Wherever You Go, There It Is: How Are Gender Roles Different In Ghana?

November 12, 2012  |  

Source: Shutterstock.com

So recently I was in Ghana on a repatriation and investment tour, taking in culture and history and some of the social scene, particularly the men folk.

Let’s be honest, I don’t care how wonderfully vibrant and economically lush a country may be, a good social game is paramount to any choice destination, especially if you are a young, single person looking to repatriate.  Well, you would be happy to know that there are some really good looking men in Ghana in a variety of styles and hues. Likewise, most folks there speak English, in addition to native languages, and they dress almost similar to Westerners, so you won’t be too home sick.

But there are some notable cultural differences.  For one, Ghanaian men have no qualms about being affectionate–including with each other. Imagine the raised eyebrows at seeing men – self-described straight men — holding hands, hugging and dancing in groups with each other. That would never happen here in the States. Never. Even Yuwil, a new friend of mine from Washington State, who dreams of expatriating to Ghana in hopes of getting more in touch with his African side, said upon seeing two men swinging arms and holding hands, “S**t, that’s one local custom they can keep to themselves.”

However, despite having a more modern feel to the country, in some ways Ghanaians, particularly Ghanaian men, still tend to lean more on traditional gender roles. For instance, Stephanie from Brooklyn, another traveler on the tour, was sitting with me and having food and drinks at the lounge at our hotel in Accra.  We were conversing with two Ghanaian men about how common it was to see women walking around balancing and carrying trays of stuff – food, water bottled for sale, meat, rice, firewood – on their head and a baby tied to their backs, while her male companion seemed to walk beside her, untethered by baggage and/or children. “Why does it seems like the women do all the work and the men here just pretty much take it easy?” Stephanie asked, with some cosigns from me.

“See when women start talking that human rights stuff, I stop listening and say go ‘head,” said Kojo, who acted as security and local customs and courtesy expert for the tour.  By human rights, he meant gender equality. And he was done with the conversation before we even started. “You see, those are Western women values. Ghanaian men are very respectful of women,” said Kobina, another native Ghanaian tour guide and friend of Kojo.  According to both men, who hail from the Ashanti region, the foreigners, particularly NGO (non-government organizations), have imposed their own values on Ghana, including the belief that women are being oppressed. Therefore, more women are willing to delay marriage and leave their husbands for what both men described as the most frivolous of reasons.  “I know a woman, who left her husband because he cheated on her. How silly is that?” said Kobina.

As Kobina explained, there are duties in society that each gender is expected to perform. Women are expected to take care of the house, take care of the children, take care of the men and perform their womanly duties every night – the latter of which was emphasized many times. However, this doesn’t mean that women are powerless. In fact, said Kobina, when it comes to the home front, the family is very matriarchal. While women do most of the housework including laundry, cooking and the cleaning, women also keep order and call most of the shots in the house, particularly decisions around the family. “Really when it comes to the children, women have the final say. It doesn’t matter what the men say. If the mother doesn’t like it, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

But then I asked about our visit to the local weaving craft village, where we witnessed how the process to make the ink they used to die fabric was divided between the genders. What about that?. “You had this woman with a baby tied to her back, using all her might to pound and pound at this wood bark with this big, six-foot-tall pounding stick in order to extract liquid from it. And after all that huffing and puffing she does, the guy casually picks up the ink, puts it in a pot and stirs it – and that is the extent of his job.  Clearly she is doing all the hard work in the relationship,” said Stephanie.

Kobina, laughing, assured us that we’re just not seeing the full picture.  According to him, men are the ones who cut the wood and bring the food to make the stuff in the pot. “We’re the hunters. Who do you think finds the food?  Women are not going to go up in the tree to get the coconuts, instead, they want us to do the heavy lifting jobs.” Using a panties analogy, Kobina said that while women will wash a man’s “panties,”  men, on the other hand, wouldn’t wash a woman’s panties because that is woman’s work. And any man caught tending to his wife’s unmentionables would likely be laughed at and ridiculed by as many women as men. Kobina added that, “The reason why men don’t carry things is because they always have a stick in their hands. This is because they have to be ready to fight and defend their family, in case of an attack.”

Okay, so it’s the African version of chivalrous behavior? I’ll bite. However, I wasn’t quite convinced. So Kobina invited some strange local woman, who just happened to be waiting at the pool, to come speak to us.  While she agreed with Kojo and Kobina that women do perform these duties out of respect for the family structure, she was also adamant that women, in fact, do the majority of the hard work.  That’s when Kojo and Kobina thanked the sister and told her to go on about her business.  I guess they had to send her away before she let the cat out of the bag any further.

There are plenty of men I met in Ghana, who offer the same opinions as our male Ghanaian friends. However, the gender equality conversation I had with Kojo and Kobina is almost identical to conversations I’ve had with men right here in Philadelphia. In fact, there were many situations that felt similar, including talk about baby mothers, child support and cheating spouses. It just goes to show you that no matter where you go in the world, male/female relationships stay virtually the same.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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