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The nonexistent cousin

The nonexistent cousin

Here in Accra, I am interning for the newspaper, Public Agenda. We function quite differently here than I would imagine a professional newspaper at home would. My first day of work I was given the culture column to write about “obruni experiences in Ghana,” as well as the freedom to write about any other news story I found interesting. So with little direction,high expectations and uncapped freedom, I begin my internship here at Public Agenda.

This is an essay I wrote for the culture column.

My father is the youngest of seven children. My two siblings and I are the youngest of 13 cousins. When I told this to a man I recently met here in Ghana, he asked me why I made a distinction between my siblings and cousins.  In Ghana, he explained, it would be an insult to introduce someone as your cousin instead of your brother or sister.

“Think of two brothers growing up together,” he said. “They spend their whole lives as close as brothers always are. Then they each have a child. Why should those children not be raised with the same closeness?”

To me, his point made perfect sense. The closeness I feel to my cousins at home is such that a distinction between sibling and cousin seems irrelevant, though always present. The family I come from, however, I think is an exception to the typical “extended family” structure in America.

But our conversation validated an early observation I made when I first arrived to Ghana, although one I never could quite articulate.

In the attempts my peers and I have made to integrate into Ghanaian culture, our bridge into the community has been through the children here. Our neighborhood kids wait for us outside of our house to play in the evenings after work. They are hilariously vivacious and have more energy than we’re able to keep up with.

But one night as I watched a small two-year-old girl chase after a group of older children, I was perplexed. Why was this young child without the supervision of a parent?

Generally speaking, youth in America are highly sheltered by their parents. As children, we are taught to never talk to a stranger. We are taken to parks for supervised playtime, and told to be indoors before it gets dark.

But here, the children are playing in the streets well past nightfall. They walk themselves to a football game over a mile away, and have the independence we could only dream of as children.

This is not to say, however, that parents here are being negligent, or that the children here are unsafe when they’re alone. Rather, it is to highlight a difference in culture that I’m just starting to discover. Here in Ghana, there is an implicit sense of responsibility each member of the community has over one another’s wellbeing.

I first noticed it when I was playing with a group of children on our street one afternoon. When two children began quarrelling, a third smaller child got shoved onto the ground. A man walking by scolded the children, slapped the tops of their heads and warned them to behave before continuing on his way. I asked one of the children if the man was his father. He wasn’t.

I suppose my surprise to the situation illustrates how rare of an occurrence this would be back at home. It would be rare for an American passerby to scold or punish a child that isn’t his own, especially one that is a stranger. But in Ghana, parental responsibilities seem to be shared among all adults and spread across all children.

On a walk one night to buy mangoes from a fruit vendor down the road, I noticed many young children walking alone. I imagined a young child in America walking alone down a dark, heavily trafficked road. It would never happen. But walking down a road lined with street vendors, a child in Ghana is safe. For it seems to be the responsibility of the adults selling fruit on the side of the road to ensure that as long as the child is in their eyesight, he or she is safe. Then the responsibility passes to the next person.

It isn’t to say that Americans wouldn’t look out for an unsupervised kid in the U.S., but it is to say that it would be more rare for a child to be left unsupervised at all.  American parents typically don’t trust that they can send their children out into the world and the people around will protect them. They fear just the opposite.

When I first arrived here, I was told that despite a small and inefficient police service in Accra, the city has an incredibly low crime rate. This, my professor told us, is because Ghanaians take it upon themselves to hold criminals accountable for their crimes by their own means. He told us that he once saw a man beaten for stealing from a street vendor by passerby’s’ who witnessed the crime.

This type of community collectivism is something that no country or government can teach its citizens. It’s simply a cultural phenomenon that is rare and powerful, and something I am increasingly fascinated by with Ghanaians.

I’m often asked here what I think about the Ghanaian political system in comparison to the United States’. I see hotels named after Obama and see his face etched onto bumper stickers. I hear on the radio discussions about U.S. policy decisions, and read in the papers about U.S. involvement in world affairs. These topics are often addressed and discussed in ways that seem to implicate a desire to model Ghana’s society after America’s.

But it is disheartening to me to think of the Ghanaian values that may be buried beneath these Western influenced political discussions and government reconstructions. I’m not sure the people here understand the value in what their culture could teach Americans like me. The world has a lot to learn from a society who values the group before the individual, who watches out for strangers as they would for family, and who takes insult to being called a cousin instead of a brother or a sister.



  1. Julianne! I worked at the Public Agenda too! I loved it there. Wrote an obruni column every week. There’s a really great fufu place around the corner you might have found and if the lady comes by selling corn buy some from her! Enjoy your time there, holler if you have any questions 🙂

  2. Dear Julianne,
    I have read every blog and decided to reread and answer yours. It is joyful for me to read that you and the other students are getting a glimpse of what America was like when I was a child. I am 84 years old so that was a long time ago. I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood. As children we too could go out on our own and travel many blocks away. If we were hungry it was not strange to be asked “If you are not going to walk home for lunch I’ll make something for you.” Most of the time we behaved because it would not be strange for the stranger willing to feed you to hit you if you got out of line. We also knew that if someone that saw you miss behave knew your parents, they told your parents.

    There was a strong sense of community and helping one another. If a baby was left on the steps of the church that child was not taken to Protective Services. The priest would walk the neighborhood and find a family that would take the child. When my mother was pregnant with me, their fifth child, my parent took in a newborn child, an 8 year old and their father. The father was able to work full and when the girls were teens they moved in a home he bought. A widow with two boys cleaned homes to put food on the table. She never had to worry about Christmas gifts for the boys. Someone always provided.

    The neighborhood ‘junk man’ and his wife gave birth to a brilliant child. The people in the neighborhood paid for her schooling. Her two sons became doctors. She and her sons kept contact with people from the old neighborhood. At Christmas with cars loaded they dropped of gifts.

    What was different with America then and the same in Ghana now? I believe that it was and is a great respect for God’s teaching in the Bible about caring for widows and fatherless children. Our class rooms had the Ten Commandments posted and we were taught to live by them.

    Alice Vipiana

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