Thursday, December 13, 2007
Friday, December 14, 2007
The codification of positive cultural
– whose responsibility? (1 & 2)
asks: JOHN C. SNYPER
IN a technologically globalised world, it is impossible to develop one standard culture for people in every nation on earth. This is not difficult to understand, for the body of beliefs, behaviour, language, moral values, folklore and the entire way of life of a group of people differ even in a single predominantly homogenous nation like China.
In all parts of the world, advancing technology has substantially affected the role cultural practices play in the life of people. In other places where the pace of technology has been rather slow, old cultural practices still have strong influence on the lives of many people.
In view of the exposure most of us have had to formal education, we will today describe as shocking such practices as widowhood rites, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and human sacrifices, among others. In the deep context of animism, shamanism or any other form of primitive religion, there was practically nothing wrong with such practices, in much the same way as a Christian or Muslim today sees nothing wring with observing Easter or Ramadan religious rites.
However, when people are exposed to other ideas, be it secular or religious, the tendency to judge former ideas as bad or irrelevant becomes real. Today, all of us condemn certain negative cultural practices and rightly so, because we have now mastered all the essentials of the white man’s magic including his religion, and using that as a yard-stick, we have come to the realization that certain cultural practices must change.
Our forefathers did not have access to the new socio-cultural values we have now to enable them change, modify or completely do away with some unprofitable practices.
Today, when we read or hear that some widows are stripped naked and paraded in public to selected streams or rivers for a ritual bath, that they are forced to drink filthy concoctions or are forced to allow a male relative of the deceased to perform a sex act with them to purify them, or that they are supposed to live in secluded areas under the care of older female guardians, we fell very uncomfortable, if not literally enraged.
In days gone by widows willingly submitted to such practices for as long time as they obviously tolerated and accepted these in the context of primitive religion; although naturally, a degree of apprehension and fear may have been present, violent resistance was unheard of. In India the practice of “suttee” allowed a widow to burn herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre or if the husband died in battle or a place other then home, she had to burn herself separately.
In the context of Hinduism, the ‘victims’ understood that to be a privilege to gain a passage to the next world to enjoy uninterrupted life with their husbands. The British abolished the practice in 1829 and thereafter a few women tried to resist full compliance in an isolated number of cases but the practice persisted in very remote places in India for more than a hundred years. The lesson? The force of legislation alone is not enough to eradicate an age-old tradition that is firmly rooted in religion, toe there is a great difference between suppressing tradition and eradicating it.
What was needed in changing Indian society was a massive educational campaign that went all the way down to the very heart and soul of the individual. And it is only when the people in turn are moved by the new things they have learnt that they can exhibit an entirely new perception of life, leading to the drawing of sound conclusions as far as the perpetuation of certain traditions are concerned.
In his article entitled, “Purging Our Society of Negative Cultural Values: Whose Responsibility”? (The Ghanaian Times, September 12, 2007, pg. 7) Nelson Kofi Akatey asked to key questions” “Are we doing enough to check these abuses which infringe on the fundamental human rights of the victims? And whose responsibility is it to ensure that these obnoxious cultural practices in the name of tradition are abolished”? Let us attempt to answer the first question.
It is interesting to note that the perpetuation of certain cultural practiced are abuses that constitute an infringement “on the fundamental human rights of the victims”. Many educated people and well meaning Christians and Muslims have no qualms believing this to be true but staunch traditionalists are yet to accept this. How can tradition be abolished just because of something called man tights?
The issue of human rights and constitutionalism still had a long way to travel before reaching some parts of the world such as Africa, Meso-America, Latin-America, Oceania and large parts of Asia where primitive religion and culture reigned. So far centuries, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and other constitutionally defined criminal acts of today were not questionable practices at all. Today, most people agree that, at all cost something must be done to put an end to these negative cultural practices, but not everyone readily agrees.
First, the socio-cultural context in certain primitive societies must be understood, even if we are to add human sacrifices to the list. In all pre-industrialised societies, every known human activity takes place in the context of religion and culture. Dressing, eating, coking, farming, the art of speaking, marriage, reproduction and child rearing, even games and entertainments have religious and cultural strings attached to them.
Second, apart from gaining a deep insight into the world of the traditionalist in an effort to understand him, our greatest task now is to help him to understand that with the introduction of foreign religions and formal education in our part of the world, it has become more clear to most people that some cultural practices are wrong, obnoxious, abhorrent, unhealthy.
All of us still have a long way to go in educating the uncompromising traditionalist to understand that times have changed, that the quest for the meaning of life has now found expression in a variety of religions’ and socio-political philosophies, that science and technology have been blowing a great wind of change across all cultures and that certain traditional norms are actually harmful to human society.
He should further be assisted to understand that every human being possesses certain inalienable rights that no other human has the mandate to take away or ignore, that the concept of human rights far transcends the boundaries of tradition and that the state wields the power to enforce laws that punish all cases of loss of human life, injuries to persons and degrading practices that dehumanize the individual.
Once the traditionalist had not yet got the point, he will not see any reason why he should be stopped from performing some of his most cherished traditional norms. So achieving a psychosocial victory over him prepares the way for a more culture friendly society.
We now turn to our second question: “And whose responsibility is it to ensure that these obnoxious cultural practices in the name of tradition are abolished”? Both the state and social institutions have the primary responsibility to remove unwholesome cultural practices from our society, but everyone of us has a role to play. To achieve this aim, all of us must acknowledge that we have along war to fight in eradicating certain cultural evils, even if we have already won a series of battles.
In fighting this war, all of us must understand that our greatest enemy is not on the rigid traditionalist in a remote village but also the semi-educated African who thinks that he has just discovered his ‘roots’ and now vigorously champions the tenets of his long forgotten tradition despite professing some form of religion. Past European Armies learnt that whenever their enemies were educated in much the same way as they themselves were, the war always became a protracted one.
Thus, if a well educated chief condones or indulges in unwholesome cultural practices just because he can’t help it or that tradition must be preserved, he becomes a stumbling block to progress and waste the efforts of the state and social institutions.
In striving to secure a place in the comity of civilized nations, we need to make a critical reappraisal of our cultural values and eliminate all negative practices that can actually pass for crimes against humanity. I agree with Nelson Akatey that it is not enough for the media to expose the excesses of society in its reportage but that the task of educating the public about such heinous crimes is all the more important.
As more horrible crimes are exposed by the media, many people may stop to reflect on the ‘usefulness’ of some of our cultural values. All the same, the mere creation of awareness by the print and audio-visual media does not in itself get to the source of the canker in an effort to remove it. What is needed is mass education backed by legislation to prosecute the deviant and the incorrigible.
In addition to the wide publicity that could be given by the media, something else needs to be done, the state must enact laws to prevent unscrupulous “sankofa” extremists from inflicting unnecessary pain on the vulnerable in our society despite the extensive campaign organized by the government and the private sector.
There is, however, more that the state can do than engaging traditional rulers to “undertake an evaluation of traditional customs… with the view to eliminating those customs that are outmoded and socially harmful” (1992 Constitution, Article 272 (C). Tradition is not necessarily eliminated by a group of chiefs who regularly meet at a forum for discussions.
An African Chief, unlike an oriental potentate, does not have the mandate to stop his elders or sub-chiefs from performing certain rituals, even if he thinks he is the most educated man of his time or the best saint of some professed religion.
An African Chief is the custodian of tradition in his traditional area and whether he likes it or not, the observance of certain traditional norms directly affects him, without which he cannot qualify to be a chief in the first place. In such a position, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to make a distinction between good and bad tradition, such as the offer of a young girl to a chief with whom to produce an issue for the stool, whether or not the chief is already married.
Whatever happens to the future education of that young girl is no secret to all well informed people. Thus enlisting the custodians of traditions to “eliminate” some unpopular traditions can only lead to a partial success since it does not belong to them to win this war. How can you make use of an army general who, even to the smallest extent, sympathizes with the troops on the enemy side? A little degree of conflict of loyalties on the part of the general will be capable of ruining the war effort.
The changing or the removal of traditional norms is a continuous unlearning process, a life-long intellectual adventure that targets the human psyche, intelligence and reason, although it usually takes much time. It could be backed by state legislation alright, but everyone knows that traditions don’t die easily. There is a difference between telling people that they should not touch a live electric wire and helping them to understand the fatal effect of human contact with such sires.
The culprits should understand why certain customs are unacceptable by modern standards. Thus, both the human mind (understanding) and the heart (believing and accepting the truthfulness of the point) come into the picture. The best tools, therefore, are education and the right kind of religious training. So if a religion is deeply rooted in superstition and mysticism, it will be very difficult for its adherents to discard old ideas or make a rational assessment of the practicality of long-held traditions.
Our next greatest task, then, is to codify all the existing positive cultural values and make them a unique guiding philosophy for the African. Those who claim that Africans do it and have never had a known philosophy have got it all wrong, for an extensive corpus of philosophical ideas exist and waiting to be codified. Other civilization that perfected in the art of writing wrote and preserved theirs. Since our forebears could not write their ideas down, they have posthumously handed over the task to us and we simply cannot let them down.
We do appreciate the great work done by many Africans in composing narratives of the African past, stories, proverbs and other aspects of our folklore that contain both simple and complex socio-political ideas. Once codified, we will call the entire body of knowledge Afrocentric Philosophy. Out of this philosophy will issue forth all our political, economic and social ideas which have always given us or distinct African personality wherever we find ourselves on earth, a unique identity that makes us African even of we are, by some miraculous means, transported onto another planet.
Since the passage of time and events shape the content of philosophical ideas, the codification of the entire body of cultural values that make us different from people of other races should take these two factors into consideration. Questions such as these need to be addressed:
In view of the time we live in and the centuries of experiences African people have gone through, do the majority of our people today approve of widowhood rites, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and other degrading practices in our modern socio-cultural context? Should our philosophical ideas have a place in our modern constitution? Should mallams and medicine men be arrested and prosecuted if they are known to have assisted criminals in one way or the other in committing crimes?
Do we need to involve chiefs and religious leaders in our political process? Will there be a need to standardize marriage and funeral rites? Should indecent exposure of the human body be punishable by law? Where there is a conflict of interest between customary law and state law, which one should hold the supremacy over the other? How will we successfully integrate the Western and the African legal systems without unduly compromising either side?
Should Afrocentric philosophy reserve a place for biblical and qurianic values? Readers can formulate more questions and ideas to help shape the values we want for Africa and Africans.
Who then should be responsible for undertaking this gargantuan task? We do not seem to imply that no African has ever undertaken this mammoth task to some extent. Whether we have got to, we still need to get to the finishing line. We will need just every African on board, including Africans in the Diaspora. (Non Africans cannot write anything good for us). We will need Africa historians, sociologists, anthropologists’ archaeologists, lawyers, political scientists, chiefs, linguists, medicine men, mallams, teachers and all other people with knowledge of African issues past and present.
Governmental organizations such as the Department of Social Welfare, the National Commission on Culture, the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Culture, the Faculties of Social Sciences in the Universities and the Centres for National Culture as well as non-governmental organizations all have a part to play. Perhaps an existing commission, a ministry, or some other state or private institution should be strengthened to undertake this ambitious project.
The commission’s scope of research needs to be widened (not just limited to Ghana) as to capture the entire African experience. More time will be needed, people on the ground need to be consulted, ideas from existing work have to be integrated, papers have to be presented and issues debated periodically. Finally, the great day will come when our main goal will be fully achieved. We can start today.
The writer is an Administrator
at Takoradi Polytechnic.
The Ghanaian Times - Thursday, December 13, 2007 Page: 9
Friday, December 14, 2007 Page: 9