Journal of Dagaare Studies, Vol 6
Copyright © 2006
African Art and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of the Bera
Among the Dagaaba of Ghana
Indiana University East, Richmond
This paper contends that the bera among the Dagaaba of Ghana is a non-discursive visual object
acting as an active persuasive interlocutor within the subjective consciousness or conscience of a
would-be thief standing face-to-face with an object (such as a mango fruit) that is desired for its
capacity to satisfy hunger or pleasure. By describing the bera as African art and a persuasive agent
meant to protect property from would-be thieves, I will explain the relevance of the bera to the
Dagaaba and the rhetorical and pastoral implications of a village catechist hanging a bera on his
mango tree. In doing so, I will demonstrate that the bera is art, situated rhetoric, and a symbol of
cultural moral values among the Dagaaba. This paper will, therefore, contribute to the literary corpus
on Dagaaba culture and respond to the appeal of Susan Vogel, who in an article, “Whither African Art?
Emerging Scholarship at the End of an Age”, calls for analytical research on African art.
This paper contends that the bera 1 is a non-discursive visual object acting as an active persuasive
interlocutor within the subjective consciousness/conscience of a would-be thief standing face-to-face with
an object (such as a mango fruit) that is desired for its capacity to satisfy hunger or pleasure. By
describing the bera as African art and a persuasive agent meant to protect property from would-be thieves,
I will explain why a village catechist hangs a bera on his mango tree and draw the rhetorical relevance of
the bera to the Dagaaba. By so doing, I will demonstrate that the bera is art, situated rhetoric, and a
symbol of cultural moral values among the Dagaaba. This paper will, therefore, contribute to the literary
corpus on Dagaaba culture and respond to the appeal of Susan Vogel (2005:16), who in an article,
“Whither African Art? Emerging Scholarship at the End of an Age”, calls for analytical research on
African art. This paper will benefit immensely from the research of David T. Doris (2005) whose article,
“Symptoms and Strangeness in Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics” describes and analyzes the object the Dagaaba
call bera. Then, I will draw the rhetorical and pastoral implications of Dagaaba catechist hanging a bera
on his mango tree.
THE DAGAABA OF GHANA
Dagaaba live in the sahel, an arid region of northwestern Ghana. They are subsistence farmers in an area
where grass grows tall in the red laterite soil and trees are stunted by the annual seven-month dry season.
Temperatures range between 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Religion pervades their worldview. For these
people, religion is a response to the ultimate reality that they identify as sacred. According to Shorter
(1974:44-46), man realizes that he is dependent upon something outside his experience. This ultimate
ground of reality he conceives as a person like himself – a super-person. It is a mysterious intuition of the
sacred in terms of his everyday experience. Like many other Africans, religion has to be translated into
action, and applied to ordinary life.
Dagaaba, like many African societies, believe in a Supreme Being and a host of spirits who dominate the
cosmos. These spirits, according to Shorter, can easily become semi-independent heroes who have
practically no relation to each other, let alone to the Supreme Being. They are supposed to be mediators
between God and man but they can sometimes become barriers to communication with the Supreme
Being, each concerned with his special province (1974:58). Among the Dagaaba, as in many African
societies, the different divinities and their respective shrines serve specific purposes; such as the earth
(earth shrine), rain (rain shrine), and healing (medicine shrine). Other spiritual realities include the
guardian spirits (kontome), witchcraft (suolu/suolong) and ancestor spirits (kpime). Among the Dagaaba,
these spirits are believed to have powers that are specific to their functions. The spirits can use their
powers to do good or to do evil. They reward or punish people depending on their moral behavior in
specific instances. Dagaaba relish in the blessings from the spirits but dread the punishment meted out by
the spirits. Dagaaba feel powerless and fearful of these spirits because their punitive fury (especially the
rain spirit) can be drastic and immediate. Therefore, the relationship between Dagaaba and the spirits is
one of fear and caution; fear of punishment and caution not to offend the spirits.
1 Bera is a Dagaare word that means a trap or ambush. It is being used here to refer to an object (art form) serving as a moral
voice and guardian over personal property.
2 A portion of this introduction to Dagaaba was originally published Naaeke (2005).
African Art and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of the Bera Among the Dagaaba of Ghana
There are mediators between men and the spiritual world. These mediators are responsible for the ritual
performances of the Dagaaba. For example, tengansob (custodian of the earth shrine) makes ritual
sacrifices on behalf of the community as situations demand (Angsotinge 1986:40). The yidandoo (head of
the household) performs ritual functions to ensure the safety and prosperity of his household members,
while the bagbugre (diviner) performs ritual activities at private shrines for people who consult him,
mostly for explanation of some troubles (illness, death, poor crop yield, etc.) that the person may be
encountering or suffering (1986:41). The Dagaaba believe that there is always a spiritual dimension to
every event in human life and the diviners are able to explain that dimension of life to them.
Regarding the bera, Dagaaba believe that any of the spiritual functionaries mentioned: Tengansob,
Yidandoo or Bagbugre, can solicit and invoke spiritual power on the bera in order to protect fruits, crops,
or any of their possessions. Because the Dagaaba fear the spirits, the spiritual dimension associated with
the bera constitutes a major reason to be afraid of disregarding it.
3. AFRICAN ART: THE BERA
Art of any kind stimulates human imagination. It is the expression of a creative mind often depicting
some aspect of the human condition as it may relate to the terrestrial or the extra-terrestrial, the sacred or
African art comes in various shapes and forms: music, painting, weaving, pottery, carving, and so on. It is
both intuitive and symbolic, often expressing the relationship between human beings and the spiritual
world. African art generally conveys a moral lesson. The beauty of African art (aesthetics) goes hand in
hand with the content or message it purports to convey. This is seen in the use of the same word to
express beauty and moral values in many African societies. For example, the Dagaaba of Ghana use the
word, viel or viele, to mean both beautiful and good. When Dagaaba say, o viela or o vieleng, they mean
that something is beautiful or “it is good.” When o viela or o vieleng is used to speak about art, the saying
indicates that beauty and moral content combine to describe African aesthetics. Benjamin C. Ray concurs
that African art generally has a moral basis because it is intended not only to please the eye but also to
uphold moral values. Val-Jean Belton further describes the aesthetics of African art (sculptures
particularly) as a sum of the characteristics and elements clearly present in all art objects such as the
resemblance of sculptures to human beings, the luminosity or smoothness of an object’s surface, the
youthful appearance of sculptures, and the way sculptures portray a reserved or composed demeanor.
However, not all African art is pleasing to the African eye.
Some African art is ugly to the African eye and is made purposely so because such art is intended to
portray the ugly side of human nature, or to frighten people or even to create a distance (emotional or
spiritual) between the object and the observer. This is particularly the case with the art works in a
diviner’s room. In this room, the objects (carvings, clothes, etc.) depicting the spiritual world are not
usually beautiful to the African eye but they have the effect of creating an aura of fear, trembling, and
reverence. This ugly art or anti-aesthetic may also be said to be true about the bera.
In “Symptoms and Strangeness in Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics,” Doris (2005:24) describes the
le in Yoruba
(called bera among the Dagaaba of Ghana) as a “visual guidepost of moral excellence” which assumes
several artistic forms, for example, a dry empty snail shell hung on a tree, a piece of broken calabash with
some painting usually with a black substance, an assortment of articles put together in some artistic form,
The objects used to design the bera are often obtained from familiar contexts, such as worn out
shoes/sandals, an empty corncob, broken calabash, broom sticks, etc. However, the final artistic form that
is designed out of the arrangement of these objects is usually placed at a location that makes it visible to
anyone who comes in contact with the property that it is meant to protect. As mentioned above, the bera
is not simply a piece of art. It has a spiritual dimension in the sense that a spirit is invoked upon it to
guard property and to punish anyone who steals the property in violation of the cultural moral norms.
4. THE BERA AS SITUATED RHETORIC
The communication function of the bera is its ability, through visibility to a person, to challenge the
person (interlocutor) to examine its symbolic significance and to respond to its moral message. In other
words, the bera as a symbol, “engages the recipient in a visual dialogue” where “seeing and being seen”
(Doris 2005:27) a person is called to the interiority of his/her cultural dictionary in search of the meaning,
interpretation and desired response to the object in front of him/her: “do not steal from here, or this will
happen to you,” (2005:26) or “steal, and you will be like this” (2005:28). As Eugene Suom-Dery
(2000:229) rightly affirms, the “Dagara child is born into a symbolic world and house of symbols” where,
by “participating in these symbols he gradually understands them; but often the meaning of the symbols
are explained to young people in order to motivate them to live the meaning, values, visions, norms,
ideals, expectations and aspirations that they represent and signify”. By learning the meaning and
significance of the bera, the Dagao/Dagara (singular of Dagaaba) is challenged to respond appropriately
to this symbolic moral voice right in front of him/her.
As situated rhetoric, the bera involves a summons to moral action. It is an appeal to the conscience. The
bera summons a person to decide whether to steal or not to steal, to live up to the cultural mores it
represents or to ignore the cultural mores. By growing up and learning the social norms and prescriptive
sanctions for good or bad moral action, the Dagao/Dagara knows that the punishment for his/her bad
behavior could affect him/her directly or it could be diffused to include his/her relatives or the entire
community. All these considerations come to the fore right there and then as the Dagao/Dagara stands in
front of the bera.
As an appeal to the conscience, there is a psychological dimension to the relationship between the bera
and the would-be thief (intruder) in the sense that the bera touches on the guilt aspect of a person. The
intruder experiences feelings of guilt or the lack of guilt depending on a number of situations. First, if the
would-be thief (intruder) does not see the bera, he/she is normally not affected by the power of the bera.
Second, if the item being protected by the bera is not eaten or used in front of the bera, the intruder is not
punishable. Third, the intruder can ambush the bera by sneaking up to it and either destroying it or
plucking it off the item to which it is attached and throwing it away. When this happens the bera is
rendered ineffective. Fourth, the intruder can seek permission from the bera by explaining to it that the
intruder is in great need (such as hunger). By asking permission, the intruder avoids being punished by
the bera. Finally, if the intruder has no intention of selling the items, they are normally not punished by
Although different in many respects, the bera may be compared to the modern surveillance camera (Big
Brother) which basically says: “I am watching you, do what is right.” In other words, the bera engages a
person in some form of dialogue that leads to moral action.
African Art and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of the Bera Among the Dagaaba of Ghana
5. THE BERA AS NON-DISCURSIVE INTERLOCUTOR
The interpersonal character of a person vis-à-vis a bera may be described by identifying the bera as a
non-discursive interlocutor or a pregnant cultural narrative ready to give birth. Calvin Schrag (1994:214)
defines narratives as stories “spoken or written” that “comport meanings that are already understood,
however nonthematically, by the narrator and the hearer/reader alike”. For Schrag, the meaning of the
narrative “resides in the narrative itself as it is informed by the social practices, the intersubjective
associations, and the institutional purposes that make up the fabric of our sociohistorical existence”
(1994:214). In the case of the bera, the narrator is invisibly present but speaks in and through the object
that is visibly present to the observer/interlocutor. Initially, the bera appears to the observer as a mere
object but as the observer is confronted by it and begins to search through his mind for the meaning of
this object, he/she realizes that he/she is face-to-face with an active agent of cultural and moral
significance. At this moment, the observer is “interpellated through a communicative act … made subject
before the eyes of centralizing power and expected to respond appropriately, by locating herself (himself)
within that gaze – as a suspect” (Doris 2005:27).
As situated rhetoric the bera is significant if it shares the same cultural frame of reference with the
observer. Without such a shared frame of reference the bera would simply be regarded as a mere object or
an ugly piece of art. The shared frame of reference ultimately leads the observer to “activate the efficacy
of the objects (bera)… by interiorizing their conventional symbolic messages at a moment of critical
As mentioned above, the bera is situated within a religio-cultural context where words and objects relate
directly with the temporal and the eternal, the terrestrial and the extra-terrestrial, the profane and the
sacred. Therefore, because of the combination of creating the bera (object) and invoking spiritual power
upon it (word), the bera is regarded not simply as an object that acts as a scare scow to frighten away
would-be thieves but something that actually possesses spiritual power and moral efficacy.
For many Dagaaba, the power of the bera to punish or cause sickness and even death to people who
disregard its summons, is unquestionable. Dagaaba can point to or give examples of people who disregard
the bera and were punished with sickness or some mishap or even death. They can also give examples of
people who disregarded the bera and stole property without consequence. Nevertheless, the belief in the
efficacy of the bera is generally acknowledged and feared.
Even though the fear of the bera is beginning to fade among Dagaaba Christians and educated literates, it
must be stated that these people still behave cautiously when confronted with a bera. After all, the Bible
teaches that “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Mt. 4:7).
6. THE BERA AND CHRISTIANITY
The work of H. Richard Niebuhr (1956), Christ and Culture, can throw light on the relationship between
Christianity and Dagaaba culture. According to Niebuhr, Christianity can interact with a culture in
different ways. Three of those ways are hostility toward the culture, innocent acceptance of the culture
and its values, or discernment and creation of a new culture. Catholic missionaries, especially the
Missionaries of Africa, who evangelized the Dagaaba of Ghana, approached the new culture with hostility.
The missionaries saw almost every aspect of Dagaaba culture as the work of the devil and, therefore,
incompatible with Christianity (Naaeke 2003:23). Such a hostile approach calls on Christians “to protect
themselves from cultural pollution by maintaining strong Church loyalty as a defence against those
invading worlds of superficiality” (Gallagher 1998:117). Maintaining this distance from pagan culture
would give Christians moral authority as they live and witness to the Gospel in their communities.
However, as Christianity grows and takes on an African identity, contemporary African Christians are
beginning to engage the Christian message in dialogue with the good values of African culture. This
process of discernment is inspired by the Pauline address to the Athenians at the Areopagus (Acts 17). In
that speech, Paul re-interprets the pagan practices of the Athenians in the light of the Gospel and
discovers that there are some elements of the pagan practices that are indeed the seed for proclaiming the
Gospel. In like manner, one could argue that although the bera is a pagan symbol, the content of its
message (do not steal) is totally consistent with Christian morality and the catechist’s use of the bera
could therefore be said to be an ingenious use of a cultural symbol to teach Christian morality.
7. INTERPRETING THE ACTION OF THE VILLAGE CATECHIST
So why does a village catechist hang a bera on his mango tree?
The action of the village catechist is subject to a number of interpretations indicating the inseparable link
between rhetoric and interpretation.
First, hanging a bera on a mango tree by a village catechist could be seen as an expression of the
catechist’s dissatisfaction with his Church’s failure to instill a strict moral order in Christians such that his
mango fruits stand in danger of being stolen if he does not resort to another form of moral deterrence to
would-be thieves. This sentiment is expressed by some African critics of Christian morality who accuse
Christian morality of “destabilizing the coherent moral order” (Suom-Dery 2000:28) of African society.
For instance, some Dagaaba Christians believe that Christianity has watered down the moral norms of
their culture by introducing a God of love and forgiveness to such an extent that some cultural moral
norms are wantonly disrespected or disregarded by people without consequence. This dissatisfaction is
sometimes manifested in the “superficial juxtaposition of Christianity and African (Dagara) reality”
(2000:460) as may be evidenced by the action of the village catechist.
Secondly, the action of the village catechist may be seen as syncretism. The wikipedia encyclopedia
describes syncretism as follows:
Syncretism is the attempt to reconcile disparate, even opposing, beliefs and to meld
practices of various schools of thought. It is especially associated with the attempt to
merge and analogize several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and
mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity.
Religious syncretism is the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new
system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions.
From this definition, we can infer that syncretism can come about as a result of poor communication
between a sender and receiver of a message. The sender may present insufficient or distorted information,
thereby leaving the recipient to interpret the message within the framework of his (receiver’s) cultural
African Art and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of the Bera Among the Dagaaba of Ghana
experience and misunderstand the meaning of the message in the process of doing so. Therefore, the
village catechist himself could have misunderstood or misinterpreted the teaching of the Church within
the framework of his culture and consequently his action could trigger off the dissemination of erroneous
doctrine and practice that had the potential of degenerating into syncretism. In other words, the action of
the village catechist might not have been directly intended to misinform people although it had the
potential to do so.
Thirdly, the action of the village catechist could be seen as an attempt at inculturation, that is, an effort to
incorporate some good elements of his culture into the Christian message. In this case, the use of the bera
would be an attempt to inculcate the moral norms of the community through the use of cultural
symbolism. After all, the values represented by the bera are consistent with Christian morality. This
position would be consistent with the Pauline speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17). In this regard, the
village catechist’s action could be argued as an ingenious use of the Dagaaba cultural topoi of fear of the
spirits and the impetus to do what is morally right as symbolized by the bera. However, the difference
between the bera used by the village catechist and that used by a non-Christian yidandoo or bagburgre or
tengansob is that the catechist does not invoke any spiritual power on the bera thereby calling on the
spirit to strike any one who steals his property. The catechist only uses the bera as a scare crow to any
The danger or flaw of this argument is that the recipient has no way of knowing whether the catechist
invoked the power of a spirit upon the bera or not and hence the likelihood that the catechist will
communicate the wrong message by using the bera. Additionally, although inculturation is a positive sign
of the growth of Christianity in Africa, this process can mislead people through distortions or
inappropriate use of cultural symbols to teach the Christian message especially in a society where the
meaning and significance of the bera is so closely associated with non-Christian beliefs.
On the other hand, the position of the village catechist as teacher of Catholic doctrine could lower the
credibility of the bera in the eyes of people. By virtue of his Christian faith and his role as catechist,
people in the community do not expect the catechist to indulge in occult activity and even if he does they
would consider it to be a mere farce. On the other hand, his action could potentially lower his credibility
as an agent of catechesis and people would cease to take his message and teaching seriously.
Although the bera is just a small part of African art, its rhetorical and cultural significance can be studied
from different perspectives. This paper has tried to show the rhetorical function of the bera as non-
discursive visual object and a summons to moral action. By analyzing the role of the bera as situated
rhetoric, and non-discursive interlocutor, the paper has shown that a Dagaaba village catechist hangs a
bera on his mango tree because he deems the bera to be a powerful cultural agent that has the capacity to
persuade a person not to steal property that does not belong to him/her. The Dagaaba cultural topoi
(places of argument) of fear and the desire to follow cultural moral values are significant persuasive
premises for using the bera.
This paper has not been comprehensive in its analysis of the bera nor was that its intention. Therefore, the
bera remains an open cultural symbol and is subject for scholarship and analysis especially from the point
of view of its relevance to the social, psychological and moral development of the Dagaaba.
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