Ghana, Morality and Tradition – By Graham Knight

I hear some Ghanaians state with sadness, that Ghana is changing, that things are no longer the same, and that moral values are declining. These are statements not confined only to Ghana but to people in other cultures as well.

But the obvious fact, that change is the only constant, has perhaps taken Ghana by surprise as for so long it has appeared to be a homogenous culture in which change is imperceptible.

Economic development, increasing levels of education and exposure to a world outside have increased the speed of change and encouraged people to ask questions about their ways of living that appeared to be “normal” simply because they’d always done them and were unaware of alternatives.


The Myth of One Culture

There never were one set of moral values and traditions for Ghana. Ghana is an artificial construct by colonialism bringing together different ethnic groups with different traditions and values. There are certainly agreed parameters but within that there were differences that were excused or tolerated. One example is the rule about marrying cousins. Traditionally the Ashanti’s matriarchal lineage allowed marriage between cousins only on the paternal line, although this is now being discouraged. Contrast this with the Ewe’s who patriarchal line gives them the opposite view. This fact, that different values and traditions have always been accommodated and managed, should allow us to face the future with courage and not fear.

The Decline of the Disciplinary Society

Ghana has been a disciplinary society. The boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable were not only clearly marked but unquestioned. When given instructions, explanations and reasons were deemed unnecessary.

Richard Holloway in Godless Morality: keeping religion out of Ethics argues that “moral systems reflected and gave support to external structures of authority”. In addition, that authority was often believed to have divine sanction. People are no longer comfortable simply obeying without question, and moral systems no longer work when they lose their power.

The Decline of Absolute Authority

Religions – traditionally a patriarchal system of control – are now only one of many competing systems. Ghana’s secular state is another. Education has prompted many to challenge and sometimes reject moral claims based on increasingly diverse interpretations of religious texts. Unworthy behaviour, whether immoral, selfish, or political, from religious leaders has also helped to undermine their absolute authority. The belief that strengthening religion (I’m not sure how that is possible once it has lost its ability to command) will somehow reinstate traditional morality is misguided.

Where the unchallengeable elders were once, truly, the transmitters of traditional knowledge – culture, ritual, law – that knowledge is becoming increasingly irrelevant as modern society requires a different kind of knowledge i.e. technological.

It’s obvious that it’s impossible to shut a country off from the rest of the world. TV, film, music and internet bring in other values which may challenge existing ones. A culture cannot retreat into the past when this conflict arises but must engage with it and, in the process, change will occur.

Ghanaians sent family members to Europe and the USA, not just to send back money, but to acquire new knowledge. These Ghanaians are now returning to Ghana with new values and ideas and are sometimes castigated because they didn’t bring the “right” values and ideas back!

Morality is now more complex and absolute authority is no longer something an educated people can subscribe to. Authority can no longer expect obedience even if it hasn’t recognised that yet!

The backlash and why it will fail

Some people have started to panic at the uncertainty caused by the challenge to, and disintegration of the values and traditions of the past. They are retreating into social conservatism. They lash out at women who have become more educated, independent and, released from being mere chattel, sexually adventurous.

New values are labelled “un-African” and xenophobia is employed in an attempt to scare people away from them.

But the thing about tradition is that it is collectively, almost unconsciously, agreed upon, accepted and unquestioned. The minute you have to start appealing to it, the issue has already been lost.

Ghana, due to outside exposure and immigration now has a plurality of values. There can no longer been absolutist values – inflexible and eternal. As with the issue of Ghanaian homosexuality, the pitch has been irrevocably queered, and the order of the day is discussion and flexibility as new situations arise.

Ghana has already shown success at managing different traditions as is evident in the seemingly conflicting systems of parliament and chieftaincy.

It is certainly comforting to take refuge in a past in which everything seemed simple. But that is no longer possible. The past, whilst appearing stable, came at a cost, often to women and children.

There are exiting challenges ahead which require adult and flexible approaches. I look at Ghanaian youth and I believe they have the knowledge and skills to navigate their way to a new future. As long as they don’t allow the systems, whose corruption has already lost them their authority, to corrupt them also.