His name was Smith, an unusual name for an African. The young man was just 18 years of age. We were talking outside the royal palace in Kumasi, ancient capital of the Ashanti kingdom in what is now the Republic of Ghana.
I had taken a group of North American visitors to see the palace. As I had seen it a number of times before, I suggested they go inside for a tour, while I stayed in the van. Young Mr. Smith approached the car and asked me to buy some of his artwork—greeting cards that he had made himself, each with its own Ghanaian design. Each card was 2,000 cedis, Ghana's national currency—or four cards for less than one U.S. dollar at the current rate of exchange. I bought a few from him.
I remarked that one of the students who had gone into the palace was also called Smith—Logan Smith, a 22-year-old United Youth Corps volunteer from Washington state. I asked "Smith" how he got his name.
"My father was a goldsmith, so he called me Smith. Smith is my first name."
He told me that he was a student in a remote village not far from Elmina, a coastal town famous for its Portuguese-built slave castle, a major tourist attraction. I commented on the fact that Kumasi is a long way from Elmina.
He said his father had died and his mother was a market woman in Kumasi. Smith came to Ghana's second city every summer to try to sell cards to raise money for another year of education. "They won't even allow you to enter school unless you have one and a quarter million cedis to give them," he told me. That's less than 150 U.S. dollars, but it's a few months' wages for the average Ghanaian—even more for somebody selling cards for a pittance.
"Americans are trying to take over the whole world"
He asked me where I was from. "From America," I said. He then asked me a few questions about America. Finally, having gained my confidence, he asked me: "What do you think of the Bush administration?"
Cautiously, I responded with: "Well, there are many facets of the administration. Which aspect of the Bush administration are you asking me about?"
He leaned forward and told me. "I've been reading this paper from Iraq," he said. "The Americans, they are trying to take over the whole world. They want Iraq for its oil. Just today, Charles Taylor said that America wants Liberia for its diamonds." (Charles Taylor was president of Liberia until mid-August when he left for exile in Nigeria under U.S. pressure. Western press sources reported that he indeed made this accusation.)
Smith expressed the opinion that America would not stop until it had taken over the whole world.
I asked him if he was a Muslim. "No, I'm a Christian," he responded.
I tried to defend the United States, but his mind was made up. To him, America is an evil power determined to take over the world, conquering all in its wake.
Losing the propaganda war
Later I recounted this conversation to a United Church of God pastor in Ghana. The pastor, a former Muslim, related that he had recently surveyed some friends to ask them for their opinions on the continuing situation in Iraq. Five were Muslims, five were Methodists and five were Pentecostals.
The Muslims all said the United States was trying to conquer Iraq for its oil and to spread Western decadence in the Middle East. The Methodists thought that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government was a good thing, but that the country should now be handed over to the United Nations. The Pentecostals, members of U.S.-based churches, were all supportive of the U.S. stance in Iraq.
You can draw your own conclusions from this survey. The results were no surprise to me—clearly, Ghanaians are just as divided on the issue as are many people elsewhere, including the Iraqis, the Americans, the British and the Australians, the latter two countries the only nations that gave substantial military support to the United States during the recent war.
What is clear is that the United States is not winning the propaganda war. Pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein can be seen everywhere throughout West Africa—but I've yet to find one of either President Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair, a reflection of popular sentiment. The same pastor explained to me some months ago that "Muslims believe the Americans are trying to take over the whole world and that Osama bin Laden will stop them."
Perception is reality
However, I do not believe that the primary cause of the problem is America's fault.
Certainly the United States is imperfect and could improve its reputation around the world. Popular perceptions of America come largely from its entertainment industry. Its movies, television programs and music portray and promote decadent values, giving peoples around the world the impression that all Americans are irreligious and hedonistic.
Cleaning up the entertainment industry would go a long way toward improving America's reputation around the globe. Proverbs 14:34 Proverbs 14:34Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.
American King James Version×says, "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people."
The same entertainment industry portrays a very violent culture, creating the perception abroad that Americans are inherently violent. In the minds of many, this means that the American government therefore is violent.
And movie and TV "Westerns," portraying Texans as they do, give outsiders the view that people from Texas are the most violent, which translates into what Smith said to me on the streets of Kumasi: The Bush administration is an aggressive, warmongering, violent administration bent on taking over the world. For its oil, mainly, since the press often mentions President Bush and Vice President Cheney's past association with the oil industry.
Though far from accurate, these are the commonly held perceptions about America in the developing world.
Africa in chaos
But these perceptions are still not the biggest factor influencing young men like Smith.
To illustrate, I'll quote from another Ghanaian, a man brought up in the West African nation who fled the country during the 1979 June 4th Revolution that brought the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to power. I remember it well—I was there through the revolution and the chaos that followed.
George Ayittey is a Ghanaian-born author who now resides in Virginia and works as an associate professor in the Department of Economics at American University. In his book Africa Betrayed, Ayittey shows how Africa's postcolonial leaders betrayed their own people. The men universally revered as the liberators of the continent were, in fact, the ones who enslaved their own peoples to serve their own selfish ends.
He wrote a second book, Africa in Chaos, "to examine why Africa has been imploding and remains intractably mired in poverty" (1998, p. 24).
Note the following observations from this African writer: "Writing a book on Africa is always an extremely difficult undertaking. Not that the issues and problems defy solutions; quite often the solutions are simple and as clear as daylight. But so many extraneous factors intrude that rational and dispassionate discussions are scuttled. A book on Africa must cross racial, cultural, ideological, geographical, ethnic, religious and class lines.
"Leftist radicals tend to see a 'racist conspiracy plot' in every African misfortune. The colonial bogeyman has been the favorite of African governments and intellectuals. 'Political correctness' prevents whites from criticizing inane policies of African leaders, while black Africans often blindly defend these leaders in the name of 'racial solidarity.' As a result, there is much confusion about what Africa must do to overcome its woes" (ibid.).
Colonialism not the source of Africa's woes
Consider his statement, "The colonial bogeyman has been the favorite of African governments and intellectuals."
Simply put, Africa's leaders since the end of the colonial era around 1960 have blamed all of their problems on "colonialism." Africa in Chaos shows that the real problem is the modern leaders themselves. They have taken the wealth of their own countries for themselves, while their people suffered a dramatic fall in their standard of living. While Africans fed themselves adequately in the colonial era, most African nations today need food handouts to keep their people fed.
As with all propaganda, "repeat a lie often enough and everybody will believe it." So said the father of modern propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, a leading Nazi in World War II. Blame everything on the Jews and the people will go along with the Holocaust. Blame everything on the colonialists and nobody will look at us—this is the thinking of today's African rulers and many Western intellectuals.
Citing David Lamb's 1983 book The Africans, Ayittey's introduction catalogs Africa's enormous wealth and potential: "Africa is four times the geographical size of the United States and, with its approximately 700 million people, has more than thrice that of the United States. It is a continent with immense untapped mineral wealth.
"Africa has 40% of the world's potential hydroelectric power supply; the bulk of the world's diamonds and chromium; 30% of the uranium in the non-communist world; 50% of the world's gold; 90% of its cobalt; 50% of its phosphates; 40% of its platinum; 7.5% of its coal; 8% of its known petroleum reserves; 12% of its natural gas; 3% of its iron ore; and millions upon millions of acres of untilled farmland. There is not another continent blessed with such abundance and diversity."
At independence in 1957, Ghana was Britain's richest colony in Africa, with a per capita income higher than that of some European countries. It was the world's biggest producer of cocoa and had the third largest gold deposits. Additionally, it was blessed with thriving agricultural, bauxite and timber industries. Four years later, it was bankrupt and has never recovered.
Singapore likewise gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957. The small Asian island state went from strength to strength, while its independent African sister went backwards. Why? Ayittey states the painful truth in ringing clarity. His analysis of the causes of Africa's problems is a must-read for all those interested in the future of Africa.
If I could find Smith again, I would give him a copy.
Understandable wrong conclusions
It's not entirely Smith's fault that he thinks the way he does. On film he sees Americans living a lavish, comfortable lifestyle while he is poor and cannot even afford to continue his schooling. The reason for this disparity of income, in his mind, is that America exploits the world's poor. His view is that America steals the oil and diamonds from other countries, making Americans rich while the majority of people in the Third World live on less than one U.S. dollar a day.
To Smith this appears to be true, as many African leaders keep on saying it's true (though, I should add, not the present government of Ghana). Making matters worse is the fact that liberal intellectuals and academics in the West, seemingly motivated by embarrassment at or hostility toward their own countries' success, express the same sentiments.
Writing about the leaders, the "liberators," of independent Africa, Ayittey describes them as "crocodile liberators, Swiss bank socialists, quack revolutionaries, and grasping kleptocrats. After independence true freedom never came to much of Africa. Nor did development" (p. 7).
The second generation of leaders is even worse in Ayittey's estimation: "The second generation of military rulers, who assumed control in the 1970s, emerged from the dregs: They were more corrupt, incompetent, and brutal than the civilian administrations they replaced" (ibid.).
Their actions are reminiscent of a 3,000-year-old observation made by Israel's King Solomon: "Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning!" (Ecclesiastes 10:16 Ecclesiastes 10:16Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes eat in the morning!
American King James Version×). Frequently, Africa's revolutionaries in the 1970s were young men from the junior ranks of the military—often uneducated, even illiterate. They had one purpose in mind—to feed themselves, literally and figuratively.
Solomon added: "Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles, and your princes feast at the proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness!" (verse 17).
Sadly, Africa's postcolonial history has been one of repeated political instability, a seemingly never-ending power struggle with different factions constantly fighting each other for power and control. As George Ayittey points out, political correctness makes it impossible to state the obvious, even in the supposedly free nations of the West. Yet unless the truth is told, America and Britain will continue to lose the propaganda war.
I have no doubt that the next time I visit Kumasi there will be more "Smiths" standing outside the royal palace—as indeed there are outside other royal and presidential palaces around the world. The "colonial bogeyman" today is the United States. It's far easier to point the finger of blame at Washington than to look in the mirror and recognize that the problem is much closer to home. GN