Bibiani is a little town in the western region of Ghana. Growing up in this town, I would often be woken up at dawn by the heavy boots of weary miners as they trod back and forth from the mines they worked at, digging gold for Mr Smith.
As a little boy, I would often stand and watch, away in the distance, the huge shameless monstrosity of an edifice that was the mine, belching endless volumes of smoke over the hills and into our bedrooms. The fumes hung in the air, lending a perpetual unpleasant smell to the environment. Many a man succumbed to horrible diseases, and tuberculosis was especially prevalent in the rather overcrowded ghettos that served as quarters for the miners.
When as kids we stood fascinated by the mauve-coloured soil in parts of the town, we had no inkling, that this was pollution at its worst and that our environment was being mercilessly degraded. We often enjoyed a game of football in the large stretch of land rendered grassless by the chemicals that flowed from the bottom of the mines nearby.
Poverty, rancour and disease reigned in this rather polluted environment, in the squalor of the ghettos. For, Bibiani, like all the other mining towns in Ghana, was one of the poorest towns one could ever see. The only half-decent buildings in the town were the bungalows over the hills, in the European quarters, where the Smiths lived. There was the European Club, complete with the best entertainment gadgets of the time, and the African Club, where once a week, we sat on bare concrete floors to watch a film of Mr Smith’s choice, often extolling the virtues of the empire and its rulers.
Every now and again, in Bibiani, heavily guarded vans would leave with their belly full of gold to be loaded unto trains bound for the port city of Takoradi, from where the gold would leave our shores aboard a British ship, never to return. And the few scattered railway tracks in Ghana were built by M r Smith, and interestingly, they all go through mining towns and end in the port of Takoradi. Thus were our natural resources so efficiently exhausted by Mr Smith. In fact, shortly after independence in 1957, the mines in Bibiani had to be shut down because there was so little gold left, that it was no longer considered economically worthwhile to mine. Poor miners were laid off and the town collapsed into a heap of depression and disease, from which it is still yet to fully recover. And the gold, my gold, would go over the seas to the ports of Liverpool, Bristol and Southampton to help build great institutions like the National Health Service and provide council houses to Britons at a pittance, while we remained in the squalor of our overcrowded, rat-infested, disease-filled ghettos in Bibiani. I owe you no apology Mrs Duffy.
Rochdale will have to go some to match up to the environment in Bibiani, despite the influx of “all those European immigrants” Mrs Duffy is worried about. Whiles Mrs Duffy’s concern was about Eastern Europeans, I believe, as Yasmin Alibbai- Brown wrote in her article in the Independence, that they were used symbolically for deeper indigenous worries. Being a black African, I take exception to her attack and believe my right to be in this country is being questioned. The Eastern Europeans are here by right, but we did not invite Mr Smith to Bibiani. Mr Smith did not have to face an immigration officer with a nasal twang telling him he was a liar, that he was not merely visiting, but actually intended to stay, change our culture and steal our gold. There was no Maasticht Treaty; there was no Australian-style point-based system to test whether Mr Smith belonged to tier 1 tier 2 or 3. There was no system to cap the number of Mr Smiths that entered Bibiani.
Mr Smith actually invaded our land, a gun hidden behind his back, a bible in his hand and whisky in his pocket. He came, violently abducting and selling the most productive people in my country into slavery. He came, and set up schools that forced students to wear blazers in 32 degree Celsius heat and taught them the history of great English kings of yore, thus producing young men, confused as to who they really were and with little knowledge of their own rich heritage; of Komfo Anokye, Yaa Asantewaa and the great Asante Warriors. He came, and in the words of the Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awunor, uprooted the tree that once stood and blossomed, and built in its place, a huge senseless cathedral of doom. I owe you no apology Mrs Duffy. Mr Smith did not integrate in Bibiani. He stayed in his European quarters which were out of bounds to the likes of me. Neither did he offer libation to the seventy seven gods of Oguaa. He rained his culture and traditions unto us, to an extent, that while churches in England today are filled with octogenarians, the churches in Ghana overflow with young vibrant young people seeking solace in God for the myriad of problems they have to contend with.
I do not blame Mr Smith for all our problems. Ghana has been independent for over 50 years and a combination of poor management, corruption and military coups has partly left us in the predicament we are in. I am talking about the gold that was mined by Mr Smith for over a century in Bibiani. With that amount of gold, he could at least have left us with basic infrastructure to keep us going. So for instance, instead of scattering a few railway lines through mining towns to cart gold to the port, he should have provided a more extensive railway line with the convenience of the people at heart
And so, when poverty bites too hard and our weary bones can cope no more, we leave, for greener pastures in far away lands, in much the same way as Mr Smith descended on us. And where else to go, than to the land of the gentleman who patronised us and brutalised us in equal measure and who, only yesterday was digging gold from my backyard. Sure, he would understand. So I owe Mrs Duffy no apologies. I walk down the corridors of the NHS with my head held high and look at its walls with pride, full in the knowledge, that Bibiani has played its part in establishing this august institution, and if indeed Mrs Duffy’s opinion is the feeling of the majority of the British populace, then I weep for Britain.
I came here for economic reasons. You have a problem with that? I am the little boy from Bibiani whose grandfathers died in the pits and suffered horrible diseases digging gold for Mr Smith. I have come to make my life better. And I intend to stay, my God will I stay, till I have had my full fair share of the honey that flows in the Social Security system in this country.