Northern Ghana: Engaging Cultural inhibitions

Thu, 6 Sep 2007 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

After years of gossips in development circles that part of northern Ghana’s development backwardness may be due to certain cultural practices, some its elites, such as Mr. George Hikah Benson, the Upper West Regional Minister, has boldly come out clean and openly that certain cultural practices “impede the development” of the Northern regions. There are three of them, Northern Region, Upper East Region, and Upper West with a total population of 2,335,105 out of a national population of 18,412,247, according to Ghana’s Population Census (2000), cited by www.ghanaweb.com. Despite this sparse population, Ghana’s northern regions are riddled with serious developmental challenges that need holistic thinking through realistic policy-making and bureaucratization informed its traditional cultural practices. Mr. Benson’s acknowledgement reveals people gradually understanding and knowing themselves, like the rest of Ghana, as the Greek thinker Plato’s thought of "know thyself" would indicate.

As Ghana’s democratic space widens and the citizens enjoy the fruits of democratic living, and prosperity becomes a critical nation-wide issue, Mr. Benson’s bold testimonial shows that practical wisdom is finally being mixed positively into the North’s advancement by its people and their “Big Men” by learning about themselves, knowing themselves, their environment and cultures in relation to their progress. And this means tackling one of their key obstructing obstacles in their progress – certain inhibiting cultural practices, as Mr. Benson lists, among others, such as “female genital mutilation, early marriages, widowhood rites, defilement, child trafficking and child labour.”

Despite the landscape of the North not as rich as that of the South - it is arid and semi-arid - experts and studies argue that the North has pretty good natural resource potential that can be skillfully tapped for well-being. Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region, was at a time the fastest growing city in the Sahelian zone of West Africa but could not be sustained because of poor regional and national planning. Ghana may be poor, ranked at 136th out of 177 countries ranked on the United Nations Human Development Index (2006), which data measures global human well-being such as living a long and healthy life, being educated, and having a decent standard of living, but its northern regions, in the context of Ghana’s development, are the poorest areas.

But there have been attempts to address this. From first President Kwame Nkrumah to Prime Minister Kofi Busia to President Jerry Rawlings to President John Kufour, various governments have attempted to correct this national development imbalance – including, importantly, free education. Of recent times, some politicians have proposed a Marshall Plan for North in order to free it from the long-running developmental inequity. Despite this, as the North opens up for progress, there have been pro-development demonstrations reminiscent of the serial anti-globalization demonstrations to the effect that Accra has not been paying attention to the North’s developmental needs. Added to these efforts are international development agencies involved in the progress of the North – it has more non-governmental organizations located there than any other part of Ghana. World University Service of Canada, for instance, is helping to resolve persistent socio-cultural problems such as girl-child education in the northern part of Ghana.

Still, while there is the view among some concern Ghanaians that Northern elites, some very well-to-do (the Vice President of Ghana, Mr. Aliu Mahama, and Dr. Ibn Chambas, ECOWAS President, come from the Northern Region), have for long abandoned their home bases and have located for extremely long time in the “prosperous” South, unconcerned about the North’s progress. However, there are emerging fresh intellectual perspectives, as the campaigns to appropriate Ghana’s traditional cultural values into its progress gain momentum nation-wide, that certain cultural practices hinder Ghana’s overall progress, and need to be rigorously refined.

The North, variously seen as seriously challenged by certain hampering cultural values that have been undermining its progress, complained that it has not been integrated as fully as practicable, developmentally, into the rest of Ghana. (A presidential aspirant, for the ruling National Patriotic Party, Dr. Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, has suggested the building of a presidential villa in the North so as to bring “Ghana” to the North through constant contact of the presidency with the impoverished regions). However, there are variations Ghana-wide in terms of the degree of certain cultural practices that hinder various regions’ development.

Drawing from Ghanaian tradition, where traditional rulers have immense respect and influence, Mr. Benson advised Northern traditional rulers to help eradicate their archaic “culture that partly gave rise to these negative practices.” Part of Mr. Benson’s audacity to speak openly about these controversial cultural issues come from two thoughts: Culture and Chieftaincy Minister, Mr. Sampson Boafo, courageously opening the cultural fronts and appealing to Ghanaians to collaborate to refine their cultural inhibitions. The other is the emerging thinkers such as Mr. Courage Quashigah, Mr. Bernard Guri and Mr. Kofi Akosah-Sarpong who argue for not only the appropriation of Ghanaian values for progress through policy-making and bureaucratization but also in doing so refine the inhibitions within them.

The North, for instance, apart from Ghana-wide gossip of its negative use of injurious cultural practices like Malams, juju-marabout and other native dreadfully fearful spiritual practices, has serious challenges with witchcraft beliefs and practices that have had serious developmental consequences over time. The famously Gambaga Witches' Camp, for instance, is where old women who are accused of witchcraft are banished for life – developmentally driven by patriarchy; this has destroyed a large number of women. This cultural practice is increasingly being seen today, as Mr. Benson’s critique of the North’s inhibiting cultural values indicate, as archaic in the age of globalization and scientific and technological rationalization.

Having opened the field for more constructive discussions, Mr. Benson, his other Northern Ministers, their traditional institutions and rulers, the national Culture and Chieftaincy Ministry, policy-makers and bureaucrats, and the growing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should work to create developmental policies that weave the cultures of the North into its policy-making, bureaucratizing and consultancies. In these attempts, the inhibiting values will be identified, some of which Mr. Benson has noted, and refined through policy-making and holistic public education. In this context, people like Mr. Samuel Paulos, country director of Plan Ghana, who was with Mr. Benson, could help integrate the North’s culture issues into Plan Ghana’s overall programmes in the North, touting the good parts and highlighting the inhibiting aspects through public education.

In trying to refine its cultural inhibitions, the North should be aware that the rest of Ghana too have inhibiting cultural baggage – the Parliament of Ghana recently criminalized Female Genital Mutilation; some years ago, the same Parliament again criminalized “trokosi,” a cultural practice in the Volta Region where teenage girls are enslaved to shrines for sins committed by the parents. Drawing from the on-going Ghana-wide attempts to appropriate the good parts of traditional Ghanaian cultural values for progress and at the same time refine the stalling parts, Mr. Benson, the awakening Northern elites, their increasingly educated traditional rulers and institutions, the booming Northern-based NGOs, and the Ministry of Culture and Chieftaincy could work to open up the North for progress and free the Northerners from the clutches of many an ancient traditional cultural inhibition.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi