/ Studium

The Basel Mission and its Legacies: Excursion Part 1

Ghana Exkursion

What’s God got to do with it? This was the question posed in the title of a preparatory seminar that Basel- and Ghana-based students took before participating in an excursion that interrogated the heritage and legacies of the Basel Mission (BM) in southern Ghana.

Photo Gallery Ghana Excursion

The excursion was the first of two parts, jointly organized by the University of Basel, the Akrofi-Christaller Institute (ACI), and the University of Ghana (UG). It took place on 16–23 January 2024 and included 20 multinational students and 5 instructors. In summer, our Ghanaian colleagues will visit Switzerland and southern Germany for a similar event.

Basel’s missionary relationship with Ghana dates to 1828, when the first four Europeans sent by the BM landed on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) at the invitation of the Danish colonial governor resident in Fort Christiansborg. So, naturally, the landing site was where we started our excursion guided by Professor Nii-Adziri Wellington, a Ghanaian heritage scholar and architect. Prof. Wellington walked us through the nook and cranny of Osu, a town adjoining the fort to retrace the material (and imagined) remains of the BM by highlighting an erstwhile trading post, commemorative tombstone epitaphs, cemeteries, and the spatial impact of the British bombardment of Osu in 1854 when the locals refused to pay a colonial tax.

On the second day, the students split up into groups to conduct research in Ghana’s national archives and the Balme Library on UG’s Legon campus, following their individual research interests, which they had already developed during the preparatory seminar. Some also went back to Osu to interview schoolteachers, children, and church elders associated with the Presbyterian community, the successor church of the BM.

On our third day, we visited Abokobi—a town the Basel missionaries established and settled after the 1854 bombardment, situated about 15 miles north of Osu. The group that first arrived in Abokobi was led by German-born missionary Johannes Zimmermann alongside African catechists-in-training, servants, and converts. Thus, it is not surprising that the Abokobi church is named after Zimmermann—who is celebrated with a bust erected in his honor in a place named Zimmermann Gardens, where he is believed to have originally translated the bible into the Gã language. While European missionaries like Zimmermann received the praise it took questions from our group for Rev. Samuel Sowah, the deputy minister of the Abokobi congregation and our tour guide, to highlight the fact that Africans (known or not) contributed to the evangelizing work of the BM. For instance, one prominent actor was Paolo Mohenu—a Gã-born traditional priest and herbalist who originally frustrated the work of the missionaries but later converted to Christianity and became one of the Mission’s most influential evangelists. Abokobi is a small settlement but an impressive one. A variety of heritage moments—including a Heritage Square, original tombs of European missionaries and African evangelists, and a particular architectural style for some buildings document the town’s historical significance.

The next phase of our excursion focused on Akropong, the capital of the Akuapem kingdom in the Eastern Region of Ghana. We spent two days exploring remnants of the BM’s presence in the town through walking tours, oral interviews, and archival work at the ACI library. We visited the graves of the earliest European missionaries. We were also welcomed at several ancestral households of some influential BM-trained African and Jamaican pastors (e.g., Theophilus Opoku, David Asante, John Hall, and Peter Hall) and interviewed their descendants, who generously shared information about the contributions of their forebearers to the BM in Ghana. Furthermore, we were warmly received when we attended a service at the Christ Presbyterian Church (formerly Basel Mission Church) and were granted an audience at the palace of Krontihene Boafo Ansah III, the senior divisional chief of Akropong. Here and on numerous other occasions, we witnessed the many ways in which Christianity and so-called traditional (spi)ritual life coexist. During a closing workshop at UG’s Legon campus, students presented the progress they had made with their individual research topics, including the notion of discipline with BM/Presbyterian education, the contribution of missionary-physicians to medicine, the commercialization of cocoa production, slavery, the materiality of heritage, and the intersection between Christianized chieftaincy and gender in Ghana.

Our excursion taught us many things, not the least that the Basel Mission means different things to different people. “To you [Europeans], Basel is a city, but to us [Ghanaians], Basel is a church”, as the Rt. Rev. Dr. Abraham N.O. Kwakye, head of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and prominent Basel Mission historian, told the excursion group during a dinner at his official residence. The BM was founded to — in the eyes of its supporters — propagate the gospel of God, but it was an institution run from Basel by white men with specific 19th-century colonial and racist worldviews. Indeed, we often heard critical comments about the BM’s disregard for local knowledge and cultural practices. At the same time, Basel-based students were struck by the often positive ways in which Ghanaian interlocutors addressed the missionary legacy. For many, “Basle” (or Basel) remains an affectionate aphorism that denotes Christian discipline and honest work ethics, and an integral part of their cultural and religious identity. As we learned in Ghana, the BM story is a shared experience consisting of negotiated encounters. Both troubling discourses and actions as well as positive assessments of the BM’s impact on education and health, among others, can serve as departing points to ask new questions that facilitate a critical reassessment of the historical encounters between European BM pietists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to spread the message of Christ and their African counterparts in the past and present.

Reciprocity, equity, and transparency were the pillars on which our collaboration was built. Despite the fact that the institutions involved in the collaboration were unequally resourced partners and despite visible differences in privilege among participants (not least financial), all participants were open to share and learn across unfamiliar cultures and discuss difficult topics like religion, slavery, gender, and patriarchy with sensitivity and respect. At times when certain sections of the media discredit postcolonial theory, this was a living example of what can be gained by approaching teaching from such a perspective.

Text: Ernest Sewordor, Julia Tischler