Umaru Sanda Writes: My journey through the ‘Zootopia’ called USA

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In any serving of a meal of ‘waakye’ worth its salt, you’d find at least 10 elements that combine to make it mouthwatering and deserving of the title, “Ameriya Waakye”.

In your plate, there’s rice, beans, kawe (saltpeter), coloured leaves (dye), salt, kanzo and water, for just the base of the meal. And then for the stew/gravy, you have tomatoes, oil, pepper, seasoning, name the rest. Then in the shito, you have dried fish, oil, and only God knows what else.

Then you have the protein involving anything from meat, fish, wagashie (Dairy product), egg, wele, name them. If I wanted to list the toppings which include ‘taalia’, gari, salad and the rest, I may not finish this article today.

So diverse in unity is the meal of waakye that if one element is absent, it ruins the whole meal. Such is the nature of that complex country called United States of America which is the dream destination of I guess, more than half of the Ghanaian population and perhaps, other populations across the globe.

When the US Embassy in Accra selected me for the coveted Edward Murrow project under the US Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP 2018), I saw for the first time, the struggle of Ghanaians wanting to escape this hole. I’ve seen more than 5 people shed tears when their visa applications were rejected. “If they keep your passport, it means you’ve been accepted”, I heard a man who sounded experienced in the application process tell a young lady who sat with clasped hands in a silent prayer as the queue of over a hundred people twist and turn slowly towards the officials at the counter.

I could swear I was the only guy wearing a smile in that queue. I bet I would have looked very worried and apprehensive too, were I not there upon invitation from the Embassy itself. Even with my status as their guest, the interviewing officer questioned me as though I appeared there out of the blue. I know there were so many people in that queue who would rather not come back to Ghana.

I wasn’t one of them, and I so much hoped to tell the officer in the face that she was wasting my time because I had two beautiful daughters and a wife plus a loving audience to return to so she might as well hand me my green passport so I walk… Yes! You can afford to be arrogant when you have value.

I felt I had the upper hand in this negotiation so I could flex my muscle. Well, she didn’t ask me anything beyond the obvious so I walked out without my passport and turned to look at the “application expert”, sitting in the queue who smiled in a congratulatory gesture. I walked out of the embassy wondering when we will make our country so great that people would sweat in queues around nations of the world applying for the Red, Gold and Green visa.

Anyway, let’s go back to our waakye meal before the house flies settle on it and make it richer in proteins, shall we?

I arrived at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC in the morning, and for a split second, I thought the pilot mistakenly brought us to Kabul in Afghanistan or Islamabad in Pakistan. The man at the Immigration desk checking my papers before I enter America wore a turban and looked like the Arab men from Afghanistan I see on TV.
Call me racist if you like, but that exactly is what came to mind. There were black people, Chinese looking people, Latinos and all manner of people of various extractions.

These people, whom may seem like nationals from other countries, are the people at Immigration Control! And yes, they are Americans. I mean, I saw their name tags and I could swear these were Japanese or Mexicans or Kenyans. But their origin didn’t matter as they sat in those cubicles checking papers of travelers. That was my first shock.

As the days pass, I would realize how complex a mix America is. I mean, this is a country with 50 separate and autonomous states with their own Governors (who are as powerful as the President of Ghana), and who have their own Parliaments.

These state presidents, as I prefer to call them, do not have to agree with what the President of the United States in Washington DC says and they don’t lose their jobs because he didn’t appoint them. I saw decentralization in a form that could lift Ghana out of its current state.

As a community child, I have grown up in a space inhabited by people from varying backgrounds, and I have played with children from different ethnic groups both on the cattle grazing fields and in the classrooms. But to share the same space with 48 diversely smart journalists and media practitioners drawn from 48 different countries is surely a task. When we met for our first briefing and realized we had 8 liaisons to handle our affairs, I imagined the trip was going to be laborious.

Thanks to technology, we were soon connected via Whatsapp and the first discussion was about breakfast. I was starving and needed food badly.

Together with delegates from two European countries and one South American country, we hopped on to an uber to have breakfast. It was then I realized my stomach would be very unhappy with me over the next 3 weeks. I ate something that obviously was very cherished by the people who served it; but which meant nothing to me. I ate the little that my mouth could push down my throat and walked away wondering if I could survive.

The trip was not an excursion, but we had a scheduled tour of Washington DC. As the two buses pulled out of the hotel premises, my neck swung from left to right as my eyes fed on the magnificent buildings and roads. The White House did not look as authoritative to me as I imagined it; but the Capitol Hill commanded some power in my sight and this had nothing to do with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

I found that Washington DC which did not exist until the late 18th century, is a city deliberately crafted. Having toured the city and observed the architecture, Washington DC looked to me like a drawing that was lifted from paper and placed diligently on a parcel of land.

It reminded me of the story back home that government had engaged the services of Dr. Liu Thai-Ker, a Singaporean master planner to help in the re-development process of Accra. In theory, it is a wonderful idea, but when I remember that we have been planning to dredge the Odaw drain since I could remember, I conclude that it is just another venture to waste the Ghanaian tax payer’s money.

By now, I was beginning to meet and interact with colleagues as we take photos of one another. At a point, everyone wanted their photos taken by the best photographer on the team, Alyaa from Malaysia.

There were colleagues whose countries I know a few things about, such as the name of the capital, or who their former or current leader was. Names of former dictators readily came to mind and I mentioned them to impress my new friends; but I find most of them unhappy to associate with those people. There was at least, one country that I had heard nothing about before- Armenia.

There were countries I wasn’t even sure whether to place in South America or Asia. And of course, I’ve met colleagues who have never heard of Ghana before. Only a handful (except those from Africa) could even say the name of the capital.

“So is your country under a dictatorship? How is the media treated? Are you free?” That is the general refrain I would hear from colleague journalists and ordinary Americans over my 3-week stay. The delegate from South Sudan, Mareng, had very painful stories to recount about arrests, detentions and brutalities from the military. Of course, there were similar stories from other regions too about the challenging ways people practiced journalism with threats of elimination.

Funny enough, I felt “lonely” at a point that I had no terrible story to recount, LOL. Of course, I mentioned the instances of brutalities visited on journalists but it was nothing compared to what others had to say. It was then I realized that I did not come to the United States to only tell the negative story. I soon took up the narrative of turning the question around and showing the positive things.

“Ghana is the beacon of democracy on the African continent… I have never been arrested and I could say anything against the government so far as it is factual and the worst that could happen to me is a defamation suit. We do not have the Right to Information Law like the US, but we have had the Criminal Libel Law abolished years ago…” that usually was my response. The part that freaked out and intrigued most people, (especially Americans), is when I tell them that Ghanaians have been voting to change governments just like the US.

I draw the parallels and similarities in the ages of President Akufo Addo and Trump, the ideologies of the Political Parties they represent, etc. I tell them how the Democrats in the US and the National Democratic Congress in Ghana have been governing parallel since 1992 with Clinton and Rawlings presiding till 2000 when they gave the baton to their Vice Presidents who lost in the general elections to usher in the opposition parties which governed for 8 years before losing to the ones they took over from.

I even compared how both Mrs. Rawlings and Mrs Clinton attempted unsuccessfully to become Presidents, a decade after their husbands left the seat of government…

One thing that fascinated me in the US aside the massive infrastructure and the advancement of their democracy is the transportation. Unlike the United Kingdom which I had visited a few weeks earlier, I noticed that rail transport is not as popular here. Car ownership seemed pretty easy here and there are enough wide roads for all. The system is crafted in a way to make it easy for you to own your car and you do not have to worry about portholes on the roads because almost every other day, I notice a portion of the road has been blocked for repair works. The uber services in particular shocked me.

We ordered an uber and I could swear the car that pulled up in front of our hotel is nicer than some cars I see in the presidential fleet back home. Also, I noticed many people travel by air and that explains the airports littered all around. For instance, in my hotel at St. Petersburg, Florida, there were about 3 airports/airstrips within view. And boy, they were beautifully designed.

I realized how mediocre I have been in applauding the new Terminal 3 at Kotoka Airport in Accra. Of course, by Ghana and maybe, West African standards, we were great, but I have learnt too, that when you compare with mediocrity, you go nowhere but think you are on top of the world.

When we arrived at the airport in Texas and was told to board the train from where I got off the plane for a 3 minute or so ride to the next terminal in the same airport where I was to board my next flight, I shook my head in disbelief and said something unprintable in the Ga language to our leaders. Sitting in this driverless airport train which glided easily above the aircrafts on the tarmac, I realized I was about the only person excited about this new discovery so I took my photos and videos in silence knowing that it was a big deal back home.

I mean, I come from a country where people traveled from far and near to come watch an overpass constructed at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle which was nicknamed “Dubai”!

The IVLP programme was designed in a manner that afforded visitors the opportunity to see the United States and its people in the diverse forms possible. Instead of paying the hotels so we have breakfast, lunch and dinner in-house, they gave us credit cards and advised us on where we could go get lunch. This gave us the opportunity to wander about and explore.

We just googled nearby restaurants and with the help of a very effective Google Map, we trekked to go eat or order an uber when necessary. Taxis were a No No (if you want to have some change left to buy gifts on your way home). The restaurants served great food for people who know those types of foods.

I ate an apparently very famous food in the United States called tacos and it meant nothing to me. I found that there were as many Mexican restaurants as the Mexicans in this country so we took a trip to one. We entered a restaurant that reminded me very much of the animated movie, Coco. All over the wall hanged pictures of apparently dead people (as part of a Mexican custom known as Day of the Dead). There were skeletons and other scary items making the restaurant feel dump and creepy.

Truth is, although these restaurants served the finest foods, these foods meant nothing to my taste buds and made my tummy say funny things to me when I retire to my hotel room. It turns out, I wasn’t the only person affected… Soon, we created an “African Union” Whatsapp group where we shared names and locations of restaurants that served African cuisines.

We recruited other allied African countries like Guyan and Haiti and at a point; we were joined by Malaysia and Indonesia. Going in a group to these restaurants gave us something close to home and the first night we entered a restaurant that played Nigerian music and had fufu, eba, jollof and goat light soup on the menu, we behaved like pigs that discovered a muddy pool. I remember how we clapped, cheered and even danced upon entering Bukom Restaurant that evening. “My brother, this is the first time I have eaten since I left Lagos”, confessed Olufemi, to the concurrence of all the other brothers from the union.

In Florida, we could not trace an African restaurant, but one of our liaisons, Roosevelt, who seemed more African than those of us who flew across the Atlantic to come meet him, managed to find us a Caribbean restaurant. This wonderful guy lectured us on the menu which originated from his home country, Haiti, and we realized how close Africa and Haiti were even if not geographically.

We ate to our fill and ordered a single uber. The uber driver was shocked when about ten guys crammed into her car which was legally allowed to take only 5 passengers. We told her how privileged she was to be hosting the African Union meeting in her car. She was thrilled to hear about the various countries we came from… Niger, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and the Diaspora African country we adopted, Guyana among others. Sadly, this single mother had not even heard the names of our countries before.

The only African country she had heard of is Kenya and even that, she said it’s because she read the “Made in Kenya” sign on a can of an imported product. Deep down, I suspect she also remembered Kenya because that East African country exported the first black President to the United States.

You can’t even imagine our disappointment. But she encouraged us, as journalists, to write more about our country so people like her could hear more about the “motherland”. As I would later observe, many American people did not know much about anything beyond their immediate surroundings. Someone remarked that although the US was heavily involved in foreign policy, that involvement was left only to the politicians in DC.

Ordinary people simply didn’t know or cared to know because it did not matter in their lives. If you lived in a country within a country, and structures work well for you, you wouldn’t bother either.

Before travelling, the US embassy in Accra had given me some orientation about the kinds of people to expect. I was told about the people’s love for volunteerism. I was told I would meet drivers and other people engaging in services that are mainly voluntary. And I did see that a lot. And it is because of this volunteerism that the culture of tipping is very important to the people.

Back in Africa, giving gifts is pretty much a way of life… but this culture of tipping people for engaging in paid services was rather a new one- even for visitors from other continents aside Africa. People were often debating over how much was too much or too less to tip a waiter at a restaurant, and asking questions about the best way to do it.

I found that there are various ways to tip (which is almost compulsory). If we came to eat in a group, the restaurant calculates the tip and shares it on our bill so everyone pays a tip by merely settling their bill. Alternatively, we were at liberty to individually pay our own tip in our own way. People dropped change of 2 dollars and more in the menu book or in instances where they didn’t have cash, they instructed the restaurant to deduct from their credit cards. We did this without blinking and walk out.

At the hotel, we were advised to leave tips on our pillows for the cleaners/attendants. “Remember, they will not touch your money if you put it anywhere but on the bed or pillow”, stressed one of the liaisons on our orientation day at the Washington Hilton.

I found myself leaving a dollar or two or sometimes more on my bed almost every morning, and when I return, my bed is neatly laid and the banknotes long gone. On occasions I didn’t leave anything but returned to find my bed made and my room cleaned, I felt embarrassed.

I have seen colleagues who hang the DON’T DISTURB sign on their doors before stepping out to prevent the cleaners from going in there which then saves them the trouble of paying a tip. So widespread is the tipping culture that even when you engage the services of the hotel shuttle, the driver would usually have a little basket of offering (tips) on board for those willing to be generous. I spent a whole afternoon debating Roosevelt over the tipping culture one day. “This is pure corruption through the backdoor”, I challenged.

“If this were in Africa, you would say we were being corrupt or engaging in kickbacks. Why do I have to compulsorily give you a tip after paying for a service”, I quizzed. Of course, he jumped to the defense of the culture and said it is just a way of saying “Thank you” for a quality service delivered.

Over the three weeks, we toured the United States of America, perhaps more than many Americans I imagine. Although I come from a country whose official language is English, I still struggled to understand the English language these people were speaking here.

I soon learnt to ignore almost any letter T contained in any word, and pledged to call the show I host back home “EyewiRness News” upon my return. And I also fruitlessly tried to sound a little nasal. Despite my struggle, I still realized I was one of the best speakers of the English language on the team.

There were colleagues who struggled to string sentences in English because clearly, this was the first time they were speaking English continuously for more than an hour. Indeed, only two of the members of my 7-member team (Albania, Brazil, Croatia, Mongolia, Vietnam and India) to Louisville, Kentucky spoke English back in their countries.

I often had people ask me why I spoke fluent English to which I responded strangely with pride that, “Ghana is in the Commonwealth. We were colonized by Britain”. We were accompanied by an old volunteer, but very energetic man named Marc Fallow. We soon nicknamed him, “Marc is always right” due to the sheer knowledge in his head. Marc knew almost every member of the 48-member team by name, and could hold conversations with them on their countries for hours.

Anything we asked Marc, he knew. There was one time we thought we had finally cornered Marc when I asked him a question whose answer he wasn’t sure about. It happened one evening when we were on a bus to the childhood home of the Greatest Muhammad Ali. Marc pointed to the famous Big Four Bridge over the Ohio River which connects Louisville in Kentucky to Jeffersonville in Indiana, and gave us the history around it.

I looked out and noticed one half of the bridge was painted differently from the other half. “Marc”, I said. “Why is there a difference in the colour? Is it that each side of the bridge was painted in the colour of the State it falls in?” “No, Sanda”, Marc answered.

“I don’t know why but I suspect they simply have not finished painting it”, he guessed. I looked at my colleagues and we smiled. “Finally, Marc didn’t know something,” I thought. A few days later, we met an old lady who knew so much about Louisville. She told us about the people, the politics, etc.

At the end of the conversation, I asked her why the colour on the bridge differed. She said the workers were painting but had to stop due to the severe weather conditions. Marc wasn’t even there at the time; but we looked each other in excitement just before Dora (from Croatia) exclaimed, “Marc is always right!”

Muhammad Ali is perhaps, Louisville and Kentucky’s biggest international export. His childhood home which we visited looked humbling. And the Muhammad Ali Center is gargantuan and befitting of the Greatest. I am not a boxing fanatic; but I felt my hair strands rise when I entered the center and watched some of his best moments in the rings and read some of his most powerful quotes.

Of course, you can’t talk about Kentucky without mentioning Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). I vowed to eat KFC till I could eat no more… and so when we entered the KFC Yum Center to watch an inter-college girls’ basketball game, I made sure I ate so much KFC to last me a generation.

Louisville also gave me a few more things. The State of Kentucky is known for its great bourbon whisky, and although I did not taste it for religious reasons, I entered a proper bar for the first time in my life. We were two grown men and women who entered the dimly lit bar that night. The lady attendant immediately demanded our IDs. I asked why and she said she needed proof we were of age to be in there.

I smiled and proudly told her I didn’t have an ID on me, but she needn’t worry because I have done lots of things only adults do. It turns out she didn’t care and the law didn’t care. She told me unless I had a thousand dollars on me to pay the fine when the police swoop happens, I should walk out of the bar.

Well, I wanted to taste a bar, so I looked through my wallet and pulled out an old NHIS ID card which she examined and concluded I could stay.

I read all manner of graffiti on the wall as people spoke loudly and drank and smoked all around us. There was a notice that made my heart miss a beat.

It was warning patrons against pick-pockets and “loose women” in the bar. It was then I understood why they needed to be sure of my qualifications. Thimi from Albania and Amartuvshin from Mongolia formed a team against Dora from Croatia, and me for my first game of snooker (pool). I laughed so hard when I realized it was more difficult to enter the hole on the table than it was to enter rat holes back in the village.

There were other unusual things I noticed. For instance, vehicles in Louisville didn’t have license plates in front like I’m used to in Ghana. Marc, as usual, explained that the displaying of number plates in front varied from State to State. It was also in Lousiville I had a conversation over dinner with a gay couple for the first time in my life. I didn’t know until after the dinner though.

With my background and upbringing, I wonder what my reaction would have been if I knew earlier.

When the whole team reconvened in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the 3-day #JournalismUnderFire conference, I thought we had mistakenly flown to Northern Ghana or the countries near the Sahara Desert.

The architecture looked quite similar, and the grassland and shrubs made me think I was driving on the highway between Tamale and Bolgatanga. The buildings looked like the Larabanga mosque in Northern Ghana, and I was later told the state is deliberate about the architecture and design.

On my way to the bus the following morning after we arrived in town, I noticed the whole ground was covered in a white substance. The parked cars were all covered in something whiter and thicker than the foam on fresh cow milk in a calabash.

I smiled and said to myself, I have finally seen snow! I shaped my hand like a spoon and dag some of the icy substance and felt it on my fingers. It felt like nothing I had felt before. Snow meant the weather was way colder than the 30 degrees temperature I was used to in Accra. There was a time I removed my hands from the gloves and before I could say Jack, my hands had frozen.

I couldn’t even make a fist. When I discovered a fireplace at the event ground, it became my favourite spot. I often went to sit by the fire to defreeze my body and it was so relieving.

I felt out of place throughout the trip until we visited the Bandelier National Monument and the Bisti Badlands. Here, I showed my village skills as I climbed cliffs and trees with great ease while ignoring the various calls to be careful.

“This is my forte”, I boasted. My most disappointing moments on the trip came anytime Roosevelt pulled out his loudspeaker and began playing music from each of our countries. The drill is to have a delegate get onto the dance floor and lead everyone else in the dance when a song from their country is played.

Virendra from India and Usman from Pakistan made a great political statement when they got on the floor which on that day was on a cliff on the mountain top, and danced away to some of their finest songs, as the rest of the team led by Yangesh from Nepal followed. I love listening to music and was enjoying the whole scene; but when ‘azonto’ was dropped on the selector and everyone turned to look at the delegate from Ghana, I felt like disappearing.

I knew I sucked at dancing and wouldn’t dare lead any dance. But the ignorance of my colleagues gave me the impetus to try. I knew no single dance move; but I got on the dance floor anyway, and did the weirdest twists and turns ever. Of course, they didn’t know I was doing it wrongly so they followed suit and I felt like Christopher Columbus, having “discovered” a new dance move to Azonto.

One of the liaisons, Zilda, actually called me a great talented dancer; but I begged her not to say that to the hearing of any Ghanaian. It was way easier when I followed some team members to a Night Club in Santa Fe. Again, it was my first time, and I was surprised I needed to show an ID. I went in there and watched people dance while I did my own dancing inside my head.

Only Tampa, Florida had weather close to what I was used to. And the lessons on Fake News I learnt at the Poynter Institute were as refreshing and warm as the crystal clear waters in the Tampa Bay area. When we went on a boat ride and cheered after seeing dolphins for the first time, I turned back to look at the grand beauty that was the city of Tampa and St. Petersburg behind us. I remembered the Korle Lagoon in Accra; and wondered when we will also get there. I imagined the beautiful parks and sitting areas I had seen throughout the trip; and remembered the Accra mayor telling me in an interview over a year earlier that he would create green parks. That is yet to be seen.

A few other things that intrigued me on the trip were the fact that I found only one supporter of Donald Trump throughout the journey. He is an uber driver in his 40s who voted for Trump in the last elections and supports him; and is willing to vote for him again. Everyone else denied ever supporting him.

Their denial was more vehement than Peter did to Jesus. Not even government employees I had casual conversations with said they supported Trump. I kept asking, so who are the ones who voted for him to be occupying the White House then? Only a handful of the visitors openly supported Trump; so the whole programme felt like an anti-Trump invasion supported by anti-Trump workers.

I remember a colleague from Europe remark that Trump probably didn’t know about our visit because he could have only been insane to sign off on our visit when we were coming to talk about Fake News, Disinformation and Misinformation; when he has been declared by critics as the champion of that agenda! Indeed, he was the lead example in almost every forum.

The United States of America taught me a lot of things, but prominent amongst them, is the fact that, a nation could be so powerful, progressive and enticing like a meal of ‘waakye’ despite the vast difference of the elements found in it. Despite the colour, origin and orientation of the people, they rallied around a single flag and ensured growth and development.

Of course, there are ugly sides to this country; and the history may not be the best of stories, but they are where they are today because of the common resolve to grow together despite the differences. I can only imagine how far Ghana and Ghanaians would go if we rallied round our flag more than we rally round other selfish, political, ethnic and sometimes, religious interests.

As I flew across the Atlantic back home, I prayed and hoped that my country becomes a Zootopia or a dish of ‘waakye’ where all elements will come together; so we become anything we want to be despite our differences.

One thing I know is that; when a person is great at what they do, even when it is in movies, the US as a country would quickly own him. Do we do same to our people?

At the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.

At the White House.
At the White House.
At the Capitol Hill
At the Capitol Hill
At the White House with the two Brazilian delegates.
At the White House with the two Brazilian delegates.
Dora shed tears on our last night in Louisville
Dora shed tears on our last night in Louisville
The “African Union” members
The “African Union” members
The ‘African Union Table’ and allies.
The ‘African Union Table’ and allies.
Eating fufu at the Bukom Restaurant
Eating fufu at the Bukom Restaurant
Team Louisville. The bond is tight
Team Louisville. The bond is tight
My first snooker game
My first snooker game
If you thought America had no deserts…
If you thought America had no deserts…
In front of Muhammad Ali’s humble childhood home.
In front of Muhammad Ali’s humble childhood home.
That’s Marc in his “hat of knowledge” at the back.
That’s Marc in his “hat of knowledge” at the back.
Grooving to Indian music in the desert
Grooving to Indian music in the desert
Inside the Bandelier National Monument
Inside the Bandelier National Monument
This fireplace saved me from the freezing temperatures
This fireplace saved me from the freezing temperatures
The feel of snow
The feel of snow
Buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico look like those in Northern Ghana Africa
Buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico look like those in Northern Ghana Africa
Team Louisville at the airport
Team Louisville at the airport
The colour of snow
The colour of snow
The “Brothers” engaging in the usual debates
The “Brothers” engaging in the usual debates

A group photo near the Albert Einstein statue.
A group photo near the Albert Einstein statue.

By: Umaru Sanda Amadu

Email: sanda.amadu@gmail.com

Ghana News Online

The primary function of GhanaNewsOnline.com.gh is to gather, process and distribute news about Ghana and Africa to the World. To serve as a News Agency with the mandate to present complete, in-depth objective and impartial information, news, and features rooted in investigative journalism.

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