Culture challenges and counterknowledge

Thu, 5 Feb 2009 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

As Ghanaians enter 2009 they agree that among its developmental challenges are certain aspects of their culture. That bodes well for greater understanding of themselves to themselves. But, correspondingly, some fear to discuss such cultural challenges rigoursly for varied reason – ranging from fear to intellectual gutlessness to misunderstanding to ethnocentrisms to unbalanced education system.

Yes, culture, as part of the nitty-gritty of development, is increasingly gaining attention in Ghana, and an explosive one for that matter, considering the fact that certain aspects of each of the cultures of the 56 ethnic groups that form Ghana has its own inhibitions that not only hinder the group but also the entire country. However, despite their apparent difference almost all the cultures of the 56 ethnic groups are the same, the difference being geographic.

While awkward belief in witchcraft as the cause of misfortune is Ghana-wide, the incidence is much heavier and entangling in the northern parts of Ghana, preventing some women from being admitted to schools and undermining family cohesion. In July, 2006 a one-month-old baby called Mercy was accused of being a witch and abandoned to die in Ghana’s Upper East Region. Baby Mercy’s mother, Zoyen Teiva, also accused as a witch when in primary school and sacked, was refused admission by other schools for being witch – she died later from harassment from her community. Baby Mercy and her mother’s witchcraft ordeal, emanating from the absurd parts of the Ghanaian culture, becomes doubly disturbing when even schools, as centres of rationalization, refuse to admit Teiva because her family and community have accused her of being a witch.

In the face of unconcerned public intellectuals, who appear fallible and lack self-criticism, to take on such destructive cultural inhibitions, the school has become vulnerable to ridiculous deeds against its core functions of reasoning – a reflection of a nation trapped between forces irrational and rational, and unable to free itself in the face of emaciated elites/leaders. This feed into the view that historically, Ghanaians elites/leaders, in the context of the relationship between their culture and progress, have failed to enlighten.

While some Ghanaians see general discussions of their particular ethnic culture by other Ghanaians as ethnocentric, others prefer to keep the rotten inhibitions to themselves, refusing to open it up for diagnosis and refinement, and, in the process, increasingly being hindered to progress and spreading the inhibitions diseases Ghana-wide. Such situation is worsened by the fear of ethnic profiling; a process that not only borders on the much awful tribalism, in an era of cultural relativity and sensitivity, but that has also darkened the Ghanaian public intellectual climate. But for the sake of Ghana’s greater developmental challenges and the fact that the various ethnic groups are increasingly mixing day in, day out through inter-ethnic marriage and greater cross-country migration, such views become academic in the face of the urgent need to refine the inhibiting parts of the culture for brisk progress.

While some inhibiting aspects of the culture, such as the Pull Him/Her Down syndrome, are Ghana-wide, others are either regional or of a particular ethnic group. Some close-minded Ewes get angry if you raise the implications of the dreadful juju spiritual practices in their progress. But in Agnes Chigabatia and other northern elites/leaders there are acknowledgements that certain cultural practices undermine their regions’ progress and that there should be attempts to refine them using universal human rights values. In Mrs. Chigabatia, Ghanaian some elites/leaders aren’t hiding from developmental challenges that emanate from certain parts of their culture. But the Chigabatias campaigns are yet to be seen in the broader platforms of Ghanaian public intellectual discourse.

For the Chigabatias, harmful cultural practices like juju-marabout mediums scrambling the social and political system by weakening common sense; counter-productive widowhood rites; menacing widow inheritance; early marriages and betrothal of women that obstruct their progress such as going to school; female genital mutilation and its physiological negative implications; some incomprehensible dowries that undermines marriage; human sacrifices that are murders; witchcraft as responsible for varied misfortunes destroy human agencies; the cultural dictation of the beating of wives; excessive reliance on juju-marabout mediums that weakens reasoning; prevention of pregnant women from accessing health facilities for certain cultural beliefs that impinge on their long-term health; and the killing of twins that are deemed evil, among others.

As the coalition of ethnic groups that form Ghana increasingly mix through internal migrations and inter-ethnic marriages any cultural inhibition in any of part of Ghana becomes a Ghana-wide developmental concern and need to be tackled nationally. The fact is despite juju being an Ewe inhibiting cultural and progress question, it is also appropriated by other Ghanaian ethnic groups, and thus making it a Ghana-wide matter. So attempts to refine juju become an Ewe issue as well as all-Ghanaian one. Like other Ghanaian ethnic groups, for the past 51 years, Ewe intellectuals (the Ewes have high education index compared to other Ghanaian groups) have not openly taken on juju as a counter-productive development matter. The reason is Ewe intellectuals are as publicly sleepy as the rest of Ghanaian intellectuals.

And this public intellectual sleepiness against the backdrop of juju or any other unhelpful cultural value for that matter can sip through the entire nation and its institutions despite a particular ethnic group originally associated with it. Instead of rationally using democratic/traditional consensus building mechanisms to resolve any stalemate that may crop-up in future legislative works, the Accra-based Daily Guide, part of the mass media in the forefront of the cultural enlightenment, reported that some NDC MPs have resorted to juju to resolve any anticipated deadlock that might crop up in the even parliamentary businesses.

The target was the NPP Minority leader, Osei Kyei Mensah-Bonsu, whose chair was secretly fixed with fearsome juju paraphernalia, in particular and the entire NPP parliamentary caucus. According to Daily Guide, “Juju, otherwise known as voodoo, involves magical spells, charms and sorcery.” It was “introduced into the House for reasons that may be too bad to be true. The aim, it is believed, is to bewitch political rivals and make them imbeciles.”

The sadness of the “juju hit parliament,” as the Daily Guide headlined its report, puts Ghanaian parliamentarians not only in the dark but also self-destruct against the reality that they are supposed to be the key enlightenment educators to free Ghanaians from some horrible and unbelievable cultural practices. The attempts to refine certain cultural inhibitions are universal as societies attempt to progress: the Europe of the “Dark Ages” had all these strange values and erroneous thinking. But European elites, through its Enlightenment thinkers and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Galileo Galilei, Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and David Hume, summoned the intellectual will to overturned such hampering values by campaigning that human reason could be used to fight ignorance, deadly superstitions, tyranny, and to build a better world.

As Britain’s Edmund Burke thought, some Ghanaians elites/leaders interest in opening the hindering cultural parts for alteration are aware of the “humanizing forces” of traditional values but are more interested in taking on the aspects that asphyxiate Ghanaians’ progress in the modern progress context. Gradually, the enabling aspects are being appropriated into the Ghanaian development process. Traditional institutions are increasingly being integrated into the decentralization exercises. The problem isn’t with ordinary Ghanaians, who are at the mercy of their elites/leaders, but their elites/leaders, as directors of advancement, who are expected to raise the stalling cultural portions as a public intellectual task as well as a developmental concern.

Yes, there have been Courage Quashigah and other elites/leaders boldly taking on the dreadful aspects of their culture as part of the problem of today but the movement’s low volume attest to the future of Ghanaian public intellectuals who are giving away to a culture of intellectuality desensitized to complex argumentation to free Ghanaians from unnecessary cultural burden. Perhaps, also, Ghanaian public intellectuals, fearful that “traditional culture is so powerful and so malign” will rather see the culture “be left to stew in its juices.”

But to leave the negative culture parts to stew in their juices is to show intellectual, moral and developmental powerlessness, as Ghanaian elites/leaders have done for the past 50 years, and buy into the global notion that African leaders/elites cannot think well and do not understand themselves (that’s their core traditional values in relation to their development), as the Greek thinker Plato would say. The Ghanaian elites/leaders appear perpetually mired in some outrageous cultural store that obstruct their progress in some sort of Sisyphean drama, whereby the frightful facets of their culture have become huge curse that roll up the development hill now-and-then, as if it is going away, only to watch it roll down again and mess up the development process, and this is repeated over and over again against the feeble elites/leaders. The planting juju in the Ghanaian parliament by some MPs attests to the Sisyphean drama.

Such public intellectual vulnerability undercut Ghana’s long-held image as the “Black Star of Africa,” a mental feat that is expected to see the proud-and-big-mouth Ghana float grand development philosophies drawn from within its core traditional values as harbinger for progress. The new thinking is that if Ghana should have started such expansive thinking earlier, more as the first independent sub-Sahara African state and additionally under its assumed thinker first President Kwame Nkrumah, it would have set a boomerang effect continent-wide, boosted Ghana’s and Africa’s self-confidence, development-wise, laid the foundation for African values driven development paradigms, and un-entangle Ghana/Africa from any developmental complexes that have dogged Ghana/Africa for the past 50 years.

Part of the reason for the feeble public intellectuality, in regard to certain noxious cultural practices that have been encumbering Ghana’s progress, is the acute counterknowledge that denies that either witchcraft or female genital mutilation or juju are counter-productive. Yet, Ghanaians privately either complain or fear about these dreadful cultural inhibitions, which mess up their reasoning in regard to their progress.

With huge national lack of broader demonstration of understanding of how certain inhibiting aspects of their culture undermine progress, people become apprehensive when the inexcusable parts of their culture are raised as a progress concern. The reason for such state of affairs is that Ghanaian elites/leaders either do not understand their very values and the inhibitions brewing from within their culture or they find it difficult to think well enough from within their core values in relation to their progress or are cowards in confronting such destructive parts of the culture or the nature of their education system has blinded them from seeing their clearly. Any attempts to distill such negative parts of the culture will opened the culture for broader diagnosis and refinement – as enlightenment and development issues.

The increasing counterknowledge of the cultural inhibitions, in both historical and social context, put Ghanaian public intellectuals – more journalists and academics – in a tight corner, as the key faces of public enlightenment. With thorough grasp of their culture, as a progress issue, the Ghanaian public intellectual, as Zygmunt Buaman and Michael Ignatieff would argue, is simultaneously a “communicator and participant” in public debates in addressing contemporary cultural concerns, using the mass media as vehicle.

As Courage Quashigah and others indicate the contemporary Ghanaian intellectuals, drawing from the global prosperty ideals and concerned by the currents within the culture, shouldn’t necessarily “involve themselves with issues not specifically related to their area of expertise,” as Buaman and Ignatieff explain, but other areas as well (you don’t have to be an anthropologist/or cultural expert to discuss your cultural troubles, what is needed is common sense and wisdom to do so) and have ability to “communicates information and perspectives on a variety of societal issues.” When the media helped ban female genital mutilation, it was playing this role to free Ghanaian women caught in such cultural practices from despair and possible physical harm.

The central issue is that Ghanaian public intellectuals, in the context of our cultural issues, are “primarily concerned with ideas and knowledge” that emanate from the culture - responding and reacting to cultural issues. And helping to lessen the unnecessary cultural burdens of ordinary Ghanaians, who are entrapped in the hindering parts of the culture and waiting in vain for freedoms from their leaders/elites.

Short of this, the cowardly public intellectual discourse and the broader denials of certain abysmal cultural practices, as part of Ghana’s development challenges, are symptomatic of the new global discourse of counterknowledge. The elites/leaders are aware of certain cultural inhibitions yet deny the knowledge of them as development challenge. According to Damian Thompson, author of the new Counterknowledge, denial or misinformation or unreasoning of issues that are known to be true but denied is counterknowledge.

At the critical level, in the Ghanaian cultural troubles context, counterknowledge occurs when the elites/leaders are aware of the devastating nature of certain impeding aspects of the culture but are either overlook them or ignored them or failed to act on them by not only attempting to refine them but also failing to educate the public of their inhibiting implicating nature in the development process.

The fact that today, in 2009, despite advances in human reasoning and science, some people somewhere in Bibiani, a town in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo Region, credulously believe that a hunchback’s hump (and other physically handicapped people) can be ritualistically cut-off (in the sense of human sacrifice) for traditional rituals to make them successful tells the depth and failure of Ghanaian public intellectuality in the face of certain dire cultural inhibitions that need to be refined for progress.

Such open public dark cultural practices in relation to Thompson’s counterknowledge arguments, go contrary to the fact that Ghanaian intellectuals “are lucky to live in an age in which the techniques available for evaluating the truth or falsehood of claims about science and history are more reliable than ever before. Yet, disturbingly, we are witnessing a huge surge in the popularity of propositions that fail basic empirical tests.”

Ghanaian elites/leaders, 51 years on as operators of an independent nation, are yet to demonstrate, as Thompson says, the use of “techniques available for evaluating the truth or falsehood” of certain cultural inhibitions in order not only to refine the inhibitions but also help intellectualize certain parts of the culture that have been hindering progress. And it is in doing so by its elites/leaders that Ghana can properly call itself the “Black Star of Africa” – an epithet that carry with it grand thinking and African-centred development philosophy.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi