Ghana Does the African Have a Religion? (History Month)

By Williams, Chancellor | New African, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Ghana Does the African Have a Religion? (History Month)


Williams, Chancellor, New African


Conventional thinking says No! But Chancellor Williams says yes, in this extract from his 1961 book, The Rebirth of African Civilisation, which was based on his two-year research project in Ghana in 1957-58. Williams found that "the shortest route to the African mind is through his religion"

Our business was mainly to verify prior research by direct observation. The on-die-spot investigations, however, led to scrapping much of the work previously done.

We realised rather early that the first thing to be studied was something that, upon the surface, seemed to be entirely unrelated to our task--the African religion. For religion turned our to be something more than a subscribed-to system of beliefs, but a philosophy and actual way of living.

Ignorant of the African's fundamental beliefs and the practices that are governed by them, one may run up against unaccountable resistance in many undertakings--and blame it all on "native" ignorance or stupidity.

We would say that the shortest route to the African mind is through his religion. The African people are highly spiritual. A truly higher civilisation can develop only from such a spiritual-moral foundation. Africans already possess the kind of spirit that should permeate their educational system, govern their economic activities, and guide their political actions.

Religion is inseparably interwoven into the fabric of African life. The Christian ministry has not been a thing apart from and above the prevailing inhumanity of man to man in any state. It follows the safe path of expediency. It follows the "community pattern", never trying to shape it.

[Christian] ministers pretend to believe that God is on the side of whatever country to which they happen to belong, join its armies, pray for its victory over the enemy Christian state, which state is also praying to the same God for the opposite outcome.

The dominant Western religion, in surrendering to the Western man, let the Western man down. Instead of becoming more and more a Great Religion, it became more and more a Great Deception. Today in the civilisation it nurtured, there is more respect for a movie actress than a nun, and the spoken word of an actor or even a gangster carries more weight than that of a minister of the gospel.

The poor missionaries! Spiritually impoverished themselves, they were sent out to carry religion to lands more religious than their own, and to peoples whose religion was generally an actual way of life and who, therefore, could never understand a religion the doctrines of which were so foreign to the Christians' lives.

In fact the native religions were nor, and are not, fundamentally different from the Hebraic-Christian religion. To dismiss the native religion as "pagan" without study is simply to substitute an opprobrious term of knowledge of a highly developed system of faith which is in many respects as challenging as any of the recognised great religions.

We had definitely believed, for example, that a prime need in Africa was more Westernisation; we left with the conviction that what is needed is less Westernisation and more Africanisation. We had thought that "pagan" religion was nothing but the magic beliefs and rites of savages; we found, to our infinite surprise, that it is hardly more "pagan" than our own [Christian] religion, has the same fundamental beliefs, and has many rites and ceremonies exactly paralleling our own in important respects.

Space permits at least one example: Before sailing for Africa, we attended a service in St. Mary's in Oxford, England. During the service, the priest passed down the aisle sprinkling us with holy water, right and left, blessing us.

Six weeks later, at a "pagan" religious service in Odomase [in Ghana], the native priest, dressed in a white robe, passed down the paths between the seated open-air audience, sprinkling us with millet seeds, right and left, blessing us. …

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