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There’s a never-ending debate in Ghana about whether libation should be poured during state functions. Opinions are divided even among religious leaders. The issue has once again come up to the fore following calls by two ministers recently, for a discontinuance of the practice during state functions
Any important visitor to Ghana will have experienced the ritual of libation. All senior dignitaries who visit the country —Presidents, Queens, Government leaders — observe the ritual as a mark of respect for their safe arrival and to seek divine intervention for their protection. Normally this is done alongside Christian and Muslim prayers to signal the country’s religious pluralism.
The pouring of libation holds a special place in the Ghanaian cultural setting. Traditionalists see it as a means of communicating with God. They seek the intervention of their ancestors with their messages, and call for God’s guidance, blessing and protection when libation is being poured.
Although libation has been in vogue over the years, considerable opposition seems to be growing now regarding the practice of libation at state functions. Some Christians say the practice smacks of idolatry. They further contend that by giving it a tacit approval, the State is encouraging a practice which, in the main, has serious repercussions for the country.
In August two government ministers, Sampson Boafo, and Nkrabeah Effah-Dartey, waded into the debate when at separate functions, they called for libation to be stopped at state functions. Effah-Dartey went further to say that Ghana has become impoverished because the country’s destiny has been surrendered to idolatry as a result of the practice of pouring libation.
Following the ministers’ comments, a flurry of views inundated the media, questioning the propriety of the ministers’ views and their seemingly newfound distaste for the country’s heritage.
At a press briefing, the leader of the Afrikania Mission, Osofo Komfo Kofi Ameve, accused the ministers of subverting the Constitution by their pronouncements. «By calling for a ban on libation-pouring at state functions, the two ministers of state, are subverting the Constitution, which provides for freedom of worship in a secular state such as Ghana,» he stressed.
But the fact still remains that even among Ghana’s intellectuals, government officials, religious leaders and more specifically Christians, the issue of pouring libation at state functions remains a thorny one, even more so in an era where many of these people are striving to come to terms with their «Africanness».
The Afrikania Mission
The Afrikania Mission was founded in December 1982 by the late Father Dr. Kwabena Damuah, then a Catholic priest. The Mission practices a mixture of Christianity and African Traditional Religion. Damuah, who later resigned from the Catholic Church, described Afrikania as a reformed African Traditional Religion. One main feature of Afrikania is the pouring of libation during worship. «When we pour libation, we are invoking the spirit of God and our ancestors, and this is the African way of praying to God. We are portraying our own culture and tradition to serve God. The time has come for us to reject obnoxious Western culture which was forced on us by the colonialists. Afrikania will break all these defects,» he said in the early days of the Mission.
He claimed that the Church had failed to reveal and unfold the glorious secrets of worship and prayer to their flock. «Tell those church leaders that we are all under mental bondage and colonisation and we have to unchain ourselves. I have released myself from the “chain” and I want to release those still in chains,» he said.
The Church in Ghana
But is the Church in Africa and specifically in Ghana, still under mental bondage and colonialism? Some African theologians think it is. Others think otherwise.
- Professor Amos Anti, an educationist, believes the challenge of the Afrikania Mission illustrates the frustrations of many African Christians in their attempt to grapple with this issue. He says it also raises the question of Euro-American captivity of the church.
- The idea of rooting the Christian religion in the culture of the people is supported by some churchmen. A former head of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Rev. I.K. Frimpong, when inaugurating a committee for Church and Traditional Culture in April 1981, called on the Church to blend Ghanaian traditional culture into Christian worship.
- The Catholic Archbishop of Kumasi, Peter Kwasi Sarpong, is a pioneer and leader in the efforts toward the Africanisation of the Catholic Church in Ghana. The move incorporates the inculturation of the Catholic Mass and other religious celebrations in Ghana. But he cautions: «Inculturation should also open our eyes to the disvalues in what otherwise have been hailed as values in African cultures. In this exercise the values of African Traditional Religion could play a key role. Before this can be done, however, the distorted image of traditional religion should be corrected. The use of derogatory terms like paganism, animism, fetishism, idolatry and ancestor worship should be discontinued».
- Like many others, Professor George Hagan of the Department of African Studies at the University of Ghana, who is also the Chairman of the National Commission on Culture, believes that conversion to Christianity should not be seen as a rejection of old traditions, but a purification of these practices. At a symposium organised by the Catholic Church on «the Christian faith and African Cultures», held in Nairobi in 1998, Hagan narrated how his friends often asked him: «Your are a good Catholic, so why do you pour libation?». By way of a reply, Professor Hagan says he does not slavishly accept every detail of traditional religion. «But I do appreciate the sense of honour for God and nature. Joy and celebration for the great and small events of my life and those of my family are all part of religion».
- In a recent lecture, Gayle Hamlet, of the Association of Black Psychologists in the USA, recalled that there is a fierce debate today as to whether a person can claim to be a Christian, when Christianity is founded on the acceptance of the omnipotence of the one God; and still accept the traditional practices of libation, which on the face of it, involves recognition of and service to several gods.
Hamlett has indicated that libation has a long tradition. «There are numerous references to libation and drink offerings in the Bible. In the light of the Biblical evidence, libation cannot be dismissed outright as incompatible with Christianity,» he says.
Faith and culture
Many questions arise such as the relation between faith and culture. There is also the difference between acknowledging and remembering ancestors, as opposed to invoking the presence of the ancestors. Although most Christians would not have a problem with remembering ancestors, many would not agree with invoking the presence of ancestors.
However, Sellasie Amekor, a social commentator, believes that the pouring of libation shows the Ghanaians’ respect for the elderly —a recognition given them by invoking their memory during the pouring of libation and other traditional rites. He explains: «We are giving them a dulia -– a form of respect. It is therefore totally false for someone to have the impression that our forefathers intended to equate their ancestors to Almighty God, and to conclude that to pour libation is the same as worshipping our ancestors».
The Afrikania leader, Ameve, says to say that African traditional religion is idolatrous, is an ignorant mistake. «Out of ignorance, evangelists express this idea. The fact is, idolatry is an emotion, which affects all people of all religions. Some idolise ideas, some idolise beliefs, while others idolise money and wealth».
Kwame Bruce is a lawyer. He says the Churches’ protest reflects a lack of sensitivity to the nation’s plurality, in which even followers of traditional religionists are entitled to their space. «The basic issue is whether theological disagreement justifies that the Church should deny others their religious commitment. Our problem today is that of affirming faith in Christ without breaking our religio-cultural traditions. This certainly implies a renunciation of our Western-inspired state of antagonism with our indigenous religious roots. Consequently, just as there are those in the West who claim to be Christian Jews, Christian Hindus or Christian Muslims, there are those in Africa who are entertaining the possibility of being African Traditional Christians».
The following question still remains unanswered: Should we aim at Africanising Christianity or rather Christianising Africa? The debate rages on.
- Samuel Sarpong, Ghana, October 2002 — © Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgment
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