Ghana glad of its place on American map of the world

The President's visit marks a great day - but a short one, writes Mary Braid
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The Independent Online
IN ACCRA'S blistering midday heat yesterday, preparing for history proved a tricky, sweaty business. Akwaaba (welcome) Bill Clinton signs were everywhere. But the artist responsible for the biggest was still battling to finish the US flag.

Painting the three-striped Ghanaian flag, with its solitary star, had been easy; not so the stripes and the 50 stars.

The US flag painting is just one in a swarm of demands which has descended on Accra since it was announced Ghana would be the first stop on the first tour of Africa by an American president.

Accra has since undergone a minor facelift; the best this poor nation can buy. Buildings have been painted and the route from the airport spruced up and sanitised. The city's huge open sewer has been boarded out of sight of President Clinton, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea.

But even the weight of the US advance party - hundreds strong - has taxed Accra. And when President Clinton and his 800-strong entourage arrive this morning they will stay just seven hours. The Third World capital, suffering periodic power blackouts, could not provide the communications centre required for the 200 Washington-based journalists jetting in with Clinton to cover the 11-day tour at $40,000 a head.

Accra was desperate to have the world's most powerful nation stay overnight but lacked enough upmarket hotel rooms. It did not help that one of the three largest hotels, The Golden Tulip, is Libyan-backed and therefore out of bounds to the US administration.

The First and Third worlds have collided with no end of jarring but Ghanaians, who began queueing to see the President at 5o'clock this morning, are still upbeat about a visit that they hope will change perceptions of Africa and ensure, as the mighty US has promised, that the world's poorest continent is not left behind in economic globalisation.

"It will be a crucial day for Ghana," said one taxi driver . But he did not miss the irony of all the preparation and raised hopes for such a brief visit. "It will also be a short one," he added dryly.

Cynics say the US tour will be all show and no substance; and that in any commercial partnership between Africa and the US only America can be the winner. But in deeply religious Ghana - where hoardings advertise a thousand evangelical and Baptist churches and businesses adopt names like the In God We Trust Hair Salon - there is more faith.

That is a small miracle given Ghana's history. Two and a half hours along the coast stands the ruins of the Elmina slave fort, which in another time lured the world's most powerful nations to African shores. Over four centuries, tens of millions of Africans were hunted down and imprisoned in forts like this to await transfer to the Americas and West Indies.

In recent days many members of the US advance party - white and African- American - have visited here. President Clinton is scheduled to make a symbolic visit to another slave centre off the coast of Senegal at the end of his tour; a move expected to delight black Americans back home.

Inside Elmina, Felix Nguah, fort guide, is explaining the West's previous exploitations of Africa during the slave and colonial periods. As he shows them the dungeons where female slaves were kept by the Portuguese and the Dutch - separate from male slaves but available to the white fort governor and his men - he warns a group of Ghanaian schoolchildren to question all they are taught.

He points to the old Dutch Reformed Church chapel in the fort's courtyard. Here the pious white Christians prayed to their God while Africans languished in the dungeons below. "And they say Africans are barbaric," says Mr Nguah, shaking his head. "The church is guilty of so much sin and so many lies."

President Clinton has been under pressure to use his arrival on African soil today to apologise for slavery, and its aftermath. His advisers have made clear that will not happen. Mr Nguah says an apology by itself would be pointless. Only recompense, like better trade terms or relief from crippling debts on international loans, would give it meaning.

President Clinton comes to Africa today armed with a few economic promises and strategies; debt forgiveness is not among them.