Master Sgt. Jim Fisher is a public affairs Airman assigned to the 17th Air Force in Germany. Sergeant Fisher is currently in Ghana, Africa, as part of a joint team tasked to provide support during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit today and tomorrow. Sergeant Fisher gives us a feel for what the troops in Africa experienced as they prepared for and carry out their mission. (Check out the accompanying news story here and associated video here and here.)
Airmen, Sailors and Marines taking part in the presidential support mission in Ghana have been trying to get a sense of what life is like here. We are not shielded from the realities of Ghanaian life. Driving between our accommodations and our base in the capital of Accra reveals a lot.
Under huge posters, billboards, placards and banners welcoming our Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama, stand ordinary Ghanaians. They line the streets in makeshift market stands. They wade through traffic at stop lights to peddle everything from phone cards to boiled peanuts.
Like everyone we encounter here, many smile broadly. We often hear, “Welcome. We are glad you are here.” Many Ghanaians see us as part of the President’s team, signifying his arrival.
As a member of 17th Air Force, also known as Air Forces Africa, I am happy to be perceived in such a positive light and I want to know more about these very engaging people.
In the city that is caught up in a swell of jubilation at the arrival of President Obama, you can see the destitute at every intersection. People with obvious disabilities whose only means of survival is begging. But most of the people who look curiously in the windows of our vehicles are just ordinary people. Many are working mothers trying to support their families. I know this because I have a keener insight into Ghanaian life – my driver. What the streets don’t reveal about the realities of life here, our drivers do.
My driver tells me an average Ghanaian household needs at least $10 a day to live meagerly, but the average Ghanaian salary is usually well below $300 per month. To keep his family at or above that crucial $10, his wife travels to get produce and other foodstuffs from other regions of Ghana to barter for meat or vegetables or to sell them. She could be one of the people we see moving from car to car with a large sack or basket balanced on her head.
Ghana is poor. Life here is hard for ordinary people. We admit to one another that we feel ashamed when we think about the excesses and waste that seem to surround every activity at our hotels. There are few meals served at our hotel that cost less than $10.
Life is much simpler in the average Ghanaian home. I recently gave my driver two croissants from our breakfast buffet. He said they were great and I was shocked to learn that at age 53, he had never had one before.
Maybe we expected to find things better here. Ghana is, after all, a model for democracy and stability in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of U.S. Africa Command‘s strongest partnerships on the continent. We read that this is what’s behind Ghana being President Obama’s first choice for a visit to the continent. And it is relatively safe, and relatively stable, and certainly a great example of democracy at work. Their recent Presidential election was decided by less than 40,000 votes. A peaceful transfer of power, all too rare in Africa, ensued.
But this is the developing world, and the realities of life for ordinary people here, as we’ve been learning, are not what we wish they were.
It’s times like this when I am grateful to be a member of 17th Air Force under U.S. Africa Command. I know I’ll get to play some small part in making a difference – in Ghana and many other places on the continent.
A recent discussion between several NCOs and their driver revealed that we are making an impact. While trying to dissuade the persistent attempts of a vendor at a stop light, two senior NCOs began pointing to their driver and saying, he’s the boss. The vendor was looking through to vehicle to determine who might be the leader, who would decide whether to buy or not.
The driver laughed and said, “He knows that a black man can’t be the boss.”
“Oh no,” the senior NCOs protested, “Sure he can. Hey, in our country, a black man is the boss.” Just then we were passing roadside booths filled with t-shirts and soccer jerseys featuring President Obama. The driver smiled, and nodded, conceding this was true. We were all smiling.
That’s when I really felt the impact of being at this particular place and time in history. I felt so grateful to be an American, and to be a member of U.S. Africa Command.