African horizons

The Ghanaian exchange group had to wait two years for a visa - for Britons going to Ghana, the application process takes about two days. Is this why our favourite prince hasn't invited his Kenyan friends back?

Ray Crowley

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While Prince William has been busy waltzing around Kenya digging toilets and building things (because Africans don’t know how to build or dig, apparently), I have been having a sort of gap-year experience of my own.

I have just spent the past week with a group of 14 young Ghanaians from Kissema village near Accra, the country’s capital. To make a change, I didn’t travel to Ghana. Instead the group, aged 16 to 24, have come to Britain for a month-long stay hosted by the UK youth education charity WORLDwrite (1).

For most of us, getting on a plane and jetting off to a faraway land is tedious at worst. The main hassles are losing your hand luggage or your friends at the airport, or forgetting your travellers’ cheques. If you come from an impoverished area of Ghana it is another story altogether.

It took WORLDwrite and the group over two years to gain the necessary visas to enter the UK. The group had to wait months for an interview. If you want to travel to Ghana from Britain, the application process takes about two days. Maybe this is why our favourite prince hasn’t invited his Kenyan friends back for a visit?

While the group was struggling to get permission to visit Britain, one of the girls – 16-year-old Dorcas – tragically died from jaundice. I remember reading an amusing story in the UK papers of a baby born here with jaundice, who was so yellow her parents named her La La (after the Teletubby). It is a different story when you are from an area with no hospital or proper healthcare.

The Ghanaian group now in the UK is called ‘Elikem’. They are talented dancers and drummers who have already impressed audiences in schools and festivals all over London. They arrived at Heathrow airport on the first flight they had ever taken, with one suitcase between them and a lot to say.

‘You treat your pets very nicely here’, Patience remarked to a group of 13- and 14-year-olds in a school assembly. ‘Here they live for 15 years. In Ghana they live six weeks, then they go into the pot.’ Mouths dropped open all over the hall. Collecting drinks cans for a Blue Peter appeal for wells for Africa is one thing – finding out what life is really like there often proves more demanding.

‘The buildings are so tall, I can’t believe they stay up. They are so solid’, said Millicent during an evening performance at Quay Fest near Canary Wharf, in London’s Docklands. The group has been equally impressed by less spectacular constructions – bus shelters, flyovers, washing machines. We all complain about the London Underground – Mary was more worried about how she was ‘going to get back up’ than how long the train took to arrive.

‘The food is so fast’, has been a common exclamation at meal times – cooking takes half a day in Ghana, with no oven or microwave to hand. The village of Kissema survives mainly through subsistence, and the musicians do not rehearse on Sundays because they have to farm. They cannot quite get their heads around the fact that here we can just go out and buy food, and that subsistence farming died out over 150 years ago.

Chatting to the group and hearing comments like this, it would be easy to sit back and say ‘We just don’t realise how lucky we are’ – but that’s hardly the point. Not one member of Elikem wants anybody’s pity. Some of them want the same things I want – to go to university or have a car. Some want even more. Meeting them is proof of the benefits of development – and the dangers of romanticising life in societies based on subsistence agriculture.

As Eric, Lars or any other member of Elikem will tell you, development doesn’t just mean that old mantra of ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Why not also give him a nice big McDonalds drive-thru and a road to get there?

(1) See the WORLDwrite website

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