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Opinions of Saturday, 23 September 2006

Columnist: Amegashie, J. Atsu

Identity: Who is pro-NPP, a Ghanaian or an African?

Why is it that an African, especially a very formally educated one, who questions his/her own culture is considered a sell-out? The typical choruses of such purported guardians of African-ness are: you are lost indeed, you have lost your African-ness, you are an Afro-pean, you’ve been brainwashed by western education and ideology, etc.

In the world of such self-proclaimed custodians of African-ness, one is supposed to uncritically accept a practice or custom because tradition should not be questioned. These customs and traditions have been handed over to us by our forefathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, and therefore we are bound by tradition to maintain the cultural status quo. To question culture or tradition is to have “book sense” or knowledge but no “home sense” or wisdom. You are characterized in this manner even if you accept some aspects of our traditions and customs but question others. This reflects a mindset that categorizes people into very regimented compartments. So let me ask you this: What does is it mean to be an African, or a Ghanaian? Or as an Ewe, what does it mean to be an Ewe?

In his new book “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”, the philosopher and 1998 Nobel Laureate Amartya Kumar Sen sees cultural conflict as the result of a one-dimensional approach to human identity which leads to the religious partitioning of the world and the attendant global disorder. But as Sen correctly argues human identity is multi-faceted. The world is marked by extreme intolerance because we fail to embrace the many different facets that make us human.

Sen poignantly notes that “The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician”.

Following Amartya Sen, let me note that the same person can be, without any contradiction, a Fanti, a Ghanaian, married to a non-African, anti Arthur Mills, pro-CPP, of East Indian and Asante ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, from a royal family but against chieftancy, supports non-Ghanaian causes, has a non-African name, permanently resides in Europe, etc.

Our inability to accept the multi-faceted aspects of identity explains why criticizing the NPP makes you pro-NDC, criticizing the Asantehene makes you a non-Asante or a non-royal, supporting democracy makes you pro-western or an Afro-pean, criticizing chieftancy makes you anti-African, attacking Rawlings’ personality makes you a non-Ewe or pro-NPP, condemning the Preventive Detention Act of 1958 makes you anti-Nkrumah, etc. This inability also explains why an otherwise productive debate degenerates into insults and an attack on personalities. Instead of focusing on the issues, we subconsciously and overly focus on questions like: Is this person against chieftancy because she is not from a royal family? Is she pro-chieftancy because she lacks western education? Is she pro-Rawlings because she is an Ewe? In our view, it is inconceivable that a person from a royal family can be against chieftancy. We cannot fathom how both characteristics can, without any contradiction, be part of a person’s identity.

The next time someone claims that “you are lost” for questioning your culture, please remember that s/he is equally lost in the straitjacketed and parochial definition of human identity. You may arguably be lost in some dimensions of African-ness – whatever that means - but not in others and the same is invariably true of your accuser, the self-styled guardian of African-ness, the ascriber of African-ness to others, and the prescriber of African-ness to the entire world.

I agree that it does not make sense to accept everything European nor does it make sense to reject everything African. We need critical minds, tolerance, and a refrain from the sad and pitiful mindset that lumps the multi-faceted characteristics of a person’s identity into a single, unrefined, uncritical, straitjacketed and coarse category.

Indeed, Amartya Kumar Sen got it right.

*J. Atsu Amegashie, Department of Economics, University of Guelph, Canada.

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