Reflecting on his life’s path, a young writer from Ghana realizes that there are no rights without responsibilities.
Back when I was a kid, living out my prepubescent years with no worries about responsibilities whatsoever, I had every excuse to enjoy the bliss of ignorance. Shamelessly, I carried on with this fatuous sense of entitlement throughout my postpubescent and early adult years — so much so, in fact, that I rarely concerned myself with reality and the consequences of my irresponsibility.
Only later did I come to learn the truth that the late U.S. Senator, Lewis Schwellenbach, once put in perspective:
“Every right has its responsibilities. Like the right itself, these responsibilities stem from no man-made law, but from the very nature of man and society. The security, progress, and welfare of one group are measured finally in the security, progress, and welfare of all mankind.”
In making sense of these words, I began to realize how detrimental it is to enjoy rights without responsibilities. I asked myself: How can we preserve our rights without responsibilities? If we don’t fulfill our responsibilities, how can we sustain the privileges that come with the rights we enjoy? And, in particular, how do we ensure the perpetuation of biocultural diversity in all its rich elements without responsibility?
Well, here’s how I explore these questions.
“A Privileged Life Can Blind You to Reality”
Take a moment to carefully assess how this question applies to you: Has there been any time in your life when your privilege(s) — race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, or socioeconomic status — afforded you an advantage over others or made you ignorant of your environment and the people deprived of the kind of privilege you enjoyed?
To put it simply, has your privileged life created a reality so different from the real world that you felt unaffected by, and thus behaved nonchalantly about, what’s going on with our environments, marginalized groups, bad governance, and so on?
If you nodded yes to any of those questions, then this story is the wake-up call you need. . . . No, we must realize the damage that our ignorance, packaged as rights, has done to us and the one cost that we are discounting: responsibility.
I have lived what one might refer to as “the good life” — the middle-class life if I do say so myself. My parents, in their effort to provide the best for me and my siblings, did a lot that I never really appreciated at the time. We lived in a secure community with its club and sports complex, attended private school, shopped regularly, ate three square meals per day, always came home to a stuffed refrigerator with drinks and ice cream, and had the best satellite entertainment, parties, money, and so much more. Of course, the lifestyle wasn’t quite a replica of Crazy Rich Asians or of the flamboyance portrayed in all four seasons of the 2018 “Elite” TV series, but it was and still is worth counting my blessings.
I got to live a life that so many weren’t privileged to experience. Yet, all the while I was enjoying it, my parents were very conscious of not letting the “okay life” (as they referred to it) engulf us. They were still strict about certain principles and made sure we were all raised with values of humility, respect, and kindness.
At the time, my young and fickle-minded self didn’t appreciate all these things. My exposure to a privileged life really did blind me to reality. I was so used to having certain things, going certain places, and being around certain people, that my reality was completely warped. My only struggles were getting good grades and surviving school bullies. All the extra classes and study tutors did me no good, but I never really realized that I was the one not putting in the effort. I was pampered and dumb and didn’t realize that I was solely responsible for my life and the rights I enjoyed under the “laws” of my father’s wallet and my mother’s tasty cuisine. Responsibility wasn’t explicitly talked about at home; however, my parents wouldn’t miss a chance to immerse us in activities that contributed to building our character. Chores and the typical customary worship of the African parent were well regarded and regularly practiced at home. But again, my ignorant self wasn’t conscious of this or the impact it would later have on me.
I did learn a little about rights from the misguidance of Disney TV shows and would put it to my parents, reminding them of “my rights” when they tried to punish me for my irresponsibility — pretty much like how kids in Disney movies would talk back at their parents saying, “It’s my right!” To the contrary, in a typical African setting, talking back at an elderly person, let alone your parents, is an intolerable abomination, and the consequences that follow may be far worse than you can imagine.
Learning the “Rights” Way
I was young, wrong, and knew absolutely nothing. I had indoctrinated myself with the idea of having everything without needing to work that much for it and earn it. It never occurred to me to put in the work to make the kind of change I wanted, or afford the things I wanted, or have the impact I hoped for. I was foolish and carried that sense of entitlement with me for a very long time. It took an unfortunate event to turn my reality around about ten years ago. My dad had fallen victim to fraud and lost everything he had worked for and saved up for over thirty-five years. As a pensioner, he would find it difficult to cater to all of us as he used to. Suddenly, all the “rights” I had once enjoyed were taken away by a circumstance we had no control over.
It wasn’t easy. My hopes for things to get better after that kept getting dashed. The pressure got tumultuous! Yet, certain aspects of my life started picking up. I became more aware of reality as it was and gradually accepted that it was up to me to make things better for myself. It was obvious that my aging parents weren’t going to stick around forever and that the outcome of my future was largely dependent on me — but to secure my rights, I had to put in the work. I had to take responsibility. No excuses!
I associated with friends who helped me become academically better and challenged me to be a better version of myself. I didn’t have to put up a facade to avoid being bullied as my wits and congenial character projected a side of me that outshone my weaknesses. And though I’m still learning, unlearning, growing, and building my path, I can now say with conviction that we really can’t have rights without responsibilities. It’s taken me a while to map these two out and weave my experiences into a lesson that clarifies the realities we all face in our world today.
Toward a Biocultural Resurgence
Get this: ninety percent of our problems would be solved if we learned to accept responsibility for our actions. That’s certainly not to say my dad was irresponsible and landed himself in that situation, but I had to share that to contextualize how I was personally affected. And should that not have happened, I would probably have still had my reality warped and never learned to take much responsibility for myself to better my grades, help more at home, sharpen my skills and talents, strive to grow beyond average, show gratitude, learn about other cultures, learn about the environment — and, more importantly, realize how all of my thoughts and actions are inextricably tied to cultural and environmental sustainability.
Our failure to take responsibility and tendency to shift responsibility onto others only loosens the significance we place on our resources, culture, environment, and even ourselves. Our current heightened sense of entitlement has distracted us from doing and being better. In our bid to “hold others accountable,” we have become rather good at incessantly blaming them for the outcomes of our irresponsibility. What’s worse, we are hitched to this bandwagon of letting ourselves be misguided by other entitled leaders and influencers we look up to, thereby paying little to no attention to our responsibilities toward one another and toward the earth.
When we focus solely on our rights and the privileges they come with, we tend to lose sense of what responsibility is and how to carry it out appropriately and effectively. In my case, my lack of an ethic of responsibility led me to neglect academics, culture, relationship, and environment and to suffer growing pains while being immersed in a warped reality.
One thing we need to understand is that to secure the rights we claim for ourselves and enjoy, we must be responsible enough to preserve them and ensure they are not trumped. Our rights, although we may think we are entitled to them, may be lost if we fail to uphold the laws and ethical principles that protect them. Our rights to life, free speech, language, culture, religion, the vote, and so on are all entitlements we are granted on conditions that we take responsibility. And with rights come privileges that can either be enjoyed or be taken away depending on how much responsibility we assume to protect them.
A biocultural resurgence is attainable only when we claim our rights along with responsibilities.
What’s more, from a biocultural perspective, by only claiming our rights without considering the broader cultural and historical context of Indigenous cultures and communities and our responsibilities toward them, we unwittingly contribute to their disruption and marginalization. In this light, I have come to realize that a biocultural resurgence is attainable only when we claim our rights along with responsibilities. But how exactly do we do that, and where do we begin? We can start by taking the responsibility to recognize the value of Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and practices. Indigenous cultures have unique knowledge systems, practices, and ways of being that are deeply connected to their lands and natural resources and have been passed down for generations. Protecting these lands and resources from exploitation and development is crucial for Indigenous communities’ long-term health and well-being.
It is important to respect Indigenous cultural practices and to seek out opportunities to learn from them. We can also support the revitalization and transmission of Indigenous languages, traditions, and cultural practices through initiatives such as language immersion schools, cultural education programs, and cultural centers. Currently, there are various efforts being made to support the revitalization of Ghanaian Indigenous languages, cultures, and ways of life, including initiatives such as creating language documentation projects, promoting the use of Indigenous languages in schools, and organizing cultural festivals to celebrate and preserve traditional practices. Additionally, other initiatives such as the week of the National Festival of Arts and Culture have been created to raise awareness and celebrate the country’s diverse cultural heritage. On my own, I partner with friends to publish stories about the sustenance of cultural and environmental practices on local blogs. Even just taking these few responsibilities can go a long way to help revitalize the value of our Indigenous cultures and ultimately sustain our biocultural diversity.
Abraham Ofori-Henaku is a young talented Ghanaian with a knack for storytelling. His writing revolves around his passion for culture, entertainment, education, gender, and the youth. He is pursuing a career in professional communication. Read more from Abraham Ofori-Henaku: