Journal of Religion in Africa
Publisher: Brill Academic PublishersVolume XIV, Number 2, 1982, pp 85-114
|There is an important error in the published version. Instead of Table Three, it has repeated tables one and two. The Table Three here is the correct one. Phil|
Before I began living with Kwawu people, learning the Twi language, and looking at the world as the Akan do, I had my own idea of reality and how the world, with me in it, was constructed. 2.
As I became more and more able to live like a Kwawu person, I realised that I began thinking in Twi − some things, some responses, some events, just did not translate into my native Canadian English. Ultimately I discovered that it was difficult to bridge the European African gap within myself. Now I am trying to do so: to put together some ideas − learned in Kwawu − into a composition that would be understood by people in my culture of origin.
I will start by describing my early perceptions of reality, and go on to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of language in categorising perceptions. I will then go on to describe what I learned about Kwawu perceptions of reality. The three fundamental elements of the physical universe and the spirits which animate it, the three fundamental elements of the physical individual and the three souls which animate each human being, each parallel the three fundamental ritual and symbolic colours, red, black, and white.
Learning this different way of looking
at the world, self, and society, made it difficult to answer questions,
in English, based on Western assumptions, when they were asked about life
and living in an African society. Perhaps this essay will explain
some of the reasons.
CHANGING ONE'S CULTURE
The Canadian me is a person with some basic notions about the world: materialistic in theoretical outlook, atheistic in religion, but brought up with a sense of respect and appreciation for other people's beliefs and rituals, whether they be primal, Christian, Hindu, or other. Culture, to me, is everything which human beings learn that makes them human: a superorganic level of complexity based on the organic (biological) level, but transcends the inorganic (physical) level. Culture has dimensions such as the technological, economic, political, social or institutional, ideological, and cosmological, similar to the physical dimensions of length, width, height, and time; culture would not exist if it lacked them. I see an immediacy about technology and economy, which puts me closer to the materialist camp that views the economic substructure as having a deterministic relationship towards the super structural dimension of behaviour and norms. Yet all the cultural dimensions from using tools to speculations about reality are learned. They are transmitted by symbols rather than by genes, and thus they belong to the realm of ideas. That sketches my Western perspectives. It is to those symbolic dimensions of culture, learned while I learned to live in Akan society, that this essay is directed.
I started learning to speak Twi in 1965 when I first went to the Kwawu District of Ghana for two years to set up an economics department in a secondary school. I was adopted by the chief of a nearby town, Obo, and returned to Canada with the intention of changing my field from economics to anthropology (M.A.). I returned in 1972 to do my Ph.D. at the University of Ghana, under the supervision of Professor D. K. Fiawoo, and did a sociological study of migration from Obo, and its effects on social organization.
In the course of the study I got deeper into the culture. I learned more Twi rather than depend on translators, was adopted into the matrilineage of an Obo elder (a lineage that provides one of stool wives of the chief), became a recognised lover of a priestess of a tutelary deity (commonly called "fetish" or god), and was appointed state horn blower. That, plus the administration of numerous surveys for research, as well as merely surviving day by day, forced me to learn how to "operate" in an Akan society. My responses, thoughts, and plans became adapted to the culture. I continued my association with Obo from 1975 to 1979, as a lecturer at the University of Cape Coast, meeting Obo migrants in Cape Coast and Accra, maintaining ties, and returning frequently to Obo for festivals and funerals. After leaving Ghana in 1982, I continue somehow partly see myself as an Obo person, seeking out and talking Twi with Ghanaian migrants wherever l go.
It soon became clear to me that learning the language was not merely learning a code by which one could think in English and transform it into Twi. What I had learned objectively as a student soon became a subjective part of my personal experience; language is a way of categorising that kaleidoscope of experiences called reality into different boxes called words, but the sizes, shapes, and contents of those boxes change from language to language, culture to culture.
To demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the sizes and contents those boxes called words, it would be useful to begin with examples from kinship expressions. The words "family," "uncle," "father," "mother," and others, are used by Akan people when they speak English rather than Twi, none of those is used as would be by a native English speaker, nor does it have a precise Twi equivalent. There is no Twi word for "family" either in sense of a nuclear family composed of a primary group based on marriage of a man and a woman with their immediate offspring, or in the sense of an extended family defined as an extension of the nuclear family and based on a combination of both marriage and descent. There is a word abusua but that is a matrilineage rather than a family. It refers to an exogamous corporate group of a hundred people, all of whom are recruited by birth through female lines of descent, not by marriage. While the elders of an abusua may get together at regular intervals to pour libations on the ancestral stools and to settle disputes, the only time even the majority of the abusua members congregate would be at the funeral of one of the elders. There is another word, fifo, which would translate more closely as household than as family. Akan households, however, are very fluid groups of people which change almost every day, and which do not consist of the same people who cook or eat together as well as those who sleep in the same house. Households, especially those in the home town, are usually based on matrilineal descent, husbands and wives living apart in their respective abusua houses. When they go to live in a village to farm, or go to a town to trade or work, spouses often live together. Although fifo does not strictly mean family it also does not necessarily exclude groups that could be called "family" in English.
For me, the result of learning to use the Twi language so as to operate in the Akan culture of Kwawu, was to begin to perceive the universe in a different way. While trying to explain it, I have resorted to the use of colour categories, but those categories must be treated as second rate tools in making English "sense" of Akan culture. I return again and again to my Kwawu friends and informants, especially to elders and priests, to test the ideas formulated in discussions with my Western friends. The model I now describe is a synthesis of ideas; not the sum total of any single Twi speaking informant, but my own, based on training in the social sciences yet changed by having learned to think in Akan. What I came to realise was that my own way of seeing things was "either-or", based on Socratic logic and reflected in the bipartite structural models of Levi-Strauss. In learning to think Akan, I began seeing things as "both-and" as well as the previous "either or." Instead of classifying things as "profane-sacred", for example, I discovered that there were two kinds of sacred: "sacred/white" and "sacred/black". Then what I had thought of as "profane" later became, in a sense, "sacred/red."
I discovered that the universe thus
had three elements: two of which contrasted the familiar differences between
yang-yin, female male, down-up, or left-right. There was a third,
however, which sometimes went beyond, but sometimes was parallel or equivalent
to, yet different from, the first two. I saw that the concept of the human
individual, too, had this three-fold nature, and reflected the concept
of the universe. Or was it that the concept of the world was a reflection
of the concept of the individual? I found the symbolic uses
of colour categories, red, black, and white, helpful in sorting out these
conceptual categories. In looking at either the universe or the individual,
not only did I see three colour categories, red, black, and white, but
I also saw that each one had a physical or material referent, behind which
I could identify a spiritual referent, behind which, with difficulty, I
identified an almost unconscious "essence." At each step, I saw the
latter a higher level of abstraction of the former. Armed with this
tripartite model of the threefold individual at three levels, and the threefold
universe at three levels, I could understand the tripartite structure of
society and culture. The three colours, red, black, and white, were
used in rituals to identify situations, to separate categories of behaviour,
and to mark stages in recognising changes in status. What follows,
then, is an analysis, based on my own bi-cultural experiences, tested in
discussions with people of both cultures, of a model. It describes
the concept of the universe, and the concept of the individual, both based
on three colour categories (red, black, and white), in each of three levels,
physical, spiritual, and abstract, and stemming from the symbols of social
recognition, ritual, and structure of Akan culture.
THE UNIVERSE HAS THREE SOULS
First consider the material or physical world. The three colour categories, red-black-white, or left-neutral-right categories, correspond to the three elements land-air-water. Land, or earth, is called asaase, while dirt, clay, or dust is called ndכti. Filth or faeces is efi. These belong to the red or what can be mistranslated as "profane" category. Water, in contrast, called nsu, takes various forms, nsu (river), כsu (rain), lakes and so on, and belongs to the white category. Blue is seen as an intense form of white. The middle category is the dynamic part of the universe: heaven, wind, life, anima, air. Air (mframa) is the medium through which water comes down from the sky to make the earth bring forth as well as the medium of prediction. “כsu be to a, mframa di kan, if it is going to rain, the wind will blow first." (Prediction). 3.
Behind the physical universe, each part of it, lie the spirits or personalities of each category. Mother Nature is personified as a woman named Asaase Yaa (asaase = earth; Yaa is a name given to all females born on Thursdays). She is the mother of the universe. There are no cults dedicated to her alone, but whenever libations are poured as prayers (mpaebכ means both libation and prayer), She is invoked either first or second. When a corpse is to be buried, a libation is poured on and to Her, begging permission to cut Her skin (dig a grave) that the corpse may be returned to Her "stomach" (same word as womb). She is the grandmother of the ancestors, Mother Earth.
In the middle category is God (כnyame = the shining one, or a contraction of = כnyankopon, from pon = supreme, ko = one, unity, and כnyame) seen as a male born on Saturday (His "day of rest") and therefore named Kwame. Black or invisibility denotes that He is unknowable or unapproachable; like a chief who must be addressed through the linguists and elders, God is entreated through the gods and ancestors. There is no cult of God, but an כnyamedua (dua = stick, stave, tree) can be found stuck upright in most any older compound. On it is balanced a bowl in which are placed eggs and certain portions of all sacrificed animals. Also, like Asaase Yaa, God is invoked second or first at the beginning of all libations or prayers. For short prayers the specific names of gods and ancestors can be omitted and after calling God, one says, “Me fre baako a, me fre nyinyina, (If I call one, I call all)," indicating the all-in-one unity of God and the other supernatural spirits. In one sense God is the one total of all spirits while in another sense God is a separate, named, identifiable spirit, superior to the others. The ancestors, the spirits of the pre-born, anima of change, and immortality, belong clearly to the black category of the spiritual universe.
In the white or right spiritual category, there are numerous deities, all born on different week days. While Mother Nature Earth can be seen as the matrilineal grand mother of the ancestors (which belong to the black category), God can be seen as the patrilineal grandfather of the river gods (which of course include the clouds and rain that fill the rivers with water). Other deities animate mountains, cliffs, and caves. The gods are called abosom (bכ = rock, strike, from the pre-Akan Guan symbol of priest-chief authority, the rock, and som = support), singular = כbosom. Thus the spiritual universe, like the physical universe it populates, can be classed into three categories, left-middle-right or red-black-white, with the recognition of a totality or unity of the three.
As the spiritual level is a higher abstraction of the physical, a personification of physical elements and forces, so there is a higher level of abstraction, beyond the identification of those spirits or personalities which animate the physical. It is at this third level where language is not adequate for communication. Here the colour categories red-black-white can be used as symbols of some essence which has no name.
In the red, left, or earth category is the essence of fecundity, the potential to bring forth, so long as She is fertilised by white and powered by black. The symbolic uses of the colour red indicate Her further characteristics: seriousness, defilement, and danger. In other words, She has the potential to provide (food, children, and other valuable and scarce commodities) but, just as one must get one's feet dirty in the mud of the market to become wealthy, so touching Mother Earth is serious; one gets defiled, but wealthy. The proverb "sunkwa (suffer to gain)" illustrates this notion. The close association of women with activities related to this essence illustrates its sociological parallels or its cultural significance. Women bear babies, provide milk, farm the land, cook the food, dig the clay, make the clay pots, and trade food, pots, and farm produce in the market. The proverb, "Fear woman," completes this description of the red category essence of the universe: fecundity, provision, seriousness, danger and defilement. There is no word that sums all these into one category; we will call it the red essence.
In the white, right, or water category is the essence of fertility, the ability to penetrate and cleanse something that can then bring forth. Rain is the semen of the universe; when it falls on Earth, She becomes fertile. Water baptises. The symbolic uses of the colour white indicates His further characteristics: purity, victory, and joy. In other words, water purifies and fertilises. The main function or activity of the Akan gods is making women fertile. Other activities include the cleansing of evil spirits and curing the results of evil: alcoholism, disease, bad luck, poverty, bad crops, and so on. The gods belong to the male side of the universe (though some may be female), which is concerned with matters of morality and justice. That is why men sit around drinking palm wine (fermented palm sap called nsafufu, from nsa = alcohol, fita/fufu = white) discussing court cases and politics while women labour in the fields, kitchens, markets and bedrooms. The rivers, patrilineal descendants of God, are used to cleanse people in a defiled state, and many conservative rural people will refuse to boil their drinking water because the heat will kill or annoy the purifying spirit. As in the other categories, there is no single word that sums up all these in one category: fertility, purity, joy, and victory. White is the essence of the right, up, or male element of the universe.
In the black, neutral, or air category is the essence of power, the ability to put energy and motion into the other two combined. Air and wind are the same word, mframa, in Twi; one is the universe's substance of power, ability, or anima − its "ether" − the other its motion: you do not feel air unless it moves. Air is the breath of the universe, its tumi (ability), and destiny. "If you have something say to God, tell it to the wind." (proverb). There is no single word that sums up all the characteristics of the category, but the symbolic implications of the colour black reveal its further properties: invisible, unknown, future, history, change, time, death, dynamics, life, power, rebirth, and energy. It is not the Soul of the universe, but its anima, one of three souls; it is the "breath of life.”
These three categories can be summarised in a paradigm which uses the three colours as identity labels. Red on the left, white on the right, and black, which is beyond direction, in the middle. The three levels of abstraction for each, then, are composed of the physical universe, its spiritual personification, and its abstract or symbolic essences. Those levels of abstraction are not distinct categories in Akan cosmology but separated here for Western interpretation:
Categories of the Cosmos
|Physical Cosmos||Earth, Dirt,
Clay, Land, Filth,
|Sky, Wind, Air,
|Supreme Sky God
Abosom (s. כbosom)
This paradigm is not based all on one
informant, but is a synthesis of many ideas learned from numerous priests
and elders. If we proceed from this collective model of the universe
to that of the individual, we will see certain parallels.
A PERSON HAS THREE SOUL CATEGORIES
When M.J. Field wrote that Akan society is a "guiltless" society, she implied that fault or guilt was not internalized by any individual. 4. Someone found guilty of being evil or committing a crime will not admit personal guilt yet still confess that the accusation is correct. The usual interpretation of this is that the guilty individual blames his crime on being possessed by an evil spirit but his inner "self" (whatever that is) remains pure. This explanation does not go far enough. The so-called "guiltless" trait is a product of the convoluted and multidimensional Akan ideas of self or personal identity. In Western societies there is a common notion of one body and one soul which separate at death. Again we have a Socratic "either-or" bipartite distinction. A complexity confusing to Western logic is the Akan notion that a thing can be both a whole and a part of the whole at the same time, much like Jesus being both God and the Son of God, but with more distinctions than two.
Historians despair when interviewing a chief who uses "I" to talk about what he did last year, and "I" to talk about what his ancestor did a century ago − more frustrating since years are not named or numbered. Oral traditions are even more difficult to sort out when chiefs who fought in some wars, or remembered for some incidents (that can be dated by European documents), are sometimes given their predecessors' names, for the same reasons, when those stories are retold. The explanation for this is that a person sees himself simultaneously as an individual and as a representative of increasingly larger categories of "soulness" or communal identity. This is more emphatic for an enstooled elder or chief who is considered the human shrine or vessel of his own ancestors. To understand this, let us proceed from the concept of the physical self, with its three categories red-black-white, to the personification of those three categories, of spirit or self, and on to the three abstract concepts, souls or soul elements, implied by each. The red physical element is female. Blood and flesh come from mother from the time of conception. The foetus feeds on the mother in the womb, drinks her milk after birth, and eats the products of her farm and kitchen. Whether male or female, his body comes from his mother, belongs to his mother's (thus his own) matrilineage, and is ultimately sent back to the great Mother: Earth. The spilling of a lineage member's blood is abhorred, because it is the common blood of the descent group. A royal or chiefs lineage formerly would try to ensure that even if a lineage member is found guilty of a capital offence, the execution would be done by neck wringing. Less powerful lineages would not be entitled to that option. Since colonial days, chiefs' courts have not had the authority to execute, but the elders tell this to emphasise the importance of blood to the lineage. They say "abusua baako ye mogya baako, (one matrilineage is one blood)."
Members of a lineage are encouraged not too quarrel or compete for the same food or desired item, and this communal ideology is symbolised by crossed crocodiles with one stomach and two heads with mouths that should not fight for food that ends up in the one stomach. Lineage members who disagree in private, are encouraged to close ranks and co-operate when faced by a common foe from outside the lineage. The "corpus" of body and blood belongs to the corporate descent group.
At conception, a person receives semen (hoaba). By this medium a child receives fertility and cleanliness. Cleanliness in a spiritual sense is morality (witness the "house cleaning" metaphor of Rawlings as he and the PNDC rid Ghana's armed threes and civil service of corruption) while fertility is closely linked to personality. These characteristics are passed down through the male line only. After a child is outdoored, and named by its father (who alone has that right and duty), the child's father's father will spit in the child's mouth, as a form of prayer, to fortify that white spiritual fertility, the semen. When a person seeks a blessing from father’s father, the old man will comply by spitting on that person's head, child or adult. The while fluids, and the morals, fertility, and personality they carry, come from one's father and only through the father's line. The strength of one's (white) bones has the same origin.
In contrast to blood and semen that a child receives at conception, the breath of life it receives from God comes at its time of birth. The day of birth is remembered weekly rather than annually, and is reflected in the "day name" or "soul name" of each person. Breath (humi) is the sign of anima, ability or life (tumi) in the individual and although invisible it is represented by !he colour black, and links together dynamics and air as in the physical universe. Death means that God removes that breath and life. God does not take the corpse which belongs to the matrilineage that sends it on to Asaase Yaa, the land, to be buried. Closely associated with the animating power and breathing given by God at birth, is the plot of life or series of events in which the individual participates, the destiny mentioned below.
Behind each of these three physical elements of the individual there are a series of spiritual personalities or identities which can be seen as parts of increasingly general categories. Behind the flesh and blood is a blood spirit or matrilineal ghost; behind the semen and cleansing fluids is a morality spirit or personality spirit; behind the breath and anima is a destiny soul. Each of these have individual and communal or shared elements, so let us discuss them in turn:
The body belongs to its lineage: so does its "ghost" (saman). When a chief pours a libation on the ancestral stool(s), he is praying to his matrilineal ancestors (Nananom Nsamanfo) and asking them, and, indirectly, God to bring good luck. The word "ghost" is a very poor translation. I prefer to think of saman as "blood spirit" rather than either ghost or soul, because it is different from the other two spirit elements which only together make up an aggregate that might be called ghost or soul but which has no name in Twi.
Each individual is a representative and part of a larger category, the abusua (matrilineage), composed of both living and dead members. When a chief is enstooled, he becomes the living shrine of his own matrilineal ancestors and thus uses the word "I" to refer to what former chiefs have done because he is both a part of and a representation of the whole of his total matrilineage. The fact of their being dead puts them in the power or black category but the fact of their common matrilineal membership puts them in the red category − another reason why both red and black are worn at funerals. In contrast to the usual ritual separation of red and black, they appear together at funerals when a lineage member (red) joins the ancestors (black). The chief is himself, his ancestors, and his lineage, at the same time.
The proverb, "abusua ye kwaem (the matrilineage is a forest)," indicates its dual or multiple nature, difficult to describe in Socratic "either-or" terms. Seen from the outside, the lineage is a unity like a forest but seen from the inside, it is composed of many parts competing for sun and rain. Members of a lineage can trace direct matrilineal links, but beyond the lineage is the clan. The abusua pon (pon = supreme) or clan has an essence or name which is called its ntn. All the various matrilineages of the Oyoko ntכn, for example, which are found in most Akan states, are considered to be one clan although direct descent lines cannot be traced. The ideology of brotherhood/sisterhood (nuanom = brothers and sisters) is extended beyond the abusua to the ntכn. The abusua, like the individual, is simultaneously the ntכn and part of the ntכn. Although lineage exogamy ("brothers" cannot marry "sisters") is practised when descent lines are traced, only public lip service is paid to clan exogamy − a demonstration of the political nature of that "brotherhood." Even that brotherhood, used for military alliances between matrilineal descent groups, is occasionally breached as during the nineteenth century battles between the Oyoko lineage of Dwaben and the Oyoko lineage of Kumasi, both founding members of the Asante confederation. Marriage and warfare between lineages with the same ntכn is overtly forbidden but covertly practised; members of the same ntכn share the same blood spirit.
Beyond the named unity of ntכn (group of lineages) is a wider group of clans which, for want of a better English word, can be called a phratry. A group of clans can be called nuanom (brothers and sisters) even though restrictions against marriage and warfare do not apply. Thus the Oyoko ntכn and the Adako ntכn are considered to be nuanom, the Dwumina and Asona belong to one category, while the Aduana group in Obo includes the Amoakade and Ada. Each individual matrilineal spirit is simultaneously a separate part of, and a representative of, increasingly wider categories of spirit essences; lineage, clan, phratry. Ultimately all belong to the earth, Asaase Yaa. Mother confers the spirit of brotherhood.
In contrast to the blood, corpus, and corporate group membership received from mother, an individual receives semen from father, which contains very different spiritual characteristics. Again, however, these spirit or soul categories are parts of ever widening general categories: sunsum for the individual, ntrכ for the patrilineal category, and obosom for the deity.
The individual or specific personality
spirit inherited from father is sunsum. It is the person's
morality as well as personality. While a mother, for example, is
expected to train her daughter in how to behave as well as how to exercise
domestic and other skills, if that daughter misbehaves her father is blamed.
Training is the father's responsibility, which is why fathers are expected
to pay school fees, an institution alien to pre-colonial Akan culture.
Fathers who do not pay school fees justify not doing so by saying that
schooling is economic rather than moral, and thus the obligation of a child's
matrilineage, though this argument is scorned by most. The automatic
responsibility of training by the father is expressed in the proverb, "Obi
nkyere otomfuo ba atono, (No one teaches the blacksmith's child how
to smith.)" Little distinction is made between nature and nurture
when the Akan say a child's morality, training, and personality are the
father's responsibility. All are passed down through the semen as
or spiritual character and reinforced after birth by the spirit and behaviour
of the father.
The individual or sunsum spirit must be seen as a representative and a part of a more general category, the ntrכ. This is a concept poorly understood and not recognised by most young, educated and urbanised Akan. It dates to a pre-Akan era when the area was populated by patrilineal Guan clans led by priest-chiefs, and its decline is part of the general Akan expansion and domination by matrilineal inheritance, succession and desent. What remains is a general knowledge of greeting replies each person gets from father. Some elders and priests know that the greeting reply categories come from the patrilineal spirit "clans" of the ntrכ. Where food proscriptions, names of ntrכ belonging to each river god, sacred days, personality characteristics, and expected behaviour are known, it is usually only for each informant's own ntrכ or god's ntrכ. No corporate descent groups are formed on the basis of patriliny, and the groups, relegated to a subordinate position because of the expansion of Akan matriliny, (vaguely spiritual categories even before colonial times), are rapidly disappearing. Akan social structure can hardly, therefore be called double unilineal, as some observers (i.e. Murdock) have stated.
When a person greets a friend, that friend indicates his familiarity and recognition by a phrase beginning with "ya," followed by the appropriate patriline category word (i.e. anyaado, eson, amu, abrau, abiriw). The knowledge of each others' greeting replies is an important element of etiquette, especially between powerful chiefs, elders, and priests.
The ntr, where understood, are described as the "children" of the abosom (gods) and there is an obvious association between patriliny, purity, and fertility. With each ntrכ come various food proscriptions based on the avoidance of pollution. The concepts of sunsum, ntrכ, and abosom respectively are nesting spiritual categories of increasing generality and communality. Busia (1963) wrote of ntrכ being children of the abosom but went on to write that one asks another's category with the question. "Wo guare ntrכ ben? (which ntrכ do you wash?)." The question is no longer in use. In Kwawu, instead, one asks about another's greeting response by using the verb da (lie, position, sleep) while in Fante one used the verb gye (receive, get). Only a few old priests, priestesses, and elders of those I interviewed recognised that these refer to ntr patriline categories, although it is generally understood that one gets one's greeting reply from one's father. There is a another variation, the connection of which is recognised by few, and that is honhom. The honhom is a spirit of a deceased person, the sunsum, after it is released from the body but before it travels to Asamando (land of saman or blood spirits). An honhom can, at its own funeral, possess one of the mourners so as to leave a few last minute messages or to accuse some one of being responsible for the death. These related and nesting generalities of moral and personality spirits belong to the male side of the individual: the personification of semen, spittle, body fluids, bones and fertility.
While the first two come from mother and father down descent lines, the third comes directly from God. Just as God gives and takes away a person's breath, so S/He gives and takes life. This characteristic is personified in nesting time destiny spirit categories. To understand them we begin with the verb kra and see how it is extrapolated in the spiritual sense.
The verb kra in Twi implies three things: (a) saying goodbye, (b) receiving or giving a message at parting, and (c) receiving or giving a goodbye gift, whether for one's self or to take to some one else. There is no equivalent verb in English. When a person is born, God will "kra" that person, giving an nkrabea (n = plural prefix, boa = some thing) or personal destiny spirit. Akan people speaking English translate "okra" as "soul" but it is a spiritual destiny category which unites with the combined blood and semen spirits at the lime of birth and the first breath. Birth days are not celebrated annually, but every week, and the week day on which one is born is called one's כkrada (כkra day). Older and more wealthy people can afford to hold their own כkrada as a Sabbath, avoiding work, getting up early to pour a libation to a personal כkra and nkrabea. The nkrabea is the goodbye gift of God to each person at birth.
The destiny soul of each person is not a predetermined set of occurrences as would be expected in a Western scientific cosmology. It has personality. It is spiritually organic and, like a person, can be bribed, cajoled, and influenced. If one does not treat one's כkra properly, it will become dark (כkrabiri), and bring bad luck. Just like a person whose face becomes dark (the idiomatic way of saying "angry") the כkra will be annoyed at being neglected. Bad luck may mean dying early or by an undesirable type of death, as well as being attacked by witchcraft, illness, infertility, or poverty. If honoured, respected, mollified, praised, and given drinks, the כkra will bring good fortune.
These akra destiny souls are not only separated individual spirits. There is a notion of shared destiny in that all persons born on same week day are considered nuanom (brothers and sisters). Twins are considered sacred: female twins becoming wives of chiefs and male twins becoming chief's elephants switch bearers (no one may disobey someone holding the elephant tail switch, because the holder bears the chief's command). People born on the same day are not forbidden to marry, nor do they share food proscriptions (as those in the same matrilineages or patricategories would) but destiny brotherhood is expressed in everyone being named according to the weekday of birth. The Akan usually call Europeans Kwasi (male Sunday) or Akosua (female Sunday) because, from their fifteenth century arrival on the Gold Coast, most Europeans avoided work on Sundays and usually went to their shrines to perform rituals every Sunday. Each day of the week itself is thought have a collective destiny spirit, the name of which is usually by subtracting the suffix da (day) from the Twi weekday word. The spirit of dwoda (Monday), for example, is Adwo. As noted above, all the spirits have day names, even Mother Nature (Thursday) and God (Saturday). When a child is born, it is not considered human until each day spirit has seen it and not claimed it − thus naming and outdooring are not done until after a child is at least a week old.
In the tripartite model of the universe described above, each of the three categories, female, dynamic, and male, had a physical manifestation, a spiritual anima (or personage), and a set of essences or characteristics. The same can be said about the tripartite concept of the individual, but those essences, unnamed in Twi per se, comprise the structure of the culture and the relationships between individual and society. Every individual is thought of as composed of each of the three elements, each of which has a different origin. From the red, female, blood, and ghost category comes one's membership in a corporate descent group, potential succession to office, inheritance of property, and access to land. It corresponds most closely to the economic, material, and to some extent political military, dimensions of culture. From the black, dynamic, breath, and destiny category comes one's animation, political power, history, past and future, and ritual time. From the white, male, semen, and spiritual category comes one's personality, morality, fertility, and purity. The aggregate of these essences constitute the culture of the Akan within each person.
As with the model of the universe described above, the three elements of the individual can be summarised as a paradigm. The distinction between levels of abstraction is based on Western rather than African distinctions but close enough for general validity.
Categories of the Person
|Physical Person||Blood = bogya
body = fun
|Breath = humi
Life = tumi
|Semen = hoaba
Spit = ntesuo
|Mother (at conception)
|God (at birth)
|Father (at conception)
|Individual = saman
Lineage = abusua
clan = ntכn
|Individual - כkra
Destiny - nkrabea
|Individual = sunsum
Patriline = ntrכ
Power, Time, Ritual, Political
This paradigm, too, is a personal synthesis
of concepts described by many informants, and tested again by asking older
priests and elders. From it, however, one can interpret much of the
behaviour ideas, and responses, in short the culture of the Akan, from
the point of view of a western outsider. It is to those cultural
extrapolations of individual and cosmological concepts that we now turn.
THE CULTURE HAS THREE ELEMENTS
As a result of living in an Akan society, my view of culture (developed from social science training) changed. The Twi word usually translated as "culture" is amane, but I soon discovered it meant only traditional customs and rituals. Its meaning is equivalent to high culture of western society: ballet, coronations and the fancy wigs of high court .judges; it includes drumming, dancing, etiquette and dress in priests' and chief’s courts. Culture means all learned human behaviour, high and low. To be learned, culture must be transmitted by symbols, and it is those symbols to which we now turn. Names of people, group identity and behaviour rules such as food avoidances, rites recognising status changes, and the assumed characteristics of colours, are some of these. What is significant in the examination of the ways these signs are used is the reflection of the tripartite cosmology (mentioned above) in these symbols.
Let us begin with labels: how do Akan people get names? Red: Naming is not matronymic in this matrilineal society, but everyone belongs to a named ntכn which one gets from mother. Black: Everyone is born on some week day (which formerly began at sundown) and receives a day name directly from God. White: Later, when a child is outdoored and reckoned to be human, it is named by, but not usually after, its father. The father chooses the name of some respected person, living or dead, who by virtue of having that name, imparts some of the personality and respectability to the child. These three origins of three kinds of identity labels are complicated by the use of different names in different social contexts. The borrowing of fathers' names to register at schools (founded by western missionaries and administration who expected "surnames") results in children being called something like Afua Adae at home and Mercy Mensah at school. If she was named by her father after a man called Mensah or woman called Mansa, or if she were third born, she would be Mansa at home. But she would adopt the male name, Mensah, after her father, to conform to the school’s demand for a surname. Although the tripartite pattern is identifiable in naming people, the organic and dynamic nature of the culture results in delightfully complex naming and a fluid use of identity labels for individuals and groups.
Another aspect of identity is the avoidance of certain foods or certain behaviour often at specified times. There are no known food taboos now associated with destiny names, and the avoidances associated with each matriclan, and with each patricategory, are barely recognised now, except by some old people, elders, and priests. Furthermore, each person might know his own clan avoidances, and his own patricategory avoidances, but be very vague about those of others. Many older informants explained that they also had been ignorant in their youth, so this vagueness may be as much as a result of life cycle as a forgetting of old notions as the country modernises,
As the Obo Kontihene explained for me, the animals of each (matriclan) were in lieu of flags which were introduced later by Europeans. To eat an ntכn animal would be like cannibalism, and often the name of a clan would be based on the animal akonkran (white crested raven) for Asona clan, ekuo (buffalo) for Ekuona clan, and so on. Knowing clan secrets such as food taboos, other than the clan animal, was a way a stranger, in these dispersed clans, could be identified. Totemism (if one may use the term in this sense) in the matrilineal side, was based on "brotherhood," corporate identity, and conceptualised as avoiding dangerous acts such as cannibalism. Food avoidances associated with ntr] (patricategories) operated under different principles. To avoid pollution, rather as a Jew avoids treif food, a person had a set of proscribed plants and animals according to his ntr] category. Many of the items were avoided by more than one (but not every) ntrכ group, for this was a matter of purity rather than descent group identification. The 'treif' items were closely associated with the abosom (deities) who all had ntrכ proscriptions. A pregnant woman also avoided her husband's forbidden foods because the foetus obtained its proscriptions patrilineally. Barren women seeking spiritual help would be told, among other things, to avoid her husband's proscribed foods so as to keep her body pure and receptive for the husband’s hoaba (semen) and sunsum (spirit). An כkomfo (כkom = spiritual possession), whether priest or priestess, would be called a "wife" of an כbosom (deity), whether a god or goddess, who would be the "husband" of the human medium. To keep his or her body pure and clean so that the deity would be able to enter it for possession, the human medium, as a dutiful "wife," would observe the ntrכ avoidances of the “husband" deity. Thus the patrilineal , ntrכ food proscriptions were a matter of maintaining purity and fertility, in contrast to the matrilineal ntכn ones which were a mailer of descent group identity, blood danger, and cannibalism abhorrence. Red is danger: white is purity.
If we turn to a different aspect of social organisation, the public recognition of changes in status, we call identify the tripartite classification symbolised by the three colours. We can look at the life cycle as a kind of migration, each status change marked by rites which themselves have black, red, and white stages. Rites of passage apply to (a) birth or migration from Asamando (land of dead), (b) puberty or change from asexual child to adult female (no male rites: a boy becoming an adult when his father gave him a gun and wife), (c) bringing forth or becoming a mother, (d) possession or becoming a priest or priestess, (c) enstoolment or becoming a chief or elder, and (d) death or migration back to Asamando to become an ancestor or common ghost. Marriage, the important rite in Western societies that changes bachelor or spinster status to husband or wife status (very important roles in bilateral societies based on the conjugal family), like the male initiation rite important in African cattle societies), is not included in this list but will be mentioned below. In each of the six status change rites mentioned, there are stages of black (change), red (danger, defilement), then white (victory, joy) marking public recognition.
Birth, as mentioned above, is both a migration from Asamando and a joining of blood (mother) and semen (father) with breath (God) to form the tripartite individual. The physical event, parturition itself, when the baby takes its first breath and cries, is a change, is an insertion of energy or anima by God, is instantaneous − and is black. The child is immediately thought to be in a state of danger and defilement, not only because it is bloody, but because its life is in danger. Although it is washed it remains defiled, and is dressed in old rags or baha (plantain fibres used for parturition and menstrual pads). It is not made to look pretty in the fear that the spirits in Asamando will covet the child and take it away again. After the spirit of every week day has seen the child, it is then considered human or onipa (literally "good face" or "good eye") and deemed victorious. It is then washed, dusted with white powder (called hyere or "blessing powder"), dressed in white or bright clothes, and presented to the public ("outdoored"). After that the father may claim and name the child. If, however, it dies before that, it is put in a pot, called kukuba ("pot child," an unproductive person) and other insults, thrown on to the rubbish heap (but nowadays buried because of sanitary regulations), and abused for wasting everyone's lime and effort. If it lives, it is welcomed as a newly arrived member of the living segment of the community. The three symbolic stages in the arrival of this hoho (stranger, visitor, newly arrived member, guest) are (a) black for the physical event of change, (b) red for seclusion and defilement, and (c) white for victory, recognition, and presentation.
In each of the other life changes there are parallels, varying to suit each circumstance of course, of going through the three recognisable stages. The physical event is instantaneous, dynamic, invisible, caused by God, and seen as black: the first menstrual flow of a young woman (who is then given an egg because her kra has arrived), the bringing forth of a child (becoming a mother), being possessed by a god or tutelary deity, being chosen as a new chief or elder, and dying. The next stage is a stage of danger and defilement, a time for shame and seclusion, and seen as red; a secluded week of singing lewd songs with girlfriends, a secluded week with the baby also wearing old clothes, up to three years training as a new כkomfo (priest or priestess), up to forty two days as an incumbent chief, and until the beginning of the wake keeping for the corpse. The third or final ritual stage is one of victory, joy, and a celebration of successful passing through the rite, and seen as white: being washed (three times for a corpse, in the river for a new adult woman), covered with white powder, dressed in fine white or bright clothes, and presented to the public. There is not enough room here to give details or to note changes over time, but this highly attenuated description is enough to indicate the parallels.
Marriage, it was noted above, did not follow the same pattern of rites for recognising status changes. In western societies, based on the nuclear family and bilateral kinship, the wedding is an important passage rite accompanied by or preceded by elaborate expressions of supportive values such as romantic love. Love is not absent from Akan society, and may be a part of marriage, but there is less emphasis on permanent conjugal bonds because descent (socially extrapolated from birth) is more important than affinity (socially extrapolated from sex) in building the social structure. Marriage is not seen as a sacrament. Conjugal residence must be viewed as merely a stage of a domestic cycle which is only part of an overall matrilineal organisation. Not only is separate residence common, especially where spouses live in the home town of their respective matrilineages, but divorces, or at least separations, are frequent. Marriage, as an institution regulating sex, is seen mainly as a moral institution in contrast with a matrilineal descent group which is a political, military, and economic institution. Sex, unlike birth, belongs to the white or male category, thus (although social structure is matrilineal) weddings are performed by fathers rather than by mothers or matrilineal uncles. Neither the bride nor groom need be present. The father of the groom gives a pot of palm wine, (nsa = alcohol, fufu = white), and a token payment called tirisika (tiri = head, sika = money or gold) to the father of the bride. The wine may be referred to as tirinsa (head wine), and part is poured on the ground as a libation prayer to the gods and ancestors before being passed around and shared. The bride's father reserves a portion of the money and wine for the bride's mother's brother, head of her lineage, or representative. That portion confirms the earlier union between the bride's father and mother's lineage, which resulted in the bride's birth. Marriage everywhere may be seen both as a status and as a social process but in Western bilateral societies the emphasis is on the status, so a wedding is seen as a change in status. In Akan society, being married implies the carrying out of conjugal rights and obligations, so marriage continually stops and starts according to how well those are carried out; and the Akan verb ware (to marry) reflects that process aspect. Marriage and divorce rituals are merely formal acknowledgements of that process. For the above reasons, weddings do not take quite the same form as the other passage rituals.
In the process of recognising social activities, the symbolic meanings of the three colours or colour categories become clear. For each of the three ritual colours there are two root words koko, bere, (red), tuntum, biri (black), and fitaa, fufu (white). Other colours tend to be made up of references to physical things; thus yellow is called "chicken fat." The three ritual colour categories are also rather more broad than their equivalent English usage. Red includes a whole range of ruddy colours from brown, through orange, to red shades of purple. Light red, violet, or pink, however, when used on festive occasions, belong to the white or bright category. The word biri is also translated as dark, and includes all dark shades. Just as semen is seen as a concentrated form of water, so blue is often seen as an intense form of white. Indigo from Nigeria is highly regarded and thought to be beautiful. Most important is the social occasion; persons wearing colours slightly out of context usually are not chided. Indefinite colours can be redefined. Let us look at the ritual colour categories in turn. (See Table 3.)
|Status Change \ Colour||
|The Process||The Physical Event||Danger, Defilement||Victory, Joy|
|Becoming a Live Human||Parturition||Hide, Dress in rags||Show,
|Girl to Adult||First menses||Hide, Dress in rags||Show,
|Becoming an Elder or chief||Chosen by elders||Hidden,
Ancestral stool rites
|Becoming a Priest||Chosen
by a god,
|Three years of apprenticeship||Outdooring, public recognition|
|Becoming an Ancestor||Death||Hidden, watched and washed by old women||Funeral: corpse wears white (bright), others wear red and black|
Red is the sign of seriousness and danger. 5. "Ma ni a bere (my eyes are red)," translates as "I am serious." Red clay is smeared, usually in three streaks, on one’s arm or forehead to indicate that a person is seriously in mourning, as at an important funeral. Red or reddish funeral cloth is usually worn by members of the deceased's lineage. Bright blood red bands of soft cloth are worn around the neck or forehead by elders at funerals of chiefs, important royals, 6. or "big" persons. Strips of red cloth are worn by students and other hot bloods when demonstrating against the government. The sacred oath of a chief I studied, like all oaths, refers to a shameful or serious event in the history of the royal lineage. A former royal had been a pawn (a common practice; it kept potential contenders away from the home town) at the time he was "captured" by his people to become enstooled, he was brought back home still with red ochre on his hands from when he had been plastering his master's hearth. Reference to that red ochre, used as that stool oath, is a serious utterance meant to disturb the ancestors while opening up the most important kind of case. It is not used lightly, and a sheep must be slaughtered to pacify the ancestors again. In these various ways, red is used to indicate defilement, danger, and seriousness.
The colour black is the sign of power and time. Although black funeral cloth is and was worn at a funeral it formerly did not signify morning or sadness as in Western society. Rather it showed recognition of life changes: death, reincarnation, ancestral power, stool power, history, tradition, and memories. On sacred days such as Akwasidae, after the chief linguist pours a libation of schnapps on to the sacred black stool, he rubs the spot or puddle on the stool with his fingers and smears black on to the forehead of the chief. Black powder (boto) is used to give patients strength in sickness and warriors strength in battle. Vaccinations of children suffering (malarial) fever, consist of incision on the cheeks into which a mixture of boto and fever reducing herbs is inserted. Boto was also painted round the eyes of lawmen, abrafo (from bara = law) misnamed "executioners," to give them the strength of ancestral sanction when they would publicly execute criminals condemned by pre colonial chief's courts. Even now during festivals some deities (also called abrafo because they kill witches and other evil spirits) possess their priests or priestesses, who then wear boto powder smeared around their eyes. Dolls used at both ends of the life cycle are black: akuaba, fertility dolls, (organic; carved of wood), are used to encourage children to come from the land of the ghosts (Asamando) the world of the living (Awiase), while sampon, funerary dolls, (inorganic, fired clay), are used to remember the deceased who have thus travelled from Awiase to Asamando. The symbol of political power in a lineage is the blackened stool of some honoured ancestor. No one sits on it; it is kept hidden and offered food and drink at regular intervals as a shrine. Black is the colour of strength, immortality, and dynamics.
The colour white is the sign of purity
and victory. The absence of white (rather than the presence of black)
signifies their unhappiness at the funeral. In contrast, the corpse
who has successfully undergone a rite of passage, is powdered white and
dressed in bright colours to signify victory. Parents of deceased
little babies were forbidden to cry, were dressed in white, and given a
victory meal to celebrate the good riddance of the little monster who did
not come to bring wealth, honour, and more children to the community.
The parents are then told to di which has the double meaning of
eat and sexual intercourse − they are encouraged to produce more children.
White powder is smeared on those judged innocent or victorious in the chief's
court, and is thrown on the feet of a divorced wife by the husband (or
his representative) to signify her return to a virginal or marriageable
state. It is spread on arms and face on various joyful occasions:
children's parties, recovering from sickness, or successful possession
by a deity. White strips of cloth are worn by students and others
demonstrating in the streets in favour of the government, and at victory
celebrations after football matches. White powder is called "blessing"
powder, hyire, and can be viewed as a dry or symbolic baptism medium.
It is put on after any odwira (ablution rite) to signify purity
or cleanliness. Palm wine sellers
put white paper in a bottle outside their bars to signify that palm wine
is available, while traditional healers fly white flags to advertise that
they are open for business. Nowadays girls in their last year of
school who complete their confirmation rites in church are dressed in white
and go around town thanking the people for their prayers and encouragement.
This may be viewed as a modern adaptation of one function of the old puberty
rites: public recognition of availability for marriage. White is
the colour of fertility, joy, and success.
PARTS OF A WHOLE
I began by showing how colour categories can be used to demonstrate the simultaneously trinity and unity of the Akan universe and individual − and how I began to perceive a different way of categorising reality by learning this with the language. But the colour categories arc not only symbols of that trinity/unity in themselves, they are used to separate certain characteristics − to separate categories − in the culture. For example, black sacred (ancestors) and white sacred (deities), should normally not contaminate each other. Once, when I was attending a secret black stool ceremony on an Akwasidae, in the chief’s house, I saw the chief linguist become possessed by a god while he was pouring the libation on to the stool. He quickly gave the glass of schnapps to one of the linguists to carry on, and ran out of the room. The elders whispered their disapproval that the deity should intrude into an ancestor ceremony. (The priest of that god was present and had donated a bottle, and the god's name was invoked, along with most important Obo deities, but the god was not expected to come). Black and white are separated.
Nor should black and red be mixed indiscriminately. The chief (who is black sacred) wears large black sandals to separate himself from both red and white. For example, most people must remove their sandals out of respect when they enter a compound, shrine area, or sacred grove of a god. The chief leaves his on. People remove their sandals when approaching a chief or elder. An elder or chief approaching another of higher rank in the hierarchy of confederated lineages, slips his (right only, or both) off, but then stands on top of his sandal to greet, not touching the ground. This is because a chief or elder is black sacred. From the time of enstoolment (which consists of being lowered gently three times onto the chosen black stool) the chief's body is itself sacred, being continuously possessed by the collective spirit of all matrilineal ancestors. That is why the chief may not be abused or insulted, and why the chief may not touch the ground. In the ceremony for destoolment, the Kontihene (who acts as regent) asks the chief for the big black sandals (called ahenema = chief's children). The chief's body stops being sacred as soon as his feet touch ground. To preserve their separate integrities, black and red must be separate, but a chief may have three smears of red clay on his arm, or wear a bright red neck cloth at an extremely important funeral. The degrees of separation depend upon context.
Nor should white and red be mixed except under special circumstances. Possession by gods of priests, in contrast to ancestors possessing chiefs, is discontinuous and accompanied by much shaking and frenzy. To separate the white sacred possessed akomfo (priest or priestess) from the ground, even in the chief's palace, an acolyte will precede the akomfo, throwing white powder on to the ground. The כkomfo can then walk barefoot. In nature, of course, the white (in the form of water) "fertilises" the red (in the form of earth) by raining, and semen is thought to join with blood in the process of conception. The mixing or separating of red and while therefore depends upon the cultural context.
I was curious about the possibilities of any ritual mixing of all three colours. My key informant, the Kontihene of Obo, Nana Adofo Akwamoa II, told me he knew of no place that all three were deliberately mixed together these days, except that God mixes the three elements, blood, breath and semen in creating each living person. In the old days, before the colonial period, he had heard, a criminal condemned to death by the chief’s court would be painted red, black and white before being executed. Rattray also mentions this in his book, Ashanti. Perhaps the seriousness of giving or taking life is reason why mixing of all three is so rare that I could find only these two examples. In general the colours and colour categories are used to separate rather than to mix cultural categories.
Not being an Akan, although I began to see the universe and people in a new way as I learned the language, it is no surprise if I have put an interpretation on to these newly learned categories, based on my notions of culture. I saw culture, as learned behaviour, composed of various dimensions: technology, economy, polity, institutions, rituals, ideology, and cosmology. Learning Akan in Obo has changed my perspective; I now see cultural categories (learned in Canada), which belong to the three ritual colour categories, learned in Ghana. Take the oil palm tree as an example. The plant was domesticated, from its indigenous West African prototypes, by autochthonic cultivators. No one "taboos" the palm or its products. (Kyire means hate or proscribe; it derives from akyi = behind, to put behind one). An old proverb slates that abe (palm) has thirty (i.e. many) uses: if you hate (kyire) it you will still "eat" it. There is a constant tension between men who want to cut down the palm tree to tap its nsa fufu (while or palm wine) and women who want the tree to live and produce its bright red palm kernels for oil and soup. Colour category analysis has helped me understand that sort of tension. How, then, are cultural dimensions sorted out with those categories?
Women are assigned to labour: in bed to produce children, or on farms to produce food. Theirs is the distaff or red category of culture. Land and lineage houses are passed down from generation to generation by matrilineal descent and inheritance. Men, in contrast, control capital: the large sums of fluid (white) capital, money, needed for the ancient trade in slaves, gold and salt, later cloth, rubber and cocoa, now factories and warehouses. Capital was accumulated over the generations, less by matrilineal inheritance, and more by inter vivos investment of sons by fathers, Men fertilise the women, and sit around discussing morals and politics while drinking palm wine. (That is not to say women may not, but they are usually too busy with the children or farming − conversely men may help on the farm if they are not too busy settling cases). Colour symbolism, and the implied categories, permeate every cultural dimension from the economic sub structure through the institutional superstructure, to religious and cosmological ideas. Labour, land, production, and reproduction belong to the red category and the economic dimension. Fertility, capital, purity, socialisation (personality and psyche), and morality belong to the white category and the ideological dimension. Power, change, dynamics, politics, strength, tradition, and prediction belong to the black category and politico-military dimension. In some senses these are analytically separate categories, in others they are inseparable parts of a super-organic dynamic whole......
The Spirit in Us; Overview.
Gods I; Tutelary Spirits;
Gods II; Nansing;
Gods III; Health and Fertility;
Ancestors II; Afahye;
Social Organization, Intro
Akan Case Study, Sociology;
Women I; Food
Women II; Farming
Women III: Cooking; 2
Women IV: Marketing
Men I; Wood
Men II; Weaving
Men III; Hunting
Men IV; Transport
Other Palm Products