Expectations had hit stratospheric levels as the crowd gathered for the inauguration of the President that January in Washington DC. As the bitter winter winds whipped in from the Potomac, people from all walks of life huddled together to catch a glimpse of the young president and his charming wife and sweet little children. It was all rather quaintly beautiful, but the weight of the world rested on the shoulders of the young president and he was aware of it.
That was 48 years ago, when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first Catholic was inaugurated the youngest president of the United States. In his inaugural speech, Mr. Kennedy said to the admiring but expectant world: ASK NOT WHAT AMERICA CAN DO FOR YOU, ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR AMERICA. The world arrived at a Kennedy-esque moment in January this year when Obama was sworn in as the second youngest President of the United States.
Mr. Obama’s race was to Mr. Kennedy’s catholic faith, an indication of how far the US electorate had moved away from the racism, narrow-mindedness and xenophobia of the past. Like Kennedy, Obama also arrived at the White House with a young family, a charismatic and brainy wife, a bagful of reform ideas, and slogan that caught the expectant mood of the international public. We are all believers: YES, HE CAN.
In Africa the coming of Obama represented a moment of triumph for two reasons: despite the largesse of the Bush administration towards the continent, especially with money for healthcare, Africa had never warmed to the younger Mr. Bush. Our leaders trooped to Washington to get the usual seal of approval and Mr. Bush and Dr. Condoleeza Rice, his Secretary of State, among other high-level officials visited Ghana but that was for officialdom. The public imagination was not ignited. So, let us agree to love Obama because he is not Mr. Bush.
The second reason, obviously is that Obama is one of us, a son of the soil. Never mind that he has not stepped much on the soil, but he belongs as legitimately as any African everywhere. That is the way it is with the tribe; that is how the elders designed OUR system. If you belong, you cannot be a stranger, so when this son of the soil was elected, we danced all night and some nights more. He also danced throughout the night of his inauguration. He has rhythm, ergo, he is one of our own.
The coming of Mr. and Mrs Obama has excited this country like nothing else bar qualifying for another football World Cup, and as with choosing the players for the Black Stars, everyone has interesting ideas, for why he is coming, what he is bringing and what Michelle will wear. Some say he is coming because we have democracy, others say it is the new oil, still some worrying themselves sleepless put it down to the US wanting to take us into its conflicts by siting the African Command or AFRICOM HQ in Ghana.
I believe that we need to do a Kennedy here and ask not what Obama is bringing to us but what we can give to Obama. In the traditions of our people, we welcome our guests not by asking what they are bringing but we prepare what we will give to the visitor. Let him worry about what he will bring.
So Mr. and Mrs Obama will arrive; our elders will sit down with them and welcome them. Then our elders will tell them that here it is peaceful but we are all ears to listen to the story from the road. They will speak; our elders will listen. Then our elders will speak, hopefully on our behalf. This is the way it is done. And it is at this point that we must give the Obamas what we have for them.
In my view, the best gift Ghana can give to the US President is to tell him the truth. We are lucky that this President has African blood coursing through his veins. He is an American President who knew before receiving official briefing that Africa is not a country but a continent, so we can speak to him truthfully; America may be a superpower but our blood-bond should privilege us to speak truth to power.
And what shall we say that will be the truth? That we may be cash poor but we are resource rich and that should enable us to cash in on dignity and respect. That we should be seen as partners in the global marketplace of money, things and people. That we need trade not aid, and that the old paternalism that saw the US on the side of any dictator raising the spectre of communism should not be replaced with bolstering new dictators hiding behind the Wall of the willing.
We should say that putting an American force HQ in Ghana is not a good idea because willy-nilly we will be drawn into battles not of our making. We have remained a peaceful nation, despite the odds, because we have contained our squabbles within the tribe. God knows we have a hard time of it but in the evening we sit under the tree and listen to stories (actually, if we are honest, we sit in front of the telly or beside the radio and hear long political tirades).
That is part of the bargain. We have opted for democracy. That means a lot of political talk and disputes. We argue about everything including their visit. We need encouragement on that front, but we do it best when we have to rely on our own ingenuity. Mr. Obama is the third American President to visit Ghana, following in the wake of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, and each in his own bolstered our democracy and basked in its performance. Hand go, hand come, is the name of the game.
We have many things to give in addition to the truth, but those will be hiding behind the stool, and will be brought out one by one. It will be after that then we will thank our visitor for the gifts from his land.