African Personality and Spirituality:
The Role of Abosom and Human Essence
In African Personality and Spirituality: The role of Abosom and Human Essence, author Anthony Ephirim-Donkor—who is also a traditional Akan ruler—presents a detail discourse on the African personality and religiosity. Ephirim-Donkor makes the Abosom—a key element in Akan spirituality—the focus of his book and articulates its role in the affairs of the people under study. Although, Ephirim-Donkor is a Christian priest, his personal experience, and in particular his background as a traditional ruler place him close to Akan religion and predisposes him to deal with the subject of this book.
Ephirim-Donkor uses his opening chapter, Akan Eschatology, to present an informed discussion on the topic. His exposition on the nananom nsamanfoɔ (ancestors), their abode (samanadzie), and its nature, the qualification of an ancestor—a superb role in Akan spirituality. He also expertly discusses healthcare delivery and the etiology of diseases among traditional Africans. Ephirim-Donkor acknowledges the role of spirituality in healthcare delivery and rightly argues that the line between the spiritual and the physical causes of illness among the traditional African is blurred and warns that relying on spirituality while on “a simple visit to a hospital would have addressed many of the illnesses misdiagnosed as spiritual” (4) is as harmful as it is commendable.
The author’s deep knowledge of the Akan is also visible in his discussion on the Akan concepts of Nana (6-9), and the Akan notions of eternity (9-17), death (7-31), and samanadzie (31-35).
Ephirim-Donkor also shows a similar knowledge in his discussion on the nature and influence that the spirit exercises on Akan life and thought and this he clearly demonstrates in his discussion of matters relating to health.
Ephirim-Donkor again demonstrates his knowledge of the field with the existing literature on the Akan that he cites to support his arguments. His grasp of literature on the Akan, enables him to offer an informed critique on the issues (83, 85, 112, 121) as well as to disprove some existing knowledge (102, 122, 163, 164, 169) about the Akan.
Relying on the legendary and traditional Ghanaian carver-cum-painter, Kofi Antubam, Ephirim-Donkor outlines the Akan concept of a beautiful person. He also examines the qualities of an ethical person among the Akan (151), and how, in this tradition, a person is prepared to face the challenges of existential life.
One beautiful thing about this book is the author’s use of the question-and-answer style, analogies, and proverbs to clarify some aspects of his discussion to better enable the reader to follow these discussions.
In spite of my deep appreciation for the author’s work, I have the following criticisms to point out. First, some of the author’s translations are inaccurate. For instance, he translates “spiritual-father” in Akan language as Agya-bosom (5). This is not accurate because Agya-bosom is known in Akan as ntɔn or ntoro, a term literally translated in English as “father’s-spirit” or “father’s deity.” Among the Akan, every father has a deity, and each deity has a name. Such names are bosompo and bosompra, and they protect the father and his children, and the children are then bound to observe the taboos associated with this their father’s deity
Another example would be the author’s translation of divination as Akɔm (115). This is not accurate because Akɔm is the gesture or dance that a traditional priest performs when under trance—when a spirit or obosom alights on the traditional priest. Although Akɔm is one of the divinatory techniques, it cannot be translated as divination. This is because divination in Akan is Abisaa, which translates either to going to consult a diviner, or human attempts to know the will of the divine.
Second, Ephirim-Donkor claims that “indeed, the Akan believe that human beings descended directly from the Abosom, all human beings were Abosom before being born into the corporeal (wiadzie) as human, explaining why every human being has an Agya-bosom”(80, 152). This claim is in sharp contrast to Akan cosmology in the Akan creation story—human beings were created before the Abosom (gods) and, after creating human beings, God saw that they needed protection and created the spirits to protect them.
Again, Ephirim-Donkor claims that “the earth is not a single female but two goddesses, namely, Asasi Afua and Asasi Yaa” (78, 150). This is also not accurate. The Akan, broadly are divided into two main groups using the differences in dialect as the basis of this division. One is the Twi and the other is the Fante. Among the Twi-speaking Akan, the natal day for earth’s goddess is Thursday, hence she is known as Asaase Yaa, but among the Fante-speaking, Friday is the natal day for earth’s goddess so she is known as Asasi Afua.
Reading this book, one thing that becomes clear is that the bulk of the material is about the Akan of Ghana. This makes the use of “African” in the title a bit problematic. The use of an “‘Akan’ Personality and Spirituality: The Role of Abosom and Human Essence’’ would have been a more appropriate title for the book as most of the discussions and arguments in the book will not hold much for many African societies, although they would all share similar worldviews. For instance, different creation stories abound in Africa societies.
In spite of these critiques, the book is well researched and written. To a large extent, Ephirim-Donkor succeeds in doing what he sets out to do: to add to the existing knowledge on indigenous African religions. This book, then, would be an important resource not only for Africanists, religious hermeneutics, social and cultural anthropologists, theologians, counsellors, academics, students of religion and philosophy, but also for all those interested in getting to know the Akan of Ghana in general.
Samuel Awuah-Nyamekye is professor of religion and environment in the department of religion and human values in the college of humanities and legal studies at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
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