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Opinions of Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Columnist: Opare-Addo, Kofi Opare

In Tackling The Trouble With African Spirituality

...Tawiah and Akosah leaves us short.

Until I read Ben Tawiah’s rather long, winding, but engaging take on African culture and religion prior attempts by Kofi Akosah Sarpong have always left me confused with their chaotic and one-dimensional arguments about why, how and when we all got it wrong on the state of culture and religion on our beloved continent.

By now we know that when in the late 15th century Diego D’Azambuja and his posse of journeymen showed up on the beaches of Edina they had been inspired supremely by country,(Alfonso V of Portugal) to seek gold, land, and all forms of practical expressions of wealth and power. But more ominously aside from this patriotic search for “bling” and power was also the 1452 proclamation by the Papacy of Nicholas V to the faithful to enslave Africans and all other non-christians everywhere. The Papal Bull, Dum Diversas explicitly authorized, Alfonso V, Azambuja’s master, to appropriate places such as far-flung Edina for the King, and enslave its people on behalf of the Papacy and by extension, Christ himself.

How this odious detail from Azambuja’s grim travelogue was later re-told as a simple seafarer’s tale in textbooks across Africa must be one of the many public relations masterstrokes by the Church. And this is a church, which through its storied life has had Popes who fathered kids and tortured their opponents all the while missing the irony in labeling Mary Magdalene a prostitute even though the gospels never make the connection. But then again, hasn’t the African experience been full of stories, which for all their carefully nuanced spiritual narration, now sound like those concocted by a 10 year old to fool a six year old.
Both Tawiah and Akosah come to this discussion from different points of view, and my own sense is that they both agree on the fact that African culture and religion by its long association with Western culture has been stripped of all its key pillars. Akosah’s somewhat melancholic piece seeks to inspire us to fight against cultural corruption, whiles Tawiah’s contribution with it generous hints of sarcasms leaves us with the impression that Akosah’s desire for cultural regeneration is improbable if not laughable. In Tawiah’s estimation this displacement of the African culture and religion was inevitable, as would happen when an irresistible force runs into a weak object. Same way, if you will, the Trade Winds that blow across Africa and leaves ill constructed wicker roofs in African villages and towns scattered and battered.
More importantly, Tawiah is unbending in his accusation of Africans of a shared complicity in the present despair of our culture and religion. I, too, asked the same question after reading Adam Hochschild book, “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Africa”. Hochschild’s gory account of how the king of Belgium pilloried, maimed and killed 10 million Congolese all for rubber and minerals would make anyone with a taste for the macabre even cringe. Until the bestseller New York journalist and author came along with this, King Leopold’s name had always been a small anecdote in the details of the 1884 Scramble for Africa by the major European powers. And I asked myself how they could allow this to happen to them. It’s easy to say so from the convenience of our laptops in an era where YouTube brings us instant gratification and levels the truth for all of us. In no small measure, the invention of the gun, especially the machine gun, literally and metaphorical places the proverbial smoking gun in the guilty hands of the West. In the words of David Hinds’ Steel Pulse, “we got our spears and we got our shields but their guns were better, prepare for a slaughter” So even though we read of the early heroism of Kofi Kakari (“the white man brought his canons to the bush, but the bush is stronger than the canon”), Mutesa (the Kabaka of Buganda) and the royals of Matabeleland, the forcible exile of Prempeh I to the Seychelles, the capitulation of the Kabaka and the wide and wild sway of Cecil Rhodes in Southern Africa brings up a more sinister picture of the use of violence and terror as a tools by the early missionaries. For all his good intentions, David Livingston, an all-time favourite in the African missionary experience and, by every Christian account, an evangelical superstar, once wrote condescendingly that“ we have come among them as people from a superior culture to rescue the more degraded portions of humanity”. Dr. Livingston himself may not have been violent but the man who went in search of him was the dreaded Henry Morton Stanley named Bula Matari (breaker of rocks) by the locals partly because of his use of dynamite to carve out easy pathways in the Congo river, and partly because he was quick to use explosives on the locals if they fail to supply him with rubber and their complete compliance in his drive to acquire the Congo for king and paymaster, Leopold II.
Mark Twain in his book “King Leopold’s Soliliquy” quotes the Belgian Monarch complaining about how he was being demonized at the time. He quotes his own critics as saying ‘if the innocent blood shed in the Congo State by King Leopold were put in buckets and the buckets placed side by side, the line would stretch 2,000 miles; if the skeletons of his ten millions of starved and butchered dead could rise up and march in single file, it would take them seven months and four days to pass a given point…’
For years we have witnessed foreign religions dismiss the sordid details and wrap themselves in a sort of fellow-feeling imageries whiles conveniently forgetting that each successful “convertion” they make has been on the ruins and rubble of the crushed African religions and culture which in their essence do not differ from the conqueror religion on morality.
And this is where some of my sympathies lay with Ben Tawiah. The intervening years, between the liberation period of the 1960s and now, have seen the rise of Idi Amin, Charles Taylor and Sanni Abacha. I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that from the ashes of Stanley and his master King Leopold rose Mobutu Sese Seko, and many years, after the fact, Robert Mugabe would turn out to be a Cecil Rhodes in the guise of a black Zimbabwean. Maybe all along he is Cecil Rhodes himself.
Truly, Ben Tawiah exposes the trap we all easily fall into each time we take sides on issues such as culture in Africa. Too often in the African narrative we appear dismissive of our own complicity in the various debacles that have ensued from our dealings with the West and to a great degree, too, with Arabia. It’s not too surprising that we become defensive on the slightest suggestion that slave trade, like every retail endeavour, has a buyer and a seller. Didn’t a famous freedom fighter in Ghana also support the British Empire in the World War I and didn’t all of us born in the 1960s sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in elementary schools even as we memorised the popular Negro Spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”?
In that regard Tawiah has a point but his light treatment of Ashra Kwesi’s Afrocentrism as some fleeting rhetoric by a man whose only talent is charisma and an eye for the odd biblical fable, is intellectually dangerous and misses the central point in the entire African story. Ours’ is the only narrative where all the contradictions can exist as different strands of the truth on the same spectrum. So it’s only inevitable that Kwesi, Akosah and Tawiah would find themselves on the opposite sides of the argument and still remain true Africans. Same way, Marcus Garvey and Booker T Washington contradicted W.E.B du Bois, and in later years Malcom X differed from Martin Luther King, or Fela and Marley one hand and P.S.K Ampadu with his late 1960s song “Obibini Blackman” on the other. Perhaps Leopold Senghor signifies this more profoundly when as a French citizen he still had ambitions to free Senegal from Gaullist influence. Whereas, Senghor philosophically tried to redeem himself with his Negritude, his fellow African freedom fighter and French citizen, Houphouet Boigny unapologetically remained a Gaulist to the core and to boot a front-pew Catholic till his death. Houphouet answered Senghor’s Negritude with a gift to the Catholic Church in the form of the biggest basilica in the world in his native Yamosoukoro
Isn’t Africa and the entire Negro experience all about contradictions. The challenge is how to transcend these contradictions in the various attempts by despots and democrats alike in the reconfiguration of our societies to survive as thriving nation-states. And it seems to me religion and culture has become a sideshow in a Youtube age where science and technology is the only way Africans, or any society, can develop. We can only make a strong case for our culture if and when we solve the problems of disease, famine and wars on the continent. While we are at it we should also remember that the criminal omission by the educated African elite to tackle these questions leaves a vacuum for the likes of Bono and all other “cup-in-hand” advocates for Africa to set the agenda and define the story for us
Could it be that this inherent failure in our culture to tell our own story is also the reason why despite Okomfo Anokye’s spiritual powers his contribution to the Ghanaian spirituality is only limited to a few stories about a sword and a celestial delivery of a royal piece of furniture? Or maybe because evangelizing, whether by force or done subliminally by all the three Abrahamic religions, was not part of African religions there is no report of even a single European being converted despite centuries of association with Africans. Or could it be as a result of this, and our own easy fascination with everything alien and novel, the spread of other religions at the expense of our own became inevitable? The story is told of how some Nigerian Christians, after years of being bossed around by returning Muslim pilgrims with their Alhaji titles decided to respond with their own pilgrimage to Jerusalem and boldly claiming the title; JP or Jerusalem Pilgrim.
Akosah’s call to arms to defend our culture and religion may be simplistic, but Tawiah’s dismissive treatment of the subject is a little harsh and trivializes the important lessons we can all draw from the weaknesses and strengths of our culture as we try to make sense of why laptops and cell phones have become fashion statements in Accra whiles my people in the foothills of Nyanaw and Abokobi still cultivate and eat manioc the same way our ancestors did when Azambuja met Kwamena Ansah on the beaches of Edina in 1471.
Let’s celebrate these contradictions with civility, whiles keeping in mind that good and evil, success and failure come in all hues, especially black and white.



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