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The Enemies Within: Threat to Africa’s Cultural Traditions—Rejoinder to Akosah-Sarpong’s on Cultural Clash in Ghana

By: Franklin Otorofani, Esq.

 Published August  29th, 2010


I’m both impelled and compelled by my love for cultural traditions in all its beauty and flamboyance to pass a few comments on the article titled “The cultural clash over life and death” by Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, a Ghanaian, published in the African Herald Express, current edition, and accessible through this link: The cultural clash over life and death, for those who want to read the full article in order to get a clearer perspective of the issues at stake. 

Why this rejoinder? The rather dismissive and menacing tone of the article has given me cause to respond to and dwell on an issue that has been agitating my mind for some time now about which I’m planning to do a full featured article in the near future and for which this article has only provided me with a veritable launch pad to unload some materials in this brief rejoinder. 

Understandably, therefore, this rejoinder goes beyond what was actually written in the article, to the general condescending attitudes of the African elites in general toward their own culture in the name of modernity while at the same time sheepishly aping other foreign cultures that continue to invade the continent of Africa, contaminating and/or decimating our cultural heritage in the process.

In the article, the author appears to have launched an incipient war on African culture using as pretexts the cost of funeral ceremonies and beliefs in demon spirits causing road accidents and illnesses, which by the way, is not peculiar to Africa but to other cultures all over the world including the Christian traditions. Don’t Christians believe in evil spirits inflicting pain and disease conditions on humans? In fact it is at the core of Christian belief system. Is that coming from African culture? I don’t think so.  But I do know that it is a universal belief shared by millions of humans in other continents as well.

The author himself may not have meant bad in the article itself, but he has unwittingly provided deadly ammunition for those forces on the continent itself bent on destroying the last vestiges of African culture. Therefore, my comments are necessitated by the need to disabuse the minds of both the mature and impressionable readers, who might see this as a license to denigrate the culture, and to correct certain misconceptions about cultural traditions in general and the African culture in particular.

First, I appreciate the theme and the general drift of this article. However, its conclusions are rather too sweeping, non-discriminatory, and condescending and, therefore, disturbing to a Pan Africanist like me. Much as one would agree with the writer that certain cultural beliefs in Africa in general, not just Ghanaian's, are counterproductive, for example, the beliefs in demons causing road accidents or illnesses in certain parts of the continent, that's no reason to condemn African culture as a whole.



Beliefs are what they’re and are subject to change with superior evidence. Time there was when the earth was thought to be flat and the Roman Catholic Church in Rome held on tenaciously to that belief and even crucified the pioneer Astronomer Galileo for questioning that belief. But beliefs are just beliefs and nothing substantive as cultural artifacts or celebrations and therefore not to be taken as a people’s culture anymore than the belief in a flat earth should be taken as a culture of the West before Galileo. In other words beliefs are liable to be changed in the face of superior evidence and not to be taken as permanent features of any culture.  Beliefs in the existence of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) coming from some alien beings from other celestial abodes, for example, is liable to be disproved in the course of time by contrary evidence, just like Galileo did about the shape of the earth more than a century ago. 

The aspects of the African culture dealing with the costs of funeral should not be used either to run down or condemn the culture in general, or even at all. Funeral ceremonies are nothing but grand finale celebrations of the lives of deceased relatives who are considered worthy of receiving such treatment. It’s no more than a send off party in grand style by those who consider the deceased worthy while alive. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the celebration of the life of a deceased relative no matter the costs involved if the relatives can afford it. It is not imposed on them by law but purely out of their own free will informed by their own financial abilities. No one forces an expensive funeral on anybody. It's a one-time event that deserves to be remarkable as eternal mark of respect for the deceased person. In the West and East, millions of dollars are spent to build mausoleums in honor of deceased personages and that’s part of their culture.

 

Again, people throw expensive parties for the living including birthdays, send offs and remembrance ceremonies, just to mention but a few and no one complains about these celebrations. It's all part of the culture and never considered a waste or somebody thinking that the money used for those celebrations should have been saved to build factories to generate employment. That is myopic thinking. There is no life without celebrations. It’s what make life worth living, not factories or manufacturing plants, which are economic drudgeries and necessities that people merely tolerate for economic reasons only. Who wants to spend eight hours in a factory if given the alternative to go have some fun at a party or vacation or some cultural festival?

Every social activity has its place in a society and in the overall cultural milieu. None should be sacrificed for the other or downplayed.  Marriage, funeral, religion, food, clothing, shelter, occupation, healthcare, education, literature, social and table manners are distinct cultural attributes that distinguish one culture from another. And it’s absolutely injurious to seek to destroy, belittle, or undermine these cultural attributes under any pretexts whatsoever.

The West and the East have their own elaborate cultural celebrations and observances that are just as costly as African funeral celebrations, if not more. A typical funeral ceremony in the US, for example, costs several thousands of dollars and some run into tens of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars in some cases, depending on the personality involved.  We were all witnesses to the Michael Jackson funeral bash with the coffin alone costing a million dollar or so as was indeed the funeral of late music legend James Brown. African funerals are no exceptions and no one should seek to downplay their social and cultural importance in the African society in the name of saving money for investments.

 Even so, not all funeral and wedding ceremonies in Africa cost thousands of dollars. Again, it all depends on the personality involved. The author of this article and those who denigrate our culture in the name of science and modernity, need to be told that funeral celebrations are not responsible for the low economic development in Africa in general and Ghana in particular. Culture is a potent economic activity generator if wisely tapped. Culture is a source of foreign exchange in terms of tourism if wisely developed.

We should look elsewhere for the cause of Africa's economic backwardness not on culture. On the contrary, as the author himself has admitted, funeral celebrations is "good for business" and whatever is good for business is good for the economy. In parts of the world including the United States for example, Halloween, which has pagan origins, is good for business and so is Valentine, Christmas and other religious observances where people throw elaborate parties to celebrate these events. Undeniably, these are all elements of culture. Is anybody complaining about their costs? If no, why complain about the cost of African funerals and I might add for good measure too, African marriages, for that matter.

Does anybody care to know how much people in the Western and Eastern worlds spend on wedding ceremonies? Some run into millions of dollars, not just thousands of dollars. Does anybody care to know how much people in the West and in East spend on vacations year in year out, or for birthday parties year in year out? Some run into thousands of dollars. Is that a waste or what? No, it's not a waste, it's a celebration of the living and the dead deserve no less. Life is meant to be celebrated not just lived.

And come to think of it, it's not the dead that is doing all the eating and drinking and dancing at their funerals, it's the living for crying out loud! It’s the living that celebrate the life of the dead and the only thing for the dead is a coffin! Is that the problem? So it’s the living celebrating and enjoying all the show and having all the fun just like in any other celebration in the name of the dead. Why is that a problem with having fun to unwind? How does that prevent economic development? Oh, the money should have been saved to promote economic development, we are told! The festivals themselves are promoting economic development for crying out loud! They promote the business of coffin makers, beer distributors and breweries, music makers, and other artisans and a whole host of other business activities.

Oh, the complaint is about the costs! Are we going to tell people not to celebrate because of the costs? We might as well ban wedding and birthday parties because of their costs? Someone should realize that these things are economic drivers just like vacations and tourism. It's a whole lot economic sense to celebrate and spend because spending drives the economy. Those who do not appreciate this fact are apt to complain about costs of wedding, marriages and funerals all of which are economic drivers and therefore good for the economy, just as the factories and others. 

Africans honor their elders and the dead and other races do that also. The dead deserve that final honor once and for all. Funerals are not thrown every year like birthday parties. It's a one time event that involves not just one person but an entire family. And when you look around you'll find that the people who celebrate life whether for the living or for the dead, are usually a progressive people. The Yorubas in Nigeria are an example because celebrations are good for business and so are cultural festivals of which funeral ceremonies are part and parcel. Enough of this African cultural bashing. We’re not doing ourselves any good running down our culture but committing cultural suicide because there is no good or bad culture. It is what it is. It is not a question of modernity but of a people’s basic identity as distinct from other humans on the face of the earth.

Even in places like the US which has been wrongly described as a “cultural melting pot” people from other parts of the world hold on to their cultural traditions. You name them: the Jews, Japanese, Chinese, Hispanics, Indians, Europeans, Pakistanis, Russians, hell yes, Africans, hold on tenaciously to their cultures. These communities and racial groups know too well that if they lose their cultural identities they will lose their communal or racial identities in the United States. There is no cultural melting pot anywhere, only a mainstream culture living side by side with subcultures that are encouraged to thrive in the United States. And that’s what makes the country truly unique in the world. Continental Africans will do well to imbibe these realities in the US and stop trashing their own cultures.

People should not be misguided into running down their culture in the name of modernity. We are not more modern than the Chinese, Japanese and the Indians. The Japanese, the Indians and the Chinese are some of the most culturally observant people on earth yet they are some of the most prosperous nations on earth as well. There is a link.  

Finally, I would like to remind the author that it is a dangerous thing to look down or denigrate the culture of a people because culture defines humanity and a people. And I must add also that all authorities are in agreement that no culture is superior to another. All cultures are a way of life and they are what they are.  As I had cause to tell a group of African Americans in a discussion not even related to culture as a subject, "Culture is stronger than color" and it defines a people. Therefore, if you mess with your own culture in the name of modernity, you mess with your own identity and in the end become a complete non-entity. You’re just a mass of biological cells floating around without culture and therefore bereft of an identity.

It's my fervent hope, therefore, that those who are launching a war against their culture as the Christian missionaries did on the African culture some centuries ago and caused African converts themselves to destroy their own culture just as slave merchants caused Africans to sell their own people as slaves, will learn a hard lesson from the rape of our identity. Till date the Egyptians are still hunting their cultural artifacts stolen and taken to other lands because culture is a terrible thing to lose.  We should be fighting tooth and nail to preserve the remnants of our cultural traditions not destroy them under any guise. Africans have yet to recover from the destruction of their cultural heritage by the colonialists and missionaries. African Americans are still smarting from the rape of their African culture centuries ago. We should not allow history to repeat itself in the name of modernity. Once beaten twice shy. No, never again!

I would therefore advise Kofi Akosah-Sarpong and his medical association accomplice in Ghana to put the brakes on this suicidal campaign and learn how to use culture to promote economic development, self-pride and self-identity in a multi-cultural world. And if we fail to heed this warning, the African continent will suffer what I would term cultural eclipse in the no distant future and the owners of the foreign cultures we are shamelessly aping today will dismiss us as a people without culture unworthy of any consideration and use that as a pretext to re-colonize us an uncultured people, because you’re nothing without culture.

And this should serve as a clarion call to all practitioners and ambassadors of African culture to rise up to the challenge posed by the enemies within who are seeking to destroy whatever is left of African culture before Africa is totally denuded of its cultural traditions as African Americans have suffered terribly in the United States. A stitch in time saves nine…

Franklin Otorofani, Esq. contact: mudiagaone@yahoo.com




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