The African Identity Crisis – Seth Tandoh

Here is a riddle. Why do the same Ghanaians who fail to thrive at home, often thrive in other people’s countries? Let’s start to reflect on this with Kwame’s story.

As for me I am a man whose life is going nowhere. I completed university two years ago but can’t get a job. I did computer science. The interviews are getting harder. They give you all sorts of tasks and games to play. I was expecting written exams – I am good at that. The other day they asked me to do a simple crossover network between two PCs and I was lost. I wanted to try but I was afraid that the others there would laugh at me.

I told my mother I wanted to go to a professional institution to do a very practical course but unfortunately my father recently died and because of the funeral and looking after the relatives who came from the village and have still not left, we are virtually penniless. I was hoping my uncle abroad would help but now he doesn’t even answer our calls. Can you believe that? After all the years my mother and I sacrificed to look after the farm he left behind!

If things don’t get better I will have to try some sakawa. I have to get money to live one way or the other. I even wanted to get a job with a waste management company but my mother forbade me, saying ‘No son of your father’s will be seen in Accra here doing such a job! Over my dead body!’ It would bring shame to the family. Did I want to break her heart she asked me.

We Africans have chosen, traditionally, to define ourselves based on external relationships. I am who I am based on whom I know and my position in society. We define ourselves not so much from an understanding of who we are based on our inherent talents, gifts, personality, passions, nor on an intimate, personal, spiritual relationship with God, but from an outward association with others, especially the more prominent in society. We tend to believe that we belong to others, from relatives through to the wider society, hence our people-pleasing tendencies.

Why Do We Value Relationships So Much?

Why do we choose to do this? Why do we VALUE relationships so much? Anthropologist David E. Maranz in his insightful book, African Friends and Money Matters, states:

The cultures, values, and behavior of all peoples develop slowly over time. Across Africa, since at least the year A.D. 1000, there have been almost continual hardships: wars and conquests, slave raiding and selling, droughts and famines, a multitude of rampant diseases for both man and beast, a chronic shortage of population, a very destructive and disruptive colonial history, and countless other misfortunes.

This leads to what Maranz calls the value of solidarity. By solidarity he means ‘mutual economic and social support, hospitableness, putting group interest ahead of individual interest (to the extent of showing a definite bias against individuality) and active participation in society’. It means interdependence rather than independence.

We have had so many hard times in Africa that we have learnt to stick together and tolerate certain (often negative detrimental) behaviours especially of prominent others, because one day we may be in need of their help. If our well-being is based on depending on others to provide for us then when they consistently DON’T treat us well, especially if they are seen to be treating others well (such as their own kind – their tribe/family/religion etc), deep-rooted anger builds. When this anger starts to boil up and some unscrupulous leader taps into it for selfish or evil motives then tribalism, unrest and war with all their atrocities are not far behind.

The civil wars we witness in Africa, that largely arise because one group in society feels it has been slighted by another group for generations, will not be any ‘normal’ wars – these will be the most brutal wars of all. The aim will not be to simply conquer an enemy as quickly and as humanely as possible but to inflict prolonged and agonising pain and suffering.

Why? Because the victim-attacker now has his chance to pay back former powerbrokers for whole family lines that were suppressed by years of tribalism, nepotism, favouritism, exploitation and various other injustices. The powerbroker is being tortured for generations of faceless individuals who wandered the earth robbed of their very identity because they were from the ‘wrong’ tribe, class or religion. The payback must be vicious and prolonged; the fallen powerbroker must remain alive for as long as possible to witness and experience their payback.

The Dilemma Posed By Democracy and Capitalism

Gaining identity from the outside in relation to others is not only problematic with extreme situations such as war. Building our identity primarily in relation to others leads to other problems especially as we adopt Western models of capitalism and democracy.

The tug-of-war between the traditional African way of doing things and the Western way is not new. It has been faced, most recently, by Africans who have gone to live and work in the West. What is new is that with liberalisation and our so-called global village, Africans at home are beginning to be affected by it. It is one thing to adapt to new cultures in other people’s lands. It is quite another to be confronted with disruptions to our own culture at home.

Capitalism and democracy rely on each person developing his or her own unique traits to the fullest to create wealth for all (ideally). This is new for Africans who have learnt to depend on a few big men and women in society who act as economic hubs to the rest. With such a fundamental shift from collectivism to more individualistic patterns of living and working being demanded, it is no wonder that modern development in Africa has often been misunderstood not only by foreign donor agencies and governments but even by Africans ourselves.

Development is never simply an issue of economics or governance alone. People are social beings.

Specialization lies at the heart of modern Western economics. Instead of each worker in a group doing every part of a project such as making a cake, he or she becomes a specialist in just one task such as sifting the flour, mixing the batter, handling the ovens, packaging the cakes etc. The idea is that this division of labour often leads to greater skill and greater productivity than if everyone was a jack of all trades. (Of course, there are some skills we all need such as the ability to give and take clear instructions, work in teams, communicate effectively, write with clarity and so on.)

The central assumption is still that specialists stand out in the market, are more employable in their field of expertise and tend to receive higher rewards owing to increased productivity all round. This idea applies not just to people but to businesses and whole countries who need to stand out in local or global markets by trading goods and services that have been produced based on comparative advantage.

When it comes to specialization Africa hits a big problem. With our traditional emphasis on collectivism, we have tended to discourage people from standing out in any way. Instead we pressurize people into fitting in with the crowd and, in essence, to be mediocre. One man from the North of Ghana who excelled in playing the xylophone told me that he had to go out of his village at night into the bush to practice playing otherwise he would have been KILLED for excelling in his art!


In following a free-market economic model based on meritocracy, for better or worse, who you are in terms of social position is of less importance than what you can do. This is far from ideal when taken to the extreme as it devalues human life till it is nothing more than just another input in the economic production process; when what you can do is not needed you are discarded on the unemployment dump until you can make yourself useful somewhere else by learning how TO DO something else.

However, the fact remains that specialization and collective labour efforts are what have built great modern economies as socialist countries have had to realise.

Ghanaians abroad have shown that they can excel in such a climate. Are we ready for the changes this shift in identity is bringing to our shores?

by Seth Tandoh