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Being Bourgeois (& Other Ghanaian Delusions)


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: