When midnight arrived on March 6, 1957, church bells sounded across Accra. The crowds, which had filled the city streets with the hum of celebration and hope, pushed into the square outside Parliament and cheered as Britain's Union flag was lowered and the green, gold and red colors of the new nation of Ghana were hoisted in a light breeze. In a nearby polo ground, Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah broke into dance and then spoke of a dream finally realized. "Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world," he declared. "At long last the battle has ended. Ghana, our beloved country, is free forever." In Fodome, a small village in the eastern Volta region of the new nation, Kwame Deh, 22, and his family and friends gathered around a radio and listened through crackling static. "I felt very happy," remembers Deh. "The future was ours."
All births are incredible moments, but some are more momentous than others. When citizens of the British colony called the Gold Coast gathered to witness the founding of their new nation a half-century ago, they carried not only their personal hopes and fears but also the aspirations of a continent. As the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to break away from its foreign master in the post-1945 era of independence, Ghana was the symbol of a land throwing off its shackles, the first breeze of what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would later dub "the wind of change." "The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent," said Nkrumah that night.
Fifty years later, Ghana, a country of 22.6 million, remains an uncannily accurate measure of Africa's successes and failures, its ambitions and broken dreams. As was true for many African states, the optimism of independence gave way to unrest, militarism and economic decline. As elsewhere, Ghanaians struggled back, rebuilding their country, renewing their democracy and securing fresh reason to hope. Today Ghana is a bright beacon for a continent the world too often sees only for its suffering. The country's rise and fall and rise again have given many Ghanaians--and many Africans--a more realistic understanding of what it will take to develop their continent's fragile fortunes than they had in the first flush of freedom. And it has left them with a deep appreciation of basic principles that others take for granted: stability, democracy, jobs.
This is the story of one family--three generations of Ghanaians--that has experienced the struggles and triumphs that define free Africa's first 50 years. In many ways, the Dehs--Kwame, Suzzy and Delight-- are unremarkable, average. But in their ability to keep mining Africa's most precious resource--its optimism--they are extraordinary. Just like Africa itself.
Linus Kwame Deh of a mud hut. His parents divorced before he reached school age, and it was his father--a bricklayer and farmer--who raised him. Kwame means Saturday, the day he was born; Linus is his Christian, or colonial, name. At school, in the lush hills of the Volta region--an area that was colonized by the Germans but later came under British rule--the young Kwame sang God Save the King and saluted the British flag. "That's the training for discipline," remembers Kwame, now 72.
Kwame is sprightly for his age. When I first met him in April last year, he was wearing loose-fitting gold-colored trousers, a gold shirt and a small gold skullcap, all made from the same embroidered fabric. He welcomed me into his modest rented home on the eastern edge of Accra, Ghana's capital, pumping my hand with the energy and strength of a man 20 years younger. The living room was painted electric blue, and a gold vase of plastic flowers sat on the coffee table. There was a small television in the corner and a telephone that mewed like a cat when someone rang. More than once on my visits in April and again last August, Kwame repeated an adage that an old schoolteacher of his had used: There is no such thing as African time, the idea that things in Africa run slowly and behind schedule just because it's Africa. "There is no store in the world that sells an African watch or an African clock. We all use the same clock," he told me. "And yet Africans use African time as an excuse. We have to be serious."
After leaving school, Kwame trained as a sculptor. Working from a photo supplied by grieving relatives, he would mold the face of a mother or father or child for a gravestone or craft statues of Mary, Jesus and the saints for the many churches that were springing up across the country. Traveling from village to village, Kwame discovered a curious thing: people in the Volta region were underwhelmed by the idea of independence. Fearing that Ghana's bigger tribes would discriminate against them, many Voltans wanted independence to come in stages--or even the chance to secede altogether. Tribalism, which would later rear its ugly head in places like Nigeria and Rwanda, was shaping postcolonial Africa.
Kwame himself longed for freedom. "I knew independence was very important for this country," he told me. "We needed jobs and employment to come to Ghanaians, to black people. The top administrative level was taken by the British." It wasn't just the colonial authorities Kwame chafed under. Around the time of independence, his father and stepmother chose a girl for him to marry. "But I didn't like her. You know, we didn't love each other," he says. Kwame started wooing Theresa Afua, another girl in the village, instead. Within months they married, beginning their lives together in a country that was finally free.
Ghana's early years were full of energy and excitement. At the time, many parts of newly independent Africa were far richer and better developed than the countries that would later become Asia's tigers. In the late 1950s, Ghana's per capita GDP was equivalent to South Korea's; today it is about $550, compared with South Korea's $16,000. Nigerians still lament that they once had a massive palm-oil industry but it has long since been overtaken by such Asian countries as Malaysia, which were better run and less corrupt.
Nkrumah, Ghana's founder, embarked on an ambitious program, building schools, houses, roads, a new port, factories. The idea was to wean Ghana from trade and investment with Britain and the other colonial powers. But Nkrumah's policies came at a high price. Industrialization cost millions, and the government neglected cocoa, Ghana's traditional export crop, which brought in most of the foreign exchange. Ghana's economy began to fall apart. In 1964, in a move that would be repeated by other African leaders in the decades to come, Nkrumah declared Ghana a one-party state and himself leader for life. The early optimism was replaced by a deep sense of disappointment and lost opportunity. "There were a lot of problems," Kwame says. "People were getting hungry. Nkrumah was looking to the East for help. He kept paying everyone's salaries, but things were not working how he planned." In early 1966, with the President on a visit to China, the army seized power. "We all waited to see if the military could do a better job than the politicians," says Kwame.
It could not. For the next two decades Ghana was racked by instability and economic mismanagement. A revolving cast of military leaders left people with little faith in their government and no chance to change things. It was a cancer eating the entire continent. Beginning with the first successful coup in sub-Saharan Africa, in Togo in 1963, at least 200 attempts were made to seize power in Africa over the following four decades; 80 or so were successful. Bitter civil wars erupted, some of them tribal struggles for natural resources, some of them prompted by foreign powers. By the 1970s, Africa had become one of the hottest fronts in the cold war. "We had lots of fears. There was no freedom of speech," says Kwame, about the time of troubles. "You go about, and you see the army. The economy was getting worse." By the late 1970s, Ghana was a mess. A drought had pushed up food prices; jobs had disappeared. "Bribery and corruption is all over the world, but where it is too glaring, it kills the economy," says Kwame, who moved his family to Accra and opened a small construction company. The hopes of independence had vanished.
Kwame's daughter Suzzy Afua Deh was 5 at the time of Ghana's first coup. She remembers those early years with fondness. "Life then was easy because my father worked," she told me as we sat outside her two-room concrete-block house in Lapaz, a poor neighborhood of dirt roads and street hustlers in northwestern Accra. "Everything was O.K." Suzzy, now 46, stayed behind with her grandparents in Fodome when her parents moved to Accra. The extended African family has always been a welcome insurance policy when times get tough.
After school, Suzzy decided to continue her studies. She was 15 and wanted to be a secretary. But Ghana's economy was collapsing, and a crunch in the supply of building materials meant there was no work for her father and no money for fees. Some people's lives are changed by poor grades or a bad decision. For Suzzy, it was a cement shortage. Unable to afford college, she drifted for a few years. At one point she tried to join the police force in Accra. After Suzzy aced her exams, the senior officer refused to let her start training, apparently because she didn't have the money for a bribe.
In 1980, at just 19, Suzzy married Gershon Aka, a bank clerk 12 years her senior. The first few years of married life were a strange combination of personal joys and national disaster. Suzzy and her husband had two children--son Jubilant, now 25, and daughter Nutifafe (Peace), 23--but drought and hunger were tightening their grip. "You would go to the forest and search for cassava," says Suzzy. "Whatever you could find."
The country remained under military rule. In 1979, Flight Lieut. Jerry Rawlings deposed another military government in another bloody coup. But Rawlings was different from earlier leaders. Although guilty of human-rights abuses in those early years, his government instituted a series of free-market reforms that slowly got the economy moving again. Suzzy, who today lies awake at night worrying whether her children will make it home safely, liked Rawlings' emphasis on security. "There was not much armed robbery; you could move about at night," she says. Gershon shakes his head. "Suzzy hadn't seen anything different before, so she couldn't compare," he says of Rawlings' time. "I felt we needed something new. You could not speak freely. There was no freedom."
Today Ghana is democratic, and its economy is growing. Yet Suzzy and Gershon still struggle. After being forced to retire from the bank, Gershon opened a small office offering secretarial services. But his computer broke last year, and he rarely gets any business. To make ends meet, Suzzy buys food at Accra's central market and then resells it around her neighborhood. The family is perpetually behind on its $16-a-month rent, and when I visited last August, the power in the house had been switched off after a meter reader said the meter had been installed illegally. The couple, who now have four children, including Wisdom, 2--Suzzy calls him "our surprise"--often wonder how they will eat.
Suzzy's two hours of joy a week come on Sunday at the Global Evangelical Church, a large building filled with simple wooden benches a 10-minute bus ride from her home. Gershon goes to a more traditional Presbyterian church--a certificate of honor on the wall of the family's tiny living room commends him for being "a reliable choirmaster"--but Suzzy and the kids prefer the excitement and entertainment of evangelical preachers. Christianity, especially Evangelicalism, is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else on the planet. Promising riches not just in death but here on earth, the churches often provide Africa's urban poor their one chance to hope. For Suzzy's third-born child, that's especially true.
Delight Kofi Aka was born in 1988, just as things in Ghana began to improve. Now 18, Delight is tall and lean, with the naive swagger of someone who has not yet known failure. He is in his final year at a boys' Catholic boarding school in the Volta region, one of the best in Ghana. The family cannot afford to pay the school fees (some $600 a year), but two years ago, Suzzy convinced her pastors at Global Evangelical that her son was gifted and deserved a scholarship. Grandfather Kwame paid the $150 entrance fee, and Delight was handed the best chance in years of securing the family's prosperity.
It's common in Africa for massive expectation to be invested in a single child. "You have to force out the one that is intelligent," says Kwame, "so he can be the breadwinner for the family." That's tough for those left behind--Delight's older brother and sister both left school at 16 and struggle to find work. It can be tough on the chosen one too. Delight was singled out at a young age and sent off at 13 to live with his grandfather so he could attend a good junior high. "I feel responsibility," he says. "It's a priority to study hard and become something, and if I fail any of my exams, it will be a disgrace to my church and my family. Everybody's eyes are on you."
For school, Delight is reading The Gods Are Not to Blame by Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi, which transplants Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Africa. Delight talks about his hope to study chemical engineering or agriculture at university. He pronounces Catholic "Cad-lick" in his lilting Ghanaian English. In the family house there is a small table in the corner with a stove sitting on it. Pots and pans stack up under chairs that line the walls and on the shelves of a bureau that also holds a tiny color television. There is a small refrigerator, the insulation in its door showing through the rust. Clotheslines crisscross beneath the plasterboard ceiling. "I'd like a new house," he says. "That's my dream. That my family can live in a better home."
Such are the tempered hopes of Africa these days. Delight is neither as optimistic as his grandfather was at independence nor as pessimistic as his mother. His generation has lived through the time of the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu militias killed 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu; the brutality of Sierra Leone, with its arm-chopping gangs of child soldiers; the elemental fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, beginning in the mid-'90s, known as Africa's First World War, a series of conflicts that killed 4 million people. But he and the millions of young Africans like him also have the incredible leadership of Nelson Mandela and the redemptive tale of South Africa to inspire them and, in places like Ghana and Mozambique and Tanzania, the sense that the future will be brighter than the past. The Dehs are one family, one story, in a continent that is just getting started.
6 months ago