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Africa’s Culture Question

Ghana/Sierra Leone/Africa Development

As progress act, Africans are questioning their culture in terms of their advancement. The strategic issue of culture in Africa’s progress is gaining momentum. In Ghana, the culture-progress debate has given birth to an enlightenment movement.

The Ghanaian mass media aside, the prestigious Ghana Academy of Arts and Science has joined the enlightenment movement and has organized training sessions for journalists to deal with cultural inhibitions that stifle progress. By this action, the Academy is playing its role as the intellectual conscience of society and is supposed to project high rationality and credibility. In this sense, Ghanaians looked up to the Academy to illuminate the darkness that emanates from within their culture that has been entangling their progress.

Holistically, at issue aren’t only tackling the cultural inhibitions but also appropriating the enabling aspects of the Ghanaian culture for policy-making and progress. The Academy is yet to openly pressure Ghanaian bureaucrats and policy-makers to appropriate Ghanaians’ culture for policy development. This should be a deliberate and organized effort. The Academy is also thinking of floating a Science Reporting Award for journalists in order to whip up their enthusiasm to tackle the acute relationship among science, culture and advancement as part of the enlightenment movement.

In this sense, as Kingwa Kamencu, president of the Oxford University Africa Society, said, borrowing from the late Burkina Faso Head of State, Thomas Sankara, the Ghana enlightenment movement is daring to invent the African future for a new generation of Africans.

By their activities, the Ghana enlightenment movement has brought out how cultural inhibitions generate powerlessness and deprivation and the movement is attempting to empower and free Ghanaians to overcome their widespread cultural irrationalities. The trick is using the enlightenment campaigns to empower Ghanaians by minimising inhibitions within their culture that have been blocking their greater progress. That the cultural inhibitions have made Ghanaians/Africans powerless and unfree is unassailable.

These positive attempts will make Ghanaians “active citizens” freed from the clutches of certain cultural inhibitions. In the foreword to From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens And Effective States Can Change the World (2008) by Duncan Green, the famous Indian economist, Amartya Sen argues that this state of active citizenry “can be a very effective way of seeking and securing solutions to these pervasive problems of powerlessness and unfreedom.”

As the Ghana Enlightenment spreads Africa-wide, the Nigerian Dare Akinyemi ponders the culture question in relation to Nigerians’/Africans’ progress. Dare Akinyemi asked in a short philosophical piece at the Nigerian owned US-based africanoutlookonline.com, “How come Africans/Nigerians have not been able to use their cultures to elevate Africa/Nigeria to the global economic stage? Could it be that their cultures have no relevance to economic development or this is an area that has not been explored and need to be explored?”

Africans’ culture has huge significance in their advancement! And the exploration has begun in Ghana, where the enlightenment movement is playing with the culture as progress act. If Dare Akinyemi takes time to reflect on his Nigerian/African culture and its impact on progress, he will come to the agonizing conclusion that it is characterized by a disintegration of thought processes by African elites and leaders who are yet to have thorough grasp of their culture as directors of progress.

The elites know more about foreign development paradigms than their own African ones. The result is palpable confusion in the development game.

This makes the issue of Africa’s culture in relation to its progress, at best, an intellectual schizophrenia. African policy-makers and leaders, over 50 years after colonial rule, have not embraced their culture as strategic policy-making ingredient. So whether in law, society, ethnic cohesions, management, justice, structure, design, or meaning, the African culture, as the foundational psychological thrust of Africans, isn’t projected enthusiastically as a positive development mechanism.

The South Africans will readily tell their fellow Africans that their traditional value of ubuntu, “I am because we are,” which is also found in the over 2000 African ethnic groups, can easily be appropriated as management material, just as the Japanese have been able to develop management systems called Kaizen from within their cultural values that have been part of their remarkable successes.

As Ghana’s Y.K. Amoako, the former UN Economic Commission for Africa chair indicates, Africa is the only region in the world where foreign development paradigms dominate its development process to the detriment of its rich cultural norms. This makes the African confused, demeaned and at the mercy of foreign development values. More than ever as the Southeast Asians such as the Chinese and Indians enter Africa for raw materials; Africans can borrow from their culture-progress thinkers and tap into how they were able to mix their culture with that of the Western world for their respective prosperity.

Yes, culture as an economic development issue is still complicated, largely unexplored area. Gregory Clark, economic historian at the University of California, Davis, and author of A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, argues that “… attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability.”

Gregory Clark has a point to some extent, especially so the complications of the issue of culture in progress. The human progress has been how to undo complications such as culture along the path to progress. In Africa, part of the complications is that most development models are created to fit Western cultural context and not the African cultural context, as Emily Chamlee-Wright, an economist at Beloit College, Wisconsin, argues in a paper entitled Indigenous African Institutions and Economic Development (The Cato Journal, 1993).

The outcome is majority of Africans cut off from the formal development sector such as the banking and other financial institutions. Imagine the implications for authentic progress. The solution, as George Ayittey, of Africa in Chaos (1998) fame, will say, is “African solutions to African problems.” At the heart of George Ayittey’s thinking is “Africa is poor because she is not free.” Part of the unfreedoms emanate from African cultural norms such as the Big Man syndrome (the oppressive African autocrats).

However, at issue here aren’t only using the African culture to thrust economic development but the overall development of Africa in which Africans are freed from certain cultural entanglements that have been stifling their progress. For, the connection between culture and progress can take many formats, as the Ghana Enlightenment movement reveals. Virtually all kinds of Ghanaians from various stations-in-life are discussing the culture-progress issues from their respective experiences, disciplines, and ethnic origins.

But just like the European Enlightenment project, at issue in Africa is culture as an Enlightenment and development fertilizer and, as Ghanaians are doing, how an African Enlightenment project could be used to beam light into Africa’s general development struggles. The attempts aren’t only to unravel the complications of using the African culture to drive progress but how also an African Enlightenment movement could be used to refine the toxics within the African culture that have been inhibiting progress.

In the real Africa, you don’t have to be a qualitative sociologist or anthropologist to know that certain cultural behaviour inhibit progress. Across Africa different ethnic groups exhibit different degree of progress because of certain distinct cultural influences. Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner for Economics, in a presentation at the World Bank in July, 2001, borrowing from the German sociologist Max Weber’s ideas of the Protestant Ethic in the successful development of the capitalist industrial economy, asked thoughtfully, “Are there significant influences of cultural traditions and behavioural norms on economic success and achievements?”

Yes. In Ghana, the Asante ethnic group have been compared to the Ewe ethnic group in their respective successes. The Asante are far, far larger in size than the Ewes. Size doesn’t matter here. At issue are traditional values that influence progress. The Asantes is the most prosperous group but the Ewes have relatively high education index and are equally hard working. But while the Asante’s prosperity is as a result of their self-development, the Ewe is the opposite. In fact, Ewe traditional rulers, of recent times, have been demanding that Accra develop Eweland, which is one of the poorest areas in Ghana.

Why? How come the Ewes’ high education index and hard working couldn’t translate into high development indicators in Eweland?  It is certain aspects of their culture behaviour. Investment expects and objective Ewes plausibly argue that the high incidence of the deadly fearsome juju occult is largely responsible for most successful Ewes and other non-Ewe Ghanaians not investing in Eweland. There is fear, mistrust and disloyalty.

Most successful Ewes, afraid of juju, do not go back to develop their homeland but stay put either in Accra or Kumasi. Ewe children born in these cities and other Ghanaian towns exhibit the same mind-set. The columnist Justice Sarpong, of the ghanaweb.com, has intimated that “There are more Ewes living in other regions in Ghana than Ewes living in the Volta region,” their homeland.

In Sierra Leone, where I worked as a young reporter and teacher, I can now reflect, as a mature man, on the Weberian analysis of the role of cultural behaviour on progress among the Fula community. The Fula are traditionally nomadic and pastorialist but over the years have transformed themselves as skilled business people.  The Fula settled in the western area of Sierra Leone over 300 years ago from the Futa Djalon region of Guinea. The Fula’s traces of Weberian Protestant ethic (actually they are non-Protestant and non-Christian community. Most Fula are Muslim), driven more by trust, Islamic practices, patience and loyalty within their community, have seen them over the years owning many of the large shopping centres and businesses in Freetown’s downtown business centre of Kissy Road and Siaka Stevens Street that were traditionally Lebanese businesses enclave.

The Fula are only 5 per cent of the Sierra Leone population but somehow control the commanding heights of the Sierra Leone economy, having gradually edge out the Lebanese who once controlled the Sierra Leone economy.

 Still, part of the Fula’s remarkable successes are that there are extremely less witchcraft, demons or evil spirits believes and influences on their behaviour and struggles to progress compare to, say, the Fanti ethnic group of Ghana, whose believe in these irrational forces are very high and have entangled their progress despite having high education index and hard working. Among the Fula, the African development diseases of Pull Him/Her Down and the Big Man syndromes are less compared to other African ethnic groups. The Fanti has one of the highest incidences of the destructive Pull Him/Her Down and the Big Man syndromes in Ghana, as the late Vice Chancellor of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Prof. Kwesi Andam, himself Fanti, once remarked.

If in 2011 an African university graduate (some with chains of university degrees) still believes that witchcraft is responsible for vehicular accidents or diseases are caused by evil spirits or a “magic ring” can surely make a politician win elections or demons are responsible for people committing crimes (all these backward cultural believes impinge on progress), then the need for questioning certain aspects of the African culture are unassailable truths.

 As with Weber’s European Protestant ethic, the Asante and Fula, among other African groups, show nobody progresses with high incidence of deeply negative entangling superstitious believes that undermine the good traits of one’s traditional values.

For broader understanding of cultural behaviour on progress lets look at the Southeast Asians, whom a lot of Africans gleefully admire for their enviable progress. Reflecting on culture and success at his World Bank presentation in 2001 aptly entitled Culture And Development, Amartya Sen argued that, “Infact, in sharp contrast with Max Weber's analysis of Protestant ethics, many writers in present-day Asia emphasize the role of Confucian ethics in the success of industrial and economic progress in east Asia. Indeed, there have been several different theories seeking explanation of the high performance of East Asian economies in terms of values that are traditional in that region. It is interesting to ask whether values really do play such important roles, and if so, how. Are we, for example, seeing in Asia today the consequences of a value system that has some real advantages over traditional Western morals? Have the ancient teachings of Confucius paved the way for great entrepreneurial success in modern times?”

Amartya Sen demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt how the Japanese have been able to blend their traditional behaviour norms (Confucianism) and businesses. The result is their astonishing economic successes which have transformed their “backward economy into one of the most prosperous nations in the world in less than a century.”

Either in economic backwardness or refining the irrationalities within a culture, in Lawrence Harrison’s intriguing Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (2006), he quoted the American democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan as saying, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society … The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

 Of concern here are cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes that best promote democracy, social justice, and prosperity. The challenge is how to use the forces that shape cultural change – religion/spirituality, socialization of children, education, and political leadership - to promote democratic tenets for prosperity.

 We see this in Ghana through its emerging democracy and healthy press freedoms, where there are attempts to use democratic politics to change the irrationalities emanating from within the Ghanaian culture that have been asphyxiating higher progress. There are attempts too to appropriate the enabling aspects of the culture for policy development. The Ghanaian enlightenment movement is rapidly growing because of the country’s vibrant democracy and mass media that have engendered freedoms, good governance, social justice, equity, human rights and the rule of law.

From Amartya Sen views and other African ethnic groups’ cultural influence on their successes, the Nigerian Dare Akinyemi culture question still haunts Africans as they struggle for authentic development that should flow from within their culture: “How come Africans/Nigerians have not been able to use their cultures to elevate Africa/Nigeria to the global economic stage? Could it be that their cultures have no relevance to economic development or this is an area that has not been explored and need to be explored?”

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong


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