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African view: Honouring titles

Ghanaian parliament speaker Joyce Bamfo (L), Queen mother of Ghana's Amamfro Cape Coast Nana Akua Tawian (centre), President John Atta Mills (R)
An "honourable" MP, queen and president in Ghana - where titles matter

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene considers titles, honours and tradition.

I've recently been having some local difficulties with how to address people.

The rule of thumb is that you may not call someone who is older than or senior to you in any way by their name without an appropriate title.

It would be a mark of disrespect.

1 March 1966: General Joseph Ankrah, one of the Ghanaian military leaders who came to power in the coup which ousted Kwame Nkrumah
When the military moved into politics, we had more colonels, brigadiers, generals and even field marshals than the size of our armies could legitimately accommodate

Because I'm the eldest child of my parents my siblings may not call me Elizabeth without the title "da", which is the abbreviated title for an elder sister.

The rule now seems to be, if you can get away with it, get a title - any title and use it.

From academia to politics to traditional settings and to religion, the proliferation of titles is breathtaking.

I used to think and say that it was a Nigerian disease, since almost every other Nigerian seemed to have a title of one kind or the other - also, I am a Ghanaian and we prefer to blame everything on our cousins, the Nigerians.

However if it was a Nigerian disease, it would be fair to say that the entire continent has caught the bug.

It used to be quite enough to be called a reverend minister; but no longer.

Now you must be a bishop, a prophet, an archbishop, a messiah and doubtless, there would be a few popes quite soon who do not live in the Vatican.

In the traditional set-up, it used to be there was a royal family and the chief was chosen and enstooled from that family.

Then a practice of granting of honorary chieftaincy titles started and not surprisingly the next step was the buying of chieftaincy titles.

The next we knew, everybody was a chief, a prince, a princess, a king, a queen, an emperor.

And when the military moved into politics, we had more colonels, brigadiers, generals and even field marshals than the size of our armies could legitimately accommodate - and God help you if you mistakenly call a brigadier, a colonel.

Mortar boards in the air
Honorary degrees these days seem to be two-a-penny

Academia used to be the one sanctified area where a title, once earned, was universal.

Then we got the granting of honorary degrees and the next we knew everybody became a degree holder, a doctor, and if you can get away with it - a professor.

I discovered there are even titles called "PhD in progress", "awaiting MSc" and "MA attempted". I also found a group of officials in the public service in Ghana who had qualifications titled "awaiting results".

On this continent, to be on the safe side, it is probably easier to address everybody you meet as "honourable"

Now it's not enough to carry one of these titles, no matter how elevated. So you now find "His Royal Highness, Nana Professor, the Archbishop".

It is in the realm of politics that things get really complicated on the continent.

Who qualifies to be accorded the title "honourable"?

On this continent, to be on the safe side, it is probably easier to address everybody you meet as "honourable".

I recall going to Uganda in the late 1990s on a reporting assignment and getting totally confused by the plethora of "honourables".

I mocked them and I did a less than respectful report on the subject of "honourables".

Many "Mr Presidents"

Then I came back home to Ghana and walked into a nation of "honourables" and discovered you omit the title at your peril.

Members of the district assemblies are "honourables" and don't you dare forget it.

President John Atta Mills
The president reminded citizens there was only one president in town

The district, municipal and metropolitan chief executives are "honourables", of course the members of parliament, current and past are "honourables" and when I became a minister of state in the government, I found out I was an "honourable".

It wasn't just a title, it became my name, as in: "Good morning, honourable"; "How are you, honourable?"; "Where are you going, honourable?"; "Give me some money, honourable".

You could protest all you wanted, nobody took any notice.

And it is not only a question of insisting on being accorded the title, you sometimes have to protect your title from being extended to undeserving people.

This year the president of our republic gave vent to a full-scale tirade to remind all citizens he was the only president in town and warned off all would-be pretenders to his throne.

Of course he was sadly mistaken.

In my time as a minister of state of education, I would in any one day deal with the president of the National Union of Ghana Students, president of the University Teachers Association, president of the Graduate Teachers Association, president of the Students Representative Council, president of the Disgruntled Graduate Students Association and they all took their titles with them and had to be addressed as "Mr President".

Now I am no longer a minister of state, I thought I had regained my name, but it turns out I am sadly mistaken and I'm stuck with "honourable" - or to give you may full title: "Da (being the first born in the family), Mamaga (having been enstooled an honorary queen mother of Abutia, Dr Dr (awaiting honorary degrees), Mrs, Her Excellency, the Honourable Elizabeth Ohene".

If you would like to comment on this column, send us your views using the postform below.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

I will not have it any other way. At the moment i am just Mr Banjo which is very sad for me. I hope one day to be addressed as chief. But my ultimate title is to be called "LORD Banjo". I think we should introduce this one as well. Its a splendid title to have before chief. we cant allow the British to appropriate it all to them selves
kayode (Nigeria & UK), london

Waw, it make me to remembered my grandfather. Despite the fact that he does not go to school and cant read nor write. Yet, he want the title to be address as "Dr", just the way as professional doctor. He sold all his possession and gave to a local tribal chief. Final he got what he want, the chief gave him the title "Dr". A doctor without certificate. In Nigeria, everybody just want title at all cost.
Tony Gbenga, Nigerian/Spain

There is nothing wrong with being referred to by one's properly earned title; or using a title as a mark of respect for an older person. What I detest, particularly in Nigeria where I come from, is the use of a profession as a title when the profession does not confer a title on one. I am a lawyer and I hate people using "Barrister" before my name. "Barrister" is my profession not a title for God sake. I have even heard a Nigerian being referred to as "Navigator So and So" because he is a sailor. How ridiculous! I admire the incumbent Governor of Lagos State who is simply referred to as Mr. Babatunde Fasola, very nice!
Oluwatosin Popoola, London, England

Very interesting article and true to the point. I would give an example of a junior official posted in foreign service, say embassy, being referred to as "Ambassador" by friends and peers. I remember riding in commuter bus and a fat man was being addressed as "Ba Healthy". Funny in Africa
Mawa, Dubai

I am a second generation Nigerian, born in Lambeth, London. I was brought up to call any one older that you, Sister, Brother, Aunty, Uncle, Mummy, or Daddy. When I asked why they not relatives I was instructed that is how it is. Confusing as it was especially in school where I called teachers Aunty & uncles and when we were asked how aunts and uncles I had and answered over 60, to the shock of my teacher. In addition the fact nearly every African you meet and during introductions, you will first hear a plethora of words before their actual birth name. I devised a method of remembering the first name and last two names, just to avoid offending someone. Which if you do can be a stigma attached to you and your family for years.
Christianna Apena , Kent, England

Recently, a 'respected' Ethiopian painter was being interviewed on TV. The journalist started addressing him 'honourable'. He then got cooked up all of a sudden and angrily told her to call him properly as his title has recently changed to 'extremely honourable' from just 'honourable'..... just another manifestation of our chronic sickness in Africa - the aggressive and crazy quest for power, nominals, and selfish wealth, which is ever destroying our land...
bisrat, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Very interesting article. I never knew the rest of Africa shared in this Nigerian problem. My boss I report to directly is Nigerian and as the culture demands, I address him as 'Oga'(boss) but my director (his boss) who's English is call by his first name. While I appreciate the cultural part of it which prevents you from addressing people older than you by their names, I completely detest the acquired titles like Chief, Honourable, Chairman etc. I know a man who distinguishes himself from other chiefs by insisting on being addressed as 'The Otunba' as against Otunba.
Kingsley, Lagos, Nigeria

In Kenya its a different story. Most of us refer to people with common nicknames like Jaduong (Mzee) or in English simply wiseman, Baba (Daddy), Jadhot (My neighbour/tribesman), Liech (Elephant), Simba (Lion), Boss, Osiepa/mdhi, mzae, beshte (My friend) Nyieka (where my in-laws come from) Wuod + (Wherever you were born e.g. Kisumu, Nairobi) Mheshimiwa (The honorable) By your profession from councillor to cobbler to lawyer to student. Mkubwa (The bigman/Nigerians say oga). Individual nicknames are also used more often in formal settings than in the west. It's quite rare to be referred to by your formal names. Women are Madam, Sister, Auntie, Grandy depending on her age or if you are trying to woo her then its. When I was in US, people used to call me 'Prince of Africa' not bad.
Otieno, Kisumu, Kenya

Thanks for this article. I have always been embarrassed by this practice in Nigeria and glad that someone has caught on. Unfortunately I look at Ghana as a more enlightened society than ours and disappointed you should pick up a habit that underscores our underdeveloped status. In Nigeria everyone is now a chief, prince or dr. I know a married woman who has a ph.d in engineering and was made a chief by her local ruler. Her title is Engr. Chief Dr. Mrs. I am glad to remain a mr. because in the next 20 years I will be the only one.
E Onukogu, New York, NY

I find it most offensive and I'm sure most other proud Nigerians that E Onukogu would dare describe another society regardless of what part of the world it is situated as being more enlightened than another (in this case Nigeria). Please note that i am not a fan of the title craze but it is very uncultured for one to refer to one society as being more enlightened than the other. I wonder how the love of titles by a people qualify their level of development? It's better for one to be silent and maintain ones dignity than to display ones clear lack of common sense by talking utter nonsense.
Victor, London, England

Very interesting article Mother E Ohene. In Zim all women who look motherly have the honour of being called 'Mother' in buses and everywhere one meets them. Boys are 'mukoma' (Brother), girls are 'sis'. I think it is respectful when does not know another's name. Here in SA, I jump out of my skin when a young child calls me by first name. Thanks for this eye opener of an article Madam the Mother Mrs E. Ohene
Kudyahakudadirwe Christopher, Cape Town, SA

While I'm not African, I certainly did enjoy the article. I see the title craze is quite widespread across the continent. Meanwhile in the USA, everyone is just "Bob" or "Sue" despite their age or achievements. I think here its a wee bit too informal. A woman old enough to be my grandmother, on my job, is just called "Fran" by thirty year old. Something is wrong with that too. Perhaps we could use a touch of your title craze. But just a touch.
Yetunde Pinckney, Philadelphia, PA

How about Mobutu Sese Seku Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga; The warrior who goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.
Kuuku Yebor, South River, NJ USA

Okay. In some parts of Nigeria, it started out with Chief, and naturally progressed through Hi-Chief to Super Hi-Chief. And that was the last time I checked. If you feel insulted when addressed by your first name, you have ego problems and should probably seek counselling. I think it's acceptable to refer to elders with respectable titles in accordance with authentic traditions.
Uche, Austin, TX

In Sierra Leone the most popular title is "phd" pull him down.
baibureh bangura, maryland, u.s.a.

Spot on, Tasi. Lawyers, engineers, surveyors and architects in Ghana (and Nigeria, of course) have all fallen victim to this 'title-craze' bug. Now we have "Engineer So and So", "Lawyer So and So", "Surveyor So and So", "Architect So and So" .....if titles were all we needed.....
Frank Owusu-Ansah Ohene, Farchana, Chad

Try Mozambique where almost everybody with a licenciatura (something like BA but not sure) call themselves Doctors or Engineers. When you first land here you will think this place is full of MD or PhD! I guess Honourable Elizabeth the title is an African thing.
Leo Mbalate, Maputo Mozambique

Hilarious and humorous, a masterpiece from 'Honourable Mrs Ohene' I was in Nigeria recently and some people were already calling me 'prof', even when I still have 3 months in my MSc programme. Every attempt to correct them yielded no result. Very soon, very very soon, a pregnant mother may challenge someone if you fail to 'address' her unborn baby properly. A
Julius Mba, Stavanger, Norway

Remember, Empty barrels make the most noise. These are vacuous idiots. If you have substance to yourself, You should not flaunt it. I was just speaking with my brother the other day about the rampant honorific(s) in Nigeria; case in point, the former governor of Lagos was, probably still is, referred to as Senator/Governor/Asiwaju bla bla bla. Nigerians know who he is. God help you if you fail to distinguish a "regular" Ibo chief from a "red cap" one. Imagine George W. Bush being addressed as Congressman/Ambassador/Director/Vice President/President Bush. RIDICULOUS. Their proper title should be: rogues/thieves/self aggrandizing clowns.
Peter, New York, NY

In Zimbabwe everybody is called a "chef" from a lower ranked police or any civil servants and I tell this chef thing has killed the country.
moyo, leicester

My own home-grown president has quite a few of the titles, adding new ones recently: His Excellency, The President, First Secretary of the Party, Head of State and Government, Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Patron of War Veterans, Supreme Leader, First Citizen of the Nation, Honorary Black Belt and Professor of Diplomacy (China University of Foreign Affairs), Life President, PhD (Honoris Causa, Agriculture, Midlands State University).
chenjerai hove, stavanger, norway

Actually in Nigeria there's a radio presenter for WAZOBIA FM who calls himself Diplomatic OBJ, Chief Engineer, Head of State, Doctor and so on.
kaposo, Dar es Salaam Tanzania

Hilarious but spot-on. A family friend's son was called by younger members of his family as Uncle. In Ghana, it's also custom for males older but not related to you to be called Bro (brother). So those of us born long after Uncle was accorded his title, respectfully referred to him as 'Bro Uncle'. But even closer mum. As first born, her siblings called her Sister. Later, my cousins would call her Aunty Sister...Right Honorable Dr. (in waiting)Mamaga Afenor Lizzy Ohene, you're on point.
Korshie, London, UK

Africans likes titles but soon we will have our people bearing the title Pope. Just like we have a lot of Army Generals, Commanders who do not anything but warfare. So when anon-catholic takes the title Pope it should not be embarrassing is our craziness for titles.
Evaristus Ugbodu, Kaduna Nigeria

Titles as observed are mostly given to rich people by poor who want to please them to gain favours. like here in Zambia every one who sees to have some money is addressed as "boss" or muzungu meaning white man.
Zifa tembo, Lusaka, Zambia

I first heard this story on the morning show of BBC early this week. Elizabeth you are an excellent and perceptive observer of African peoples. Titles are part of us in Africa. That is why we do not call our superiors by their first name. To do so would be completely out of tune with our ethos and conduct. As a young lecturer in Makerere University during the 80s I found it impossible to address a British lecturer in English who was old enough to be my mother by her first name much as she insisted that I should do so. We settled for the title "prof" which was easier for me to handle. It would be completely against decorum to call a colleague the age of ones mother by her first name. We have a number of "prophets" and "apostles" in Uganda and we could have a few "popes" very soon. If they commit no crime and if society accepts them - so be it. AS a postscript I wish to add that in Malawi there was His Excellency the President Ngwazi Dr H.Kamuzu Banda-Life President of the Republic of Malawi. In Uganda - as you know too well - we had Field Marshall Dr Idi Amin Dada MC DSO CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire)-Life President of Uganda(until 1979!!!) I could go on. Napoleon knew the importance of titles.
Moses Luutu , Kampala, Uganda

In Ghana, some of these titles help to show 'Who is Who' in the society. In a place where everyone, charlatans or otherwise want to be given special recognition, you run a risk of failing your exams as a student when you omit one 'prof' in the title of one who wishes to be addressed as 'Prof Dr Dr' of 'Prof Sir'. We have been socialised to believed that our best placed citizens are those with some of these titles. As a result, many young people will move the world to acquire a 'honourable' or 'Dr'.
William Menson, Kumasi, Ghana

I really love your article it is hilarious and real, you forgot to mention your other title "master storyteller".
VALENTINE, Lagos, Nigeria

The bottom line "Obia Nye Obia" (WE're all equal) as the hip hop artist put it.
Kwame, New York

I thought this was an Austrian or German phenomenon, where a wife even takes her husband's title (as in Frau Bundeskanzler, the wife of the federal chancellor, or Frau Kommerzialrat, the wife of a businessman). But it appears Ghana and Nigeria have outdone us!
Issai Chizen, New York

I've recently become 'Mrs' and very happy!
Maria, Ireland

An absolutely eye opening article and I couldn't agree with you more. Why do we need all these meaningless titles? Just like the outer covering it is, it can never make up for the lowliness we feel inside!! Simplicity is the way to go. Tell them, LIZ?!!
Grace Gatimu, Nairobi, Kenya

Ghanaians call the president of the United States by his name without "Mr" and they are comfortable with it. Sometimes the people are so desperate to give you a title that they end up calling you by your profession. I was a teacher in Ghana and although I've not taught in Ghana for over 10 years everyone in my hometown calls me "Teacher". My real name is dead forever. We called those ODA/VSO guys from UK who were in charge of Teacher Education in Ghana by names like John and Martin while were called those Ghanaian officials Prof and Doc.
Ebenezer Dotser, Hong Kong

Hon Elizabeth, I find this a big deal amongst my peers from West Africa. What is it about West Africans? an obsession?
James Oloya, Kampala, Uganda

Spot on 'Dr Dr' Ohene. I am educated because i never Knew of the 'PhD in progress' and the Attempted MSC and so on'. I at times feel so sick when I hear supposed priests brandishing the 'Dr Dr' titles when they cannot even string words together to form a simply sentence. But Mrs Ohene, do you know we have titles like 'Most prophesying prophet?
Eric Yeboah, Liverpool, England

I love the way you put this together and it has so much truth in it. Something so innocent (from your Nigerian cousins) has definitely become a bug. I remember from an early age, I was scolded for calling my sister by her first name, I had to say "Sister" (she is only 2 years older). On a recent visit to South Africa, I met with some lovely children and after a 5 minute introduction, almost every child addressed me as "Aunty". It is such an interesting culture but unfortunately, like everything else in the world, it's slowly turning into a nightmare - "Culture Abuse" I like to call it.
Ruky, Nigeria

Funny and perceptive! Yet another way in which the low self esteem/self worth of us Nigerians (and Ghanaians it seems!) manifests itself. Forget judging a person on the content of their character as a great once said, its all about titles.
bayo, Johannesburg

Even here in Malawi, Southern Africa, the trend is the same. Everybody wants to be called honourable, bishop, apostle etc.
Happy Z Chipeta, Lilongwe, Malawi

I had a good laugh reading the article and it mirrors my country Nigeria exactly although i take exception to the claim that we started it. its so tiring: one person is Chief Doctor Olorogun Architect So So and So and god help you if you miss out one or don't mention them in order of importance or achievement. An ex colleague of mine was really good at this - he always had a title for everyone. even in the buses the conductors have titles for you depending on how you look. if you are a bulky man you more likely will be addressed as Chief or Chairman. If you are a woman and depending on how you look you can be a 'mummy' or an 'aunty' etc to be on the safe side if you aren't sure just call the person Oga or Sir that way you cant go wrong. at times we go 'from the sublime to the cor blimey' (quoting Prince Charles). it's well.
Gillian, Lagos, Nigeria

Good expose, but what is the solution Honourable?
Kwame Asong

Hi honourable Ohene, I couldn't agree with you more. Much as we need to give recognition to people as far as their positions and achievements are concerned, I really believe it is usually those with an inferiority complex who insist that they are called by titles. I sometimes have difficulty when trying to address some people, as you may not know of their reaction to what they say.
Abednego Otchere, Kumasi, Ghana

Indeed the article is exciting. Title craze in Africa is also a colonial legacy, which the writer forgot to reiterate. I believe the commonwealth African countries are tagging along the mother country, Britain, who are still crazy about titles i.e. Baroness, Sir, etc. When colonial British government came to Africa they brought an enthrone those titles to our leaders e.g. Sir, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, or Sir, Buganda King etc. I believe we have our own crave for titles, but we are not far from the English who also are into the titles!!!
Hafsat Abda, Edmonto, Canada

This story has made my day. Until I read it, I thought I was the only Ghanaian who is so peeved by this title trend in my homeland. I get to visit Ghana quite regularly, and I keep telling friends it's so wrong to call an MP "honourable". I know it's their official title, but to constantly refer to someone who, until recently, was an ordinary bloke was too much for me. Fact is that Ghanaian officialdom take themselves and their titles so seriously that I soon realised that my constant naggings were really frowned upon. Good story, Honorable ex-Minister Mrs Ohene.
Martin Kwakwa, Sydney, Australia

Sometimes when you meet these people, with all the titles they've got then you asked yourself how on earth can such person have all these but still think in the head. They always do things immaturely and still wants titles for themselves.
Matilda Obeng, Tema, Ghana

I think the title craze among Africans have to do with their mindset and the inferiority complex it suffers. It's a pitiable thing. I look at the so called "chiefs", "honourables" etc and just shake my head. I would have none of that for myself!
Folorunso Olowogoke, Abuja, Nigeria

Interesting and entertaining. Good job DMDDMHEH Elizabeth Ohene. I hope you don't mind abbreviating your titles.
Albert, Ghana

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Refreshing and to the point. Tis very true, honoury terms are the focus of our society. A man is no longer judged by their character and abilities, but by their Titles. We are all affected by this predicament of absurd ambition, but we must strive to retain close to what is true of our human existence. Nevertheless, The Moral code does not lie - "By their fruits, you will no them". We need a revolution!!!!!!
Nana, London, UK

In the past, titles are accorded to to those that have helped humanity, this I observed growing up. Today you can buy one like off the street almost any where, like grocery shopping. Meanwhile I'm confused as to how to address you, but I will choose Mrs Elizabeth Ohene, as this will assure me that you have not stolen wealth and needs a title to cover your misdeed. Don't forget that when people seek title the have something they need to hide.
Sunny, Alexandria, VA

Its interesting (as always) to read E. Ohene's articles. In fact I am coming to the conclusion that either ageing is having an effect on her or she needs a new job in the satire industry. But for those reasons, i think 'Da' should help the world to appreciate our divers sociological backgrounds and the damage she and her cohorts -'Politricians' have inflicted on the society by helping individuals BUY 'titles' (e.g. 'Ga mantse') simply for political reasons. 'I am a Ghanaian and we prefer to blame everything on our cousins, the Nigerians'. I hope 'our Cousins' are responsible for the demise of 'our' Party. I find it strange that 'Da' has now become conscious of the titles she has been enjoying while in honourable 'government'. Any 'title sickness'?
quaku, Ghana

It's an interesting article. I am a Ghanaian and I share Elizabeth's views... sorry, Honourable Elizabeth's views.
Sammy Laryea, Accra, Ghana

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