HOMEWARD - May 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

White Masks

Photo by Trevor Cole

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

I grew up in the most religious country in the world. Ghana is a melting pot of Christian, Muslim and ‘traditionalist’ African beliefs. However, the dominant religion is Christianity and it is fundamentally at odds with the traditional belief systems. Growing up in the city of Kumasi, the cultural center of the Ashanti, Ghana’s major ethnic group, I witnessed this clash between our African spirituality and Christian colonial legacy first hand.

When I was little, I observed a traditional ceremonial dance at a funeral. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the man in the grass skirt kicking up dirt as he swirled in hypnotic circles, every inch of his body twisting, curling and contracting to each drumbeat. His entourage threw white dust as he turned and he was enveloped in white mist, his skin slowly turning grey. His face was already painted in the dust, like a white mask. This man was an Akomfo, an Ashanti priest, his dance a spiritual performance of the traditional belief system, Akom. There was a strangeness about this mystic man, yet one thing wasn’t all that extraordinary. Many Ghanaians today wear white masks. The only difference is that these masks are invisible. They are not symbols of our traditions, but rather tokens given to us by our colonizers.

The white masks conceal our identity, altering the way we saw ourselves. We first wore these masks because we had no choice, but in the centuries since, we forgot what lay behind them. Colonialism damaged Africa’s cultural integrity. One of the greatest and most damaging colonizing tools on the continent was Christianity. The Christian faith itself is not harmful, often it manifests itself beautifully. However, in Ghana it is rooted in the racism and subjugation of our colonial past. The Christianity we initially encountered was that of slavers and murderers. It was spread on the basis of our assumed inferiority and that of our customs. Because of this there is an implicit self-hatred in our history with Christianity, and this is a self-perpetuating system. Not only are we forgetting our culture, but we are actively demeaning and rejecting it.

Just like our colonial masters before, most Ghanaians view traditional religions, like Akom, with hostility and condemnation. These traditional belief systems in our popular culture have become synonymous with words like Satanism, fetishism, and magic. These all fall under an umbrella term: ‘Juju’, by which Ghanaians refer to anything that is neither Muslim nor Christian and is thus by default evil. This stigma is deeply embedded in Ghanaian culture and it directly descends from the colonial roots of Christianity in Ghana.

Today Christianity is a big business in Ghana. New denominations and ambitious pastors (or entrepreneurs) are making their mark across the country with churches overcrowding the cityscape. This is often an aggressive brand of Christianity. The problem with this kind of Christian gospel is that it condemns any other religious beliefs. Given the massive role of Christianity in Ghana, this perpetuates a cycle of self-hatred. Adoring the deity of our colonizers is in conflict with our local culture and tradition and demands their rejection.

Throughout Ghana’s cities you will encounter preachers, condemning everything satanic. Satanic meaning anything spiritual outside the realm of Christianity, such as Akom. In Akom, the belief is that the spoken word holds power. Every word spoken is an evocation. In Ghana, most of the times, that which is spoken and preached is hateful and demeaning of traditional spirituality. These evocations have clearly been realized in Ghanaian society.

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde

Ghanaians are very spiritual people. Pre-colonial beliefs, like Akom, assume that there is a spirit in everything: the earth, rivers, thunder, animals, blood. Our custom, music, and dance, passionately built on this conviction. Christianity in Ghana instrumentalized this spirituality and radicalized it. In modern-day Ghana ‘spirituality’ is seen as something harsh and overbearing, sometimes taking the form of ‘exorcisms’ during lunch breaks at school or, violent ‘possessions’ of my colleagues attributed to some vague spirits.

Akom, has been so misconstrued. Now it is merely juju. I used to believe this too, or at least I never questioned it. When Ghanaians are not actively perpetuating this stigma, we relegate ourselves to ignorance. This might be even more damaging. How have we forgotten the complexity and harmony of our traditions? Most of us don’t know that at its core Akom seeks balance between the physical and spiritual worlds. It claims the immortality and infinity of the earth and our ancestors. We have not only turned our backs on traditional worship, but in the process we have lost much of our identity. Beyond the beautiful rituals that are being lost, we are drawing further and further away from nature. Rejecting our culture builds on the assumption that we’re not cultured and we have filled this void, or rather covered it, with a new one.

Christianity, this religion we have tied all our hopes to is not an innocent faith in the African case. These masks we wear, have worn, and will continue to place on our children are harming our society. I want to remind you again, that my issue is not with Christianity itself, but with the denial and self-hate which afflicts our practice of it. Like Frantz Fanon explained:

“The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few chosen.”

Christianity was a central underpinning of imperialism and the slave trade. How can we worship the same tool used to subjugate us? In the slave castle of Cape Coast, above the dungeons in which slaves were held stands a proud church. By the time the colonial era was over, the mask was already firmly in place. Just like Cape Coast, modern, independent Ghana, has built churches above its disturbing history with Christianity. Now Christianity is deeply embedded in the fabric of Ghanaian society. We once worshipped in nature and then we were herded into Churches. The community used to be a family, now we clash because we belong to different denominations. The business of Christianity is unnatural, and it cannot be sustained.

There is a popular symbol in Ashanti culture called Sankofa. It means ‘go back to that which you have forgotten’. I hope that as Ghanaians, and Africans, we can return to our roots. That Christianity in Ghana will no longer sustain itself on the suppression of our traditions and customs but can coexist with them. Religion should not be dependent on conversion and dominance, but should cohabit with spirituality and a pride in our traditions. I think of the Akomfo, his vigorous dance a memory of our traditions and the pride that once was. The white mask a reminder of where we are now. It is time to take off this mask.

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