African Personality and Spirituality:

The Role of Abosom and Human Essence

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Anthony Ephirim-Donkor
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , December
     210 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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 “‘AkanPersonality 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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Ephirim-Donkor is associate professor of religion and Africana studies and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is also the traditional king of Gomoa Mprumem, Ghana.



Anthony Ephirim-Donkor

A response by the author:

Generally, a positive review of African Personality and Spirituality: The Rle of Abosom and Human Essence by Samuel Awuah-Nyamekye, but his criticisms should not go unanswered. Concerning my claim that human beings were abosom (deities) or spiritual beings prior to their corporeal existence as human beings, Awuah-Nyamekye took issue with that statement and instead stated that “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.” Awuah-Nyamekye’s rendition here does not conform to Akan cosmological orthodoxy. Akan cosmogony maintains that in the beginning, the Old Woman and her children (Abrewa na ni mma) lived on earth, while God lived on the moon which was very close to earth (Busia 1954, 191-193; Ephirim-Donkor 1994, 34-35). Later God moved farther away prompting R. S. Rattray, for instance, to refer to the Akan God as a sky God (Rattray 1923, 141-42). Moreover, Rattray averred that in God’s absence, God “delegated His powers to His lieutenants, the Abosom, or lesser gods” (Rattray 1923, 141-42). Over two centuries earlier, William Bosman was told the same story (Bosman 1705, 454). There is no hint here of human beings being created first, before the abosom. Akan cosmogony points to the existence of the abosom as God’s first children (Ephirim-Donkor 2011, 39-40), created long before corporeality—created later for living beings, including human beings who arrived much later after the abosom “removed” all wild creatures on earth. Therefore, it is illogical for Awuah-Nyamekye to claim that human beings preceded the abosom when there was no earth for human habitation.  

On the goddesses of earth and how different Akan groups refer to them—the Akan to the north, the Twe speakers, call her Asasi Yaa, while those to the south, the Fante in particular, refer to earth as Asasi Efua—Awuah-Nyamekye believes that there is only one earth goddess despite his own admission that the Akan name things after the day of birth, meaning Asasi Efua came into being on a Friday, while Asasi Yaa also came into being on a Thursday. While earth is one solid mass, the abosom are not; their relationships, “times” of ascendency, nature, etc. are unique (78, 150) and phenomenal (Ephirim-Donkor 2017, 23-46).    

Awuah-Nyamekye also accused me of mistranslating akɔm as divination, and sought to correct me by saying that “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.” However, if Awuah-Nyamekye had taken the time to research the subject matter and read my article, “Akom: The Ultimate Mediumship Experience Among the Akan,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76, 1 (March 2008): 54-81, he would have realized that I have already published on the subject matter, making his criticism obsolete. In my article, I even devoted a section titled “Ebisadze (Divination),” the same as Awuah-Nyamekye’s “Abisaa.” Any Akan reader would notice that there is no difference between Awuah-Nyamekye’s use of “Abisaa” and my “Ebisadze.” After decades of research on divination and mediumistic rites and rituals (Ephirim-Donkor 2017, 27ff; 2015, 94-98; 2008), I know Akɔm to be more than bodily and hand gesticulations or even dance, as I clearly demonstrated in the 2008 article. Indeed, akɔm is a discipline and a profession, and while a special dance is required and therefore taught to a novice (Ɔkɔmfo-ba), actually, dancing is the least of an Ɔkɔmfo’s duties, because a practicing Ɔkɔmfo may go for months or even years without a dance, yet she performs religious tasks and duties pertinent to her profession. For this reason, I take a holistic view of akɔm and define an Ɔkɔmfo, professionally, as a diviner-medium, dancer, musician, healer, socio-political critic and reformer, prophet, and above all, a priestess/priest, because her duties and responsibilities are divinely inspired (115) making akɔm and an Ɔkmfo a diviner wholly (120-146).  

Furthermore, Awuah-Nyamekye takes issue with my rendition and use of "agyabosom" as “inaccurate because Agya-bosom is known in Akan as ntɔn or ntɔro, a term literally translated in English as “father’s-spirit” or “father’s deity.” While I view this to be frivolous criticism because the same renditions are offered in the book (80-83, 88-90, 106), it is important to note that the Akan are not a homogenous group linguistically, and so while ntɔn or ntɔro are the vogue among the Twe Akan speakers to the north, Awuah-Nyamekye should have known that āgyabosom or agyafiae-bosom is common among the Fante. During James Christensen’s study of Fante priesthood, for instance, his use of the term āgyabosom was indispensable to his study (Christensen 1959, 257-278). Similarly, R. S. Rattray, who undertook the most extensive research on any Akan group ,focusing on the Asante, used obosom-sunsum and ntoro-nton interchangeably, stating that “Synonymous terms for the ntoro are nton, sunsum, or obosom (god)” (Rattray 1927, 318). Even as a foreigner, Rattray acknowledged the broad usage of different terms among various Akan groups whose meaning may be the same everywhere (Ephirim-Donkor 1997, 59-60). This is what Awuah-Nyamekye failed to acknowledge among the Fante vis-à-vis Twe speakers.   

Finally, Awuah-Nyamekye even found the title of the book objectionable, describing the “African” in the title as “problematic” because the book was about the Akan people. In fact, the Akan are found in two African countries, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. And in both countries, the Akan constitute about half of the population respectively. So, the only question I would like to ask regarding the Akan is: Are the Akan not an African people?  

Curiously, Awuah-Nyamekye never once cited a source or provided any evidence to refute my assertions, or even to bolster his own positions, thus rendering his criticism of African Personality and Spirituality: The Role of Abosom and Human Essence baseless and without merit. 

Anthony Ephirim-Donkor, Ph.D.Professor
Chair, Department of Africana Studies
Binghamton University, State University of New York


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