I fell in love with Accra when I first visited in 2002. At the time I was living and working in the US, but my work brought me to many parts of Africa. Outside of my home country of Cameroon, Ghana was where I felt the most at home. To this day I refer to Ghana as my spirit country. The hospitality of the people, the food, the culture, the creativity kept beckoning me back at every chance.
In 2015, I finally had the opportunity to move to and live in Ghana and I was thrilled. As we drove towards our new home, I marveled at the number of cranes in Accra’s skyline. As the fastest growing economy in Africa at the time, the city was bustling.
But I also counted the trees on my road home that day, knowing that the advent of speedy development likely spelt the demise of trees. And true to my prediction, in the years since we’ve lived on that street, I’ve seen beautiful, massive, hundreds-year-old trees come down at an alarming rate, replaced by new development, houses, and commercial buildings.
Now, the roadsides are bare, replaced by paved or tiled surfaces and tarpaulin shade. When a tree is cut down much is lost; more is disrupted than meets the eye. When a tree is cut down: our air quality diminishes, erosion increases, ground cover is washed away, the Earth’s surface loses its shade and our planet becomes warmer.
The damage is not just environmental; entire economic ecosystems suffer as well. Men like our carpenters, mechanics, welders, etc. who lack the capital to pay for rented space, use trees as their business places and to shield themselves from the punishing heat of the sun are left unprotected. For women, it is also under the shade of trees that they raise their children, small toddlers crawling around on the ground, knowing instinctively that they must not wander beyond the safety of the shade as their mothers sell small items to sustain the family.
When trees are cut down, they are replaced with polyester umbrellas too thin to provide much protection. Left to the heat of the sun, their productivity wanes and their profitability suffers. Yet, these are the small businesses that power the vast majority of our economies; keeping families fed and helping communities thrive.
There is a war on trees in Accra. It’s called the War of Development. With all the wonderful things development affords us, it also robs us of much when we approach it recklessly. Our trees are being replaced by building cranes; even though we know that development and the environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive. The two can happen together. My plea to Accra it to make the conscious effort for this to happen. Let us save the trees.
One of the few positives of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has shown us a glimpse of what our world could be if human beings made more conscious choices to protect our environment. While the world retreated into seclusion for safety: emissions diminished, air quality improved, waterways got cleaner, and the Earth seemed to teeter ever so slightly towards balance.
The history of Africa is arguably a history of trees. It is under the shade of trees that our elders consulted each other to make decisions, that our ancestors were first taught, that our mothers prepared food, and that people gathered to tell our stories. Let us save the trees.
We may no longer need them today to serve the same functions, but we need them for other things. Otherwise, if we build tall, beautiful skyscrapers to live in, and purchase the fanciest awnings to cover our expensive cars but the air around us is unbreathable and there is nothing beautiful and green to look at, have we, in the end, improved our quality of life?
Any future-looking economy has to prioritize the environment. In one of his many remarks to the nation during this Coronavirus pandemic the President of the Republic of Ghana made a statement that truly struck me. He said, “We know how to bring economies back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life.” To this I would add: We know how to restore the environment, but why not stop destroying it in the first place? We owe that to the next generation. Let’s save the trees.