The "Working in Ghana" Project

Researchers' reflections on the project

(Allan Wicker explains how he came to undertake the "Working in Ghana" project, and acknowledges contributors to its success.)

Assignment in Zimbabwe

I first travelled to Africa in 1989, as a senior Fulbright lecturer in psychology at the University of Zimbabwe. I was assigned a new course--personnel psychology--with nearly 200 students. An American textbook had already been selected.  Being concerned that the students would find it challenging to understand the textbook without more knowledge of work in the United States, I carried to Zimbabwe multiple paperback copies of Studs Terkel's book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

Use of Studs Terkel’s book, Working, in Zimbabwe

Terkel's book was first published in the United States in 1972. It quickly became a best seller. Terkel had sensed and responded to the reading public's latent curiosity about other people's jobs. The stories by miners, jockeys, taxi drivers, store owners, and more than a hundred other types of workers were rarely dramatic, although they were often eloquent. Their accounts allowed readers to learn the duties, pleasures, frustrations, and aspirations of workers doing jobs that people knew of, but did not really know.

My Zimbabwean students and others with whom I shared copies of Terkel’s Working were fascinated with the narratives. This was an early indication to me that interest in other people's work lives transcends national and cultural boundaries. Late in the term, I asked my students to select and interview a Zimbabwean worker and then write up the account as a first-person narrative, like the stories in Terkel's book. At the time I did not understand how natural and appropriate the assignment was. Oral traditions are strong in Africa, and elders' sharing their knowledge and wisdom with younger people is a normal occurrence. In addition, Africans typically assign a high status to university students, so assisting them may be considered both a privilege and a responsibility.

Revelations from the Zimbabwean stories

The resulting narratives of the Zimbabwean workers were captivating and revealing. I felt that I had been provided a primer on the lives of ordinary people in Zimbabwe--people doing jobs I had observed casually, such as gasoline station attendant, janitor, bus driver, or had not seen first hand, such as miner. A tea picker from the eastern region vividly described harsh economic realities of seasonal work and pointed to calluses on his unprotected hands and back to show the rigors of his job. An unmarried domestic worker told of giving birth in a squatter's shantytown of plastic sheets after being disowned by her father for becoming pregnant. A policeman admitted feeling guilty when jailing people he arrested on suspicion of crimes. A restaurant cook praised his co-workers for talking him out of quitting after his boss spoke harshly to him. My reaction to the students' reports paralleled their reactions to Terkel's book. In the last few days before I left Zimbabwe, I rushed around Harare to find photocopy services that could make copies of the best narratives. I returned home with 48 of them in my carry-on luggage, intending to probe their contents further.

The analysis of the stories was as rewarding as I expected.  Luana Jeanne Billings, a graduate student of mine, and I began by identifying the kinds of information that the workers shared. We developed a coding scheme that she then used to analyze the 48 narratives.  Her master’s thesis at Claremont Graduate University,“In their own voice: Zimbabwean workers talk about their work and lives”, reported the findings of that research.

The Ghanaian project

In 1993, I was selected for another Fulbright assignment in Africa, this time at the University of Ghana, Legon.  The appointment provided an opportunity to pursue this line of research more systematically and to include wide range of workers.  Once I had settled down in Ghana, I recruited and trained three university students, Philip Awekeya, Ebenezer Mensah, and Stephen Obiri-Yeboah, to conduct qualitative interviews of Ghanaian workers.

The interviewers showed great diligence and ingenuity in contacting and interviewing the workers whose stories we obtained. Often they had to make multiple visits to workers’ homes to establish contact and conduct the interview. Each of them conducted interviews in greater Accra and in other regions of Ghana.

A Ghanaian interviewer’s account

The interviewers' task and dedication is revealed in the following excerpts from Philip Awekeya’s story about his work on this project, as told to Ebenezer Mensah.

“I begin my work at 5:30 a.m. on any day I have to conduct an interview. I go through the questionnaire schedule to know what to ask the particular person I have an appointment with for that day. Anyone doing this work must take time to formulate questions so that people being interviewed will find the questions meaningful.

In this type of business the respondent's interest comes first; he or she must be in a relaxed mood to have time for you. When I do an interview, I have to put all personal things aside.

I move out by 7:30 at the latest to meet my respondents before their day's schedule begins. Transportation to and from destinations is a big problem. Because I depend on public transportation it can take me hours to get to the appointed place. If I should be late, respondents may think I'm not coming and leave for other duties. On the other hand, people sometimes don't keep their appointments, and then I have to keep going back.

The people I meet are usually cooperative. But when someone is hard to deal with, I keep a very cheerful face and the fellow or woman usually gives in and responds to my questions.”

Acknowledgements

This project could not have been accomplished without the committed efforts of Philip, Ebenezer, and Stephen, and the willing participation of the people whose stories they recorded.

Other acknowledgements are in order. Dr. Margaret Peil's encouragement and assistance in providing data from a town census in Ghana contributed significantly to this project. I am also indebted to the following colleagues at the School of Administration, University of Ghana, Legon:  Lecturer Kwame Osei-Safo for valuable organizational assistance, and Acting Director Sam Woode and Senior Lecturer Stephen Nkrumah for moral support. At Claremont Graduate University, Jane Gray, Gloria Leffer, and B. J. Reich provided production assistance, and Gaylin Laughlin was a generous technical advisor.  Data collection in Ghana was partially supported by a Fletcher Jones faculty research award administered by Claremont Graduate University.  

This website was created in 1996.  It was updated in 2013 with the generous technical assistance of Greg Mefferd of Claremont Graduate University.