Prime News Ghana

Opinion: 'We are being counted' by Elizabeth Ohene

By Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene
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It was always going to be a difficult job getting us counted here in this country. 

Let us say I am not in the least surprised that the counting period has been extended by another week, mopping up or whatever we call it, this was not likely to be an easy undertaking.

Since we attained independence in 1957, this is the sixth census being conducted, the earlier ones having been held in 1960, 1970, 1984, 2000 and 2010.

The idea was to have a census every ten years and a look at the missing and jumbled up years tell the story of the political turmoil the country was going through.

This current census, which should have been conducted in 2020, became a victim, like everything else in the world last year, to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Having a census in this country was never going to be the straightforward thing it is in other parts of the world.

Apart from trying to find out how many of us there are, an attempt is being made to tease out a lot of other interesting details about our lives so we can have some idea about what really goes on in this country.

As the formal title of the exercise indicates, this is a population and housing census and the various structures in which we are accommodated are also being counted.


The truth is we have a problem with numbers. I discovered long ago that whenever there was something unpleasant that we would rather not deal with, we label it counting and therefore a taboo.

When a man has far more children than he can possibly look after, it becomes a taboo to count them. Children are a blessing from God and therefore should not be counted. In much the same way, you don’t count the number of wives a man has, it is “un-African” and a taboo.

Anything with numbers just makes things difficult for us. Take what should be a simple matter of a person’s age, for example. We have endless problems with it.

We have “real” ages and we have “official” ages, the difference between the two could be as much as ten years.

Once you are seen as an old person, and especially if you have grey hair, it is assumed you must be at least 100 years old.

You can’t question it because it is a taboo to count the age of an elderly person, it will be taken as wishing him or her dead.

Interesting experience

I and my household have been counted and if you are part of the “mopping up” group, and not yet been counted, let me tell you it was an interesting experience that I would recommend to all.

I hear some of the enumerators claim it is faster to write down the answers on a piece of paper which they would transfer when they get home because it is faster and they don’t want to waste your time.

Please insist on him using the tablet they have been issued. If he turns down your offer of a chair because it won’t take long, he is a fraud; make him sit down, it is a serious business and can’t be done in five or ten minutes.

The enumerator who came to our home was a charming young woman and she was purposeful.

It was reassuring when she summoned her most formal tone of voice and told me that the answers you give would be treated as strictly confidential and would be used for statistical purposes only.

She said I should hold her responsible if any of my answers come out in the public!

I must confess I was nervous about some of the questions since there are some things that you would have difficulty admitting to.

I know homes who would have real difficulty admitting to the number of toilets they have, (eight at the last count in a particular house where four people live).

Then there are those who don’t have any toilet at home and tell you it is a taboo to count things like toilets since they aren’t supposed to be mentioned in conversation anyway.

I heard a woman on the radio on Monday morning who said her dignity had been invaded because she was asked if she had a toilet and the primary source of cooking fuel.

I heard a man also claim that the questions were far too invasive and questions were being asked that were prying into his bedroom affairs.

I think my enumerator must have omitted some questions during our session then, unless being asked if I had children was the invasion of the bedroom question.


I am wondering how people are dealing with the questions they feel are invasive, which often just means they are embarrassed by what should be the honest answer and they would probably invoke the taboo cover. 

In much the same way I don’t see the person with six refrigerators of varying sizes in her house wanting this fact known, even though fridges haven’t made it yet into the category of things that are a taboo to count.

But then, this exercise might be just what we need to trigger the moment of truth that forces all of us to face the reality of our daily existence that we hide under the cloak of taboos.

Having said that, I must say I am glad certain things are not being counted, I shall be too embarrassed to own up to some things that I have been hoarding all my life.

I have a friend who is a mini-Imelda Marcos and would be ashamed to admit to the number of shoes she has, if shoes were to be counted.

I have another friend who has enough pairs of socks to fill many shops and with the best will in the world, can never tell how many pairs he has if he were asked by a census enumerator!

But it is a pity we are not being asked how many funeral cloths we all have in our closets.

It seems to me that is a question which should be asked of all Ghanaians and the answer might force us to stop the funeral madness.

Whichever way you look at it though, simply going through this census is a great thing.

By the end of the exercise, there will, hopefully be very few taboos left about numbers.

And can you imagine the treasure trove of information, we shall know how many people have mules.