The task: to read African Cultural Values, by Kwame Gyekye, and then to devour the very hefty A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana, by Akosua Adoma Perbi, ultimately digesting all this new information into lessons to add to the curriculum of the twice-weekly Cross Culture class.
I accept this mission, sir! And thus I am halfway through the easier of the two tomes: African Cultural Values.
This book is great! Every page illuminates the core values behind mysteries I witness on a daily basis here in Ghana.
The text is divided into chapters that each explore a different facet of values that Gyekye has identified as central to African society: Religious Values, Family Values, Aesthetic Values, and more.
Each value is illuminated through the use of often-repeated African proverbs and folktales, as well as anecdotal and historical examples of the value in practice. The book is really a wonderful read, especially to a foreigner who is actually IN Africa and can test the verity of the assertions herself!
I’ll be talking more about this book in later posts, but let us now focus on one African Value that has been fabulously evident in Ghana: The Value of Humanity and Brotherhood (aka, Chapter Two of the book).
Gyekye emphasizes that Africans have a remarkable love of humanity and a deep respect for the human family as a whole.
The author puts it beautifully: “Africans recognize the dignity of the human being and, in consequence, hold a deep and unrelenting concern for human welfare and happiness. …Recognition of the value of humanity is intrinsically linked with recognition of the unity of all people, whether or not they are biologically related” (p. 23).
One may say, “You can’t make this declaration about a whole continent!” or one may point, wide-eyed, to horrific wars in the past and present of Africa, scoffing at Gyekye’s thesis.
But having spent one month so far in Ghana, I can tell you, what the author says about Ghanaian love and respect for humanity is true, true, true!
Here are some examples:
I had just finished eating some delicious yam with palaver sauce (pictured, right), when I walked into another room to find Millicent and Oliver sitting down to start their dinner, themselves.
“You are invited,” the two sweet YCC staff members said in unison.
“Huh?” I replied, confused.
“You are invited to eat!” they said. “Come!” Oliver grabbed another chair and Millicent handed me the water bowl to wash my hands.
“But you just saw me finish eating a giant bowl of this by myself!” I stuttered, mystified, “and you haven’t had two bites!”
So it is here in Ghana: you share the food off your plate with your fellow humans, even that fellow human has just stuffed herself at a previous meal, and you are starving.
2. The Huge Importance of Greetings.
Our friend Kwabla’s favorite advice about Ghana was: “If you greet someone in the street and they do not greet you back, they are either an enemy… or a ghost.”
Indeed, you are expected to greet everyone you meet with a verbal salutation, and everyone you spend a little time standing close to with a handshake and middle finger snap. Why?
Gyekye explains: “Greeting people one meets is an important element of enhancing human relations and in making people feel good about themselves. The greeting is considered a way of acknowledging the other person as a fellow human being, and a person may feel deeply hurt if you pass him by without greeting him. The failure to greet him would be regarded as a failure on your part to recognize that he shares your humanity.” (p. 26).
Isn’t this beautifully worded? I will admit: this greeting business was weird at first for this frigid Bostonian, but now it’s nice!
3. Cooperation: All Hands Instantly Pitch in to Help.
Writing on the makeshift whiteboard easel today in writing class, the rickety wooden support gave a creeeeak and then began to topple over onto me! Within a matter of seconds, seven YCC students had leaped over their desks to stop the falling board and save their screaming American teacher. Thanks, dear ones!
As Gyekye shows through Akan proverbs: “A human being needs help,” or rather, “It is a human being that is needed” (p. 24).
4. Kindness is Everywhere Here.
Everyone I have met here in Ghana has been so NICE! I love it! Naturally, there is a dark and stormy underbelly to any such smiley surface, but the fact remains that it is utterly refreshing to be surrounded by thoughtful and gentle students and coworkers who daily demonstrate their concern for fellow humans.
5. Hospitality Beyond American Imagination.
If a culture LOVES humans, that society will come together to save a fellow person if that person is out on the street. And thus, Ghanaians here in Sogakope are SHOCKED to hear the concept of homelessness in the U.S. Shocked! How can there be homelessness in the most rich and powerful country on earth if there is hardly any in Sogakope?
Just a few years ago, YCC itself took in a band of evangelical Koreans who were randomly wandering Ghana with no money and no food! Personally, I may be paying rent here at the YCC guesthouse, but I feel loved like family. Speaking of family…
6. Brotherhood and Sisterhood Beyond Genetics!
Sure enough, everyone calls each other “Brother,” “Sister,” “Auntie,” “Mama,” and so on! It’s really nice. It makes you feel connected!
Gyekye quotes the Akan maxim: “Man’s brother is… man!” (p. 28). Yes!
Thanks, Brother John (or “efo Kofi”) for forcing me to read these big fat books, and thanks, Brother Gyekye, for providing a conceptual framework for the impressive elements I’m encountering each day here in Sogakope!