Do not sing in the bathroom, shouted my mother. It is a taboo to sing while bathing. I was always bemused with such sayings and that was the first time I heard the word “taboo”.
Why shouldn't I sing in the shower?, I was curious to know. Why was that a taboo? Because some years ago a chief was bathing when he heard his favourite song, I was told. Being happy to hear it, he decided to sing along but was choked by foam from the soap and died. Hence the taboo!
There are many tribes in Ghana and thousands of leaders or chiefs. Their relationship with the state is complicated. Ghana's constitution recognises their authority, and the chiefs cooperate with the state, although their roles are constantly redefined and each has different powers. As a child during festive occasions, I would sneak out of our house to watch the chiefs dancing, dressed in their regalia.
In my academic research, I have been able to explore taboos. Every society has practices meant to socialise its members to behave within expected cultural norms. In my culture, not paying attention to taboos is believed to bring evil to the society, or to the individual. Taboos are ubiquitous. And they have particular importance when it comes to community governance. When they are not adhered to, authority is effectively being challenged.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to talk with Osabarima Kwesi Atta II, the Omanhene - or supreme traditional ruler - of the people of the Cape Coast, in southern Ghana, about how important taboos are to his position.
“I realise that being a chief does not come easily”
When he first became a chief, he went through a lot of rituals. “Just to cleanse me, since I was going to sit on a sacred, centuries-old stool,” he said – a stool can be considered equivalent to a throne. “I performed a ritual to transform myself into another status, one considered sacred. My original birth name was lost,” he says. Now, mentioning his former name is a taboo, he explained. This is to ensure the chief doesn’t have the same name as others in his community.
One taboo the chief must always be aware of involves female menstruation. “A woman who is menstruating should not come before me,” he says. In some areas, it is thought that menstrual blood cancels out a chief's spiritual powers. Other chieftaincy taboos include not walking barefoot, nor letting his bottom touch the ground. Another taboo: A chief should not keep non-traditional instruments or dance to contemporary music in public. It is also taboo to strike a chief.
“In my world, taboos have supernatural forces behind them," Osabarima told me. "If I violate such prohibitions, I will suffer punishments and these could even transcend to the people I govern.”
In Ghana, taboos are a way for a chief to establish his authority, to maintain it and also to assert his moral superiority and his connection to the ancestors. Taboos are tied directly to the right to govern. Taboos are also a constant reminder of the chief's exalted position. They - and the chief - embody the social order under which a community operates. Chiefs are seen as the custodians of Ghanaian cultural norms. Taboos are obviously part of these, so taboos also help insulate the institution from government interference.
Having spoken to Osabarima Kwesi Atta II about the restrictions he works under, I realise that being a chief does not come easily: While the chief is an important and powerful political figure for his people, he is also a living, breathing taboo.
Translated by Jess Smee