GHANA, FORMERLY THE BRITISH COLONY of the Gold Coast, lies on the West African coast, just north of the equator. Its warm, humid climate is typical of the tropics. Ghana covers an area of approximately 239,000 square kilometers, much of it drained by the Volta River system. The population speaks languages that belong to the Kwa and Gur subfamilies of the Niger-Congo language group and is divided into more than 100 linguistic and cultural units. Ghana's population, as in most sub-Saharan African countries, consists of urban and rural workers, herders, traders, and fishermen. Matrilineal, patrilineal, and double-descent systems of social organization as well as villages and chiefdoms contribute to the national mosaic.
The precolonial social systems to which Ghanaians belonged consisted of both non-stratified and highly stratified societies. Virtually without exception, however, their organizing principles were based on locality, kinship/family, and clan structures. This is still two true today. Chiefs, who may be influential on the national level, were and still are selected from senior members of the lineages that are considered to have been among the founders of the community or ethnic group. Membership in a chiefly lineage carries some prestige.
Ghana's precolonial social order, in which kinship, lineage, and locality provided the framework of social, political, religious, and economic organization, has been undergoing profound change since before the colonial era. The modernization of Ghanaian economic, social, and political life intensified with independence in 1957. Fundamental to this change were improvements in communications and infrastructure, urbanization, the growth of the export and cash-crop economy, and the expansion of Western education. To accelerate the pace of modernization, the Education Act of 1960 made formal instruction both free and compulsory, but attitudes toward change varied from group to group. For example, in certain areas, especially in the north, compulsory education was not welcomed because it took children away from homes that depended on their labor in the fields. Although the benefits of education are understood today, the percentage of female enrollment in secondary and tertiary institutions of higher learning has remained disproportionately low in relation to the number of women in the general population. As Ghana's population swelled from about 6.7 million in 1960 to 8.5 million in 1970 to an estimated 17.2 million in 1994, the central government found it increasingly difficult to bring about improvements in the standard of living at the same time that population growth threatened to outstrip food production and economic growth. The issue of effective family planning also required attention and resources, and the presence of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) alarmed the medical community and the Ghanaian population alike. Although the ancestral extended family served as an effective mutual aid group in the rural areas, many village communities lacked modern amenities. In urban centers, housing shortages continued to be a major problem. Women's associations, such as the National Council on Women and Development, became a force for change, demanding educational and economic opportunities denied under indigenous and colonial rulers.
In the 1980s, the governing Provisional National Defence Council tried to address the nation's education problems by introducing a system that emphasized vocational and technical training for all students. A rural electrification program was also initiated. At the same time, village- and community-based primary care organizations enhanced child-care and nutritional programs aimed at illiterate mothers and those who held traditional notions about marital relations. Although it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs in the short term, at least some major problems have been recognized and steps have been taken to deal with them. The success of such programs, however, depends on the extent to which indigenous and modern institutions and cultural values are balanced and, especially, on the manner in which conflict is resolved.
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