Let us start with the interesting notion that certain peoples or nations behave in particular ways that are distinct from others. It is said that Americans are loud and arrogant (or confident, depending on whose view you are listening to), yet fiercely patriotic, that Italians are passionate lovers and fiery-tempered, that the British are reserved, the Germans are frightfully efficient and humourless, and that the Japanese are overly polite.
Of course all these are stereotypical views and do not apply to every person who belongs to these nationalities I have mentioned above. These views are therefore unsustainable. But is there a general truth to each of these stereotypes? How else have they gained currency over time? Most of us will evoke a certain stereotype once a country or race or profession is mentioned. How many people genuinely think lawyers are nice angels and not lying silver-tongued crooks that want to fleece you of every bit of money you have to your name?
Now, what is the Ghanaian national character? How do we differ as a people from, say Nigerians or Kenyan, Albanians or Peruvians? There is this popular anecdote about a European man who had heard that Ghanaians were known for answering questions with questions. He therefore hopped on a plane to Accra to research this phenomenon and to see for himself whether this was true. On arrival at Accra’s Kotoka International and whilst being attended to by an immigration officer, he asked casually whether it was true Ghanaians always answered questions with questions. ‘Who told you that?’ came the quick reply. The European was said to have turned around and caught the return flight back home, for he believed his research had been completed by what he had just heard.
Is the Ghanaian character, whatever it may be, divisible along the various ethno-linguistic divides? How do these diverse groups, each with its own perceived character traits, blend together to produce a ‘national character’ that can be claimed as distinctly Ghanaian, if indeed it is accepted that there is such a thing a Ghanaian character, however loosely you define it? Are there common traits running through all the groups and threading them together? . Mention a certain ethnic group and the words ‘braggart’, ‘money-loving’ and ‘funeral addict’, readily spring to the mind of many. Another group is feared by many for their supposed ‘magical’ powers but they are reputed to be excellent scholars and carpenters. Yet another ethnic group said to be bestowed with a sweet palate and therefore a preference for ‘building their houses in their bellies’ whilst their roofs leak and their buildings crack and wobble. It also believed that the men from a certain ethnic group are lazy and prefer eating their mother’s food well into adulthood, whilst people from certain parts of the country are generally looked down upon the rest of the country as lacking basic understanding. The list goes on and on. The Akuapems are perhaps the only ethnic group in Ghana to enjoy rave reviews for their extraordinary politeness, flavouring every other sentence with ‘me pa wo kyew se’ (please) even when they are just about to insult you. However, it is said that their politeness is no licence for you to mess with their palm nut soup, for that would be tantamount to a declaration of war!
Of course all of the above are silly stereotypes. But nonetheless, they carry a great deal of force in modern Ghana and tend to influence many people’s decisions and perceptions in serious issues like political affiliation, marriages, employment and promotion prospects as well as economic activities like trading. This is because they have been around for so long that they are believed to be gospel. Perceptions are very important, even of dangerously so.
If someone asked you to describe Ghanaians in one word, what would you say? Friendly? Resilient? God-fearing? Peace-loving? Hard working? The defunct Ghana Airways went by the slogan ‘Africa’s Friendly Airline’. But wonderful as these accolades may sound, and true as they may in fact be, a further dig may reveal more unsavoury issues: our time-keeping skills (or lack thereof), attitudes towards ‘government’ work, the prevalence of corruption and lack of public accountability, and a shameful belief in the superiority of everything European over African, etc.
How do these attributes outlined above (both good and bad) impact on us as a nation? Is the Ghanaian character a good engine for economic growth? In what way? Do we need a paradigm shift in our mindset (if in fact there is such a thing as our collective mindset)? Has religion (both traditional and Christianity/Islam) got anything (whether good or bad) to do with our development as a nation? How have our traditional family set-up and philosophical belief systems shaped and defined our national character, and has it been for the good? How about our political and economic history, under slavery and then subsequently colonialism up to the post-colonial era? Has our mentality shaped the social economic and political structures we have in place today? Or is it the other way round?
Why, simply put, are we the way we are?