What the Sark-Manifest beef taught me about Ghanaian Culture

eight-limb Anansi illustration by Bethany Minervino

Amidst talk of white-washing and cultural (mis)appropriation in Hollywood, I found myself looking back home to our own movie scene in Ghana to find Kwadwo Nkansah, aka Lilwin, had acted a Shaolin-inspired film in Twi. Across to the east of Africa, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher faced the horns: they came under attack two years ago for producing images of the Dinka people, many of which included naked boys in the midst of cattle with the most spectacular horns. In Kenya, a white boy is embracing Zulu heritage like cerelac. Back home again, on no meaner a turf than the Sarkfest beef scene, the topic of culture reared its head once again.

As two of Ghana’s most popular rappers working in virtually the same genre, Sarkodie and M.anifest represent so diverse personalities it is hard not to notice. In their rhymes, and very much in their stage craft, you find one who loves his jeans and (Kanye) West-styled attires, yet is very much the icon of the Ghanaian music industry to westerners and other Africans. His raps in Twi have become a focal point for outsiders much like it was in the heydays of Gyedu-Blay and in High Life music. On the other hand, there is the western-educated chap whose return could be likened to the Pan-African; he has the noble intentions of imposing a Ghanaian way on hip hop rap; his accessories are truly African, and he decries the change from “Inspector Bediako to Kunkum Bagya.”

What is Ghanaian Culture?

Is it still your culture if someone else owns it? If you lost your family home after selling it to pay for a complicated surgery, will you still point to it from across the street with the same pride?

The most pervasive aspect of Ghanaian culture, aside the art of language, is our clothing. For years, our conservative mothers lowered the neck-lines of their kabas to expose just enough cleavage. Their skirts were slit up to the knee or thigh, and their shoulders were mostly puffy, as if they were waiting on the wind to carry them to their Nyame. I remember our Eid attires too, my younger brother and I, like twins hatched from different eggs, were sewn from laces and shadda. And during outdooring ceremonies, one was bound to be overwhelmed by the manners in which our sisters and aunties wore their prints. The colours were mostly the same, but the styles were dependent on the creativity of the designer and the wearer’s deep pockets. They were all of them prettily made and proudly worn…and they were many of them produced in Holland. Ghanaian fabric is Dutch?

Right: our cloths, our source of pride, has been European since the 19th century. From Indonesia, the Dutch developed a commercially viable way of making batik that saw them beat the English in the trade. They printed Africa-relevant symbols on them, like the standing fan, and shipped them to Lagos and Accra and other Central African countries.

The trend might have been reversed in the 1960s when Ghana boasted one of the most vibrant textile industries in its history. Employing up to 20,000 Ghanaians and contributing about 12% in GDP in its heydays, trade policies and the influx of cheaper and inferior alternatives have led to the contraction of the sub-sector. Today, Ghana’s textile industry is hardly our own. Akosombo Textiles Limited is part of Hong Kong-based Cha Textiles Group of Companies; GTP and Woodin are owned by the same company that controls Helmond-based Vlisco.

Who represents Ghana?

Who represents the depiction of a Ghanaian?

Throughout history, there comes a time when a people question their inner selves to find pride. A few times though, the definition of self was meant to cut across a population, to divide them into those that mattered and others not worthy of mention. This question of identity is rife among people who are marginalised, or those who believe an aspect of themselves is on the wane, threatened with extinction under the deluge of indoctrination and careful, persistent influence. There might be such instances on the Ghanaian scene, but more than a sense of loss, I suspect we find ourselves at a junction where the old and the present are merging to form the future.

Culture has never been stubborn to change. It has evolved and woven itself in aspects that were once foreign to its nature. Today, creatives like Ibrahim Mahama are pushing the boundaries of what art is. Serge Attukwei Clottey’s My Mother’s Wardrobe questioned the definition of gender and explored the nature of bereavement among his Ga people.  Movements like Asabaako and Chale Wote Street Art Festival have taken the art to people while affecting the livelihoods of Busua and James Town respectively. On the gender scale, we have had our first female Electoral commissioner in addition to Georgina Wood (Chief Justice) and Marietta Brew Appiah-Oppong (Attorney General and Minister of Justice).

Deriving its name from grief and loss, the Adinkra symbols now give us hope (Love never loses its way) and make us humble (God is king). My own people still call themselves Kotokoli (they speak Tem) despite it being said to be a derogatory slur for some back-hand dealings in business decades ago. High Life, proudly Ghanaian and West African, has had influences not only from the freed slaves who brought back another version of the Africa they had taken with them to the new continent, but also from typically Western-styled instruments. Hip Life continues to show its true colours in evolving into Hip Hop and/or Twi Pop. Proudly Afro-centric, M.anifest has himself proven to be a beautiful blend between what we can take of the west in order to complement our local ways. Sarkodie is easily the most celebrated artist from Ghana on the African scene. Whoever hears him sing and rap knows he is listening to a Ghanaian sing. If the Ghanaian culture is a wheel, we are forever moulding new forms of it, taking a piece of the profane and the sacred…

Should we still feel lost along the way, we could turn to the presidency for inspiration: the seat of government was once the edifice built by western traders (and colonialists). Today, moving forward, the president lives in a house built by the Indians…and president Mahama doesn’t like American cars.

Illustration: Bethany Minervina

Note: This was first published on my old blog, Ghana Motifs.

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