Traditional Values and ‘Development’

Disclaimer: This is guaranteed to be a sticky post.  I thoroughly encourage some healthy debate and discussion.  Additionally, it is all over the place because I’m not quite sure what the point is I’m trying to get across.  Enjoy 🙂

“We don’t grow millet here.  Our ancestors banned millet as a sacrifice to the gods.”  It was evening and I was in the community of Bladjai, about an hour moto ride from Kpandai.  My AEA and I have a farmer group meeting in Bladjai, but before we can start the meeting, we have to greet the chief of the village.  I squat down in front of him – a sign of respect – and mumble my way through the foreign greetings.  He can speak some English, and we discuss what I’m doing in Ghana, who I am, where my husband is, etc.

I asked him what the role of chief was and he began to explain – he acts as a mediator if there is a problem in the village, he provides sacrifices and blessings to their traditional gods to keep the lands fertile and the river filled with fish, and he represents the community when foreigners come a knocking.  He also owns all the land, so if someone wants some land to farm or build a house, they must first visit the chief.

This event occurred only a few weeks into my placement, and my understanding of traditional beliefs was (and still is) limited.  I asked what type of sacrifice he was referring to and he explained how millet is no longer farmed in the entire district of Kpandai.  Over 90,000 farmers avoid growing one of Ghana’s most common cereal crops.

Since hearing this, I’ve asked several people from different communities what would happen to a person if they grew millet.  Some say that they are likely to become ill, or their children may become ill.  Some say it simply won’t grow.  I’ve also heard that you will be arrested, or banished from your community.  Even those who don’t hold onto those traditional beliefs of the gods refuse to grow millet.  It is not socially accepted.  I’ve asked people – if you could make 5,000 new Ghana cedis (about $6,200 Cdn) from one acre of millet (this is an absurdly large amount), would they do it?  The answer has always been no, even for millions of Ghana cedis, for 20 tractors, they would not grow millet.

Millet is one example of how I’ve noticed a traditional cultural belief can in some ways hinder economic growth.  If you didn’t have to greet every single person you walked by before arriving at the office, you’d probably get there 45 minutes earlier every day, which would add on about 195 additional work hours per person per year.  But the greetings are one of the things I love about Ghana, the interpersonal interactions, the weight on social structures.   I can’t imagine an unfriendly, impersonal version of Ghana.  If annihilating traditional culture is the road to economic growth, that road and what you find at the end will not be pretty.  Then how do you create change if you refuse to go against the grain in some things?

I often think about the effect of cultural values on ‘development’ when I walk down a dirt path and children emerge, yelling “Fadah!  Fadah!” (Father, Father! – which I hope is obviously an impossible biological role for me to take on).  This was the result of missionaries.  “Faith-based foreign aid” is something I strongly encourage you to read up on.  I’ve seen new school and hospitals, and religion has given many people joy and hope, you can’t deny feeling it when you’re in a hot, crowded church surrounded by gospel music.  I’ve also seen the tragedy in how the traditional culture in communities can start to fade, because if that culture remained they wouldn’t be able to receive funding from these religious organizations.  And don’t get me started on what happened during colonialism.  Everyone I have met is either Christian or Muslim – though even the most pious Christians and Muslims do not grow millet.

[A month ago I had a really high fever and went to see the doctor.  It was just after 5pm, so I should have known the laboratory would be closed, but I was new.  The doctor saw me and prayed for me.  It was a really beautiful prayer, but what I really wanted at that time was a malaria test, or perhaps a combination of the two.]

As I sit in a chair outside typing away on my laptop, at the compound of the Nawuri tribe’s chief, I hear noises coming from the ‘courthouse’.  There is an argument between two women, and the chief is here to settle it.  In 1992 there was a conflict between the Gonja tribe and the Nawuri tribe, which essentially one of the main reasons Kpandai split into its own District, separate from East Gonja.  It is also why there is a broken down building beside my office – it was the located where a Gonja man’s house was razed.  In 1998 there was a conflict between the Concombas and the Dagombas.

Gonja Man's Razed Home

These conflicts, however brief, the 12 different tribes and therefore languages in Kpandai alone, the resistance to change, possibly due to traditional values, possibly due to the mess left behind by those who tried to erase traditional values, are they ‘hindering development’?  When Ghana is a developed country, will there still be chiefs and tribes?  Will you still kneel for your elders and snap at the end of a handshake?  Will farmer group meetings still start with a Christian prayer and end in a Muslim prayer?  Will my doctor take my hand and pray for me? Will communities in Kpandai grow millet? Will I still have a 10 minute discussion with the woman who sells me my breakfast in the morning, made right before my eyes?  Or will I be waiting in line at a McDonalds, not saying a word to the person in front of or behind me, taking my order from a 16 year old kid with acne?  In the face of confusion left behind from the western influences, I hope Ghana gets it ‘right’ in places where we got it ‘wrong’.

Something I’ve realized while in Ghana is that development work is generally something that needs to be done working within the traditional culture, not against it.  I say ‘generally’ because if it’s a cultural norm to not wash your hands after using the bathroom because the ancestors have deemed it so, we work against it.  We try to create change.  As a westerner here, there are some things that are not within your ‘sphere of influence’.   There are some things where you have to understand you just don’t know enough about what is going on behind the scenes, and it’s not your place as a westerner to try to do something about it.  I adore the following quote and thought I’d leave you with it:

Go to the people

Live with them

Learn from them

Love them

Start with what they know

Build with what they have

But with the best leaders,

When the work is done

The task accomplished

The people will say

“We have done this ourselves”

Lao Tsu, China, 700BC



7 Responses to Traditional Values and ‘Development’

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex Joyce. Alex Joyce said: RT @sarahelegg: Traditional Values and ‘Development’: http://wp.me/pS60o-1F […]

  2. […] generally something that needs to be done working within the traditional culture, not against it. ~ Sarah, JF in […]

  3. Leah says:

    Hey Sarah!
    I loved this post, especially the quote at the end!! I feel like answering the question of whether traditional practices/culture hinder development is best answered on a case by case basis ..

    It’d be cool to have a brainstorming session (maybe even when you’re back on campus!) to throw ideas out there of what “developed” Ghana could look like. And ask Ghanaians what they think developed Ghana would look like (or what they’d like it to look like). Would make for a very interesting conversation!

    • slegger says:

      I love this question! What does ‘developed’ Ghana look like?
      – What are the gender roles?
      – How does the family unit look? Is it the nuclear family like in Canada? Or does it include extended family in the same household? Are there still compounds, or is it self-contained (like Canada?)
      – What jobs are there? Right now, it’s mostly a) Farmer or Processor or b) Gov’t worker..
      – Are there still chiefs?
      – How much government intervention is there? Ex. Community Based Management of Water Systems – will communities still be responsible for their water?
      – Will all people still believe in juju (magic). Pretty much EVERYONE believes in magic here, except one guy I met who is from Accra.
      – What does the education system look like?
      – What is the farming system like? I watch Food Inc. and cringe at the thought of it becoming like Canada’s system.

      Those are just a few questions bouncing around in my head. I’ve talked to some people who think development = westernization (ew) and I really believe having this conversation will hopefully spark some good discussions. When I brought up this conversation with the JFs, after over an hour or so of discussion, the conclusion was that the developed Ghana will have jello available everywhere. Think about it.

  4. David Marmor says:

    First time at your blog. Found it on “World of EWB” website. Just wanted to say that is a great quote you’ve put at the end. Very inspiring. Thanks

  5. […] generally something that needs to be done working within the traditional culture, not against it. ~ Sarah, JF in […]

  6. This is very interesting. How do the Christians also fall prey to the cultural beliefs to the extent of not growing millet, their staple food? We need to deeply understand development as something that need our participation regardless of the cultures.

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