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Odds 'n Bits

by Phil Bartle, PhD


I got to thinking about bits and pieces of information that do not fit into a unified academic article, but which might be of some interest to someone studying ethnography. That is the purpose of this little essay. As I think about other eclectic bits of data, I will add them to this, so come back and look again later to see if it is longer.

Animals and Humans

Akan people make a big distinction between animals and humans. They do not recognise that we, Homo sappiens sapiens, are just another species of primates.

This is reflected in the use of “animal” as a term of abuse. One of the most insulting names to call a person is “aboa” meaning beast or animal. The Kwawu make an ethnic joke about their Akwapem brothers and sisters. The Akwapem are notorious for being exceedingly or excessively polite. The Kwawu say that when an Akwapem person insults, s/he says “Me pa wo kyew, wo ye aboa” (Please, you are a beast). The word “please” is expressed by the term, I take my hat off to you,” and also implies, “I beg.”

The Akan do not give human names to their animals. Pets for companionship are rare. Dogs, for example are owned only by hunters, and now by a few wealthy urban people for security. Occasionally a chief would keep a kitten or cat in the palace, and some informants claim this is a residual from the remnants of old Egyptian religion.

Several times Kwawu people have expressed outrage at European expatriates resident in the country who name their pet dogs with human names. It is even more insulting to them if Akan names, especially soul names, are used for animals.

The Obo Kontihene said once his abusua owned a dog. He did not specify, but implied it was a hunting dog. The name of the dog was “As If,” because when it looked at you the dog looked as if it understood everything you said. When I taught at the university of Cape Coast, and someone gave me a pet dog, I named it “As For You,” because it was always in trouble. My Akan friends approved of the name.

You Have Tried

When a population learns a second language, many words and phrases get transliterated, used as they would be used in the mother tongue or language of birth, rather than as they are used in the imported language. That is the case among Akan people in Ghana speaking English. Several words and phrases are used in ways that native English speakers did not intend.

In 1965, I and another thirty or so Canadians went to Ghana as Cuso volunteers. Adjusting to the new culture was a remarkable experience for all of us. We arrived in September, and the following Easter break we met for a reunion and party, and to share experiences and stories. I suspect that several were embellished.

One young women was telling us of how she baked a birthday cake for a fellow teacher. These were in the last days of the Nkrumah regime, and with price fixing there were shortages of everything. She worked for weeks to find flour, sugar, eggs and powdered milk to make the cake to show her appreciation for a colleague who had been very kind and supportive. She struggled with a rickety old stove that ran on hard to get propane, and was not reliable for oven heat. When the day came and the birthday party held, she brought out the cake, her friends said, "You have tried," and she broke into tears.

In Canada the word "try" is used in that sentence in a way that implies failure. A mother will say it to a child who has attempted but failed at something so as to make the child be less sad, and proud at least of the attempt. In Akan, the verb "bo moden" implies the opposite, it means congratulations on the struggle, implying that you have been successful. Where her friends were congratulating her for the hard work and success at baking the cake, she took it to mean that they were saying sorry, appreciative of the attempt, but it was a failure.

You Do Not Have to Go

A similar variation in interpretation exists for the negative of the verb, "have to," meaning an imperative.

In Canada, we say "You do not have to go," when we mean the listener is free to choose to go or not to go. When Akan people speak English, they transliterate the equivalent from Twi. The same sentence would imply that they are forbidden from going, that they "have to not go."

Different Parts of the Body

Queen Victoria is not quite dead yet in Canada. A hockey mom was banned this week (December 2004) from all games because she bared her breasts as a means to distract the team opposing her son’s team. Similarly for our neighbours to the south. The popular singer, Janet Jackson caused a national uproar in the USA when one breast became visible on TV during a performance between innings in a football game. The informal response to breast baring is so intense that one would think it were something vile and poisonous. Mothers are made uncomfortable on buses or in malls when they try to feed their infants, and men make many lewd jokes that indicate the breasts are sexual objects, to them.

I asked my Obo elders what the attitude was towards breasts. They said that, historically, breasts were known as practical organs for feeding children, and seeing them did not arouse any libidinous feelings among men.

Only when the Swiss Missionaries came, with their prurient inhibitions, did people start thinking to cover the breasts. Now in the schools and at university, let alone churches, there is a big todo about keeping breasts covered, in response to values imported from Europe. Thighs, in contrast, were seen as very attractive sexually to men. The elders decried the western influences that brought miniskirts, and the delight young women had in showing their thighs, causing excitement among the men who saw them. In domestic compounds, especially in the more remote villages where I did my research, women bared their breasts with no behaviour indicating embarrassment or inhibition.

Nose picking in public was not seen as a particularly rude behaviour, except where European attitudes have had influence.

Eating and the giving and receiving of gifts, should be done with the right hand, while cleaning one's self after defecation or urination should be done with the left. Dried corn cobs are used to much better effect than toilet tissue. A woman cleans a man’s penis with her cloth after intercourse, and uses the left hand to do it. I have seen educated people, including Christian priests and pastors, deliberately using their left hands to receive gifts, to demonstrate that they were Christians following the European customs rather than African. The missionaries did a good job on them. Most Europeans, including missionaries, are oblivious and indifferent to left and right differences.


Some of the world organisations of churches, eg Anglican, find that there is a huge difference in attitudes: those in North America are very tolerant of same sex marriage and homosexuality; those in Africa tend to be very rigid in their opposition to both. My speculation is that the clerics from Africa reflect values of the nineteenth century missionaries, and the churches in Europe and North America have moved on from then. My first inquiries while I was doing my PhD research resulted in almost unanimous replies that homosexuality is unknown to traditional culture, was probably introduced by Europeans, and is not known, understood or practised by the majority of persons.

I had a friend and colleague, an American doing his MA in African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon, who was gay. Doug Angel. He told me that he reckoned a male gay community in Accra, the capital city, had about six hundred persons in it. Sad to say, he later died in a motorcycle accident. Later I was talking to a woman about her boarding school experiences. She told me something that others repeated later. Girls in boarding schools engage in same sex intercourse, develop loving relationships, and retain those relationships after school ends, and through one or more heterosexual marriages. Loving relationships in girls' schools were thought to be innocent relationships, involving the serving of older girls by younger girls, but many of these were cover-up for sexual relationships. The word "supi" was the name given for a partner, and implied the innocent relationship. Reference to other data about homosexual practices among Africans, by William N. Eskridge, Jr, can be found on the Internet.

Playing With Language

Long before I started my research on Obo society, including the roles of akyeame (linguists) and the high value placed on an ability to play with language, I became aware of an interest in twisting phrases. As a teacher in 1965, my first ”Ghanianism" came when I got home one afternoon to read a note stuck to my door. A fellow teacher had stopped by to visit, but I was not home at the time. I read “I came and met your absence,” on the note, and it amused me that a non event could be described with a positive noun. As time went on, I was delighted to see the creative ways that English was used. “Breakfast is calling,” for example is a gentle way to express being hungry.


My introduction to the delights of humour among the Kwawu came a few days after beginning my first teaching assignment at St. Peter’s in 1965. All the classroom windows were equipped with screens. The metal wire was light and weak, and the spaces were about eight centimetres (3 inches) wide. The spaces were far too wide to keep out mosquitoes, and any class would come to a sudden stop when a tsetse fly blew in like a B-52 bomber. I remarked that the screens were too weak to keep out thieves, and useless at keeping out insects or even birds. One of my students stood up (yes the students stood up in class to address the teacher) and told me, “Please, sir, they are there to keep out the elephants.” Well although Kwawu was historically famous for its elephants and elephant hunters, and the elephant was on the state logo, the last elephant was spotted in about 1910, as the hunters were quite efficient at wiping them out. I told the class, “No elephant is going to try to come through those windows.” Then another student put up his hand and when I acknowledged him, he stood up and said, “You see sir?” It worked. I began my education in Akan humour.

Position of Sexual Intercourse:

Last year, while I was a guest lecturer at the University of Victoria, a student asked about sexual position. I had been talking about the role of matriliny in a higher level of status, wealth and prestige of women, and their independence from fathers and husbands. See Covert Gynocracy. “Does that result in women taking position on top during sex,” he asked. I do recall one time as a grad student at UBC seeing a note by Evans Pritchard in some journal, talking about the preferred position during sex among the Nuer in southern Sudan. When I asked my Kwawu informants, they told me that sex was the business of men because it belonged to the white part of the universe (see my Three Souls). Because of modesty, it is not something often talked about in public My asking about it, however, was not wrong, because it was a purely academic question, and not about identified persons. The generally preferred position was for the man and woman to lie facing each other, the woman’s right leg under his left leg and her left leg on top of his right leg. It was not rigidly observed. The man decided what alternatives were to be taken, because intercourse is in man’s (white) realm of control.

See: “Evans-Pritchard, E. E. “Some Notes on Zande Sex Habits.” American Anthropologist February, 1973 Vol. 75(1): 171-175.

No Greeting

In a society like that of the Akan, where greetings and acknowledgement of others is so important, it is interesting to find times when greetings are avoided if not forbidden.

If one is on the way to the latrine, one does not greet others, or even acknowledge others who greet. This may be because there is something negative about the destination. The Kontihene explained to me that if you stop to greet, you are obliged to perhaps engage in some conversation afterwards. That might be disastrous for keeping one's clothes clean.

When one wakes early in the morning, one should first at least wash one’s face before greeting anyone.

Teaching Children

When you eat your fufu in the evening, it is considered rude to put the left hand on to the ground. The right hand, of course, is used for the eating. Children are told, however, that the food will flow out their left arm and into the earth if they do so. No adult believes this, but the caveat is a way to get their children to follow etiquette protocol.

Standing while eating is also considered rude. What culture shock to go to Europe and see people in a hurry drinking coffee while standing at a tall table in a coffee shop at a train station.

"Y" Has a Long Tail

In Canadian society, we encourage children to explore and discover on their own. This contributes to their being more creative, and we have a high societal regard for invention and creativity. A pre-school toddler can drive her or his parents bananas by asking "Why?" to almost everything, but the child is not punished for it.

In Kwawu society, respect for elders and authority usually takes precedence over encouragement of independent discovery and query. The one word question "Why?" is often seen as a term of disrespect. A child is expected to listen and accept everything her or his parents and teachers say. Some sociologists see this as a reason why there are few inventions, but many imitations, in African society. I do not see the question as closed, but I have noticed the importance of children showing respect and not being encouraged to think for themselves. An inquisitive child is often warned to stay out of trouble, with the proverb, "'Why' has a long tale."


When I first went to Ghana, in 1965, the country was still using its own first currency since independence in 1957. During the colonial era, 1901-1957, the Gold Coast had used British currency as its legal tender. The British currency was not very ordered in its arrangement; twelve pence made a shilling (an old German word) and twenty shillings made a pound. The new government started with the penny, and said a hundred of them would make a cedi.

The name of the new currency, the “cedi” was the Akan word for cowry shell, which had been used widely in Africa before European currencies were introduced. Up to today, the cowry shell is thought to have its own spiritual power, and is sewn into the belts and palm skirts worn by the traditional gods. As with dreadlocks, the elders and priests of the African religions were not happy to see the cowry shell used in the hair of African Americans for style, because it was a religious symbol of their ancient culture. The typewriters already had a symbol, the “¢” (cent sign of the Americans, not used by the British), and used it for the new paper bills.

While this (100 pence = 1 cedi) made sense to the academics, and those bureaucrats sitting behind their desks in air conditioned offices, it caused much irritation in the markets. To the women in the market place, the cedi was “eight and four” (100 pence = eight shillings and four pence). It was not enough in itself to cause a change in government, but it was one of several complaints the powerful market women had against the socialist Kwame Nkrumah government. The petty traders who dealt in items costing a penny or a shilling had no problem, but the wealthy market women who had capital of thousands and hundreds of thousands were not comfortable with the eight and four, and saw this as one more, albeit minor symbol of the socialist antipathy against business. (They also opposed the price and quantity fixing of the socialist government, and “bottom power” where government officials unfairly allocated limited trade goods to their lovers).

After Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, the government issued a new currency, called the New Cedi, which had a different way of calculating decimalization. The base was the cedi note rather than the penny. Old pennies and new pennies were declared the same, although strictly speaking they were not. One hundred pennies made up the new cedi, which was valued at about $1.20.

The slang word for a vehicle which plies a specific route and adds or subtracts passengers along the way, is “tro tro.” That was named after the ”tro” which was the vernacular for thruppence. With the introduction of the cedi, coins were minted for two and a half pennies, which then became known as “tro.”

All this was happening in the late sixties and early seventies. Much later, during the Rawlings’ regime, pressure from the IMF required that the cedi float on an open market, which resulted in the international value of the cedi dropping. Now, about 2004, one American dollar is traded at about 1800 cedis, and the old coins are no longer to be seen.

For pictures of the various bank notes of Ghana, See: http://www.banknotes.com/gh.htm

This paper is simply a grab bag of bits of observations. Come back later and it might be longer.

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