William and Mary Law School

Mediating Between Cultural Tradition and the Desire for a Modern Society

I have had so many amazing experiences working at the Cape Coast office of CHRAJ and have learned so much about the Ghanaian legal system and Ghanaian culture. It is sometimes difficult to assist in mediations because the are primarily held in Fante, a local language, instead of English. Although I have picked up some basic Fante words, I do not understand enough to follow the cases. The Commission has someone to translate for me during the mediation so I can understand and assist CHRAJ in the mediation. The more mediation sessions I attend the easier it is to understand what is going on. You learn to read body language and pick up on some words that are frequently used during mediation. So far I have assisted in the investigation and mediation of 8 cases such as non-maintenance of children, denial of access to property, and wrongful termination. The most interesting case, however, is an ongoing case on banishment. 

I still do not fully understand the chief system in Ghana, but I know that the institution of chieftaincy is protected under the Constitution of Ghana and the Constitution established a National House of Chiefs. In each region of Ghana there are numerous chiefs that fall within a hierarchy, which is hard to understand unless you live in the country or study the system. 

In the case we handled the head chief (the Respondent) banished a woman (the Complainant) and her entire family from the village because the woman did not accept the chief's invitation to settle her dispute with a neighbor at the chief's palace and instead went to the courts. The chief felt disrespected and felt that the matter could not be settled at court because the woman was accused of "spiritually" killing another woman in the village, so when the complainant refused to go the chief's palace he banished her. Banishment, however, is illegal in Ghana and the chief does not have the power to banish the woman and her family. When the Commission notified the chief that he was required by law to lift the ban the chief became angry. There is a clear tension between the power of the chiefs (the desire to keep traditions) and governmental agencies protecting human rights (the desire to become a more modern society). The chief vehemently expressed that although he respected the work of CHRAJ, the fight for human rights and organizations such as CHRAJ greatly disgraced chiefs and their power. He stated that he could not return to the village and tell the villagers that he is required to lift the ban due to the ruling of CHRAJ because his villagers would no longer respect his authority. CHRAJ reminded the chiefs that banishment is illegal and that they are required to lift the ban, but in order to preserve the chief power and respect the Commission gave the chief a timeframe in which the ban had to be lifted and allowed the chief the power to settle the original dispute of "spiritual" killing that lead to the banishment. We will follow up with the chief and the Complainant in a week to ensure that the ban has been lifted and that the original case is being settled. 

Although I do not fully understand the cultural intricacies involved in the case, the tension between traditional culture and modern society was clear. It is extremely interesting to witness first hand the shared respect between the chiefs and the government as well as their desire for respect and power in Ghana. It will be interesting to see if chieftaincy will continue to be practice and protected in Ghana or if the awareness of human rights will weaken or destroy this cultural tradition.