I don’t remember the day or month of the year it was. But I remember how the journey started very vividly, as vividly as the day you broke your code. Remember?
It was a sunny morning in 1991 when my twin sister, Dorcas, and I left Bongo in the company of one Mr Abugre. He was a labourer at the Ghana Highways Authority in Kete-Krachi. It was through him that my father came to settle in Kete-Krachi. And today we’re going to join him.
In those days we had to walk many kilometres from Bongo-Beo to Kongo before we could get a car to Bolga. For our feeble feet, the journey was as long and torturous as it was uncertain. It was uncertain because we had no idea what kind of life was about unfold before us.
Two years ago, our father had travelled to a far and unknown land and came back occasionally to visit. We were told that our father worked on people’s farms as a labourer and often came back to buy food stuffs for the family with the little he saved.
His visits were memorable because he came back with grains and some tubers of yam and cassava. In our part of the country, those tubers are very scarce and so the yam and cassava appeared like food crops from a different planet.
Later we were told that he had been employed by the government and he wanted the family to join him in Kete-Krachi. He took us the children one after the other, to where we would spend the greater and most important part of our lives.
When we got to Kete-Krachi, we became the subject of mockery from the children of our area, Kete-Krachi Lake-side. “The two children who have come to Mr Awuni’s house are like pregnant women,” they said. We knew we had bellies bigger than those of our peers, but it was later we got to know that what had caused our stomachs to protrude was kwashiorkor, the protein deficiency disease.
What followed after our arrival in Kete-Krachi may read like fiction. And I will not fault anyone who sees it as such because it is almost impossible to describe hunger to someone who has never been hungry. That was long ago.
After 22 years, I’m returning to the Bongo-Beo for the first time. Two years ago, in July 2011, I visited Bongo the district capital to do a story. I was disappointed when I compared their infrastructure with those of the many districts I knew down south. But my disappointment then cannot be compared to what I see today. At least, the vast expanse of dry land was covered with the greenery of withering millet and guinea corn, which had been starved of rainfall for some days. The baobab trees that dotted the farmlands were gracefully adorned with leaves.
But the scenery which unfolds before me today, March 9, 2013, is not different from the CNN video footages of abandoned villages in Malian desert we saw recently. The bare and dry savannah landscape is simmering with heat and as I sit in front of the Toyota Hilux pick up vehicle that is taking me from Bolga to Bongo, I’m able to see as far as my eyes can take me. No trees with leaves. No grass. Only heat dryness and dust.
From time to time, we pass by a malnourished donkey and cart being driven by a more malnourished boy, girl or man. Under the few savannah trees that provide shades more with their branches than their leaves, some cattle and donkeys can be seen chewing imaginary cud while escaping the blistering heat.
The situation seems hopeless and the only thing the people here share in common with those in Accra are the John Mahama and Nana Akufo-Addo election posters that adorn the walls, which are plastered with a mixture of clay and cow dung. It was then that it dawned on me that they also voted in the recent election. For what? For what reason do they vote?
For the first time in 22 years after fleeing as an economic refugee, I was at the land of my birth attend my grandfather’s funeral and that of the head of our clan. I had no mental picture of the house I grew up in. The buildings appeared too stunted for human occupation and did not look any better than hen coops. Some of the names of extended family members were familiar, but not the faces. Almost every member of the family was there, but it was my father’s family that stood out for the obvious reason.
In a few months’ time, he would have produced a second master’s degree holder. He had produced two Higher National Diploma (HND) from the Tamale Polytechnic and had an undergraduate at the University of Education, Winneba.
One had completed the senior high school and two were in the senior high school. Some were in the Junior high schools and the primary school. What is more, he had produced Ghana’s Most Promising Journalist of the Year and Journalist of the Year. The story was different for the families who stayed in Bongo.
The rest of my age mates who were at the funeral had either returned from Bolga, Kumasi or Accra, where they survived on dehumanising jobs. When I looked back, I realised that the only difference between them and me was where we grew up.
Kete-Krachi is a deprived district in Northern Volta. Those who are able to make it from there pride themselves in being extremely hard working. But when I compare Kete-Krachi with Bongo, the place of my birth, it is a kind of paradise. But for that strategic escape by my father, I could have ended up as a head porter or a scrap metal dealer or any of the nameless jobs my colleagues back at home hesitated before saying what they were doing.
But it is clear that not everyone and their families can become economic refugees like my father. Apart from the lack of industries, markets and business ventures, the climatic conditions resulting from global warming is gradually making the savannah land inhabitable.
When the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA) was formed, many hopeful northerners like me thought it would help alleviate the extreme poverty in that part of the country. But with the recent revelations about the SADA-Asongtaba murky guinea fowl and afforestation projects, that hope has been dashed.
Through the so-called public-private partnerships (PPP), one can be sure SADA has become another opportunity for private individuals to make money in the name of the poor folks, like my kinsmen in Bongo.
With the current development, it is better to keep the money in the national purse. The GHC15 million which is being invested into guinea fowl rearing would not be a bad idea if steps were taking to get those monies into the hands of local producers. If someone is given GHC1,000 and guided to go into guinea fowl production, you cannot count the number of birds that farmer can produce in the coming year. SADA is meant for the poor people in the savannah region and should not be hijacked by a few individuals.
SADA should not be hijacked by a few selfish individuals and serve as another avenue for corruption. Greedy politicians, individuals and NGOs have exploited the poverty in the north for far too long and it is about time it stopped. If private businesses cannot be innovative enough and take advantage of the economic potentials of the north, then they should take their hands off government interventions.
SADA should think of bringing improvement into at least one sector instead of the piecemeal approaches to the different sectors without any real impact.
There is no senior high school in the three regions of the north whose infrastructure can compare favourably with the average senior high school in the South. And the basic schools are indescribably deplorable. Why can’t SADA develop the human resource potential of the people there, at least through education?
When we met in Bongo Beo the only difference between my colleagues and me was education. And education is the only difference between my father (a night watchman) and me (a journalist). My father has slept on benches in mosquito infested environment for the greater part of his adult life, but even if things remain how they are, I can be assured of a decent accommodation and life. And he is more intelligent that I am. The difference is education.
The people of Northern Ghana are not handicapped. They don’t need handouts. They, like every other Ghanaian, need equal opportunities, an environment to develop their God-given potentials to help build mother Ghana and live dignified lives. At least, that’s what I realised after going back to Bongo-Beo after 22 years of being in a self-imposed economic exile.
Manasseh Azure Awuni is a Senior Broadcast Journalist with Joy FM. Writer’s email: [email protected]