Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Meeting Jihad

His name was Jihad. “It’s a rather unfortunate name right now,” he told me with a small grin. “I’m a Christian, but my name is Arabic. It doesn’t have the same meaning as the other Jihad.”

We were spending the weekend at a beach camp in Ada, a small town about 2 hours away from Accra, when we met Jihad. He had dark brown leathery skin, black tousled curls and wore bright yellow trunks. His skin was so deeply tanned that I thought he might be half black. His features, however, were entirely Middle Eastern. On weekends, he said, he lived across the river. The rest of the time he lived between Accra and a mining town in the north.

“How long have you lived in Ghana?” I asked assuming business had brought him to Ghana.

“I’m Ghanaian,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked showing my surprise.

He laughed warmly. I could tell he was used to explaining his exotic lineage. He told me to have a seat; that he would be over shortly to tell us his story.

In 1880 Jihad’s great grandfather landed on Ghanaian soil. He had no idea where he’d arrived until he disembarked from the ship.

“He just knew he was going to the new world,” Jihad said.

Jihad lit the first of a steady flow of cigarettes and leaned forward in his chair. He explained that his great grandfather had grown up in Lebanon.

“Around that time – it was during the Ottoman Empire -” he said, “the Turks invaded Lebanon and forced the Christians into the mountains. The Christians resisted but eventually settled there peacefully. Once the Muslims took over power, the Christians were told all boys would have to perform military service when they turned 14. Families didn’t want their children joining the army so sent them off a year before they reached this age.”

It was when Jihad’s great grandfather was 13 that he, like many other young boys, set off for the new world. His brother had left three years earlier, so Jihad’s great grandfather left to join him.

“Once he got on the ship,” Jihad said “he told the captain he wanted to go to the New World.”

He never specified the exact location of “The New World”, and no one ever asked him exactly where he intended to go.

When he arrived in the New World, Jihad’s great grandfather found himself surrounded by black people. Much to his surprise he had arrived in Ghana.

“Where had his brother gone?” I asked curiously.

“Brazil,” he said laughing.

“What did your great grandfather do?” I asked.

“What could he do? It’s not like today when you just jump on another plane and head to a different country. He’d spent all of his money to get there. He had to stay.”

Other Lebanese migrants had arrived earlier in Ghana and they welcomed Jihad’s great grandfather into their newly established community.

“My great grandfather was a merchant,” Jihad said. “He built a life for himself in Ghana. It was here that he met my great grandmother who was also Lebanese. I’m a fourth generation Ghanaian.”

As Jihad paused to light his third cigarette I tried to think of him as Ghanaian. Being Ghanaian was clearly his birthright, but his attitude, personality, and character traits were strikingly Lebanese.

Ghana is not a multicultural country so it is extremely rare to meet a non-black Ghanaian. Yet here was Jihad identifying himself as a Ghanaian, and proud of his nationality.

There is a strong Lebanese community in Accra. They are astute business people and operate most of the successful grocery stores, restaurants and hotels. If a business has good customer service, and a nice atmosphere, it’s likely Lebanese. Before meeting Jihad, I had never wondered if these business owners were themselves Ghanaian.

Recently there’s been an influx of another group of people to Ghana. Chinese are flooding into the country; a new wave of immigrants looking to build their fortunes overseas.

“This has all happened within the last 3 or 4 years,” Jihad explained. “The Chinese government has built things for Ghana, and the country is welcoming their business. They built the national theatre, they built the Tema motorway, and they are helping to build a new rail system. Because of their gifts, the government doesn’t tax Chinese imports. So now they’re flooding the local markets with cheap products. The Ghanaian vendors are upset, but what can they do? The government won’t stop them from selling their products.”

Jihad talked about Ghanaian politics and corruption. He has found a way to live well amongst the chaos he told us.

“It’s the wild wild west,” he said.

In the north he owns a small gold mining operation. After a number of years in the business he has learned how to keep it operating.

“Each Christmas I fill envelopes for the police officers in my area,” he said.

We raised our eyebrows. Jihad was admitting to playing a role in the corruption that plagues this country, especially amongst the police force.

He sensed our judgment and responded directly

“I need them,” he said

We asked him if he’d made money from mining for gold.

He laughed and took a long drag on his fifth cigarette. “I’ve made fortunes and lost fortunes,” he said. “But I can’t stop. Once you’ve got gold fever there’s no going back. Nothing else will satisfy you.”

“Would you ever go back to Lebanon?” Mark asked.

“No, I can only go there for vacation,” he said. “The business men would eat me alive. And they have sharks.”

- Janet


Anonymous said...

Another great story Janet. The experience you and Mark are getting is unbeleiveable. Jirah sounds like a pretty hard working person. The Lebanese here in Canada are much the same. Very hard working. The little store Norm's in Charlottetown where Allie shops for groceries is open everyday and has long hours. The family owns most of the homes on the street. They also work in the store these long hours. It is the same here in Saint John. The parents of the Lebanese worked hard for their families and passed on their work ethics to their families.
We love reading your blogsand look forward to many more from you two.
Love, Prissy and Frank

Anonymous said...

Janet! I ran into Jihad in Accra at Monsoon the other night! Exchanged numbers and he popped up again at Kokobrite today. He says hello to you!

Great finding your blog - you're doing a great job of expressing your thoughts and telling others of the experiences here. Reading it will definitely bring back memories once I'm back in Canada.