The Slow Pace of Change


The Slow Pace of Change

An Exploration of Ghanaian Masculinities from Colonial to Present Times
Theresa Patrine Ennin

Theresah Patrine Ennin is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English,  University of Cape Coast, Ghana, where she teaches and engages in research. She obtained her PhD in African Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 in the USA where she was a Fulbright Scholar.  Her teaching and research areas include African literature and Masculinity studies. In 2022 she published her book 'Men across time', a study about masculinity in Ghanaian fiction and film.

There have always been contestations about gender orientation in societies (Lee and Logan 2019). Modern society believes that it has the monopoly on change and resistance. However, there is enough evidence from historical accounts and other texts to indicate that resistance to prescribed behaviour is as old as time itself. History is replete with men and women who fought against the status quo and demanded to be allowed the freedom to live life on their terms (see Tamale 1996 and Schwartz 1989). Scholars such as Mulvey and Killen (2014) and Gagné and Tewsbury (1998), who study the development of gender over time, are interested in how gender difference has been perceived and configured at different times and places, usually with the assumption that such differences are socially constructed. These social constructions of gender throughout time are also represented as changes in the expected norms of behaviour for men and women, and how these changes explain a lot about the larger socio-culturo-political climate of the time. Research on masculinity in Ghana is an area that is growing steadily. Of much importance is Stephan F. Miescher’s work, Making Men in Ghana which explores the changing meaning of being a man in Ghana through the life histories of eight senior men from Kwahu in the eastern region of the country. Obeng (2003), Adinkrah (2012), Amoakohene (2004), Takyi and Mann (2006), Adomako Ampofo and Boateng (2007), Sarpong (1991) and Ennin (2022) are some of the scholars who affirm the multiplicity and dynamism of masculinity in Ghana.

Stephan F. Miescher | Making Men in Ghana | Indiana University Press | 323 pages | 26 USD

A contextual discussion of Ghana

Before the advent of Europeans in present day Ghana, the different political communities were mainly kingdoms where kings, chiefs and elders ruled over their subjects and families (Osei, 11). Masculine behaviour was dictated by the community, and deviations were likewise handled by the community’s norms and regulations. This is not to say that masculine behaviour was static or one-dimensional. Many historical and even fictional accounts detail diverse masculine behaviours that pertained in the various pre-colonial communities. The people engaged in subsistence farming to satisfy their needs and traded with their neighbours far and near in precious metals and other commodities such as dyes and spices. “Big man” status was achieved by a man’s ability to acquire wealth in the form of land, wives, and children. With the advent of the first Europeans, life in the area was irrevocably changed. The Europeans’ need for spices and gold soon turned to human labour and culminated in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British steadily gained power in the area with the departure of the Danes and the Dutch, and the defeat of the Asante Empire (Adu Boahen 34).

Consequently, the contact with the Europeans led to many economic, political, military and social relations among the Europeans and the people of the Gold Coast. These relations led to the Europeans’ exertion of a lot of influence on the societies in the area. Osei remarks that, “for instance the commerce in humans, palm-oil, gold and other commodities had given rise to an emerging group of well-to-do Africans who provided a potential source of rivalry for the established traditional leaders” (18). The presence of this group led to the emergence of an educated elite that was employed in the service of the Europeans. This new crop of men began to exhibit forms of masculine behaviour that were different from the traditional forms hitherto seen in the country. Ironically, these first intellectuals were responsible for the protest movements against British imperial expansionism. This era also saw rapid economic development, and the subsequent urbanization that followed.

All these changes entailed a weakening of some of the traditional institutions. Strong attachment to the nuclear family unit and a strengthening of the nuclear family ties occurred at the expense of kinship ties and traditional reciprocal obligations. Duties and responsibilities to relatives outside the nuclear family were disregarded leading to family conflicts (Nukunya 149). The residential pattern where families lived in self-contained bungalows as well as the demise or weakening of traditional sanctions that were used to sustain accepted kinship behaviour all contributed to shaping models of masculine behaviour that were a complex mix of tradition and modernity. Wealth which had been the preserve of the old aristocracy began to be acquired by ordinary people and armed with this new symbol of power and independence, they chafed under the inflexible authoritarianism of the traditional order. It was also because of this group’s frustration with the colonial system and the political limitations it imposed on them that generated a feeling of nationalism and anti-colonialism which heralded independence (Adu Boahen 104). 

This paper presents a survey of the various constructions and manifestations of masculinities in selected novels, plays, films and music videos from Ghana covering the precolonial, colonial, independent and post-independent periods in the country. It seeks answers to the following questions. How are men presented in Ghanaian fiction, film, and music videos? How do these men enact or perform their masculinity? Is there a masculine ideal being advanced in the texts? How does the presentation of men subvert or reinforce the masculine ideal espoused in the texts? How has the function of time affected these masculine performances and identities? Are these masculine behaviours changing over time and admitting new variants? What does the presence of these variants suggest broadly about the theorisation of men, masculinity, and gender? And how does this theorisation enable a better understanding of the interrelatedness of masculinity and performance? 

The selection of different genres, providing a variety of social terrains, delivers an important sociohistorical context of intertextual relationships that illuminate the changing assumptions and attitudes of masculinity. I use the genres, therefore, as mirrors of one another. Thus, I chose them to determine whether what is presented in one genre is reinforced or subverted in the others. I also try to ascertain how these genres complement one another. The periodisation framework is adequate for the kind of flexibility in categorisation that the study requires in making the necessary references across genres. It allows for a solid discussion of dominant displays of masculinity over time and space in the literary texts under study. Moreover, the methodology itself supports the central argument of the presence of residue in any changing entity, especially in an evolving concept such as masculinity.

From the precolonial period, I examine A Woman in her Prime by Asare Konadu, The Healers by Ayikwei Armah, and Anowa, by Ama Ata Aidoo in discussing the different images of manhood and masculinity in traditional Ghana. The writers subvert traditional dominant masculine ideals with characters whose portrayal indicates that other men in their societies consciously refuse to aspire to the hegemony prevailing at a particular time. It goes on to establish the subversive and multifaceted nature of male characters whose depiction would interrogate notions of the static definition of masculinity. In these texts, it becomes clear that in the Gold Coast a man was perceived as one who worked hard, was courageous in protecting his family and lands, and believed in having children to carry on his lineage. However, the texts reflect how the presence of the white man impacted traditional masculinity and created a type of hegemonic masculinity that is destructive as it provided avenues for men to achieve dominance quickly by exploiting their own people. Thus, the actions of Kofi Ako in Anowa indicate domineering, destructive and oppressive it is to embody this hegemony. The way he is portrayed also functions as a critique of his society for refusing to provide and accept other modes of masculine identity that are liberating to both men and women and enable avenues for growth and development. Likewise, in The Healers, Ababio represents this destructive and oppressive hegemony and tries to prevent other men from enacting their own forms of masculine identities. The texts also illustrate that men in precolonial times did not regard it as a sign of weakness to show affection and love towards their loved ones. It is interesting that change is the main constant in the lives of these men while they navigated their world.

During the colonial era, The Narrow Path by Francis Selormey, and the Films, Heritage Africa and I Told You So show through critical analysis the interface of history and behaviour. I provide a convincing argument through character study to lend credence to the fact of how the impact of suppression and oppression as evidenced in the times of colonialism, with its attendant turmoil, impacted the masculinity of the oppressed. Such an uncertain and hostile atmosphere gave men additional power over women, justified tyranny over women and children and, indeed, anyone perceived to lack power. The result was a definite closing up of the possibility of masculinity’s potential for emotional engagement and capacity for caring and nurturing. The colonial enterprise greatly impacted traditional concepts of manhood as the changing situations forced men to re-evaluate what they wanted and how they presented themselves. The introduction of a monetised economy, formal education and white-collar jobs affected traditional occupations such as farming and blacksmithing leading to the search for jobs that were more in line with European sentiments and values. Consequently, men began to identify themselves with these new avenues and endeavours, forsaking the old images of masculinity. The predominant masculine image then is the image of the colonial subject, who has assimilated the ways of the coloniser and is desirous of living like the former, discarding his own traditional ways of life for those of his new master as aptly exemplified in the life of Quincy Arthur Bosomfield in the film, Heritage Africa.

The era that ushered in the struggle for economic and political independence also, along with its excitement and high expectations did have an impact on the display of masculinity in the lives of the characters in the selected texts. In the novels, Beyond the Horizon and The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born, and in the Film, Kukurantumi: Road to Accra, we witness the struggle for Independence and its aftermath. In the film, Kukurantumi: Road to Accra, Addey goes to the city to work to support his family, but the family disintegrates as he struggles to make a living in the city. Mensah, an elderly man who should be full of traditional values and morality is a cheat who sleeps with girls young enough to be his daughters. This depraved masculinity emerging from this climate is a consequence of the pressures of the times. Images of women are no better as many of the girls in the city live and work as prostitutes. This perverted situation continues unabated as the country enters the 1980s and 90s.

Amma Darko | Beyond the Horizon | Apollo | 208 pages | 11,99 USD

In Beyond the Horizon, Darko shows that the drive for hegemony creates exploitative men. This is evident in Akobi’s relationship with his wife, Mara as he abuses her physically and emotionally. Moreover, he exploits Mara’s sexuality for his own profit and social advancement when he makes her an object of sexual desire for men in Germany. O’Connell and Odamtten (2007, 52) assert that illegal, alien women in the west are converted into sexual objects, and the employment opportunities available to these illegal immigrants are generally only those that dehumanise the individual. Therefore, when Akobi invites Mara to Germany and forces her into prostitution, he displays a lack of consideration for Mara as a human being. Beyond the Horizon is the first text in the collection of texts in this study that highlights the abuse and subjugation of women in the Ghanaian context. This novel presents a sustained image of women being treated as second-class citizens, denied rights and privileges enjoyed by men. It also portrays women as chattel to be passed on from one man to another. The significance of this portrayal of women may lie in the gradual erosion of traditional values and mutual respect that has occurred with the increasing westernisation of Ghana.

 Ama Ata Aidoo | Changes: A Love Story | The Feminist Press | 208 pages | 16,95 USD

Finally, I look at the ‘current’ postcolonial era and examine the changes in masculine identities in Ghanaian men from the 1990s to the 2000s as exemplified in film, fiction and music videos. This was the period of stable economic growth, an increase in agricultural production and access to education that augmented Ghana’s human capital development and led to a gradual reduction in poverty. As access to education increased, service replaced agriculture as the largest sector of the economy, and with more people in the services sector, which is largely located in the urban centres, many more people moved to the towns and cities. Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A love Story indicates that even though changes have occurred in marriage and life in general as Ghanaians would attest to, these changes have not been reflected in the traditional concepts of masculinity that the male characters still adhered to. In subverting these concepts by demonstrating their weaknesses and subsequent inapplicability in the new dispensation, Aidoo is calling for new ways of projecting the African male character in fiction that are in line with the demands of masculinist studies. The novel presents a subtle critique of traditional masculinity and contests the likeability and passivity of African femininity. In the “Afterword” to the novel, Tuzyline Jita Allan (1993, 185) argues that Aidoo’s works lack the ‘drama of victimization believed to preoccupy African women writers.’ Rather, Aidoo infuses her characters with agency and a sense of their own individuality and identity. Three male characters are the focus of discussion in this novel: Oko, Kubi and Ali. Of the three, Ali is the most conflicted as he tries to practice polygamy in an urban setting with all the ramifications involved. Kubi and Oko try to manipulate the careers of their wives so they can maintain their positions as traditional heads of household. These men can be viewed as victims of their belief in certain imbibed definitions of what a man should be. They are ‘victims and participants in their own fates’ (171), albeit in a neocolonial domain fraught with the dilemmas of negotiating the divide between tradition and modernity.

In the films and music videos, the focus is on the physical appearance of the man and how this contributes to his image of himself as a ‘real man. In Perfect Picture, when Larry is rendered sexually impotent on his wedding night, his whole world crashes down. His life becomes meaningful again when he regains his sexual potency. Likewise, the once loving and caring Jimah in the film, Sinking Sands, turns into an abusive, murderous husband, when he is badly burnt in the face and disfigured. The music videos show the man as loving and lovable. What is new in these videos about lovers is that despite how much the women profess to love and need the men in their lives, they do not become so dependent on the men that when the relationship breaks up, they are utterly devastated. This is in line with the evolution of relations between men and women and the growing self-sustainability of women who no longer need men to be whole, fulfilled individuals. The image created is that of a self-sufficient woman. The theme of reciprocal gender relations is evident in many of these music videos. Becca is one of the female artistes whose lyrics suggest the importance of reciprocity in male-female relationships. In Hwɛ (2016), she celebrates love and how it has enriched her life and made it meaningful. She praises her lover for the joy and happiness he has brought to her life and promises never to let him go. Even though there is an increasing absence of the domineering image of the man in the music videos of male artistes, the recurrence of the man as protector and provider hints at retrogressive notions of the ideal man.

The other important issue that appears in many of these music videos is the depiction of sexual and romantic love that is fashioned on western notions of love. People in the west believe in the importance of falling in love. This western notion of romantic love and idealised sexuality calls for a type of masculinity that fits the criteria of a romantic partner. Many lifestyle websites and magazines, have editorials and blogs about what constitutes a romantic man. The qualities include being affectionate, attentive, sensitive, supportive, and loyal. Many of these traits call on the man to show vulnerability, therefore, the hypermasculinist image of the stoic, indomitable, inscrutable man does not fit in with the romantic ideal popularised in these music videos.

I conclude therefore that, apart from the predominant image of masculinity present during each historical period in the country, certain images cut across time and space. In each historical period is found the man who believes that his masculinity is hinged on wealth, and thus does all he can to accrue wealth. This masculine behaviour is a relic of the ‘big man’ image that was prevalent during the precolonial and colonial times but has been modified in the present era. What it indicates is that wealth is still an important element in Ghanaian men’s makeup. The other ubiquitous image is that of the virile man who can perform sexually and produce children. Regardless of the period, men generally have always wanted to be fathers, and their sexual potency has remained an important marker of masculinity. It is remarkable that the increasingly visible presence of toxic and depraved masculinity is found in Ghana’s post-independence period as pertains in the narratives. The harsh economic climate and the erosion of traditional values and practices in an increasingly cosmopolitan era have combined to produce men who are easily provoked to anger and violence, living on the edge of a dangerous precipice. This anger could be explained in part as an irrational backlash against the impotency they experience in struggling to come to terms with gender parity in the changing Ghanaian landscape. One other significant finding is that more and more men are looking for and exploring various ways of presenting their masculine identities, different from the normative practice in their communities. Although this work recognises the presence of certain stereotypical masculine images in the texts, I argue that their presence is evidence of the slow pace of change taking place in society.


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