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In Africa…. Journalists and Scientists collide with Superstition.


A look at the Ghanaian Academy of Arts and Sciences  workshop “Communicating Science for Journalists” ... 2010

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the journalist life more burdensome and complicated than in Africa where long running entrapping ancient beliefs - some stalling, some destructive, some frightening, and some formidable - clash with modern ideas of better living. For some time, front-line Ghanaian elites and journalists have become seriously aware of this. They have been working tenaciously to refine the inhibiting primeval values that have been jamming progress, as part of their public goodwill.

From Ghana’s number one international personality Kofi Annan to the remote northern small town of Bongo, the Ghanaian culture is under intense scrutiny to refine its embedded inhibitions such as witchcraft as the cause of deaths or sicknesses or diseases. Day in and day out, areas of Ghanaian culture are opened up and dissected; then deemed either counter-productive and in need of being refined, or appropriated for policy development. 

The outcome is that old beliefs are being challenged, erroneous thinking is being rationalized and strange beliefs being questioned. It is Ghanaian journalists who are using their front-line knowledge, their powers of mass communications and their understanding of the Ghanaian culture to drive the enlightenment forward. The journalists are encouraged by the global prosperity ideals and similar enlightenment movements that have taken place elsewhere, such as in Europe and Japan.

Some of these activities have come in collaborative ways such as the one with the Ghana Academy Of Arts and Sciences  “Communicating Science for Journalists" in Accra.

Of major boost to the Ghanaian enlightenment campaigns is the fact that the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1959 and the oldest Academy in sub-Sahara Africa, is formally recognizing that certain aspects of the Ghanaian/African culture are counter-productive to better living and need to be either abolished or refined. The Academy stance will bring depth and creative energy to the enlightenment project. By organizing the Accra workshop for the journalists, the Academy has officially joined the enlightenment campaigns and made the project an uncompromising national enterprise.

In a country where the rational and the irrational values emanating from the culture determine how better an individual lives, even sometimes between life and death, the journalist becomes the final arbiter, refereeing between the realistic and the absurd. Like a skilled magician, the journalist does this by juggling diverse issues, values and institutions at the same time to enlighten the Ghanaian public about some of the long-held strange beliefs that have made life somehow miserable for them. The Academy is practically aware of this, hence its capacity building of the Ghanaian journalist.

When Seth Danso, a scientist at the University of Ghana, said at the workshop that herbal medicine practitioners are right in claiming “a single herbal preparation can cure many diseases,” he was in a way tackling a dilemma that views the traditional herbalist as unscientific. Here Danso and the Academy are enhancing the traditional herbalist, and make the case that they are as near-scientific as orthodox medical practitioners, despite the fact that they are looked down upon and aren’t consulted in the grand scheme of the healthcare system.

Wisdom dictates that the foundational realities of Ghana, and other African states, should have made the largely orthodox healthcare system collaborate with traditional medicine, as the Chinese and Indians have wisely and successfully done. Whether wisdom, science or reasoning is in short supply, the task is how to free Ghanaians (and all Africans) from wallowing in some poisonously entangling superstition that  makes them die early, live uncomfortable lives, think erroneously, entertain strange beliefs or avoid living better lives freed from the fear of those cultural beliefs.

Part of the solution, as it occurred at the Academy workshop, is for Ghanaian journalists to work as partners in the public intellectual debate. By being realistic about the unique situation that this cultural dilemma creates, they can design  their mass communications  to tackle the restraining traditional values that have made the Ghanaian/African unable to live a better life. In a way, the journalist has to fully team up with the scientist and the thinker to interpret issues that border on the ensnaring of negative superstitions.

Such efforts will erase the primordial erroneous beliefs, such as the one Seth Danso revealed, that “people with chronic sores often attribute them to curses and spiritism or spiritual attacks, when the cause of such sores could easily be diabetes” or other physical diseases. The cooperation of journalists and scientists to further rationalize the Ghanaian society and culture is a dauntingly eclectic endeavour. It isn’t only about diseases or attribution of events to evil forces, but also the use of spiritualists of all types to influence, destroy or control each other.

Aboagye Menyeh, a scientist from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, made clear how superstitions have asphyxiated Ghanaians reasoning to the extent that when they are seeking travel visas, instead of providing material evidence for the visa they ignorantly “go for prayers” (that may sometimes involve some disturbing rituals including animal sacrifices) or consult juju-marabout spiritual mediums to influence the various diplomatic embassies. This is part of those certain inhibiting aspects of the culture that have stifled reasoning in the face of realities. In other parts of the world, people going for travel visas do not undergo all of these breathless superstitious practices.

How are journalists to help Ghanaians change such flawed thinking?More rationalization of the Ghanaian society by using science and reasoning to interpret occurrences that emanate from the Ghanaian/African culture. The outstanding journalist Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, one of the trainers at the Academy workshop, is instructive in the attempt to refine the inhibitions emanating from within the Ghanaian culture.

From Sakyi-Addo’s vast coverage of  conflicts in the northern parts of Ghana, he has come to the alarming conclusion that these never-ending conflicts are partly fuelled by easy access to juju-marabout paraphernalia prepared for the fighters by juju-marabout spiritual mediums. Despite beliefs in juju-marabouts and other superstitious accoutrements, some of the fighters are killed, some are maimed, some are permanently traumatised, and some are arrested. Disturbingly, the conflicts continue, holding back the progress of the areas under conflicts.

It is in the recovering of itself from 51 years of slumber in relation to the realities of real Ghanaian development, while the toxic cultural inhibitions wheel around it, that the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences initiated the “Communicating Science for Journalists” workshop. In this sense, the Academy instinctively acknowledges that  Ghanaian society has extremely troubling cultural challenges that have been weakening and hindering better living standards, and that need to be addressed to facilitate the real sustainable progress of Ghana.

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong



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