by Allyn Faenza
This weekend, nine of us on my program traveled to an area known as Bonwire, which is a small town outside of Kumasi, Ghana. We were divided into small groups and placed with families that spoke little English; we stayed for three days and two nights. We did our best to integrate ourselves into their families by cooking meals, playing with the children, observing the parents in the markets, and attending church services if we felt comfortable. The trip was intended to be an experience for us to learn how Ghanaians in rural villages use their resources to make a living and to see how village life compares to the city life in Accra. And it was just that and much, much more…
A large topic of conversation in my sociology, theology, and history classes at the University of Ghana is the role of women in the Ghanaian family structure of the past and present. The message I keep getting is that wives are largely responsible for housework, cooking, and childrearing, while husbands are expected to leave the home each day to earn the family’s income. Women may work, but they are very rarely the breadwinners for the family; if they do earn the main source of income for their families, it would be emasculating for the man to admit it is so. I have heard students and professors reaffirm these gender roles, and often males and females make no dispute that these roles are the “natural” or “proper” roles for wives and husbands.
With this knowledge of Ghanaian culture in my rearview, I expected to see nothing different in my rural home stay, but my expectations shifted suddenly when I met a two-year old named Hattim Muhammed and his father. This weekend my friend Kaela and I shared a home with small family of three children plus their father and mother. Also at the home were the family’s son-in-law and his son Hattim, who were staying at the home for a long visit. However, during the entire weekend, Kaela and I never saw Hattim’s mother. Hattim’s father told me his wife was working in Accra as a nurse, and he was in charge of raising Hattim until they returned to Accra together as a family. I was so taken aback by this gender role swap that I forgot to ask more questions so I could better understand this family dynamic. Hattim and his father played with toys, ate meals, and practiced their English together. The two of them shared an intimate relationship that comes with comfort, respect, and love, which led me to believe that they have spent a good amount of time with one another. Perhaps this was a break in their normal parental roles, or perhaps it is exactly as it appears: the mother is the breadwinner for their family and the father raises Hattim and keeps house.
But what about those traditional gender roles fulfilled by mothers and fathers that my classmates and professors talk about being inherent in Ghanaian culture? Is Hattim’s family the norm or the exception? What would Ghanaians have to say about this family?
This situation was the first time I have seen a father alone with his child. I always see women carrying their babies or young children, and on the rare occasion I see a man carrying a child, his wife is never far behind. Hattim’s family was a dramatic break from my previous experience and education on familial relations in Ghana. I still have questions about this family, but what I am beginning to understand is that Ghanaian culture is very complex and ever-changing. While women in the workplace and men in the home may be the cultural norm of the past and present and future, their roles may be more flexible than I originally thought. I must keep in mind that Ghana is not in a vacuum, completely unaffected by the current trends of international integration of values, norms, expectations, and products. Ghanaians are changing to meet the demands of their country, and slowly but surely this also means Ghanaian families are stepping up to gender normativity to meet the demands of their jobs and children despite traditional roles.
This piece is part of a weekly column about the author’s experiences abroad in Ghana.