Sunday, November 09, 2008

A New Kind of Relationship

Confession. I’ve been spending way too much time being a beach bum which is why I haven’t written anything in so long. The beach really calms me so I go whenever I get the chance. Someday I would like to own a beach house in Ghana, so I can go to the beach at night, look at the stars, and allow my mind to take me where it will. At night it is especially beautiful. Besides Bojo, Kokrobite and Langma beaches (If you ever go there, you shd try their grilled lobsters) which are a bit far from the center of town, I have recently discovered 2 beaches in addition to Osekan that are conveniently located off Accra High Street and La, called Afia Beach and Tawala beach respectively.

Yesterday I spent a good amount of time eating some delicious jollof with fresh cabbage, kpakpo shito (peppery salsa) and pork chops at Don’s Place at Osu whilst watching the football match between Arsenal and Man Utd with about twenty-five professional men whose ages average about 40, most of them married.Testosterone levels were high, and the atmosphere reminded me inter-colleges sports competition popularly known as interCo. The men even broke into jama at one point, with dancing, beer-drinking and high-five-ing, and I was the only lady sharing in the fun, but I didn’t feel like an outsider as many of them high-fived me as well and included me in their conversation. A lot of them were Akoras (Old students of Motown (Achimota Secondary School), who had gone through the old educational system of the eighties). Since I’d been invited by an Akora and had already met one of the men there at my gym, I was sufficiently comfortable. My standing as a football amateur and the fact that I hadn’t the benefit of context prevented me from grasping why the match itself was so exciting, but still, their display of passion and camaraderie made me mildly jealous and I wished I were a part of this party and not just a one-time gate-crasher. Always looking for opportunities, it struck me what a wonderful networking opportunity this was, and I wondered if somewhere in Accra women too have a space like this to monkey about and have a jolly good time with friends. If there is, then I’ll accept that this is a boys-boys thing, and gladly join the women so someone should please point me to it. Not to perpetuate stereotyping but I hope it isn’t some lame let’s-give-each-other-manicures party. How would that be fun? If not, I’ll have to get into football just so I can have an excuse to hang out with these men and see where our associations might take us. As clichéd as this sounds, I’m trying to broaden my horizon. No, I’m not being facetious. Who knows if in time, I might even come to live and breathe football like most men in Ghana do?

What has the beach and this football event have in common? Older Ghanaian men and what our generation stands to learn from them. I’ll explain. I went to the beach one of these days with one of my new older friends. (Watch out for my next blog entry in which I’ll write about whether men and women can be friends in Ghana, or if, to quote the movie “When Harry met Sally”, the sex always gets in the way). There has been much talk about older men in Ghana and the sexual relationships they have with younger women. I’m interested in forming relationships with these men, because whether I like it or not, they are the movers and shakers around here and by virtue of the roles they play in business, I stand to learn a lot from them. The bigger question is: Can young women cultivate new kinds of relationship with these men so that we do not go to bed with them, but engage them in ways that make them continually interested in spending time with us. I say, yes, we can!

I was sitting on the beach, two days ago with one of my new friends talking about work, life and dreams and my friend tells me he wishes he’d had as much energy as I do when he was my age. He’s forty, married and has a kid, very worldly, speaks 3 international languages, and considers himself young at heart. Whatever my true intentions were, whether fishing for compliments, or whether I really wanted to know what he was talking about, I asked him why. He said that he doesn’t remember being excited about life and that he’d lacked direction. He went on to say that this time in my life is the time to experiment, to do the things that excite me and to be entrepreneurial and not worship the thoughts of old. He then told me that as we sat, he could walk away from everything he owned and start afresh doing something else. If his marriage crashed, he knew he could start afresh, but that many of the people he knows, his age mates are too wedded to the things they’ve built which prevent them from being creative, from living life, from trying new things. What he saw to be my advantage is that I’m starting from scratch, and have nothing to lose, so he advised that I try out some of the business ideas that I have and if I fall flat in my face, there’s still time to catch up, time to start again. I really connected with this guy in a big way, and I wondered if I was just attracting my kind or if it was merely coincidental that I should meet an older arguably wiser guy who should tell me exactly what I wanted to hear.

Before this, I’d talked to one other guy, an engineer and academic and unmarried man also in his late forties who had schooled and worked for many years in many countries. So I asked him, tell me [name], given all that you now know (he interjected “and don’t know”), what do you wish you had done differently? His response was that he’d taken his work way too seriously and that he wishes he’s led a more balanced life, had more fun, and made time to have a family. He said regrettably that he goes home to a computer.

Whilst in Nigeria, I had a chat with the CEO of a thriving business there during which I asked the guy who about 70 years is in age what it takes to be successful in Africa because I wanted to be more successful than him and before I’m as old as he is. He laughed, then told me he wishes he’s moved back to Nigeria earlier than he did from the US. The MIT PhD, now CEO advised that I invest a fixed portion of my income in stocks monthly, and forget about it and see where that takes me in thirty years. He also said that whether we like it or not, doing business in Africa is highly dependent on “whom you know” ...other places call it networking...and so the earlier you start knowing people, the better for you.

I shared this with a young thirty-some architect and entrepreneur who added, that yes, it is great to know people but he also advises being first rate. He said that in a sea of copy cats and a culture of mediocrity, one needs to set himself apart by being different, by thinking and coming up with creative solutions and in the long term, quality wins out. On the subject of work, life balance, this guy said that he measures the true success of a man by what his children say about him, and even more importantly what his wife says about him because only they know his character intimately. I wondered what my boyfriend and my family really think of the person I am and I had a renewed respect for my boyfriend because I think the world of him and not only because I love him or am with him. Remind me to ask him what the secret is.

Another guy, a doctor in his mid forties, and one of the few in his specialty in Ghana told me that I could be successful if my bosses supported and shared my vision. He said that in his case, he’d returned from abroad over ten years ago, excited about making a difference in healthcare as I am. But his bosses had not given him the support and the people he’d trained had made little real difference besides what could be seen in their own pockets. As we spoke, he has given up on the system. He now tries to spend much time with his children. He wished me well.

One other doctor and director of a health facility who had trained at Edinburgh and who thought I must be smarter than his son that he'd spent all his money to educate in Cambridge adviced me to take up golf. I laughed and said I thought it was a silly old men's game. He laughed too and said he thought so too, and that most golfers think it is a silly old men's game but that the connections you make on the golf course are priceless. So maybe I need to start going to play golf with my bosses. So much to do, so little time...

To conclude, I’d like to hear some of the pieces of advice you guys are getting from older folk. Are you even talking to older people? This is the first time I’m actively seeking advice from people and trying to learn from their mistakes and so far it’s been really enlightening. Of course I’ve also talked to one person who thinks he cannot be happy in Ghana and is looking to move out in a few years, so there is that perspective too. That is, those who feel the system is so broken that they’re better off going elsewhere to for example, live the American dream. We live in a globalized world afterall. But I’m not so interested in those stories. I’ve already decided that I’m staying here in Ghana. So now what I’m trying to do is talk to those who have made it here and see how they’ve done it. To sustain these relationships, I have to do more than just look pretty. I have to put in the time and effort to learn about football for example, maybe learn to play golf, and if I want to be seen as something more, perhaps a colleague, then dressing like a typical Volta Hall chick to these meetings isn't going to cut it. I recently got invited to join the Rotary Club. Thoughts?

ps: The other great thing about the older folk is that they don't frequent the same tired and unsatisfactory places like rhapsody's and celsbridge (save for the chicken). Who is coming to Ghana for christmas? I'll take you out to all the new places i'm discovering.

ps: I'm going to audition to be in Ebo Whyte's (Also known as Uncle Ebo, a leading playwright in Ghana) next play next Saturday. I heard it being advertised on radio and I thought, why not? Might be fun! wish me luck.


  1. Esi, thanks for sharing your experiences; very interesting read!
    It seems to me that we're becoming more and more progressive back home in bridging the age divide, and interacting more with the older generation. Is this a fair statement?
    I will be home in December, and will definitely look forward to hearing more about life in Gh. Take care!


  2. Esi, you are a genuis

  3. Esi you write with such feeling and detail I fell like im back there.

    You dont need to learn football or play golf, I dont play or watch either ;)

    Keep it up Esi

  4. Maame Esi! Thanks for writing on these interesting subjects and observations. Interesting reading and so enlightening! thanks loads! cheers....

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed that post. I do agree - the theme that resonates everytime I attempt to gain insight from the older generation is that when you are young, unwed and energetic, try all you can to explore your business ideas and don't be deterred by failure.

    In addition, the older ones always remind me to invest in myself through my choices: in friends / in experiences / in stock and shares / in non-traditional education.

    Good luck in the audition and let us know how it goes.

  6. Esi, I think I'll come visit Ghana next time I go to Nigeria... and you gotta show me around!


  7. Deep. Thoughtful. Erudite. Eloquent. Real. Excellent.

  8. Great read. I do read ur post but this is the first i am commenting on one. One advice i still remember is to continually do favors for others without expecting nothing in return. Never to rub your peers in industry in the wrong way and to hustle hustle hustle. If u want something so bad you will get it. My 2 cents.

  9. Hey Esi,
    Interesting blog. Just curious, are you networking with older Ghanaian women ?

    I personally think platonic relationships with women are more precarious than platonic relationships with men. As you pointed out,when the brothers get together there's plenty of rowdy camaraderie and 'jama'
    inspired antics. We women tend to be a little more guarded with each other ( of course there will be exceptions to the rule).

    Thoughts ?

  10. @Bellachica...well, now I am. Darkoa of Adventures from the bedrooms of african women started a women's group called fabfems. It's a small group of feminists who meet regularly to chill out and talk about whatever. I go when I can make the time. Even though i'm younger than the average age of the women who come, the gap in age is not more than 3 years so i don't know that i'd call it networking with "older" women. It's just networking with women. So far, so good.