Erratum: kpanaa / kpanaku

In reference to my posts titled, “Our Attitude to Trades & Labour” and “Our Attitude to Craftsmanship” …

I pointed out in my last 2 posts that some Ghanaian peoples so celebrated craftsmanship, that their vocabulary included words which specifically capture the passion for excellence. I erroneously used the word kpanaku as an example, in referring to the practice of the GaDangbe of Ghana. I should have used kpanaa instead; such as,

… we used to categorize a respected, successful expert in any vocation as kpanaa; as in carpenter fonyo kpanaa, a respected, successful, expert carpenter.

I owe this correction to my cousin, Abe Markwei and am grateful to him for it.

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). ©

Our Attitude to Trades & Labour

Extending the conversation on the work ethic in Ghana further

Diamonds present us with an interesting paradox. They’re made of carbon, an element rated as the 6th most common in the universe. They’re made of the same element as graphite and soot, just physically different from them. Yet we attribute so much more value to diamonds than we do to the other allotropes, or physical forms of carbon, for a number of reasons. Yes, they have many valued uses, more than soot does, even though both are made of the same element. They’re exceptionally hard, but when you do succeed in cutting and polishing gem quality ones, they glitter in light, don’t get tarnished, or worn out with the passage of time and are very attractive. Those are some of the qualities which make gem diamonds great investment instruments. We call them priceless, because we have an attitude towards them. Diamonds are rare and gem quality diamonds are even more rare, which makes us feel secure in keeping the gems as investment instruments.

The value a society attaches to any class of objects, activities, or roles is appointed in part, by their usefulness to the society, but also, by the attitude which the society’s members cultivate towards them. We attach great value to cut and polished gem diamonds, because among other things, we believe they aren’t easily replaceable and we have an attitude of preference for what is valued and irreplaceable.

How We See Them

Sadly, we the people of Ghana have a deprecatory attitude towards the trades and labour. We esteem the professions which require many more years of formal education in tertiary institutions very highly, which isn’t a bad thing. However, we’re also openly disdainful of those roles which develop the skills of their practitioners through years of apprenticeship and performance, which attitude is altogether unnecessary. We approach persons who occupy office based, often clerical roles demurely, while also being careful to be gruff with, or even dismissive of skilled tradesmen and manual workers.

Both customers and Makola women (stall traders) in the open market bazaars beret and cheat the kayayei (porters) who assist them, yet the bazaars can’t function efficiently for the benefit of trader and customer, without intervention by kayayei. Our lack of respect for and in some cases, hostile attitude towards practitioners of the trades and providers of labour defines the low value we attach to their roles in our economy. The attitude conveys the society’s low expectations of those providers of service and encourages them to maintain low expectations of themselves.

This wasn’t always so, among the peoples of Ghana. In years past, long past, we called the tradesman a ŋaalɔ in Ga (pronounced with the nasal ñ; ñaalor). It translates literally to a shrewd, ingenious person. The lead ŋaalɔ in the community was often the blacksmith, or the goldsmith who forged tools, or intricate, fascinating artifacts out of earth, using fire. They were regarded as mystics and mothers would often rush to them with their hapless wards who had just suffered burns from trampling on hot charcoal, or tripping over the hot pot of soup. They’d bring their wards in their distress, because they believed that these workers of fire somehow knew how to numb the pain and ameliorate the effect of the burn on the victim’s flesh. Plus of course, if you needed a useful implement fashioned for you, the blacksmith was the one to go to. If you wanted a high value artefact to show off with, you went to the goldsmith. So we trusted them; we respected them; we honoured them. They were aware of the esteem we accorded them, carried themselves accordingly and taught their apprentices to do likewise and maintain decorum in their practice of the trades.

A medical doctor, engineer, lawyer, nurse, carpenter, blacksmith, or any other professional of good repute was described as kpanaku, in Ga; an acknowledgement of his exceptional expertise in his chosen vocation, in times past. Since we became monotheistic worshippers of formal education though, we’ve found it necessary to not only over rate the contribution of formal education institutions, but also importantly and with the fervour of new converts, to disparage vocations which require less formal instruction and more on the job training, as well as the unskilled labour force. This culture of denigration doesn’t spare teachers either.

Its no surprise that in this culture, practitioners of the trades and labour keep low performance goals and are offended, when we insist that they improve the quality of their work or service delivery. Our attitude conveys the clear message that their work is of little value to us and they are easily replaceable, unlike cut, polished gem diamonds.

Ways Out of this Value Pit

Nico van Staalduinen, I started by saying in my previous post, that I was going to extend the conversation you initiated in your LinkedIn post of March 31, 2017. Your article aired frustrations both your wife and you have experienced in employing fellow Ghanaians, or using Ghanaian service providers to further both business and private goals; frustrations which I said were very familiar. However, the comments I’ve made above relate to attitudes commonly held in Ghana; big picture matters which neither you nor I can affect immediately. So, I’ll remain true to my intention of contributing to the conversation you started, by suggesting some changes we can bring about through personal initiative.

You no doubt will have noticed that your fellow Ghanaians are on the whole, image conscious. We’re very concerned about the opinion of society about us. Its one of the reasons why we dress up elegantly to attend church service and also, at the drop of a hat. Its one of the reasons why we go to great lengths and beyond our means, to bury the same person we’d given little attention to while he, or she was alive and needed us. I believe we can leverage this sensitivity to public image for common advantage.

Let your Ghanaian employees or service providers know even more emphatically from the onset of your relationship, that you have great faith in their character, their willingness to listen attentively to you, to receive your remarks in good faith and reflectively and to meet the needs you articulate as best as they can. Don’t allow them to forget that those are important reasons why you gave them the job over their competitors. Remind them of these things as often as you have the opportunity to. Reward their honest efforts at adhering to these attributes with immediacy in mind, but in ways which make business sense.

With regard to a prospective employee, consider requiring him to provide guarantors prior to contract; persons whose opinions about the candidate are obviously important enough to him to affect his behaviour. Perhaps you should think again about hiring a prospect, if he can’t come up with say, 2 such guarantors you can readily reach out to. In years long past, he’d have been working for his father, or senior uncle and would be in dread of being scolded by them, if he slackened, or acted improperly to undermine their interest.

For service providers, or tradesmen, consider setting up a secure online referral service in association with other like-minded persons. A database of Better Business Practitioners might register individual service providers, or tradesmen by their Ghana Card number and other attributes. By way of illustration, the service might allow an online subscriber to:

  1. 1.   Record the user’s own identification details;
  2. 2.   Access an individual tradesman’s record;
  3. 3.   Rank the tradesman for specified attributes, like punctuality, quality of work, honesty, adherence to promises, etc;
  4. 4.   Record comments on the user’s overall experience in dealing with the tradesman;
  5. 5.   View rankings by other customers of the tradesman;
  6. 6.   View related rankings by the same customers (to identify and report predatory behaviour or trash talk by ill-willed users, or fake reviews).

A few thoughts … they’re not without risk, but neither is doing nothing devoid of risk. My contribution on our attitude to craftsmanship follows. ©

Do We Know or Care?

Extending the conversation on the work ethic in Ghana

Nico van Staalduinen, who is Ghanaian by choice and Dutch by descent, published a letter online in March this year on the work ethic in Ghana and invited fellow Ghanaians to contribute to the conversation on the subject. You can access his letter under this link.

There was undeniable clarity in van Staalduinen’s expression of frustration at the work ethic of Ghanaian employees and service providers he’d met and I found the specific practices, non-performances and attitudes he highlighted familiar; very familiar in fact and for that reason, grotesquely comforting. I begin my response to his invitation from that comfort.

Significantly, the President himself took up the same theme in his May Day address, agreeing with van Staalduinen on many points and extending the list of anomalies in our work ethic into areas hitherto unmentionable in much of official Ghana. Areas such as, “We have no respect for the hours set aside for work … we pray, we eat, we visit during working hours. We spend hours chatting on the telephone when customers are waiting to be served, thereby increasing our labour costs. We take a week off for every funeral. And then we wonder why we are not competitive.”

My contribution to the conversation will touch on the following issues which, in my opinion, are relevant to understanding and affecting the work ethic in Ghana:

1 – History of economic relationships in Ghana;
2 – Our attitude to the trades and labour;
3 – Our attitude to craftsmanship.

I conclude each of these topics with some suggestion, or suggestions on the way forward in managing our trade relationships for greater competitiveness, better productivity and more benefit to all parties.

History of the Economic Relationships

The region we call Ghana has a collection of peoples who share a common system of land ownership; a communal ownership from which all titles derive. It has been reported that titles to some 80% of the landmass is traceable to communities which had possession and control of those lands through their governing chiefs and elders, from antiquity (see Land Ownership & Economization: A Rethink for Ghana, for example). The remaining 20% are owned by the Republic as state lands, or the Republic in association with the original possessory communities, as vested lands. The land; including fishing rights to associated water bodies, constituted the primary form of capital in the communities. It is my view that the prevalent form of its ownership had a defining impact on the development of both capital and labour in the region.

The communal form of ownership contrasted with the feudal regime which developed in Europe. There, the few owned much of the land, constituted the nobility, extracted rent from tenant peasants and accumulated surpluses which they classified as capital, differentiating it from the other two factors of production, land and labour, in classical economics. It appears to me that the feudal system of land ownership facilitated the emergence of a landless labour force. Majority in that category offered themselves to the nobility as indentured servants, to keep body and soul together. A fewer number of them acquired skills and became journeymen and latterly, professional service providers. A small minority joined the band who are mostly portrayed in literature as mean merchants. Otherwise, they linked up with adventurers, as desperate explorers and settlers in new lands.

On the other hand, in the region we now call Ghana, any who were able bodied and accepted as members of the community were entitled to a portion of the land (or primary capital) to farm on, to hunt in, or then to fish in the community’s water bodies, including the adjacent seas. The extent of their land holdings was related to what they could possess, protect and control with the aid of members of their household. Therefore, there was an economic incentive to have many wives, children and close relations in one’s homestead. They constituted the source of labour to the agrarian entrepreneur. There were no landless, able bodied labourers available to hire on demand.

An ambitious farmer could buy and deploy slaves on his farm, in addition to his household members. He could acquire them as his portion of the spoils of war too, but always, on the social contract that he integrate them into his household and be responsible for their wellbeing and conduct in society, to the same extent that he was responsible for other members of his household. (Akosua Nketia Perbi offers an interesting narrative on this matter in her book, A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana).

The slaves became his wards in the community and were expected to protect the rights of the community to their primary source of capital, against hostile parties; just as other members of the community were. In that sense and in the sense that their efforts in promoting the enterprise were rewarded proportionately by their owners, they shared the proprietary passion for the enterprise with other members of the entrepreneur’s household, who were their co-workers, as I’ve pointed out. The head of the enterprise looked out for the interests of all his co-workers and attempted to assist them financially as best as he could, during challenging times. They looked to him to assist them with marriage, child naming, housing, funeral and other big spending needs and it was natural for him to step in on such occasions, because they were his household members.

This patriarchal model of employment changed with the introduction of foreign trading enterprises, with increasing urbanization and with the abolition of slavery. Workers in an enterprise no longer necessarily had a family bond, or master – slave relationship with their employer. Therefore, there was no longer a basis for the traditional proprietary passion they’d carried for the enterprise they were working on. It did not help their sense of commitment that many of these enterprises were owned by foreigners, or the tax exacting colonial government, in the case of public service delivery agencies. Neither did the separation of capital owners from labour help. That separation was formalised with the introduction of trade unions and collective bargaining. Now, just to be clear, I’m in no way advocating for, or condoning the practice of slavery. I’m merely describing a progression in labour relations in the region we now identify as Ghana. Slavery is ahborrent and there is nothing positive about it. Can you purchase one additional day of your own life from any marketplace on earth or beyond the earth?

A Way Out of Apathy, Etc

It just may be that alongside other causes, this weakening of the proprietary passion in workers, who traditionally related with their employers in the patriarchal arrangement, birthed a culture of apathy towards the security and progress of the enterprise they work for. If that is true, then building a sense of proprietary interest in the workers of an enterprise should help cultivate a better work ethic among them.

My suggestion isn’t specifically for, or necessarily in favour of co-ownership arrangements, such as employee share ownership schemes. Some entrepreneurs may find that attractive. However, whatever instrument stirs a sense of belonging and provokes proprietary passion in the workforce will likely, have the desired effect of lifting their commitment above apathy and towards greater competitiveness and productivity. By that means, it will benefit all parties; including consumers of the goods or services the enterprise trades in.

I make further, less big picture contributions to this conversation in my blog posts: Our Attitude to Trades & Labour, and Our Attitude to Craftsmanship which follow. ©