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Growing Up In Ghana

By Oforiwa

As I reflect on growing up in Ghana, I am struck anew at how vastly different it is from growing up in the USA. My two girls’ current experiences are immensely different from mine. Life was simple, unburdened by the constraints of time and technology.

Ghana is a rectangular shaped country located on the West coast of Africa between Ivory Coast and Togo. Its south boundary is the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Guinea. Ghana’s landscape is varied: dry savannah grassland in the north, a middle belt of heavy verdant forest and a coastal zone of beautiful rolling grasslands.


My parents had five children. (Five children were considered average family size during that time. Families were categorized as large if the parents had eight or more children). My father was trained as a landscape designer. This was an unusual profession for a Ghanaian; A well-tended garden was generally considered an unaffordable luxury in Ghana during this period. My father was trained in the UK and took immense pride in letting his clients know about his European background. (This provided him with the needed leverage to price his skills higher than his competitor).


His educational accomplishments were also prominently displayed on his unadorned business cards. My father was a curator at the University of Ghana Legon’s Botanical Gardens; he was also in charge of the university’s well-manicured and expansive grounds. My mother was a seamstress and was also trained in the UK. A weather beaten advertisement board located a few yards from our house proudly announced this seemingly privileged background information.


We lived in a bungalow in a residential area. This was an annex of the University of Ghana’s Legon immense complex. Some of the houses there were built of cement blocks, while others were constructed out of slate. These were simple, utilitarian egg white structures built in the sixties. Each house had huge grounds surrounded by mature hedges with no gates. We had a beautiful garden in front of the house. The flower varieties were hibiscus, bougainvilleas, roses and canna lilies.

Since Ghana is located in a tropical zone. The flowers continually bloomed, filling our garden with vibrant colors and wonderful fragrances. Even as a child, I was fascinated by the varied hues and colors. My father had a section of the garden devoted to a spectacular selection of potted roses. These were carefully tended, and they flourished under his care.


The roses were an impressive collection. These roses were my father’s pride and joy. Occasionally, free ranging pesky goats from the underprivileged section of the area would wander in and sample his prized roses. This always earned my father ire and disgust. It was my brothers’ responsibility to head off these bold goats by hurling stones and sticks at them. The goal was to scare them away and not to maim them. Normally, these goats are very responsive and they will go charging out of the unpaved driveway, heading for home after a day of wrecking havoc in the neighborhood.

We had two giant gum trees and two mango trees on our compound. The two huge, heavily scared gum trees were the bane of my existence: as part of my morning chores, my responsibility was to sweep directly underneath these giant trees. On most mornings, sweeping with a short, dried palm broom was an easy chore. However, it became an arduous job when the leaves of these trees gum trees turn saffron yellow with the onset of the Harmattan season, and these trees gradually lost all their leaves. On the other hand, I have very fond memories associated with the mango trees. I climbed the bigger mango tree regularly when mangoes were in season. A favorite pastime was lounging in the tree and eating sweet, juicy, ripe mangoes. My mother always warned me about falling off that tree. Fortunately, that never happened. I became less enthusiastic about climbing the tree when my brother told me he encountered a vicious looking snake during his last climb.

Growing up we never expected our parents to buy us gifts on our birthdays, Christmas, or any other holiday. Nor did we expect lavish birthdays parties to be thrown on our behalf. We were quite satisfied when our birthdays were acknowledged with sincere words of well wishes, and carefully prepared favorite dishes. Christmas and other religious holidays were celebrated purely for their religious significance. It was also seen as an opportunity for family and friends to get together. Occasionally, we received unwrapped toys during Christmas. This always came as a wonderful surprise and we were very appreciative. The few toys that we had were cherished.

Most of our playtime occurred outside. In fact, the whole neighborhood was our playground. We only came back home when the skies were heavy with dusk. Since we did not have 24 hour cable or high tech electronic toys, we were creative and used resources around us to play. My friends and I made our own rag dolls from old fabrics and cast off wigs; sewed dresses for these dolls using scrapes of cloth from my mother’s work area. My friends and I had hours of fun just playing with these roughly sewn, ugly dolls.

Market day for our household was on Saturdays. We took turns accompanying my mother to the market. It was one of the exciting events of the week for me. Transportation to the market was either by car --my father dropping us off, or my mother driving when she had her battered tea green VW--or using public transport.


With public transportation, we either used trotro, a minivan that characteristically tends to tightly pack people in its limited space like sardines, or the regular big buses that ply between downtown and the suburbs where we lived.


We normally set out in the cool of the morning as the huge African sun begins to peek in the distant horizon. The birds are already out chirping and chickens clacking as they scratched under the brush, in their constant search for food. I had a shopping basket, and a huge well-worn bag for our purchases. The ride down town was always short and relaxing since there were fewer people on the road, this early. Coming back from the market though was a different story. As we rumbled along, I spent time reading sayings written on the trotro vans, mentally smiling at some of the images they conjured. Some of the ones that got my attention were: “God will Provide,” “The Future is Unknown,” or “Charity Begins at Home”. My mom chatted easily with other women, as the bus made its ponderous journey to Accra, the nation’s capital. It stopped many times to picking up people at designated bus-stops.

We got to Makola an hour later, a sprawling complex of tiny shops and open-air markets. A few sellers were still unloading their wares and others were having breakfast or just chatting with neighbors. Most of the traders were ready to begin their day of selling and hoped for good luck to speed the process.


As we hurried passed these sellers, most of them called out to us trying to entice us with their exotic wares. One of the things that stood out in my reflections was my mother’s incredible ability to bargain. She had this skill developed into a fine art that almost always ended with success.


My mom will first ask the price of the bag of rice. The trader would say it is 4000 cedis (about $4). My mom’s practiced response was to gasp in astonishment and say it is incredibly expensive. The seller would offer the information that there has been reduction in imports or prices of petrol has gone up hence the high price. My mother would make an offer of about half of the asking price.


It is now trader’s turn to be theatrical. She will tell my mother the price she proposed is even less that what she has paid for it, therefore, she will be selling the item at a loss. My mom’s answer would be to inform the seller that her plan was to buy four bags. She has 8000 cedis in cash ready. Paying 16000 cedis for the 4 bags was beyond her limited budget. The trader would advice my mother to take the four bags at 12000 cedis. My mother would counter that by saying she is prepared to pay just 10,000 cedis, that was her final offer. After a few minutes they would agree on 2500 cedis per bag. This verbal exchange is always well choreographed between skilled players. The interaction happens at every purchase and most Ghanaians take sheer delight in the verbal battle of wits.

As the day progressed the noise level increased. The air is filled with wonderful aroma of cooked foods. Occasionally, nauseous odor wafted in from a stagnant trash filled open gutter. Very soon the odious smell is overwhelmed by the aromatic smells of curried chicken stew. Our basket filled with needed groceries, we head slowly to the bus-stop.

I attended a private school, which was part of the University of Ghana, Legon system. Blue and white-checkered school uniforms were the required attire. Our feet were encased in Mary Jane shoes or sandals. Boys wore white shirts, khaki shorts, sneakers or sandals. Most of the children in the neighborhood walked together, unaccompanied by adults, to catch the school bus which stopped about a mile away. The drive to school took about 10 minutes.


School always started with an assembly of students in the spacious courtyard. The morning ritual began with a prayer, a Christian hymn like “Onward Christian Soldiers” which we sang enthusiastically. The session ended with school announcements by the headmaster. The school building was erected during the colonial era. It was constructed out of cement blocks with cinnamon colored clay tile roofs. The purpose of the school was to educate children of university professors and the university staff.

Discipline was a strong requirement. The teachers demanded and expected the best behavior from all pupils. Misbehavior had consequences: The punishments ranged from a mild rebuke to spanking. Most parents felt the punishments administered by the schools were appropriate so they did not interfere in the process.


Occasionally, tales of parents showing up at schools to voice their displeasure at a mode of punishments, were regaled to us by other students. However, that was rare. Teachers were formally and respectfully addressed. Students were required to greet a teacher courteously when we encountered them in the hallways. Parents were not encouraged to volunteer, nor were they required to participate in the everyday class activities. The teachers had absolute control.

I have vague recollections of kindergarten being filled with chanting of ABCs, and 1,2,3’s, play dough activities, outside play, and naps. The lower primary classes were filled with more academic instructions. Some of the moments that stand out were, reading to my teacher and struggling with some of the words in a Dick and Jane book; scribbling with chalk on miniature well-used black boards: playing “catch” or tag, during “break time” or recess; listening to wonderful Ananse stories.


University Primary School had a culture of reading that I find terribly lacking in the schools that I come across in the U.S. I saw a fraction of the zeal for reading during the era of Harry Potter books. This unfortunately was not sustained. In the lower grades, I loved Enid Blyton books. We had an informal book club just talking about Enid Blyton books.


Enid Blyton was an English writer who wrote close to 800 books. She was a masterful storyteller who could weave stories with such skill that it completely engaged children’s imagination.


Most children had very few toys and no access to electronic toys, so love of reading was a natural development. Very few children had access to Enid Blyton books since they tended to be expensive. The few who had access either traveled to England during the summer, or had relatives living abroad who sent them these books. This small group of children, about 15% of the student population, unselfishly shared books with the rest of us. I could not wait to get home to spend hours reading an Enid Blyton book. This was a well remembered and an enjoyable past time. Pupils in the older classes tended to read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

Self-respect, kindness and courtesy to others; the love of reading and learning; a strong work ethnic were essential ingredients in my Ghanaian upbringing. These are the values I try to encourage in my own children.


Oforowa Ballard

Washington, September 06, 2013




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