NTOABOMA — Growing up, my grandfather reared cattle. On the flip side of the family tree, my great grandmother was the daughter of a Fulani herdsman. Obviously, with this family history and as one of many grandsons of a man who raised several animals, I partook in some of the day to day drudgery of supporting an extended family of herdsmen and cattle owners. We also sold milk, and this is actually where my story begins.
I was of the candid opinion that milking cows was a fun job. I still think it is. Take my word for it. We sold some fresh milk and the rest we steamed into porous cakes of Wangashi. Wangashi can be boiled or fried and served with any meal as protein. Back then, this is how many vegetarians, including my grandfather supplemented their meals with protein. Of course, there was always the ever abundant other – beans – but most folks preferred Wangashi.
My grandfather didn’t get rich selling Wangashi. In fact, he never intended the business of selling Wangashi to generate millions for him. He simply sold milk and Wangashi as much as people were willing to pay for them in our village.
One day an uncle, Kofi, returns home from abroad. He had successfully defended a thesis in Economics at one of those prestigious universities in the United States. He was a fun uncle to hang around until he ended up pissing off his father – my grandfather. How?
Having told my grandfather that he was now a star in Economics literature and thought, he took on my grandfather’s challenge to use the knowledge gained from the pursuit of a PhD to better the production and delivery of fresh milk and Wangashi to every child in the village. My grandfather was passionate about making sure every child in our little village had a full, and affordable access, to fresh milk and Wangashi.
Kofi’s first suggestion was to build new barns and sheds for raising more cattle and milking more of them. His second was to acquire some refrigeration for a longer storage of fresh milk. All of which came at considerable costs at a time that the Ghana Rural Electrification project had not yet even taken off from Agblesa, 10 miles from Accra. What is more, Dr. Kofi suggested that since these were considerable investments, that we find a way to recoup the costs in raising the price of milk and Wangashi.
My grandfather probed, “Whether that was the PhD plan to make milk and Wangashi accessible to all children in the village? Increase the price?” Dr. Kofi insisted that this was good for my grandfather, the business and the whole village. So for about six months, the price of fresh milk and Wangashi increased in our village – there hadn’t been an increase in price for more than a century. Not a soul in the village could remember the last time the price of tomatoes went up. My grandfather, being the only fresh milk producer in the village – there wasn’t another within 11 miles – still commanded the market and folks still came and bought their daily bout of fresh milk and Wangashi, alright.
However, those who couldn’t afford milk before still couldn’t afford the new prices, and those who could afford it bought less – much less. So went my grandfather’s plan to increase accessibility and affordability out of the window. My uncle, Dr. Kofi, still maintained that once the costs of investment were recouped, and production expanded, my grandfather could lower prices to suit his fancy. That never came. Instead, the next year Dr. Kofi suggested another price increase. This is what broke the Camel’s back with my grandfather’s patience. He was not about to have Dr. Kofi prevent folks in the village from accessing a rich source of nutrient for their children when the milk or the Wangashi itself hadn’t changed – in fact its production had been increased.
Dr. Kofi’s plan was to expand the distribution of milk beyond our village. If our folks in the village of Ntoaboma couldn’t afford the high prices, he contended, other villages could afford it. The fresh milk, he said, could be sold at nearby towns and the Wangashi could be transported to bigger busier markets in Amankwakrom, Hohoe and Jasikan. After some thought, my grandfather, as far back as the 80s termed Dr. Kofi’s new plain as simply a ‘Wealth Extraction’. He went on to call it ‘thievery’ even. But, he didn’t finish there. He sacked my uncle Dr. Kofi from his post and resumed the official duty of running his own village farm.
The rift between my grandfather and my uncle became a huge one until it involved the Abusuapanyin. Dr Kofi would explain what he had learned in his elite American university in Economics about the Return on Investment on cattle barns and sheds, and the Marginal Utility of obtaining fresh milk and Wangashi. He claimed, and still claims, that if fresh milk was important to the families in the village, as much as they were important to my grandfather, they would have to find the means to afford it. “What if they can’t afford it,” my grandfather put it to him. “You take the milk where people can afford it,” said Dr. Kofi.
“You mean you produce the milk where others can afford it or you take it there?” My grandfather asked. “Exactly what should the children here eat?” My grandfather continued. Dr. Kofi replied, “They should find something cheaper to eat.” “So the children here should no longer have milk?,” retorted my grandfather. “No, they shouldn’t if they cannot pay for it,” answered Dr. Kofi. “And, what if no one can pay for the fresh milk and Wangashi?,” snapped my grandfather. “Throw it away. It’s better off in the trash than for the price to be lowered,” my uncle Dr. Kofi countered.
My grandfather would explain to the Abusuapanyin that obviously while he was thinking about the well-being of the village, Dr. Kofi was only thinking about his pocket and how to fill it. The ideas of Economics espoused by my uncle nauseated both grandfather and Abusuapanyin much to the extent that they called in the village chief to rebuke him. Back then, these special matters reached every Tom, Dick and Harry in the village. My grandfather, his little farm and my uncle’s PhD ideas had become the talk of the town.
My grandfather asserted that the sort of Economics thinking his own son had learned in an alien land was definitely alien to the fundamentals of Economics in Africa: “Here in Africa, we don’t go into business to extract wealth or do we go into business to create scarcity in order to extract wealth. Such ideas are symptomatic of a culture suffering from Histrionic Community Disorder. Communities that suffer from this disease engage in destructive Economic behaviors in an attempt to feel in control over their environment or control over their relationships with other communities. This behaviors may appear random or illogical to outsiders but such communities derive pleasure out of inflicting hurt or struggle on other people or animals or the environment.”
Many years later, I would come to realize quite humbly, that my late grandfather had summed up the essence of Western ideas in Economics in one sentence: To Extract wealth or create Scarcity in order to extract wealth. The term for this is Manufacturing Scarcity. It is now the biggest branch of Economics and few can identify it. Its biggest architect was Adam Smith but the idea was not new to him – he popularized a dangerous inkling. He spread a debilitating disease.
My uncle Dr. Kofi had contracted that disease — unbeknownst to himself — and he would have spread it across his own homeland if not for the astute awakening of my dear grandfather to the symptoms. Dr. Kofi finally left the village for Accra and worked with the Statistical Department of the Ministry of Finance. I never heard from him since and I am not sure why.