Ghanaians, Tradition, and Barack Obama’s Visit

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Ghana will be dissected and analyzed by a motley of political pundits, journalists and ordinary people for weeks to come, but I am really only interested in belaboring a peculiarity unique to Ghanaian – and African – nationals, especially those who are steeped in Ghanaian orthodoxy. The issue at stake is the polemical argumentation put forth by some that Michelle Obama sullied a famous Ghanaian custom when she waved a final good-bye with her left hand, just before boarding Air Force One at the Kotoka International Airport on July 11, 2009 to return to Washington, D.C. Of course, I am certain that not every individual reading my article will agree with the positions I am about to take, but, at least, we should be able to make levelheaded assessments without the usual acrimony and vindictiveness that many sociopolitical issues pertaining to our nation generally engender.

I still remember very vividly the events of one sunny July morning, back in 1993, when I tried to hail a taxicab from Lashibi to Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital (for those unfamiliar with the city of Accra, both locations are about 20 miles apart), where I worked at the time. Standing by the main artery out of Lashibi, with a briefcase in my right hand, I naturally raised my left hand to signal a passing taxicab, which, by this time, had gone another 20 yards before stopping. The driver then reversed course, halting the car very close to where I stood.

Thankful that I did not have to wait another 10 or 20 minutes to find transportation – finding a taxicab quickly was notoriously difficult in such a newly established suburb in those days – I was about to open a rear door and get in when I was stunned by the barrage of profanities and expletives that emanated, irreconcilably, from the mouth of this immaculately attired and ostensibly courteous driver. It was a moment of stealth! His complaint? I had insulted him by attempting to hail his taxicab via the gesticulation of my left hand! Whew! The reader may want to know that the driver did not even bother to listen to my explanation, not unlike many of us with the patience and acumen of a hungry hyena that has just stumbled upon a carcass, before speeding off and leaving me engulfed temporarily in a plume of carbon monoxide fumes!

Born left-handed, I still remember the mosaic of attempts made by relatives to encourage me to switch the use of my hands, as some had assumed that it was not “proper” to eat, gesticulate, or even write with the left hand. In fact, if my memory serves me well, I routinely ate fufu – the famous Ghanaian staple – with my left hand, until about age 7, when I was forced to switch hands, as my relatives insisted that society would be unforgiving if I did not make the switch. Next were the attempts to make me greet guests via a wave of the right hand, instead of the left, and to write with the right, instead of the left. By age 12, my handwriting was of such admirable aesthetic quality that, although I eventually mastered writing with the right hand, I never was able to replicate the artistic and calligraphic potency of the left hand. Today, I am practically ambidextrous, albeit self-cultivated, but I still relish writing more often with my left hand, as the right hand has never been able to match the finesse of the left, as alluded to earlier.

The aforesaid discussions thus bring me back to my main point: the plethora of complaints from a cross-section of Ghanaians that I stumbled upon on some pro-Ghanaian Internet portals because Michelle Obama was seen waving a final good-bye with her left hand, just before she and her family flew out of Ghana. Amidst the divergent views on the matter, one particular commentator matter-of-factly expatiated on Mrs. Obama’s action: The U.S. First Lady had to wave with her left hand because her husband, a naturally left-handed person, was waving with his right. So, to complete the rather common semi-circular wave typically performed pantomimically by a pair, and because the U.S. president was standing to the right of Michelle Obama, the U.S. First Lady had no choice but to wave with her left hand. Is this criticism of Michelle Obama not just another self-serving, ludicrous attribute peculiar to the “omniscient” Ghanaian?

Does the aforementioned absurdity not explain our impatience and intolerance toward fellow Ghanaians who just happen to subscribe to belief systems different from our own? Are our ethnocentric views, with no room for tolerance, not somewhat deep-rooted in our ostensibly "omniscient" attributes and massive egos?

But why should these things matter, in the first place? Are we not holding onto tradition that has zero purpose in our lives in contemporary times? What difference does it make if someone waved with the left hand instead of the right? What about those who have lost their right arms to vehicular injury or disease? Former U.S. Presidents George Bush I and Bill Clinton, not unlike Barack Obama, are left-handed, and these two generally dined on official occasions with spoons held in their left hands, an act that some opinionated Ghanaians would have considered rude and insipid. I am certain that some in Ghana may have found Barack Obama's oft-repeated left-hand gesticulations during his recent visit quite offensive indeed!

As Barack Obama reminded us via his speech to Ghana’s lawmakers in Accra on July 11, 2009, we are all God’s children, so why should someone frown upon the prominent use of one’s naturally stronger hand, just because that hand happens to be the left? Ghana is plagued by a smorgasbord of problems – poor health care (which Barack Obama, thankfully, reiterated); falling educational standards; appalling crime wave; corruption and lack of transparency in government, among others – so the least of our worries should be which hand a visitor waved in our direction!

I am not sure why many Ghanaians think that the left hand is “inferior” to the right, which means that the left is only ideal for “trivial” work. But if we are willing to acknowledge that which God and nature have bestowed upon us, then we must put an end to the egregious, culturally redundant, practically penalizing trend of hand "discrimination" in Ghanaian society. I would rather have a noble and honest leader wave his left hand in my direction, than have a corrupt and despotic leader wave his right hand toward me. I would rather have an honest saleswoman hand over change with her left hand, than have a dishonest businessman acknowledge me with his right hand. And asking people to cajole their children to switch from a naturally stronger left hand to the right is tantamount to the despicable act of a married man hiding his out-of-wedlock child from the rest of society: it is not as though that child did anything wrong!

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.