“We are all human beings…”


“Are we not human beings?” Marjorie, my first office manager, enjoyed reminding me when I said something particularly obvious or inane about locals.

“No,” seems to be the answer Ghanaians have for each other.  The way teachers treat schoolchildren seems little better than animals.  This week I learned that caning — or beating — is rampant in primary and secondary schools.  It’s at the discretion of the teacher how many times a student should be struck.

At first, I thought students received beatings for disturbing the class or being rowdy; however, conversations with my staff and friends suggest otherwise.  A blogger who teaches in Ghanaian schools offered this:

“My own teaching experience indicated that there was no differentiation on the number of slaps inflicted on the child. A child who stole, turned up late for school or disrupted the lesson was given the same as a child who simply didn’t know the answer to a question asked by the teacher.”

So a child who doesn’t understand a concept or is hungry and can’t think could receive a beating for an incorrect answer?  From the same blogger,

“On one occasion when I worked as a teacher, a girl from the kindergarten class was caught stealing food from another pupil’s bag. The girl was immediately led outside to the playground, and beaten so badly with a large plank of wood that she started bleeding and lost one of her teeth. Afterwards, she was told to sit down and was ignored for the rest of the day…No mention was made of the reasons why the child was compelled to go looking for food. I’ve witnessed children being caned simply because they were in the way of the teacher as they walked past, for accidently [sic] dropping a pen during a lesson or for whispering to a friend in the classroom.”

These beatings can be so severe that they can result in welts and scars. Teachers can hit the palm, the back, or the buttocks.  In 2009, a teacher beat Prince Asiedu, a 13 year old student, that led to his death at the hospital.

Possible Causes

How does a society allow its teachers the freedom to be able to endanger the lives of its children?  There seems to be several reasons.  First, obedience seems of the utmost priority.  Children are expected to be “seen and not heard.”  For instance, when I lived in the house in East Legon, there was a 6 year old girl named Portia who lived with her mother in the boys’ quarters.  The little girl seemed to creep about the house as silent as a ninja. When the 3 year old son of the South African tenant got out of line, Portia admonished him to behave.

Ghanaian parents also frequently spank their children when they are not behaving.  I’ve been told that if a child in the street misbehaves and his parents are not around, then a stranger can slap or beat the child.  I’ve seen it happen once.

Second, teaching as a profession is not respected.  Teachers in Ghana are paid very poorly.  For instance, a couple people I interviewed for sales positions mentioned they had previously been teachers.  They were paid as low as 150 cedis per month.  Furthermore, they were often not paid on time. Thus, it’s no surprise that absenteeism by teachers is widespread.  One article suggests that as many as 49 percent of teachers in Greater Accra have been guilty of absenteeism.  The government has responded by threatening to sanction them or sack them.   One person said that some teachers don’t teach during normal school hours but hold “tutoring sessions” where they teach the material.  Parents must pay to send their students to these sessions.

Third, Ghana is a rigidly hierarchical society both based on age and on class.  For instance, I frequently had problems between my sales lady and my office lady.  The latter is younger than the other by 4-5 years.  When I wasn’t around, the sales lady seemed to bully her way over the office lady.  Furthermore, if the office lady tried to tell the sales lady what to do, the sales lady would take offense.  Arguments would erupt.  I had to mediate a couple of these disputes.  I was trying to set up an office based on American ideals of merit, openness, and camaraderie.  Unfortunately, it seemed impossible to ask everyone to check their Ghanaian values at the door.

Desired Results?

I believe hierarchy, poor teacher salaries, and expectations of child obedience offer possible reasons for the caning and widespread approval of corporal punishment.  The question that the government and parents should be asking is, Does caning children yield the desired results?


If you want little robots who are obedient, respectful, and invisible to grow up to be adult robots who are obedient, respectful, and invisible, then I think caning is a perfect policy.  On the other hand, if you want your adults to know things and have the ability to analyze — think! — problems and develop solutions, then I think this policy fails children and society as a whole.

I’m convinced that no average Ghanaians can do basic multiplication and division in their heads.  Most Ghanaians under 30 years of age that I deal with have a hard time telling me something I don’t want to hear.  For instance, last week, when we ran out of water ahead of schedule, the 24 year old grounds keeper was visibly afraid of calling his boss to tell him of the situation.  I’m sure he was afraid he would be punished or have a black mark against him in his boss’s mind.  If I ask them a question that requires a modicum of thinking, they freeze and often will not attempt to answer the question.

I believe all of these shortcomings can be attributed to the unusually harsh punishments that they received as children in school.  If there is a threat of being beaten when I answer a question incorrectly, then f*** it, I’m never going to raise my hand.  If I know my teacher has a short fuse, will I dare ask him a question about the material?  I’m not so sure.  If you want lively discussions with students posing different possible reasons for what “To be or not to be” means, then don’t come to Ghana.

Fine. Let’s say you don’t care whether your people can do math in their heads.  Let’s say you like people to be fearful of authority.  Here’s a question, do you want your economy to grow?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Ghana’s form of corporal punishment kills innovation.  The worst part is punishing students for answering questions incorrectly.  Excessive beatings in school makes children scared to experiment with new ideas or innovative ways of doing a problem set or interpreting a book.  These children then grow up to be adults unlikely to be able to analyze problems and find a solutions for them.  I believe it makes them scared to take risks and be entrepreneurial.  Having been an entrepreneur and being a fan of successful entrepreneurs, I know that being one requires a certain amount of “sticking it to the Man.”  You have to be willing to challenge how things are currently done and have the gall to say, “I have a better way.”

A young Bill Gates (right)

A young Bill Gates (right)

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all started thinking at a young age.  Apparently, all of them were programming in their teen years.  All of them dropped out of college to devote to their start-ups.  Sure, not everyone can be one of these guys.  But I know plenty of American friends who worked at start-ups who were and are creative, hard-working, and willing to go their own path.  If Ghana is serious about innovation and developing human capital that can compete globally, then it needs to review whether beating the “sense” out of its children is the best policy.

One comment

  1. Pingback: “We are all human beings…” | obolobo

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