Sat, Sep

In search of national purpose

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  • If someone asked you to describe Ghanaians in one word, what would your choice be? Whatever word you would use, how did you arrive at that conclusion?

I recall an interesting anecdote from many years ago that said an European academic had heard that Ghanaians typically answered questions with questions, so he decided to fly to Ghana to conduct some research into this.
On arrival at the immigration desk at the Kotoka International Airport, he is said to have asked the immigration official, “I have heard that Ghanaians like to answer questions with questions. Is that true, please?”

The officer shot back, “Who told you that?”

With that answer, the European is said to have simply caught the flight back to Europe without bothering to step beyond the airport building, satisfied he had the answer to his burning research question.

If someone asked you to describe Ghanaians in one word, what would your choice be? Whatever word you would use, how did you arrive at that conclusion?

Through the power of observation? A scientific survey using all the right research methods and methodology?

Or your own experiences garnered over time? If you have visited or lived in any other country, are you able to sum it up in one word? How did you arrive at that description?

I believe there is such a thing as national character, however you define it. Lawrence M. Mead argues that American democracy, for instance, depends on a political culture characterised by a psychology of moderate individualism, by which he means that people see one another primarily as individuals but act with moderation, trust and civility.

He argues that this psychology is particular to Western cultures, whereas people in non-Western cultures tend to have a more collective-minded psychology.

Foreign perceptions

In my close to two decades abroad, I came to perceive Americans as generally believing their country was the best in the world and strong on liberty and individual freedom, even if that freedom bordered on the absurdity.

The French never disappointed with their love of all things gastronomic, whilst quintessential German efficiency left me breathless on many occasions.

Of the Italians, fierce passion seemed to course through their very veins, even in the way the spoke and gesticulated, whereas natives of my host nation, the UK, appeared reserved and modest, even though I found that their famed ‘stiff upper lip’ was no longer what it used to be.


Within the UK, the English, the Scots and the Welsh seem to have their own unique sub-strands. These are my own unscientific observations born out of my personal interactions.

Back home

Now let us come back home. Ghana is made up of several ethnic groups, each with its own distinct history norms, practices, beliefs and others. In many instances, they dovetail into one another through history, geography or simply social interaction.

Countless other perceptions, good or bad, prevail about almost every group in this country as indeed it does about almost every country or nation worldwide.

How then do all these distinct groups in Ghana and their differences come together in a certain way to result in what one is able to point to as Ghanaian in outlook, character or mentality?

How have we over the years beaten and welded and moulded them thus? Has there been a deliberate effort or policy from officialdom to do so?

Or have things been left to the forces of society to pull and push and allow the tectonic plates to shift until they have found their level that we are able to describe in one or two words?

European arrival

Before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 15th century, present-day Ghana consisted of several nation-states.

Of course they did not live peacefully with one another all the time. There were wars and conquests and treaties among the various powers as occurred earlier in Europe. In my view, this is part of the painful pangs of the birth of nations that see frontiers drawn and redrawn until eventually they settle down definitively.

As I argued the other day with a friend, without European interference, things would eventually have found their own level and settled down in their own time.

I believe the trinity of slavery, colonialism and foreign religions – Christianity in our case- came together in a formidable way to foist on Africa alien systems, concepts and ideas that we could not really relate to and which have negatively affected our psyche and what we think of ourselves – what the legendary Bob Marley calls ‘mental slavery’.

Au contraire, the British, former colonial overlords of many countries and purveyors in slavery, derived a certain pride which influenced their ‘Rule Britannia’ nationalistic song with the line ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’.

However hard the foreigners tried, they could not totally dismantle all of our belief systems and practices, and so we trudged along with stumps and remnants of our cultural beliefs here and there, even as smiling little schoolchildren in British colonies marched past and saluted the Union Jack on Empire Day.

Upon independence, our new masters, who only differed from the colonialists in skin tone, retained and implemented the western structures and systems they had inherited.

We have, thus, been left in a parallel universe, lurching from pillar to post when it comes to our politics, our naming systems, our religious beliefs and even whether or not what we rather naively call ‘engagement’ is actually a marriage to all intents and purposes, or a ‘proper’ wedding is required to complete and validate the process.


As a child in the mid-1970s, I remember the much-touted introduction into our civic culture of the concept of ‘one nation, one people, one destiny’ by the Gen. Acheampong government.

It was a laudable attempt to forge a sense of nationhood and communality of purpose among Ghanaians.

I believe the state must deliberately do more through such initiatives and our education curriculum to drive this home, celebrate us as a race and instil pride in ourselves.

We cannot leave it to our boarding system, inter-ethnic marriages and internal migration to bring our different groups together.

A nation that sees itself as truly one, whose citizens have pride in themselves and think in the same general direction, is much more likely to achieve great things.

By Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng.

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