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Kwame himself longed for freedom. "I knew independence was very important for this country," he told me. "We needed jobs and employment to come to Ghanaians, to black people. The top administrative level was taken by the British." It wasn't just the colonial authorities Kwame chafed under. Around the time of independence, his father and stepmother chose a girl for him to marry. "But I didn't like her. You know, we didn't love each other," he says. Kwame started wooing Theresa Afue, another girl in the village, instead. Within months they had married, eager to begin their lives together in a country that was finally free.
Ghana's early years were full of energy and excitement; many parts of newly independent Africa were far richer and better developed than the countries that would later become Asia's tigers. In the late 1950s, Ghana's per capita gdp was equivalent to South Korea's; today it is around $550 compared with South Korea's $16,000. Nigerians still lament that they once had a massive palm oil industry but that Asian countries such as Malaysia, which were better run and less corrupt, have long overtaken them.
Nkrumah embarked on an ambitious program, building schools, houses, roads, a new port, factories. Ghana, its new leader argued, must be weaned off trade and investment from Britain and the other colonial powers. The construction industry boomed. Kwame got a job with the state housing corporation, building barracks for the army. "People were happy, more people were learning trades, schools were opening all over the place, we were feeling fine." In 1961, he and Theresa had Suzzy, the first of four girls. Kwame began spending long periods away from home, working on houses for those displaced by the massive Volta dam hydroelectric project, another of Nkrumah's grand schemes. "Life was still difficult," he remembers. "But you were working and getting some money."
But Nkrumah's policies came at a high price. Industrialization cost millions and the government neglected cocoa, Ghana's traditional export crop, which brought in most of the foreign exchange. As Ghana's economy began to fall apart, Nkrumah seemed more interested in pan-Africanism than the minutiae of government. He became isolated, paranoid and dictatorial. In 1964, in a move that would be repeated by other African leaders in the decades to come, Nkrumah declared Ghana a one-party state and himself leader for life. The early optimism was gone, replaced by a deep sense of disappointment and lost opportunity. "There were a lot of problems," Kwame says. "People were getting hungry. Nkrumah was looking to the East for help. He kept paying everyone's salaries, but things were not working how he planned." In early 1966, with the President on a visit to China, soldiers seized power. "We all waited to see if the military could do a better job than the politicians," says Kwame.