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Recently, I learnt a new word! Sounding more German than English, “Zeitgeist” was used by a veteran journalist in his article on an angry Ghanaian diaspora-woman on arrival in Ghana.
In her post which went viral, she lambasted Ghana and our covid-19 testing system, after she tested positive at the airport. She opined that, since she was negative 72-hours earlier at her point of departure, it was impossible for her to be positive on arrival. The debate her post generated makes it needless repeating any analysis.
Interestingly, 72-hours after her first video-clip, she made a second, apologizing profusely for her first which she said she recorded when she was stressed-out. She asked Ghanaians for forgiveness.
It is against this background that Nana used “zeitgeist.”
Originally German, “zeitgeist” was coined from fusing two words; “Zeist” for time, and “Geist” for spirit, by German philosophers like Hegel, Goethe and Karl Marx in the C18th.
A definition has it as “the defining mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time” or simply “the spirit of an age” representing the collective attitude of a people.
The English poet Matthew Arnold in 1848 drew “zeitgeist” into the English language when he described the social unrest of the C19th during Queen Victoria’s reign as the English-zeitgeist. Earlier, the French Revolution of 1789-1799 was the zeitgeist of France.
In Africa, the struggle for independence from colonial rule was the zeitgeist of the 1950s/1960s. Similarly, Space exploration/race could be said to be the zeitgeist of scientific enquiry in the late 1950s/1960s for the two superpowers USA and USSR.
So, what context was “zeitgeist” used in relation to Ghana?
Before that, trying to correctly pronounce zeitgeist reminded me of my experience with “Abednego” when I used the expression, “vicissitudes-of-life.” I will link the two.
“Abednego” was one of the fine young Captain instructors I was blessed with over twenty years ago in the 1990s when I commanded the Ghana Military Academy. His mischievous sense of humour belied his hard work! In the middle of a conference one day, I saw Abednego grinning from ear-to-ear. When I asked what the source of his amusement was, he whispered “vicissitudes-of-life,” as he struggled to pronounce vicissitudes! He was hearing it for the first time!
Like my English Professors Sey and Senanu taught us at Legon, I took the opportunity to teach Abednego and his colleagues. I explained the expression meant, changes in circumstances or fortunes in life, particularly negative and unwelcome outcomes/experiences. Simply, it meant the ups-and-downs of life.
Abednego fell in love with the expression.
Later in life as a lieutenant-colonel when he became a Battalion Commander (commanding about 800 officers and men), Abednego happily told me how he awed/wowed his officers when he confidently used the expression vicissitudes-of-life. The effect on them was as electrifying as I had on him in 1999. However, true to his reputation, he mischievously added that, he did not credit me as his source to his officers, as that would have reduced the intensity of their admiration for his verbal dexterity.
The veteran journalist stated that in the past, anger like the diaspora-woman’s, would have been channeled through a letter-to-the-editor of a newspaper. Such an angry letter would go through various layers of polishing and cooling-down before finally being published. However, with social media, individuals can impulsively/spontaneously record and send out tirades in minutes, before reasoning intervenes, with attendant regret, as was the case with the Ghanaian diaspora-woman.
What is Ghana’s current zeitgeist?
Technology/Social media has made communication easy. Youth radicalism can therefore be easily translated into action as happened in Tunisia in 2010/2011 at the beginning of the Arab Spring.
Disrespect for age/intemperate language everywhere on radio/TV/traffic by radical youth against the older generation appears to be Ghana’s zeitgeist.
While the youth sanctimoniously blame the older generation for all society’s ills, what they don’t know is that, it was the youth of the late 1970s/1980s, today’s oldies, who inflicted the reign of terror, bloodshed and destruction against the oldies, ostensibly to clean society.
Did the zeitgeist of the period create the utopia in their minds? Where did all that violence take Ghana? So why reinvent the violence-wheel?
However, for the older generation, some youth anger against us is self-inflicted in the face of retirees/septuagenarians still clinging to work/appointments they have outgrown, while teeming youth remain unemployed.
For the youth, please note that, ageing has its own “(Abednego-ic)” vicissitudes-of-life. Therefore, hasten slowly and treat us the way you would like to be treated when you replace us as oldies.
Remember, one can make a change without being insulting/violent.
A zeitgeist of respect, understanding and discipline is what Ghana needs for development!
Fellow Ghanaians, WAKE UP!
Brig Gen Dan Frimpong (Rtd)
Former CEO, African Peace Support Trainers Association
Family Health University College