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Opinions of Sunday, 14 December 2014

Columnist: Amuna, Paul

Talking of ‘Disrespect and Irresponsibility’ Among Ghanaians

By Dr Paul Amuna

We pride ourselves for being a ‘warm and welcoming’ nation: AKWAABA (Akan), FUZAARE (Gurune), WUEZ? (Ewe). This instant warmth is not lost on many a visitor to our country, and often puts outsiders at ease. That said, how does this warmth translate or reflect in our dealings with, and amongst our own citizenry, and how do we put it into practical responsible actions for the collective good?

Recently Ghana celebrated our ‘National Sanitation Day’, a day incidentally celebrated across many UN Member Countries. Communities were asked to come out and ‘clear’ their surroundings and media reports highlighted some of these events, including President Mahama’s own ‘symbolic walantu walansa’ at Kejetia market in the Metropolitan city of Kumasi, to presumably set a good example for everyone to get involved. According to media reports, whilst some people joined the president in clearing the clogged open drains, others cheered on. Others still (including traders, in front of whose shops the president was ‘shovelling away’ rubbish) simply STOOD BY AND WATHCED. Media reports across the country, suggested a mixed reaction to the Day, with some blaming the lack of enthusiasm on “poor organization” as if one needs a ‘special invitation’ or incentives to participate.

From a historical perspective, some may argue that this rather passive response to a national ‘call to arms’ to clean up our environment is not at all surprising. It merely underscores our lack of a collective sense of ownership and responsibility in matters we sometimes regard as “others’”, not ‘ours’. Dr Kwesi Nduom in a speech on the subject made what I believe was a valid point laying the responsibility for our environmental sanitation squarely at the door of Local Government and ‘blaming’ them for the poor state of our environment which as we know has been linked to various gastrointestinal diseases including the recent outbreak of cholera which spread from the index cases in Accra to other regions of the country! But, is it entirely the problem of local government and should we leave it to them?

In the early 1980s, I recall former president JJ Rawlings’ own national “Clean Up Campaign” in which he charged the so-called “Workers’/Peoples’ Defence Committees, WDCs/PDCs” to “mobilise” communities for REGULAR cleanup of their communities as part of the so-called 31st December revolution. In his usual ‘can-do’ style, JJ Rawlings led in these clean-ups in the trenches in an effort to promote self-reliance and encourage that community responsibility among Ghanaians. Laudable as it was, sadly the early efforts and gains were not sustained. As a student of the health professions, in 1987 I found myself standing on a huge refuse dump somewhere in Chorkor with a Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) TV crew, highlighting the fundamental reasons for an outbreak of cholera in the Chorkor-Mamprobi area which we were then dealing with at Korle-Bu teaching hospital.

Contrast our attitude with that of the people of Rwanda, a country whose recent history was characterised by hatred, lack of unity, tribal violence, gruesome atrocities and ultimately genocide. Over the years, as that beautiful country has embarked upon their own internal healing, national reconciliation and a common purpose for their national development (which is by no means perfect), one of the striking observations one makes when you visit the country is how NEAT and organised the place looks!! Led by their president, Rwanda has a nationwide monthly (not annual) “Clean Up Day” on which EVERYONE (including government ministers) joins their local communities to take part in cleaning their environment. For Rwandans, environmental sanitation and cleanliness is EVERYONE’s responsibility, NOT just local government. Littering the environment is regarded as anti-social and wholly unacceptable. The beauty is that it does not cost much to achieve these high standards as long as we all see this as a COLLECTIVE responsibility. In countries such as Singapore, littering, even spitting in public is an offence punishable by law, thus emphasising collective responsibility for maintaining environmental cleanliness.

The notion that government is solely responsible for maintaining our environment is wrong and part of our problem as a people. The fact that fellow citizens could stand idly by whilst the president of the republic was cleaning our public gutters simply says – ‘well, this is not my responsibility, you are the government so do it for me’. “Wei die eye Aban die, Aban ejuma”. How very sad and pathetic! Yes, it may be the responsibility of local government to operate bye-laws including those that relate to environmental sanitation and cleanliness; and to monitor and provide oversight for overall cleanliness of the environment including public and domestic collection of waste and providing e.g. public toilets for which there is a surcharge to individuals and households. It is a matter of historical record that the strict adherence to environmental cleanliness and the enforcement of bye-laws by the “Town Council” or so-called “tankass” people in Ghana was observed in the 1950s through at least the early 1970s. Household water storage was said to be inspected for cleanliness and e.g. mosquito larvae. That said, it is also the responsibility of citizens to look after their own environment, avoid littering and clogging our gutters, and in some cases using them as a place of convenience.

Of our attitudes and lack of responsibility as a people, here are some of the Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s own observations way back in 1963:

“Many foreigners who come to Ghana are genuinely impressed by the obvious signs of progress they see around them. They also admire the cheerful spirit and enthusiasm of the men and women in the streets. This leads them to expect a high standard of efficiency, hard work, responsibility and energy from us whether in the offices, work places, factories, farms, building sites, shops and public places, in the streets, lorry parks and taxi ranks. But what do they find?

Their first experience on the telephone disillusions them. Some of our telephone girls who are normally friendly, polite and well-behaved at home, are often rude and abrupt when dealing with subscribers. In the shops, the assistants ignore customers while they chat among themselves and treat them with nonchalance and disrespect, forgetting that but for these customers, they would not be in employment.

The conditions are no better in the public services. Those who go to the post offices to buy stamps, postal orders or take delivery of parcels know this so well.

Look at our hospitals where the very lives of the people who may be our own fathers and mothers, or husbands and wives, or brothers and sisters may depend on the care and attention they receive. Even here, you sometimes find such inhuman disregard for pain and suffering as to make you shake your head in shame.” (Source: “Selected Speeches of Kwame Nkrumah” p. 161. By Samuel Obeng, Afram Publications, 1979).

Without doubt Ghanaians have had ‘an attitude’ over a long, long time and the question is: is this part of our national character in addition to our undoubted nice, warm and welcoming image as a people? If so, is it part of our genetic make-up (DNA) and impossible to change or modify in any positive way for our benefit? Whatever the EXCUSES we give or explanations for this behaviour, it continues to eat into our very national fabric like woodlice feeding quietly and painstakingly on the wooden framework of our national infrastructure and turning it into dust. It is like a thief saying they simply cannot stop stealing and should be accepted as such. Facing the truth about who we are (or our demons) is always the difficult bit and we will kick, scream, shout, insult and protest but it is better to know where our faults lie than to pretend that somehow someone else has caused us to react or ‘behave in a way that we normally will not do’.

In concluding, here is my take on this attitude of ours and our sense of respect and responsibility: If Rwandans, who had gone through an extreme form of nationalism causing so much hurt, harm and death to each other, can turn things around and begin to rebuild their national image and with that their nation, including collectively taking care of their environment, then surely we can do better. We can also begin to address what I believe is our Achilles heel; start to recognise our failings, show respect for each other and take responsibility for our actions, our environment and our nation. Is this too much to ask I wonder?