Published: May 2, 2005, Copyright The New York Times
The road to the beach here twists through dozens of neighborhoods, and every one of them is God-fearing. “Believe in Jesus Electrical Parts Store,” says one colorfully painted sign hanging in front of, well, an electrical parts store. “God is Great Catering and Fast Food,” says a sign in front of a shack selling cans of Fanta and Coca-Cola and tins of biscuits.
My friends and I – all Liberian – are on the way to the beach, and indulging in a favorite Liberian pastime: making fun of Ghana. Sure, Ghana is one of our West African neighbors, but the country just seems so different. Beyond the Ghanaian quirk – which occurs far less often in Liberia – of naming businesses after Bible verses, people here like kooky logos on their buses that have nothing to do with transportation. “Observers Are Worried” is posted on one bus. “Sea Never Dry” is on nother.
We don’t like the food. “I can’t believe these people put tomatoes in ground-pea soup,” I complain to one Liberian friend over lunch at a local restaurant in Accra.
We don’t understand the social system. Ghanaian men seem to like going out stag. “I just don’t get it,” says my friend, Richard, shaking his head. “When I first moved here, these dudes invited me out. But the whole night, it was just us guys. Who wants to go out with just guys?”
Now, I’m not normally particularly nationalistic – I dropped my Liberian passport after becoming a citizen of my new home, America – but when I’m in Ghana, this side comes out. Why? The answer, actually, is simple. Even as I’m joining my Liberian expat friends in making fun of Ghanaians, I know exactly why we’re doing this. We are jealous. We’ll never say it out loud, but Ghana is what we Liberians aspire to.
The list of what Ghanaians have that we don’t is a mile long:
Electricity Liberia hasn’t had it since 1991, thanks to the former President Charles Taylor and the civil war he started. But here in Ghana, you can just walk into a room and turn on a light, and it works. And when it gets dark, you can still see.
Running water We don’t have that in Liberia either, again thanks to Mr. Taylor and Liberian government officials more concerned with lining their own pockets than with providing services most people would consider basic. Taking a bath usually requires contortions involving buckets. Alas, in Ghana, you can take showers. What a treat.
A functional country These Ghanaians may spend a lot of time coming up with Biblical passages to name their businesses after, but they seem to have figured out how to run a country, something we Liberians have proved to be woefully dismal at. People actually – though sporadically – remove the garbage from the street in downtown Accra. Downtown Monrovia has trash piled up higher than the S.U.V.’s that the United Nations workers use.
To rub salt in the wound, there’s even a Liberian refugee camp just outside Accra for some 70,000 Liberians who fled the war. There are few amenities at the camp; replicating things at home, the place is devoid of flush toilets. But all is not lost – I’ve heard the food there is way better than anything you can find in downtown Accra.
Was it the inability of Liberians to form a really unified society that did us in, or is it that Ghanaians are just far more industrious than we are? We have great bars and discos, and we love to party, but we’ve made a mess out of running our country.
A few months ago, I went home to Monrovia to take a look at the rebuilding going on now that Charles Taylor is finally gone and our civil wars are over. I arrived at Robertsfield Airport in Liberia and was promptly hit up for a bribe by the immigration woman who demanded my passport.
I didn’t even think twice about giving her a dollar when she asked me what I had brought home for my people. I knew that was code for “give me money or I’ll keep you here in this hot little room until you come to your senses.”
Within three hours of my arrival back in Monrovia, I was cavorting with friends at Musu’s Spot, a rowdy outdoor bar across the street from the United Nations relief mission. West African highlife music was blaring, and people were laughing and drinking our delicious Club Beer.
If it weren’t for the dozens of one-legged former child soldiers begging for money on the side of the potholed road, you’d have no idea that you were in a city still recovering from 10 years of vicious civil war.
I called my Liberian friends in Accra. “You should be here,” I yelled at Richard. But while Richard is happy enough to make fun of Ghanaians whenever the mood strikes him, he’s no fool.
“Nope,” he said. “I’m happy right here.”