Notes from Ghana

Polasky: 'In caring for ... households, farms and communities, these women rise above inequalities'

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2007

Women here may not be taking the easy way, but there's something about their ascent to authority that commands attention.

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When I correspond with friends and family back home about life in Ghana, a common thread of conversation tends to lead back to how I adjust to the very different gender roles surrounding me in my new home. Most people are shocked (as I initially was) to discover that Ghana, a modern democracy (and predominately Christian country), still allows polygamy. My feminist friends recoil when I recount stories of betrothal ceremonies... in which the groom's family purchases the bride-to-be from her parents for such riches as a case of coca cola. My male friends, while impressed, are surprised to hear that in addition to exhausting household chores, the women in Ghana are also responsible for most of the heavy farming labor. Such reactions are understandable: when you have been raised in a culture that very openly promotes equality between the sexes, it is difficult to hear such tales without being judgmental. One friend was especially bothered by heavy work loads borne by women and asked, "But how does that make you feel as a woman? Don't you become angry at that inequality?" When I pause to think about her question, I have to honestly answer no. Not anymore. Let me explain why.

Every morning, around 5 a.m., I see women fetching water from the bore-hole. They walk the mile back to their homes balancing the water (5 to 8 gallons at a time) firmly upon their heads, often toting a baby on their back at the same time. Every day, watching this, I marvel at the physical strength and stamina this daily chore requires. However, I've also noticed that most women are cheerfully chatting and laughing with friends as they wait in line, and that every woman is proud of her ability to work hard and provide for her family. It's impossible not to notice the look of pride on the faces of the 15- and 16-year-olds fetching water for the first time alone - somehow, in their completion of this daily task, they are no longer children.

When I attend church, I can not help but notice that it is the bonds of fiercely loyal women's groups that hold the congregation together. Women run the church services in the absence of the priest, insure that the elderly among them (no longer able to farm) are fed, and stock the mission house each week with food and other necessities for the church staff.

It is the women who are first to attempt new farming techniques. It is the women that will scold a young cab driver for driving too fast. It is the women who will confront a misbehaving child or see to it that thieves and criminals are brought to justice. It is also the women that will care for and bring water to a condemned criminal.

Never in my life have I been surrounded by a community of women possessing such loyalty, and an accompanying sense of power.

It might not be accurate to claim that women and men have equal opportunities in Ghana, but I now realize that it would be incorrect to claim that women are oppressed in their traditional roles. In caring for children, husbands, households, farms and communities, these women rise above inequalities and wield total control. I, for one, am impressed!

One can only imagine where Ghana will go as the women continue to ascend into positions of greater and greater authority. For the meantime, if I need to transport a ton of bricks, clear a field with a machete or feed a crowd of 300 - I know who to ask for help.

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at

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