"Me Do Wu," My Val: The Creation of Valentine's Day in Accra, Ghana

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Media privatization, commercial growth, and new concern in the popular culture about changing patterns of marriage, love, and sexuality led to a sudden embrace during the 1990s by upwardly mobile urban Ghanaians of a previously minor element of globally circulating mass culture, Valentine's Day. Far from a story of cultural imperialism, the rise of Valentine's Day in present-day Accra shows that local adoption of global consumerist preferences is best understood as a local process imbued with local meanings and values, deliberately and rationally pursued.

Résumé: La privatisation des médias, la croissance économique et la réalisation récente, dans la culture populaire, de l'évolution des modèles concernant le mariage, l'amour et Ia sexualité, ont abouti dans la tranche urbaine et aisée de la population ghanéenne à l'engouement soudain, dans les années 90, pour un élément jusqu'alors négligeable de la culture de masse internationale : la célébration de la St. Valentin. Loin de constituer un succès de plus pour l'impérialisme culturel occidental, l'intérêt accru pour la fête de la St. Valentin dans l'Accra d'aujourd'hui indique que l'adoption au niveau local de préférences consuméristes mondiales peut mieux se comprendre comme un processus à l'échelle locale, imprégné de significations et de valeurs locales, dont la poursuite est délibérée et rationnelle.

Introduction

THIS PAPER EXPLORES the emergence in middle-class Accra, Ghana, of a localized version of an element of globally circulating mass culture, Valentine's Day.1 It points to new cultural preferences in urban Africa while demonstrating that the local adoption of even the most value-laden and iconic markers of global consumerist culture is a local process whose details and ultimate meanings are situated in particular localities and best understood there.

Valentine's Day has been adopted enthusiastically by Ghanaian media outlets, businesses, and many citizens during the past ten years because, in the words of one informant, "it works for us" (interview with customer, Accra shop, Feb. 10, 2002).2 It works for media companies by drawing audiences and advertisers to radio and television stations identified by their treatment of the holiday as worldly and up-to-date. It works for business because love sells. And the celebration of Valentine's Day works for many upwardly mobile Ghanaians because it indicates buying power, associates the celebrant with modern ideas of love, and opens opportunities for discourse on the otherwise difficult, even taboo, subjects of affection and sexual behavior.

Borrowed from abroad, altered to fit local circumstances, Valentine's Day is part of a complex set of imported and indigenous lifestyle markers that are used increasingly in urban Africa by individuals and social groups to construct identities as older and more traditional cultural norms and forms loosen their hold. The self-conscious choice and arrangement in one's life of these markers-some local, some imported, all undergoing constant reconfiguration-increasingly, according to Chaney (1996, 2001), is culture. As Chancy argues, lifestyle creation through choice does not imply a new superficiality of culture or a looming monotony of global taste. Rather, the ability of individuals and groups to craft lifestyles through choice of symbols and consumption of products empowers them by uniting them with like-minded people in their own society and abroad, while distinguishing and separating them from persons near and far whose preferences, behaviors, and values mark alternative paths of personal and social progress (2001:81-84; see also Bourdieu 1984:169-225).

The growth of the celebration of Valentine's Day in Ghana is associated with the privatization of broadcast media, the reestablishment of a vibrant urban commercial sector, rising consumerism, and a reexamination in Accra (and throughout urban Africa) of the contours of courtship, love, and marriage. …