Laughing matter: Ghana and the politics of smiling and suffering
If there is a place on earth where happy-go-lucky people are in their large numbers, I am sure it is Ghana. Perhaps if we are to measure Gross Domestic happiness we will top the chart. As a nation we have creatively adopted humour as a defence mechanism to our not so palatable state of affairs thus in the face of adversity we ‘smile and wave’ like the penguins in the movie Madagascar.
This is exemplified in the way we switch from one cliché to another. In the not too distant past we had 'gargantuan', 'all die be die', now 'tweaa' has gone international and 'kwasia bi nti' is fast becoming the phrase to use to enjoy the Ghana game of humour.
Dr George Eman Vaillant, a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University describes four levels of defence mechanisms and classified Humour as a mature defence mechanism (level 4). We invoke humour to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety (as compared to the "psychotic," "immature," and "neurotic" defense mechanisms). Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn't cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them. The unpleasant thoughts and feelings retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are skirted around by witticism.
Chaya Ostrower in his Doctoral Thesis titled 'Humour as a defense mechanism in the Holocaust' writes on how the Jews adopted humour and lived through the Holocaust. He summarises their entire story thus "if not humour, we would have died"
But humour has its limitations; it only helps you psychologically to withstand the problem, while the problem persists. Overly relying on humour in situations may make you miss the ominous signs. Making light of problems may end up worsening it. Humour may be an escapist route that will not fit all situations as in many instances we are called to face the problem squarely.
The General overseer of International Central Gospel Church, Ps. Mensa Otabil has ruffled feathers when he bluntly bemoaned our penchant for trivialization. He remarked: “one District Chief Executive makes a comment which we should be angry with, but it has become a national joke and we just carry on and on. And I am wondering what is wrong with us? Can’t we for once be serious and face life and stop joking? ...We are polluting ourselves, we have issues we can’t solve, we have problems we can’t solve. We are overwhelmed all around us, yet we have lot of time to joke and to laugh as if this is the normal environment to live in"
Our over reliance on humour seems to be a symptom of a sense of “national learned helplessness”. That we seem to have given up on our problems, thinking what is happening to us is beyond our control and that we are powerless to deal with it.
This state of learned helplessness is detrimental to the prosperity of our Nation.
We have within our power to change our affairs.
Ghana has problems. As a competitor in the 21st century world, we still struggle to provide basic logistics like chalk, text books that will give every child in the basic school quality education. We still can't provide potable water to our citizens, energy is not reliable, we have been engulfed by filth, and our road networks are still poor. Mothers still die needlessly through pregnancy related deaths in our hospitals and children continue to die from malnutrition and communicable diseases.
Surely this is not a picture that should tickle our fancy. We can't be shy in the face of the overwhelming evidence either; wishing away our sad state with humour is definitely not the answer. It is time we stand up and face these challenges with all seriousness and that is the call from Pastor Otabil.
From our collective failure to lift ourselves from this socio-economic quagmire, the least we could do is to take governance serious as a nation. We need to reject the comic relief leadership sometimes offer us, ostensibly to attenuate the tedium and monotony of our existence apologies to P.A.V. Ansah and ask of them a high standard of service.
The potential of this nation cannot be overemphasize. We need to fix our gaze on the ball and think to solve the problems afflicting us. It is our collective duty to build our motherland.
Alas, one may concede that at certain times we need to laugh in order not to cry , but then observers (government, all others but us) will watch our incredible adaptation and agree with Ernest Hemingway that "we are so brave and quiet, I forget you are suffering"
Dr Nathanael Adjei-Kyeremeh