Sunday, July 3, 2011

Ghana Life: The Legacy of Wee

Cannabis is widely smoked in Ghana where it is popularly known as 'wee,' probably derived from the English street name 'weed.' According to Henry Bernstein, writing in the Review of African Political Economy of March 1999, the consumption and export of cannabis in Ghana appears to have expanded significantly since the 1960s, and by the 1980s the transit/re-export of cocaine and heroin was also well established. Venezuela is often mentioned as the source of Ghana's cocaine while its transitory heroin comes from the well known Asian sources, much of it collected by traders from India. Historical links with the United Kingdom ensures that a major part of Ghana's re-exports of hard drugs ends up on British streets. This scenario has provided a colourful background for fiction, and in his novel The Colonial Gentleman's Son John Powell tells the story of Kwame Mainu, a young engineer, who while studying in England in 1986 comes to realise that several people whom he knew in Kumasi are growing rich through the drugs trade.

Kumasi has many features that make it a likely location for the headquarters of an international drugs trading network. Its central market at Kejetia is claimed to be the largest in West Africa and has been a major hub for West African trade over several centuries. With this tradition for trading, its people have spread widely around the world creating an international network with strong ethnic links. Kumasi is home to many of Ghana's 6,000 people of Arab ethnicity, known locally as 'Lebanese,' although not all trace their roots back to the Lebanon. Many Lebanese are involved in the import and export trade, exploiting links with Lebanese communities in other countries. One of the largest expatriate Lebanese communities, said to number about 300,000, is found in Venezuela, the source of most of the cocaine transiting Ghana en route to the UK. It is not surprising therefore to find Lebanese names appearing in media reports of Ghanaians arrested for drugs trafficking.

In addition to their expertise in trading, the people of Kumasi possess other skills of great benefit to drugs traders. Media reports of drug seizures by the authorities often express wonder at the ingenious methods of concealment used in efforts to prevent detection. These range from hollow coconuts and balls of kenke (fermented corn dough), through wood carvings and auto spares to stuffed braziers and elaborate hair styles. Suame Magazine in Kumasi, Ghana's largest informal industrial area, is the home of thousands of grassroots workshops and tens of thousands of skilled artisans. Thousands more skilled artisans are employed in villages around Kumasi in traditional crafts such as narrow-loom (Kente) weaving, glass bead making, wood carving and bronze casting. No doubt these skills are called upon from time-to-time to implement the latest schemes of the traffickers.

In his novel The Colonial Gentleman's Son, John Powell envisions an Englishman employed in a Lebanese-owned company in Kumasi bringing together a group of Ghanaians and Lebanese to traffic cannabis, cocaine and heroin to the UK. When the principal character, Kwame Mainu, travels to Coventry to study engineering at Warwick University, he realises that several people he knew in Kumasi are involved in a drugs cartel. On vacation back in Ghana he is impressed by the large houses some of his peers are building in Kumasi and he is tempted to join them to share their prosperity. At the same time he is aware that this path could jeopardise his chances of becoming an engineer and playing a key role in the grassroots industrial revolution in Ghana, and it would not be sanctioned by either his wife or his father. In the course of trying to resolve this dilemma, another opportunity presents itself with equally challenging tensions.

Akwesi Berko
To learn more about life in Ghana and the challenges faced by Kwame Mainu as he struggles to gain a university degree, hold his marriage together and avoid involvement in a Kumasi-based drugs cartel, read John Powell's novel The Colonial Gentleman's Son. More details can be found on the following websites

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