Elizabeth Ohene Writes: We Learn To Crawl, To Walk, To Run

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I am always fascinated by stories of child prodigies. I remember how keenly I followed the story about Ruth Lawrence, the British girl who was the youngest person to secure a place at Oxford

Then last year came with the sensation of Viemens Bamfo, a 12-year-old Ghanaian boy who was admitted to a long-distance course by the University of Ghana. There are also now all these videos that go around of very bright children doing and saying things that are way beyond what children their ages are expected to do or say.

Every now and again, I remind myself of this fascination I have with child prodigies when I tell my young friends that it is for good reason that nature makes human beings go through the various stages of growing up. It is for good reason that when a child is born, she has to learn to sit down by herself, learns to crawl, learns to stand and walk, falls down and gets up and amazes her parents and herself when she starts to run.

I try to cite these rites of passage to alert my twenty-something and thirty something-year-old friends that most of the people who they see living in grand mansions, started life in one-bedroom apartments with dodgy bathrooms.

I tell them it is okay to admire and aspire to one day own some of these grand homes, but if you want to start your adult life in one of them, the only honest way would be through inherited wealth. That has never brought as much satisfaction as going through the stages yourself, upgrading from a one-bedroom shared facility in a difficult neighborhood through to a two-bedroom apartment in an up and coming neighborhood and ending up in your dream house, designed by the leading architect of the time.


It seems to me that part of the problems we have now emanate from people wanting to run without having learned to walk, and sometimes, without having even learned to stand firmly, without assistance, on their own two feet. Why do we now think that there shouldn’t be any difference in the clothes worn by chiefs and captains of industry and what is worn by young people who have just finished their internship?

There are handbags that I see and admire, but I know they are out of my reach. Mercifully, these days, there would be price ranges in the same style handbag to suit every pocket.

If you are a 25-year-old Ghanaian young woman from Fodome and you want to own today, the handbag that Oprah Winfrey is carrying, you have a problem.

If we are nurturing a society that tolerates young people who want to buy a Lamborghini Veneno Roadster as their first car, we have a serious problem.

When a young man who has never earned a month’s honest wages goes to take a million cedi loan from a financial institution, we are lost.

There is nothing wrong with thinking big and aspiring to be at the top, but there is something very wrong with not mastering the steps that you need to take to reach the top.

It is showing in our politics. It is showing in how we run, or try to run businesses, it is showing in how we try to learn skills, it is showing in how we lead our lives and big holes show up in unexpected and dangerous places.

Let me take the example of dressmaking or tailoring. The normal route used to be that you were apprenticed to a master in the trade, you started and went through all the stages. There would be talented people, there would be Ruth Lawrences, but they will all go through the obligatory stages, they will learn and work under the direction of the master and when they finish the stipulated time allocated for the apprenticeship, they would spend time “polishing up” their skills.

Now, as soon as an apprentice can use a pair of scissors and stitch up two sides of a fabric together, she is a dressmaker and wants to set up her own shop. It is not surprising, therefore, that the clothes she makes cannot stand the test of time.

Or let’s take the food industry. I knew a famous caterer in whose establishment, apprentices would spend the first three months simply learning to clean; they would clean floors, stoves, pots, pans, plates, glasses, fridges, vegetables, fish, meat, everything to do with cooking.

Not many people lasted but she insisted and those who passed through her hands, went on to become famous cooks and successful entrepreneurs.

Good reason

There is a good reason why we used to have skilled carpenters in this country. They learned their trade patiently and did not cut any corners.

You can still see the furniture they made almost a century ago are works of art; the lines are smooth, the wood remains attractive and resistant to wood mites.

The furniture made by the well-trained carpenter survives harmattan after harmattan, while the new hurriedly made furniture curls up once the harmattan appears. There have always been high flyers and I daresay, there will always be high flyers in the political world; but for the majority of us humans, we have to go through the boring, behind the scene drudgery to learn.

Now there is this belief that you can get to the top without struggling through the various stages.

Holding a position in TESCON or TEIN in some tertiary institution appears to be deemed enough preparation for getting a position at the national party level or in government.

The result is that the output from such people feels like the “dzra ho dze” clothes you get from the hurriedly trained tailors and the “dzokpata” food you get from the hot-house-trained cooks. There are foods that must be cooked slowly otherwise you don’t get the required results.

Thanks to the advancement in technology, we no longer need as much time as we needed to do many things. But if you ignore certain stages in the process, the results will show you haven’t got the real thing.

I am not making a case for old age here, even though it is true that those who know about wines will tell you that you cannot hurry the maturing process for good wine.

I acknowledge that there would always be high flyers among us; but for the majority of us, we have to learn to crawl, learn to walk and learn to run.

And the Hussain Bolts will always find room to fly.

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