What’s in a Name?

On March 6th 1957, the former Gold Coast gained independence from the British and became the Republic of Ghana. The name Ghana, which means “Warrior King”, was actually taken from the Ancient Empire of Ghana. This Empire, somewhat confusingly, lay completely to the north of the land we now associate with the Ghana of today. The capital of Ancient Ghana was located in what we now refer to as Mauritania and the lands of the Empire spread into modern day Mail. Founded sometime between 300 and 700 AD, Ancient Ghana reached the height of its powers around 900 AD. At this time the Empire spread roughly 300km North to South and 500km East to West. It was powerful during this time, controlling the important Saharan trade route until the decline of the Empire in the 12th century. In the early 13th century the Mail Empire began taking over parts of Ancient Ghana. Although the Empire of Ancient Ghana did not stretch to the land of its modern day namesake, trade was certainly taking place between the regions. The lands now enclosed in Ghana’s border were trading kola nuts, ivory and gold across the Saharan trade route.
So why, in 1957, did the first President and Prime Minister, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, choose the name Ghana? The choice was rather more symbolic than literal. The former Gold Coast was arguably the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to gain political independence from a European colonial power. Nkrumah saw himself as a spokesman, not just representing Ghana, but representing the liberation of Africa from colonial rule. He later became a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity and was an influencing advocate for Pan Africanism. On the eve of independence he made a speech in which he famously said “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up to the total liberation of Africa”. Ghana’s independence did indeed kick of a chain reaction across Africa with 16 nations gaining independence in 1960 alone. That’s not to say Ghanas post independence journey was smooth, by 1966 Nkrumah was overthrown by a military coup and several difficult decades of power struggles followed.
Some historians also claim the countries name is attributed to the fact that the Akan people of modern day Ghana descend from the Ancient Empire, although this is disputed by others. Interestingly in a 1925 map of the Gold Coast four areas are identified which later became Ghana: The Gold Coast; Ashanti; Northern Territories and the Trust Territory of Togoland. Similar administrative divisions still exist today, although further subdivided into a total of 10 regions.

So, What is in a name? Quite a lot in this case!


Seeing Beyond Poverty

Life in Ghana means seeing a lot of poverty, it’s just something that can’t be avoided. I only have to look out my kitchen window to see how hard people are working every day, just to survive. At major traffic lights in the city our car is always approached by people begging. Men, women, children, disabled people on skateboards who can’t afford wheelchairs. This is their reality. This is their life.  It’s not often a day passes without seeing someone urinating in public, or just sleeping at the roadside in their makeshift home. Then there are the blind, who get moved from junction to junction and guided to the car to beg. The challenge is, that if you wind down the window to give them something small, you will soon be surrounded by lots people, pushing their way in.
My driver tells me that some people beg because they are lazy and would rather not work. If you start to look closely you might see the child has been sent over to beg by a parent, who is standing partially out of sight. Some children even skip school, without their parents knowledge, to try and get money to spend. Today, as one small boy looked up at me with his dark eyes and touched his hand to his mouth, indicating he was hungry, it took all my will power not to give him something. I looked around to try and locate his family and there they were, sitting at the roadside further back. He turned to talk to his mother, was obviously told to try again and he returned to my window with the same forlorn look and hand gesture. He may well be starving, there is really no way for me to know. Some days this routine is difficult to see, other days, it’s simply heart-breaking.
When you travel out of Accra and pass into the more rural areas you get another insight into daily life. At first many buildings look deserted, they are breeze block shells with no windows. Maybe they ran out of money before they finished building, you might think. Look closely however, and you will see signs of life. Perhaps some laundry hanging up to dry, or some shoes at the door. That’s when you realise, these aren’t deserted, unfinished houses, they are well and truly lived in. You might start to notice that some have had the front wall painted to make it more homely, or maybe someone will be outside sweeping the step. It doesn’t matter that the surroundings are chaos, there is still an element of being house proud.
In parts of the countryside where they are lucky enough to have the coastline or a river nearby, it will serve as a toilet, washing machine and bath. Of course that doesn’t stop people also fishing in it. In other areas a whole village might share a single water pump or people might carry water many miles from the nearest source. These are all things you may have read, heard about, or even seen before. For me personally, the regular visuals are an interesting reminder of just how challenging live can be.
Of course the reason I find these conditions hard to see is because I was born into a different world and a different set of circumstances. The people of Ghana are very welcoming, warm and friendly. Children will often smile and wave when they see you looking at them from the car window and many adults will call Akwaaba, the Akan word for Welcome, if you are entering their shop, market or village.  For each of those moments that I have to look into a sad pair of eyes, unable to help that individual on that day, there is a different, wonderful moment of insight into a world I would have never known, and a reminder of the happiness I am fortunate to have.