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Illuminating Humanities: Edudzi Sallah

Highlighting Humanities Research and its Impact

Highlighting Humanities Research and its Impact

Edudzi David Sallah
Graduate Student in the Department of Performance Studies, Texas A&M

The Glasscock Center is delighted to introduce a new series which highlights humanities research at Texas A&M, and the vital role played by the humanities at the university and in the world beyond the academy.

To start the series, we invited Edudzi Sallah, Glasscock Graduate Fellow, to tell us about his project on pre-mid nineteenth century capital punishment (toko atolia) in the Anlo-Ewe community of Ghana. His research highlights the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to explore how worldviews, culture, and time influence our understanding of cultural practices.

Tell us a bit about your current research project.

“My research seeks to advance intercultural understanding by showing how externally imposed judgements overlook deeper meanings in cultural practices.”

Most societies throughout history have instituted ways of dealing with criminals, including the death penalty. How such a penalty is carried out, or whether it ought to be carried out at all, is an ongoing discourse. My research provides an understanding of how cultural practices, such as capital punishment, emerge from a people’s worldview by focusing on one particular indigenous African execution practice called Toko Atolia. Toko atolia, now defunct, was practiced by an ethnolinguistic community in pre-mid nineteenth century Ghana – West Africa – known as the Anlo-Ewes. Toko atolia took the form of burying recalcitrant miscreants alive in a ritualized manner. Toko atolia has been judged barbaric by modern, externally imposed notions of justice and punishment. I offer an appreciation of the worldview that shaped toko atolia, and argue, contrarily, that this seemingly barbaric practice makes sense within the worldview of the pre-mid nineteenth century Anlo-Ewes. My ethnographic fieldwork and archival research provide a wealth of perspectives from which I have developed an analysis of the relationship people today have with toko atolia. My research seeks to advance intercultural understanding by showing how externally imposed judgments overlook deeper meanings in cultural practices. (For example, how does America deal with external perceptions of its justice system, especially with regard to the now practice of lethal injection behind closed doors?)

What inspired your interest in your current research project, and why is this topic significant?

Two propositions inspired my interest in the exploration of toko atolia. First, as extreme as practices of old, such as execution by burying a culprit alive, may sound to our present-day sensibilities, the cultural-historical importance of such practices is best apprehended by examining the social and moral-ethical logic that compelled them. Secondly, people who are culturally and historically removed from African traditional practices, such as toko atolia, often interpret them simplistically, without attending to the worldviews in which such practices make sense.

Aside from dramatizations of toko atolia by the late Rev. Dr. F. K. Fiawoo, my thesis is the first scholarly or literary work to take toko atolia as its main object of study. This gap inspired my research. Finally, my strong desire to valorize the cultural expressions of the Anlo-Ewes of Ghana and ultimately offer an appreciation of their culture, as a model for other scholars to emulate towards a collective course of liberating African cultures from external perspectives and misconceptions, is equally an inspiring factor for this research.

What do you find rewarding in your work?

My research is rewarding in that it engages the discourse of capital punishment from a different perspective than is common in current scholarship: the religious/spiritual worldview and logic of the Anlo-Ewe people. Thus, my research provides new insights that affect existing notions in the discourse on capital punishment.

This research has gained many recognitions in and outside the Texas A&M University community. It has offered me research-travel experiences and has led me to the discoveries of new and exclusive information, especially from the Bremen-City Archives in Germany. This work has won me four research grants and a fellowship at Texas A&M University. It has also featured in conferences in the United States and in Ghana as well as colloquiums at the Texas A&M University and the University of Cologne in Germany. This work has won the ultimate prize in the 2019 Three Minutes Thesis Competition at Texas A&M University and offered me the opportunity to represent the University in the Three Minutes Thesis Regional Competition in Birmingham, Alabama in March 2020.

Why are the humanities important to society as well as to you personally? 

“… the humanities aid societies in appreciating others through their practices, customs, histories, and cultures. Through these appreciations there have been advancements in intercultural understanding…”

My project is a humanistic inquiry in that it applies purely qualitative methods (ethnographic and archival) to questions of meaning (the religious-spiritual significance of toko atolia) in the experience of the Anlo-Ewe people. It is interdisciplinary within the humanities in its bridge of historical-anthropological, religious-philosophical, performance, and literary approaches to the cultural practice of toko atolia. It reconstructs this defunct historical practice/experience in the context of the cosmology, philosophy (moral-ethical questions of justice) and expressive culture of the people who practiced it. It engages capital punishment (toko atolia) as performance—a way by which people define and/or interpret their worlds and make sense of themselves.

Regarding the above, the humanities aid societies in appreciating others through their practices, customs, histories, and cultures. Through these appreciations there have been advancements in intercultural understanding, as I offer in my research. This intercultural advancement furthers social justice and equality as we are brought to terms with how others have tried to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of the cosmos, as inherent in performance. The humanities encourage us to first seek to understand and share in the feelings of others by subjecting personalized, complicated, and even defective accounts of others to critical and logical reasoning.

“…the humanities are the backbone of every free, fair, and successful society.”

Personally, the humanities have developed in me a sense of skepticism about my research even from my emic perspective. Thus, I attach equal importance to etic perspectives about my research. The humanities have equipped me, thus far, with a great sense of creativity and criticality in writing and reading. These skills have helped me to draw, for example, ecological connections with my research. Finally, the humanities are the backbone of every free, fair, and successful society.

What are some future research projects that you are, or want to, work on?

Whereas my MA research focuses on a specific indigenous African culture against western conceptions of justice, my Ph.D. would seek to examine African American cultures and bodies as victims of the American social and criminal justice systems. In either study, race is the medium by which both indigenous African and African-American cultures and bodies are denigrated. For this project, I would explore African American literature for particular African cultural retentions and transformations. This includes the resurgence in African American literature of African Diaspora cultures such as the Gullah, how such features in discourses of Afro-pessimism, race, power, African/African-American identity, and especially justice; how traces of slavery remain in the contemporary American criminal justice system through extensive imprisonment and racialized punishment shaped by racist ideologies; and how race, class, and gender intersect to render African American bodies more suspect, visible, and thus subject to disciplinary power are questions I would examine for my further research project.