Being Bourgeois (& Other Ghanaian Delusions)

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I keep finding myself in conversations with people who whip out the word ‘bourgeois’. Some are loud and proud about it. Others mention the word in hushed tones, serving it up like they would a sly wink. Regardless of the approach, I wince.

The ‘poor African’ stereotype is a particularly strong one. Those who do not fit within it become deeply sensitive to it. You do everything you can to defy, avoid, subvert or destroy it. It’s not that non-poor Africans are arrogant or in denial. It’s that there is more than one African. You can’t herd everyone under one label, and where existing labels do not fit, people will find or create new ones.

At times, however, the new labels we find and create push so far in the opposite direction that they lose touch with reality. The label ‘bourgeois’ is – to me – one such step too far. It is deeply, deeply problematic. Even worse, its growing acceptability in certain circles strikes right at the heart of something that is dangerously wrong about modern Ghana.

Let Them Eat Nkate Cake

I had the pleasure of teaching Social Theory (alongside my colleague and friend, Kajsa) last semester. Many of the ideas that shape society today emerged in reaction to the French Revolution: when the poor people of 18th century France decided enough was enough, took to the streets, and toppled the French monarchy. The revolution was – like others before and after it – in response to the reckless flaunting of wealth in the face of abject poverty; a Western Spring if you will. This and other revolutions within the same period forced people – rich and poor alike – to start thinking deeply about things like wealth, privilege, social responsibility, rights and how they are all connected. Philosophers and politicians alike argued. New ideologies – like liberalism and conservatism – were shaped out of these arguments and discussions. The West as we today know it was born.

Since the Revolution, the bourgeoisie rarely actually refer to themselves as bourgeois. They don’t have to. People who are really that elite rarely feel the need to flaunt wealth to anyone outside their class. The trappings of real wealth are obvious to people who are really wealthy. They don’t have to write songs about it. They are so wealthy that their wealth doesn’t need celebration: they take it for granted. Should they need to differentiate themselves from the unwashed masses, they do so by pointing out the latter’s poverty (pleb) rather than by directing attention to their own wealth, lest (“mon dieu!“) they are mistaken for ‘nouveau riche’.

In Ghana, I see the exact opposite. Partly in order to escape the trap of being labelled a poor African, some draw extra attention to their wealth and its trappings, using it not only as an identifier, but also as a way of differentiating themselves from the mass of poorer Africans. Wealth sets them apart. ‘Bourgeois’ becomes a clean, acceptable word. It sets them free.

… except, it doesn’t. They are essentially new slaves to consumer culture and the things they flaunt are merely products of capitalism’s amazing ability to make you buy things you think you need but don’t. That aside, the problem isn’t having wealth.

It is the lack of social conscience that comes with it.

You see it in the little things. Like MPs who seem more motivated by salary than by real social commitment. My girlfriend recently interviewed the men who – in exchange for the occasional tip – regulate traffic under the tunnel connecting East Legon to Spintex Road. Interestingly, they said they recognize many of the people who drive past them and they rattled off a list of wealthy pastors, sportsmen, and politicians, noting (with the interesting exception of former President Rawlings) how rarely they give tips. 

A Few Words for Returnees from an Older Returnee

I also hear some returnees (please note that I said some) make the mistake of including themselves within Ghana’s elite. Some even act accordingly. I won’t lie: as a returnee whose return home predates that of many of the more recent wave of returnees, I find this deeply annoying.

If you know yourself to be one of these people, please research the word, ‘elite’. It involves more than just money. You lack the networks and the contacts to qualify. There are people here who are poorer than you who have better networks than you do. Please note that this may include the waiter and the house girl you snapped at the other day. It is those very same networks that your inability to tap into will result in your failure here. There is a lot about Ghana that must change for all our sakes, but don’t mistake the many parts of the system that don’t work for the whole. There is something intangible here that you will learn to respect and be humble before. If you don’t, you will fail and you will return wherever it is that you came from with your tail between your legs, whining about Ghana being impossible to tame when in fact Ghana just tamed you. Good riddance.

At best, think of yourself as economically privileged. Given the lack of opportunity you are fleeing however, you’re basically an economic migrant with delusions of grandeur. You were not flossing in the UK. There is something there – financial or otherwise – that you lacked. Otherwise you would not be here. Never forget that. Let it humble you. Act accordingly.

I find it galling when people flee a class system that locked them out of being successful, only to come and try to replicate it here. It reminds me of something I heard when visiting South Africa: apparently lower class Brits would go there and lord it over people of darker skin than them worse than white South Africans would. It’s very depressing to see Ghanaians doing the same thing to their fellow Ghanaians based on perceived class.

There is a logic to everything in Ghana. Even that which seems illogical. The same goes for any demographic anywhere in the world, really. Smart companies do market research before embarking on marketing campaigns. They design products with the end user in mind.

Start by dismissing the idea that the ordinary Ghanaian (whatever that means) is simply ignorant. It is lazy thinking (and I use the last of those two words incredibly loosely). Put yourself in the shoes of the person whose actions you don’t understand and rather than asking yourself what would compel them to do such a thing, ask yourself what would compel you to do that thing. What would motivate you to stand in the scorching sun selling Chinese products for so little that you may not have enough money to go home if you do not sell enough? What situation would force you to drive in as kamikaze a fashion as some of our nation’s taxi and trotro drivers? Simple indiscipline and stupidity? Or is there more to it?

Putting yourself in someone’s shoes is harder than it sounds but it leads you closer to the truth. You will often find more questions than answers. Good: keep going.

There are ways of doing things here and reasons those systems have arisen. If you come charging in with what you think is a solution without factoring those ways and reasons in, you will fail and you will sit there in your failure.

We Are All Complicit

Before anyone starts pointing a finger at returnees, please note all the other fingers pointing back at you. We all seem to have this obsession with exclusivity here in Ghana.

Some hide behind their high walls like ostriches burying their heads in the sand; they and their children so far removed from other people’s realities that they assume poor, uneducated Ghanaians are inherently ignorant.

The rest of us create other spaces in which to physically and ideologically distinguish ourselves from our fellow citizens. We stop going to that spot, that club, that bar because ‘too many people are going there’. It has become ‘common’. It is no longer exclusive. Yet we move in herds every Friday night, showing no loyalty towards any one venue. If we are all going to the same venues, how exactly do we expect too many people not to go there? VIP culture is quite childish when you really think about it.

Obiaa nye obiaa.

We Are Young. All of Us.

A nation is no joke. It’s a big thing. It doesn’t just come together by accident.

Ghana is a young country. We have been doing this nation-state thing for only half a century. Americans, for example, have had over two centuries to work on the idea of America and what it means to be American… and it shows. We are all still creating what it means to be Ghanaian. We have a choice to let it fall apart by accident or actively make it gel.

So here’s the thing:

We need to start thinking and writing about what Ghana is, what it means to be Ghanaian and the things that unite us in all our diversity. Our sense of social conscience is currently limited to our social circles. It needs to grow into something that can apply to an entire nation. We need to start having arguments (and disagreements) about these things, forming rival theories, ideologies and philosophies around them that influence politicians, lawmakers, artists (yes: artists) and other practitioners. We then need to teach all of this to our children and get them engaged in the debate from a young age so that by the time they grow up, it has already been imbibed. Nkrumah wrote books about ideas. Those writing about ideas relevant to our time (hello academics) need to find and embrace all the new ways there are to get their message out there.

This exclusivity bull**** isn’t cute anymore. Neither is it sustainable. 

Still want a label? Try this one on for size:

Ghanaian.

28 thoughts on “Being Bourgeois (& Other Ghanaian Delusions)

  1. Spot on Kobi, if the truth be told one can’t really consider themselves affluent or wealthy if the only person or people they can afford to help are them and theirs, we are not there yet. We all need to take a look around us and pipe down because we are all in the same boat, paddling the same canoe. When the gutters stink we all smell it so we need to start looking for ways to come together to improve things for the greater good and stop trying so hard to be everything except what we are.

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  2. This is very true. One thing that worries me is the fact that some Ghanaians are spending a rather high fraction of their income on capitalistic products they don’t need. For instance, if you have a smart phone and a laptop, you can survive without a tablet. However, this is not the case with many of us. The more we spend on materialistic things, the less we have to invest. I hope more Ghanaians realize this.

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  3. I think you said it all! I am not even Ghanaian but I could not agree more and what you are describing is going on in many other African countries as well. I have seen and heard people returning to Africa with the idea to transform it into the US or Europe. There was a time when going home on vacation was the only escape we had from the Western culture we were sent to study within. Many said going home was a way to resource ourselves before having to head back again and finish that degree and hope we would not get too corrupted. You went hope spent time with family, headed to the village and appreciated each step. But nowadays, the idea of money at all cost is a poisonous cancer that has become more prevalent. A friend was telling me of the opening of nursing home in Uganda and Kenya, as a new way to make money. I was appalled that we are throwing our very own values for money and could not even think of my own grand mother being thrown away in such a place!
    Others have told me about their business ventures, opening shops to deliver roses, opening fashion boutiques, opening makeup stores…everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and make money at any cost! Do we really need everything that the West has? Do we need to add another chain around our neck and become useless-poweless mass consumers? There was a time in our cultures where an artist took months to create a piece that was unique and he/she did it because she was inspired and not for money and selling that piece enabled her/him to live until the next piece was created. it was not a matter to respond to the tourist and invent stories about an artifact mass produced in China, or to take over the market to make as much money as possible. We did not sell our grand parents artifacts just because someone said they everything has a price tag, even your dignity and your peace of mind.
    I like your point about revolution because it shows that even in those societies that try and keep telling us that they are better and that our only future lies in being like them, people are being oppressed in so many ways. The US for example, also has staggering social and economic inequalities and instead of dealing with it, they resorted to the invention of the credit card. This enables the rich to be richer and the poor to pretend they are also rich. Why else would you explain the ongoing and increasing gap between the classes (poor, middle and high) and the fact that credit cards make 20% interest while the money you led to these same bank only gets you 4%?
    Another element I want to address that seemed to often be overlooked and that you did not mentioned was the cost of this capitalism. I saw recent estimates about Ghana and the rise of cancer such as breast cancers, which was uncommon and unheard of 20 years ago. No one is asking questions and wondering about where it comes from and why! Ghana is often pointed as an economic power in Africa but nothing is ever said about the price it is costing its citizens. We see part of it in the movie industry, which has went Hollywood viral. I can only hold even more dearly what African film used to mean with the Burkinabe industry 20 years ago. Filmed that empowered us, helped us…and compared it to Nollywood or Ghallywood and see the degradation. While film making capacity and technology has improved, the quality and messages has decreased.
    Finally, to your reference to Nkrumah may have been Ghanaian but he inspired all Africa. Because he proclaimed the notion that despite what is going on in Ghana, so long as others are not free, no one is and that’s a message that speaks volumes.
    So what can we do? Identifying the problem is the first step and you have done it so well. Second, is putting some action at each of our level. We need to think and act from a place that is collective. What I mean think of the house girl, the waiter as a family member and treat them accordingly. In business venture, look at capitalist society and ask yourself if you want Ghana or any other countries to look like that. I mean look at it with honesty and weight the materialistic comfort with the ongoing violence, the lack of respect for others, the suicide rates, the divorce rate, the use and abuse of drugs. One thing is true, if we head in that direction will finish like that. So new alternatives and futures are needed. Start thinking and make sure that whatever you do will be to escape that possible future we are being told is the only alternative. People in the US and Europe are already fighting this capitalistic system so why would you push that into Africa? It is that very system that put the US, Greek, Cyprus, Europe and Brazil in the turmoil it is in currently. A system that saves bankers and let the very workers that feed them to perish.
    Your article is an inspiration and I wish many will take time to read, reflect, question and share it because it contributes to changing the landscape and envisioning new futures for Ghanaian, Africans and everyone else that wants peace. There will be no peace as long as some of us will be oppressed anywhere anytime.

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  4. Love the post! The same could be said of Senegal because it’s exactly what’s going on here too. I also agree with Ida wholeheartedly and am surprised just how similar the situations are across the continent. It’s time for us to get real!

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  5. Charity begins at home and actions speak louder than words. I thought we are one nation one people with a common destiny?

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  6. This is a good start or a good follow up to others started already. We can never tell our own story better if we don’t understand and accept ourselves as we are, than to be like others we should never wish to be.

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  7. I really enjoyed this and I am not even Ghanaian but as they say, like Nigeria , like Ghana. I could relate with the essence of it. Brilliant Essay.
    I just read your ‘permission’ page and wish to request your permission to republish this in the upcoming issue of Sentinel Nigeria Magazine where i function as Essays and Reviews editor. You can check out our last issue here http://sentinelnigeria.org/online/
    Full credits as is ethical will be given to you and your blog where it was first published.
    Thank you.

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  8. Great post there can’t help but read it back , although not a “returnee” and not a ghanian i do meet a lot of friends who are “returnees”.Trying to be a Bourgeois isn’t bad but when one does it at the cost of someone else it’s bad .
    We much complain of westerners despising us but worse theses days we despise our owns and that is SHAME, although not of a nationalistic type i support the idea that african countries needs to define or re-define or create their Brands and stand for it. And also , if you want to be a BOURGEOIS please become one by supporting the local industries and humbly give your opinion where you think they can improve. One love.

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  9. This has made me want to blog…there is too much here! Thank you for sharing Mr Graham agree with most and look at things a little differently at other parts but it all made me start thinking again and I appreciate that!

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