SUPERSTITION? IT'S COMPLICATED…AND DANGEROUS
What the heck is going on in Ghana? To a middle class Canadian it seems bizarre. After spending millions since 1935 on juju charms to win games, including nearly US$1-million during its dismal 2009/2010 season, the Fabulous Kumasi Asante Kotoko football club has finally banned juju from its operations. One of the country’s top soccer clubs has only now realized that winning depends on skill, conditioning and teamwork? Weird!
Much more troubling is Kofi Akosah-Sarpong’s September Afro News article on a UNICEF report detailing widespread charges of witchcraft against African children, charges that result in severe punishment, even death. And now Canadian journalist Karen Palmer weighs in with her new book, Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps, on the plight of women banished from their homes on the basis of witchcraft accusations ”proven” by a trial that often features a traditional ceremony involving the slaughter of a chicken. If the chicken dies with its beak in the sky, the woman is innocent. If it dies with its beak in the ground, the woman is guilty.
While researching her topic Palmer lived in Gambaga in north eastern Ghana, the site of one of the country’s witch camps. I once travelled from Bawku to Tamale through Gambaga. It’s the most desolate area I saw there. The financial costs are staggering. Have millions of dollars been spent on juju instead of development, healthcare, fair and impartial justice systems and education? It certainly seems so. The decimation of human resources is overwhelming. Energy that might have gone toward improving African lives has been squandered on punishing people on the basis of irrational beliefs.
What to do? Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, inspired by 18th Century writer Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason,” calls for an African Century of Reason. Palmer sees improved quality of life, including health services, as essential. In an interview with The Vancouver Sun’s Juliet O’Neill she said, “ Part of it is the overwhelming insecurity that people feel. They just don’t have enough to eat. They aren’t very healthy. They don’t have great access to education or medicine.
There isn’t enough being done to help these communities get ahead. If there were fewer kids who were dying mysteriously there would be less chance of someone being blamed for that mysterious death. That was the conclusion I came to.” Uh…sure, but we’ve heard this before. Why is it so difficult to effect rational public policy or improved healthcare when the need is so obvious? It’s time to introduce my brother, Robert Clement, to these pages. Robert lived in Ghana from 1969 to 1971 working on and around Lake Volta for The Volta River Authority, a United Nations Agricultural Development program and The World Health Organization. Living for weeks at a time in isolated villages he learned much more that I did about the Ghanaian belief system that undergirds witchcraft.
His full beard earned him the nickname of “Kwabena Abojesen,” almost as cool as “Jack Toronto.” When I discussed my ideas for this column with him, Kwabena replied by paraphrasing Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Jack, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” his point being that modern science and reason do not provide all the answers. A Ghanaian co-worker told Robert that it is impossible for a non African to understand the traditional Ghanaian world view. The same beliefs that legitimate witchcraft also support the positive results achieved by traditional healers, results that Robert saw first hand.
And it’s not that Africans lack the ability to observe their environment and draw sensible conclusions as to how the world works. It’s just that the logic of traditional African explanations is based on a very different set of assumptions. For example Robert was chatting with villagers about ways to improve their water supply. Small mud-skipping fish covered the bottom of the reservoir and he suggested removing the fish as a simple first step toward improved cleanliness. The response: “Oh, no. If we take away the fish the water will disappear. Wherever you find fish you find water.”
We all make basic assumptions on which we build our view of the world and these assumptions are very resistant to change. This is not just about Africa. Superstitions trump rational thought everywhere. Africa’s poverty is not unique. In Vancouver many living in the downtown east side don’t have enough to eat. They aren’t very healthy. They don’t have great access to education or medicine. There isn’t enough being done to help this community get ahead.
Kofi Akosah-Sarpong is right. Africa needs greater reliance on reason and accurate information. Karen Palmer is right. Desperate people deprived of effective health care will resort to superstition to cope with tragedy. But work to bring about change will not happen until we realize that we’re all in this together and that will be the most difficult attitude change of all.
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