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The problem of ‘culture preservation’pdf print preview print preview
06/03/2007Page 1 of 1

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The problem of ‘culture preservation’


IN this period of reflection, incidental to the Golden Jubilee celebration of Ghana’s nationhood, I have chosen to examine the oft repeated Ghanaian remark of “let’s preserve our culture”.

The questions that come to mind are the elements of culture, which elements deserve to be preserved, that is to say, whether or not it is desirable to preserve those elements and how the preservation is to be done.

The infrastructure of culture consists of good shelter and clothing, the basis of survival and the manner in which these means of survival are secured.  At every time in the life of a people, the means of securing these components of basic livelihood depend on the resources available in the natural surroundings and the skills the people concerned possess in converting raw materials into the three means of livelihood.

But as society expands and becomes acquainted with linkages of the ancestors of the peoples of Ghana with the trading centres of the middle Niger as well as the European trading posts on the sea coast, it is evident that food, shelter and clothing were simply derived from natural surroundings but were elaborated with the skills and resources learned from the Northern and cross Atlantic trade.

With regards to ‘culture preservation”, nobody would say that we should go back to the simple natural foods gathered from the forest, the wattle-and-daub shelters and the skins and bark cloths and the leafy coverings that we replaced with trading materials form Northern Africa and Europe.  What is meant by “culture preservation” in this connection is that we ought to have replicas of these early means of survivals in the museums and latter day centres of national culture.

The super structure of culture consists of the principles of social and political organizations, systems of religious beliefs and practices, various modes of entertainment and amusement, methods of child naming, and rules of social conduct which are derived from conception of the relationships of the living to the after world.

The principle of social organization structures, family and marriage institutions determines the type of local groupings.  For example, in Ghana, the Akan people alone have matri-local family groupings derived from the woman.  The rest of Ghanaians have patri-local resident system.  That is to say, family groupings are derived from a man.

Principles of political organization have to do with systems of social control or the means of keeping peace and order within communities.  In Ghana, there were two systems of social control, one centred on a hierarchy of chiefs who constituted a state; and the other centred around ritual and moral functionaries who had no means of forcing people to obey their commands and had to rely on the general consensus within the community for maintaining peace and order.

In the course of the last century, chiefs were installed by the British in areas where there had been no chiefs, so that authorities passed the Order-in-Council relating to the then Northern territories, that is to say, the present Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions, chiefship had became a feature of the entire Ghanaian society.

Throughout Ghana, before Christianity was introduced by the British, our ancestors believed in a variety of spirits including the sky God, the earth spirit, deities representing major and minor features of the natural environment such as rivers and prominent rocks, the spirits of the forest and the Savannah and the sea and the lagoons and performed appropriate rites in purification, pacification and supplication to these spirits.

It is in this context that annual festivals which were usually first fruits festivals marking the harvest and offering thanks to the various deities or spirits were observed.  With regards to the various modes of entertainment, there were amusements and performances belonging to the various culture areas.

The Arts Council of Ghana, instituted by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and the National Commission on Culture (NCC) established by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) have through various devices preserved the existence and knowledge of the various musical and dance ensembles of Ghana.

Here, these elements of culture are being presented by the regular performances sponsored by the NCC through the institution of the biennial National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFAC).

While talking about “culture preservation” in this sense, one ought to pay tribute to the late Dr. A.A.Y. Kyeremateng, the founder of the Kumasi Cultural Centre.  He had a total view of culture as depicted at the cultural centre later named the National Cultural Centre, which was renamed the Centre for National Culture by an official of the PNDC thus turning the National Cultural Centre into a Regional Centre.

All culture areas had their methods of child naming until again the Europeans introduced Christian names for the adherents of the Christian religion and early school goers.  The next question is which of these elements are to be preserved and how are they to be preserved.

In the first place, as noted, there were and are different culture areas and there is a common culture which we got through learning the British ways of doing things.  Now if we insist on preserving our traditional culture which of these traditional cultures should be preserved as a national culture and since many Ghanaians live in extremely altered conditions of existence mainly concerned with meeting the problems of modern living, can they really go back to the old ways of doing things?

The problem would be illustrated by examining three major components of our cultures:

The first one relates to the erstwhile obligations of the members of the extended family system, the clan, the sub-clan, and the lineage and the sub-divisions.

The pre-eminent obligation of the member of these real or putative family groupings is to share whatever one has got with one’s fellow members of these groupings.  As a matter of fact, the whole village in the past was a cooperative mutual aid society with mutual obligation to give and to receive.

One must ask whether in view of present day demands of education, health, and physical survival, an individual or the village can discharge these mutual obligations.  Indeed, this could be a subject of sociological enquiry, the subject being the extent to which the village and its sub-divisions remain units of mutual aid.

I know as a matter of fact that the old principles of good neighbourliness have disappeared in the face of demands of modern living and yet this is an area worthier of preserving than the more manifest symbols of culture like the instruments of amusements and entertainment which must be considered as matters of individual tastes.

The next major element of culture which agitates so many Ghanaians is the institution of chieftaincy.  Since the 1950 Coussey reports on constitutional reforms, the dictum had been accepted that chieftaincy is so rooted in Ghanaian society that the state of Ghana would be imperiled if the chieftaincy institution was abolished.

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah himself accepted the dictum but decided that the only way in which the chieftaincy institution could be safeguarded was to subject it to the authority of the elected government.

The principles of the Republican Constitution based on the presumed equality of all citizens, as laid down in 1776 by the founding fathers of the United States of America were clearly incompatible with the premise of inequality between chiefs and subjects and royals and non-royals which constitutes the basis of chieftaincy.

Hence, the chieftaincy institution was recognized in the republican constitution of 1960 in one sentence “the institution of chieftaincy is hereby guaranteed”.

A subsequent chieftaincy act made clear that the institution existed at the behest of the head of government of the republic.

Thereafter chieftaincy had survived in the recognized bodies of traditional councils and regional and national houses of chiefs with two basic functions to settle chieftaincy disputes with final appeal to the Supreme Court and to compile customary laws of the various regions with a view to unifying them into the customary laws of Ghana.

The survival of chieftaincy has not been without cost to Ghana.  It is true that chiefs are our supreme culture bearers but without any tangible functions and with the disputes sometimes violent and indeed, fatal, the institution is far becoming a liability and parasitic on Ghana’s well being.

This is not to say that a certain number of chiefs are not doing well as local leaders and public figures.  Indeed those chiefs who have grasped their known-statutory role as mediators between their people and agents of development are playing a very useful role as customary leaders but generally, the institution is costly to Ghana and must be re-examined in order to shape it to fit our republican order of things.

The final component of culture is in the area of religion.  It will be extremely disastrous to ask people to revert to their old religious beliefs and practices.  Those religions were particularistic with corresponding moralities so that they sanctioned anti-stranger abuses.  Contrast this with the Christian and other universalistic religious including Islam which enjoins charity to all mankind and provides the ideological basis for the brotherhood of man.

In sum, state agencies may make attempts to present images of our traditional cultures as symbols of separate identities to the external world but I believe that individuals would adapt themselves to the changing circumstances in a way that they think would ensure their survival.

For example, a man would wear a suit to go to an interview if he thinks that an attire of that sort is required of him; he would wear a funeral cloth if he considers it proper while at the same time another would wear European attire if he deems it proper.

If indeed we are part of the global village, then we have to adapt our ways of life to the demands of the external world in order to survive.


The Author is a former Professor and Director of the Institute of African Studies,
University of Ghana, Legon.
He was a member of Council of State and the
Consultative Assembly that drafted the Fourth Republican Constitution.
He was also a Chairman of the National Commission on Culture.



THE GHANAIAN TIMES      -    Tuesday, March 6, 2007     Pages: 29 & 37



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