This article is a response to the abysmal manner in which the burial ceremony of the late Nana AFIA KOBI SERWAA AMPEM II ASANTEHEMAA (Asante Queen mother) was reported by the Ghanaian media. News channels in Ghana are making more money running commercials than producing news. Influential news outlets like CITI FM, JOY FM and PEACE FM, among others, are particularly guilty of manufacturing consent through massive misinformation packaged as news. These are the same agencies with wide listenership within Accra and syndicated shows across the country. So when their reporters put out biased and inaccurate information, it’s an even bigger deal in this case as it’s about the cultural representation of a very large group of people. The Queen mother’s funeral was quite a spectacle and for a lot of people it was the first time seeing Asante funeral rituals and ceremony for high ranking royals like their queen. Two Ghanaian photographers’ gave the world a front row seat to Ghana’s biggest social event for 2017 through social media. Emmanuel Bobbie and Yaw Pare’s photos captured riveting images of the burial ceremony and generated a lot of fashion commentary from social media users as well as prejudiced debate on “Ghanaianess” and ethnic profiling.
I was alarmed and compelled to write this article to set the record straight about how the media misrepresented the performances, and traditional rites performed in honor of the late Nana AFIA KOBI SERWAA AMPEM II ASANTEHEMAA (Asante Queen mother). Social media accounts of most of the news organizations repeatedly used terms like ‘fetish priest’, ‘chief fetish priest’, ‘Aflao God’ (from the Aflao settlement in the Volta region of Ghana) and other ridiculous labels to describe aspects of indigenous performance traditions and spiritual practices. Several media reports were ahistorical, with poorly worded descriptions of mystical guardian spirits of people from parts of the Volta region of Ghana. It’s not the first time news channels in Ghana have peddled falsehoods regarding issues of inaccurate terminologies in relation to indigenous religious practice amongst Ghanaians.
This phenomenon goes deeper than media misinformation, it echoes how missionary education from 1700s Ghana still dictate our relationship with traditional religion and rites of passage without understanding how sophisticated these forms are.
In the recent report about the royal funeral they refer to Ewe guardian spirit , Zangbetor performers as ‘Aflao Gods’ in a tone that suggestively mocked the performers’ cultural heritage. This blatant prejudiced outlook of people of Aflao in the Volta region of Ghana smacks of lazy sensationalist journalism that completely dismisses researched based work on these performance traditions.
Ghana is also going through it’s own version of a clickbait -driven media environment stagnated by mob reasoning and haphazard sourcing as they attempt to compete on social media. Every media outlet is digging for the next “big” story for ratings as it is what matters in these parts. We are witnessing the effects of rapidly evolving technology aided misinformation, due to journalists making factually inaccurate reportage a gold standard as all engagement is reduced to clicks. The traffic generated from the effects of this digital culture has been an unquestioning enthusiasm for anything by facts.
Pay attention to the above image: Citi fm’s caption: ” a god from Aflao”, the “chief fetish” priests says they are all empty. They have come to support Otumfuo #CitiNews’
Journalism is Ghana also suffers from an entrenched resistance to writing forms that are nuanced and exploratory. In effect the above mentioned radio station is essentially telling the public that the Ewe of Ghana’s Volta region have no indigenous names for priests. What they are calling “Aflao god” are Zangbetor ; Vodu guardian spirits of sections of the Volta region of Ghana and Benin.
Zangbetor is not a ‘God’! We shall not delve into Zangbetor but just to give you important information for next time on African traditional art and religious worship I refer you to Gene Blocker. Blocker narrates the following situation:
“Suppose I am an early missionary to West Africa. I see people making what appear to be ”sacrifices” and ”offerings” and ”prayers” to carved wooden figures, which they call by what I have been told, are the names of their ”gods”. Hence I am led to believe that they worship these idols, and so I write in my next report home that the natives worship pieces of wood, that these carvings are idols worshipped as gods. But this claim or interpretation of mine clearly assumes that these people themselves believe that as well. Let us say that they come to my mission school and begin to learn English, and after some years, they inform me that they do not consider the carving itself to be the god, but only to represent it, or to be the temporary abode of the god who can occasionally enter and occupy it. Then, assuming I believe what my informants are now telling me, I would have to admit that I had been wrong in my earlier report and to deny now that the practices I had observed in connection with the wood carvings were instances of idolatry”.
Willaim Bossman, as racially biased and subjective as his “explorer” journals were, wrote about West Africans and referenced Akan traditional priests by their indigenous names in his writing alongside misleading labels, which prevailed during missionary accounts and voyage texts. I’m talking about a book (essentially a voyage account) Bossman wrote in 1712:[…] the child is no sooner born than the priest (here called Feticheer or Confoe) is sent for, who binds a parcel of ropes and coral, and other trash about the head, body, arms and legs of the infant: After which he exorcises, according to their accustomed manner; by which they believe it is armed against all sickness and ill accidents: and doubtless this is as effectual as if done by the Pope himself. By this you may observe what power the priests have over evil spirits[…] (See Bosman, W. (1712). A New Accurate Description of The Coast of Guinea: Divided Into The Slave, and The Ivory Coast, London: Ballantyne Press. p.123)
African traditional priests are not only powerful priests, just like priests in any other religion and employ a sophisticated hierarchical power structure in the priesthood. The Asantes also have this power structure in their priesthood, so do the Yorubas, the Fons, the Gas, the Minas, and several others. There are ranks, leaders, religious heads and a hierarchical structure in priesthood among the Ewes as well (examples include hounɔr, Bokɔr, Yeweshi, Vodushi, Trɔ Ngɔrgbetorwo, Tronshi, Amegashi, Kɔkushi, Minao, Midao, fofieshi etc.)
One wonders why reporters use reductive terms like “fetish” or meaningless words like ‘Chief fetish Priest’? ‘What’ or ‘who’ exactly are you referring to?
The Ghanaian media much like the society in which it exists, has normalized anti-blackness through various forms of ethnic profiling. It is the creature in the room we avoid because it leads to vortexes of wailing ghosts and unresolved trauma that need to be exorcised. Ethnic profiling and religious discrimination in Ghana are the residual conflicts handed down as a result of colonial education policies, which still remain within Ghana’s curriculum. Ghanaian researcher and writer Nii Kotei Nikoi thoughts on the (il)literacy of colonial language succinctly captures its effects on social relations in post independence Ghana.
“Presently, our high schools ban ‘local’ languages, it appears they are intent on sustaining this colonial mandate– turning Ghanaians into good colonial (modern) subjects. What did brother Fanon say: “A [person] who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.” Language shapes our “world-sense” (instead of world-view). And yes, I recognize the paradox; I am writing in English”
This illiteracy of colonial language is mirrored by a reporter named Dagyena in one of Ghana’s widely read weekend newspapers The Mirror : Here is how a drowning accident was reported.
“During the search, a preacher came to the scene, preaching that the people of Akwadum should repent from their ”evil ways”, alleging that ”sin” had engulfed the community, hence the calamity. Just then, a rastaman by name Nana Afrifa Brambram, who claimed to be a fetish priest, also came around to help retrieve the body of the boy through his fetish antics” (See McAnthony Dagyena. Boy Drowns in River Densu – The Mirror. 2016. p.3.)
Europeans wrote a lot of lies and propaganda in their voyage accounts about African culture, admittedly some Europeans are probably more knowledgeable than some Africans in religious and traditional practices. Ghanaians need to confront their history and research cultural practices in order to generate new ways of approaching the subjects of identity and preservation of cultural memory. This lack of awareness of Ghanaian traditional history and rites is what fuels the misrepresentation of ethnicity .
Mediocre journalism as a result of reporters being unfamiliar with the etymology and true origins of “fetishism” reinforces the kind of ethnic discrimination that runs through our interactions and defines who has social capital and is deserving of appropriate representation.
There’s also the stigmatisation of traditional forms of worship by religious fundamentalists who have virtually sustained the missionary tactic of supplanting competing belief systems. Most of Ghana’s population identify as Christian, over 60 per cent are affiliated with one or more evangelical movements.
For eighteenth-century Europe, the figure of the African fetish worshipper was a paradigmatic example of what was not enlightenment. Moreover, a close textual study brings to light a common problematic among these discourses: an anthropological problem of cross-cultural judgment determined by the question of the social value of material objects, a question not central to the problematic of earlier Western philosophical discourse.
Müller et al (1999:168) provides a deeper explanation :
“The colonial peoples of Africa gained the reputation for being ”stupid”, amoral fetishists” who worshipped trees, animals, and stones. Travelers, missionaries, and colonialists, who at best had only a superficial idea of African cultures, took up the expression as being meaningless but useful. Fetishism was set alongside witchcraft and superstition. It was associated with any object which had anything to do with magic or cult ideas and practices; this might be a sculpture of a traditional hero or royal insignia, an ancestral statue, or a piece of fortune telling apparatus. The local people were seen in the same way, so Europeans referred to fetish huts, fetish services, fetish priests, fetish ceremonies, fetish people, protective fetishes and so on. The ”history of the fetish” draws on a misunderstanding on the part of Western civilization; the use of the term in more recent ethnological and religious literature. It is considered to be not only old-fashioned but also offensive. Among the famous objects to labeled ”fetishes” are the nkisi, or nail fetishes, of the Loango coast and lower Congo, as well as a series of Fon figures of modern southern Benin. ” (See Klaus E. Müller and Ute Ritz Müller. Soul of Africa: Magical Rites and Traditions. 1999. Maveville.:Imprimerie Jean Lamour. p.425)
Sorry about the long academic references but hopefully some of you will find this and at least be open to examining the information for yourselves, so our news reports don’t come out so redundant and shallow when things like African religious practices and performance traditions need to be discussed.
In the 1750s, the problem of superstition was formulated in terms of the theoretical problem of primitive religion, and the novel term naming this problem was ”fetishism.” Yet the basic structure of ideas and explanations found in Enlightenment discourse was in fact worked out to a great extent in the text of Willem Bosman. Bosman’s journal on Guinea was psycho-geographical reality which concretely exemplified a world without enlightenment.
Pierz broadens the origins of ‘fetishism’ by stating that:
It was the pidgin word ”fetisso” that emerged on the coast especially around the trade fort of Elmina, which most clearly expressed this radically novel cross-cultural situation. For thirteenth-century Portuguese priests the word ”feitico”, named the amulets and non-Christian talismans worn by “common” people for certain magical effects; ”feitico” was a synonym for ‘witchcraft’ but without necessary attribution of actual traffic with the Devil. Feiticos were understood to be produced by ignorant, simple people; feiticos might indeed produce effects through the natural magic of God’s created world, but their users might also, either purposely or unknowingly, draw on demonic powers and might even call forth the devil himself. In any event, feiticos were in direct competition with the crucifixes, rosaries, and little saints proper to the Christian code, and their use was both heretical and illegal. (See Piertz, W. Bosman’s Guinea: The Intercultural Roots of an Enlightenment Discourse. p.3)
There are scholarly approaches to analyze and discuss such cultural practices and it’s imperative we study these research methods and apply them in news production. There are several instances where reporters have ignorantly translated indigenous practices and terms into English and made up ridiculous labels when unable to find an appropriate equivalent. Some things are better understood through their indigenous names.
We should be boldly discussing the effects of settler colonialism and subsequent systems created by successive governments to entrench ideals that were used to dispossess Ghanaians. Contemporary journalism in the digital era is yet to come to terms with historical antecedents that have contributed to the creation of this dual identity we are constantly at war with. The ideological framework for a lot of these media institutions, point to a practice of using hyper sensational content to drive Ghana’s newfound consumerist culture by using these prejudiced references. Moving forward we shall acknowledge colonial hang-ups when we notice them and make a habit of calling out mediocre journalism. We must hold influential news organizations like Citi Fm accountable for inaccurate publications that use prejudicial language to misrepresent sections of the populace. 2017 is for exposing media misinformation or miseducation of any sort anywhere. It’s a collective effort and a major responsibility on our part to develop our minds and attitude towards our culture.
I have given my input on the parts I am most familiar with, all in the spirit of making news reportage more accurate. As scholars, researchers, reporters, investigators, critics and analysts, it is important to recognize our privilege and the power relations it affords, when we write about subjects and communities with marginalized knowledge systems. For in the end, what is written ends up becoming history more than what is spoken.
Melville Herskovitz has written extensively about Zangbetor performers (what the media referred to as “Aflao gods”) and so has Henry Drewal on Mami wata and Egungun masquerading performances.
You might also want to examine Clifford Geertz’s : “Interpretation of Culture” especially the section where he discusses “thick description”(in the chapter, “Thick description Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”). Geertz’ proposes a research methodology and how to present accurate research findings to outsiders for a proper understanding of indigenous cultural practices. His ideas could be a starting point of revision for Ghanaian media analysts.
Follow the links below for a primer on ‘Thick Description’.
Efo Sela Kojo Adjei
Sela is currently researching ‘The Philosophy of Art in Eʋe Traditional Religion’ for his PhD dissertation at the University of Ghana.