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Weighing And Measuring By Sight - Elizabeth Ohene Writes
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I view all official figures and statistics in this country with deep suspicion. I have always done and I have no reason yet to change my mind. Since I have made no secret of this in almost 50 years of inflicting my opinions on the Ghanaian public, some might ask why I bother to continue to go on about it when it makes no difference to anything. 

I apologise to all who feel they have had enough on this subject from me but every once in a while something comes up that really riles me and I feel I have no choice but to go back to the subject. 

I was listening to what purports to be a market report on the radio the other day and as I tried to see if the report matched my experience in the market, it struck me forcibly again that we operate and live in a make-believe society. We pretend we are modern and we use terminology that makes us think we can be measured and our measurement parameters are the same as everywhere else. 

“The price of a medium-sized tin of fresh tomatoes has gone up by 20 per cent,” the report said. What, in the name of all that we all hold dear, is “a medium-sized tin”? And while we are about it, is there a big-sized tin and is there a small-sized tin of fresh tomatoes available in the market where we can all agree on contents and weight? Is this “medium-sized tin” the same in Agbogbloshie and Mallam Atta markets? Or to be more specific, is the content of the medium-sized tin the same in all parts of the same market?


In my experience, there is no universally agreed medium-sized tin in any market or across markets or across towns in this country. The traders might, once upon a time, have started with the same biscuit tin manufactured by a company that has long gone out of business. This tin, or the approximation of the same, is now fabricated by enterprising local metal workers and nobody pretends that the tins so fabricated are the same size. 

Then there is a measure which is a specific tin that has a name; the olonka  tin and I hear reference made to it in the same market report. I know what the olonka tin is; this is the tin with the legend “Not for sale, from the people of the United States” and it starts life as a container for cooking oil donated by the United States Aid agency. There is an assured consistency on the size of this tin, but there aren’t and cannot be enough of these tins to go round all traders and therefore the olonka  is also fabricated to an indeterminate size.

And then of course there is the added complication of what is done to these measures, whether they start life with the same specifications or not. The traders feel free to cut the tins to reduce the size or to stuff the bottom of the tins with old newspapers before putting in whatever they are measuring to offer for sale. 

In other words, when you see a “medium-sized tin” of tomatoes or okro or garden eggs being offered for sale, there is no acceptable weight or number of the products. I know that the sales people at the meat and vegetable counters in the supermarkets seem to have an uncanny capacity to guesstimate a kilo of meat almost to the last gram when they put it on the scale and it might well be that the traders with the “medium-sized tin” can also give you a kilo without the benefit of a weighing scale.

But why can’t we in Ghana have the same rules as everywhere else in the world? Why does a trader walking along the streets in Ouagadougou with a headload of mangoes carry a weighing scale with the mangoes and weighs whatever she offers for sale? The law obliges that trader to weigh the mangoes or whatever else she is offering for sale and for the scale to be in good working condition and all traders in Burkina Faso, in the smallest village, obey this law. They wouldn’t dream of offering you four mid-sized mangoes at some imaginary price. 

Who determines what a small-sized tuber of yam is and what a big-sized tuber of yam is that I hear being referred to by the Statistical Service and in the market report that I hear as part of the financial programmes on the radio?

I do not advocate that we abandon the culture of bargaining and the shadow boxing match that accompanies buying and selling whereby the trader mentions an exaggerated price as an opening gambit and does not expect you to pay that. I refer to the figures that are used as part of official statistics and which have no basis in measureable numbers. 

This attempt to clothe quaint practices in modern garb and try to pass it off as what is understood in other parts of the world leads to dangerous and unintended consequences. 

Disregard for measurement

This general cavalier attitude towards weights and measures shows up in our attitude towards medication for example. When a prescription is given for a medicine to be taken three times a day for five days, it is generally assumed in this country that you can take it four times a day for four days or two times a day for whatever number of days that you feel like.

I acknowledge the special skills it must take to measure and weigh by sight and touch and I have nothing but the greatest admiration for such people. But maybe we can find a different set of words or language to employ rather than what is generally understood to describe the use of weighing scales and measuring tapes.

I used to have a dressmaker who would not use a tape measure and claimed she could tell what your measurements were by simply looking at you. My recollection of the clothes she made is that sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t and I gave up on her because I did not think I wanted to take a chance on how my clothes turned out each time I went to the dressmaker. I fear the figures from the Statistical Service belong in the category of this dressmaker. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. 

The same reluctance to accord the necessary importance to weights and measures means that even where and when scales are used, the mechanism is regularly tempered with and is not regarded as criminal activity. Cocoa purchasing clerks are known to tamper with the weighing scales and cheat farmers who come to sell their cocoa beans. In other parts of the world, such clerks would expect to end up in jail when such behaviour is discovered. In our part of the world, tampering with a weighing scale comes in on the same wavelength as “a medium-sized tin”. 

If we want to be counted among the modern world, maybe we should count like the rest of the world. 

Source: Daily Graphic

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