African viewpoint: Warm welcomes

Fifa President Sepp Blatter attends a World Cup wrap-up press conference in Johannesburg [12 July 2010] When a visit comes to an end, it time to wave goodbye

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene ponders the warmth of welcomes as long as the visitor knows when to leave.

In the not too distant past of my youth, visitors held a special place in our society.

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The whole point about welcoming a visitor is a visitor leaves, he doesn't become a permanent fixture”

End Quote Elizabeth Ohene

A visitor was welcome in the poorest home.

If the visitor was expected, elaborate preparations would have been made; best plates, best towels, children made to give up their beds, and bathrooms thoroughly cleaned.

If the visitor arrived during meal-time, he would be invited to join and would be expected to join in eating whatever was on offer.

If the visitor was unexpected or arrived after meal-time, it provided the perfect excuse to go to the backyard and catch a chicken to cook a meal, even in homes that only had chicken at Christmas.

Visitors were also popular, I think, because they always arrived bearing gifts.

For as long as the visit lasts, this special state of affairs would prevail in the house.

Take pride and tolerate

I heard a Ugandan Minister of State on the radio talking about their preparedness for hosting the African Union summit and I thought: "Aah, they are going to have visitors."

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi arrives at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda for the African Union summit [24 July 2010] Visitors cause everyone to be on their best behaviour

The Ugandan capital, Kampala is going to be scrubbed clean, unauthorised structures will be pulled down, some new structures will be built, beggars and street children will be herded out of sight, old buildings will get a fresh coat of paint, city streets will be draped in flags and bunting, policemen will have fresh uniforms and they will have smiles on their faces.

Any city or country that has hosted any one of these big events has had the same experience.

And indeed the poorest nation will lay on a big feast.

The citizens will welcome the visitors and take pride in their new-look capital.

They will tolerate the road closures and diversions and the heightened security.

They will hope that the extra spending generated by the visit will linger on.

The country's housing stock will certainly have been replenished.

Best behaviour

For a few days, the capital will be transformed, the streets will be clean, crime will go down and everybody will be on their best behaviour.

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It is simply that they can only see us and love us as visitors ”

End Quote Elizabeth Ohene

Then the visitors leave, and for a few days there will be withdrawal symptoms; you find you miss the sirens that accompanied the VIP convoys around town and the sight of your president smiling all the time.

But reality soon returns, the street vendors, the beggars and the litter return and the president gets back to snarling at real and imagined opponents and the radio and television schedules return to normal boring stuff.

The whole point about welcoming a visitor is a visitor leaves, he doesn't become a permanent fixture.

I suspect this is the current problem in South Africa.

Peace, perfect peace

For six years they were told they were going to play host to the world, they were staging an event on behalf of the whole continent of Africa.

Flags representing some of the 30 different nations taking part in the 15th African Union summit flutter at the entrance of the convention hall on the second day of the meeting in Kampala, Uganda [26 July 2010] Kampala residents are taking pride in their new look and clean capital

And it was to last for a month.

And so they welcomed Africa.

For three weeks, children in townships who had never heard of Ivory Coast cheered themselves hoarse and painted their faces with the flag of Ghana.

For a month, they were prepared to give up their beds for the visitors, they smiled even when these people with strange accents asked for directions and spoke of traffic lights instead of robots.

I am sure the passion the South Africans displayed towards the rest of Africa during the World Cup was genuine enough and indeed they do not love us any less now that the tournament is over.

It is simply that they can only see us and love us as visitors and they want us to leave now the visit is over.

In much the same way as the Ugandans are going to play host this week to the whole of Africa and then wave goodbye at the end of the summit.

Then there will be peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Maputo is not different from other African countries. I will never forget the moment I had to visit my husband's extended family on the last day of our trip. Can you imagine visiting four families wherever you show up they grab a duck and prepare it for you. As a Zulu girl, a duck was not in our lunch list. When we visited the last family I said to my husband: "No more ducks please!" To me a duck was more like a pet and I never imagined eating those cute creatures.

hlengiwe, saskatoon, canada

As a child growing up in Greenville, Sinoe County, (Liberia) I never liked visitors. When they arrived from the village to the City, we, children had to give up our beds. The gifts they brought such as rice, plantain and maybe a chicken were all eaten during their stay and then they stayed longer. This meant that our food ration had to be reduced since there was only one income earner, my father. With many more mouths to feed, we had to find means to compliment the little food that was available and this took extra work and created hardships.

ezekiel pajibo, Johannesburg, South Africa

Among the Ibos in eastern Nigeria,visitors or strangers are treated with care hence we say that a traveller has no enemy. Visitors are then special, not only because we want to leave good impression about us but because the visitors palaver is temporal.

Sunny Ekwenugo, Berlin, Germany

In Africa, we also tell our visitor to feel free to visit us again, anytime, and that our home is their home too. We are the best when it comes to hospitality.

Godfrey Kissella, Birmingham, UK

Hey Elizabeth same in Liberia, come visit is different from come live. Come to think of it because we are usually so kind to visitors giving our best and almost never refusing the visitor anything we have been taken advantage of in most cases. The respect and open arms with which we welcome is misunderstood by others, from different cultures, as a sign of weakness and insorbordination. This could maybe be another of the reasons it was easy for Africa to be colonised even though we had already established societies. In these time I think we should be a little more critical of our guest not unwelcoming but also not so trusting.

Annette, Norway

As always, beautifully observed and beautifully written. Great stuff.

Mbugwile Nkolokosa, Manchester, UK

Lizzy, I am really amazed about how similar we are as Africans all over the continent. In South Africa we even have glasses and all that are reserved for visitors, all new.

Khumbuza, Jozi, Republic of South Africa

In UK there's a saying, "Visitors, like fish, begin to smell after three days." A friendlier version I heard in Tanzania was, "On the first day do everything for the visitors; second day show them where to get things to look after themselves; third day give them a jembe (hoe) to weed the garden."

robin le mare, Allithwaite, Cumbria, UK

Indeed Africans are the same all over - that chicken story is just so true. Drinks, nice clothes and best behaviour too. In Zimbabwe there are households where soft drinks are only ever bought for visitors apart from Christmas. Once you talk to few Africans and hear their experiences our continent feels like one expanse village with slightly varying customs amongst different language/tribal groups. We have so much in common it is unbelievable.

JN, Harare, Zimbabwe

Sometimes I get the same feeling about the thousands of voluntourist visitors that come to Ghana for weeks to work on projects, live with locals, leave, and nothing changes....

chris scott, KUMASI, GHANA

Another nice piece from Elizabeth. It portrays the typical Ghanaian style of hosting guests. It also reminds me of my childhood days, when my Mum would wake up late at night to set fire and cook for a guest who arrived late unannounced. I think i still carry some of these lessons with me. Great one, Lizzy.

Benjamin P, Tetteh, Accra, Ghana

I just love the bit about going to the back of the house to get a chicken (He-he-he)! Africans are the same everywhere!

Waha Vundla, Johannesburg, South Africa

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