** This is a testimonial on identity that I wrote for my Intergroup Dialogue Class at Mount Holyoke College in 2009. Comments and criticism are welcome, but should be constructive and respectful. // 2021 Update here.
I have always been one to ponder things, so I stumbled upon the fact that I am complex quite early in my life. I also consider myself to be ‘old at heart’, and therefore have no qualms about educating others – both young and old – on my theories concerning life. Until I came to the US, I wasn’t as aware of my “blackness” as I am now. In many ways, that word didn’t even apply to me, seeing that I was relatively light-skinned and would instead be termed as having a “milk chocolate” skin tone, instead of a “dark chocolate” skin tone. If the question of saliency had come up with regards to my life in Ghana, I would have been quick to say that there is ‘no racism’, and so the issue of racial identity would not have been important or evident to me.
Today, I hold a totally different view: racism does exist in Ghana, as well as many other African countries. The only difference is that it is not the ‘directly in your face’ kind of racism, but rather a more subtle one; one that is equally, if not more, disastrous than the kind of racism that exists in the US. The general rule however remains the same “lighter is better.” Light-skinned individuals, who come from “mixed” families, are generally more favoured in Ghanaian society. This is evident right from the pre-schools to top government levels; lighter skinned school children are generally treated better in school and given more attention – both by their peers and their teachers; most TV and print commercials showcase lighter skinned individuals in order to sell their products, and many Ghanaian men will quickly admit to preferring women who are lighter skinned. Having been away from Ghana for a long time, I cannot tell if this trend has changed much, but given the fact that many Ghanaian women still opt for skin bleaching products, I would think that it still exists. As one woman put it in a newspaper article in Ghana, “If you no bleach, men no go call you.”
Personally, my experience of “racism” in Ghana had little to do with my skin tone, but rather concentrated on my ethnicity. I am from an ethnic group in northern Ghana called the Dagomba. We generally practice Islam, and are the dominant group in northern Ghana. Traditionally, Dagombas are cattle herders and farmers, and this remains true even today, since Northern Ghana had relatively less interaction with the Europeans during the colonial era, in comparison to their Southern counterparts. Today, Northern Ghana is the most neglected region of Ghana in terms of development initiatives. This in turn translates to the mistreatment and disrespect of many Northerners in Ghana.
Many Ghanaians regard Northerners as individuals who have no interest in their own development, and who are generally the black sheep of Ghanaian society. Given the fact that most Northerners are Muslim and bear Arabic names, it is quite easy to pinpoint a Northerner. Due to the lack of job opportunities in Northern Ghana, many migrate to major cities in the south of Ghana, like Accra and Kumasi, to pursue educational or job opportunities. Unfortunately, a great percentage of Northern Ghanaians find themselves undertaking “menial” jobs like being a house servant, a watchman or security man, or a kayaye (women porters). And so, as the Ghanaian society would have it, the region with one of the highest populations remains the least developed and one of the most ostracized.
In many ways than one, I could be considered an “anomaly” when it comes to my ethnic identity. I come from a family where education is greatly valued – both my parents are educationists; my father has only one wife (my mother); my family falls under the middle class bracket; generally speaking, I have had a “good” life; and perhaps, a little too much self-confidence. Growing up, I was constantly reminded at home, at school, and in the society as a whole, that I led a generally good life. At home, my cousins, grandma and uncles would often comment that I have it easy; avoiding the fact that my siblings and I have had to work just as hard as they have, albeit in a different capacity. In junior high school, I often got surprised looks when I mentioned that I went to a private school, or if I responded that I was a Northerner and Muslim. The reaction to the latter would often be “Wow, you don’t look anything like a Northerner.” In high school, one of my classmates (who happened to come from a bi-racial family) commented that my manner of doing things was like “those white girls.”
In the past, I avoided discussing my ethnic identity, as it made me uncomfortable and was easier to just ‘play the game’ until I got to where I wanted to be. As a result of this, I let crude ethnic jokes pass by, failed to call out professors who made fun of Arabic schools, and generally allowed the stereotypes concerning my people to prevail. My ethnic identity is closely tied to my religious identity, and like the typical dominant group-subordinate group interaction, I had to learn more about the southerners and Christianity than they ever attempted to learn about my people or religion. From a very young age, I attended Arabic school, along with my cousins and siblings, in order to learn about Islam and the Holy Quran. During Religious and Moral Education in junior high, I became the class favorite when it came to studying about Islamic practices and beliefs or Northern traditions. Come to think of it, it was a general joke among us where my classmates would sit closer to me in class or solicit my advice whenever we reached the section on Islam in class. Now I ask, why should this be the case? I probably know more about the Bible than some Christians do because I have had to learn it in order to defend my religious practices, and also because I was obliged to go to the chapel every Sunday while in high school. Why should an entire country support the notion that a Northerner would be fit only for the second-highest position in government, as the Vice-President of Ghana, instead of the top position? And perhaps most importantly, why do I and my fellow Northerners and Muslims continue to reinforce the misguided perceptions others have of us, and in some cases, even justify them?
I have always loved a good challenge and felt the need to prove myself and excel in whatever I do. For this very reason, I ensured that I was the best or one of the best students in ALL of the subjects my mother taught in my junior high school. Some of my classmates thought it was just a classic case of being competitive, but for me, it went far beyond that. Ensuring that I was among the top three students in Religious and Moral Education, Social Studies and English Language, meant breaking down stereotypes. Stereotypes which stated that most teachers’ children were not good students, that Northerners could not excel in school, that Muslim school children were unruly and that boys were generally better than girls in school. Right now, when I think about the challenges I had to bear as a young girl, I marvel at it all. I was not always conscious of all of these, but I know on a higher plane, it was evident to me. I cannot help but wonder how many other young Northern and Muslim girls in Ghana have to “play the game” in order to get to where they want to be.
Perhaps, my most believable act was at Wesley Girls’ High School. Throughout this paper, I have avoided naming people or institutions, but in this case, I will. I am aware that some of my former classmates or acquaintances might label me as ungrateful if, actually when, they read this (I intend to put this on my blog.) But the way I see it, the game is over, and the silence must be undone, for all our sakes. Wesley Girls’ High School is one of the best all-girls high schools in Ghana. It was founded by the Methodist missionaries and continues to honor essentially Methodist values. Given the fact that most of the good institutions of higher learning were formed by missionaries during the colonial era, there are few formal non-religiously affiliated high schools in Ghana, more so Islamic high schools. I completed junior high with one of the highest grades of my class and was thereafter accepted into Wesley Girls’. On the very first day, a teacher declared to my dad that the school was a Methodist school and as such I would be expected to adhere to its rules and regulations and discontinue my practice as a Muslim for my duration at the school. This was the real cost of seeking a good education.
Initially, I rebelled silently whenever we went to the chapel for Sunday Service. I wouldn’t say the prayers and instead, I would keep my head buried in a book. I was one of about 10 Muslims in an entire school of about 2000, and so I would have to deal with my classmates telling me that it was disrespectful not to pay attention to the service. What about respect for my religion? After a while however, I took to listening to the sermons, learnt the prayers, and even proceeded to read the entire bible cover to cover…twice.
I must say, I learnt a lot about Christianity from those obligatory services. All in all, Wesley Girls’ gave me a holistic and great education – in academics, religion, and life. My main concern however was the religious discrimination that prevailed. Although the school was Methodist and did not condone other religious practices, the Anglican and Catholic groups were allowed to practice, but we Muslims were not. If someone even got a whim of the idea that a group of Muslims were meeting to talk or even eat together, there would be some questions. At one point, I was nominated as a potential prefect or student group representative. But almost as soon as word got out, I learnt that my prospects of actually being a leader and serving the school were dim since I was not Christian. I believe that my high school has a lot to do with my successes and with who I am today. It has also contributed a lot to the Ghanaian society in terms of women leaders, and it is for this very reason that I mention this situation, which is still ongoing.
If a school like Wesley Girls’ High School, which has the power to recreate an entire generation, practices this kind of discrimination, then it would be no wonder to me, if the subtle religious tensions in Ghana boil over soon. I fervently hope that discussions like this Intergroup Dialogue take seed in the Ghanaian society, and I personally intend to continue talking about these issues since they are not only pertinent to relationships, but also to the development of the country. If you ask me, the racial, ethnic and religious interactions in Ghana and in the US are pretty much the same once you take away the labels. It remains the ever vicious cycle of survival of the fittest – rich tramples poor, educated neglects illiterate, majority overshadows minority. By breaking the silence, we give each other – and future generations – a chance.
NB: The author got word in 2014 that the situation at Wesley Girls High School has improved vis-a-vis Muslim students, but has yet to confirm these reports.
May 2021 Update on Muslims fasting at Wesley Girls.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.
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i just started reading…
makes me do some inner searching…
will be right back…just hold it there…
wow, I just learnt so much about your background! Naturally, great writing. :)
Amazing blog, Jemila. I love it!
6 years on your article continues to reverberate reflecting on the recent GES' directive on compulsory morning devotions. Prejudices and entrenched positions by relevant parties will not augur well for the stability of Ghana. Inasmuch as non Christian groups are entitled to freedom of association and worship given that these missionary schools are now under the control of a secular government, same cause should be championed in non Christian schools as well. this injustice should not be skewed towards Christian schools alone. what is good for the goose…
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Especially when we skirt the real issues.
Abdul Hayi Moomen
I attended St Martin De Porres School a catholic oriented school in Accra from class 1 to JSS 2 where I attended "worship" every Wednesday. I attended Presby JSS a Presbyterian school in Tamale. There too, I attended worship. That did not make me a Christian, it only gave me a better understanding of Christianity. It's one of the reasons why 27 years on, I am still friends with people like Daniel Telly, Dick Darkey Cornelius Okan-Adjetey Jojo Obeng-Agyei Frieda Billa, Daniel Mumuni and the list is simply too long to exhaust. In my time of need and distress these are the guys who come to my aid and vice versa. I proceeded to AMASS an Islamic School where again I met my very good Christian friends like Nana Akoto Baffour IV Eugene Nana Kwabena Aidoo Ivy Ofori Atta Norbert Opoku Mensah Phelix Appiah Ankuma etc. today, all these guys can recite the 1st Chapter of the quran in both Arabic and in English. That hasn't made them muslims, it has only given them a better understanding of Islam. Today these are some of the best defenders of Islam against those who tag the religion as violent.
My little sister Raahat Moomen went to Holy Child school, one of the best Catholic mission schools in the country. She, a muslim, became the School prefect in that school. Today she is still a staunch, committed Muslim.
we have lived together without rancour all these years. What is suddenly changing?
To go beyond is as foul as to fall short….there is a subtle war raging, the victim may actually be the attacker and the attacker the victim. This is deep, and those who know, certainly are aware of what is really happening
Jemila, I read one of your articles on facebook today where you made the statement that the schools built by the missionaries do not neccesarily belong to the churches in Ghana today such inflammatory arguments won't serve to help your cause at all). Please kindly check your history lessons viz-a-viz the facts of today and amend that statement. Again, the missionary schools are government subvented that does not necessarily make them more public than the Madrasas (Makarantas) – again check the agreement with the government before they took over the schools from the churches. Do you know that the government also subvents Islamic schools in Ghana? And yet Christian children in Ghana are not allowed to enroll in Makarantas!! If you respond I will name some "public" High Schools in Ghana that do not accept Christian in the northern region. Do you also know that in some Northern regional schools RME is not taught at all? What the schools teach is Islamic Studies, because the majority of the community members are Muslims (Christian children also attend those schools). In Ghana, no other region receives the kind of funding for a religious activity as the Muslims receive for Hajj (yet Ras Tafarians also go on pilgrimage, so do many other religious minorities). A lot of concessions have been made for Islam in Ghana though it is actually a minority religion in Ghana. What many of us Christians believe is that some of the things being demanded are not in a bid to wrestle out of religious persecution (which by the case is not even happening – if you want to see which religion is being side-lined, kindly visit some ministries in Accra), but rather a subtle agenda being perpetuated to who-knows-what end. If a meaningful dialogue will be made then we should not even start painting the picture of a persecuted Muslim minority in Ghana because Islam enjoys more support from government than even the majority religion. If we go down that road, I think people will get fed-up with Muslims in Ghana…now this
Dear Abdul Hayi Moomen,
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue. I'm sure many other Ghanaians are wondering what has suddenly changed (if at all) and are trying to make sense of the situation. At the end of the day, my hope is that whatever is in the best interest of Ghana as a nation will prevail now that a suit has been filed at the Supreme Court.
Thanks for your contributions and for sharing your thoughts on the matter. My statements on my *private* Facebook page are simply musings of a Ghanaian who is trying to make sense of the situation, as we all are – they are/were not intended to be "inflammatory". Ultimately my hope is that what is in the best interest of Ghana will prevail now that the issue is at the Supreme Court. For now, I have no public comments on the matter as I am still proccessing my thoughts.
6 years on your article continues to reverberate reflecting on recent GES' directive on compulsory morning devotions. Prejudices and entrenched positions will not augur well for the stability of Ghana. Inasmuch as non Christian groups must be entitled to freedom of association and worship on the premise that these missionary schools are now under the control of a secular government, similar cause should be championed in non Christian schools. this injustice should not be skewed towards the Christian groups only. what is good for the goose…
Thank you Jemila. Perfectly understand your position and I respect that….on the other hand, true to my promise that if you respond I will name some schools that do not accept Christian children (though they are fully fledged public schools, with no Islamic tug): one for you today to find out is Kanton Senior High School……………..if you are interested I can give you quite a list (let me know if you are). The point of my contribution is this: let us take an honest view of the Muslim – Christian debate. The issue is content…and without an honest exegesis on what end each religion seeks we will be kidding ourselves about dialogue (temporary peace, waiting to erupt….what does Islam seek for Ghana? What does Christianity seek for Ghana? By what means? Juxtaposed to the content of both religions. Issues of rights and oppression is a joke (both religions are Theocratic by form and heterogeneous or homogenous by practice)…..*Anonymous*
These experiences are very revealing and most disturbing