“Who Are We and Whose Are We?”: Professor Ampofo’s Inaugural Address at Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences

By Edwin Adjei and Abena Kyere

“My child can speak Twi and Ewe (two Ghanaian languages), yet everyone sees her and asks: ‘How are you?’”- Mayphia (participant in Adomako Ampofo’s research)

Often, when people talk about identity they refer to individual identity. Recently, however, the focus is shifting to look more closely at the concept of national identity and its impact on individual identity. In her inaugural address as a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, a Co-Editor of this Blog, spoke on how some aspects of national identity are impacted by the dwindling image people have of themselves as Ghanaians. Her lecture touched on some aspects of national identity such as food, language, architecture, clothing and artefacts which are significant for a people’s national identity, including Ghanaians. She suggested what others are doing and some of the specific ways in which we can re-claim a people’s national identity.

Language, an embodiment of a people’s culture and identity was one of the issues Professor Ampofo discussed at length. Like most African countries, Ghana has many local languages. It is therefore surprising that not even one of these languages is legitimized as a national language. She noted this lack of respect and attention given to Ghanaian languages and suggested this was implicated in the country’s dire socio-economic status. She observed that the insistence on the use of foreign colonial languages, English and French, cuts out a huge portion of the population who are most fluent and comfortable in their own local languages. She sees the exclusion of Ghanaian languages as a reflection of the negative attitude towards local things. This echoes a point made severally by our friend and colleague, Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. While the issue of selecting one local language as a national language still remains a thorny issue, the fact that other African countries like Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya have been able to do this is a reminder to any doubters that an official national African language is possible.

On architecture, Professor Adomako Ampofo was surprised that architectural designs that favour the local climate have been abandoned in favour of those that do not suit the warm and humid climate in the tropics. During a period when there is no electricity, a visit to most of these buildings with so-called “modern” architectural designs will leave one wondering whether the goal of putting up the building was to simply showcase the architect’s ability to design a sophisticated edifice, or for the building to be used as a working or living space. This is due to the unbearable heat one has to endure during such “unforeseen” times, as if the architect had forgotten which part of the world they were designing the building for! Most Ghanaians who grew up in their grandmother’s village houses well remember that even without air conditioners, all one needs to do is open the windows and the house is filled with enough breeze to make one wrap him/herself in a blanket, especially at dawn. The secret to this is simple: the houses were built in such a way that the windows are positioned in the direction of the wind to enhance circulation in the rooms and to enhance the passage of the wind. Some houses, also had sophisticated technologies such as water reservoirs beneath the building. Harvesting water beneath the house and strategic positioning of windows in the design of the house, greatly contributes to the cool temperatures within these so-called “primitive” houses.

Professor Ampofo expressed regret that such fine architectural styles have been abandoned in place of western ones. In most parts of Ghana now, especially the urban areas, putting up concrete buildings with glazed windows and doors is seen as a sign of prestige. These glass windows, however, contribute to heat retention and result in a high demand for ceiling fans and air conditioners with a resultant increase in demand for power to run these electrical devices in homes and offices.

The significant connection between food and culture is embodied in the saying “you are what you eat.” The definitive attribute of food in addition to its health value cannot be lost on anyone. Food has always been an important aspect of culture. Professor Ampofo wondered why with all the healthy food we have in Ghana the nation spends billions of Ghana Cedis importing polished rice. Let’s conveniently forget about the fact that it has been scientifically proven that the locally grown rice is much healthier. Professor Ampofo was also astounded as to why people would prefer to patronize junk food imported from abroad rather than consume the nutritious locally prepared foods available. All these, she saw as a loss of part of our identity as Ghanaian.

With respect to clothing, she pondered why local fabrics and designs have been abandoned for foreign imported clothes and designs. She also questioned why our monuments are being left to the vagaries of the weather when they are an important aspect of our history and identity. The destruction of some significant Ghanaian artworks and the absence of museums of art and culture to preserve those that remain is of huge concern to her since with time, all traces of the artistic background will be lost and replaced by European or American ones.

Professor Ampofo however believes there is still hope; all is not lost for the reclamation of Ghanaian identity. As Maya Angelou once said “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Ghanaian culture has faced some challenges and might have lost some of its gloss but as Maya Angelou says if we face the reality of the challenge with courage, the future will be better than the present. Professor Ampofo concluded her presentation with a call for a return to the country’s indigenous ways of doing things and a perfection of these indigenous ways as a way of positioning them as sustainable substitutes to the current options available.

A recent article on the talk can be found here.

A video of the lecture will be uploaded shortly.