AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED
The 300-year-old Ghanaian tree that was so threatening it had to die
Evangelical Christian church leaders saw the tree as a fetish, a totem of traditional religions. The desecration was met with outrage in Ghanaian media, indicating that respect for tradition remains high despite the explosion in recent years of charismatic Christianity.
The men who chopped down a sacred kola tree on the road near Kumasi in Ghana in the early hours of 7 November, under instructions from their pastor, could not have cared much for history.
The tree is said to have grown from a kola nut spat on to the ground sometime around 1700 by the great priest Komfo Anokye, cofounder of the Ashanti confederacy after the Ashanti defeated a rival kingdom at the battle of Feyiase.
Komfo Anokye was a medium between the spirit world and the living, and for 300 years until its demise last week, the tree was revered, its seeds believed to contain healing powers. When a dual carriageway was constructed between Kumasi and Lake Bosomtwe, the road was diverted to spare the tree.
The tree apparently had to die because church leaders saw it as a fetish, a totem of traditional religions still (barely) practised in the area.
The desecration of the tree was met with outrage in Ghanaian media, indicating that respect for tradition remains high despite the explosion in recent years of charismatic Christianity.
There were heated exchanges in the comments section of the publication Ghana Web: “Idiot empty-headed illiterate pastors creating problems everywhere in Ghana,” wrote one. “From sleeping with people’s wives to forecasting fake lotto numbers.
“They are nothing but psychopathic egoistic maniacs who want control over others as they cunningly enrich themselves. But can you blame them? We can only blame the fools who flock to their churches.”
More than 70% of Ghanaians are Christian, according to the 2021 census, and one-third identify as Pentecostal or evangelical. Only three percent are officially “traditional.”
But traditional religions live on in other ways. Belief in the spirit world and the ancestors – the mysticism of these religions – has been absorbed in Christian religious practices and, as in South Africa, people who attend church still go to the sangoma when they are ill or experiencing financial or relationship difficulties.
The existence of secret societies and spirit shrines indicates that the old religions have many more followers than are prepared to admit on a census form.
Ghana is an exceptionally devout society. There are an estimated 10 churches per square kilometre in the capital Accra, and its residents get cranky at the constant noise of street preachers blaring out religious messages through loud hailers.
Government offices, banks, businesses and schools, and even the president’s office, kick off every morning with prayer.
Minister of Finance Ken Ofori-Atta always wears white robes to signify his purity and his speeches are punctuated with verses from the Bible. As election campaign manager for his cousin, the president, Ofori-Atta sponsored kids standing in traffic holding up billboards with quotations from the Bible.
Ofori-Atta has also presided over Ghana’s worst economic crisis in a generation, and rising levels of corruption and inflation, and has had to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding while seeking debt relief from creditors.
President Nana Akufo-Addo, an Anglican, remains intent on building a controversial interdenominational cathedral whose costs have ballooned. Lack of funds has stalled the project for now, leaving a massive scar in the ground near Parliament which the opposition has described as “the most expensive hole in the world.”
Africa’s contribution to the revival of Christianity could soon be rewarded. Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson and Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze are both in the frame to become the first Pope from Africa in 1,500 years.
Peaceful coexistence alongside violent intolerance
Compared with Ghana, Nigeria’s demographics – a 50/50 split between Christians and Muslims – can produce lethal outcomes.
Conflict between Muslim herdsmen and mostly Christian farmers has led to almost 20,000 deaths in recent years, and Boko Haram insurgents have burnt down dozens of churches and targeted Christian communities in the northeast.
Saudi and Iranian religious ideas have, over the past 40 years, radicalised parts of northern Nigeria.
And yet the country of 213 million remains one of the world’s best functioning cheek-by-cheek multireligious societies.
This is exemplified by President Bola Tinubu, who is a Muslim, while his wife, Remi Tinubu, is an ordained pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
“She sleeps with the Bible on her side, and I have the Quran next to me,” Tinubu once explained.
However, that tolerance does not always extend to traditional religions.
In July, the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Gambari, banned the priestess of Isese, the traditional religion of the Yoruba, from holding a religious festival because Ilorin is supposedly “an Islamic city”.
Since then, the quarrel has worsened and the author and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, himself an adherent of traditional Yoruba religion, chimed in to accuse the Emir of turning “the turban of enlightenment into a crown of bigotry”.
“Your Royal Highness, it is conduct like this that has bred Boko Haram, Isis, Iswap and other religious malformations that currently plague this nation… It is action of this nature… that turns a young generation into mindless monsters, ever ready to swarm out and kill for the thrill of it, but under presumption of religious immunity.”
Ilorin is a particularly sensitive venue because it was a Yoruba outpost that was taken over by Fulani Muslims in the 19th century and turned into a staging ground for the spread of Islam.
Traditional Yoruba religion has proved resilient even as it exists side by side with Christianity and Islam.
Yoruba spiritual culture did not die during the Atlantic slave trade. It travelled with Nigerian slaves to Brazil, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean, where it flourishes to this day.
The traditional Yoruba mode of worship is inclusive and tolerant. It is not a religion, a practitioner explained, but a complete philosophy; a metaphysical universe inhabited by 201 gods. Adherents believe that Ife, the religious centre of the Yoruba, was where humankind originated.
Like other traditional religions, it doesn’t claim superiority or proselytise or believe that the world is headed towards an apocalypse.
For some Nigerians, this is an attractive alternative in a time of worldwide ethnic, cultural, racial and religious tribalism, in which some religionists are party to tearing the world apart.
Soyinka describes his beliefs as a mixture of Western modernism, Yoruba religion and bits of Buddhism and Christianity.
He is a radical humanist who has written about how African traditional religions promote religious tolerance and “the fostering of an ethics of care and relationality” – ideas that in an angry age of division are so threatening that they are being banned or chopped down. DM
Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get Unscrambled by signing up here. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla Africa.