Achimota School versus the Rastafari students: A ‘Dread-locked’ perspective
Achee – mo-ta!
Achee – mo-ta!
Achee – mo-ta!
(loosely translated as “We do not mention people”)
The land on which Achimota School stands was once a place of refuge for all who sought it. The school also performed this function when it was constructed on the site, offering refuge to iconic figures such as Dr. Ephraim Amu, who had been rejected by the church for preaching in Kente cloth and Ahenema sandals, then associated with what the Europeans termed ‘the fetish’, but now the pride of our country. But why Achee-mo-ta? Perhaps, Prof. Abena Busia explains it best when she writes, “Here we came, fleeing to a place of shelter escaping the chains and the lash we would not submit to.” Achee-mo-ta… because ‘mentioning peoples’ names in the forest may expose them to their pursuers. Here we see the name Achimota steeped in a context of resistance and refuge. Context matters. The forest offered refuge to those fleeing and so has the school to those rejected by dominant societal powers of epochs gone by. These people were fleeing from slave catchers during the slave era, and from colonists seeking to lash them for whatever reason. To this end, the context in which formal education began here in Ghana and the trajectory it has taken is important to the discussion at hand. At some point on this trajectory Achimota School emerged to become one of the most prestigious schools in Ghana. But how has its course been and where does it stand today? Is it still a place of refuge or has it become a symbol of rejection? In regard to the rejection of the two students, some have sought to argue on the basis of hairstyle while others have argued on the basis of religion/spirituality. This precis argues for the admission and inclusion of the students on the basis of both hairstyle and religion/spirituality.
The events of the past week or so involving Achimota School’s refusal to admit two Rastafari students unless they shaved off their locks has spawned passionate public debate in a manner that has not been witnessed in recent memory in Ghana. The general position of Achimota School has been that their “rules and regulations” forbid the sporting of long hair while that of the Rastafari students has been that their locks is a core part of their “religion and culture” and as such is a non-negotiable tenet. The Rastafari students have maintained that their position is supported by the constitution. The debate goes beyond these immediate positions; it is also a debate about our national identity; who are we as a nation? Are we a tolerant and inclusive nation, or are we an intolerant and exclusive nation? It is also about the identity of Achimota School. Will it maintain its age-old identity steeped in colonialism or will it seek to reflect an identity that is considerate of the contemporary landscape? There is also the case of the identity of the Rastafari students, a long-marginalized group who seek to be meritoriously admitted (as they had been prior to them reporting to school with their locks).
Indeed, the situation can be perceived as a clash of worldviews that has culminated in the ongoing “brouhaha” that has its roots in the very beginning of formal education in Ghana (the then Gold Coast colony) and later on, the establishment of Achimota School. To fully expatiate, let us offer some context. Providing context situates the design and alignment of our educational institutions to the times and needs of educants.
The history of formal education in Ghana can be traced to the early European merchants and missionaries (Ofori-Attah, 2006). While merchants established schools to achieve their business objectives, missionaries established schools to spread their Christian doctrines. The missionaries eventually gained the support of the colonial government. In those days, the popular sentiment among Ghanaians (Gold Coast subjects to be exact) was that the mission schools were alienating its students from their communities. Traditional Ghanaian priests (akomfo, bokoor, won tse me etc.) raised opposition to what they saw as the indoctrination of the educants (Boampong, 2013). This clash of worldviews, which has persisted to the present day was inevitable owing to the stance adopted by the missionaries and Christianity writ large, perceiving monotheism as the only acceptable form of spirituality and every other form of spiritual expression rejected on the basis of it being “heathenism.”
Origin of hair rules
This perspective held by the colonists also applied to the hair and its expressions by Africans. African hair historically and culturally has been considered a symbol that is representative of information on an individual’s ethnicity, societal status, spirituality, age, marital status, and traditions (Manfo, 2018; White & White, 1995). The texture of African hair was in part responsible for the development of these associated practices. “Hair for the Black person was very spiritual and was also believed to have a direct connection to God” (as it flowed upwards: Manfo, 2018) Since ancient times, African hairstyles have been known for the multifaceted and complex natures, a conception that persists to the present day (Johnson & Bankhead, 2014). Brewington and Shamasunder (2013) note that “across the African Continent, the hair’s value and worth were heightened by its spiritual qualities…the hair was the closest thing to the heavens, communication from the gods and spirits were thought to pass through the hair to get to the soul” (Brewington & Shamasunder, 2013).
African hair was detested by the colonists and even though they were very aware of the role that African hair played in African life, found it antithetical to educational spaces. Johnson and Bankhead (2014) assert that
“Europeans, who had long traded and communicated with Africans, knew the complexity and significance of Black hair. They were often struck by the various hairstyles that they saw within each community. In an effort to dehumanize and break the African spirit, Europeans shaved the heads of enslaved Africans upon arrival in the Americas. This was not merely a random act, but rather a symbolic removal of African culture. The shaving of the hair represented a removal of any trace of African identity…” (Johnson & Bankhead, 2014).
It was against this background that missions developed hair policies for their schools. The reason given for hair policies these days is that schools do not want students to spend too much time on their hair and as a consequence taking precious time away from their studies; yet headmistresses and teachers who although have very busy schedules find time for all manner of elaborate artificial hairstyles spurred on by a desire for European style hair. This also explains why the hair rule seems to apply to only African and not Caucasian students of Achimota School. It was also on this basis that Angel Carbonu, the then vice president (now president) of NAGRAT is purported to have made the following comment:
“When Caucasian students cut their hair to the level of Black ladies it makes them look very ugly and it can even affect their looks so Caucasian students are not allowed to cut their hair. There is no rule in the GES concerning Caucasians in Ghana because we are not Caucasians, we are Negroes.”
Angel Carbonu has since sought to clarify:
“What I said was that the nature of the Black man’s hair, the kinky hair is able to stand in shape when you cut it. So, it makes the Black child look handsome or beautiful. The silky nature of Caucasian hair, it falls, so when you cut it, it makes them look ugly” (Ghanaweb – Saturday March 27th, 2021).
Same difference! Fact of the matter is, these hair rules were never meant for Caucasians, they were meant for African hair, right from the very onset.
When Europeans colonized us, they colonized information about us and also our aesthetics. Educational sites have been responsible for the internalization of European aesthetics among our people. It was also against this backdrop that Achimota School was established in 1927. The colonial government was intentional at erasing all vestiges of Africanism and schools were/are the primary sites for such undertakings. Indeed, the colonial government, by way of the Watson Commission’s report on the riots of 1948 stated, “The old religions are being undermined by modern conceptions. Earlier disciplines are weakening. Others must be devised to take their place.” Who was undermining the old religions, and who was devising new ones to take their place? Guggisberg and the colonists had a need to invent through education, African middlemen/women to offset the efforts of Africans they (Guggisberg and colonists) considered “demagogues.” The colonial government and their surrogates have been undermining the old African religions and have been devising new ones to take their place, all of their expressions and manifestations included. Martin (1976) discusses the origins of such behaviors below:
“The missionaries realized that African religion, art, music and other social activities were closely connected with each other. They incorrectly thought that they could not replace existing beliefs with Christianity unless they expelled all other beliefs. African dancing and music were banned from the curriculum” (Martin, 1976).
Long after the missionaries and the propagators of assimilationist policies have gone, we are still perpetuating their colonial legacies. This is what the great Dr. Carter G. Woodson cautioned us about when he put forward the maxim that;
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it (my emphasis). You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no backdoor, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary” (Woodson, 1933).
Achimota School – Background
It is in this context that Achimota School was established by the then Governor of the Gold Coast, Gordon Guggisberg. Guggisberg’s objective was to provide an alternative to the mission schools. Guggisberg had hitherto introduced the system of indirect rule into the Gold Coast in 1919 and had adopted the policy of assimilation for the colony’s educational institutions. Assimilation sought to ‘anglicize’ the colony’s subjects, and schools were primary sites of the policy’s implementation. It was this same Guggisberg who established Achimota School in 1927. The objective of the school as stated was the training of African leaders. These African leaders were to be utilized in the service of our colonial domination in all its facets. The initial orientation of the training of students at Achimota was ‘Western in intellectual attitude towards life, but who remain[ed] African in sympathy.’ The westernization process was so intense that the school actually began producing trainees who were westernized both intellectually as well as culturally. Achimota school socialized its students to the norms and values of the English ruling class by basing school rituals on European traditions (Yamada, 2009). This trend has continued to the present day. It is in this context that rules against African hairstyles and spirituality exist.
Rules for rules sake?
Throughout this debate, there are those who have maintained that rules are rules and need to be followed and adhered to at all costs. No, not so, rules are context-specific, they change when the context changes. If not, why do proponents of this argument not just have remained under colonialism and adhered to the White man’s rules? It is simply because the context had changed, and Ghanaians responded to that by demanding independence! We were no longer willing to “follow the rules”! Had Kwame Nkrumah followed the rules there would have been no independence. When rules become outmoded, they need to be changed to reflect the prevailing circumstances.
Those making this argument have also asked the young men to just cut off their hair and be admitted. That is an unfair demand. Would those making this assertion be prepared for example to denounce Jesus as a precondition to gaining admission to a government school, or to eschew Islam as a prerequisite for attending a government-assisted Christian mission school? Asking the young men to cut their hair when that is integral to their religious conviction is akin to doing the same thing. Secondly, Muslim students have always been exempted from attending church services in Christian schools, even though the rules require student attendance. This therefore reinforces the idea that exemptions are made for students who fall in a special category. There are second-cycle institutions in Ghana who do not reject students with locks; is Achimota unique? Accra Academy, Aggrey Memorial, Osei Kyeretwie Senior High School and many others have all admitted students with locks. No chaos has ensued.
Opening of the floodgates
There have been those who have been making the point that if the two young men are admitted to Achimota School (and any school for that matter) without the conditionality of having to shave off their locks, that would “open the floodgates” for others to make similar demands on the educational apparatus. It is interesting to note that these same arguments were made by some Ghanaian Christians who warned that allowing Dr. Ephraim Amu to carry out his pro-African activities in the church would open the floodgates to all manner of native attire, instruments, and accoutrements being brought into the church space. Dr. Amu persisted and his legacy is one we are all in awe of today. Secondly, what are these “floodgates”? Isn’t the constitution designed to protect and serve all Ghanaians? Some seem to think that it is only for a section of the society. Indeed, some have even commented that the next thing we will witness will be the sons and daughters of traditional priests making demands. Let us be clear, it is within their rights to do so. The constitution was designed for all Ghanaians, not just the elites and those within the dominant sections of society!
I am no legal expert, and I will leave it to the experts to ultimately decide and interpret the constitution as it pertains to this situation. Remember the constitution is not about what you think or like, it is about what is written. Let’s see what the constitution says:
Article 25(1) of the Constitution provides the right to equal educational opportunities
Article 28(4) explicitly states that children cannot be deprived of their education due only to their religious or other beliefs.
Article 17(2) prohibits discrimination on certain grounds, including religion, creed and social status.
Article 26(1) of the Constitution gives everyone the right to practice any religion, culture or tradition subject only to the provisions of the Constitution.
Many have cited Article 14(1)(e), the right to personal liberty may be curtailed for a person under the age of 18 for the purpose of education. (This provision is contextually irrelevant. The students are not asserting that their right to personal liberty is being curtailed. They demand that their constitutional rights are respected. That is my interpretation but as mentioned earlier will leave it to the experts to decide).
The Children’s Act of 1998 prohibits discrimination against children on multiple grounds, including custom and also prohibits depriving children access to education.
The argument that somehow having locks is tantamount to indiscipline.
The argument has also been made by those who oppose the admission of the two students that having locks in educational spaces is tantamount to indiscipline. Are they serious? How on earth does one’s hair signify discipline or the lack thereof? For the avoidance of doubt, discipline has to do with the perfection of moral character and self-control. The suggestion that one’s hair is an indication of his or her moral character and self-control is one that has no basis in reality. There was a time when not wearing “Achimota sandals” to school was viewed as a mark of indiscipline. How is this argument holding up today?
Classism and elitism
The suspicion of many who are opposed to the rejection of the two young men is that the leadership of Achimota School is classist and elitist and is simply hiding behind “rules and regulations” to carry out their discriminatory agenda. This must be stated within the context that no rationale has been given as to why the school is maintaining the stance they have taken. Simply saying we have rules and regulations does not amount to stating a rationale. There has to be a demonstration to the effect that the locks of the students will undermine the objective of providing education to the said students and others. This has not yet been articulated.
Massive support from the Ghanaian public
In the midst of the ongoing debate, the level of support that the two young men have garnered from the Ghanaian public has been nothing short of encouraging. Across the various Whatsapp and Telegram platforms that I subscribe to, the passion that has been exhibited in this nation-gripping debate is reflective of the fact that the citizenry is engaged in charting the course of the future of the country. Many civil society and non-governmental organizations have also added their voices.
As the debate rages on, I cannot help but ask, is anyone benefiting from this debate and if so, who is it? What issues of national interest would have been center stage had it not been for this ‘brouhaha’?
Democracy and inclusion
Indeed, we cannot pick and choose aspects of democracy that are appealing to us and oppose aspects we deem unappealing. Some have even gone to the extent of arguing that Ghana’s democracy be viewed as transitional, in which communitarianism takes precedence over liberalism. Again, this has to be contextualized within the scope of cultural heritage law which in the contemporary milieu is a recognized legal instrument for the protection, safeguarding, maintenance, and preservation of cultural heritage, cultural property and cultural rights, within which culturally and religiously aligned hairstyles fall.
Inclusion and diversity are features of truly democratic societies. In a democratic dispensation, education must be inclusive and devoid of exclusionary tactics. Such an education system should reflect its capacity to respond to and meet the concerns of a diverse student body, a diversity that is defined in terms of religion, ethnicity, class, gender, and culture among other factors (Dei, 2004). It is time that Ghana as a nation and Achimota as a school rose to the occasion to celebrate rather than reject difference and diversity.
By Dr. Kwadwo Oppong-Wadie
The author is an educationist and educational researcher. He is a member of faculty (College of Education) at Illinois State University.