Calling out Ethnic Bigotry in the Ghanaian Public Sphere

Ethnocentrism is an issue that has been gradually silenced into the taboo topic category in conversations in Ghana’s public sphere. Many people have experienced ethnic bigotry because they did not belong to a dominant group within a particular socio-cultural context. The enslavement and colonization of African societies further complicated issues on ethnicity. Many African countries have struggled to build a comprehensive national identity that is inclusive of the many ethnic groups that constitute a nation. As such ethnic allegiance has always been stronger than national identity within the social and political reality of the nation-state. Ghana like countries across Africa has struggled to project a national identity that includes the many ethnic identities in the country. I have found Kimberle Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality quite useful for situating issues of ethnic identity within larger conversations on feminism and nationalism. I have experienced ethnic bigotry in my short life and in my experience, people whose ethnicities are affirmed nationally (and or regionally) tend to silence conversations that confront ethnic dominance and challenge ethnocentrism and ethnic bigotry. I have always held the view that we need to blatantly speak on and confront bigotry in all its manifestations so I asked a number of people to share their experiences of ethnic bigotry in our beloved country.

Francis Xavier Dery Tuokuu, Nandom (Upper West Region)

Francis

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s culture or ethnic group is superior to the other. Such beliefs destroy the cultural cohesion of a people. In a 21st century Ghana, ethnocentrism should have been thrown to the dogs. Regrettably, however, that is not the case, as we experience it daily in churches, schools, workplaces, inter alia. There are several examples I can cite to demonstrate to you how for example, derogatory comments were made against me because of where I come from in Ghana. Nonetheless, one that stands out and resonates with me was when I completed Legon in 2008 and had to return to my hometown, Nandom in the Upper West Region, and a Geography course mate of mine advised; “don’t go up north because of the conflict in Bawku. They will kill you.” One can tell from this person’s advice that, his view about the north is malnourished and the degree he obtained in geography did not really teach him anything about Ghana’s rich diversity. For him, the north is one homogeneous place, where everyone speaks the same language and does everything in common. Also, there are instances where friends will tell you, “you don’t look like a northerner”, “you don’t look like a Muslim” or “why do you people like fighting?”  From the above, one can argue that, ethnocentrism promotes ethnic bigotry, tensions, conflicts, and militates against a country’s development. Therefore, it should not be entertained by anyone who wants to see Ghana develop.

Umar Mohammed, Saŋ (Northern Region)

Umar

Ethnic or tribal allegiance is such an important part of human social organization that it is hard to situate it within 21st century multicultural national and international ideas about belongingness. Because society had often than not been organized around the ethnic group, the idea of seeing one’s self and as owing allegiance to a larger entity such as the Ghanaian state offers a number of challenges for contemporary society. Because of this duality of competing allegiances, behavior tendencies have to be adjusted every now and then in a multicultural state like Ghana. As a Dagbana (Dagomba) in Ghana, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing multiple layers of this question of competing allegiances between the state and the Dagbang Nation. Often, when these issues come to the fore, the superficial discourse turns to issues of ethnocentrism or tribal bigotry. These easy negative categorization of behavioral tendencies bely the challenges of changing eons of human identity and communal formation principles. As a Dagbana, I grew up with a strong sense of self and belief in my superiority over others because I am a Dagbana. So I often heard the term “Gurungu” applied to anyone who was non-Dagbana as a term of derision. The reason why it can be a term of derision is because the Dagbamba have often looked down on the Gurunsi for a myriad of reasons hence classifying any non-Dagbana as Gurunsi is often done as some sort of superiority complex.

One of the things you learn is that living in a majoritarian community lends itself to the extra feeling of superiority and living in Tamale as a Dagbana often allows for this kind of superior feeling towards non-Dagbamba. I want to clarify that this was my experience growing up in Tamale and hence it may not be used as evidence of ethnocentrism among the Dagbamba in and of itself.

I have also witnessed certain behaviors among the Dagbamba as related to other ethnicities in the region especially the Gonja as having features of ethnocentrism. I believe these are remnants from the early pre-colonial power struggle for land between the two groups. I have been privy to conversations among older Dagbamba where they advise against marrying a Gonja girl or boy on very ethnocentric grounds.

My earliest experience on the flip side of ethnocentrism was my time in Accra as an undergraduate student where I was often asked why we (the Dagbamba) were violent and barbaric. To this end, I was tasting the same sauce of inflicting inferiority on others the Dagbamba did as a majority in Tamale. In Accra, I was the minority and hence the subject of negative association by the majority. I have personal romantic injuries at Legon that can be traced directly to this phenomenon.

That’s another story for another day though. But the idea of a national identity is the acceptance of a common identity that supersedes other nominal identities such as ethnicity or tribe. In Ghana though, as in other places around the world, the draw of ethnic allegiance is still very strong serving as a challenge to national cohesion.

Felicia Anthonio, Keta (Volta Region), Bole (Northern Region)

Felicia

Whoever: Wow you are very pretty and intelligent. Where do you come from?

Me: Errrm my dad is from Keta in the Volta Region and my mum is from Bole in the Northern Region.

Whoever: Are you kidding me? Eii! You don’t look like a northerner at all!

Me: How do northerners look like?

Another day

Taxi driver begins to insult Northerners and expects me to join the conversation. I was silent. He kept whining about everything you can think of from the north “those people are very difficult, very dirty and uncivilised.” As if that wasn’t enough, he added, “those people and Ewes, I don’t like their matter at all.”

He was so sure I was none of the ethnic groups he was lambasting. A few metres away from my destination I asked him, “papa driver, do you know I am a northerner and an Ewe. Please where do I belong in your derogatory stereotyping?” Being ashamed was an understatement.

Several people have exclaimed! Ei Your combination is thick oo! Anytime I tell them about my bi-ethnic background. Those who think they are being nice to me will say “oh but for your beauty and your colour I wouldn’t have believed you.” A very good male friend of mine pleaded with me to choose my Northern origin if his mother enquired about where I came from. He was sure she was going to flip if she ever found out I was from the Volta Region.

My classmates branded me a ‘witch’ because I topped my class in every exam. I chanced upon them one rainy day seriously gossiping “I am telling you the girl has supernatural powers. How can someone be that intelligent? She is a northerner and a voltarian what do you expect? I am sure her parents bathe her some concoctions when she was a baby.” I just smiled and went to my desk.

My own friends, time and again, forget and begin to talk about either or both of my ethnic identities. Others look at me apologetically and go ahead to voice their stereotypical comments. I try my best not to take their comments to heart as I would have committed unspeakable atrocities by now. Very provocative!

Ethnocentrism is still rampant in Ghana. It takes a conscious effort to appreciate the richness of our cultural diversity. Let’s not allow one bad experience with someone ruin the opportunity to build good relations with others.

Maliha Abubakar, Gulkpegu (Northern Region)

Maliha

I went out with my cousin one evening and we stopped by Madina to pick a taxi. At the station we met a friend of mine and I stopped to say hi. There was a queue as usual so my cousin went ahead to join it but she saw some people coming to join the queue so hastened to join it before them. A lady was immediately behind her and she told the lady she was with me and that I will join her shortly in the queue. The woman was cool with that but it obviously did not go down well with the guy behind the lady. He told my sister she should have waited for me so that we would join the queue together. I finished my chat and walked to join the queue and he went like “so you are going to join the queue?”. “Of course!” I answered. And he asked us to go to the back of the queue. I told him he didn’t have such powers to order us. There was of course an argument and I asked if he knew who we were to behave in such an unruly manner towards us. He went like, “are you not from that your north?”.

His resistance to our joining the queue was entirely prejudiced on the fact that we were from that north.

Heartwill Delphine Kekle Edjah, Keta (Volta Region)

Heartwill

I grew up in a very liberal family with aunties and uncles married across cultures and religions. We were taught to treat others as we would want to be treated. Coming from this background, you can imagine my rude-awakening when I found myself in an HIV/AIDs Anti-Stigmatization conference with one of the participants who I would dare to describe as a friend cite an example that Ewes were not allowed in his house. He further went on to say he would be disowned if he brought an Ewe lady home as a wife. Let us just say he was no longer a friend after that session ended. I might be considered petty but if a third-year student in college could proudly speak about another ethnic group in such a manner, he has no business being my friend.

In another encounter, my mom and I were humiliated in Makola during the 2012 Elections because she dared to speak ewe to me. She did not speak to anyone but to her own child- me. Yet, she was insulted. You know the kind where you clap hands and boo your enemy; that was the kind of treatment we got.  My poor mother and I were lost for words. This was all because we spoke our own Ewe language. Then as if that was not enough, I log on to Facebook only to see my Junior High School mate update his status with hate speech about Ewes and Northerners. I quickly called him out and unfriended him.

Fast forward to 2016, I met a lady who automatically assumed I was showing off because I did not speak Twi. I proceeded to educate her on why not everyone from Ghana speaks Twi. It is always the ignorant ones who try to call people out for not speaking their language This situation happened outside Ghana.

I have no problems with people speaking whatever language they please. I would never look down on any one for speaking a language other than mine.

Ethnocentrism is real in Ghana and I often dare to compare it to racism. As they are almost on the same scale, in my opinion. I am afraid we are getting to a point where if we do not nip it in the bud we might not even live to regret it.

Wunpini F. Mohammed, Yendi & Tampiong (Northern Region)

Wunpini

My first experience of ethnic bigotry was in the University of Ghana. I was a teenager who was naïvely optimistic about people’s world views and acceptance of difference because I grew up in a sheltered home where both parents spoke a variety of Ghanaian languages and held progressive views on issues of ethnicity. My father particularly raised me to not judge people based on where they were coming from which I assumed was inspired by his wealth of life experience. I believe that my feminism was inspired largely by what he taught me. It was this sheltering that caused me to completely flip out when I had my first experience of ethnic bigotry in Legon. In the workplace, a woman mispronounced my name and a colleague commented on it. I had grown tired of correcting people on the pronunciation of Wunpini so I was about to let it slide as usual when this colleague who pointed out that my name had been mispronounced went further to tell me that if I had had a name like Ama or Abena, I would not experience issues of mispronunciation of my name. He went on to say that if I didn’t want my name to be mispronounced I should have gone to the University for Development Studies so that my people wouldn’t mispronounce my name. I feel the pain of this interaction even as I write about it. This colleague was practically saying that despite Ghana’s multiculturality which should inspire ethnic interaction and integration, I was better off segregated in my north. Though I have had various experiences of ethnic bigotry, this is the one that has stuck with me to this day. My Ghanaian citizenship was question and de-legitimized based on where I was coming from. To this day, I have made the conscious decision to be unapologetically Dagbana wherever I find myself.

 

We have consistently tiptoed around the problem of ethnic bigotry and we hope that the sharing of these experiences will spark conversations on ethnic prejudice in Ghana. Feel free to share your experiences of ethnic bigotry to help amplify the discussion on what has come to be perceived as a taboo topic.

Note

These experiences were compiled by Wunpini F. Mohammed (the editor of this blog). It is the first of a two-part series that sheds light on ethnic bigotry in the Ghanaian public sphere.

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