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What a Developing Nation in Africa Can Teach America

Ghana's spirituality informs its approach to governing. It shows up in everything from the way streets are used to the belief that unity is strength.

Street sharing in Accra
Head carriers and other pedestrians, along with motorcycles, trucks and cars, share a busy street in Accra, Ghana’s capital. While urban planners in the U.S. advocate “complete streets” — the idea that they should be for all users regardless of mode of transport — Ghanaians have long practiced the concept without calling it that. (Photos by Jabari Simama)
I recently returned from a two-week trip to Ghana, a historically significant place of origin for African Americans and a country whose cultural riches make it a tourism destination as well. Ghana, a nation of about 34 million, and its cities and districts have much to teach municipalities and states in the United States about the use of streets, microeconomics, tourism and, above all, civic pride. It all begins with acceptance of your past, the good and the bad. This seems extremely difficult for many in the U.S. these days.

As you would expect, during my two-week trip with a group of Black professionals I observed plenty of differences between cities in Ghana, a developing country, and cities in the U.S., a developed one. For example, the roads in Ghana are just as likely to be unpaved as paved, particularly in the villages. Potholes are everywhere. Traffic signals malfunction frequently if they work at all. The traffic, moving at a snail’s pace, seems as bad as New York City’s and Los Angeles’ combined. There is scant if any evidence of comprehensive planning.

But those and other differences don’t always add up to one country being superior to the other. They really should make us ponder what being a developed country really means. I left the U.S. feeling spiritually ambivalent about the way some in our nation seem bent on taking America back to the 1950s and before. I don’t know everything there is to know about Ghana, but one thing I am sure of: It is a spiritually rich country (with about 75 percent of religious believers professing to be Christian). But regardless of faith, everyone I met seemed to be motivated by a deep spirituality.

It is Ghana’s spirituality that informs its approach to governing. Take, for example, how local governments in both countries approach the concept of complete streets — the idea that streets should be for all users regardless of age, ability, income, race, ethnicity or mode of travel. In the U.S. for over a decade, urban planners have been advancing a philosophy of urbanism of which complete streets is an essential part. Long before then, Ghanaians were practicing this concept without calling it that. In Accra, its capital city, bicycles, buses, cars, minivans, motorcycles and — the most common mode of transportation — people on foot co-exist mostly without serious accidents or road rage.

And consider the ancient practice of head carrying, an art that has both transportation and economic implications. Head carrying speaks to the practice in Africa and other developing countries of mostly women carrying items like sacks of peanuts, breads, melons or water bottles on their heads for sale or transport. They weave in and out of traffic, often walking in the middle of the streets, rarely with accident or incident. Observing this occur seamlessly provides a lens to better understand both the economics and potential of American urban kids selling bottled water at the bottom of freeway off-ramps. Kids selling water is not nearly as dangerous as women walking down the middle of busy streets balancing a case of soda on their heads. But in Ghana it is accommodated; in the U.S., that kind of thing is frowned upon.

The fact that I observed no accidents was not just about infrastructure or traffic control; it was also about attitude. Ghanaians believe that streets should be shared and that they don’t just belong to those fortunate enough to own an automobile. Too many people in America believe the opposite.

Besides sharing streets, Ghanaians have mastered a type of microeconomics that we don’t often find in U.S. cities. I asked our driver how much money the average head carrier made. He said it depended on how much they spent on products and produce to sell, estimating they might net $10 a day or $60 a week. Not enough to become rich, but enough to avoid begging, hunger or homelessness. There also are marketplaces galore, and the street merchants take haggling to a new level. If in the U.S. we did more to encourage the development of small-scale mom-and-pop businesses and made available resources for them to be successful, we too might find a solution to some of the social ills that our developed economy has so far not been able to reckon with.
Slave dungeon
A dungeon on Ghana’s Cape Coast leading to the “door of no return.” After passing through, Africans were herded and shackled onto slave ships headed to the Americas and the Caribbean.
In addition to promoting and supporting microbusinesses, Ghana has capitalized on civic pride, a concept that in America often rings hollow. Americans are divided by class, race, religious affiliation and a bunch of other things that make national unity nearly impossible. That’s among several reasons why a slogan like “make America great again” means nothing to many Americans who never tasted the fruit of America’s greatness. Everyone in Ghana, regardless of class, knows what “unity is strength” or “Africa must unite” means. This clarion call for Pan-Africanism articulated by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president after independence in 1957, still lives in the national consciousness of the Ghanaian people.

Shortly after his election as president, Nkrumah invited W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned African American scholar of Black studies and author of The Souls of Black Folk, to take up residence in Ghana and commence work on an African encyclopedia. Du Bois accepted the invitation and resided in Accra from 1961 until his death in 1963 at the age of 95. His home, library and burial site have been preserved as a museum and cultural center. Many from around the world, particularly Black Americans, visit this location when traveling to Ghana to pay homage to the intellectual giant.

Today, along with Du Bois’ home, a national park, a final resting place for Nkrumah and “slave castles” along the Ghanaian coast are major tourist destinations. All said, travel and tourism contributes more than $3 billion annually to Ghana's GDP.

On the way back to the U.S., I couldn’t get the images of Ghana out of my mind: the head carriers, the elementary school kids who squeezed and wouldn’t let go of the hands of my wife and daughter, and the words of our tour guide who led us out of “the door of no return” at Cape Coast onto the last African soil our ancestors stood on before they were herded and shackled onto slave ships headed for the Middle Passage to the Americas and the Caribbean, never to return. Hundreds of years later, my family, along with 39 other Black Americans, did return.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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