African viewpoint: Home truths

A traditional dancer (August 2010)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene sees her home country through younger, questioning eyes.

I have been having an interesting time with my six-year-old niece for the past six weeks.

She lives in the US and is spending her summer holidays with me here in Ghana and as the saying goes, out of the mouths of babes, I have been learning a few home truths.

It started with me trying to make her wear earrings, but she kept taking them off.

When we were going to visit her grandmother, I told her quite firmly that she had to wear them.

Start Quote

My niece was fascinated by the extravagant clothes that everybody wore”

End Quote

Otherwise, I would be in a lot of trouble with her grandmother who would not be amused that her granddaughter was walking around without earrings.

"It was our culture," I replied, trying to end the many questions that she was throwing at me.

"So, what does our culture say boys should do?" she asked.

I could not find an immediate answer and so I moved on.

Questions have been coming thick and fast from my niece ever since.

"Why are all the goods outside and not inside the shops? Why are so many people selling on the streets? Why are people walking in the middle of the road?"

Try answering the questions of a six year old about the street culture of Accra.

'Bride difficult to get'

I took her to a traditional wedding ceremony. We were part of the groom's family and we had to go to the bride's father's home to formally ask for her hand and perform the required rituals.

We were kept waiting outside the gate for a long time and, of course, the questions kept coming.

"Why are we being kept out? I thought the ceremony was supposed to start at 11 o'clock, but it is almost 12," she said.

It is part of our culture that the groom's family is kept waiting outside for a while, so I said: "It is our culture."

A street scene in Accra (archive shot) Accra is a vibrant city with many people doing business on its streets

Indeed, being kept waiting outside was supposed to be a symbolic display of the bride being difficult to get but, like most things in our society, it has been stretched out of recognition.

One day, our family too will keep a prospective groom's family waiting outside.

My niece was fascinated by the extravagant clothes that everybody wore and was excited that she had to carry on her head one of the parcels that the groom's family was obliged to present to the bride's family.

The groom and bride were not at the ceremony, they were together thousands of miles away in a flat in London.

When it came to the part of the ceremony where the bride had to declare publicly that the dowry and other presents could be accepted by her family to denote her agreement to the marriage, a telephone call was made to the London flat and the answers were broadcast through the public address system.

"Was that part of our culture?" my niece asked.

"Err that was using modern technology to enhance our culture," I replied.

"Why was there so much food and drink?" she wanted to know.

"Because the bride's family were happy and wanted to demonstrate to us their daughter does not lack anything and they expect her to be well looked after in her new husband's home."

'Report her to the boss'

The questions continued: "Is it part of our culture that the music at functions should be so loud, especially in church? Why does it take so long in church and why are there two or three collections?

"Why do so many houses have walls around them?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Are there police patrol cars here?" she went on to ask.

"Yes, but I have never seen one," I replied.

The other day she wanted something American to eat so we went to a fast food place to buy some chicken wings.

Start Quote

Are all the cousins I have met really my cousins?”

End Quote Akua Ametoedzani

After waiting for more than five minutes while the girl at the counter was having a conversation with a friend, we were told we had to wait for about 20 minutes for the order.

The six year old led me out of the place and said we should have made a report to the boss that the girl was not taking care of her customers.

"Are all the cousins I have met really my cousins?" she wanted to know next.

"Yes, they are. Indeed, they are your brothers and sisters but we will not get into that," I told her.

"And is everybody else my aunt or uncle?" she asked.

"Yes. And you, young Miss Akua Ametoedzani, are my daughter. There is no word for niece in our language," I replied.

And lastly: "Does everybody have black hair here?"

"Err, yes. Black people usually have black hair and those like me who have gone grey have, like me, dyed their hair to remain black."

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Wow, Africans have the luxury of having a strong desire to pass on culture to their children. Jamaicans are quite the opposite of Ghanians. Most Jamaicans parents are indifferent or opposed to passing on their culture to their children who are raised abroad. In the US they will hack off their children's roots so that their children are totally ignorant about their cultural heritage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Elizabeth, the simple answer to most of your Niece questions is that she is in West Africa and not the United States. Now, the one about the girl in the fast food restaurant is the only one I am not too sure about. The situation may be out of control over there but she will see some of that too back home in United States.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Ms Ohene, As a regular contributor on BBC online, can you start a weekly forum educating the rest of world about Africa as a continent comprising of 54 countries not one monolithic country?. I am for African unity. But, why do western media and others lump African countries into one. Westerners would ask are you from Africa when they will never ask are you from Europe, the America or Asia?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Dear Elizabeth, your masterpiece and of course the questions from your l6 year old niece have shed light to unquestionable practices on our continent. "Why are there" in the Church, " two or three collections?" shows that in Africa, corruption is vissible even to young age like your niece. Perhaps following an advice from Emmanuel Boye
    @17 is an invaluable thing to do by the African diaspora.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    l live in U.S and advised all Africans to take their children for a vist to the the motherland once in their life time.. Elizabeth Ohene l have following your work for a long time even the time you are in South Africa. Keep the good job at BBC we love you

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Elizabeth, thanks for not screaming at your niece for being too inquisitive. Too often , adults in Africa dismiss kids when they want to ascertain facts of life. She falls right within the age group that is curious to discover their environment.


Comments 5 of 21


More Africa stories



Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.