** 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.