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Opinions of Thursday, 12 August 2010

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

The cultural clash over life and death

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

The attempts to disentangle certain erroneous cultural beliefs and practices from the realities of better living are getting warm by the day. Following the on-going campaigns to refine the inhibitions within the Ghanaian culture for progress, the Society of Private Medical and Dental Practitioners (SPMDP) of Ghana, according to the Ghana News Agency, has enjoined “Ghanaians to change their attitudes and contribute money to pay the hospital bills of their sick relatives just like they do when they die.”

What a weighty statement! Earlier a consultant from the government transportation agency had told a conference that vehicular accidents are not caused by the “devil” or “evil spirits” but by broad range of reasons such as mechanical problems, human errors, poor roads, etc.

How do we extricate death from life, culturally? Ghanaian culture has made Ghanaians obsessed with deaths and funerals. It sounds strange but the Ghanaian was born into such culture, where the dead is respected more than the living, and millions of dollars spent on funerals. And because of this, the funeral business is booming. This has generated competition among Ghanaians of who had the best funeral for their dead relatives. It sounds troubling against that fact that the living does not get as much attention as the dead. And the fact that the money for dead could be harnessed for development so as to expand the life expectancy of Ghanaians, as the SPMDP argues, is a compelling material argument.

One of my relatives in Kumasi, who is in the funeral business, has become fabulously rich. “Business is good…Almost every weekend there are huge funerals,” he told me. And I know a coffin maker in Kumasi who prays everyday for more people to die for his business to grow. It sounds scary and inhuman but all these emanate from the Ghanaians culture. The business of wishing people to die rapidly so as to sustain one’s business is awful. In some frightening ways, certain aspects of the Ghanaian culture are death mongers. No doubt, a good chunk of Ghanaian traditional music is situated on death.

May be, as a result of the immense money in the funeral business, very soon before people die they will throw their own funeral parties to make and enjoy the money instead of not seeing the money before they die. In the new film Get Low, the veteran actor Robert Duvall, 79, plays a Tennessee loner who throws his funeral party whilst still alive. The film is based on a true story of a 1930 recluse in southern USA. How does it sound to the funeral-mad Ghanaians? Get Low will be a good proposition to retool these aspects of Ghanaians’ traditional cosmology. That means here-on-earth the Ghanaian will enjoyment life from his or her own funeral party before going to the hereafter.

It is in such confusing atmosphere that for long health professionals have stayed clear of serious cultural issues that impinge on their very domain for fear of being seen as looking down on the Ghanaian culture. But they are waking up and taking on the aspects of the culture that troubles them, no matter the consequences. Now, with the development atmosphere opened by democratic tenets and the enlightenment campaigners across all aspects of the Ghanaian society, they are taking on the inhibiting cultural practices they deem counter-productive to Ghanaians’ health and a burden on the under-funded health-care system.

From health to soccer, from the drive to think rationally (against the large dose of irrationalities spewing from the culture) to evil spirits responsible for vehicular accidents, across Ghana, there are campaigns to refine the inhibitions within the culture for greater progress. Opinion leaders, the mass media, non-governmental organizations, religious organizations, and government agencies are in the forefront of movements to enlighten Ghanaians about how certain parts of their culture unnecessarily inhibit their progress and why they should do away with them for their greater good.

The health professionals’ revelation of how certain parts of Ghanaian culture entrap their work is drawn from diverse aspects of the on-going enlightenment movement. The other day, one Ghana’s and Africa’s top soccer club, the Fabulous Asante Kotoko, “banned” juju from its operations after 75 years of such practices. Over the past 75 years Kotoko (including its management, hardcore supporters and individual players) might have spent millions of dollars on juju in attempts to win games, but their situation on the ground have been lukewarm and at best appalling.

Logically, this isn’t different from spending millions of dollars on the dead and funerals.

Sports aside, nowhere is the ensnaring aspects of the cultural more prominent than in the health-care system, where cultural beliefs clash with scientific realities. Ghanaians are being urged to wash their hands thoroughly to prevent diseases and not blame their ailments on evil spirits. Eighty percent of diseases start from the hands, new researches reveal. The diseases aren’t caused by evil spirits. This may necessitate some small spending on soap and hand sanitizer instead of on the dead. No doubt, the president of SPMDP, Joseph Kwasi Hanson, has observed that “Ghanaians spend more money on other things, which weren’t very necessary, instead of spending on their health.”

And this may explain why simple manners of not urinating in public, but building toilet in one’s house (I am told a good number of houses in Accra have no toilets), so as not to cause diseases are national problem today. Still, for instance, some of the millions of dollars spent on traditional funerals could be used by families to build decent toilets in their homes. The same applies to using a good part of the funeral money to help acquire technologies for the health-care system under the vital National Health Insurance Scheme.

As Ghanaian elites increasingly get involved in refining the inhibitions within their culture that have made life uncomfortable for most Ghanaians for centuries, the clash over life and death, more for cultural reasons than scientific, will be minimized. And Ghanaians would live a much freer life.