25.07.2004 Feature Article

Trial of Irrationality In West Africa -Rejoinder

Trial of Irrationality In West Africa -Rejoinder
25.07.2004 LISTEN

--- A Commentary By Y. Fredua-Kwarteng

In his article “Trial of Irrationality in West Africa” published on the Ghanaweb on June 13 ,2004, Akosah-Sarpong argues that the widespread of superstitious beliefs in West Africa thwarts development in that sub-continent.

The author contends that superstitious beliefs are quintessentially a West African culture. This suggests that the region of West Africa is underdeveloped owing to its beliefs in juju, marabou, witchcraft, and other superstitions. However, in the mind of many people it is not clear whether superstition causes underdevelopment or underdevelopment causes more superstitious beliefs. This is where our knowledge of history and anthropology becomes handy in trying to understand this phenomenon.

History and anthropological research informs us that every developed society one time or another had a set of superstitious beliefs. This includes all Western and Asian countries that are often referred to as developed countries. As a matter of fact, as a society develops in terms of standards of living and institutional improvement (education, system of justice, banking, democratization, and industrialization, etc.), superstitions are correspondingly reduced to the bare minimum and rationality takes their places. Even I should say that as society becomes more developed religion, another system of irrational thought, is relegated to the periphery of that society. That is why in Western countries few people go to church or believe in the existence of God, compared to African countries where people spent inordinate hours praying, fasting, and singing songs of praises to God.

In West Africa, which I am more familiar with, because economic conditions are terrible and political institutions undeveloped, people turn to religion (including fetishism) as a mechanism for coping with the horrendous vicissitudes of daily life. In Ghana people generally are more inclined to ask this question: Which church do you go or are you born again? People believe that anyone committed to the path of “God” would have his or her elemental needs provided by God—food, clothing, healthcare, transportation, housing, and so on.

In the Western world people would ask, where do you work, or what is your profession or vocation? Such people know that it is the income one makes that provides one's elemental needs, not God. Most Western people also believe that with technology (the application of science to make tools or improve living conditions) their daily needs would be met. Consequently, I would like to argue that the widespread of superstitions and religions of all forms in West Africa is an integral part of underdevelopment in that region. Simply put, underdevelopment causes more and more people to seek solutions to their problems through consultation with juju, marabous, and spiritual churches. Indeed, majority of the People in West Africa feel that there is a higher, supernatural power that could help them solve their material or existential problems of employment, food, housing, medical care, and business. This situation is exacerbated as more and more religions are exported from Western countries to West Africa. One may ask, why is the West interested most in sharing its religions with West Africans but not their technology or economic prosperity? The reader may have his or her own answer to this question, but I would like to say emphatically that West African or Ghanaian problems are not caused by the infraction of the laws of some supernatural powers. They are purely internal and external sociological problems. One cannot leave out the externality in the equation of our problem as the prolific Ghanaian writer George Ayittey has been trying to do in his analysis of the causes of our economic problems.

In the said article, Akosah-Sarpong focuses too much on the spread of juju, witchcraft, and marabou in West Africa and talks little about the rapid growth in the number of spiritual or charismatic churches in the subcontinent that has proved equally detrimental to development in West Africa. Even the author regards the pouring of libation as a superstitious belief. Libation is traditionally a fundamental Akan way of offering prayers to Oyamkopon/Asasieyaa (God, who is considered as composed of both male and female). As a matter of fact, libation has all the attributes of prayers that Christians offer to God as taught by European missionaries. However, European Missionaries castigated libation as a form of pagan worship, in that one of the main objects of colonialism was to discredit indigenous institutions in order to facilitate Western domination. Euro-American missionaries argue that libation is part of paganism because it uses wine or liquor and mentions the names of the ancestors of the group in offering prayers. Yet the Koreans who bow down to their ancestors at the end of every year and to their parents at the beginning of every year are never referred to as pagan worshipers or superstitious people. Also Christians who mention Abraham, Jacob, or Isaac in their prayers are hardly branded pagans.

I have always maintained that the consultation process with juju or marabou in West Africa is similar to that of consultation with spiritual or charismatic church leaders. In both cases, the clients are required to place their trust and hope in an unseen power after an intercession is requested. In the case of consultation with a charismatic church leader, the client generally may be required to give a donation of money after seeing favourable results of the consultation. A juju person, on the other hand, may require the client to pay a token fee and donate goat, chicken or sheep that would be slaughtered and the blood used to intercede with the Gods on behalf of the client.

Alternatively, the client may be required to kill the goat or sheep and share the meat with people who live in the client's immediate neighbourhood. In most cases this is a one-time payment or donation to the juju man (who may be a fetish priest or priestess, Malam, or Kramo). By contrast, the Charismatic church leader would demand of the client a constant flow of donations in kind or cash for his or her self-aggrandizement. We hardly see any jujuman or women driving a luxurious car or living in castle-like houses. This is to suggest that the relationship between a charismatic church leader and his client is one of systemic exploitation. That to say, the spread of charismatic churches in Ghana has deepened poverty immensely, because of the increase in the ruthless exploitation of the masses and dissipation of people's energy and time in unproductive religious (spiritual) activities. Admittedly, both charismatic church and belief in juju have contributed greatly to poverty in West Africa. Yet when Euro-American development experts are analyzing the causes of underdevelopment in West Africa they wittingly ignore the untold damage the current form of Christian orthodoxy is doing to the subcontinent. Any development experts who criticizes superstitious belief in that subcontinent but fails to level the same criticisms against the practice of Christianity in the subcontinent is either bare-faced biased or ignorant of the development problems in that part of the world.

The author quotes Kasim Kasanga, Ghana minister of the Environment and Science, as saying that generally Ghanaians are superstitious in respect of the causes of road accidents. The critical question is this: what is the minister and his ministry doing to change the superstitious mindset of Ghanaians? What strategies does he have to change that mindset? That mind set does not change by simply talking about it or making headlines in the local newspapers. Rather, there is a high probability that it would change when the ministry in conjunction with other ministries takes realistic, concrete action to change that mindset. In fact, advising Ghanaians to desist from consulting spiritual mediums would certainly have little effects. However, modeling the application of scientific thinking in the day-day activities of the ministry would certainly be one effective way of changing an entrenched mindset. A scientific approach to the ministry's activities would consist of the following:

· Assume regularity or pattern in nature and uses such knowledge to make predictions and decisions;

· Report results of any investigations or studies it undertakes, even if the results challenge or are contrary to the minister's own assumptions or beliefs;

· Use evidence obtained from experiments and careful observations (with controlled variables or assumptions) to make decisions;

· Operate in a non-dogmatic manner and is always open to change;

· Utilize mathematics in making decisions whenever possible.

Second, the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the ministry of the Environment and Science should formulate new science curricula for schools that place emphasis on scientific thinking in order to socialize young people with a new form of thinking. It is much easier from my professional experience to mould the minds of young people than it is to mould the minds of old people. After all education is a process through which a society transmits not only its culture to its offspring, but also how it wants the society to be. If it wants the rule of law to be the foundation of that society, for instance, the youth in the school system in that society should be socialized with the idea of the rule of law or democracy. Anyway, there are three major approaches in which the new science education could be organized. The behavioural approach emphasizes the thinking skills of science as a separate set of skills—observing, classifying, inferring, and hypothesizing. Such an approach also includes learning to use laboratory equipment, drawing tables and charts, interpreting data, and designing an experiment. Second, the cognitive and constructivist approach integrates thinking skills of science with content or concepts of science. In this regard, science-thinking skills would be taught in the context of learning biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science or general science. The third approach is research or science project. In this plan students would undertake science research project using the skills and concepts of science to inquire about natural phenomenon. All the three approaches could be combined in a science curriculum at any grade level, even primary one. There are many benefits from using scientific thinking to combat superstition. Science is a way of investigating questions about the natural phenomena of the universe. Investigation involves collecting empirical evidence, one that you can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. It excludes hearsay evidence, circumstantial evidence, revelatory evidence or spectral evidence (those allegedly manifested by ghosts, spirits, and other paranormal or spiritual entities). Second, an investigative or research culture informed by scientific thought is likely to permeate across all areas of the school curricula such as social studies (history, economics, government, management, etc). Third, a research culture is likely to increase the pace of development in Ghana. This is because an investigative culture brings about improved ways of thinking and doing things, hence development. Third, ideas from research or investigation could be used to develop new tools (technology) to solve our problems. For example, JSS students may be asked to research traditional methods of preserving tomato puree or meat and to suggest improved methods. Consequently, the new science curricula would have students utilize the process and principles of science (the scientific method in order to explore objects, phenomena, and events). In this respect, students would be involved in making observations and measurements, collecting and interpreting data, and making conclusions. Not only that; the new science curricula would require students to design experiments to test the efficacy of a particular claim.

The two methods I have suggested—modeling scientific culture and promoting scientific education- for reducing the incidence of superstitious beliefs in Ghana may take a long time to materialize. This is because the deep domination of superstitious beliefs in West Africa or Ghana, for that matter, would require long-term solutions. There are no quick fixes. And we should bear in mind that any strategies designed to attack superstition could only reduce its incidence, not eliminating it completely. This is why palm-readers and astrologers still operate in the Western world. It is even on record that the former US president Ronald Regan consulted Astrologers on numerous occasions. In Ontario the number 13 is considered bad luck, hence most apartment buildings have no thirteenth floor nor would people live on the thirteenth floor. Y. Fredua-Kwarteng is an education in Northern Canada. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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