Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ghanaians and Mental health

Written by Marian Sakley anang

Does any Ghanaian language have a word for “depression?” It is impossible to turn on American television and not see a commercial for Cymbalta, Abilify, Zoloft. If you are new to these names, they are popular anti-depressant drugs a growing percentage of Americans just can’t seem to do without. These drugs are meant to elevate mood and boost confidence. Some call it a “happy pill.” They are known to restore chemical imbalances in the brain thus alleviate the sadness, loss of interest in daily living and sometimes suicidal thinking associated with depression. The number of people who depend on these drugs to remain “stable” is enough to shock any Ghanaian immigrant. It is not strange to go to work in the US and have a coworker who you thought was “normal,” you know clam, jovial with everybody, smart even, become unhinged and exhibit pseudo-psychotic or aggressive behavior because they forgot to take their meds that morning. Or because the one they took this morning is beginning to leave the system. You are probably thinking OMG what did I do to make them fly off the handle like that? But nooo….it has nothing to do with you. It’s that time for them to be excused, go to the car and get a fix. They come back an hour later smiling and you are like…”ok…”…until next time. Of course some people are on illicit drugs too, marijuana, and the like.

So I want to ask do Ghanaians living in Ghana get depressed too? Do we get suicidal? I mean growing up in Accra I heard of an occasional suicide here and there, but nothing compared to what I have seen in the US. Ok if we tend to be less suicidal and depressed than the average White person, why is that ? Is it because we Ghanaians have better coping skills in response to stressful situations? And please don’t tell me poverty, poor health, hunger and all the ku me preko lifestyle in Ghana doesn’t take its toll. Ghanaians have not been called magicians for nothing. We have always felt the pinch of living in a tough economy. Yet our mental health doesn’t suffer so much that we need occasional trips to the psychologist or psychiatrist. Genetics play a part in mental health too I must mention. But it is largely influenced by the environment.

Most people who end up with mental health problems have a history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood. Rape, sodomy, dysfunctional families and physical abuse at the hands of family member and strangers can create emotional and personality disorders that when left unchecked become more severe and manifest itself as psychotic behavior or “craziness” as we call it, over a period of time. Simply put, mental health degenerates if emotional problems are left unchecked. Ghanaian boys and girls are raped on daily basis. Sexual abuse and incest goes unfettered in the most conservative of Ghanaian families. We don’t like to talk about it, but we are hearing more about it every day. Where are the psychologists, the Dr, Phil’s and psychiatrists in Ghana to help this section of Ghanaians with the deal emotional issues that crop up as a result? Do they keep it under wraps well into adulthood? Do they share it with anyone? Their better halves?

At present it is reported that there are only 14 psychiatrists in Ghana in three psychiatric hospitals. Accra Psychiatric Hospital, Pantang and Ankaful in the Central Region. That is not to say people with mild emotional issues should consult a psych hospital, but how well can 14 doctors serve a population of 24 million people? Why are most Ghanaians embarrassed to talk about this? We will rather admit to having cancer and gonorrhea than admit that our mental health is challenged. Is it mentally healthy for us to keep everything bottled in the way we do? In the event that we do admit that we need help, who do we go to for the Cymbalas and Prozac’s? In Ghana if your mental health is so much as deemed unhealthy, you could be labeled “abodam” ‘seke yelo” ‘craze” and the like. Do those Ghanaians who are mentally challenged deserve that label? Or is it that you and I have better coping skills and so we haven’t found ourselves needing the help of a metal health worker--yet?

Monday, November 23, 2009

I'm not saying Ghanaians are boring

But one of these days, it would be nice to get a wedding invitation that reads like so

Instead of like this

The Cleland and Sunkwa Families respectfully request your presence on this joyful occasion of the solemnization of holy matrimony between their daughter
Esi Woarabowodzin Cleland and their son James Panyinnyiwofie Sunkwa
On this day November 19th, 2009 at the St. Thomas Acquinas Catholic Church, Accra

Girls Father

Boy's Father

Why do Ghanaian wedding invitations all read, look, and feel the same?
Why are our wedding invitations boring when we're not? Like our living rooms, why do they all look like one person thought it up and the rest all just copied it?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Do you know which items make the big list?

I’ve never attended a Ghanaian traditional marriage ceremony. That ceremony which some people now call engagement but which is actually proper marriage, recognised by our elders as well as Ghana law. Even though I haven’t seen one feeli feeli (tr: with my own eyes), I know from akan drama, Ghanaian movies, and hearsay that the bride’s family requests a list.

I’ve been asking around and it looks like every family has their own list. I’m not sure how they come up with this list or even if the young couple have any say in what is requested but I thought it would be useful to generate some sort of BIG LIST on this blog. So that Ghanaians who will be marrying in the future can pick and choose from this list. Here’s what I have so far.

1. Bottles of Schnapps – How Schapps positioned itself as the traditional drink for Ghanaian marriages is an advertising marvel.

2. Pieces of Cloth – Again just like Schnapps has become synonymous with marriage drink, Holland aka Hollandais aka Vlisco is the preferred brand of cloth.

3. Bible

4. Ring

5. Dowry in the form of money

6. Money or cloth for the father, mother and siblings

7. Amonsee (traditional underwear) / panties / bras – Seriously?

What else do people typically request?

What do the items signify?

And for those of you who are married, what did you request?

And now that I look back on this list, it seems we want nothing that's made in Ghana for a Ghanaian marriage. Hmm...

Friday, November 06, 2009

To name or not to name. How do Ghanaian parents name their kids?

I'm not having kids anytime soon. Knock on wood. Unless y'know I happen to chance on one. Accidents happen.
I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt which read "Kids at the backseat of cars cause accidents and accidents at the backseat of cars lead to children" hehe. So I allowed my imagination to ran wild, and I wondered, if I am blessed with one of these accident babies, what will I call it?
How do Ghanaian parents decide on the name?
Since I'm all into Ghanaian names, I'd give a traditional but meaningful first name. Something like Nkwaye (meaning life is good) as a first name. Then I'd give a middle name or string of middle names. Then the last name.
Now traditionally, Ghanaians name their kids after their parents, or other family member they admire and respect. And I think this is actually expected. That is, these family members/parents expect that their children will name their kids after them. Usually what happens is, several of the siblings will name their children after their parents, aunts, uncles and sometimes family friends. All I'm asking this by force?
What if I don't feel like naming my kid after anyone in my family or my husband's family? By the way, here's my disclaimer. I'm not saying this is what I'll do o. I beg. I'm just the off chance that I wanted to do this, would there be a problem?
If I had this accident baby and named it Nkwaye Dossou-Yovo simply because I like the name...but say the baby daddy was called Francois Ocloo. Then would the Ocloo family and the Cleland family be pissed that the baby was not named after them? Not the middle name and not even the last name?
And if I had a second child with a different baby daddy called Promit Senghor and called the baby say Abayie (meaning you have arrived at a good time). Then the baby's name would be Abayie Mammah simply because I like the name. Would my family start to resent that I've finished having all the kids I'll ever have and have not once named anyone in the family?
But they'd not lose hope. They'd maybe count be as a lost cause but they'd count on my siblings to name them.
So what if my siblings also followed my example so that what we end up with is a new generation whose names are not in anyway tied to the parents names. Just because we the kids decided to actually exercise our right to get creative with our babies names by giving them names we actually like and want as opposed to the names we're expected to call them. Instead of following some laid down convention to give the man's last name to the kid as a surname, if we did both the girls family and the boys family setewaa and gave him a beautiful last name we like like Dossou-Yovo and Mammah.
So question. To the people who have kids. And those who are about to have kids...would anyone ever do this? Why and why not? And did you feel pressured to name your kids after your family? If so, is there anyone who resisted it? With what consequences?
And finally, isn't being named a privilege and honor rather than a right? And if so, why would we feel pressured to honor someone? And should we do it simply because it is expected? Even when we don't admire them?
As for me, I'm just dreaming up the possibilities right now but I have no idea what I'll do when I actually bring forth.
And if you don't have kids, do you know what you will name him/her/it when you do.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Thoughts of a Ghanaian Abroad

Written by: Mad Lion

Consider this: I attended some of the best schools in Ghana. I’ve studied in Europe. I live and work in the U.S. as a Project Manager with a software development company.

Now, looking at where I currently am, should I leave the U.S. and relocate to Ghana?

I think not. I’ve convinced myself that I may not find a job at home that will pay me what I’m worth. And what am I worth? I ask myself: if I’m sitting at a table somewhere in Sikaman, with a group of my peers who are equally trained and skilled, albeit in Sikaman, working on a project that will generate value for our common employer, why do I expect to be paid more than them? What gives me the right to expect more pay?

I believe it’s a question of opportunity. I am the one who made it abroad, against “all” the odds. I’m the one who is automatically expected to be successful by virtue of my esteemed journey. I’m the one who is expected to have something to show for the opportunity given me (in my case, I’m expected to be thrice as successful, having been to Germany and the U.K., and finally dropped in the Land of Opportunity). Imagine this: On one of my trips home to Sikaman, I chanced upon my Science teacher from elementary school. Amid the barrage of “Where is Kofi Mensa? Where is Kofi Mensa?” questions he asked – Kofi Mensa being my genius brother – was the question of where I currently live, and what I’m currently doing. “I live in Europe,” I say proudly, “studying engineering in Europe” His response?

“Oh, Europe? Then you have no problem!”

Think about that for a moment. I hope you feel the extent of the expectation. And it doesn’t end with my Science teacher. I speak with many of my friends who live in Ghana and have never travelled abroad, and their common prescription to my relocation ailment?

“Don’t come home – life in Ghana is difficult!”

I’m expected to succeed in life before returning home. And what does it mean to succeed in life? It’s not spoken out loud, and there’s no definitive list of possessions to acquire in order to move from the “Yet-to-be” column to the “Has been” column. And yet I’m expected to succeed before returning home to Sikaman. At the very least, I’m expected to have something to show for the opportunity given me, being the one who made it abroad.

Subconsciously, we’ve created a story in our minds of the journey abroad. It’s complete with characters (ourselves, admissions officers, connection men, “Nkrataa wives,” etc), a plot (the struggle to make it abroad, the finally arrive, settling, the first Western Union Money transfer, making money, more Western Unions, building a posh house in Sikaman, coming home, living the good life), vivid scenes (skyscrapers in New York, gardens in New Jersey, fountains and sausages in Hamburg, and snow… You couldn’t have gone abroad if you don’t have pictures of yourself in the snow; people will assume you hitch-hiked to Sogakope and hid in a hut for 2 years, pretending to be abroad).

I like to think of it this way: we view the trip abroad as an opportunity for a man to leave his village and travel many miles to a town where gold is mined. Let’s call it Mining Town. It’s a place where people make their fortunes. The journey is tough and expensive, but the returns justify the hardship. Once a man struggles and gets to Mining Town, and once he settles, the people in his village (and, many times, he himself) begin imagining his pile of gold growing. The longer he stays (should he be hardworking) the more gold he should have. Now, why would such a young man in his rightful mind want to leave such a place without enough gold and return to his village, given the opportunities that Mining Town presents? Worse still, how can such a young man arrive home, after, say 10 years, with no gold to show? Surely, he must have squandered his fortune on young women and strong drink?! In short, “W’ambo bra!”

I met a Ghanaian man in Duesseldorf once. He'd been in Germano for 7 years. Prior to that, he’d been an Engineering student at Tech (the Kwame Nkruman University of Science and Technology in Kumasi). When the chance arrived for him to study in Germany, all his friends at Tech thought he was marvelously blessed; the guy was actually going to Germany! He got to Duesseldorf, took a full year to learn and sprechen Deutsch, started school, struggled a lot with school and work and life abroad, couldn't quite find a job after school. In his 7th year he decided to visit Sikaman, carrying with him his only suitcase and a small piece of cloth he’d bought for his ageing mother. In the meantime, many of his friends from Tech were married, some had built their houses and populated them with lovely children, most had good jobs and were eating fattened Tilapia for lunch, etc. Upon seeing the dejected figure he cut, his elder brother posed the dreaded question: "Boga, so, after 7 years abroad, is that all you have to show?"

After 7 years abroad…


As I sit here today today, I’m a young man 7 years into my journey to the Promised Land (6 of which, mind you, were spent in school). I’ve been in the mines proper (the workforce) for a full year, and although I do have some gold dust to show for my efforts, it’ll fit in the palm of one hand. The winds of responsibility are also not helping matters much, regularly blowing away my dust particles. In fact, should I catch a cold and sneeze heavily, the gale will blow my small fortune away. So how different am I from my Boga friend? What do I have to show for my trip to Mining Town, and how long will it take me to feel confident that I’ve succeeded in life?

The starting point of my journey was the hustle to make it to Mining Town. The widely accepted endpoint, regardless of how long it takes, should be the triumphant entry into Sikaman someday, to cut the sod to my American House and live the good life.

Let’s return to the table at which we begun.

What could entice me to leave Mining Town now and sit at this table with my peers? In my mind, I could return from the U.S. to sit at this table if I’ll be paid the amount of money (or similar, in real terms) that I would have received in a comparable job here in the U.S. It’s not that I’m better or smarter than my equally-qualified peers at the table – far from it, and I wouldn’t be as ignorant as to think that way (if there’s one thing Sikaman has no shortage of, it’s smart, capable people). However, I feel that I’m the one who made it to Mining Town and had all the opportunities in the world. I’m the one who had the chance to mine real gold. And if I should leave that opportunity and return home, then I should have as much opportunity (in fiscal terms) as I “could” here. That’s in purely economic terms; life’s a lot more than economics. However, that’s part of the reason why I find it difficult to relocate to Sikaman. There are others (some incomparable to money).

Let’s look at the distribution of opportunities. In Mining Town, should I lose my job, I’ll have the opportunity to find an equally good one (although this logic may not quite hold in these trying economic times where H-1B visas are the order of the day, and one has 10 days to find another job if laid off). Should I find a good job in Sikaman, however, what’s the chance that I’ll find an equally good one if the company goes under, or if I lose my job? There aren’t many of such good opportunities in Sikaman. Likewise, at the back of my mind, I’m expecting an equally comfortable lifestyle in Sikaman as the one I have here (although I live in a one-bedroom apartment). I’m expecting to have a nice car in Sikaman (although I drive a wreck). I’m expecting to be able to save as much money (in real terms) if I moved to Sikaman as I’d be able to save here in Mining Town (although my fast-dwindling gold dust can hardly be called savings). The list goes on. At its core is the expectation that I should have the American Dream in Sikaman if I were to move back.

Many will wonder whether this expectation is realistic. In my view, to answer this question is to think about where one expects to end up in life, if he/she stayed in the U.S. We expect to live comfortably and have money. Granted – few of us can be said to live comfortably now, and most of us have less than $10,000 in our bank accounts. But the key point is that we expect to have much more within the next few years of work, realistically or otherwise. We expect to have the American Dream if we keep at it. With our families and friends in Sikaman warning us not to return, one can be pardoned to assume that there’s no such thing as a Ghanaian Dream. But there is a Ghanaian Dream – one that many of us know. It’s of the triumphant return to the land of our birth, after years abroad, bearing riches with which to build lavish houses, live a lavish life, and bask in the admiration of our peers. We’d be described as having come “from outside.” We’ll be called “Akatakyie.” That’s the Ghanaian Dream that many of us know, and it’s often the sequel (Part 2) to the American/European Dream that we crave.

So is there a Ghanaian Dream that occurs entirely in Ghana? Let’s call this The Domestication Dream. I know many who have lived the Part 2 Ghanaian Dream (from Sikaman to America/Europe and back to Sikaman with means). They are the ones we commonly look at and consider to have succeeded. Look at where all the big business people – all the people who live in East Legon and these other posh neighbourhoods, and drive all the big cars – spent the first 10 to 15 years of their working lives. Look at many of the top politicians who have money. Look at many of the young people working in Sikaman for their wealthy parents. We consider many of them to be the new young professional elite in Sikaman, working and making their dreams come true in Ghana. But who are they working for? Where did these employers spend the first 15 years of their working lives?

I’m not saying that every productive/successful business in Sikaman was started by people who came “from outside.” That would be somewhat ignorant and rather uninformed. What I’m trying to communicate is that there is indeed a Domestication Dream (take Domod, for example, and Darko Farms, and Christo Asafo, etc), but it’s far less common than the Part 2 Ghanaian Dream that we know so well. And you will often find that a good number of people who start companies to make the Domestication Dream possible for many other Ghanaians came home “from abroad.” That’s why so many of us cling to the idea of the Part 2 Ghanaian Dream. Many Ghanaians living abroad hope to come home someday to live Part 2 of their dream, and we view Part 2 as being near-impossible without Part 1.

The Domestication Dream is possible. However, the opportunities available to live this dream, though clearly existent, are few. If we all come from abroad today, many are they who will find that these opportunities have been exhausted, and who might feel they missed out on Part 1 of the dream. And once Part 1 is missed out on, going back to America/Europe to re-live it is extremely difficult, as those of us who have experienced multiple visa rejections (not to mention the arrogance of characters such as Bra George at the German Embassy in Accra) will tell you.

But this is not to discourage anyone from the pursuit of the Domestication Dream, for I know a number of people who are living it to the max. There are opportunities in Ghana, and they’re worth looking for. True – they’re few. But they’re not as far between as we may think, and once they’re found, they tend to be very rewarding. Increasingly, these opportunities are becoming more numerous, and from what I hear, they pay quite well.

Should I leave the U.S. and return home, though? I don’t think I’m much closer to an answer now than I was when I first picked up my pen. I’m a step closer to accepting that the Domestication Dream is possible. I’ve also started seeking out some of the opportunities that could make this dream possible. And since I have huge interests in Ghana and know that there’s a chance I could be paid as well as I think I’m worth, I think it might be worth taking the chance “at the right time.”