THE ROLE OF GHANAIAN CULTURE AND TRADITION IN ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY
‘ Ecology- and by ecology I understand the study of the reciprocal relations of all forms of life, one with the other, and with their environments- is not for the scientific agriculturalist alone; its light must guide the path of the farmer ,administrator, and the statesman.’ Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, 1959
Ghana like many other African countries is endowed with very rich culture and tradition. The traditional culture of Ghana stressed a strong relationship with the environment, and in the past, a culturally acceptable environmental management resulted from strictures and taboos related to water bodies, land, and deep forest. Though there are some cultural practices that are peculiar to some towns and villages, in general they have so many things in common and served the same important purpose of conserving nature. This, to a large extent helped saved the environment and our ancestors rarely died of pollution related ailments. With the advent of Christianity, Islam, civilization and its accompanying technology in Ghana, however, many of these beliefs, taboos, customs and traditions have been relegated to the background and are regarded by many as fetish and useless, though they played a key role in environmental protection.
Among the Akan community which forms the majority ethnic group in Ghana, water bodies are associated with the gods or abosom and are used in accordance with strictures and rules that are relayed to the local folks by fetish priests who are the mouthpiece of the gods. Customary laws mandate users to keep lakes and rivers pure because they are regard as the dwelling place of the gods (abosom). The abosom were highly revered and feared in the past and even they are still accorded that respect by some Ghanaians. It is believed that, these gods are highly endowed with divine powers and will strike defaulters dead instantly with no mercy nor give a second chance. In the past, our ancestors used a very astute way to protect the water bodies and avoided many water related diseases. Those part of the river used for bathing, swimming, or for watering crops and washing domestic animals were found downstream in relation to those used as a sources of drinking water. In an effort to minimize water pollution from household waste and to reduce the quick spread of water-borne diseases, communities were often situated more than half a mile radius from rivers and lakes. Since the distance makes the drawing of drinking water a heinous task, water conservation was a common tradition. People feared the gods and hence adhered strictly to these directives and preserved the water bodies better than what pertains in contemporary Ghana. Apart from the general regulations, there are specific prohibitions or taboos to prevent the use of metal implement in lakes and rivers, to ban fishing at specific times of the year, and to disallow laundering of clothes on certain days. In addition to taboos, special communal labors were organized for the clearing of weeds and debris along river banks and for deepening sources of drinking water. These customary regulations worked very well in the olden days and are still common in the countryside. . However, it tends to break down where population mobility has led to coexistence of groups with varying customs. Difficulties arise also where previously small communities grow into one another, bringing together groups of different religious beliefs, and where towns have sprung up along certain parts of the river. In order to mitigate these drawbacks, there is the need for us as a country to device more pragmatic policies that will integrate our traditions and customs that promotes environmental sustainability with that of modern Ghanaian beliefs to achieve the ultimate goal.
In the past, the deep forests were also regarded as a place of abode of the gods and the dead ancestors. Such places were highly revered and worshiped. Farming, hunting, felling of trees for fire wood and many other activities were forbidden in those forests. It was a taboo for anyone to fell trees or farm in such restricted forests. This indisputably helped preserved the forest vegetation and biodiversity which our current generation is destroying now. Our forefathers were very conscious and protected our natural resources in what one may described as unscientific, but in effect, we inherited rich forest which was stocked with great medicinal sources and precious minerals. If our ancestors who did not know anything about schooling and technology were able to conserve the environment in such a laudable fashion, what are we doing as contemporary generation with formal education and technological advancement? I believe the time to combine technology and tradition to save our perishing natural resources is now.
Among almost all the tribes along the coast of Ghana, it is forbidden to go fishing on Tuesday. The sea is believed to be a goddess and worshiped by these communities. It is believed that, Tuesdays are days which the goddess has time with her children which were mostly fishes. In order not to disturb the goddess and her children it was a great taboo for any one to go fishing that very day. Though this may sound unscientific, many who disobeyed these directives and went on fishing on those days were drowned and had no help from anyone. It was also forbidden to go fishing at certain periods of the year at many of the fishing communities. From the scientific point of view these free period enhanced fish reproduction and also protected fingerlings from been caught. It was also forbidden to eat certain type of fish, even if they were caught by the fishermen they were freed because they were regarded as beloved children of the goddess. Current scientific investigation has shown that such fishes has low productivity rate and immense harvesting may cause their extinction. Our ancestors had no scientific knowledge when they passed some these rules, yet they were able to preserve the lives of these vulnerable fishes.
Tribes that are located in the forest zones of Ghana forbid hunting and farming in the forest at some days and some periods of the year. It is also a taboo for a hunter to kill an animal and refuse to eat. It is even a worse offence for a farmer or hunter to kill game that is young, pregnant or fending for their young ones. It is believed that asase yaa, goddess of the earth will strike defaulter instantly to death. It was also believed that such a person might also not have children or loose or his children if he kills a pregnant or young game. The reverence given to some of these traditional believes is gradually loosing grounds in Ghana with the advent of foreign religion and formal education. This has led to the extinction of many animals and endangering of so many others.
I believe that there is the need to revisit the past and integrate good part of our traditions and customs with modern ones and to safeguard Ghana’s natural recourses and promote environmental sustainability. There is an African proverb that says that ’a man who does not know where he is coming from does not know where he is going to’.
By: Elvis Akwasi Acheampong
Green Ghana Foundation