Our Attitude to Craftsmanship

Concluding remarks on the work ethic in Ghana

I mentioned in my last post that among the GaDangme, we used to categorize a respected, successful expert in any vocation as kpanaku; as in carpenter fonyo kpanaku, a respected, successful, expert carpenter. We spoke of them with great respect, earned respect. We expected much of them. They knew it and made every effort not to disappoint. The kpanaku craftsman went to great lengths to make certain his work and conduct spoke of his character, his skillfulness and ingenuity. He reached out to and moderated the conduct and work of those who successfully understudied him too. He was that sensitive, in part, because the commendations he received from customers were his only means of advertising and assuring continuing and rewarding commissions.

I’ve no reason to believe that this recognition was expressed among the GaDangme people only. I mention it merely by way of demonstrating that based on our traditions, at least some Ghanaian peoples used to be sensitive to exceptional craftsmanship, or expertise; so much so in fact, that it is represented in the vocabulary of their native tongue.

Aplaŋke

Practicioners of the trades had systems of apprenticeship in the old days, which ensured that their wards gained both skill and desired ethics from associating with their masters, or mistresses. I’ll use the much maligned aplaŋke for illustration. (Aplaŋke is pronounced with the nasal n and with emphasis on the last syllable; its the Ga name for an apprentice commercial truck driver). The aplaŋke in La would be committed to the charge of his Master after his parents had presented the required drinks. He’d take up residence in his Master’s household and spend months and months running errands and washing vehicles, while his Master observed him in different settings. He did himself good, if he too observed the conduct of his fellow apprentices and Master, to acquire social skills and gather the unspoken tricks of their trade. If he conducted himself properly, he’d be taught to park a vehicle the right way after it had been washed at the close of business, which would mark his transitioning from a greenhorn to an apprentice in training on the skills and ethics of the craft.

His Master would supervise his acquisition of skills from there; including minor truck repairs, until he judged the apprentice ready to take a road test and gain a commercial driver’s license. At that stage, the apprentice’s parents would present the initiation fee, the Master would lead the apprentice to the vehicle drivers’ licensing office (which used to be run by the Police) and introduce him to the right contact as a protégé who is now ready to take the road test. The system of apprenticeship was structured; it was self-regulated and in large part, it worked to maintain good craftsmanship in the trades, in days now past.

The social network for producing a steady flow of ŋaalɔi (craftsmen) in Ghana has been under siege for many years now and as a result, is now unrecognisable. Many parties and causes have acted together to sustain this siege.

  1. One such cause is accelerated urbanization, which has wreaked our social fabric, as it does wherever it occurs;
  2. Another cause is of course, our monotheistic worship and rewarding of university based, tertiary education, which attitude robs the trades of invigorating new talent from among the youth of Ghana. (One of the current challenges of North America is the large number of young adults and middle aged persons who are educated to the hilt, but lack employable skills in demand on the job market. They many of them drift into full, or part-time jobs in the service sector, serving tables in restaurants, etc. The challenge is not unfamiliar to Ghanaian parents of university graduates who possess non-vocational degrees; like maths, sociology, etc).
  3. A third cause worth mentioning here is frustration of the heightened expectations by our youth, for better lives than previous generations enjoyed. Their access to information is unparalleled in all of history. Information presented to them on creature comforts enjoyed by fellow humans in this very age, through books, magazines, television, the Internet, etc clearly show them the degree of deprivation both their parents and they have been experiencing and leaves them craving for a better life. Yet our society has steadfastly failed to meet their expectations.

In the absence of sufficient legitimate opportunities to afford that better life, our youths have been cutting short, or in most cases, shunning the slow, rigorous training offered through apprenticeships. After all, the quality of life enjoyed by the masters are nothing to dream about or aspire towards. In the circumstance, they’ve turned in increasing and alarming numbers to illegal, improper, harmful activities, in their thirst for a better quality of life than the grinding poverty they witness in the lives of their parents and neighbours. This underscores the phenominal growth of practices like:

  • Sakawa – email and social media based internet fraud rooted in impersonations (otherwise referred to as 419),
  • Galamsey – illegal, environmentally disastrous small scale gold mining,
  • Fraudulent sale of land,
  • Undocumented emigration,
  • Slavery in Arabia (which we prefer to treat as fiction).

These and many other causes have left us with an acute shortage of competent, reliable tradesmen in Ghana. Yet we cannot sincerely blame the dearth of craftsmen solely on our youths’ thirst for instant gratification. There is  another significant contributor; the cynical attitude to excellence which is common in Ghanaian society.

Conspiracy of the Inept

We regularly sneer at our neighbour as being too know (a smart alec), in reaction to his insistence on, or attempts at reaching excellence. Employees and tradesmen frequently complain about the pickiness of an employer, because in their eyes, the employer is doing something too much (a nitpicker).

  1. Many of those who sneer at, or complain about exacting standards are driven by the fear of being shown up as inept, in comparisons with accomplished neighbours.
  2. Others are so comfortable with the familiar that they dread any attempts at reaching for something better.
  3. Yet others so yearn for inclusion that they feel threatened by anyone who attempts to differentiate himself by making the extra effort to reach excellence.
  4. And then of course, there are those who are driven by ahuoryaa (Akan word for malicious envy; an attitude of envy, resentment and jealousy expressed in malevolence towards the subject, purposely to undermine or disrupt his progress).

The dread of excellence is common among many, but by no means definitive of the Ghanaian. Regrettably though, we’ve unwittingly allowed the inept to establish a milieu of mediocrity in the nation. That is regrettable, because excellence; such as the excellence of craftsmanship, thrives in a domain of sincere appreciation and celebratory reward, not in the cowardly confines of forced inclusiveness and sameness; as when all are compelled to wear the same school uniform, study the same subjects, do the same things, receive the same rewards. In the sameness setting, where will anyone find the motivation to strive harder and for longer than all others as he reaches for excellence, when he knows damn well that he will be rewarded in the exact same way as the mediocre? Ironically, we’re nevertheless dismayed that in most cases, we don’t encounter the same quality in products made locally, as we do in foreign made products.

Where Do We Go From Here?

These are of course, social issues you and I can’t do anything about in the immediate circumstance of a leaking faucet, Nico van Staalduinen; especially if our wives keep reminding us of the nuisance the leak is causing in the bathroom, or kitchen. There’s much our formal leaders like elected politicians and traditional chiefs can do about these social trends, but that’s for another conversation. So, I return to the leaky faucet and say, here are some things worth thinking about, to reduce the urgency of the immediate:

  • Since I’ve never had the joy of repairing a faulty and really annoying faucet myself, I’d find out as much as I can from the internet, about what things can go wrong when one attempts to repair such a faucet. Youtube is an especially rich source of such details;
  • Next, I’d ask my neighbours and associates how they rate the plumbers they last used and what their shortcomings were;
  • I’d take the contact of the best rated plumber, reach out to him and let him know that there’s a job awaiting him on the recommendation of a named neighbour; that he shouldn’t shame his sponsor by fouling up the job;
  • I’d set him at his ease when we meet and interview him informally on how he intends to avoid the hazards associated with this job, based on my internet research;
  • If he proves to be a good listener and a thoughtful, resourceful person, he gets the job, plus my continuing encouragement and promise of further commendations. If he doesn’t, I’ll thank him for his time and move on to the next recommended plumber on my shortlist.

Of course, if a Better Business Practitioners database is up and running by the time a faucet goes south in my house or business place, then I won’t have to bother my neighbours at all. I’ll simply subscribe for the service, identify and reach out to the most commended plumber who is also nearby and who knows where the online service will take us? (I suggested the Better Business Practitioners online service under the subtitle, Ways Out of This Value Pit, in my last post). ©

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