The Bartlett


Bartlett PhD student recounts Ghana field trip to study gender roles and language

5 June 2018

Read Fanny Froehlich's account of her six months spent in Ghana, West Africa, conducting qualitative fieldwork for her PhD at The Bartlett's Development Planning Unit.

Fanny Froehlich and here two research assistants in Ghana

Ɛnygie – Happiness

Blog by Fanny Froehlich

My research touches upon the links between language and ideas. I am not a fluent speaker of Twi – an Akan language widely used in Ghana, West Africa, either as a first or second language. However, during the course of my fieldwork, I have begun to learn more of the commonly used words and phrases. In this blog, I will use three Twi words and phrases that I learned, as a way of exploring some of my emerging findings about conceptions of gender in Ghana. 

Ɛnygie means ‘happiness’ in Twi; my Twi is rudimentary, very basic at best, and it was certainly not sufficient to conduct house-to-house interviews in three rural communities in the Eastern Region of Ghana as part of my doctoral fieldwork research.

Building up my professional network in Ghana during my initial visit (March 2017) and receiving the chance to expand it during my main research stay (from May 2017 to November 2017), I got to meet and work with many inspiring Ghanaian women and men. Among them were two young and highly skilled Ghanaian women who had just finished their bachelor’s degrees at Ghanaian universities: Alice Agyeiwaa and Patricia Abena Arthur.

To my professional and personal joy, they agreed to work with me as my research assistants. Their Twi was excellent, and together, the three of us conducted around 240 house-to-house interviews with community members. We learned about conceptualisations of gender roles and gender relations as part of a specific INGO intervention targeting gender issues such as equal access to education, decreasing domestic violence and increased participation of women in decision-making processes.

During my stay in Ghana, I did not learn the Twi word for ‘development’, although I did learn other expressions: how to say ‘love reigns’, ɔdonsɔ; how to tell someone ‘I go to church’, me kɔ asɔre; and awɔka, which signifies ‘to pound and stir fufu at the same time’.

My research assistants used the expression ‘love reigns’ when there was harmony and peace, when no one around us was dealing with any particular or severe problem – mostly related to female-male relationships. ɔdonsɔ seems to signify a situation that is desirable, especially in terms of gender relations: something to work towards and to cherish when it is present.

Part of my research sets out to understand how people live their lives and what they value, especially in regard to gender roles and gender relations, in a context where they have to manage with severely limited resources.

Religion seems to play an important role in this regard  turning to the word of god, turning to a church community that effectively can become the social safety-net in countries where public services are restricted or completely absent at times.
Every Sunday, in church, is the time and place to dress up in your most colourful and impressive Ghanaian clothes to celebrate joyfully, to sing and dance. ‘Me kɔ asɔre’, meaning ‘I go to church’, is something I did (nearly) every Sunday for 2½ months when our small research team lived in a rural community of around 2,000 people and conducted research in two further ones with even smaller population sizes.

I don’t go to church regularly in my European life. In Ghana, it taught me many things about coping strategies and frames of thought one can link to when giving one’s life direction and meaning – the level of spirituality that seems to permeate each and every aspect of many people’s lives was soothing and gave hope to people. 

The preliminary findings of my fieldwork indicate that religious Christian teachings in Ghana expose a certain set of conservative gender roles and gender relations (from my Western/European point of view): marriage is the socially confined unit for male-female sexual co-habitation; the man is the head of the house and family and the woman is his helper. Sexual activity outside the confines of marriage is frowned upon.

However, in the many Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) we conducted with community members, we were able to discuss some of these assumptions in more depth. It turns out that these gender modes hold true as long as those who retain them fulfil the responsibilities that come with them.

If a husband is not able to provide for his family’s well-being adequately (the meaning of which can be contested), he forfeits his right to be the head of the house – and for his decisions to be accepted without contestation. The female participants of our FGDs tended to agree more with this than their male counterparts. 

Fufu is one of the traditional dishes in the Ghanaian cuisine; it is made from yams and cassava, and there are innumerable ways of cooking it – but only a few that are deemed tasty and delicious. Preparing fufu entails both pounding and stirring, and when many of the women (and a few men) prepare it, they do both tasks at the same time. In Twi, this is called awɔka. At times, these tasks are shared – one will stir and the other will pound. 

In many rural communities in Ghana, the preparing of food – and the majority of domestic tasks – is still (and mostly) the main responsibility of women and girls. Females shouldering the bulk of household poverty alleviation in many areas in the Global South, especially rural communities, is something that is widely discussed in the literature (cf. Chant, 2016) – and with which the preliminary findings of my fieldwork concur.

It has also been found that both women and men widely accept that household tasks are the responsibility of women, while men are expected to generate the income that can ensure the survival of the household. Nonetheless, most men state that they support their wives in domestic chores in specific situations, such as when their wives are pregnant or sick. Men will often do all the household chores when they don’t have a wife. 

During our interviews and FGDs, it became clear that more men are willing to help regularly. Some participants also pointed out that the likelihood of men helping more around the house was linked to geographical location: this phenomenon is found more in cities than in villages, alluding to the significance of intersectional analysis.

My PhD research investigates conceptualisations of gender roles and relations, which seem to be at the core of many development projects targeting gender issues. I believe that reaching an in-depth understanding of this might help to conduct projects that are perceived as meaningful by all project stakeholders.