Friday, 22 May 2009

Panafest in shreds?

Once the attraction of international tourists and now tittering on the brink of extinction: PANAFEST or the Pan-African Festival is struggling to survive the storm of financial crisis.

And for a country that prides itself as the ‘Gateway to West Africa’ the trend points to a nation of fine words but lacking well thought-out action. To think that Panafest has gone grumpy in less than 15 years is a sorrowful tale to narrate. It’s even more harrowing when you recollect that this was the same festival that brought to Ghana international artists like Stevie Wonder, Mutaburaka, Yellowman, Sounds of Blackness and several other artists and poets to celebrate African Unity.

Academics, business people, politicians, writers and journalists have all made their way to Ghana courtesy Panafest. Visitors especially from the Americas and other European countries to the biennial festival have often come in droves. Their arrival was all over in the news and almost everybody in Ghana, even if you were not interested in the festival, at the time, became interested. It became one of the biggest festivals on the country’s calendar, further shining some light on our image abroad.

Political leadership at the time was very much interested as well. Ghana, I believe, was raking in a few thousand dollars on the tourism front thanks to Panafest and later Emancipation Day- with hoteliers also benefitting tremendously. Managers of the festival at the time did not have it tough persuading visitors to participate in the festival, yet they worked hard each year to ensure high patronage and excellent activities.

Back in 1997 or there about when Panafest was something one could openly boast about, I remember joining a bus to Cape Coast for the reverential night at the slave dungeon. We spent more than five hours on the road trying to get to Cape Coast. Almost all the vehicles ahead of us were making their way to the same programme. Experts from diverse professional disciplines gave lectures on slavery, race and African Unity. People were simply excited and willing to be delivering lectures at their own expense. Arts and culture were very pronounced in every lecture delivered. Pan –Africanism and black solidarity were poignant even if it was a fa├žade.

To think that Panafest has become so unattractive to the extent that it’s not in a position to attract funding shows probably how supposedly well we have been serious over the last couple off years about promoting tourism in this country. The problems of the festival became evident in 2002 when it failed to attract funding from both home and abroad to execute a successful programme. Then a student-resident in Cape Coast, I saw how directors from the secretariat were moving from place to place with the hope of raising funds to promote the festival. Three weeks to the programme and virtually nothing was happening and residents were completely unaware of anything coming up. If I’m not exaggerating less than 20% of residents from both Cape Coast and Elmina, homes to two slave dungeons, were aware of anything coming up. It was not surprising when reports from Accra also suggested that many did not know Panefest was coming up.

The government was faulted for not showing commitment to getting the show underway. When some radio adverts started airing to help promote the festival, it was completely scruffy. It was an ear torturing jingle. Organisers of the festival even had it difficult attracting artistes to perform. The speculation that some foreign artists would be performing at the festival did not materialise happen. Even the few local artistes billed to perform did not turn up. Organisers were forced to fall on a handful of local artistes in Cape Coast. Surprisingly, most of them ditched the organisers at the eleventh hour. It was pathetic and a huge disappointment for the organisers.

So bad was the situation that Jake Obetsebi Lamptey, then tourism minister, probably not sure of what to do and wanting his name attached to yet another festival, announced what he called the ‘JOSEPH PROJECT.’ This initiative confirmed the sorry state of the festival. But how did a festival of such magnitude get into such a mess? The answers may sound as confusing as the proposed solutions, even if there are any. Almost everybody has an opinion on that. People have often cited the ‘privatization’ of the festival as the reason for the mess.

Critics say the festival has now become the property of some individuals and it will be unthinkable for the government to pump money into a festival that goes to enrich private pockets. Again, others also believe the present manager’s handling of the festival is a contributing factor. Their commitment is more towards the money they hope to make from the festival, critics say. The office was in a mess, unless the location has been moved from Heritage House to a new location. The main offices smelt funny. The main office of the executive secretary had partly been taken over by spider webs. The chairs at the main conference room looked unclean with a foul smell. The office environment was a complete contrast to the popularity of the festival. The atmosphere did not show any seriousness on the part of the organisers.

So how did they expect any serious minded person or organization to put money into a programme that has been razed to the ground? There is also the angle of government. Ghanaian politicians have often boasted about how tourism is one of its main priorities and yet the very thing that ought to be done to rake in the money is neglected. For a government to leave a noble project like Panafest to get into such a mess without any bailout (thanks to the financial crisis) shows its own mentality.

Panafest comes off this year between July and August. It was launched by the Tourism Minister Juliana Azumah-Mensah. She told Ghanaians the coffers of the organisers are empty. That is not surprising especially for those who have consistently followed Panafest for some time. It needs serious overhauling. Personally, I believe the present organisers or those mandated to run the festival have shown they are incompetent and should be offloaded before another country takes it. Can you imagine what South Africa or even Nigeria will do with such a festival should they have it under their belly? The whole world will hear about it and our political leadership, hypocritically, will send a delegation to participate.

Clearly, Panafest is in tatters and if the government is really serious about maximizing any meaningful profit from tourism, this is the time to show it. The ministry should take over Panafest, even if not fully, to resuscitate it.
Again, the entire membership of the present board should be done away with. Their minds have gone dry in terms of ideas and tolerating them will only end us all up in the ditch.

Josh ANNY, writes for the JIVE Entertainment Weekly
and the dailyEXPRESS

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