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Opinions of Thursday, 9 July 2009

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Weaving African religion into development

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

One of the complicated issues facing Ghana’s progress is how religion could be used for progress. The current religious activities of the spiritual churches are of much concern, sometimes muddling progress against religiously hungry Ghanaians who are seeking religion to address their existential challenges.

Such apprehension is cast against the fact that much of the progresses of most societies have been driven by religion. In Europe, as Max Weber indicates in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, one cannot discuss European progress without mentioning its spiritual origin.

Despite the overt mass sway of Ghanaians to churches and mosques, most equally access traditional African religion when such churches and mosques fail to solve their existential problems. This is more prominent in rural areas where most Ghanaians live. This is against the fact that colonialism demeaned African religion and called it all sorts of names – “pagan” or “Satanic,” for instance. Post-independent African elites have not worked to change such attacks against African religion.

But as Ghana’s progress hit homestretch and Ghanaians increasingly grapple with their traditional values in the larger schemes of their progress, as part of the developmental errors committed in yesteryears, the issue of African spirituality is gradually coming into the forefront of progress. That’s why the Deputy Minister for Women and Children's Affairs, Hajia Hawawu Gariba, has indicated that “African traditional religion in Ghana is seen as a means of seeking protection and intercession between the living and the creator through ancestors.”

You don’t progress when you debase your core spiritual base and accepts the wrong-headed attacks that undignified it, especially a spirituality that has served one’s ancestors positively for centuries and that instruct humanity as the participating member of Earth community and not as the boss of Earth’s destiny. It doesn’t matter whether the African is a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, you got to respect African religion, just as you accord Christianity or Islam. But what happens in Africa is the opposite, creating psychic disturbances in the development process.

In a recent visit to a church in Accra, for almost two hours, the preacher assailed African religion, projecting it as despicable, evil, and demonic. After the service, I asked the friend who invited me to the church, “Why the preacher did spent so much time attacking African religion instead of addressing most of the social ills afflicting Ghana?” “What wrong has African religion done to the preacher and Ghana to receive such long-running offensive?” He agreed that the preacher went too far, and that he may be suffering from colonial hung-over. I told him I come from a large extended family in Kumasi where some of my folks are Christians, some Muslims, some Buddhist and some African religion practitioners and we all live peacefully together.

Nowhere in the world are a people’s spirituality bastardized than in Africa. From the legendary Okomfo Anokye (Ghana) to all the founders of Africa’s over 2,000 ethnic groups, African spirituality has been the foundational stimulant, sustaining the ethnic groups against all sorts of developmental hazards as has been the case with Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia or Islam in the Middle East or Eastern Orthodox spirituality in Russia.

This makes Hajia Gariba’s concerns have both confidence and psychological implications. While legally the Ghanaian nation-state is a secular one, the fact that “traditional religious beliefs have served as the fabric of society’s set codes of behaviour for many years” have not been worked into Ghana’s development paradigms but over the years it has been greatly damaged (as my shocking encounter at the Accra church revealed) and have created spiritual and psychological wounds.

Much of these damages to African religion will be repaired if in the larger development game Ghanaians are educated about how significant their traditional religion is, especially its relationship to Earth, as the current global thinking indicates. As the Western world dominated neo-liberal development paradigm re-thinks its practices in relation to the Earth, African religion, like other Third World indigenous religions, is on the ascendancy not only as human-centred (like Christianity) but also how it balances humankind and nature in an earth under threat from humankind’s wrong thinking in relation to the Earth.

Prominent American religious scholar Thomas Berry, author of Dream of the Earth and Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community has asked the Western world to go the African and other non-Western religion ways by replacing its human-centred concept of creation with a “new cosmology in which humankind was an integrated yet subservient part of a sacred, living and evolving universe.” Such view quickly debunks the earlier colonial, Christianity attacks on African religion (as not sophisticated) and reveals not only its resiliency and profound wisdom but also its deep-seated divine balance between Earth and humankind.

No doubt, Berry echoes the central tenets of African religion when he argued that, “What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur, then the emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished. Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars of night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human.”