Feature Article of Monday, 1 September 2008

Columnist: Owusu, Joseph

Why Ghanaians Don't Write Books

By Joseph Owusu

As an undergraduate at an American liberal arts college in the Midwest, I embarked on a project to write about Ghana. To my consternation and chagrin, almost all the materials I assembled for my research were written by westerners, mostly American and British authors. Needless to say a lot of these outsiders’ observations and conclusions about our socio-economic, political and cultural systems were off-target. There are many nuances about Ghanaian and African issues that can be better captured by a local lens, which begs the question: why is there this acute scarcity of African authors?

We have a fundamental crisis of lack of scholarship in Ghana. Most books on Ghana are written by westerners who lack a basic understanding of our culture. Similarly there are very few novels written by Ghanaians or textbooks of Ghanaian authorship. The trouble is that there is very little interest in scholarship, whether of an academic nature or of other purposes like leisure. This disturbing phenomenon presents a complex problem for analysis due to its circuitous nature. One does not have to look far to concur with this assertion: Ghanaian newspaper articles are very poorly written both in style and content, and are often replete with grammatical errors. For instance many articles on Ghanaweb, Ghana’s premier online news magazine is filled with such tantrums in both style and content, and makes one wonder what happened to Ghana’s status as the premier educational nation in sub-Saharan Africa.

In other words the causes affect the result as much as the result influences the causes, which gives the cliché known as the vicious cycle. Some of the root causes of the dearth of scholarship in Ghana is of course the low quality of our education system, poverty, lack of creativity and confidence, cultural factors, over reliance on westerners for everything, and of course the limitation of studying a foreign language.

Educational System: Ghanaian students are shortchanged by the fact that they are not taught to write at an early age. Throughout our primary, secondary and university education, we do very little writing and as such we become limited in our ability to appreciate and enjoy writing. And worse we come to see writing as a burden rather than a creative and challenging exercise necessary for our personal and societal development. If this disturbing trend can be curbed, our educational curriculum must be changed to encourage writing at an early age. Moreover, we must dissuade students from poking fun at their colleagues’ mistakes, and reward those that write well. In the United States, even first graders are encouraged to write essays.

Promote a Culture of Reading Most potential authors are discouraged by the fact that nobody buys books in Ghana; it is simply unprofitable to write books. Because Ghanaians don’t buy books, there is very little demand or patronage for books written by Ghanaians. Who would want to spend time on writing and scholarship when it is so unprofitable to do so and there is no literary audience to appreciate their work? This relates to a basic law of supply and demand: the anemic level of demand for books discourages authorship. If we can whip up national interest in reading, there we will create a greater demand and interest in scholarship and thereby make it more profitable and palatable for authors to pursue scholarship.

Institutional Patronage Ghanaian institutions must patronize Ghanaian authors at a higher rate than we see now. We have a culture of preferring to consume foreign products to domestic ones, for a germane reason –a phenomenon that also afflict Ghanaian authors. Most instructors would prefer to use a book by a foreign author than ones written by a local author. If our institutions would give preference to local authors, we would inadvertently promote interest in domestic scholarship.

While some might shrug at issues such as the serious lack of interest at the local front, the cumulative impact of this disturbing trend can be debilitating on the development of a country and society. For instance in the last three decades, our nation has witnessed several momentous events, including the turbulent military regimes that overthrew elected governments, the precipitous decay of our cultural institutions, the rapid decline of our economy and its gradual recovery, the stratospheric levels of corruption that has stifled our economic development, and general stagnation if not retrogression in all spheres of Ghanaian life. As tragic as this litany problems sounds, it is even more dreadful that very scant research and writing was done to unravel the mystery surrounding our perpetual cycle of economic and socio-political stagnation. Consequently we miss trends, fail to learn lessons we should learn and avoid, fail to teach and prepare students for the challenges of the future, and forfeit to educate adults about their civic responsibilities in this rapidly changing times. A society that fails to appreciate reading and writing does so at its own peril and Ghana have sure paid a price for this malady.