My take on tribalism in Ghana

My take on tribalism in Ghana

“oh…you don’t look like a northerner”: On being civilised and where you come from — Memoirs of ‘the different Ghanaian.’

I write this reflection knowing that attacks on this piece would take the north-south divide and maybe even the notorious NPP-NDC divide that every issue in Ghana attracts. To make this easy for such people of straw who are interested in such rather useless debates, I’ll undertake a brief self-disclosure. Consider this piece as a rant and rave from a Ghanaian of northern origin who is well travelled within Ghana and has lived outside of Ghana for some time. Now to my issue……

Chances are that most highly educated, articulate and affluent young people of “northern extraction” would have been told on more than one occasion—usually with a certain look of surprise — “oh…you don’t look like a Northerner”. I am unable to count the number of times this statement or a variance of this statement has been said to me. I have to admit that in my experience, the intention of this statement is usually to suggest that I am excelling or conducting myself particularly well on something. Thanks but no thanks — because I don’t consider this comment or any of its variance as a positive compliment. The unintended(?) message embedded within the statement, is that, it is abnormal for someone from the northern part of Ghana to excel in that endeavour.

To the minds of some Ghanaians (mostly) of southern origin, northern Ghana is bedevilled with only the things which are negative and retrogressive. The perception of such people is that northern Ghana is a place filled with primitive, illiterate, poverty ravished and incomprehensible and intolerant people fighting meaningless chieftaincy or tribal wars. The extension of such views by default therefore, is that if you come from any of the three northern regions in Ghana, you should be illiterate, poor and perhaps be a watchman, a herdsman or kayayee when you are in southern Ghana. Commenting on the human virtue of pursuing a genuine means of earning a living and the dignity that comes with it is not part of my commentary here.

Back to my rant!

Stereotypical views of people of different ethnicities and the associated dislike for such people are unfortunately (but probably largely unintentionally), passed onto children by adults. I had my fair share of abuse as a primary schoolboy at Ridge Experimental Primary School and later at St. Anslem’s Primary school both in Sunyani. As a non-Akan speaking migrant, I was at the receiving end of a fair number of distasteful jokes and dangerous pranks which often left me physically and emotionally scarred on countless occasions. It may be argued that in certain cases, a few children are naturally inclined to be mischievous and would therefore subject the “different other” to such abuses. Be that as it may, the use of certain despicable words directed at people perceived to be different is certainly a learned behaviour and adults must therefore be held accountable. For example, I could write a full book on the tribal laden insults and indeed mistreatment I had to endure from my class two teacher at Ridge Experimental School. Children observe what adults do and even act accordingly!

I would suggest that the negative stereotypical seeds of northern Ghana(ians) sowed in kids at an early age, result in a general disinterest (and even disrespect) for the area and its people in later years. At an
early age, I quickly realised how little a lot of southern Ghanaians know about the tribes and general geography of northern Ghana.

Needless to say, the geography of northern Ghana is a mystery to most of our countrymen and women from southern Ghana. I had my secondary school education in Wa at St. Francis Xavier Jnr Seminary (arguably Ghana’s best secondary school). As the practice, many secondary school students attended vacation extra classes. I also attended these extra classes in different parts of southern Ghana. The fascinating thing about the extra classes for me was how little my peers knew about their own country. Several naïve questions about the location of my school were constantly fired in my direction at these extra classes.

“Is it true that you see the desert when you’re up there?” Till this date, I rate this question as one of the dumbest questions someone in secondary school and living in Ghana would ever ask.

A similar pattern of display of ignorance persisted among some of my colleagues at Legon — Ghana’s Premier University. This pattern wasn’t much different whenever I interacted with students/graduates from other institution of higher learning. I never ceased to be amazed (and heartbroken) by how many a time tertiary education institution graduates always got the geography of northern Ghana wrong…Religion is a common example; “you’re Christian? I thought northerners are all Muslims”. Apart from the fact that the ignorance in the question itself is sad and annoying, this question was usually posed as though Muslims are a different breed of human beings.

I honestly thought I was never going to hear these questions from my fellow Ghanaians again when I travelled to start graduate school outside of Ghana. Unfortunately, the pattern persisted and that is what surprises me even more. With some southern Ghanaians holding on to so many negative stereotypical views about northern Ghana, it surprises me, when some of these same people are quick to anger when Africa is described as one country with all of us living in huts and dying of simple diseases. Really? So you have a problem when Africa is described as one country and yet you see nothing wrong with describing northern Ghana as homogenous? For me, this inconsistency strains credulity and at best can be described as “ignorant hypocrisy”.

Don’t get me wrong! I have no intention of running away from the realities of conflicts, poverty, disease and limited livelihood opportunities in most parts of the north. Limited health and educational infrastructure in the three northern regions since colonial times to the present has hampered human capital development. But is that all there is in northern Ghana? Considering that I have lived in eight (8) and visited all ten (10) regions of Ghana, I can say with absolute confidence that none of the above enumerated problems exist in a single community in southern Ghana! For those who fail to understand sarcasm, I am saying that if you believe the conclusion in my last sentence, you are an outright f**l!

Some time ago, I read an article by Karen Curley on why Ghana is not a tourist friendly place to visit. After my initial surprise and anger at this story, I quickly realised that her default view of Ghana before she travelled to the country probably resulted in a situation where she was only interested in capturing the negatives in the African story she’s used to hearing about. Reflecting on this story, I must say I am not surprised at Karen Curley’s views of Ghana. I am more surprised about the views and reaction of my fellow Ghanaians regarding the content of Karen Curley’s article.

Recently, I was lamenting to a fellow Ghanaian student about how some students in my undergrad class still think that Africa is one country; and how poverty, disease and conflicts are the only images they have about the entire continent. My colleague immediately retorted how unfortunate this situation is given that we live in the 21st century where information is readily available. Unfortunately, some of my brethren from southern Ghana fall within this same category of ignorant people who lack information which otherwise is available free of charge!

However, I think the case of my Ghanaian brethren is more agonising! In one breath, the same person who thinks racism based on skin colour is negative, thinks that his ethnic origin is superior to another or that people from a certain part of Ghana are all homogenous with only negative connotations.

The unfortunate utterances of some politicians in the period leading to the last election in December 2012 left much to be desired. Among many Ghanaians especially on social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, it was clear how people wrongly directed their energies at attacking others along tribal lines. The contest of ideas is one of the most beautiful parts of any democratic process. Therefore, well-reasoned arguments are supposed to guide our engagements in support of various political parties. Ghanaians seem to have covered up and in some cases even ripped out this page in their democracy guidebook. Trends on social media in the period leading to the 2012 elections suggested that certain individuals belonging to certain ethnic groups failed to reason by expressing this support for views espoused by a political party. To put it bluntly ,the discourse has the following orientation; if you are a northerner and you supported Mahama, you were branded as playing ethnocentric politics and in certain cases, some suggested that one failed to reason by doing so. Such sad and yet laughable logic.

A worrying trend which seems to be gaining normalcy in Ghana today is that every issue is interpreted with two lenses. These lenses are not only parochial, but dangerously divisive in the manner in which it is conducted. For a lot people, it seems normal to discuss every issue in the public domain with either North vrs South or NPP vrs NDC lenses. We will not make any progress in any sector of our society by following this rather dysfunctional model. Our politics should first be about a battle of ideas based on evidence. We should strive to build a country where people regardless of their political persuasions and indeed regional origin would be able to express their views freely —eschewing blurry political party and tribal lenses.

Before you get me wrong! I am suggesting that people should be proud of their political parties. Indeed people should be very proud of their ethnic origins. However, reason and better judgement should guide both of the above.

I have seen more than enough evidence to confidently conclude that on a whole, discrimination based on the nationality in one’s passport and particularly that based on one’s skin colour disgusts and even anger Ghanaians. We should have the same no-nonsense attitude towards tribalism!
Let us not play the ostrich! It is about time we faced the elephant in the room. We would fail at developing a coherent country if we do not address the perceived differences which exist along tribal lines.

In my view, civic education is the key. I suggest civic education because I have interacted with Ghanaians who have attained tertiary education and yet, hold onto baseless stereotypes. There would be other solutions; but to start with, we need civic education in Ghana. I don’t want my children to suffer at the hands of another ignorant teacher or at the hands of other kids and vice versa.

Just as I am disgusted anytime I feel mistreated due to the colour of my skin, I feel just as bad or even worse when my countryman or woman analyses me with tribalistic lenses. And let no one ever say to me again “oh…you don’t look like a northerner”.

Tribalism in Ghana is real — kick it out now! Long live our homeland Ghana — devoid of tribalism!

Vincent Zubedaar Kuuire
The author is a PhD candidate in Geography (specialising in Migration and Ethnic Relations) at Western University, Canada.
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