The FTSE Index. The Dow Jones. Subprime mortgages. Bank Bailouts. Credit Crunch… The list goes on and on. Over the past few weeks, these words have been bandied about by a frenzied, mainly western media as financial Armageddon descends upon us. Investors are in panic, financial traders are in depression, hitherto great banks are in meltdown and savers are worried to death as to what happens next to their savings and pension funds. There are dark mutterings of a recession and a possible repeat of America’s Great Depression of 1929.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a deep-seated and pathological aversion to mathematics, economics, or anything remotely connected to the calculating of figures. In fact, my worst ‘O’level result in 1985 was a six in mathematics (i.e. a credit), and yet it was that result I was particularly ecstatic about. I do not understand the global financial system with its impenetrable machinations. And I am not particularly keen to take a crash course on the subject, thank you very much. The sight of grown men on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, wearing variously coloured bright jackets and shouting themselves hoarse into telephones whilst waving their arms about like excited school children always makes me wonder what gets them so animated. As a new immigrant cleaning investment bank offices in London back in the 1990s, I would gawk at the array of bright computer screens with a million blinking figures and multi-coloured graphs, and then would wonder how they could make sense to anyone.
I have struggled to make sense of the current global crisis, yet I have given up already. Reading and listening to all that jargon gives me severe migraine. All I can glean from the never-ending news coverage is that basically, the major western economies are in serious trouble, and it is spreading around like a nasty virus. I also know that this puts mortgages at risk, and that unemployment will rise as the global economy heads for a major recession (whatever that word means). That summary is enough for me- just spare me the gory details.
I am not too sure how many people in Ghana are directly affected by the credit problems in the western and Asian financial markets that are being described as ‘global’. Global? I am yet to read anything about the crashing of the Ghanaian, Malian or Rwandan stock markets crashing and causing panic! In any event, I am sure many Ghanaians back home would agree that our economy has not been doing well for donkey years. We have a permanent credit crunch. After all, a man who is already down need not fear falling. I cannot imagine any Ghanaians back home lying awake at night worrying about the security of their savings in these financially unstable times for a simple reason: they live on a hand-to-mouth basis.
My mind whizzes straight to my uncle Agya Kwaku Agyemfra, who lives in a very modest, simple house in our hamlet back home (not mortgaged, of course), with his wife and six grandchildren. He does not draw a pension. He lives off his small farm, has never held a bank account, and has never sought or been offered a bank loan for obvious reasons. Of course, all those other fancy financial terms do not mean anything to him, for he lives entirely outside the system. Since he enjoys no electricity, he has no TV or any other modern gadgetry, his major luxury being a constantly malfunctioning battery-operated transistor radio. The concept of rising bills is therefore beyond his grasp. He only relies on a trusty, if rather charming, rickety bicycle to get along, so rising fuel prices are not much of an issue for him.
Of course, having been brought up in urban Ghana, and having lived abroad for longer than really necessary or prudent, my default position has been to see Wofa Agyemfra as deprived and to feel sorry for him. Yet whenever I have visited him, he has always exuded a certain amount of serenity, a man clearly at peace with himself and seemingly satisfied with his lot, without a care in the world. There have been times I have wondered whether my uncle actually enjoys poverty.
And yet, during this financial crisis, I have actually found myself envying my uncle at times. Whilst I toss in bed at night and wearily haul myself through London’s bitter, cold streets to work during the day, I can’t help but worry about the security of my home, my savings and my job in these uncertain times- the things I have bent over backwards over the years for. Is everything going to be up in a deathly-pale blue smoke before one can shout ‘recession’? No wonder during recessions, marriages break down, people suffer clinical depression as they lose their jobs and businesses and their homes are repossessed as their very lives crumple before them. Some even commit suicide. Bankers and financial in particular have this unnerving habit of flinging themselves out of skyscrapers during recessions.
My Wofa Agyemfra, on the other hand (bless him), continues to sleep soundly at night, I am sure. Of course he must have his own worries and problems. But if investment banks are failing, so what? Wetin concern am? As the former British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was (wrongly) quoted during Britain’s Winter of Discontent in 1979, ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’
My friends, sometimes, as they say, ignorance is bliss. Wofa, I envy you paa.