Last week I arrived in Ghana’s capital Accra after a flight from Amsterdam. As expected I had to complete another Ebola health form but this time I didn’t have a thermometer gun pointed at my head like I did the week before in Malawi. In Ghana they have infrared cameras where you can see for yourself on the screen how hot you are! As well as the numerous posters and warnings of Ebola there seemed to be a real ramping up of the access to hand sanitizing gels. Be it at passport control, the hotel reception, a shop entrance or even by the taxi stand. The message is clear – keep your hands clean! Ghana has not recorded any infections of the Ebola virus but I had a bit of a surprise when I logged on after arriving at my hotel. A case of Ebola infection had been announced in Mali – my next destination! All sorts of thoughts came to me – Will I be safe? Will it spread? Will the airline still fly there? Should I cancel the trip?
Well, more of that later, but in the meantime I had some work to do in Ghana. As soon as I exited the airport terminal and was faced with a zebra crossing I knew that Ghana was going to be a bit different to the rest of West Africa. In the UK, a zebra crossing is a pedestrian road crossing with no traffic lights where the pedestrian has right of way. In Africa, the pedestrian also has right of way but they are always ignored and you end up having to inch your way through flying vehicles. In Ghana, though, the drivers politely slow down and stop for you – unthinkable!
Ghana has been a beacon of peace and stability in West Africa for quite some time. It seems that whilst trouble flares in surrounding nations Ghana stays peaceful and prosperous. In the past 20 years brutal civil wars have come and gone in many neighbouring states including Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Rebels and terrorists are causing havoc in parts of Mali and Nigeria, and famine and poverty on a large scale has taken many lives in Niger and Burkina Faso. So why is Ghana a relative success story then?
One of the main reasons for this is the free media in the country. Ghana is one of the few African nations to have a free media and this combined with relatively little corruption and vibrant NGOs and civil society groups acts as a steady base from which the country is able to flourish. Don’t get me wrong, Ghana is not a ‘developed’ country by any means but it certainly has more going for it than the rest of West Africa. Of the 16 nations considered to be part of West Africa Ghana has the highest human development index, the highest GDP per capita and ranks highest in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – better than both Italy and Greece! With over 95% of children in school it also has one of the highest school enrolment rates in Africa – vital for the nation’s future. General elections over the last couple of decades have also been relatively trouble-free with incumbent presidents conceding defeat and stepping down to allow democracy to take its course. In Africa this is all too often not the case as incumbent leaders try to change legislation to cling on to power – the reason for the chaos seen this week in Ghana’s northern neighbour Burkina Faso.
So Ghana’s future is looking good. There is an economic plan in place called Ghana Vision 2020 which aims to embrace science and technology, to use it to help Ghana become Africa’s second ‘developed’ country after South Africa. There is still a long way to go but certainly from the evidence I saw all around me whilst crisscrossing the capital, Accra, collecting data, the city is well ahead of others in the region. With many a tarmacked road, shiny skyscraper and a friendly smile the place ‘feels’ like it’s on the up. There are even plans afoot for an ambitious technology park, Hope City, to be built near to the capital. The project includes plans for the tallest building on the continent and will cost an estimated USD $10 billion, providing tens of thousands of jobs. It remains to be seen if this fully comes to fruition but it is clear that the will is there for such development to put the country firmly in the global marketplace. Next year Ghana is expected to overtake Côte d’Ivoire as the world’s largest producer of cocoa and with other natural resources in abundance (including petroleum and gold), and improving energy and manufacturing sectors, the future looks good and many West African nations will no doubt aspire to be ‘the next Ghana’.
My visit to Mali was a different experience altogether. First off there was the news last week that a case of Ebola had been confirmed in the country – a child who travelled overland from Guinea and passed through Mali’s capital Bamako. The procedures in place to keep the virus from spreading seem to have worked, however. Although there were antibacterial gel pumps outside many shops and Ebola prevention banners everywhere there was no panic or hysteria about it, which could all too easily start if more cases were determined.
Secondly, on arrival in Bamako it was obvious from the outset that the country is years behind Ghana, most evidently in the infrastructure. The ride to my hotel involved a lot of bone-shaking and neck jarring as the driver tried his best to avoid pothole after pothole with only a 50% success rate. I was also aware of there being more mosquitos than I’m used to seeing in Africa. Hopefully insect repellent, a mosquito net and my malaria tablets will have done their job though.
Thirdly, the francophone country has had to deal with rebel insurgencies which have paralysed the north of the country. The once popular tourist destination of Timbuktu (yes it is a real place!) is now a no-go area as is the whole desert region of the country. Bamako, in the south, has been largely unaffected by the troubles in the north and life for expats continues normally albeit with one ear to the ground. One obvious impact, however, has been the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. The French-led mission has requisitioned two of the capital’s largest and most prestigious hotels and there are many a UN 4×4 rumbling around the city.
When I left Mali I flew back to London changing planes at Paris. I was expecting delays and commotion because I was arriving from an ‘infected’ country but not once before getting on the plane or in Paris, or on arrival at London, did I have to fill out any forms or have my temperature checked. After experiencing the complete opposite over the past month or so travelling within Africa I found this somewhat surprising. It’s a good job I spent half my time on the continent rubbing my hands with gel!
I’ll leave you on a less depressing note – and something I only discovered during this trip which I found quite interesting. The name ‘Guinea’ (as in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea) is derived from ‘Ghana’ which originally meant ‘Warrior King’, a title given to leaders of a medieval African empire. Well, this is one of a few theories but is also my favourite!