Sun, May

The writer, Elizabeth Ohene

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  • Is there anything Ghanaian about the time I get up or go to bed? Could I not just be a morning person or a night owl and still be Ghanaian?

The human race, I understand, is made up of morning people and night people. There are those who are at their best and most productive in the early morning hours and then there are the night owls, who really only come into their own during the night.

The natural order of things, which would require that we work during the day and sleep at night, does not quite fit into this scheme. Our bodies tend to obey the 24-hour clock and the dark hours instinctively send us to sleep.

If you have been placed in the tropics as we have been, it is a good idea to get the heavy things done before the heat of the sun sets in. So, our day starts early and ends early. An early start in these parts means 4 a.m. or earlier.


I have been thinking of the morning routine that I knew as a child in Abutia and which seems to have survived to this day. The day there starts much earlier than in the fancy part of Accra in which I live.

If there is something important to be said, it will be said around 4 a.m. and arrangements for the gathering might have been done the night before, or you could just be summoned as dawn is about to break.

If your parents knock on your door at that time of the morning, you can be sure you are in some kind of trouble. It is very rare that your mother will wake you up at 4 a.m. to talk about something great that you have done. An early morning meeting means the matter is deadly serious and you are not expected to forget about it in a hurry.

Then of course, there are the early morning household chores that have to be done to ensure that everybody can get to work or school, or farm or wherever they need to get to. In my childhood years, one of the reasons for getting up early was because most homes in the villages did not have running water and two or three trips to the river to fetch water was an obligatory part of the early morning routine.

All the children made the water fetching journey to the river from around age six and the boys would start dropping out from age 12 and by the time they are 14 or 15, there would be only the girls and the women, who go on all their lives.

If you go to boarding school, you will discover you have had the most appropriate training and been well prepared for the boarding school routine.

In my boarding school and that seems to be the norm in Ghana boarding schools, the morning get-up bell is at 5.30 a.m. and there is no question of lingering in bed once that bell goes.

In later life you discover that once you get used to this routine, it is difficult to get it out of your system. The arrival of pipeborne water might save the present generation from the journeys to the river, but it does not mean you can stay in bed an extra half an hour.

Extra half hour

Many kitchen gadgets have been introduced into our lives which should mean that it now takes a shorter time to prepare meals and the drudgery has been taken out of our traditional cooking, but this has not won the women an extra half an hour in bed.

There is the clear perception that anyone, especially female who stays in bed beyond 5 a.m. must be branded a lazy woman. In many of our communities, if you are in bed at 5.30 a.m., discreet attempts would be made at your door to find out if all was well with you. The thinking is that it is only someone who is unwell who would still be in bed at 5.30am.

I have tried to argue that I can be in good health, and stay in bed beyond 5.30 a.m.; but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to fit in with our culture and a healthy person in bed beyond 5.30 a.m. must be lazy.

Unspoken rules

On a closer look, I discover that if I have an early night and go to bed at 9 p.m. or 8 p.m. or even 7 p.m., no one would suggest I was a lazy woman or I was lingering in bed. It is not the number of hours you stay in bed that determines how lazy or how hardworking you are, it is staying in bed in the morning that offends the sensibilities of our cultural mores.

The arrival of electricity in our lives does not seem to have made much of a difference to these perceptions. Especially, since these days there is so much activity at night.

My telephone company for example keeps telling me about bonuses that are available to me when I use my data between midnight and 4 a.m!

I haven’t quite worked out how they come to the conclusion that anything can so compensate missing sleep between midnight and 4 a.m. to be considered a bonus.

But I understand I am simply showing my age, because many young people spend the night hours making long phone calls and watching movies because it is cheaper to do so during the night.

Now this leads to complications about how we organise the unspoken rules of our daily existence. Once upon a time, those of us who operated best during the night hours would make and gladly receive phone calls up to about midnight. We of that inclination would not dream of making a phone call before 7 a.m. and would expect similar courtesies to be extended to us.

If I know that you go to bed early, I wouldn’t be calling you at 9 p.m., unless there is an emergency. There does not appear to be an accepted cut-off point at which it is polite to make calls in the mornings. Should we assume that everyone is expected to be up by 5 a.m. and, therefore, able to take calls?

What am I supposed to do if my journey to work takes two hours and I am obliged to leave home by 5 a.m. and I don’t really want to face the world at that time of morning?

If I am a morning person and I am ready to face the world by 5 a.m., should I wake up everyone to join me in my adventures?

Is there anything Ghanaian about the time I get up or go to bed? Could I not just be a morning person or a night owl and still be Ghanaian?

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