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 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 spoke to a couple of people to share their experiences of ethnic bigotry in our beloved country. This is the second and final part in our series on ethnic bigotry. You can read the first part here.
Solomon Nii Abo, Aboitsɛ We (Greater Accra Region)
I have had my share of ethnic bigotry as a Ga. It’s not unusual to hear people ascribe derogatory tags that include but are not exclusive to; Gas are aggressive, violent, uncivilized, lazy, unadventurous, and uncultured.
While it’s difficult to shape people’s entrenched ethnic prejudices: it’s somewhat puzzling to see the so called “educated ones” engaging in such bigotry. An interesting conversation that ensued between my high school English teacher and myself readily comes to mind:
“Solomon! Are you a Ga” she inquired
“Yes madam “ I answered
“I have never seen a Ga man this gentle”
Surprised and dumbfounded about her remarks, I walked back to my seat. In an attempt to make me feel better, my classmates tried explaining how complimentary her comments were. Heck no! I won’t buy that.
Our quest to build a peaceful and prosperous Ghana lies in the strength of our unique abilities and diversity. It’s high time we eschewed ethnic bigotry and ethnic stereotypes that have inundated our country. It’s also significant that in addressing these challenges that draw us back as a nation, recognize that we cannot win in our atomized state as an ethnic group.
Zoë Gadegbeku, Asadame (Volta Region)
“Ewe pride” is something that I joke about having these days, but it’s a concept that defined my childhood and my relationship to my culture and ethnicity. I spent hours after school sitting on the other side of my mother’s desk at work, watching her push back constantly against colleagues who assumed that she would understand Twi by default. PTA meetings at my primary school became another arena for the battle of whose language was appropriate for the classroom and the public sphere, and whose was not. You had two options, Twi or Ga. I took Twi, and was mediocre at it, but I can’t say that I ever really tried.
I was immersed in this way of thinking, that my language was just as valid as any other and should have room to exist freely, and so in awe of my mother’s boldness. Yet, the high regard with which I was learning to hold myself and my Ewe-ness made it so that I was also growing oblivious to the invisibility and erasure of Ewe language and heritage in media and in my everyday interactions outside of my home.
My childhood memories of weddings and outdoorings are set to the same soundtrack of highlife and other popular music as most other children growing up in Accra, but it took me getting older to realize that I rarely ever understood the lyrics, nor did I care to do so. TV shows like By the Fireside exposed me to Ghanaian folklore, but if there was ever a time when the trickster tales and creation myths weren’t Akan, I can’t recall. I once knew someone who tried to imply that there was a certain arrogance and classism to my refusal to learn Twi. Was I intentionally cutting myself off from people who may not have had education in English, because of my resistance to Twi? I never thought to ask him why he believed that that if someone wasn’t fluent in English, the only other option would be Twi.
My Ewe pride allows me to say a firm “no, thanks” to these assumptions, especially as my graduate study continues to delve as far as I can go into Ewe and diasporic folklore and cosmology. I am so enamored by my own cultural productions that I feel no need to prove that I’m as Ghanaian as the next person, even if my Twi will allow me to catch only one out of every ten words in Sarkodie’s latest track. υegbe nyͻnu menye, and fiercely proud of it.
Abdul Hayi Moomen, Wa (Upper West Region)
But for falling victim to ethnocentric comments at various stages in my life – comments that drove me a couple of times to question God for what crime I had committed to have merited the “punishment” of belonging to the Wala Ethnic group – perhaps I would have been a lot more confident and competent in my chosen career. I would perhaps have achieved a lot more than I have achieved so far.
When I first went to secondary school in Kumasi, little did I know that my name was “too difficult.” I was given a rude awakening when like all my other mates from the three regions of the North, I was simply referred to as “pepeni” or “tani” depending on who was calling me. I understood later, that “pepeni” and “tani” also connoted illiteracy, watchman, labourer, dirty, violent persons with very little understanding. Even when I became Assistant School Prefect, some junior students were often heard referring to me as the “pepeni prefect.” I had a name and wished that people would respect me for who I am and not for where they thought I came from. There were people I out-performed in class from the 1st year to the last year. On several occasions when general tests were conducted for our year group, out of more than 300 students , the worst I ever had in English was the second position. Yet, being “pepeni” was enough not to earn me the respect of some of the students. One of the teachers at the time who was nicknamed “Folivi” (who ironically became a lecturer at the northern region based UDS) used to call me and others of Northern origin “cockroaches”. Being called a cockroach by the very person who should be teaching you can be very demoralising- and demoralised, I was.
During my first week at GBC, I met a senior woman in the radio newsroom one morning and after introducing myself to her, her first question was “oh so you are a northerner?” I responded in the affirmative. “Ah! Then you are the right person to go and buy me kooko.
I host a flagship programme that goes by my own name “MOOMEN”. There is a promo of that programme that is played several times daily on GTV and GBC24. I also anchor the major flagship news programme on GBC’S flagship channel GTV, yet, many of the people I have been working with for more than 9 years still don’t know my name. They think that when they call me any name that either sounds like mine or is a “Northern” name, that I should respond.
Stephen Dziedzorm Dadugblor, Ho (Volta Region)
Two incidents come to mind in thinking about this issue. The first borders on something along the lines of intra-ethnic rivalry, bigotry even; the second, a relation fraught by someone’s feelings and misplaced notions of ethnic superiority. I had only vicariously experienced the first, so I will tell it as I came to know it: A good friend from what I will loosely call Central Eweland (think about Kpando here) had fostered amorous relations with his long-time friend from Southern Volta (Aflao, in this case). One would usually think that given the common ground of Ewe ethnicity, there would have been no problem at all when it came to getting married to each other. Sadly, the only challenge to marriage between two people of the same ethnicity turned out, surprisingly, to be their common ethnicity, seen in the questions the prospective father-in-law directed at the young man: “Me ke nye fofo wo? ‘Fika viwoe nenye?” to wit “Who is your father? (read: Of what family lineage are you?) Where do you come from?” As it turned out, a prospective father-in-law’s reason for his refusal to allow marriage between his daughter and another man of the same ethnicity was based solely on sub-group origin, for what he was to acknowledge as the inferiority of sorts of a subgroup within the same ethnic group. Even though multiple factors are often at play in such decisions and people rightly have a right of choice, should ethnicity, and more to our point, such explicit feelings of superiority of origin and lineage (for this was what he acknowledged) usefully guide our interactions with others? Isn’t this some intra-ethnic bigotry?
Consider this second incident, an encounter bordering on language, in Legon. I was on an errand to deliver a document to an administrative assistant for onward processing up Legon’s never-ending bureaucracy. While I had thought that communication in English in such an environment was standard operating procedure, my perception turned out to the misplaced. My want of fluency in Twi was my undoing. I had earlier responded cordially to the admin assistant’s greetings in Twi. Subsequent conversations turned out to be an uphill task, whereupon I decided it was better to stick to what we both should know—English! What should have been a minute’s encounter ended up being a protracted issue about my perceived unwillingness to learn and speak Twi. My interlocutor waxed cynical, and felt greatly offended that I had said I couldn’t respond to everything in Twi. She had just one explanation: I could speak Twi but had decided not to. It wasn’t so much the suggestion of superciliousness that lodged heavily on my heart; it was more her frank declaration that she wouldn’t engage me any further on my mission—an official university mission—because of what she saw as my stubbornness or disregard for language that should be or actually is lingua franca of a sort for all Ghanaians. And this wasn’t one of those friendly jabs at a mispronunciation of “Me ho yε”. This was a case of someone who could and should have appreciated that though united, we are a diverse people, in many respects.
Deborah Frempong, Begoro & Asokore (Eastern Region)
I learnt about the Ashanti Empire at the same time I learned about British Colonization. As the story went, the Ashanti Kingdom was the last to fall in 1902, and with its end, came the total dominance of what we now know to be Ghana. What that lesson did was frame the Ashanti as the protectors of the nation, erasing the conquering it had done on its own and the force it had expended on others. Extending from that incomplete history of Ghana, many Akans take pride in their cultural supremacy, consider it normal and even revel in it. This has to change. For me, this is not about whether we are ‘cordial’ to people of other ethnic origins, but rather about paying heed to the real structural inequalities and cultural prejudices that are maintained in this ‘peace’ we claim to have. Many of us might not openly make offensive remarks about people from other parts of Ghana – we will claim that we consider that crass – but we are very comfortable with the deeply classed and homogenous communities we keep.
Over time, I have had to unlearn my own prejudices about people of other ethnicities. I have thought more seriously about the ‘jokes’ that were never really jokes, about the lumping of the ‘North’ into one big mass (as though we don’t proclaim that Africa isn’t a country, but repeat similar actions in our own home). I have questioned why a majority of upper-middle class students in all the schools I attended were of Akan heritage – where, even though we would say we were not ‘tribalistic’, there was the casual assumption that ‘Ghanaian’ primarily meant Akans and then Gas and perhaps everybody else. As a researcher, I try to make sure that the work I do does not make assumptions about what Ghana is. I seek out information from others who do indeed have more representative knowledge about the country as a whole than I do. I remember that Accra is not Ghana, and that ‘Ghanaian’ does not only mean ‘Christian-Akan-Middle-Class’. Finally, I’d like to add that that reckoning with our privileges as Akans in Ghana is not a favor we do for other people, it is a responsibility.
As a people, we must endeavor to consciously be introspective about our relations with difference. Whether it is from within or outside our ethnic groups, we should point out bigotry when we see one. As Ghanaians, we must recognize the multiplicity that makes up our country, and refuse to be ignorant about the diverse histories of our multiple ethnicities. We cannot embrace ignorance any longer. We shouldn’t be content with self-knowledge facilitated by a Social Studies course in high school, or a semester’s worth of some aspect of Ghanaian history. Perhaps with more knowledge about others, and a conscious, deeper commitment to genuinely relate with difference, we can begin to be less ethnocentric. We owe it to ourselves.
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.
These experiences were compiled by Wunpini F. Mohammed (the editor of this blog). It is the second of a two-part series that sheds light on ethnic bigotry in the Ghanaian public sphere. Please find the first blog post here.