I am writing this piece to clarify a creeping misunderstanding about ethnicity that, if care is not taken, could derail the peace in Ghana. Since Hon. Kobina Tahir Hammond, the Member of Parliament for Adansi-Asokwa Constituency in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, made his comments about the Ewe or so-called Voltarians, some politicians are spinning around what he said to score political points.
But more so, to create unnecessary tension in Ghana. But in the debate over the creeping impact of ethnicity in our politics, the important question we need to ask ourselves is: how do I love someone who is not like me? This is because it is difficult to kill ethnic instinct. But must we even kill our ethnic instinct to interact with the ethnic Other? Can’t we harvest our respective ethnic idiosyncrasies to build Ghana?
The idea of Ghana as a national entity was built after the colonial enterprise. On the eve of Ghana’s independence, there was the nagging question of ethnicity in politics. Can the various ethnic groups, with some fighting others, unite to constitute “modern” nationhood? Would the unity that was marshalled against colonialism survive postcolonial Ghana? This was because, during the struggle against colonialism, the coloniser was constructed as the biggest ethnic Other. Was Ghana’s unity going to survive after the biggest ethnic Other was gone? Given that the idea of Ghanaianism was also defined against the European Other, it was important for the nationalists to define what it would mean to unite Ghanaians after the colonisers were away.
In response to nationality question, national emblems and creative myths were invented to engender unity among Ghanaians. Just as newspapers in the French language was strong enough to birth French nationalism and just as King Edward III promulgated the use of English to enforce English nationalism in the fourteenth century, Ghana decided to invent stories around colours, national anthems, and some state emblems to ensure nationalism that transcended ethnicity and religious divide. Nkrumah’s consciencism, a fusion of indigenous religions, Islam, and Christianity, was part of the attempts at constructing nationhood. But no efforts were made to formally promote any local Ghanaian language as a national language.
As a young Akan man, who is fixated about my Christian faith, rather than my “accidental” Akan identity, I have been accused by some individuals as Akan chauvinist, because when I write, I cite most of my examples from the Akan. In many cases, I find myself reluctant to respond to such critics. This is because I know some of them deliberately profile me to achieve a political point. One thing I do not is that I tend to know more about the Akan, not necessarily because of my formal education. But because I learned much about my culture from my parents and other people. But I cite examples from other ethnic groups in my writings, especially when I am informed about what I write about.
But the truth is that I am more interested in the identity I choose than those that I do not choose. This is because when I choose my identity, I am intentional about it and work to maintain it. When I do not choose my identity, what it will imply is that I may have some level of organic affinity and solidarity with members of my group, but in the long run, attachment to the group becomes more artificial and superficial.
I did not choose my identity as Akan, but I chose the Christian religion (even though in matters of salvation, God chose me). Because I did not choose my identity as Akan, I do not make any fuss about it to indicate superiority or inferiority. I am rather inclined to pursue my Christian identity – which is ethnically and “racially” more inclusive than my parochial Akan identity. I did not choose the Twi language I speak. It was given to me as part of my socialisation. I chose to speak Hausa, alongside Twi, because it is the language that was closest to me as a Zongo young man. I have tried in vain to learn Ewe because I have hardly lived in Ewe language community for more than a week. In all of this, my Akan identity is ascribed, rather than achieved. And because I celebrate what I achieve, I do not trumpet my ascribed ethnic identity.
I remember that growing up at Maamobi in Accra, we had a few of our neighbours being Ewe, so my siblings and I all learned to eat some indigenous foods from the Volta Region. As children, we always shared food. Sadly, I did not learn to prepare any of the foods from the Volta Region. And equally unfortunate, these Ewe neighbours hardly spoke to their children in the Ewe language. So, I only managed to learn to say to a few expressions in Ewe to my Ewe friends. These expressions include: “come and eat with me”, “Come and let’s play football”, “How are you?” “There is no money”, “How much” “I will beat you”, “I am going home”, etc.
At the University of Cape Coast (UCC), my best friend (among others) who has stuck with me until now is a gentleman from Anfoega in the Volta Region. Kofi Semanu Atsu Adzei and I have been united in learning, sharing ideas, and reflecting on political and other issues for more than fifteen years. The two of us worked to provide leadership at the then Department of African Studies, UCC. We teamed up with a few of our friends to form a de facto student organisation, Concerned African Studies Students Association (CAFSA) in 2006 to help some of our mates who were trailing in their academic work. Atsu and I wrote several petitions to reform the department.
One reason Atsu and I have bonded so well is also because we are not interested in ethnic politics. We are more interested in humanity and human welfare. We moved to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, which Nkrumah founded in 1961, together for our Master of Philosophy Education in 2009 and later found ourselves at the Makerere University, Uganda, to begin our doctoral studies. Given the closely knitted friendship between Atsu and me, we called each other “Amenye”.
In addition to Atsu is our sister and mate, Agnes Doe Agbanyo, who has been a true sister and friend to Atsu and I. Atsu and I mostly found ourselves in Sister Agnes’s room in Adehye hall to enjoy delicious Ewe banku and slimy okro soup/stew. And since she was the hall president of Adehye hall (female-only hall), Atsu and I expected that she would have connected us to the hall (UCC students should understand this). But she failed us, even though we campaigned for her. Later after school, I managed to play my Casfordian card (belonging to Casely Hayford Hall – male-only hall) to win the heart of Adehye woman.
At the UCC, Atsu and I enjoyed patronising the student Borbor group to dance on selected Friday nights. As Atsu had developed expertise in drumming, he would play the drums, as I did the dancing in the company of other Ewe young men and women. My circle of Ewe friends extended to include a relative. My uncle who recently died and yet to be buried had Ewe wife. So, I have Ewe cousins.
We should be careful about how we tend to construct ethnicity and mix it with ethnocentrism. There is certainly no doubt that much of Ghana’s history is coloured with Akan history, precisely because of historical accidents. The first historical accident was that most of the Europeans first interacted with the Akan-speaking people. The second is that most of the nineteenth-century nationalists were either Akan or individuals who sympathised with the Akan.
And because the nationalists were interested initially in cultural restitution, precisely because colonialism was constructed as an assault on indigenous cultures, they reified and universalised Akan culture. Consequently, Akan cultures tend to dominate and pervade much of Ghana, especially southern Ghana, giving the false impression that Ghana is largely Akan in cultural predilections.
But we need to ask important questions other than just feeling uneasy about the idea of Akan-centrism in Ghana. First, there is nothing like Akan culture. We have Akan cultures that are osmotic and highly malleable. Akan cultures have not been the same across time and space. Simply state: Akan culture is neither fossilised in history nor an archival object that is “there”.
Second, the idea of Akanness is a construct. The internal fragmentation of the Akan is precisely because the idea of Akanness was created on a convenient myth of a group of people who descended from a common ancestress. The etiological myth about the Akan was creatively invented to inspire some degree of unity among the Akan.
Consequently, whether it is political symbolism, totemism, and religious rituals, these are all creative inventions to enforce some level of cohesion and solidarity among the Akan. It is also true that based on the myths establishing the Akan as an ethnic group, the definition of Akanness is established about the ethnic “Other”. When Akan people say “we the Akan” (which is logically impossible), it implies that we are different from non-Akan people.
But there is nothing like “We the Akan”. This is because such a categorical and identification signifier assumes that there is homogeneity and internal identity consistency among the Akan. To show that the Akan is internally fragmented, take the case of the Akan supposedly social system. Many Ghanaian sociologists are quick to say that the Akan sociologically is matrilineal. But we do know that this is not true.
The idea of matrilineality of the Akan is not historically verifiable since it is a social construct, based on a convenient myth. There are some ethnographically Akan groups in the Central Region, specifically Winneba that are patrilineal. Even in matrilineal societies, like the Asante, there is exceptionality to the matrilineal logic. For example, the Bantama stool is patrilineal (Agya adwa “Father’s stool”).
Having said all this, there is no doubt that Twi is one of the widely spoken languages in Southern Ghana, including Accra, the capital city and the domain of Ga. This linguistic dominance of Twi in Accra has been shaped by some “recent” histories in Ghana. The relocation of the colonial capital of the Gold Coast from Cape Coast (Akan area) to Accra (Ga area) in 1877 encouraged an increasing influx of Akan people, particularly traders to Accra. The concentration of most of the important administrative offices in Accra has also meant that more people, including the Akan, have moved to Accra in search of better life opportunities, including education.
The linguistic plurality of Accra has also resulted in one language – Twi – becoming a common language for many Ghanaians, including non-Akan people. This is because of two main reasons. First, while English is the official language of Ghana, not many people have oral and written competence in the language. Second, the rise of local media houses, since the liberalisation of the media landscape in the 1990s, has facilitated the importance attached to the Twi language. Given that some of these media houses are owned by Akan people or have the intention of attracting a broad spectrum of audience, they tend to run their programmes in Twi.
This situation has created the impression of Akan linguistic imperialism in Accra. But it must be mentioned that not every Akan is happy with the seeming dominance of Twi in the capital city. I have met Fante people who can speak Twi and yet will always speak Fante in Accra. I have a Fante friend, who would always respond to our Twi conversation in Fante. She keeps telling me she is comfortable with her Fante. This does not create many problems, because of the greater extent of mutual intelligibility between Fante and Twi.
But certainly, this will be difficult for the other equally important languages. For example, if Atsu responds to our conversation in Twi with Ewe we would create a mini-Babylon in our minds. In the same vein, if two linguistically unrelated groups meet in Accra, they are likely to speak English or Twi. While this may be discomforting for many people, it is a reality that we have to deal with. Until many Ghanaians can communicate in English in Accra, it is highly probable that many residents of Accra may have to learn Ga, Hausa or Twi and in some areas Ewe.
But learning a new language is best facilitated if there is a language community. I studied Ga and wrote Ga exams since I attended my basic school in Accra, but I speak Hausa (which I never studied in school), with non-native competence than I do with Ga. Certainly, I understand the “common man’s” Ga and can manage some communication, but I will not communicate well in standard Ga, even though, as I said, I studied Ga. But the challenge may not necessarily be because of my incompetence in learning a new language, as it may be because of the absence of a Ga enclave in Maamobi (especially Maamobi East).
The seeming dominance of Twi is also because of the rise of the neo-Pentecostal religious groups. The founders of this strand of Christianity are either Akan (Twi) speaking people or have stayed among the Akan. And even those who have no relation with the Akan pragmatically use the Twi language to appeal to a larger audience. Incidentally, most of these neo-Pentecostal churches are in the regional capitals of Ghana, giving additional dominance of the Twi language in some of the regional capitals of Ghana.
Most politicians also speak Twi, including those who are ethnically non-Akan. This is also a pragmatic use of language to achieve a higher political objective. If we are to go to by statistics that the Akan is about 49 per cent of the Ghanaian population, majority of whom in the regional capitals speaking Twi, then it is only shrewd that most politicians would do well to communicate their political ideas in Twi.
But all this discussion is not to underestimate the role colonialism and Asante territorial aggrandisement played in enforcing the preponderance of Twi in Ghana. The political base of the colonial administrators – Accra – favoured southern cultures than the northern cultures. Some of the nationalists were, therefore, aware of the need to stay clear of ethnic-based politics. Nkrumah passed a law in 1957 passed the Avoidance of Discrimination Act that proscribed the formation of political parties around ethnic and religious lines. Nkrumah’s law was firstly targeted at the National Liberation Movement, formed in 1954 and was believed to have revolved around Asante or Akan ethnic atavism.
It is also important that a group could be in the minority demographically and yet be sociologically stronger. Through education, some of the minor ethnic groups in Ghana continue to contribute significantly to the socio-political and economic development of Ghana. This also implies that the frontiers of education should be broaden to include all ethnic groups. Similarly, development projects should be all inclusive.
At this moment in our history, especially when we are fighting the coronavirus pandemic, there is no need to beat the ethnocentric drum. There is no need to huff and puff over ethnicity when we have more critical issues at stake. Certainly, we should punish individuals who are interested in stoking the embers of ethnocentrism. But we should equally guard against politicians who take advantage of ethnic divisions to foment tension in Ghana. Ghana is for all of us. We cannot allow some self-centred politicians to make political capital out of ethnicity. Some of the members of the New Patriotic Party and the National Democratic Congress should cease fire on ethnic politics.
They should focus their attention on solving Ghana’s developmental challenges – poverty, famine in some areas, illiteracy, corruption, and needless partisan politics. Ghana needs all the ethnic groups to chart new paths in our development. We cannot run allow partisan politics to separate us.
But to resolve the creeping ethnocentrism in Ghana, we should revisit the teaching of cultural studies that was introduced in our basic schools in 1987. Currently, the cultural studies subject has been replaced with Religious and Moral Education since 1997. By reinstating cultural studies, we should encourage all cultures to write about their cultures so that we can contribute to broader knowledge that appeal to most Ghanaians. Our upcoming scholars should take it as a duty to write about their respective cultures, even as they study other cultures.
The movie industry also needs to be reconsidered. The practice of portraying indigenous priests that mimic other ethnic groups as negatively and deeply steeped in indigenous religious practices reinforces ethnic tension. This needs to be worked at.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra