E. A. Ammah. Materialism in Ga Society. (Accra: Ga Cultural Books, 1965).[1]

E. A. Ammah. Materialism in Ga Society. (Accra: Ga Cultural Books, 1965).[1]



This paper presents a comparative analysis of materialism and idealism in Ga society.  The inspiration for this paper was derived from two sources: the first two chapters of Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism Manual and Osagyefo’s[2] address at the opening of the fifth session of Parliament in 1965.  After reading these works, I realized that many of the ideas which they expressed are inherent in the Ga Outdooring Ceremony.  I, therefore, decided to write this paper to indicate certain aspects of Ga philosophy, in the hope that philosophers whether materialists or idealists would further appreciate Ga philosophical thought.

I should like to thank Marion Kilson, who currently is studying Ga custom and culture, for her editorial and secretarial assistance and John Kedjanyi for his cover design.

E. A. Ammah


June 1965

Essay: Materialism in Ga Society

 Ga Infant Outdooring Prayer

Strike, strike, strike, may there be peace
Strike, strike, may there be peace
Strike, may there be peace
May our seats be thick
May our brooms be thick
May our circle be intact
May we find water when we sink a well
May the water when drunk give our shoulders ease
To the father of the new-comer, long life
To its mother, long life
Its back is dark
May its front be clear
May it respect the world
Mays its kinsmen be enabled to provide its needs
May it work for us to enjoy
May its back be fruitful
May some survive that others may come
It came with black hair
May it return hoary
Strike, strike, strike, may there be peace

From the dawn of independence, Ghana committed herself to socialism as initiated by Marx and Engels and endorsed by Lenin—which view the world as it actually is.  In fact, dialectical and historical materialism is not foreign to our traditional way of life, as will be demonstrated in this paper.

Everything which Marxist philosophical materialism and materialistic dialectics imply are expressed in the infant Outdooring Ceremony (Bi kpodziemo) in Ga society.  The social implications are vividly expressed in the central prayer (dzoomo) of the rite which “touches every aspect of the life of the infant starting as a pilgrim here on earth—its health and happiness, its relationship with others, its responsibilities and the success with which it is hoped he would meet the many obstacles awaiting him in life.  While the prayer is in part a supplication for strength and blessing it is also a reflection on the vicissitudes of this life, the individual must pull along with the group.”[3]

The book, Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism Manual, notes the difference between Marxist materialism and materialistic dialectics.  The former “emphasizes the relation of matter to mind, the concept of matter, the doctrine of the material unity of the world, analysis of the modes of existence of matter, etc., whereas materialist dialectics puts in the forefront the theory of universal connections of the laws of motion and development of the objective world and their relation in man’s consciousness.”[4]

Coming closer to home in his ceremonial opening of the fifth session of Parliament in 1965, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah said among other things:

The two greatest factors in the complicated society of this Present century are decolonization and automation.  The attainment of complete decolonization is a necessary condition for the proper distribution of historical initiative in society in order that everyone, every nation, every people, may obtain their maximum development. Automation is the relationship between energy and human endurance, and should have for its aim the promotion of efficiency through the elimination of drudgery, and the enhancement of progress and development for all.[5]

From the foregoing, it can be seen  that both Marxism and Nkrumahism solidly support the conception of the founders of Ga philosophical materialism that this material world is the playground of man, of social groups, or of social practices.  At the conclusion of his address, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah plumbed the depths of Ga philosophical materialism when he charged: “Let us march forward together determined to establish in our time a strong, prosperous industrialized nation striving after the pursuits of peace in service to Africa and mankind.”[6]

The study of Marxist philosophy reveals two fundamental points; the concept of matter and the notion of the unity of opposites which are the fount of progress and development. “They are interwoven, being two aspects of the single philosophical system of Marxism.”[7]  These two features have a central place in Ga materialist philosophy.  Our concept of the matter is revealed in the Ga Infant Outdooring Ceremony in which the child is introduced to the components of the material world—light, air, water, and earth.  For centuries students of philosophy have recognized that these four elements are tenable in the fields of philosophy and science.  Philosophical materialism maintains that matter is not only the minute particles of which all things are composed but it is the infinite universe: the gaseous and dust cloud of the cosmos, the solar system of sun and planets, the earth and everything existing in it.[8]  The number of years or centuries it took Ga philosophers to see the world as it actually is will never be known, but one important scientific fact which they handed down to us is that matter or nature is primary and eternal.  This conception is both sustained and expressed in the Infant Outdooring rite.  Mind, therefore, is a product of matter which is manifested in man.  We cannot say whether the Ga Atomists’ conception of the unity of the world was a result of external influence or an independent discovery.

In addition to the general atomic view of matter, the founder of Ga materialist philosophy observed clearly the materiality of everything.  They found that man’s existence in this material world depends on corn.  When the Celebrant takes the infant into his arms, “he deposits drops of corn wine in the mouth of the child,” exhorting it to “come and eat Ga corn (baaye Ga able).”[9]  This symbolic action reveals two major points: first, our sages found that plant life is an aspect of matter and secondly, that one labours before one eats.

The study of Marxist philosophical materialism and materialist dialectics gives scientific value to the ritual acts of the Ga rite of Infant Outdooring.  These concepts are manifested most vividly in the central prayer.

The opening words of the prayer, “Strike, may there be peace (Tswa omanye aba),”[10]  mean that life is strife or in the words of Heraclitus “everything happens through struggle.”[11]  This line expresses the notion of the unity of opposites or of contradictions, which we are told play “a vital role in nature, in social life and human thought in such a way that opposites mutually exclusive sides or tendencies, reveal themselves in an object.”[12]  Thus the Ga view that the essence of life is struggle is supported by Lenin’s dictum that “development is the struggle of opposites.”[13]

Ga philosophers advanced the practical view that any progressive struggle requires the agreement of people, hence the emphasis expressed in the prayer by the line “Is our voice not one (dzee wogbee kome).”[14]  Thus Marxist thought also supports the founders of Ga philosophy concerning “the decisive role of the active struggle of the people….The revolutionary initiative of the masses.”[15]

Not being content with united striving of people, the Ga thinkers went further and touched on the population factor.  They said, “may our seats be thick, may our brooms be thick (woseii yi ati, wobloi yi ati).”[16]  Marxist thought confirms this view by saying that population density and geography “form the natural material prerequisites for the process of production.”[17]

The comparative study of Marxism-Leninism and the Ga Infant Outdooring ceremony sheds light on the scientific wisdom of Ga thinkers on every aspect of man’s material life.  An interesting point is the systematic order in which they set social development by maintaining that each new social idea is an improvement on a previous one.  After considering the place of population, they saw that the social cohesion of people was imperative for the perpetuation of the material life of society.  They, therefore, supplicated “May our circle be intact (Wobole kutu wo kpe).”[18]  The circle of men and women, particularly in the struggle of life is a very important contribution of Ga thinkers to the notion of social cause or struggle in general.  Moreover, the idea of social cohesion is a mark of the “feeling of class solidarity” and “unites and organizes people and stimulates definite practical action.”[19]

From the dawn of Ga society our thinkers considered that in the struggle of life men formed the vanguard or the club strikers (tsokpoti tswaloi) and the women constituted the rearguard or the suppliers of victuals (mamu wieloi).  Thus from the earliest period of Ga history, women played a practical role in the material welfare of organized society.

Another striking contribution of the Ga materialists is their idea of the role of mass labour, accompanied by productive and economic contentment in the development of organized society.  They postulated “May we find water when we sink well;  may the water when drunk give our shoulders ease.”[20]  Dr. Kwame Nkrumah expressed the Ga conception of all that labour implies when he said, “Automation…has for its fundamental aim the promotion of efficiency through the elimination of drudgery, and the enhancement of progress and development for all.”[21]  The book, Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism Manual, confirms Ga thought  “the primary component of material life of society is the comforts of their life—food, clothes, housing, etc.  This activity is eternal normal necessity, an essential condition on which the very existence of society depends.”[22]  Concerning common ownership, the book states “with the instruments of labour then available it was impossible by acting in isolation to fight the forces of nature and to secure the means of subsistence.  Only labour performed in common by all members of the primitive commune, their unity and mutual assistance enabled them to acquire the necessary means of subsistence.  Common labour entailed common ownership of the means of production….All members of the commune shared the same relationship to the means of production.”[23]

The Ga concept of labour activity not only contains what Marx and Engels termed production relations but also relates to the mode of production in a definite unity which we are told constitutes the materials basis of the life of society,  “the history of society is primarily the history of the development of production.”[24]  An important point to note is that in the course of producing material values, Ga women, the rearguard, played a noble part with the men in all aspects of the tension and struggle for existence.

While interpreting certain features of Ga materialism in terms of Marxism, it is not amiss to connect the part played by parents as leaders in Ga society.  It is because of the important role which these individuals played in maintaining the race that they are regarded with filial honour as great leaders who are gratefully admired.  This is expressed in the Infant Outdooring prayer: “to the father of the newcomer, long life; to the mother of the newcomer, long life (gbo ni ba le etse yiwala; enye yiwala).”[25]

Like Ga thinkers, Marxists maintain that “while it proves the decisive role of the masses in the history of society, Marxist theory at the same time allots an important place to the activity of outstanding people, of leaders and organisers, and shows that they perform a function that is essential to society.”[26] “Great men of history, we are told, are only those outstanding figures whose deeds further the development of society, who serve the cause of social progress. Their activity can accelerate the course of history, hasten the victory of the new, make the path to that victory easer for the advanced classes and society.”[27]

When the ancestors of the civilized people of today were in their winter sleep, Ga sociologists developed the notion of the value of the character of men and women.  They advanced the view that the solidarity of society is primarily based on unity of action.  This illuminating point is made in the Infant Outdooring rite in which “an infant child of eight days” is received into all that is good, true and beautiful in Ga society.  The objective reality of the vicissitudes of this life is prudently stated,  “Its back is dark, may its front be clear (Esee tuu, ehie fangng).”[28]   These are words of inspiration and encouragement.  What is the most important and pressing in the struggle of life is to look ahead with the steadfast hope of success.  The fact that this grand progressive and optimistic ideal preceded the dialectical and historical materialism of Marx and Engels is to the credit of Ga sociologists.

Linked with the conception of creative impetus for practical action is a moral value of the highest order which is expressed: “May it respect the world (Eyi abagbo dzeng).”[29]  This moral principle is neither limited to the Ga kinship group nor confined to national ties, it embraces the human race, and respect is to be accorded to every aspect of man’s endeavours through the centuries.

Moving from one social relation to another and from one form of social development to another, the Ga thinkers evolved and attained their most cherished objective in life: socialism, with its implication of “the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”[30]  The Ga form of socialism is expressed “May its kinsmen be enabled to provide for its needs.  May it work for us to enjoy (Wekumei wona faanii woga le.  Ebatsu eha wo ni woye).”[31]

With this conception the Ga thinkers surpassed the creators of modern socialism and all that it connotes.  In Ga socialism society seeks to ensure the welfare of the individual by providing for the perennial natural necessities of food, shelter and clothing.  For society to endure, the individual not only seeks his personal interest but also must contribute to the development of socialism—the strong helping the weak, the rich enabling the poor to enjoy a comfortable material life.  In sum, the aim of Ga socialism is the achievement of the well-being and happiness of the greatest number.

Linked with the principle of happiness for many in material life is the corollary one of leaving the world a better place than one met it—in terms of both material things and population.   These constitute the permanent aspects of society.  Ga thinkers expressed these ideas –May its back be fruitful.  May some survive that others may come (Esee aba harangng.  Eko atashi ni eko aba.).”[32]

Ga thinkers conceived of man as a pilgrim whose journey began at birth and ended at death.  They made it clear to men that the basis of life is struggle which consists of oppositions and contradictions.  Further, the builders of Ga materialism maintained that “It came with black hair, may it return with white hair. (Eke eding ba, eke eyeng aya.)”[33]  These lines imply that “man passes through four essential stages—childhood, youth, maturity and old age.”[34]  Within this period marked by nature for men here on earth—every aspect of man’s life—his health, happiness, social relationships, social responsibilities, success and obstacles awaiting him—depend solely on his effort and persistent courageous striving with a will to succeed, but the most important fact of man’s existence is that the individual must pull along with the group so that society may exist and develop from strength to strength.

The permanence of society is expressed in the embracing rite within the Infant Outdooring

ceremony.    The child is symbolically rolled onto the right shoulder and thereby into the paternal family; then he is rolled onto the left shoulder and into the maternal family; finally he is rolled to the breast and into both paternal and maternal lines.  Thus “a child” was not only “invested in the presence of witnesses with the titles and recognition due to kinship,”[35] but also recognized as an heir and contributor to the progressive development of “transforming, refashioning the existing …society…for the benefit of the people.”[36]  Thus the ceremony of Infant Outdooring shows Ga thinkers to be materialists of the highest caliber.

The Infant Outdooring ceremony laid the solid foundation for the materialist conception of the universe.  While this attitude towards life guided the mundane existence of the Ga people at the beginning of their history they developed a synthetic view of life which took account of both worldly and spiritual aspects.  This dualistic approach played a vital role throughout the centuries of Ga history.  One question which cannot be resolved is which of these principles, the materialistic or the religious, developed first.  Nevertheless, it is significant that the Ga materialists did not dispute the existence of God, rather they taught, maintained, and vigorously defended the view that on this earth man depends on nature for his existence and sustenance.

Ga thinkers expressed their conception of matter in kpele religious song as earth has life in itself and nature sustains us (ase ngkwa).  For them nature is active and energetic—characterize by force and motion.  Ase ngkwa expresses an idea which insightfully combines science and religion or materialism and idealism.

Ga religion does not oppose materialism, rather it supports and affirms it with remarkable force.   It is important to remind ourselves that the synthetic view of life comprising matter and mind in which nature plays an active part in man’s material welfare is not unique among Ga people but is current in many parts of Africa.  Professor Evans-Pritchard, for example, observes that among the Azande “most of their talk is common-sense talk, and their references to witchcraft whilst frequent enough, bear no comparison in volume to the talk about other matters.  Similarly, though Azande often  perform ritual it takes up very little of their time in comparison with more mundane occupations.”[37]

A fundamental problem for all philosophical schools has been which is primary—nature or mind.  Some maintain that nature is the first cause, others consider that mind is the first principle.  The first constitutes materialism, the second idealism.  “In fact, the whole history of philosophy is the history of the struggle between these two camps, these two parties in philosophy.”[38]  In considering this question, the advice of the shrewd Ga thinkers to Tete holds good.  When Tete claimed to know the first cause, the sages counseled that he should proceed slowly.  Exponents of materialism do not agree.  One group advocates that “in the course of evolution consciousness grows, develops and becomes more complete.  It is a principal factor in the evolution of man, and consequently cannot be a product of matter, or one of its manifestations.”[39]

There are divergent views among the defenders too.   There are those who adhere to the concept of spiritual monads or pluralism, which means that “monads are simple substances of which the whole universe is composed.”[40]  Then there are the exponents of spiritual monism, “which hold that in the universe there is only one form of substance and of activity, and which refers everything to one central and all-pervading principle.”[41]  There is objective realism which teaches that mind is existing prior to matter or spiritual bases, which refers to God, while subjective idealism insists “that man is surrounded not by things, but by complexes of his own, that the whole of nature is merely the sum total of sensation.”[42]

The Ga term for philosophy is teteetenile which means first knowledge or cause.  From the outset of their inquiry into questions concerning the meaning of life and man’s place in the universe, the creators of Ga philosophy were divided into two schools of thought.  One school maintained that nature

(ase) was the first principle and that it is the road to man’s material life on this earth which revealed the existence of God.  The second school proclaimed that God was the ultimate course (Nyankopong dzi onukpa).  Thus as the former embraced materialism, the latter enfolded idealism.

Having noted the trends in Idealism as expounded by Plato, Liebnitz, Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson and others, Ga idealism as expressed in kpele songs will be briefly discussed.  Ga thinkers based the totality of their concept of philosophy on nature, man, and God.  The idealists among Ga thinkers acknowledged the intrinsic and unique place of matter and the materialists reverently upheld the supremacy of God by saying God is elder.  With reference to man, both groups of thinkers maintained that on this material earth, man is lord of creation and on deeper analysis both schools agree that earth (i.e., matter) is road, for it looks after man and looks up to God for its vitality or what is scientifically termed the law of conservation of mass and energy (ase kwa, kwe lomo, kwe Nyongmo).  On further reflection of the relation of God to man, they categorically asserted that God speaks but earth is mute (Nyampong kpleo huu, shipong be naabu ni eke wieo).  As to their idea of materialism or the relation of man to nature, they insisted that nature sustains man.

In this paper the manner in which certain materialist and idealist concepts are manifested in Ga thought has been discussed.  It has been shown that both kinds of philosophical principles are present within the Ga philosophical system.  Finally, the relevance of traditional Ga philosophy to the social and political thought of contemporary Ghana has been demonstrated.

Comments are invited to this piece on Ga Culture!

[1] Marion Kilson arranged for the publication of this booklet through the University of Ghana.

[2] “Osagyefo was the praise name given to Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana.

[3] E. A. Ammah. Infant Outdooring in Ga Society, Bi Kpodziemo. Accra. 1958 p. 12.

[4] Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism Manual. Moscow, n.d., p. 68.

[5] Kwame Nkrumah, “Opening of the Fifth Session of the Parliament of Ghana,” The Ghanaian Times, January 13, 1965.


[7] Fundamentals, op. cit., p. 68.

[8] Ibid, p.32.

[9] Ammah, op. cit., p.8.

[10] Ibid, p. 11.

[11] Fundamentals, op. cit., p.92.

[12]Ibid, p.94.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ammah, op. cit.., p. 10.

[15] Fundamentals, op. cit., p. 221.

[16] Ammah, op. cit., pp.11, 12.  “Seats” refer to men; “brooms” to women.

[17] Fundamentals, op. cit., p. 45.

[18] Ammah, op. cit., pp. 11, 12.

[19]Fundamentals, op cit., p. 168.

[20] Ammah, op. cit., pp. 11, 12.

[21] Nkrumah, op.cit., p.3

[22] Fundamentals, op. cit., p. 144.

[23] Ibid, p. 155.

[24] Ibid, p. 147.

[25] Ammah, op. cit., 11, 12.

[26] Fundamentals, op. cit., p.222.

[27] Ibid, p. 228.

[28] Ammah, op. cit., pp. 11, 12.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Fundamentals, op. cit., p. 240.

[31] Ammah, op. cit., pp. 11,12.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34]Fundamentals, op. cit., pp.241-242.

[35] Everyman’s Encyclopedia, 1937, v.1, p.730.

[36] Fundamentals, op cit., p. 31.

[37] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford, 1963 ed., p. 20.

[38] Fundamentals, op. cit., p.25.

[39] British Encyclopedia, 1933, v. 9, p. 111.

[40] Ibid, p. 221.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Fundamentals, op. cit., pp.46-47.

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