The great disconnect between Ghana’s ancient culture and its current state (sociologically speaking) has been brought into sharp relief by a recent incident in Kumasi, the Asante capital.
The incident is worth studying because it is likely that its significance has become lost in the midst of both the hypocritical verbiage and contemptuous unconcern, with which we view most matters in Ghana that, elsewhere, could cause the very earth to shake.
Apparently, some chiefs, sἑbe o!-- piqued by statements made by a contributor to one of the TV stations that are springing to life across our nation like mushrooms, decided to use -- sἑbe o!-- “traditional” (magical) methods to deal with the offender.
The chiefs also said -- sἑbe o!—that the man was no longer welcome in Asante, and they performed customs to bring the spirits of Asanteman upon the head of the offender, should he disobey them and set foot on Asante soil.
(Such an action, on the part of the chiefs, raises profound and complicated constitutional issues, that are beyond the scope of this article.)
Indeed, I have, to simplify the issue I want to deal with here, deliberately left out details of what was said or allegedly done, because I do know the tendency of the Ghanaian media to misreport, or even misrepresent, the salient issues raised by controversial events.
Not only that – I am also painfully aware that some Ghanaians, having allowed themselves to be influenced by adrenalin to over-react to situations, then blithely retract what they had done or said, when repercussions inevitably occur. Certainly, in this country, courage and brashness often run in opposite directions!
I’ve concluded that this happens because many people do not actually know anything about the freedom granted to them by our customs and traditions. This is a pity because many of us use, on a daily basis, a language that contains an inbuilt escape mechanism for most verbal “offences”. In that respect, we have an enviable respect for freedom of speech and expression.
For instance, our customs recognise the possibility that someone might be provoked into making a derogatory comment on an issue, on the basis of a mishearing or misunderstanding of what someone else has said. In other words, “hearsay” might be the real offender. Our sages, being aware of this possibility, coined a proverb to illustrate this situation. They said:
QUOTE: “Nea ↄkaae ante; nea ↄteeԐ nso anhunu aseԐ kyerԐ.” [The one who reported what was said, didn’t hear what was said well; while the one who DID heard it WELL , didn’t quite understand its meaning].
It is for this reason that our elders made it possible to “apologise in advance "for any mistakes one might make, whilst speaking, on the basis of wrong information. One needs only to preface what one is going to say, that might be the subject of future contention, with the words, “sԐbe o, tafrakyԐ!”
When one uses these words, one exculpates one’s words of any guilt or contempt that the words might otherwise occasion.
So why did the man who made the statements the Asante chiefs objected to, not employ the well-known formula? Most probably, it’s because he’d not been taught by his elders how to speak eloquently in public. Of course, some people are so arrogant or stiff-necked that even if someone had taught him or her a thousand times that speaking in public makes some very serious demands upon our intelligence, trouble would still have ensued from what he or she would have said. In other words, not every person can engage in “cultured” speech.
The same is true of those who now proliferate our airwaves, saying whatever comes into their minds. There are, of course, laws of defamation and libel in Ghana, imported from Britain, which can be utilised for punitive purposes, where our traditional restraints don’t necessarily apply.
But some people think they are kings and queens and do get intoxicated when they are put in front of that object that might previously have been a stranger to them -- the microphone.
They may be so illiterate that they don’t know how their words are transported through the air by sound waves, to their audience. But when it comes to verbiage in relation to content, they are super-masters. The more abrasively poisonous what they say is, (they think) the more it would convince the audience. That what the audience wants is not necessarily abuse but perhaps sweet reason, is a concept that’s non-existent in their thought processes. If it does, they ignore the thought. Why?
Because, in their own eyes, they are bigger than the law, or customs or even business sense – all of which are considerations that should urge restraint upon the public speaker who is fully aware that that his or her words are going to be transmitted to the world electronically.
I have no doubt that if the person who attacked the Asante chiefs had allowed himself to observe the traditional proprieties of public speech, he could not only have saved himself from the anger of some hypocrites in his society but also, actually contributed a great deal of practical advice to the Government and people of Ghana, as regards their campaign to try and stop the destruction of their water sources, by galamsey.
Yes, almost every right-thinking person agrees that galamsey is destroying our drinking water. And, to be sure, were we in ancient times, our elders would have summoned their chiefs, one by one, and asked them, “Na enti, ensuo a yԐnom yi, ayԐ pↄtↄpↄtↄ sei, sԐbe, monni ani a yԐde behunu?” [And so, haven’t you (-- apologies in advance! --) got eyes to see that the water we drink has become polluted and muddy?]
Each chief would have had to answer questions in public regarding the state of the water:
“Is it not true that the chairman of Party X came and saw you one night and you... (apologies)....called some other people together secretly and ....(apologies).... asked them to allow the chairman to bring “a few” excavators to seek gold in River Asomasi? When the “few” excavators became a multitude, did you say anything to your “chairman”? Did you not.... (apologies).... tell the police chief in the district, when he was going to arrest the excavator operators, not to interfere with the project because you, the chief, and the owners of the land, had all given permission for the chairman to bring the excavators, and so the operation was “legal”?? Did you not say to the police chief .... (apologies) ... that since he came from the area himself, he would have seen that these days, the cocoa harvests are not so good and that he of all persons should readily understand that people need some other sources of income?”
The questioning would have gone on and on, with every member of the public allowed to have his or her say. And so long as they used the correct language, none of them would have had the slightest reason to fear. Indeed, each chief would invite destoolment, were he to take took umbrage with his own people for daring to question him on the issue.
The chief would, of course, be likely to ...(apologies)... lie and deny that he had played any role in getting the lands and rivers of his area to be devastated by galamsey operators. But as our elders have warned us, “when you utter an oath into a hole, it eventually comes out! Therefore, someone might possess real, incontrovertible evidence and reveal it to the public – for instance, someone might have led the chairman to chief’s palace and be ready to admit having done that; or the chief might have mentioned the matter to one of his sub-chiefs and forgotten that this guy was no longer on speaking terms with him!
Of course, these days, chieftaincy doesn’t work like it used to do. In the olden days, the code of honour among chiefs was so strict that if one was exposed as having done really disgraceful things against his community, he would commit suicide. If we didn’t, his family would shun him and make him commit “social suicide!” Anyway, these days, if a chief’s own people do rise up against him, he could.... (apologies....) conceivably be saved by sἑbe o! --his mates in the Houses of Chiefs.
It is -- sἑbe o! -- because some chiefs do feel so impregnable these days that they have collaborated with galamseyers to bring Ghana to the brink of absolute disaster. Soon, (I ask you to mark it on the wall!) if one does not have money to buy sachet water, one cannot get safe water to drink, or to cook with, or to wash one’s clothing.