Questioning long held beliefs: Left-handedness and the Ghanaian culture

Sunday, November 20, 2022

My fourteen year old son is left-handed. This evening, as I left Accra for Battor to begin another week, he told me he needed money for something. I gave him the money. He took it with his left hand subconsciously. I asked him why he took it with his left hand. He felt embarrassed and wanted to give the money back to me with his right hand and take it again with the right hand. I stopped him. He asked me why he couldn’t take something from me (or someone else, especially an elderly person) with the left hand. I told me we shall discuss it next week. I am looking forward to an interesting discussion.

 

The Ghanaian culture frowns on the use of the left hand. There is even a saying in Akan which translates as: “You should not point to your father’s hometown with your left hand.” There are many things for which using the left hand to perform is considered an insult in our culture. In fact, if you use your left hand ‘wrongly’ in some palaces, you may be asked to slaughter a sheep [to appease some god(s)]. Are all these justified?

 

I have written on left-handedness on several occasions, highlighting the unfairness left-handed people go through in our part of the world. The last time I wrote on this was on International Left-Handers Day (August 13) this  year. I pointed out that being left-handed in Ghana is a big deal. There are many issues to face (including which hand to clean yourself with in the washroom because you will not be allowed to put your left hand in the food to eat with others)

 

We live in a right handed world:

 

  1. Ironing boards, door handles and many other things in homes are placed thinking only about right handed people.

 

  1. Try running the 200 metre race or 400 metre race in a closewise way (with your dominant limb inside, not on the outside). You will appreciate the disadvantage left handed people face when they have to run in an anticlockwise direction while negotiating a bend/curve.

 

  1. Typical scissors are made such that it is difficult to cut with them using the left hand. Most left handed people have to use their right hand to cut with scissors…

I didn’t know there were left handed scissors till I went for my programme in Berlin, Germany in 2010/2011.

 

My son has experienced a fair share of the challenges of being left-handed in Ghana. Several years ago he competed in the UCMAS, and even represented his school. They had to use an abacus initially and later their fingers to perform calculations very quickly. He struggled in the beginning because he was being forced to hold the pencil like a right handed person. It slowed him down and this was a competition based on speed. Eventually he was allowed to hold the pencil the left handed way.

 

My son wants to become a medical doctor, a gynaecologist like his father. I wish him well. This is an area I see him to become much better than his right-handed father, if he ends up there. Many Ghanaian doctors (I am no exception) struggle to perform some medical procedures because we can hardly use our left hands. Our ‘cultural orientation’ has made our left hands ‘dead’. When you watch a typical Ghanaian medical doctor perform laparoscopy, for example, you see a great handicap. We can hardly use our left hands. This is where left-handed people (who are forced to use their right hands) have an advantage over right-handed people, because many of them become ambidextrous subconsciously.

 

A colleague, a Ghanaian medical doctor (a cardiologist) working in the USA shared his experience earlier this year:

 

Try doing a right heart catheterization via a right jugular access or a coronary angiogram via a left femoral artery access. That’s when you will wish you were left handed. Based on the dominance of their cerebral cortex, I understand a good percentage of lefties are able to use their right hands quite well. On the contrary we right handed suck at using our left hands. So the leftee comes in handy.

 

I have a discussion with my left-handed son next week. What am I going to tell him – that he can use his left hand when dealing with elders and chiefs? What will I tell him if he asks for the reasons for our culture? I should tell him that our ancestors and god(s) just don’t like it?

 

Chinua Achebe wrote about tribes that sent twins (babies) to the ‘evil forest’ to leave them there to die because twins were forbidden in some societies…

Do some cultures have to change? How do we start this change?

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