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Opinions of Thursday, 15 September 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Are Ghanaians in the UK less friendly

..than those in mainland Europe?

I am not even sure if the statement that, Ghanaians in the UK are less friendly than their counterparts in mainland Europe is true and if correct, the scientific basis behind it. I was listening to a popular radio programme called “?pone” on Radio Focus (a London based Ghanaian radio station) on Wednesday 7 September 2011, when the host, Opanin Kojo Asiama informed his listeners that, information indicates that Ghanaians in the UK are less friendly than Ghanaians in mainland Europe. He then posed the question, why, and invited listeners to call in and offer reasons to explain why Ghanaians in UK are less friendly compared to our brothers and sisters in mainland Europe.

As a sociologist and someone who was a student in mainland Europe prior to taking up resident in the UK, I found the subject very interesting and one that would be an excellent academic (postgraduate or doctorial) research topic. I began to find answers to the question and came up with a few explanations immediately. When the phone lines were opened I managed to get through to share two of my reasons with listeners. Others offered different reasons, some of which I did not share. Since then, I have been pondering over the issue and have come up with more explanations that I want to share with readers. I must say that my reasons have no scientific basis and would therefore welcome critical but positive responses from readers, especially, those in the Diaspora (Europe, North America, particularly USA and Canada) by sharing their views on this interesting subject through comments.

Free labour movement within member countries of the European Union has made it possible for Ghanaians with residence rights in mainland Europe to relocate into the UK. Among the reasons why Ghanaians in other European countries are moving to UK is the language (English), which is also the official language in Ghana so most Ghanaians are able to speak and write English. Language is also my number one explanation why I suspect Ghanaians in the UK appear less friendly. Because most Ghanaians, if not all in the UK can speak the language, it is most likely to impact on how we relate to each other than if we were in a country where the language was other than English. For example, in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Portugal and other European countries, Ghanaians who have difficulty communicating in the language of the host country may rely on those who are better at it for assistance. That would bring them closer together than those in the UK. I arrived in a non English speaking European country as a student without a word of the language. I had to rely on Ghanaian students who were at least, a year ahead of me for most part of the first year and that strengthened the bond between, especially, old and new students but the small Ghanaian student population in general. On the other hand, when I arrived in the UK as postgraduate student, I had no need to rely on other Ghanaian students at the university to get settled because I had no communication problem. Though I knew some Ghanaian students, (including Alhaji Abubakar Siddique Boniface, a minister in the Kufuor government), most of my close friends on campus were African American students.

The second explanation I came up with is the numbers game. During the 2006 Football World Cup finals in Germany, the London Evening Standard newspaper previewed the Ghana-USA match. Part of the analysis was the support base of the two nations in London. It reported that London has the largest Ghanaian population outside Ghana. It is also a fact that there are more Ghanaians in the UK than in any other European country. In every society, where people find themselves in a foreign environment (internally or externally), the smaller their numbers, the more cohesive they are and the opposite is true. For example, because one does not often meet other Ghanaians in Cambridge (in other words, our numbers are small compared to other cities such as London and Birmingham), once I meet a Ghanaian in the city, I am more likely to say hello than when I lived in London. In London, I saw Ghanaians in the streets, met them on buses, trains, in the shops and many other places but could not have said hello to all of them. It’s not practical. The relationship is more of “each for him/herself and God for us all”.

My third explanation was education. Relatively, more Ghanaians arrive in the UK for further studies than in other European countries. It is most likely that some of them were from middle class families in Ghana and were already used to some affluent lifestyle back home and also more likely to socialise with people from their socioeconomic class. Once in the UK as students, they live on campus and have less in common with other Ghanaians (non-student residents). On graduation, if they remain here they are more likely to relate to and socialise with the more educated members of the Ghanaian community or acquaintances that were formed whilst at university. The more one becomes educated and move into the middle class strata the less welcoming they are to those outside their classes. I am not suggesting that more educated Ghanaians in the UK are snobs. This happens in every society and therefore a global behaviour or normal phenomena.

The fourth reason I came up with is, the means by which Ghanaians travelled to Europe. As I said in the last explanation, more Ghanaians in the UK arrived as students (most with scholarships and flight paid for). On the other hand, Ghanaians in main Europe were more likely to have arrived there through challenging routes such as travelling through Nigeria or even through the Sahara Desert to Libya and subsequently to Europe. People who experienced such travel challenges with a few witnessing near death experiences have a different attitude to life and place a higher premium on friendly relationship with others. This could also account for why on average, Ghanaians in the UK are less sociable and welcoming.

My last but certainly not the least reason, is the culture of the host country. Mainland (western) European countries have more egalitarian societies than the UK. UK has entrenched class society than even other European countries with monarchies. Perhaps, as Ghanaians arrive in the UK, we unconsciously pick up some of the cultural traits of the British class system and become less friendly. For example, I do remember swearing to myself never to follow the Bulgarian culture of nodding one’s head for no and shaking it for yes, only for me to arrive in the UK after six years of studies in the country to realise that, I picked it up unconsciously. My mates and friends in the UK noticed that I was nodding my head when I meant no and shook my head for yes. It took at least one year in the UK for me to correct that strange behaviour.

In our efforts to integrate into British society, some of us end up becoming assimilated instead. Sadly, some blindly believe in the saying, “when in Rome, do what the Romans do”. That is assimilation and not integration which is not only unacceptable but also dangerous. There are definitely very good aspects of the Ghanaian culture such as our friendliness and hospitality that we should maintain wherever we find ourselves and blend them with good aspects of the host culture. If we assimilate instead of integrate, then we forget completely our own culture and assume everything from the host culture. Our culture is what defines us and we lose our true identity if we lose our culture and assume other cultures completely. My personal view on integration is that “when in Rome, be yourself but remember you are in Rome”. That is sensible integration, where you keep the good aspects of your birth culture and at the same time, take on the good aspects of the host culture. That enriches our lives and we can be both Ghanaians and British at the same time.

Some callers attributed the apparent less friendliness of Ghanaians in the UK compared to Ghanaians in mainland Europe to individual characteristics or by nature Ghanaians in the UK have hostile attitudes. I do not share their explanation that Ghanaians in the UK are by nature imbued with innate antisocial characteristics that make us less friendly, hospitable and welcoming. I differ on this for sociological reasons. It is just not possible that coming from the same country with varied ethnic, religious and family (socioeconomic, cultural and political) backgrounds, only or majority of those with such negative traits travel to the UK, whilst those with good human relation characteristics travel to mainland Europe. Is this by natural selection, accident or by default? This is not possible, instead, nurture environmental factors) could account for the differences (if any) between Ghanaians in the UK and those in mainland Europe.

A caller from Germany also alluded to the fact that more Ghanaians in mainland Europe, especially, Germany tend to seek political asylum than those in the UK. The process required assistance from those who have already gone through the experience. That resulted in closer integration among Ghanaians in mainland Europe. This may be true but the opposite could also be true but since I do not have comparative statistical data on Ghanaians seeking asylum in mainland Europe and UK, my view is different. It is possible that more Ghanaians seek asylum in the UK and in fact, when people seek asylum they are more likely to limit contact with the general Ghanaian population to those they can trust or consider as political allies that can also lead to less integration among Ghanaians in the UK. So in that sense, it favours why UK Ghanaians are less friendly.

But, is it really true that Ghanaians in the UK are less friendly than those in mainland Europe? We are from the same country and therefore one expects that our attitude and behaviour towards other Ghanaians would be similar wherever we find ourselves. Well, life is not that simple. We are influenced by both nature and nurture and since we all individuals from different parts of Ghana with different life experiences, it is highly likely that our individual life experiences (both nature and nurture) would impact on how we relate to others. Those in mainland Europe and the UK have been influenced by their life experiences and other factors in their host countries as I have enumerated above. My explanations are not scientific, they are my own postulates gathered randomly without any research, so, please do not quote me. Do you have other reasons to explain this supposedly differences between Ghanaians in mainland Europe and Ghanaians in the UK? What about those of you in Canada and USA (though English is spoken in both countries so the language factor may not be the applicable there)? What about Ghanaians in English speaking Canada and French speaking Canada? Sociologists and social commentators, your views would be welcomed by way of comments. Ghanaians in the UK should not be offended and should remember that we are the same by our common humanity/heritage but different by our individuality. We cannot all behave the same. That would be abnormal, so the differences between those of us in the UK and those in mainland Europe is perfectly normal. Even in the motherland, Ghana, differences exist (urban and rural dwellers, old and young, men and women, politicians and non-politicians, etc). In fact, there are differences in every society.

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK