Coming of Age in 1970s Ghana: A Conversation with My Parents

2015 Ghana: An aerial shot I took during a plane ride from Accra to Kumasi

I discovered Aya during my first year of university. Standing amongst rows of bookshelves in the library, my eyes twinkled. I remained transfixed, flipping through the comic, absorbing the images of a Black African girl and her Black African friends, in a Black African town.

I was immediately sold.

In high school, I read Blankets and Ghost World — two critically acclaimed comics that deeply resonated with me in my adolescence. As captivating as they were, I didn’t see my culture, my heritage, my identity as a Black African girl represented in these books or in the majority of comic books for that matter. So I was eternally grateful when I came across Aya. It was the first graphic novel I read that is written by and about a Black woman.

Now, as I read the graphic novel as a young adult, as a woman dedicated to learning more about my Ghanaian culture and expanding my knowledge of the African Diaspora, I’m even more grateful for the eclectic personalities and vibrant illustrations that make up Aya.

Written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, the graphic series tells the story of 19-year old Aya, her community, and everyday life in 1970s Côte d’Ivoire.

Everybody that knows me is well-aware of my nostalgic fascination with the 1970s. Yes, my vision of the 70s is romanticized and consists of images of gravity-defying Afros, black power fists, bellbottom jeans, and disco high life. But a couple weeks ago, as I flipped through the pages of Aya, immersed myself in the colourful scenery of Yop City, and absorbed the familiar dialect of its natives, my mind wandered to Ghana.

Ghana borders Côte d’Ivoire in the west, and the two countries share many cultural and lingual similarities. Just like Ghana, the Akans (in which I am a part of) make up one of the ethnic groups in Côte d’Ivoire. I recognized plenty of Akan expressions, customs, and names as I read Aya, and this led me to wonder:

What is the coming of age story for those who grew up in 1970s Ghana?

1970s Ghana: A Period of Political and Economic Instability

Naturally, I consulted my parents. Both grew up in Kumasi, the second largest city in the country and a bustling metropolitan in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. They were raised specifically in Ashtown and much of their childhood and adolescence took place in the 1970s.

The 70s was a turbulent time in Ghana, racked by political and economic instability. The price of cocoa, Ghana’s main export, declined and brought upon periods of economic uncertainty. Corruption became rampant and military officials conducted a series of coup d’états on successive governments. Civilians, particularly students, held demonstrations to protest their growing distrust of the military government. In 1979, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings staged a coup and rose to power. He promised to banish corruption and restore democracy by ensuring free elections in Ghana. Meanwhile, a new constitutional election took place and on September 24, 1979, Dr. Hilla Limann of the People’s National Party became president. Despite the hopes of civilians, the economic turbulence of Ghana remained and Rawlings returned to military rule.

Coming of Age in Ghana

Both my parents came of age in the same neighbourhood (yes, they knew each other) though they had drastically different upbringings. My father was born to a working class family and was the second born of four children. His father was a mechanic and his mother sold eggs at the local market.

My mother, on the other hand, grew up in an upper middle class family in Ashtown, Kumasi. She was the fourth born of eight siblings. Her father was a prominent pharmacist and her mother sold ntoma (African print) in the market. Talking to my parents gave me insight into the different experiences of two individuals from different classes.

Education as an Indicator of Class

MOM: I went to boarding school in ’74 at 12 years old. Going to boarding school at that time, was a big thing in Africa. When you go to boarding school at that age, you are considered upper class. In my neighbourhood, only about four people attended boarding school. It was a fun experience. Even though you miss your parents, you are far away from them and I got to share a room with ten other people.

Everyone looked after themselves but parents provided their kids with provisions (eg. sardines, things to eat) in case there wasn’t enough to eat. I liked boarding school because you get to know people all over — rich people, people from different tribes, people from other cities. It made the experience unique.

When I returned to Kumasi during the holidays, people would point me out on the street, saying “she goes to boarding school. Her parents are rich.” Some people disliked me and my siblings because we were considered rich, because about only 10% of the people in the neighbourhood went to boarding school, so people thought we were snobby or uppity. This created a divide between those who attended high school and those who did not. Only the people that got to know us realized that we were shy, and not uppity.

What are your favourite memories of attending boarding school?

During school break, there was something called “intercolleges” which is when a bunch of schools met at a stadium for sporting events. This was really fun for me because I met all the cool people, all the popular guys that could run. All the top school girls attended and everyone was very excited to see them. It gave me a chance to come home for a week and I got to dress up and meet people.

Another thing I enjoyed in boarding school was Entertainment on Saturdays. I really enjoyed dancing so this gave me the opportunity to show my skills and show that I was a cool city girl. Even when we didn’t have music, we would play the drums to dance.

Since you were in boarding school, when did you spend time with your family?

I saw my family mostly during the school breaks. During the evenings, we would all sit in the kitchen and eat. We would eat two to a bowl and we would all just talk. That’s the main time that we bonded.

What did you do during the school break?

I helped my mom sell ntoma during the daytime. At that time, my mom was selling African cloth in the market.

You still went to the market even though you were considered upper middle class?

When your mom sold African cloth, it meant that you were middle class because it’s an expensive cloth. If you mom sold onion or eggs, it meant that you were from a working class family.

When I went to the market, I was able to get tips from customers. My mom would tell me to sell fabric for let’s say $25, and I would sell it for $30 and keep the extra $5. It was good because when I went back to school, I had money.

DAD: I went to Methodist primary school at 10 years old. During the daytime, I would sell graphic (newspaper) to make extra money. That means I would go to school in the afternoon.

What made you realize you were poor?

My mom sold eggs, and my dad was a mechanic who worked for the local government. I lived in a compound house, which meant a lot of people rented single rooms from a landlord. I shared a one bedroom with my family and slept on the floor till high school. Then, I slept at friends’ house, which was pretty common at the time.

My dad felt that education was the key to success so after middle school, he pushed me to attend high school. Those days, most of the poor people didn’t want their kids to attend school (because they didn’t have money); they wanted them to learn a trade. My dad had two brothers studying in the UK, so he knew education was the future, so I took the common entrance test and entered high school. Even though I was a poor kid, I went to a tutor during the week because of my dad’s belief in education.

All my five years of school was spent commuting and at that time, all my friends attended boarding school. When I finished school for the day, I didn’t have any friends and at that time, all the children that weren’t in school were doing so many bad things.

Did you continue to sell newspaper during high school?

When I went to high school, I graduated from selling newspapers to sell haas and P.K (a type of gum in Ghana). I didn’t want to sell newspaper anymore because it was seen as a step below. I was afraid that a girl would see me and I would be embarrassed.

During my second year in high school, one of my girlfriends, who had returned from boarding school, actually saw me selling candy. My world came crushing down. I was so embarrassed. That’s when I decided that I would no longer sell candy. So I made a small shop in front of my house and began selling provisions like sugar, milk, and biscuits. This was a step up because I no longer had a make shift store, I had an actual store secured in one place.

Where did the money go?

I used it to buy my own personal things. Because at the time, my dad thought I was a bad boy so he only paid my school fees.

Why did he think you were a bad boy?

Because I was playing with other underprivileged kids that he considered “bad” and he didn’t like that. At that time, I didn’t have any friends so they were the people I had to talk to. If I chose not to play with them, they would all gang up on me and think that I’m going to school so maybe I’m snobbing them. I had no choice, I couldn’t win so that’s when I started having problems with my dad.

Nuances of Class Division

How often did you and mom cross paths in Ashtown?

DAD: Everyday. Most of the time. We used to go to a night club, that’s where we met up.

MOM: I met your dad on the streets with his group of friends. Everyday, they would loiter around a house, so when I was crossing the street, I would see them. I would even cross to the other side of the street so they wouldn’t see me. Sometimes, he would come over to my house and ask my older sister if I was there.

So everyone still hung out with each other even though some were considered poor?

MOM: As long as you all attended high school or lived in the same neighbourhood, it didn’t matter. If he hadn’t attended school, he wouldn’t have been able to approach me and express his interest in me.

During our time, secondary school in Ghana was equivalent to university here. So when you finished high school, you were done, it wasn’t a big deal to attend university.

Disco, Diana Ross, and Osofo Dadzie

MOM: As a teenager, I wouldn’t go to the local concerts, I preferred to go to disco because everyone was students. The perception was that the local concerts were for those that did not attend school.

DAD: At the time, disco or what you guys would call a “nightclub” came to Ghana from the States. They didn’t play local music at the clubs, mostly American ones. There was a mentality that it was better to learn the English music than the local one because we put down the local one. This is a bad mentality when we look at it now.

What was the pop culture scene in Ghana? Were there any popular local musicians, actors, TV shows?

DAD: Commodores, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Bob Marley were really popular at that time.

MOM: There was a series called Osofo Dadzie on Sundays. At that time, my father was the only one with a television so everyone in the neighbourhood would come together and watch the show.

There was also Opian and APC, they were comedians and would air during the weekdays.

The Rawlings Era

MOM: Initially, we all loved Rawlings because of his dedication to end corruption. I remember vividly at the time, everyone was afraid because of the coup. I would cry at that time because people were being killed in the streets by the military. To get food, you had to go to the market and cue to get fish and a bag of rice. I would go and line up but the food ran out whenever it was my turn. I would cry because it meant that we couldn’t eat that day. Everybody was scared at the time because people stopped importing and exporting goods. Some people would hide their food because they didn’t know when they would need it.

DAD: The military government hated rich people because they believe they were the root of all corruption in Ghana. So if you were rich, they would come to your house, and demand to be taken to you bedroom, or your closet to see what you were hiding. At times, if they saw you have nice things, the soldiers would steal it from you and if you protested, they would whoop your ass. They killed a lot of people, the rich people. The soldiers made rich people march the street while carrying toilets on their heads. So a lot of rich people fled the country.

Note: The below account did not occur in the 70s but it was a very monumental time in my mom’s life and since Rawlings’ military rule began in the late 70s, I thought it would be relevant to include this experience.

MOM (1981): The soldiers came to my house at one point because they thought we were hiding something in there. Also, some of the soldiers were drunks, and were crazy. They targeted us and entered my house, and started shooting for no reason. It was in the afternoon so everyone had gone out, only me and my dad were home. I heard someone shooting, so luckily I was making my way upstairs. My dad called out “where’s Janet?”. My dad was tipped off because when the military entered the neighbourhood, word would spread from house to house. So my dad knew that the soldiers were approaching, that’s why he called out my name.

It was really scary.

Dreams of Abroad

What did you want to do when you finished high school?

MOM: I wanted to come abroad. My sister had gone abroad, so I really wanted to go too.

In Ghana, when you finish high school there were two options: one, you go abroad; two: you go “buy and sell”, which is when you would go to neighbouring African countries, buy goods, and return to Ghana and sell them.

In my time, when you finished school, you knew you were coming abroad. That’s why we focused and went to school and that’s why our parents encouraged us to attend high school. The perception was if you went abroad, you had to know English to succeed and get jobs.

Were you thinking of University?

University was not on my radar at all. My father wanted us to continue schooling because he believed there was no end to education but that was not my focus. I knew that if I went abroad, I was better than someone who had gone to university in Ghana. I wanted to go abroad because I knew when I went abroad, I could buy a lot of cars, clothes, houses. Because I knew if I went to university, I would have to work for someone and I wouldn’t have anything.

What did you do after high school?

DAD: There was no job after high school because the economy wasn’t that great. So a lot of people were doing nothing. Me and my friends — all we would do was wake up, go get something to eat, and start chasing girls. The only way to get money was if your parents gave you capital to go to the nearby countries, buy goods, and bring it back to Ghana to sell. But I didn’t have that option.

I didn’t get the grades to further my education. When I was going to school, I was one of the A students so my dad had high hopes for me. But when I saw the disco life, women…etc, my focus shifted from education. The reason why it shifted was because I had cast one eye overseas. So after it shifted, my mother went to one of her friends to set a job up for me with a cocoa company in the village.

What kind of job did you do?

I had high school education, so I was the one that counted the cocoa. When they brought the cocoa, I put it on the scale and weighed it, and converted it to determine the workers’ compensation. I was there for six months.

After, I went to go see my uncle in Accra. He had studied in England so he was a big man and the head of Ghana Civil Aviation. My uncle gave me more money and purchased a ticket for me to fly to Germany.

My friends were all surprised that I was the first to go abroad because during those days, their parents had a bit more money than I did. A lot of them were jealous.

A New Insight

Talking to my mom and dad about their upbringing exposed me to a new side of my parents. More than ever, I view them as full-fledged individuals with a unique past, history, and culture that has moulded and shaped them into the people they are now.

This interview provided me with the personal nuance that plenty of historical records often neglect. In a way, it mirrored my experience with reading Aya. Like Aya, I was given an African story that is often untold or devoid of complexity in mainstream western media. I was offered a glimpse into the customs, goals, and passions of two individuals living in 1970s Ghana.

I’m still learning about my homeland, and this conversation solidified my decision to prioritize the lived experiences over the academic accounts of my people.