A piece of my mind: Intimidating Ghanaian traditions and proverbs

A lecturer once said that most African proverbs and traditions are the reasons most African kids are not confident. I agree with him.

I grew up in Ghana, so I would like to narrow it down to Ghanaian proverbs and traditions and examine their impact on the confidence level of Ghanaian children. But before I begin, allow me to remind you of a story the late ace broadcaster and BBC World News Anchor Komla Dumor once shared.

The Late Komla Dumor, (may his gentle soul rest in perfect peace) once made a joke out of an incident that confirms how people know Ghanaians to be timid. It was Komla’s first time of meeting one of Nigeria’s renowned economists, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. He introduced himself by saying ‘hello madam, am Komla from the BBC.’ Then the woman said ‘oh Kola, how are you?’ Komla then replied ‘excuse me ma, my name is Komla and I’m from Ghana.’ Then the woman replied ‘really, and you are so confident’.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala could not just place confident Komla Dumor among Ghanaians, so she had to tell herself the name she heard on BBC every day was the Nigerian name Kola and not Komla. But, incidentally, Komla Dumor may have gained some of his confidence growing up in Nigeria where he lived for many years of his youthful life while his father worked as a university professor and his mother worked as a teacher. So Ngozi may not be wrong after all; there is something Nigerian about Komla Dumor’s confidence.

I’m very sure it’s not just Ngozi who thinks Ghanaians lack confidence so I wouldn’t blame her much, because truth be told, Ghanaians in general are timid, but we often cover it with humility and shyness, and we pretend to be respectful. It is not difficult to find the reasons Ghanaians in general are timid and shy. Our proverbs and traditions, which are intended to teach us to be respectful, seem to also instil a residual attribute of timidity in us.

One common Ghanaian tradition is the prevention of children from participating in conversations involving adults. I remember how I would quickly disappear from the living room as soon as a guest arrived at our home. The alternative was for me to remain totally silent if I had to sit in. There were times I had things to say about issues being discussed but dare I speak while the elders did?!

This tradition is hinged on a popular Ghanaian proverb which says “A child is supposed to be seen but not be heard.” In other words, children are expected to shut up completely when adults are having a discussion. The child can only go as far as listening, but never to speak. In some cases the child is even expected to completely leave the scene where adults have gathered.

Growing up, I got a few smacks for attempting to make a contribution during conversations by even my senior siblings and cousins. It is so frustrating when adults are talking about something you know something about, and they are going wrong but you can’t correct them because you are not even allowed to speak.

The other rule/tradition that even enforces this kind of intimidation of children is the saying that “a child cannot call an adult a liar.” It presupposes that adults are all-knowing so even if they are making an obvious mistake or even telling a blatant lie, the rule says the child is not supposed to say the adult is telling a lie or is making a mistake. I remember my auntie once framed me up and asked my senior cousin to smack me based on the story she created. It was a very painful moment for me because I knew if I told my side of the story, my auntie would have been exposed as a big liar and probably even something worse. But I had to be a timid child and follow the rule that “you don’t call an adult a liar.” I took the lashes and wept all day because I knew I was innocent.

These kind of proverbs and traditions only turn children into timid adults who sometimes see their superiors commit obvious wrongs in society, at the work place, in church, school and other places, but are afraid to speak up because the person involved is elderly or a superior on whom tradition says no wrong can be imputed. It also makes the person so timid even when he or she is being wronged, they are unable to speak up.
Generally speaking, hardly do you see a Ghanaian student challenge his/her teacher, or a patient challenge/question a doctor, worker take on a boss and things like that. It is rare and when it happens, the person involved is seen as a deviant or a non-conformist.

Another inimical tradition is where a parent punishes a child without explaining to the child why exactly they are being punished. An unforgettable experience was when I saw bloody water running through an open drainage behind a bathroom, while a woman was bathing. As a child at a tender age of about five, I screamed and called my friends to come around, thinking someone was hurt.
My mother quickly came and pulled me away from the scene, spanked me and said to me in the Twi dialect, ‘wohu ade a, fa wani hwe na mfa wano nka’, meaning you should not comment on everything you see. She thought that with those words, she finished educating me about what happened. But even as young as I was, I wasn’t satisfied because she warned me about not repeating what I had done without explaining to me why it was bad to scream about blood running in a gutter or what it meant.

I thought if my mother had explained to me that it had something to do with menstruation and not necessarily because someone was hurt, I would have understood her actions better.

But once again, that is the lot of Ghanaian children. Parents think if they gave their children sex education at an early age, the children will “spoil”. So children get punished for things they do not understand and the parents never care to make them understand so that they will stay away from it out of knowledge instead of fear.

In other cultures, children are taught all about sex even before they start growing pubic hair, but typical Ghanaian parents forbid their children from saying anything about sex until adolescence. In some cases, some parents do not even want to hear the child talk about sex so long as “you are under my roof and I feed you.” They make the child lose his/herself confidence when they hear others talk about their sexual escapades and claim that it is a mark of childishness and immaturity to remain a virgin. But if parents would learn to teach children about their sexuality early, it would rather help them to be confident virgins until they are really ready.

From nursery school, I was taught to call my vagina ‘my fish’ until a teacher corrected me at about age seven. The story is told of a man who told his son in Twi that ‘koti’ (penis) is ‘enai’ (leg) and ‘etwe’ (vagina) is ‘eni’ (eye). So one day the child came home and the dad had stretched out his leg in his way, and the child said “dad move your long koti (penis) from the way and let me pass”. When he said that, his mom opened her eyes wide in shock, and the boy told the mom “why have you opened your etwe (vagina) so wide on me.” So that is what parents in Ghana do to their children thinking they are protecting them from sex. A radio presenter at Adom FM even told his four year old daugter ‘koti’ (penis) means Captain. And the child repeated “common Captain too some one said koti”.

More often than not, what Ghanaian children know about sex is what they pick up from their peers. But if you were not brought up in a compound house where you are allowed to play with other children and find out more about these things from your peers, then you will practically grow up knowing nothing about sex.

I know this will sound funny but the first time I menstruated, I thought I was hurt and I got so scared but could not tell my mum immediately. I confided in a young auntie who was living with us at the time. She was the only one I could trust since I did not have any friends. My auntie told my mum who thought me how to keep myself whenever it came. She sat me down and said ‘what you saw means you are now a woman’. From now on, you will see this every month and if you allow any man to touch you, you will get pregnant.”

Once again, she thought by saying that, she had told me all I had to know, but she made me scared about the whole phenomenon of sex. So until my second year in Senior High School that I was taught reproduction in humans, I had very little knowledge about sex. At least, I had an auntie to confide in when I had issues with my sexuality. But there were many young ladies like me who could only talk to their friends because their parents were not ready to discuss the topic. I believe if Ghanaian children get sex education earlier in life it will reduce the influence of their peers.

Another tradition that is embraced by some typical Ghanaian homes is that a child has to be completely quiet when being scolded or accused by an elderly person. I’m sure if you are reading this and you grew up in a home like mine, you know what I’m talking about. A typical Ghanaian parent would not like to hear you explain yourself when they think you are guilty of whatever you are being accused of. A young me was always afraid of Mr. Moro, my JHS science and math teacher, not because I did not know the answers to questions he asked me in class, but because I lacked boldness.

Let’s take another proverb like ‘abofra ne opanyin nya asem a, opanyin nde fo’ to wit, an adult is always right. Some typical traditionalistic Ghanaians still use this proverb when judging cases that involves elders and young people.

According to the above proverb, a child is liable to all the punishment and corrections in any issue that involves him and an elderly person. To me, if the child is not allowed fair hearing in situations like that, not only does this infringe on his freedom of speech but also makes the elderly always feel too powerful to learn from their mistakes.
Another proverb that is worth discussing is ‘abofra bo nwa na ombo akyekyede3’ meaning there are certain things that a child cannot say or do. A child must live like a child and must not do things meant for adults. No adventure. Just conform.

I remember how my parents and other relatives would scream at some comments I made when I was young. I live in the part of the world where any child, especially a girl that behaves like an adult or a child that is very smart and intelligent is tagged ‘mpanisem’, i.e. a child that is going ahead of himself. In some societies, a child like that is seen as one with very high leadership prospects and is encouraged. But in Ghana it is seen as a sign of disrespect and the child is usually punished. So such children eventually become timid instead of exploring their natural boldness.
‘Abofra a ose omma ne maame nna no, bentoa mpa neto da’ meaning if a child gets into any trouble, it is not only the parents that suffer but the child suffers as well. Ga-Adangbe’s also have a saying they usually tell children to make them keep themselves within some confines instead of being adventurous. They say things like ‘Wo he nu jo-or’ meaning ‘we are surrounded by bitter waters.” In other words they advise their children not to try anything extraordinary in life because if they did, it would only end badly. Once you confine yourself within a certain level of pursuit, you are fine, but if you try to stretch the limits, or take risks, you will enter into bitter waters and suffer.

How intimidating can it get? Ghanaian parents use these seemingly wise sayings and proverbs to make their children timid and become very low achievers in life, while their counterparts around the world are stretching the limits and reaching for bigger things in life.
To the parents, they use these adages so that the child will refrain from any act that will land him in trouble. But they rather make the child timid and unadventurous, because the child always has it at the back of his mind that he will suffer if he tries anything and it goes wrong. So such children refuse to take any risks in life because they are afraid to enter the bitter waters.

It also makes children do ordinary things thinking they can’t do anything extraordinary. Naturally adventurous children then remain in their confines thinking they would fail if they ever tried something new.

There are many more of such African traditions and proverbs that discourage children and make them timid.

Even though some parents, especially those who live in the cities, do not use some of these proverbs and traditions anymore, some still think their children have to be brought up the same way they were brought up. That is not a bad idea but I think it is high time African parents stopped treating their children like we still live in the 1950s.

Parents think their children will grow to be the best when they are brought up in such ways. But trust me if my parents had answered most of the questions I asked while I was a child – if only my parents had heard me out every time I tried to explain certain things – if only they had educated me about sex earlier – things would have been different. Don’t you think?

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