Page last updated at 07:29 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 08:29 UK

Ghana excitement builds for Obama

Billboards and hawkwers in Accra
Ghanaian President John Atta Mills seems keen to cash in on the Obama effect

By David Amanor
BBC News, Accra

As US President Barack Obama touches down on Ghanaian soil, there is no doubt about the feeling of pride over the visit - his first to sub-Saharan Africa as leader.

Accra's international airport has received a brisk makeover - shiny new flags adorn lamp posts along major routes and large billboards have been erected depicting Ghanaian President John Atta Mills alongside Mr Obama, with the proclamation "Partnership for Change" and the Akan phrase "Akwaaba" meaning welcome home.

The presence of Obama merchandise and paraphernalia is nowhere near the volume which accompanied other recent events in Ghana, such as the December 2008 election, or the 50th anniversary celebrations in March 2007.

But it has been growing daily.

Local hawker Suleiman Ibrahim was beaming smiles and proudly displaying T-shirts, flags, wristbands, and Obama fabrics made in Ghana on a route in the capital Accra popularly known as Oxford Street.

"I'm making 30 cedis ($20) profit a day," he said.

"Before Obama, some days I would sell nothing at all.

"It is the will of God that brought the 44th US president here but if there is anything that Obama can bring to Ghana it should be to support education."

Inspired artwork

The coming of President Obama has also inspired artists around the capital.

Artist Gilbert Forsen
The visit has inspired an artist to produce an "unsellable" artwork

Gilbert Forsen displays a giant wooden model television near the ultra-modern shopping centre in north Accra.

It cost him around $80 to make.

"I like Obama so much, that's why I made this television. One day I saw him on television, I captured him in my eyes and did this design from memory."

The image is remarkable. Mr Forsen says about 200 people have shown interest in buying the work - but he is keeping it.

"I won't sell before Obama leaves because I want people to see this television, but if only I could get a chance to see Obama, I would give it to him for free."

Invisible homecoming?

And yet elsewhere on the streets of Accra there is also a mood of laissez-faire.

I don't think Obama is here to redeem Ghana, we have to help ourselves
Shopper in Accra

There is something low-key about the event when compared with previous visits by US President George W Bush in February 2008, and especially that of Bill Clinton in 1998.

Tens of thousands of adoring Ghanaians overwhelmed security during Mr Clinton's visit.

Perhaps it is the realisation that what is being billed as Mr Obama's "homecoming" - publicised as a two-day visit, will actually last for less than 24 hours.

And given security considerations post-9/11, very few people will get to see him in the flesh.

Thousands of people will turn up at Independence Square in Accra expecting a large public address but they are likely to be disappointed.

One of Africa's most democratic nations
Set to become major oil producer
Ancestors of many African Americans passed through as slaves

With the exception of the visit to the former slave castle at Cape Coast, President Obama's presence in Ghana will be largely invisible except through the privileged lenses of television cameras.

There are other factors too - the rising costs of living has dampened optimism and a fuel shortage this week has increased misery for road users.

And the rainy season has brought predictable and inevitable flooding, displacing scores of residents, affecting economic activity, causing havoc on the roads, and reminding Ghanaians that the quality of their infrastructure cannot match the quality of international praise received for the nation's progress in democratic development.

Realistic expectations

While many people on the streets and callers to local radio programmes have expressed excitement at the coming of the first American leader with African roots, there is also a competing amount of scepticism, even cynicism.

Hawker Suleiman Ibrahim in Accra
Hawkers say they are making a roaring trade out of the visit

As one clothing trader in an Accra market put it: "What President Bush brought to us last year, we didn't see anything, nothing, even those mosquito nets, that's why people are not making much noise about Obama."

Another added: "Obama can raise some money for us, but our leaders will take the money and divide it in three, leaving just one slice for implementation."

There has also been a certain shift in attitude, a lowering of the clear-our-drains type expectation which accompanied the visit of Mr Bush.

And there is a widespread acknowledgement that the first black president of the US will look after US interests first and foremost.

One shopper in Accra's Kimbu market expressed a common sentiment among Ghanaians: "I don't think Obama is here to redeem Ghana, we have to help ourselves."

'Unifying force'

Despite having hosted several major international events over the past two years, Ghana has once again been slow off the starting line.

The visit was announced in mid-May, however dissemination of information, public promotions and the organisation of accreditation for hundreds of visitors and media houses have gathered pace only in the past week.

"It's typical Ghanaian nature," says deputy Information Minister Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa.

"We always want to do it in the last moment and that's not surprising but this week everyone is talking about Obama - in the shops, offices, churches, mosques, our street hawkers are flying Obama paraphernalia," he said.

"It's exciting and is also unifying our country, it puts recent election campaign tensions behind us, we have been given a rare privilege and nobody wants to spoil the party."

In reality hundreds of Accra's hawkers have been cleared from the streets in a "decongestion" exercise which began in June, and the excitement cannot accurately be described as fever pitch.

However, come rain or sunshine on Saturday, thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians will utilise their last-minute merchandise and come out on the streets to celebrate and cherish the day they caught a glimpse of Barack Obama and the first family of the US.

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