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Elizabeth Ohene Writes: Lining Up To Greet VIPs   
 
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15-Nov-2019  
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One of the things I hated as a schoolchild was to be lined up by the roadside to wave at a visiting important personality; often a minister of state and very rarely, the Head of State of the country.

The visitors were never on time and we always had to stand in the sun for hours. My recollection is of always being thirsty, hot and bothered, and in the end, rather resentful.

Indeed, apart from one particular waiting by the roadside event (about which I shall have more to say in a bit) I hardly remember what we were gathered for.

I now know of course that the long hours of waiting were not necessarily because the visiting VIP arrived late; it was because the school authorities often err on the side of getting the schoolchildren out too early.

If the VIP is scheduled to arrive at 10a.m., the schoolchildren are lined up by 8a.m. and that means even if by some miracle, the visitor is on time and arrives at 10 a.m., there would still be tired, thirsty, hot and bothered children since they would have been standing in line for two hours.

When I was at school, one of the items on my list of the things I would do when I grow up and I am in a position to change things was to ensure that schoolchildren are not made to line up to wait for visiting important personalities.

Campaign

I went as far as wanting to start the campaign at school and stop the practice.

First surprise I had on my self-imposed campaign to save Ghanaian schoolchildren from standing by the road to wave at VIPs, was when I manoeuvred to bring the subject up for discussion in the dormitory.

I soon discovered that there were not many among my mates who were willing to join in the plans for a revolution, certainly not on the subject of being made to stand by the road to wave to VIPs.

Many found it an interesting diversion from what would have been the routine boredom of whatever was on the time-table. I sometimes know when I am beaten and have to make a retreat, so I gave up on my plans for a revolution.

I decided that schoolchildren not being unhappy about waiting to greet VIPs had something to do with the event I had referred to at the beginning of this piece. One day it was announced at school that a minister of state was coming to visit our school. In the early 1960s, this was a big deal in Ghana.

I am afraid I am now not quite certain about which minister it was and his name so I am keeping names out.
This minister, we were told, had visited America, or was it Greenland? He had met and made friends with an Eskimo lady and had brought her to Ghana and was bringing her to our school so we could see what an Eskimo looked like!

The day before the scheduled visit, the whole school was gathered and taken through the welcome routine. We were made to practice the pronunciation of her name: Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW. For what seemed to me like hours, we were made to repeat loudly, Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW.

Now, I have no idea if this is the spelling of the name, because the name was not written, we were simply taught how to pronounce the name and I am writing what the pronunciation sounded like, Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW. Come the day and we waited for hours until the minister arrived in a convoy of cars with his Eskimo lady friend and the whole school raised the chant: “welcome Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW” on and on and on.

I am not sure what we expected to see, or what the authorities thought would be special about Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW.

As I recall it, the only thing we found really interesting about the Eskimos when we were being taught about them was that they lived in igloos, which we were told were houses made with hard snow, or was it ice blocks? (There was no television in Ghana then and no Discovery Channel)

Now if Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW was going to be paraded before us in an igloo that would have been interesting. But there was this small looking white woman, not very different from Miss Snitker, the popular Chemistry teacher in the school, who was an American.

I don’t recall that we heard Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW’s voice throughout the visit, and after a few minutes of chaotic scenes, the minister and his entourage left, doubtless to go to the next stop on their whirlwind tour.

By every measure, this was an extraordinary event and I shouldn’t have been surprised that my mates felt, however many hours spent waiting for a minister were well worth it.

I have always wondered what Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW was told or given to convince her to agree to be paraded on the streets of Ghana as some zoo specimen.

Lesson

In 2001, I suddenly found myself faced with the subject of schoolchildren being lined up. I was in the new government and the practice in place for the celebration of March 6, Independence Day, was a march past of school children and “revolutionary organs”.

The schoolchildren had to put in hours and weeks of practice and standing in the sun for long periods. The new President, Mr J.A. Kufuor, said he did not want a march past of schoolchildren, he did not want them to stand in the sun for long periods.

Get the military to do it, soldiers march as part of their normal routine. I don’t want schoolchildren standing in the sun.

Those were the president’s instructions and we did try to do as he had instructed, except all hell broke loose when the Ghana Education Service (GES), and through them, the teachers and schoolchildren heard the news they were no longer going to march at the Independence Day parade.

Far from seeing it as a difficult task, apparently the schoolchildren and their teachers love the marching and standing in line and were heartbroken to hear they were being taken out. We retreated and needless to say, schoolchildren still march at the Independence parade.

These matters came to the fore for me this past week when I followed President Akufo-Addo around on his tour of the Volta Region, and schoolchildren were visible wherever he went.

I discovered that sixty years after my abortive attempt at organising a campaign to stop schoolchildren being lined up to welcome and wave at visiting important personalities, I was still in a decided minority. Someone told me about the day Flt-Lt Rawlings brought Gen Babangida to Kumasi.

As schoolchildren, they had stood in line in the sun for hours but the abiding memory was not the hours of waiting but the day they saw Rawlings and Babangida. So, I have learnt my lesson, I shall not be complaining about children waiting to see VIPs; they love it.

It is not likely there will be anything like a repeat of the Miss PAA-NE-GOO-SHOW parade ever but there are probably similar ones and that is what memories are made of.
 
 
 
 

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