On hot afternoons, the oldman would sit under the mango tree, read his papers, pretend to be chatting up his grandchildren and gradually doze off. He didn’t know his snores always betrayed him. Under those lush leaves, we’d catch up with each visit. One day when we arrived the tree was gone. The old woman, seeing we’ve observed something amiss, proudly asked: “Doesn’t the compound look cleaner and nicer now?” I stuttered: ”But… wha… wha… what happened to the tree?”. “Oh, some witch-owls began camping on it every night, and we found out they were behind the oldman’s sickness so we chopped the tree down, and can you believe he’s been fine since?”
A few years ago in Ghana, we set up the Ministry for the Beautification of Accra. One of the very first actions they took, as part of their beautification process, was to axe down trees. Some of those trees were older than their great grandfathers. They were quite happy to plant distasteful sculptures bathed with cheap oil paint and bad finish in their place; and walled their precious masterpieces with colourful advertising panels, proudly selling sim cards, menstrual pads and bags of rice.
For the enlightened, it can be quite depressing driving down the streets of Accra; especially if you’ve been living here long enough. Most of the trees are gone. But it’s not only the streets that have been stripped naked, we have taken our bad taste to the homes too. As a sign of wealth, most Ghanaians now totally douse the compound of their homes in concrete. They chop down all the trees or refuse to plant any because it will attract owls and snakes, or they’ll have to sweep the leaves off the compound every morning or the roots will damage the foundation of the house… and the excuses go on and on.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the typical Ghanaian is a “bush person”. Rural-Urban migration didn’t start that long ago and even then all our cities were actually more peri-urban than proper urban not too long ago. We are bush people. The value of a tree therefore is pretty much… NOTHING. We’ve climbed them all, chewed them all, chopped our fair share. Now, we are bored with them. Concrete is the NEW attraction. Whoever builds the first cement house in the village becomes the new “chief”. We are tired of all those brown mud houses. We want concrete. Add some glass too.
We are like the bush girl who received a bouquet of roses from the headmaster’s son. She looked at him with a wide grin and quizzed, “And what must I use this for?”. She can’t use it for firewood, neither can she boil them for dinner. The poor boy didn’t know that a plate of cheap Chinese fried rice and chicken would have scored him more points than the nicest flower in the world.