Twentieth Century Africa Travelogue

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
Diana Lee-Smith

Diana Lee-Smith is a Kenyan who has lived and worked here for the last 50 years as architect, activist and international development consultant

Tamale 1983

‘We could fly you into Upper Volta and drive you down across the border to Northern Ghana.’ The USAID official tapped a pen against his teeth and stared at the map on the wall behind him. I didn’t want to do that and so they flew me into Accra to be driven North up to Tamale. I had recently stopped working for the World Bank, unhappy with the way housing projects were now all about the private sector, ignoring local needs and corruption. It was the Reagan era and the early days of the neo-liberalism world-wide. But I had to earn some cash. This project was about local government, housing and community development, and needed an evaluation report.  I had never worked for USAID before.

I spent 1 May 1983 in the US Embassy Guest House in Accra – holed up as it happened because I was not allowed out. I left my room in the evening and chatted to others in the dining room. They told me about Ghana’s political crisis since Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings had taken over the government 17 months earlier and how they were trying to persuade him to take US political and economic advice. But they seemed nervous and an African American told me he got scared when Africans start playing drums. Next day I shopped for supplies in the Commissary, following advice to get enough canned food, peanut butter and so on for my two weeks in Tamale. There was a bunch of marines also shopping there. They had blank stares and moved like robots.  A briefing meeting followed, explaining the tight political situation, and how USAID staffing had been cut by 75 percent. They were on their way out and wanted a bad evaluation of this project, including the person running it. It seemed like an order. The person briefing me said he himself had previously been a sheriff in the Southern US. He said things are bad in this part of the world.

I had read through the project documents and noted some disjointedness. An initial plan for shipping-in cement, steel and aggregate had been modified with more emphasis on building up local government capacity to assess and respond to local housing needs in Tamale, the largest town in the North of Ghana. Next day when the vehicle was ready to depart I was joined by my companions for the trip, a heavy equipment specialist from California who would ensure the items shipped in for earth moving and so on were in working order, and a government official who sat in front. The equipment was coming up separately by road. Behind our driver, Ben, was a huge drum of petrol. He was given instructions on no condition to pick up any other passenger, and we set off.

The road North out of Accra was muddy, jammed with traffic and slow. We travelled through a forested area that was being clear-cut.  The government official told us the name of the indigenous trees whose filmy cotton drifted down on us.  He claimed it would easily grow back again and the government needed the money. Sitting in the back with the heavy equipment specialist I learned he had used the same equipment building fortifications in the Vietnam war and it was being recycled. ‘I doubt the people here will learn how to use it, they don’t have the necessary skills’ he stated. ‘But it had to be reassigned somehow. This is a very backward country, not like Vietnam. Those people know a thing or two, although I never trusted their food – told the cooks always to boil it two or three times over before it was safe to eat. My wife comes from Vietnam. She makes me take my shoes off whenever I come into the house.’  I asked where he lived and was told of a place not far from University of California Berkeley where I taught a decade earlier. He asked me to help him write down his report as he was illiterate. Then he grabbed me and made a pass, saying we might as well make the most of our two weeks living in a house together.

That was the end of civilized conversation with him for the next two weeks. Another of my glares would put paid to further communication, although I did do a couple of sentences to help him out with his report later on. A burned-out bus in Kumasi gave the flavour of the rest of the journey. ‘The gold workers are striking’ said Ben. We stayed overnight and were unable to get food in a packed dining room. ‘The market women are on strike’ said Ben. Eventually he got a yam from a friend.

When we eventually arrived in Tamale, the bungalow seemed nice enough but it was relentlessly hot. ‘It will rain this week’ said Ben. I met with the project coordinator, Earl Brown from Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, who took me around the project areas to committee meetings of local residents under trees in dusty compounds and of officials of the Provisional National Defence Committee government of Rawlings, all of whom clearly explained how the project would help improve water access and housing, mostly through local leadership. Later that same year we would have two of the elected officials from those neighbourhoods over to Nairobi for a regional meeting of our network of grassroots organizers from across Africa. I had figured out it was better to start a network of Africans to meet up than have foreign experts flying around ‘helping’ them. Some donors went along with that for a while. But USAID was not among them.

Earl and Mary Ann Brown had me over for dinner one day and we talked. He was watching a replay of Arthur Ashe thrashing Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final on a VCR. He thought the decentralization of government was working but not the economic clamp down on market traders and farmers. Mary Ann was working with local women’s groups. That night the rain came. Wind blew rain horizontally across my room as if a bucket of water had been thrown. I closed the window and went back to sleep. Earl came to see us later on in Nairobi. He had eventually been flown out and left USAID after the coup in nearby Upper Volta in August that year when Thomas Sankara came to power. He renamed his country Burkina Faso – the land of the upright man, and brought in effective self-development policies that survived four years before he was assassinated.

I wrote my report giving a high rating to the project when I got back to Accra after a similarly nightmarish road trip back. The petrol tank did not explode but we had to refuse a ride to some white kids the locals in one small town were trying to help get out, really concerned about their safety. They might have been missionaries. I flew out later via Abidjan and finally submitted the report to the Nairobi office in mid-June, and never worked for USAID again. In our network newsletter we published a picture taken by one of our new members from Tamale who came to the workshop; it showed one of the huge diggers getting bogged down in a ditch. The comments from members were an evaluation of the right and wrong kind of donor help needed.

By coincidence, the local office later wanted us to start a different newsletter for them under the USAID brand. They had US$12 million to give away. We asked if they would retain editorial control and the same official as originally hired me said they would. We turned it down and they set up a consultancy group of locals who ate the money and it folded after a year or so.*

I remembered one of my few conversations with the heavy equipment supervisor. His new digital watch had broken down and he was berating Ghanaians for their incompetence as usual. Ben leaned back from the driver’s seat and said ‘I know someone who can fix it for you’. The expert was afraid of letting the watch out of his sight but Ben sauntered over to the shop window in a nearby mud building with it and soon came back with a functioning watch. ‘No charge,’ he said.

*Diana Lee-Smith edited Settlements Information Network Africa for eighteen years at Mazingira Institute in Nairobi. It still operates on line.

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