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Opinions of Thursday, 9 June 2011

Columnist: Owusu, Stephen Atta

Culture Shock and Behavioural Trends in Ghana

A white person arriving in Ghana for the first time will experience culture shock because what he will see is diametrically opposed to what he is used to in his country. Culture shock is not only suffered by those who travel and live abroad. Any change in surroundings can bring about the feeling of shock. If a person leaves home for the first time and goes to college, the new environment and experiences may be a shock to him.

Globalisation has caused the transfer of foreign cultures into the country as a result of Ghanaians travelling abroad and getting consumed in the white man's culture. Many of the well-known behavioural trends in our culture as described below are no longer the same due to foreign cultural infiltrations.

The traditional expectation of Ghanaians about women is that they are supposed to be feminine and more conservative than men in many situations. The Ghanaian culture is very liberal in many areas, so conservatism does not imply "covering one's whole body except the eyes." There are no 'religious or legal scouts' who will harass a woman for her clothes. In Ghana a woman can surely wear shorts, skirt or trousers, but acceptable dressing out of doors is less liberal than the typical women's summer wear in Europe. The Ghanaian woman is still supposed to dress decently. Shorts and skirts that are too short, tight dresses that show the full body contour and transparent clothes are looked down upon.

Ghanaian culture does not ban specific foods or alcohol for women but they are expected to drink less than men. Ghanaian women often avoid very strong liquor. They are not supposed to smoke (in general very few Ghanaians of both sexes smoke). They are to love and be good at taking care of their children. This means they must be good at cooking. Many Ghanaian men still want their prospective wives to be very good cooks and many married men take on the shame of their wives’ bad cooking.

However, all things are changing. Following what is happening in the rest of the world, Ghanaian women no longer want to be considered the weaker sex. They are now wearing Jeans (even though the traditionally plump nature of many Ghanaian women, with their huge bottoms, means some of them don't look fine in jeans). They ride bicycles, drive cars (a very common thing for the educated Ghanaian woman these days) and do even hard jobs like motor mechanics and building constructors. There are now even female "bookmen" at our lorry parks. Women now play soccer and can be found in the boxing ring too. The traditional Ghanaian saying of our youth: “Soccer for Men” is now no longer true. Many women now openly take strong liquor!

Women are an important part of the country's labour force and run their own businesses. Single status is now not uncommon in Ghana. A single woman divorcee attracts much sympathy especially when she has to take care of the children all alone. Women no longer demand sympathy because they make sure they are able to take care of their children by engaging in different jobs and businesses as if to tell the men who divorced them that, "wobehume afere." (You will bow your head in shame when you see me.) Certain behaviours of Ghanaians are not acceptable, especially when they ask a woman in the face whether she is married and how many children she has. These days, childless Ghanaian women are no longer embarrassed by such questions. But certain traditions die hard. Today, many unmarried women in Ghana are still desperately looking for a husband knowing that it accords them a certain respect in society which even a high education and a successful carrier do not give them. Some of them have lowered the standard of men they want, are ready to forego costly marriage rites, or even hang on to already married men in the hope of taking them away for themselves.

Another behavioural trend in Ghana was that drivers didn't wait for pedestrians. Today, there are clearly-marked zebra crossings where drivers will have to wait for pedestrians to pass. The drivers have no patience at all in traffic jams. Many Ghanaian streets do not have clear-cut pavements, so people tend to walk on the edge of the street itself. Existing pavements are often occupied by hawkers. People are, however, understanding that hawkers' need to earn a living but it becomes a culture shock for many foreign visitors. Soon visitors will no longer see hawkers trading in traffic and near pavements because the metropolitan councils, in their eagerness to beautify the city, no longer allow hawkers to trade in the streets. Like much of the rest of the world Ghanaians drive on the right of the road, but due to the bad nature of many streets, drivers may move from the right side to the left to avoid potholes. Street lights usually don't work and traffic lights are few. Even where the traffic lights work, they may be overwhelmed by the great number of traffic especially during rush hours in the cities. It is not uncommon to see traffic police still directing traffic at junctions where the traffic light is fully functional.

Calling people without titles is difficult for Ghanaians. It is an important tradition in Ghana to add a respect-giving title when calling or addressing people. You will often hear: Mr. Afrifa, Mrs. Suberu, Madam Serebour, Prof. Ken, (Owura, Owurayere etc,). In everyday speech, people use Nana, Brother, Sister, Uncle, Efo, etc. to people who are much older.

When a Ghanaian meets other people he knows, either on the street, at meetings, funerals and at parties, a handshake is obligatory, even between people of different sexes. However, a softer feminine handshake is expected of women. Ghanaians don't often mention their names during handshake which is a culture shock for tourists. This is changing. Ghanaian handshakes are often between buddies, probably more common with men. Very amazing to the tourist is the way we snap our middle fingers to make an interesting sound during handshake. If you have lived all your life in Ghana, you will think this practice is common in other cultures too. It is not! Conversation between people is loud and intense. This sometimes is shocking to foreigners.

Left-handedness has traditionally been discouraged in the Ghanaian society. Until recently, teachers even discouraged pupils from writing with the left. However, our country has been blessed with many good left-footed players like Mohammed Polo and Abedi Pele. But to shake someone's hand with the left is not permissible. Waving with the left hand is considered as a sign of extreme arrogance, just the same way as pointing with the left, and giving, receiving or eating with the left hand. Certain traditional meals are eaten with the right hand. It is acceptable but strange to see someone eating fufu, banku, diehuo (TZ), with a spoon.

Old age is still very much respected in the Ghanaian society. A passenger will readily give his seat to an old person standing in a bus, something the youth in Europe will seldom do. But these days there are no longer such public buses in Ghana where the youth will give place to the old. And we have no subway trains.

One very important thing a Ghanaian will never respect is time. There is nothing in the Ghanaian culture that encourages lateness, and there is no social sanction against it. In the olden days, transportation was a major problem, and therefore it was difficult to honour an appointment or attend a meeting on time. This mind-set has continued until today with serious consequences. This attitude of not respecting time (African punctuality) has followed the Ghanaian wherever he/she goes. Even in the western countries where transportation is not a problem, the Ghanaian will attend a social meeting, a party or a private appointment one hour or more late. This is strange since these same Ghanaians will never get late to their work places.

A culture shock for tourists is the way our streets are arranged without names. Ghana is actively encouraging tourism but most streets in the country are not named. What has street naming got to do with tourism, one may ask? A tourist must be able to find his way to any place he wants to visit without depending on others to show him the way. Anyone living in Europe or America knows how easy it is to find one's way out due to street names and addresses. Those streets that have names in Ghana are not displayed. There is even no logic in the way houses are numbered. Parts of our major cities were planned in the colonial times with proper arrangements and names. But we lost that because it never became part of our way of doing things. These days, people are building their own houses their own ways which doesn't give rise to proper street naming. But the houses in the estates, Tema Dev Corp, etc, are properly named and numbered. But we don't have street delivery of posts, so these have not become important. It is not easy to give the address of a private home to a taxi driver who can drive you directly there. I have often wondered how a GPS will work in our cities.

One will therefore conclude that certain cultural trends that portray the uniqueness of the Ghanaian have gradually been infiltrated and corrupted by foreign cultural intrusions. The reader will have to judge whether the change in the trend of behaviour, attitudes and culture due to foreign infiltration is positive or negative.

Written by Stephen Atta Owusu