By Elizabeth Ohene
This is an abridged version of a speech I made back in 2018 to students of Ho Technical University. I have made versions of the same speech at the Institute of Engineers and other gatherings. I apologise to those who have heard it already, but this is the mood I am in: There is what is probably an apocryphal story that I like to tell. Forgive me if you have heard it, or a version of it before.
It says that an American couple, the husband, a neurosurgeon, and the wife, a top-notch paediatrician, woke up one morning to find their kitchen flooded as they were getting ready to go to their high-powered jobs. They called the plumber who came in and within half an hour, the problem was fixed. He gave the couple a bill of 2,000 dollars and quite predictably, husband and wife were horrified.
The neurosurgeon said to the plumber: “Come on, we are top-notch doctors, we are both very highly skilled, and we save lives every day; we do not make the kind of money you are trying to charge us for a few minutes’ work”. “I know”, the plumber interrupted, “I know, I used to be a top-notch doctor myself”.
The first time I heard this story, I thought this would never happen in Ghana, but after my experience with my plumber in the past three months, I must say I am surprised Ghanaian doctors are not beginning to retrain to become plumbers.
I don’t think any doctor in Ghana would dare charge the kind of money plumbers, good plumbers, are charging and getting away with these days.
But it is not every day you wake up to a plumbing problem in your kitchen or bathroom. So, let me take you through my and many people’s morning routine and let’s see if we come to the same conclusion.
When I wake up, the first thing I do is turn on the radio by my bedside. Because I’ve been a journalist and a programme maker, I look out for those roles, but if we did not have engineers, the best of the journalists would not be heard or read, for that matter.
Then I go to the bathroom and face the sink, the tap, the WC, the shower, all these things are where they are thanks to engineers, technicians and designers. But you don’t think of them in the bathroom, do you?
Sound engineers and technicians, mechanical engineers, water engineers, plumbers, technicians, my morning, everybody’s morning wouldn’t be possible without these people.
Then there are the various lotions in the bathroom, and that means chemists and the like, then I take a look at the bedroom, the closet, the bed, and that means engineers, carpenters, and then I iron my shirt, I worry about the state of my hair, my nails, that means tailors, barbers, hairdressers, manicurists.
Then I go to the kitchen and boil some water for my coffee and on a good day, some toast; the kettle, the refrigerator, the cup; someone made them.
Oh yes, I would have checked my phone and it probably would have rung how many times already, and there would be any number of messages. I would have put on the light, the electrician.
Then I get into my car, engineer, technician, the road on which I drive, the road is not actually built by politicians even though you might think so if you only listened to the talk on the radio; the traffic lights. you get the picture. Our lives are in their hands.
If I haven’t yet made the point, let me try it another way. What is the biggest investment anybody is likely to make in the course of a lifetime?
A house, when you build or buy a house. And who are the critical people in the building of a house? I suggest it is not the real estate people, nor the banker who gives you the money.
I would like to suggest the most important people are the masons, the carpenters, the electricians, the plumbers, the roofing technicians, the tilers, the landscape gardeners, the painters. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, if these people don’t do a good job, you will be miserable in your house.
Do I need to spell out how important these people are in our lives? Do I need to spell out how critical it is that they should be well trained and well regarded in society and it goes without saying that their professions would therefore be well paid?
Why would we want to put our biggest investment into the hands of people we don’t respect and who are not well trained and well paid?
Not everybody builds or owns a house, but quite a lot of people buy cars, even if it is a ten-year old jalopy. We all aspire to own a car one day.
The vehicle is often the second most expensive purchase we would make. Who looks after this second most expensive investment then?
The mechanic, or the fitter as we call him in Ghana, the electrician, the upholsterer, the air-conditioning technician. There is no lawyer or doctor or anyone in the famous one per cent in there.
Let me look at it another way. Ghana is now an oil producing country and the hottest courses that young people aspire to study all have something to do with oil and gas.
There is a rising crescendo that Ghanaians are not benefitting from the jobs with the foreign oil companies.
Well, it turns out that the majority of the jobs; the very highly paid jobs on the oil rigs that the foreign “experts” are hired for are being done by welders.
These welders earn far, far more than anything any lawyer or accountant or journalist or whatever the popular profession is that young people are chasing after in Ghana these days.
No Ghanaian child is telling his parents he wants to be a specialist welder when he grows up.
I have not mentioned food, except in passing as part of my morning routine. Food and waste disposal ought to be at the top of the most important sources of jobs.
Human beings will always eat and will have to dispose of the waste they generate.
How come those practical things, Science and Agriculture have never been seen as sexy in our society?
My theory is that in Ghana the problem lies with our attitude towards Mathematics and Science.
They are seen as subjects to be feared. The teachers want us to believe that only the very bright children can take on those subjects.
You have to be an Einstein in other words. And when it comes to Agriculture, they make out if you like the subject, you must be without ambition.
I can tell you the exact time during my school years that I went from liking Mathematics to disliking it intensely and I know the teacher who was responsible.
We cannot go through modern life without Mathematics and we must discard the fear of Mathematics and promote the popularisation of Mathematics as the basis for the success of technical education.
The technical people rule our lives and we should recognise it.