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Signs of the times

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The writer
The writer

The ultimate sign of economic distress came last week in the form of a terse statement from the Minister of Information that the President had authorised the Finance Minister to “commence formal engagements with the IMF”.

In language which we all understand and dread, we were being told that Ghana was “going to the IMF”.

It doesn’t make it any less painful that this is the 17th time that we are “going to the IMF”, it is no less painful that any other number of countries have gone or are going to the IMF.

It isn’t even any less painful that we can legitimately cite the pandemic and Mr Putin as large contributory factors.

I have read the gloating, the we told you so, I have read the invocation of hubris, which, as demonstrated in Greek tragedy we are to believe has led us in the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the government to our nemesis.

Since I don’t have the expertise to expatiate on the ins and outs of the workings of the IMF, I am limiting myself to how to survive in times of rising costs of living.

Crisis

When there is a crisis of any kind in our lives in this country, we don’t leave anything to the imagination. We wear red armbands, we wear red clothes and the songs we sing are special.

When there is a death, the type of food you eat changes and the times you eat are adapted to accommodate the visit of people coming to mourn with you.

There are foods that are meant to be for celebratory occasions and no one would expect that you serve such foods when you are faced with a crisis.

We were taught to adjust our lifestyles and our tastes to suit our surroundings and circumstances.

Since Landcruisers seem to annoy people so much, maybe we should put the V8s in the garage for a while…. Who knows, there might be a decrease in the demand for MoMo from people whose occupation is to send messages to everyone on their contact list asking for “some coins” to see them through the day.

Perhaps the V8s would have to be parked for a while

If we are in such dire economic straits, maybe there would be a change in the way we conduct our funerals, weddings and other social events.

So far, there is nothing to show in what I see that would indicate that there is pressure on pockets. Public language is angrier and more abusive towards a certain Mr Akufo-Addo, but I have not seen anybody cut out the reception for a funeral because these are hard times.

I can just about understand why a young couple would rather start life with a debt than cut down on an elaborate wedding ceremony, but there is nothing to show that we acknowledge the hard times in the way we behave.

I have not heard of any car-pooling initiatives. Watch the early morning traffic worm its painfully slow way into all the major entrances into Accra, and it is mostly cars with single occupancy coming from the same neighbourhood.

I have not heard of any street where people are arranging for one person to do the weekly shopping from Malata market for three or four households so they can save on the transportation costs.

I have seen angry videos about the size of the fried plantain being sold, but I have not heard of people deciding not to eat fried plantain because it is now too expensive.

How come people no longer think they should eat more of the foods that are in season and less of foods that are fashionable? That does not even show you have become poor, it simply shows you are sensitive to your surroundings.

For example, new yams have arrived and in some parts of the country yams are now cheap. In a few weeks, yams will be relatively cheap for the rest of us around the country.

Why do we insist on eating rice or plantain or foods that are not in season or are imported? Is that the only way to prove to ourselves that times are hard?

There is no argument about the cost of fuel. It is displayed at the stations and you can see your money disappearing into the tank and as you rev the engine and as you idle in the slow-moving traffic.

If you have a big, powerful fuel-guzzling car, there is not very much you can do about it at this stage, except maybe arrange with your neighbour to give you a ride and you park your car and rethink your travel strategy.

Ghanaian problem

Then we have this peculiarly Ghanaian problem of not being able to even agree on how much things cost.

In a country where we have never really accepted a regimen of weights and measures, the cost of things in a market can vary as widely as the mood of whoever is selling.

We take pride in negotiating prices and when you pay the first price that is called for a product, you are invariably seen to be either a fool, a novice or a stranger in town.

Once upon a time, I used to enjoy the price negotiating process and used to boast about being quite an expert at paying ¢12 for a bunch of plantain that was first offered to me for ¢20.

I would have no idea if I paid a fair price, if I cheated the poor woman or if she cheated me.

The next person might buy the same size bunch of plantains for ¢25 and someone might buy it for ¢10.

I have a lot of sympathy with the people who purport to make surveys of prices in this country. How on earth do they determine how much things cost in the markets to be able to make credible guestimates for policy makers?

I have given up on the entire charade of trying to negotiate prices, it is too tiresome and I remind myself there is no room for price negotiations in the supermarkets where the prices are often higher than in the market, I now pay whatever I am asked to pay for the plantain or pepper or tomatoes in the market or by the roadside and if it turns out I have paid far too much, I offer that as my charity donation for the week.

But I think we can safely say that plantains are expensive right now, whichever way you look at it.

Kelewele is therefore off my menu. It is the most potent sign of the times in my household.

I have no doubt it will become very attractive again once the price of plantain becomes reasonable.