By Aku Ammah-Tagoe
The neighbors across the street have been blasting their stereo nonstop. I’m staying with relatives in Accra, Ghana, where President Obama and his family landed earlier tonight. Ghanaians are excited to welcome the American president; everyone is decked out in shirts bearing his face, and even in the endless rain (this is Ghana’s rainy season), vendors walk the streets with racks of commemorative merchandise. But the people across the street are particularly thrilled. For hours, they’ve been playing a song with only one verse: “Barack. Barack. Barack Obama.” And here in Kokomlemle, one of the city’s central neighborhoods, no one seems to mind.
When we talk about the level of Obama’s celebrity, we usually talk about something quantifiable: the 200,000 people who watched him speak in Berlin one year ago, for example, or the almost 70 million votes he received last November. But here in Accra, Obamamania has transcended mere numbers. The president is more than a symbol or a celebrity. He’s become a part of the culture, and, in some ways, an adopted son. That makes sense: Obama is the embodiment of Africa’s promise, one of the brightest stars to emerge from a continent that is largely maligned or ignored. Many Ghanaians view their country the same way, which makes for a perfect match.
Ghana’s government has gone out of its way to emphasize that pairing. Accra’s main roads are lined with signs that juxtapose images of Obama with the beaming face of John Atta Mills, the recently elected president. Billboards herald the “Partnership for Change” that this visit represents. The citizens of Accra, for their part, are just trying to make the Obamas feel as comfortable as possible. In classic Ghanaian fashion, people here have decided that this Kenyan-American is really “our son.” Crowds have lined the streets near Kotoka International Airport all day, bickering over where Obama’s family should stay--the American Embassy (the official choice) versus the newly-built president’s residence--and waving signs in American and Ghanaian color schemes that read Akwaaba. Welcome. Welcome home.
That’s not to say that everyone is ready to embrace the First Family. As Air Force One touched down at Kotoka, parts of nearby Kokomlemle and Asylum Down, an adjoining neighborhood, were almost silent. Street vendors kept their radios tuned to pop music stations, and workers milled about as though nothing special was going on. And why wouldn’t they? As one young man explained to me, “Obama’s just a person. He doesn’t affect me. It’s not like he’s here to give me something.” A cynical minority, many of them under 30, worry that the U.S. wants to take advantage of Ghana’s growing oil industry, and that this visit is just smoothing the way. That crowd has stayed in other parts of town; for them, the next 24 hours will largely be an annoyance.
Still, those who love Obama are obsessed, and because of them, the scene at the city’s center is jubilant. As the crowds dance and sing in the streets, more Obama-themed songs cascade through cranked-up car radios. One captures what most people here seem to feel: “Barack Obama, you help us to hope. Through you, we have made history.” That last part might not be completely true, but it does capture the extremely personal feelings that many Ghanaians have for Obama. To them, he’s royalty—or, as a family friend tells me, “he’s president of the world.” The excitement—more precisely, the honor—of being this close to him, of feeling a connection with him, will keep Accra’s citizens up well into the night.