African Religions vs. Western Ideals | The Post-colonial Assault on Ghana


“Since Ghana`s contact with Europe, following the Portuguese landing in Yabiw in 1471, Christianity has been used as a powerful tool to undermine Ghana`s religious spiritualties and cultural values.”


Ghana has an enviable record as the first country south of Sahara to gain independence in Africa. The independence paved the way for the total liberation of the African continent, and it made the Global African Family proud of their African personality. But the Ghana which made history in 1957 has backtracked on its respect for the African cultural values and ideals. Currently, the country has decided to put up one of the biggest National Cathedrals in the world on its soil to placate the Christian groups. Consequently, about ten six-bedroom bungalows built for Appeals Court Judges in Accra, and several important immovable properties including a foreign diplomatic building have been targeted for demolition to make way for the ultra-million-dollar National Cathedral.

This is against the backdrop that Ghana, as a country, is still a secular state. The constitution spells out the inclusion of religious and cultural pluralism. However, within the context of these freedoms, western ideologies flowing from common law and Christian religious thoughts have combined their forces to assault the pillars of African indigenous and cultural values in Ghana. The end product has been the erosion of societal mores and norms, destruction of the environment and natural resources and the disregard for the indigenous knowledge systems.

Prior to colonisation, there existed in every Ghanaian community some positive rights and obligations constituting Positive Morality, which may be called the Customary Law, and which each person can enforce against his neighbor, either by means of the village council sitting and acting judicially as a local tribunal, or by invoking, as already stated, the silent force of the popular sanction according to an usage long established or well known, all of which, more or less, take of the character of law. These laws were not written laws; they were handed down by oral tradition and were developed by usage.

The customary law was in tandem with the socio-cultural and political systems of the people, and it was enforced by the chiefs or headmen and their councilors to regulate the life of the people in the community and to ensure societal order. There was civil (manso), and criminal (amanenya) procedures for which actions can be commenced and offenders of crimes and civil wrongs such as rape, theft, murder, slander, adultery, perjury, and taboos against nature are punished. The unique aspect of the legal procedure was the swearing of an oath (ntam) on the community deity by the parties to an action. This process enabled the people to speak the truth.

In fact, in a situation where a decision could not be resolved by the arbitrators, superior spiritual forces of the land were relied upon. Dutch factor, Willem Bosman who was in the Gold Coast (Ghana) in late 1600, recorded: “If any person is suspected of thievery and the indictment is not clearly made out, he is obliged to clear himself by drinking the oath-draught, and use the imprecation, that the fetish may kill him if he is guilty of thievery.” The spiritual and psychological efficacy in resorting to ordeal to clinch incontrovertible finality on adjudication of cases and ensuring that truth prevailed at all times has been noted by renowned Gold Coast legal luminary, Casely Hayford; he posited: “Where there is a strong conflict of evidence, and the Court is unable to arrive at a decision, the ordeal is resorted to, which consists of drinking a large quantity of a herbal preparation known as edum. If the party drinking returns the stuff, he is declared free, or not guilty. If he retains the edum, he is found guilty. In some parts of West Africa the suspected person, in criminal matters, is made to chew a handful of rice. If he is unable to do so, he is declared guilty. I have heard this explained on physiological grounds as being highly scientific, and possibly there may be some physiological reason why a guilty person attempts in vain to return the edum.”

Apart from the customary law tradition, Ghanaians had their indigenous religious spiritualties. These spiritualties include kpele of the Ga people of Accra; Aberewa, Tigare, and Akom of the Akans, Vodu worship of the Ewes and so on. These traditional spiritualties had unwritten holy words which regulate the social and moral life of the people. The unwritten holy words had edicts on the decency in dressing, respect for elders and nature or environment, especially the land, river bodies, trees, and the air space. Nature represents the abode of the African deities, thus the enactment of various taboos against the spilling of innocent human blood on the land, sexual intercourse in the bush, felling of trees in the sacred groves, pollution of the river bodies and fouling of the air space with evil slander against others.

These taboos were rooted in the African religious spiritualties. For instance, in the religious tradition of the Akan, the Sky God, Nyame, and the Earth God, Asase Yaa are paired together. Nyame, the male principle, and Asase Yaa, the female principle in the pair. The universal Earth and the ancestors are inextricably linked. But whereas the Earth is concerned with the general good (the general law) the ancestors are concerned with the good of their descendants. Both ancestors and the Earth are symbols of moral authority in this sense. Thus ancestors are owners and the living as custodians of the land.

In addition, the indigenous Ghanaian society had other important cultural knowledge of marriage ceremonies, alternative dispute resolution, and indigenous knowledge in plant growing and harvesting, animal rearing and fishing. The indigenous Ghanaians had expert knowledge of the cosmos. They could interpret the appearance and the size of the moon to show the time of fertility and farming activities. Fishermen can interpret the formation of the stars in the sky to make a prediction about the movement of fish in the ocean. This helped fishermen to obtain bumper fishing harvest and also avoid fishing at certain times and be on the safer side of the vagaries of the weather.

How the assault started

Despite the seemingly important advantages garnered by Ghanaians from their own religious and cultural value; certain by-products of colonization and imperialism such as Christianity and Westernisation have conspired to torpedo the gains made. In fact, since Ghana`s contact with Europe, following the Portuguese landing in Yabiw in 1471, Christianity has been used as a powerful tool to undermine Ghana`s religious spiritualties and cultural values.

The early missionaries and racist anthropologists self-styling themselves as Christians made a deliberate effort to describe Ghanaian indigenous religious worship as a fetish. The deities or divinities were described as idols, fetish or gods, while the traditional priests were called “fetish priests.” The supernatural exhibition of powers by traditional priests was described as magic and their dance as primitive. Aime Cesare calls this form of tagging as thingification; a deliberate strategy couched to undermine everything African and extol the virtues of the European things. Churches and missionary schools were set up to brain-wash the minds of the educated people, and to a jolly large extent, they succeeded. Thus many of the Gold Coasters trained in European schools such as Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein, Christian Jacob Protten, Philip Quaque, and others became Christian pastors and educators who justified slavery or fought against traditional African worship, culture, and values.

In the area of law and cultural values, the commencement of British colonization in 1874, with the concomitant introduction of British common law tradition, paved the way for superimposition of British laws over indigenous laws. The common law traditions had sway in the Gold Coast, despite the passage of the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance of 1883 which gave a window of opportunity to the chiefs to operate native courts. In as much as the British tried to make the idea of operating two legal systems, customary and common laws, under what Lord Lugard calls Dual Mandate, the English law had supremacy over the customary which had to pass the repugnancy test before it can be a legally enforceable document.

The application of common law and enactment of ordinances laid the foundation for the usurpation of the authority of African political organizations, personnel, and traditions. The NJO of 1883 was the first legal document which took away the powers of Akan women, especially queen mothers in the affairs of the colonial state. The NJO gave powers to the chiefs and kicked away the rights of queen mothers in the adjudication of cases in the native courts. Legislative enactments were also deployed to destool chiefs, ban indigenous cultural practices and religious orders and cults, while British non-state fraternity such as Freemasonry, Grand United Order of Oddfellows, Temperance Society, Order of Foresters, Emmanuel I-Am, Ruth Occult Circle and others were allowed to flourish.


The media has swallowed the Westernisation agenda fully and has become an unrepentant conveyor-belt for disseminating Western ideas and Christian preaching to the masses.


Post-colonial assault

Having subjected the Ghanaian to colonization, imperialism, missionary education, Christianity and Western values, the post-colonial Ghanaian is never the same. Not even President Kwame Nkrumah`s Pan-Africanism concept could change the minds of the people to quit their taste for Western values and products. Christianity became a vehicle for further assault of the indigenous African spiritualties. The traditional worship was tagged by the New Pentecostal Groups as satanic and primitive; more Churches were erected in the cities and others moved to the rural areas to forcefully destroy indigenous deities.

In this move, the churches advised communities to avoid participation in rites of passage such as Akan, Ga and Krobo menstrual ceremonies: Bragoro, Otofo, and Dipo, which they described as barbaric and demonic. The church emboldened their members to enter into Sacred Groves, Forest covers and river bodies which had taboos to cut trees and fish in the rivers to prove that their Christian God is above African deities or gods. Even some born-again chiefs were engaged in these dastardly acts against nature to prove their acceptance as Christians.The end product of these Christian activities on traditional rites of passage and nature are the prevalence of teenage pregnancies, utter disrespect of the traditional authority, deforestation and destruction or pollution of the river bodies.

The Ghanaian Governments, just like the British colonial administration, have also enacted statutes and entered agreements with multinational corporations and foreign governments to exploit minerals and forestry resources in the country without regards to the customary practices of the people. This behavior culminated in the forest depletion, environmental pollution and uncontrolled artisanal mining (galamsey), which had the large presence of Chinese migrants polluting the water bodies in Ghana. In the area of education, Ghana`s own indigenous religion, history, and Pan-Africanism are not included in the syllabus at the basic education level. The entire educational system is Western-focused, even Ghanaian language teaching has become a problem as much premium is placed on English tutorship. The Ghanaian indigenous religio-cultural values are virtually non-existent in the basic school curriculums.

The media has swallowed the Westernisation agenda fully and has become an unrepentant conveyor-belt for disseminating Western ideas and Christian preaching to the masses. They prefer to air American TV shows or Mexican and Indian Telenovelas translated into Ghanaian Twi language than to produce and air locally made TV shows. Thus Ghanaian media has ensured the faster occurrence of cultural imperialism. Thus many Ghanaians today prefer to buy and use Indian cars and cloths, Mexican hair, Chinese and Western products.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to quote Professor Noah Komla Dzobo thus; “The most devastating effect of Western colonization and missionary proselytization on Africa is the removal of a genuine capacity for free action from Africans who have been made into objects of history instead of being its subjects. To a considerable extent Africans have lost their capacity for creativity; instead of assuming the active role of self-creators and makers of the culture they have adopted the passive role of acquiescence before alleged immutable cosmic laws imposed on them by foreign religion and education.”

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