Ghana’s current opposition party, the National Democratic Congress, has a supporters wing called the “Verandah Boys and Girls Club.” Although it may sound like a cosy scheme to get children interested in public affairs, nothing could be further from the truth: it’s a group of adults heavily involved in everyday political campaigning. Ghana’s Centre for Democratic Development lists an unrelated collective, “Verandah Boys” (along with other groups such as “Kandahar Boys” and “Delta Force”), as a vigilante group. In radio debates, the term is often heard used as a collective noun, to describe the youth or the unemployed masses that gather at political rallies.
“Verandah Boys” defies clear definition, but it’s a term any Ghanaian will know, and though it predates independence, it is intimately tied to the establishment of Ghana as a sovereign nation. Having emerged at a time of transformation, it is no surprise that its meaning has shape-shifted over the years and continues to evolve. But it remains a unique element in Ghanaian political parlance: something foreign adapted to serve the local, and for all the unpalatable history of its origins, deeply Ghanaian.
The term originated in the black-market economy that emerged during the Second World War, primarily in Accra but also in Takoradi, when these cities became staging posts for troops from the UK and USA on their way to the Pacific front. Groups of unemployed youths took advantage of the influx of foreigners to model themselves as fixers, indulging in everything from pimping and petty theft to small-time retail and music. (The emergence of the dance band variant of Highlife music is linked to the increased demand for entertainment and the number of young men available to play). In order not to miss opportunities, they loitered around and sometimes slept on the verandahs of supermarkets and trading houses. These youths, widely considered rootless and up-to-no-good, came to be known as “Verandah Boys.”
During the independence struggle that led to the transformation of the Gold Coast into Ghana, it was employed with this dismissive connotation. Kwame Nkrumah would travel around the country, talking to locals about what independence meant, why it was important, and why it should be supported. And although Nkrumah would eventually become known for brilliantly-organised mass rallies, these earlier roving talks took place on the verandahs of prominent people, where the public—especially youths—could gather and hear his now-famous voice as it rose and fell and shadows moved with the spinning of the earth.
My father was born in the early 1940s, making him the perfect age to have a teenage crush on the leaders of the movement; almost everyone I’ve met of that generation claims to have had Nkrumah on their verandah, making them “Verandah Boys.” The assertion can’t be true in 90% of the cases, even if they might have seen the man at one of his mammoth rallies. But is that not how mythology is born?
In my father’s case, the claim has merit. His father (my grandfather), J.C.E. aka Papa Parkes, an eccentric, narcissistic pharmacist who had migrated to Ghana from Sierra Leone, was one of the Central Region’s most prominent people in the 1950s. Like the word “verandah,” which migrated to Ghana from Sanskrit via the English language, he, too, became a fixture. It was at Papa Parkes’s house that my father and his siblings met Nkrumah. And it is no coincidence that the last voice heard on the Gold Coast Broadcasting System prior to Nkrumah’s iconic independence speech at the Old Polo Ground—the voice that introduced Nkrumah as Prime Minister of independent Ghana—was that of my uncle Frank Parkes, an actor, script writer and, ultimately, one of Nkrumah’s speech writers.
Of course, Nkrumah was not the only person agitating for independence; in fact, Nkrumah was considered a latecomer to the movement, which had been previously led by local intelligentsia. The United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was a party formed by local elites in 1947, and had recruited Nkrumah to be their General Secretary when they realized their weakness at connecting with the masses. But it soon became clear that Nkrumah was at odds with their softly-softly approach to independence and he eventually broke off to form the Convention Peoples Party (CPP). This split pushed the term “Verandah Boys” into the center of Gold Coast politics: at some point, during Nkrumah’s brief stint with UGCC, J.B Danquah, one of the founders of the party, used the term to negatively describe a group that had gathered to cheer Nkrumah. Ever the political strategist, Nkrumah realized that dismissing his supporters as “Verandah Boys” gave him precisely the metaphor he needed to describe his disillusionment with the elites of the UGCC: he declared that it was the Verandah Boys, the masses, for whom he intended to speak. With the formation of the CPP, Nkrumah’s supporters–including my father’s band of impressionable youths–began to proudly call themselves Verandah Boys.
This is how a term that was meant to denote petty criminals and hustlers has come to signify the masses, and how it survives with pretty much the same meaning. Just as any almost debate in Ghanaian politics will mention Kwame Nkrumah, political analysts opine that if you can’t mobilize the Verandah Boys, you can’t win an election.
A combination of nature and nurture make up the characteristic traits of living things, and so too with the evolution of language: no matter how some entitled so-and-so tries to justify the use of derogatory terms for women or black people, nothing can remove the twist of insult and violence in their DNA. In the same way, “Verandah Boys” remains as a shorthand for the masses, but even if Nkrumah’s early subversion led it to be embraced by its targets, it has never quite lost the undercurrent of its origins. Used with a certain tone, it still hints at the rough, the rowdy, the young, the impatient; yes, the capital WE of the hungry, the disenfranchised…
Tour of Babel is a regular Popula column in which we translate the world’s words that can’t be translated, the phrases and expressions that don’t travel (but that also, it turns out, do).