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Opinions of Thursday, 11 June 2009

Columnist: African Spectrum

Editorial: Adapting Tradition To The Times

If there is one thing the Catholic Church and the traditional authorities in Africa have in common, it is their uncompromising belief in the sanctity of ancient traditions, which they insist cannot be tempered with under any circumstances. We offer another perspective, although it may seem somewhat irreverent: sacred or not, it makes sense to adapt all ancient traditions “ from the religious to the cultural to the political “ to the realities of an ever-changing world as the need arises.

In Africa, many cultural traditions have become outmoded or irrelevant, and they must either be modified to take into account the real-life challenges facing people in the modern world or simply consigned to the dustbin of history. One such tradition is the banning of funeral events (except for royalty) as well as other social activities in Ashanti and some other Akan areas of Ghana as a sign of respect for a deceased traditional ruler or a deceased member of the royal family. The ban goes into effect the moment it is officially announced that a king, a chief, or a queen-mother has passed away, and it stays in place until the royal mourning period has ended, a process that may take weeks, sometimes months.

Even though most of the people who live in the jurisdictions where this particular Akan tradition is observed support the idea of sending off their deceased royals in a dignified manner, they don’t particularly care for the heavy-handedness or the oppressive nature of the ancient law, which they see as a needless restriction of their right to mourn their own dead or organize activities such as weddings whenever they want to.

The prohibition against funerals victimizes another group of people even more profoundly. These are overseas residents who must go home to take care of the funerals of their loved ones. After traveling all the way from the U.S., Europe, or wherever their overseas addresses may be, some expatriates arrive in Ghana only to learn that the funeral event they had so arduously prepared for cannot proceed as scheduled due to a death in the royal family – a death which may have occurred soon after or shortly before their arrival in Ghana. A little too late in the day to change travel plans, isn’t it?

Extremely frustrated, the expatriates must now decide what to do next. For most of them, staying until the royal funeral has been completely disposed of is not an option, since that would mean overstaying their vacation time or missing college classes. So they are compelled to leave Ghana after a few days or several weeks stay, their emotion-drenched and expensive trip back to the old country for the sole purpose of burying their deceased relatives made unproductive by an antiquated traditional law. Must people be subjected to such harrowing ordeals all in the name of tradition? Fortunately, this situation doesn’t come up too often, but whenever it does, it makes a lot of people quite upset, to put it mildly.

There has to be a way of honoring dead traditional rulers without turning the whole exercise into a source of unhappiness for any person. Instead of imposing a ban on commoners’ funerals for entire weeks or months, why not impose it for only the mere handful of days when the royal funeral ceremonies are actually taking place? This would spare bereaved relatives the pain and frustration of having to wait for ever for the chance to mourn one of their own. Bereaved families can certainly wait for three or four days while the community honors the memory of its late ruler. And since they don't have to wait for too long, the expatriate relatives also would be spared the painful dilemma of having to decide whether to leave Ghana before they have had the chance to pay their final respects to a loved one or stay put and do just that after the ban on funerals has been lifted and possibly run the risk of loosing their jobs or seriously disrupting their studies overseas.

While the emotional toll may be harder to deal with, the pocket book, of course, suffers as well when the funeral of a deceased relative is unduly put on hold. Mortuary bills mount. And as long as a sad family episode remains open because a body is yet to be buried, neighbors and other sympathizers from the community will continue to show up at the doors of the bereaved relatives to offer their condolences, and the obligatory drinks will be served. Beyond that, the continuing distraction on the part of those closest to the deceased resulting from the suspended status of their loved one’s funeral makes it almost impossible for them in the meantime to return to their established routines, the businesses of the business types among them suffering as a result. A lengthy postponement of a funeral prolongs both the heartache and the financial headache of the relatives of the deceased.

It may be time for not only the Akans but also for other traditional authorities in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa to concede the fact that times have changed and that they need to change, too. This would require them to at least relax all those rigid old customs, rituals, and traditions, many of which are based on myths and superstitions and whose observance is often resented by many people because it adversely affects their lives, sometimes in a way that interferes with their freedom to earn their livelihoods, such as in the case of poor farmers who are forbidden by traditional fiat to work on their farms on certain days because, it is claimed, doing so would displease the gods and bring a curse on the population.

Hanging on to prehistoric cultural practices that cause people unnecessary grief but do nothing at all to advance the cause human progress merely reinforces certain unflattering images of Africa that we all would like to see become history.