The combat against forces of irrationality
By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong*
The fact that today the burning to death of a 72-year-old woman for allegedly being a witch in the Ghanaian port city of Tema that has sent astonishment across Ghana reveals that gradually the on-going enlightenment campaigns are refining the inhibitions within the Ghanaian culture. The coordinated response to the killing of the alleged witch also reveals how the enlightenment thinkers are fast influencing pressing cultural issues that encumber progress.
Years ago the killing of the alleged witch would have been a normal thing whether in the rural or urban area. But in 2010 there are dramatic outcry against witchcraft-induced killing and intellectual face-off from Ministers, women organizations, the mass media, educationists, lawyers, human rights organizations, public and private institutions, and ordinary Ghanaians. The powerful Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, among other institutions, said “The Commission finds the action of the perpetrators of this atrocious crime as very barbaric and one that greatly dims the nation’s human rights record.”
That’s civilization being drummed. Witchcraft believes, mired in inhumanity, is a real danger to the survival of the African civilisation, and mixed with poverty could be the end of Africans’ attempt to progress. Africans who believe in witchcraft do so with arbitrary rules and a hatred of freedom and rationality. Critical faculties are warped and that makes witchcraft believes rule supreme in the affairs of the African.
The murder of the old woman in Tema, a modern city that is supposed to intellectualize its denizens, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel will say, reveals the daunting task the enlightenment campaigners face toward Ghana’s and Africa’s progress. How do you rationalize an inhibiting cultural practice such as witchcraft that has been there over thousands of years and that won’t go away?
In Tema, we observe that the behaviours of the rural and the urban dwellers are blured in the believe in witchcraft. The city is supposed to show higher rationality, and does less with witchcraft. In Tema, the City has ceased to intellectualize, it has become irrational, hence the alleged old woman witch “set on fire by a group of five adults, one of whom is believed to be a pastor.”
Tema overturns the Athenian thinker and mayor (of Athens) Pericles’ observations some 2,500 years ago that “All good things flow into the City.” In the burning of the alleged witch to death, all bad things flow to the City, too. This has happened because in the Ghanaian/African cultural context the educated and the uneducated believe in witchcraft. So who is to solve the witchcraft problem? This makes the African city no more or less better, intellectually, than the African village, where much of the witchcraft activities are supposed to occur. The African city becomes as treacherous, witchcraft-wise, as the African village.
In Africa, witchcraft believe is difficult to discuss. African elites, also entangled in the witchcraft believe do not venture into this area to refine it despite the fact that it impinges on Africa’s progress. The supposedly educated African mind resists it. The subject is amorphous. Why is the 72-year-old woman a witch? How did her accusers know she is a witch? For you have to be a witch to see a witch!
African witchcraft believes is intellectually and morally dangerous. Witchcraft believes, as the hideous burning of the old woman to death show, muddles the African mind, making it cerebrally unmanageable. But the Ghanaian enlightenment thinkers are attempting to intellectualize it through human rights, equality, democracy, freedoms and the rule of law.
You don't kill, lynch, maim or outlaw an innocent person because you suspect she (and it is mostly a “she,” as the killing of the 72-year-old woman proves) is a witch. That's why the enlightenment thinkers are arguing that witchcraft is one of the inhibiting parts of the African culture that undermines not only the advancement of the individual but also the entire African society.
The nation-wide condemnation of the killing of the 72-year-old woman raises the contention between subjectivists (juju and marabout spiritual mediums, witch doctors, traditional powerbrokers, spiritualists) and the objectivists (police, courts of law, civil society, the mass media). The subjectivists believe that some people in their area claim to possess powers that identify witches, thus encouraging witch-hunting. The objectivists, who dismiss such gobbledygook, argue they regret that the justice system in Ghana/Africa isn’t prosecuting the perpetrators to serve as a deterrent to others.
At the centre is the battle between irrationality and rationality. An intellectual face-off. The irrational forces are ancient and deeply entrenched who think more with the superstition part of their brain. The rational forces think more with the objective part of their brain and they have daunting task taking on the mass of the witchcraft believers. The “irrationalists” who look at witchcraft from within the soul of the Ghanaian/African culture are in majority. The “rationalists” (or the realists) who gaze at witchcraft within the criminal justice system and locate witchcraft in the conditions of peoples' lives are in minority.
How do we solve the City of Tema’s witchcraft debacle? In the spirit of George Ayittey’s “African solution to African problem,” we have to look at other parts of Ghana to solve the Tema psychosis. The small town of Bongo, in Ghana's Upper East Region, readily comes to mind. To solve its witchcraft menace, the Bongo District Assembly has formed Justice and Security sub-Committees made up of the Police, Judiciary, Traditional Authority and some assembly members to sensitize the people about the dangers of believe in witchcraft to progress.
Bongo didn’t ask religious groups to help tackle its witchcraft problems. Why? Pretty much of the witchcraft nonsense are perpetuated by the religious groups, especially the spiritual churches that feed on superstitious Ghanaians’ spiritual insecurities most of which come from their culture and their poverty. (One of the people who killed the old woman is said to be a pastor, who helped orchestrate the witchcraft accusations against the old woman). Small Bongo will, therefore, be a good intellectual prescription to the big and wobbling Tema in how to solve the witchcraft pest.
*Kofi Akosah-Sarpong is a Ghanaian-Canadian journalist and academic