty in Africa. We also had a thing or two to say about President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. They wondered why Africans had been reluctant to engage the military to unseat Mugabe in a coup, the same way Nkrumah was deposed in 1966. I was quick to cut it that Africans have realized that coups do not work well for us, so it is a rather unpopular route to power these days. Besides, we are making good strides in our democratic experiment. I had forgotten about the Zimbabwean crises until the octogenarians chipped it in. These were not ordinary senior citizens; they had email addresses and knew about job websites. They gave me a few web addresses to try my luck. They also quizzed me on my knowledge of Canada. “So you are a writer, how many provinces are in Canada?” Before I would hazard the wildest guess in my adult life, Janet followed up with a second: “How many territories do we have?” Well, they provided the answer when they realized I wasn't forthcoming with anything. “We have ten provinces and three territories.” That was to be my first lesson in Canada; a lesson that would prove invaluable when I started filling job applications online. Before our plane would touch down, the old ladies blessed me and gave me every denomination of the cent: from one cent to $2. I thanked them profusely and kissed them goodbye.

My experience with the Canadian old ladies was very similar to my first human encounter in the United Kingdom. I had popped out to take a wander on London's Oxford Street, a place that looked like heaven, being new to the city. A very old man walked up to me and patted me on the shoulder: “I like you very much, where do you come from?” “Ghana', I said. Where is that, he quizzed. “Ghana is in Africa”, I submitted. “Africa, so how did you get here?, he asked. I replied that I flew on an airplane to Heathrow airport. “You came on a plane, you? He was honest to confess that he had never flown before, and that he was looking forward to experiencing it before he was 80. He boarded the same bus I took, and sat on one of the back seats. A few minutes later, he walked in the aisle, looking to locate where I was sitting. “There you are, I forgot to ask your name”, he said, rather excitedly. Before I would produce an answer, he rapped his hands around my shoulders and submitted: “I really like you.” He dished out 10 pounds from a very worn-out wallet and placed it in my fingers. He looked me intently in the eye and repeated his earlier words: “I like you very much.” He walked back to his seat, waving me goodbye in a way that was as harmlessly natural as Williams Wordsworth's appreciation of pantheism in Tintern Abbey. When I narrated the experience to my host at the time, he teased that the old bloke might have thought me gay because of my swagger. He said there was something feminine about the way I walk. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that I had worn a woman's jacket. Was that the attraction for the old man? Well, I don't think he was gay. Even if he was, I am not.

So, how does the UK compare with Canada? Well, Canada is closer to the United States of America and I can see the borders from my bedroom, to put it like Sarah Palin. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is in Europe. Of course, we expect former Republican presidential hopeful, Mike Hukabee, to confirm this. Interestingly, most things that only come with the promising Northern American 'Dream' tattooed on them are also British through and through. It is difficult to find a decent job in the two places. You don't feel part of the system until you have acquired some education and schooled yourself in the way of life in the West. But then, how unusual is that? These days, you are merely a by-product of the working community in Ghana if you don't have a higher education. And in Accra, where our brand of 'liberal capitalism' is most prominent, some nationals live the economic horror of the putrid 70s. So you don't expect to instantly proceed to greatness in a foreign land, as if Egypt was no Joseph's story. Ghanaian-Canadians would normally say to a new immigrant: “work hard but don't expect too much.” In other words, be prepared to fail many times and give yourself time to succeed. The United Kingdom is known for its 'leveling' credentials. The British system has a way of bringing all immigrants to a certain minimum level before a triumphant take off. But once you take off, you can only be limited by another 'leveling' stage where chicken and chips would be enough for dinner. Well, Denmark has a more interesting story.

The 'Burgers' in Toronto, the ones A.B Crenstil talks about in his songs, would tell you that Abrokyire is what you make of it. That is quite a statement. Otherwise, why would somebody live six full years of his life in the United Kingdom, where the currency is weightier and graduate to the cold in Canada, where your ear freezes until it becomes breakable? Well, the Toronto Burgers know better. Folks have made it very big in Ghana with the cedi, so you cannot afford to fail with the Pound or the Dollar. And when you are abroad, failure is defined differently: it means not being able to build a university hostel or ferry home a decent 4x4 vehicle. Sometimes, it means not having the courage to pack and go home, or at least visit once in seven years. I met a few of those Papa Samo burgers in my first week in Toronto. Most of them advised me to relax the pursuit of degrees and learn to drive a truck. That pays some $2000 a week. That is superb. Another urged me to be an electrician, servicing vehicles and checking why traffic indicator lights are not flashing. “And Massa, never bring your wife to join you here. I live with fire in this house”, another submitted. Soon, we heard an offensive-sounding treble voice yelling from the bedroom: “Haven't I told you to close the wardrobe anytime you open it? You always behave like a baby” When we stepped out, he picked a stone on the surroundings and planted it in my hand. “This is your stone”, he said; a gesture that vindicates the statement he made. “That was nothing; sometimes she calls me Kwasea and Odwan.”

The story in Ottawa is refreshingly different; at least in style. It is relatively calmer and promising in a very uncomfortable way. I asked my host: “Is everybody here a civil servant? Suddenly I am in a circle of 'professorial burgers' who keep recommending funded PhD programmes to me. But they are quick to add: “These are no guarantees; they merely get you started.” Start with a PhD? Where I come from in Agona-Swedru, it is the final destination of all glory. Well, I am new to town; I am yet to learn the rules .All I can do is sit up and wonder why Canadian newspapers do not print the prices of the papers on the front pages. I just bought The National Post. Somewhere, it says welcome to Canada.

Benjamin Tawiah is a freelance journalist. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2008

This author has authored 235 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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