Race and Culture: A World View
The town of Kumasi, where I grew up, is the capital of Ghana’s Asante region, and its main commercial thoroughfare is called Kingsway Street. In the 1950s, if you wandered down it toward the railway yards at the center of town, the stores you passed sold processed foods, cloth, and household goods: and while there were always many Ghanaians, especially women, in the cloth trade, the other stores were largely owned by expatriates. First came Baboo’s Bazaar, which sold imported foods and was run by the eponymous Mr. Baboo—a charming and courteous Indian—with the help of his growing family. Mr. Baboo was active in the Rotary and could always be counted on to make a contribution to the various charitable projects that are among the diversions of Kumasi’s middle class. (I remember Mr. Baboo mostly because he always had a good stock of sweets and because he was always smiling.)
I can’t reconstruct the tour down the rest of the street, for not every store had sweets to anchor my memories. But I remember that we got rice from Irani Brothers; and that we often stopped in on various Lebanese and Syrian families, Muslim and Maronite, and even a philosophical Druze, named Mr. Hanni, who sold imported cloth, and who was always ready, as I grew older, for a conversation about the troubles of his native Lebanon.
This hodgepodge of Middle Eastern and Indian business families seemed as natural a part of our lives as the Muslims who visited the house to offer brass and wooden antiquities collected from around the region. It seemed, in fact, so natural that I don’t remember ever having wondered how it came about that these people had settled among us of their own free will to pursue their businesses so far from home.
The predilection for trade—whether among the Hausa petty traders, or among Indian or Levantine shop-keepers—is by no means something that had to come to Asante from outside. Asante women have always dominated the trade in food and cloth in the Central Market in Kumasi. These “market mammies,” often illiterate, keep thousands of dollars worth of business in their heads and have fed and clothed the city while governments have railed against them for refusing to sell their wares at the (preposterously low) official “control prices” of the Sixties and Seventies. But in our town, as in almost any multi-ethnic community, there was business specialization among nationalities; and the dominant role of these expatriates was as middlemen—people who bought goods from producers and wholesalers and sold them to consumers.
There were other “strangers” among us, too: in the barracks in the middle of town you could find many Northerners among the “other ranks,” privates and NCOs. If you go now to the military museum in Kumasi, the photographs of the heroes of the Gold Coast regiments that fought for the British Empire in Burma in the Second World War are mostly of …
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