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African Cultural Values: Honoring Humanity

YCC’s Director, John, has given me some serious homework.

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.

What are African Cultural Values?
What are African Cultural Values?

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.

The importance of greetings.
The importance of greetings.

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).

All hands pitch in to help.
All hands pitch in to help.

To underline his point, Gyekye quotes an old Akan maxim: “It is the human being that counts; I call upon gold, it answers not; I call upon cloth, it answer not; it is the human being that counts.”

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!

Generosity sharing food in Ghana.
Generosity sharing food in Ghana.

Here are some examples:

1. Extreme Generosity in Always Sharing Food.

I had just finished eating some delicious yam with palaver sauce (pictured, above), 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!”

“No, please!” they insisted. And so (being food-obsessed) I had a bite or two of their succulent meal.

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 with fufu at a previous meal, and you are starving.

Kindness is everywhere.
Kindness is everywhere.

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!

Food is very linked with cultural values!
Food is very linked with cultural values!

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!

If a table needs lifting, all hands in the area will appear to hoist it. If a mango needs peeling, someone will show you how while another fetches a bowl and a napkin for you. And so on.

As Gyekye shows through Akan proverbs: “A human being needs help,” or rather, “It is a human being that is needed” (p. 24).

Hospitality beyond American imagination.
Hospitality beyond American imagination.

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…

Brotherhood and sisterhood beyond genetics.
Warmth and kindness.

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!


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Pablo R.

Tuesday 17th of November 2015

It is nice to see people taking the time to learn about others culture and heritage. These people are nice enough to show you how they live and share food with you. They probably treat their visitors with respect as shown in your text. It's really good to learn about these generous types of people because it shows us we have to respect each other as if we were brothers.

Diego L.

Tuesday 17th of November 2015

That's the good thing about the African culture; every person in there will be kind to you and will try their best to make you feel as good as possible.

Maada C.

Tuesday 17th of November 2015

I really liked reading about the author saying Africans recognize the dignity of human beings and such.

Masina K

Wednesday 25th of February 2015

I can't believe how kind the people here are. It seems America has a lot to work on; so we should learn from others instead of bashing them on the media.

Imported Blogger Comments

Friday 28th of May 2010

Suzi said... Thank you so much for sharing what you've learned about this beautiful culture! I think I must have been Ghanaian in a former life - as a young person, I used to get my feelings terribly hurt if someone didn't greet me back. :-)

I hope I'll be able to visit Ghana in the future and meet these lovely people for myself!

January 31, 2010 12:19 AM

backpackingranny said... Wow - that John is amazing isn't he? Giving homework to the teacher! HA!

Suzi - What is stopping you from visiting Ghana soon instead of waiting for the future?

January 31, 2010 1:59 PM

Luddy Sr. said... I thought all of this sounded so weird before I visited Ghana. Now I find it even more weird that I found it weird at all! It just makes perfect sense to me now.

Terrific post!!

PS - I'm incorporating the greetings back here at home. It's fun to see the reactions.

February 3, 2010 6:56 AM

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