Staying in Touch with Ghana
It was not the first time I had returned to
Ghana. After living in the U.S. for ten years, I had
returned in 1997. Although I spent ten weeks in Ghana, I
spent four weeks in the hospital and two weeks recovering from
an illness, so I didn’t see much of my native country. Two
years later, I went back to attend my father’s funeral, so I
can’t say that I enjoyed Ghana.
However, this past August, I returned there
to lead a team of science educators on a scientific expedition
sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was
the first time in eighteen years that I had the opportunity to
rediscover Ghana. When you emigrate to another country, you
don’t realize that you change because the change is gradual.
Although we were in Ghana to study agricultural systems and
conservation efforts, the trip included cultural elements that
left an indelible mark on all of us, certainly on me.
Before the expedition, I flew to Ghana in
March to plan the program with our Ghanaian host, a gentleman
from the Ministry of Agriculture. The first thing I noticed was
that this man did not forget that I was a woman. In the
United States, a man working with a woman has to make sure that
he treats her like a person, not a woman. Praising a woman on
her appearance borders on sexual harassment. For me, though, it
was a pleasure to be treated like a woman; our host was very
comfortable paying me compliments and paying for meals.
Initially, it was awkward because in the U.S. you must always
offer to pay for yourself. In Ghana, it is an insult to
the man, so after a few uncomfortable moments, I relaxed and
enjoyed someone taking care of me.
The down side to this is that Ghanaian men do
not like to take orders from a woman, especially from one who is
younger, so I had to be careful not to be too bossy. This may
sound offensive to some, but I see nothing wrong in being
gracious in one’s speech, regardless of one’s sex. In
America, often times in the work place, women feel a need to
defend themselves because they have had to fight for their
rights. As a result, some come across as rather abrasive and
It was interesting to see many female
entrepreneurs. They owned hotels and other businesses,
driving around in expensive cars. Yet these women remained very
feminine and charming with their husbands.
The expedition began in Accra, which was
nice. Everything was available, even disposable diapers,
soymilk, tofu, you name it. However, traffic was horrendous.
What was fascinating was seeing young pedestrians weaving their
way through traffic, dodging cars while selling goods —
anything from flashlights to fabrics. The minute a bus
stopped, it would be surrounded by people, young and old, male
and female shoving fried meat, dough nuts, jewelry, hammers,
bottled water, flags, etc through the windows while calling,
‘My sister, auntie, very cheap!”
The Americans on our expedition were
terrified as first, and it occurred to me that the reason was
because when someone crowds your personal space in America, it
can be threatening. In Ghana though, the sellers simply want to
sell their wares and have no desire to harm you. These
young boys and girls were doing something better than doing
drugs and crime; they were simply trying to make a little money.
In the rural areas, we enjoyed incredible
hospitality. Many times, I wanted to cry because I was
touched by people’s kindness. A woman left her shop to
accompany an American who had lost her way to the Post Office.
People cooked for us, made clothes for us, visited us, hugged us
and made us feel loved. It is not that people are not kind in
America. Americans are kind and very giving. I think all
people speak the same language of love, but it is the definition
Love in Ghana means going out of your way to
help anyone without any regard for your own schedule. It means
inviting anyone who drops by at meal times to share your meal
even if you do not have enough. Even strangers always greet you
properly when they meet you. A couple of times, I walked past
people without greeting them and was caught by surprise when
they wished me a fine morning. I realized that living in
America, I had learned to be reserved.
In Washington D.C., you get on the metro in
the morning and everyone has either a book or a newspaper, or a
walk-man with earphones. You avoid people’s eyes and
look confident lest they perceive your humanity and
vulnerability. You get off the metro and race up the elevators
to your destination. If you say good morning on the train,
people will stare and feel uncomfortable. In Ghana, I soon
shed my reserve and embraced people, and it felt good.
One of the interesting aspects of our trip
was meeting a women’s cooperative at Kejetia market in Kumasi,
the largest market in Africa. The market is so large,
spanning several city blocks, that it is easy to get lost
without a guide. The women we met sold yam in the market.
Kumasi is the capital of the Ashanti kingdom. Contrary to
what people think, Ashanti women, though feminine, are strong
and usually financially independent. That is a trait you
find in many women in Ghana, but Ashantis tend to be stronger.
These feisty women had organized themselves well, and they had a
secretary who was a man. The women had a queen, etc.
What I noted was the pride they had in
everything they did, from trading with farmers in the north of
Ghana, to storing and transporting goods to the south.
They were also a family. As their spokesperson explained,
they helped each other. They lived by a code, which was to
stand up for one another, not to swindle one another and to
support one another through hard times such as death or illness
in a member’s family. They sang and danced for us, and
we were most grateful to be in the company of such strength of
character, love, and gaiety.
Dancing in Ghana is a ceremonial affair.
Ghanaians dance at weddings, when a child is born, when the
child named or outdoored – they even dance at funerals.
Dancing together signifies unity and love. Before we left
for Ghana, I read All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
by Maya Angelou. In the book, she describes an occasion
when Malcolm X visited Ghana and at a party in his honor, the
Ghanaians started to dance.
Malcolm was offended because it was during
the civil rights movement and Maya was also hurt. He felt that
it was in poor taste for him to dance when his people were
suffering back in the U.S. Maya felt as though Ghanaians
did not care enough. It is hard for foreigners to
understand that Ghanaians will dance even at funerals, laughing
and crying at the same time.
The high point of our visit was a courtesy
call on Otumfuo Osei-Tutu II, king of the Ashantis, at his
Manhyia Palace. The king, who has several university degrees, is
passionate about education and was happy to receive a group of
minority-serving educators from the U.S.
Otumfuo has an educational fund out of which
he grants numerous scholarships to needy students. It was
a joy for me to make a donation on behalf of the teachers.
Although the king normally does not address people directly, he
made it a point to praise my son for his devotion to the study
of history, and very graciously autographed his history book.
Interestingly though, one of our African American participants
was offended at having to bow to him. Ghanaians revere their
kings, much more so than they do the president.
Another visit was to the slave castle of
Elmina, the first European outpost in West Africa. Growing up in
Ghana, I had visited the castle before in high school, just as a
side event when we went to Elmina Beach to swim. Although I
understood that Africans had been chained in there and shipped
off into slavery, I simply saw it as history. The average
Ghanaian takes the castle for granted, is very forgiving and
does not hold on to painful memories. I realized for the first
time with African American guests that Ghanaians could be a
little more sensitive. Many of our guests cried, and as they
stood behind the cannons and looked over the beach, it enraged
them to see people playing soccer, or carrying on trade on the
grounds where some of their ancestors perished.
What was even more upsetting was being
accosted by ruffians peddling wares as we exited the castle.
My son, who grew up in America and had never visited a slave
fort, grabbed an object that was shoved at him and hurled it
away from him in anger. It was understandable. There is a need
to revere those sites for those who go there to mourn. To be
sure, there were volunteers with whips who tried to drive to the
young rascals away, but the government could do more and have
proper security in place.
Interacting with school children was most
gratifying. Before my present occupation, I was a high
school teacher, and you don’t need to be a teacher to know
that teaching in America is very trying indeed. The
children that walk into our classrooms have issues to deal with
that children should not have to deal with. Some have been
subjected to or been involved with violence, abuse, abandonment,
The children we saw in Ghana for the most
part had retained their childhood trust of adults.
Children got up when we entered a room and addressed us as
“Sir” or “Madam.” Their smiles were ready and they
happily sang for us and showed us around. One school we
visited was my alma mater, Wesley Girls’ High School, a
boarding school established by Methodist missionaries.
It was gratifying to see that the girls were
carrying on the tradition of our school motto: “Live right,
right wrong, and follow the King.” The king here is a
reference to God. There is no separation of state from God
in Ghana. The students and teachers pray freely. The
girls are still very involved with community service.
What was most upsetting though, was seeing a
trend towards westernization in Ghana. It was evident in
television programs. Television in Ghana used to be state
owned. It had only one channel and very wholesome shows.
It is wonderful that there are so many private television
stations that have cropped up. The downside is seeing
music video channels on television.
In America, you can only get it if you have
cable, but in Ghana, everyone has access to it. The effect
is a sudden shift in fashion among the youth. It used to
be that wearing a pair of jeans was considered vulgar in Ghana.
Suddenly, people are wearing blue jeans, but not just any blue
jeans; the tighter, the more faded, the more torn, the
African men are proud to be men and reject
anything that suggests female in them. To an African man,
braiding one’s hair is womanly. However, African American men
who braid their hair think that they are being African. They can
be forgiven for not understanding the African culture. But
African boys who have started watching music videos have started
emulating their idols. Suddenly, there are boys braiding their
hair and wearing earrings, and the elders are bewildered.
In the past, children in Ghana watched
television freely with their parents. There was never any
need to monitor what anyone watched. Now, there are
so-called late movies that depict violence and filthy language.
Most parents who don’t watch much television anyway do not
monitor this. They allow their children to watch these
movies not understanding that this could one day affect the
behavior of their children. I was deeply troubled by this.
That is why my favorite part of Ghana was in Ada on the Volta
There, life has not changed for centuries.
There are still innocent children swimming naked in the lake.
Adults and children bathe in the bright morning sun and wave to
us as we sail by in our boat. Their houses have no doors
because they are not worried about thieves. They have no
televisions or telephones. The men are mostly fishermen
that sing lustily together as they draw in their catch, and
their women greet them joyfully and smoke the fish.
I left Ghana strengthened and buoyant. The old Ghana is
still very much alive.
The President’s Agenda and the African American
Note: One should take a
careful look at the phrasing in the above presidential appeal to
the "African America Community." It is not an "African American
Agenda" by the President but a "President's Agenda." It is
always when it comes to black Americans about Mr. Obama than
about black American communities.
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update 24 February 2012