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It’s time to face the ugly truth behind African punishments

TRUTH: (Photo credit: SuperStock)

AN HOUR after a violent tantrum in Argos because he didn’t receive the toy he expected, a 9-year-old boy is beaten until his cries become mute. Then, ginger is placed into his anus and he is made to walk about as if nothing were inside him, as if the change in his gait is due to an itchy bum or a desire to be cool.

This is, or was, a regular way of disciplining children in Ghanaian families when I was growing up in London, but the practice has a long history before that. It was once a method of disciplinary action used on female slaves in Ancient Greece. A piece of ginger would be carved up to fit the hole of the anus and then inserted, creating unbearable pain discomfort. Yet it’s still a common experience to many, or commonly heard about within the Ghanaian community.

After seeing the conversation surface on social media and talking to others who had the same kind of spiced corporal punishment, (the worst I heard about was shitto, a pepper sauce, being used instead) it became clear to me that, though the punishments are clearly abusive, we - second generation Ghanaians and possibly the last to experience such ‘creative’ discipline - have a way of glossing over or shutting out the realities of punishments that in any other light would be deemed abusive.

In every discussion I’ve had about the different ways in which African parents punish their children, there’s always been a sense that we must be understanding ‘because they didn’t know any better’. To me, this is mostly a defence mechanism and way of not facing the facts of the situation.

We should be understanding to a point, but we must also keep in mind that being born in West Africa doesn’t mean you’re unable to register when you’re causing a child physical distress. It’s not only insulting to our parents to think of them as not knowing any better, but it also opens the door to justifying punishments and practices far worse.

Cultural relativism, the idea that values, thoughts and practices need to be understood from the perspective of a particular culture—the way that culture has evolved and learnt to deal with the challenges the people of that culture experience.

You can’t denounce or attempt to get rid of a cultural practice purely because it is alien to you or that you don’t agree with it. That is, when it doesn’t cause any physical or emotional harm. But many African punishments, like the ginger, do.

We’ve all heard stories of parents sending their child out of the house to find a stick they know they will be beaten with—bring back a stick too small and your punishment will be doubled; show up with something too big and you’ve become the architect of your own destruction.

Some miles away from Ghana in Nigeria, it is common for kids to be told to stand in an uncomfortable position until their muscles ache, becoming so sore that their body is shaking with weakness. Perhaps not as distressing as the ginger, but equally as in need of critique.

As difficult as this subject is to face up to, we need to be honest with ourselves and respect our parents enough to point out that some of them have done things that are abusive and abhorrent.

The recognising and pointing out of abusive behaviour is not only so that they can learn and grow from their actions, but also so that we can face up to a truth and move on in a way that won’t have us looking back and considering these reasonable punishments for posterity.

It’s important that we can look into our past, meaningfully critique it and then use our conclusion to better the path we will take in the future. Calling out practices that do unnecessary harm to others is an exercise in making a culture better.

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