Friday, May 7, 2010

"What exactly is it about traditional religion that we fear?"

I know I've been doing this a lot lately, but this is yet another post that mostly consists of something I have cut and pasted from something I found somewhere on teh internets. But what I found this time is really something amazing -- this is what The Internet is for.

Below is a first person account by Ghanaian blogger Esi Cleland of her first direct encounter with Traditional African Religion. Her blog is called What Yo' Mama Never Told You About Ghana. This entry is from August 17 of 2009, and it is titled: Confront Your Fears. Discover Traditional Ghanaian Religion.

Cleland does an excellent job of setting up the story, including explaining her own preconceptions about traditional religion going into this experience. She is writing first and foremost as a Ghanaian for a Ghanaian audience, so I have tried to provide some links [and occasionaly little notes in square brackets] to help provide information about some of the things that won't be familiar to a lot of the readers of my own blog, although toward the end the links (starting with Akonedi and Tigari) are all from Cleland's original blog post.
Confront Your Fears. Discover Traditional Ghanaian Religion.

This weekend, I had an intense personal experience with African traditional religion. Before you freak out, get some perspective.

Though I hold some views that would be considered radical in Ghana, in general, i’m a regular Ghanaian. I work. I take tro-tro. I dream of a better life. I look forward to teaching my children fante. Sometimes I go to church. But unlike many Ghanaians, when it comes to religion, I consider myself a truth seeker so I am open to learning about religions. I tend to think favourably of the Christian faith perhaps, because I was raised Christian and live in a society that largely favors that religion. But I know that I don’t know so I keep myself open to learning. What is ironic is that even though I claim to be exploring different religions, until this weekend, I wanted nothing to do with african traditional religion. Nothing to do with shrines, mmotia [something like fairies], abosom, and libation, and african spirits...I considered them evil.

So when a new acquaintance invited me to the meeting of traditional believers this weekend, this is what went through my mind... I cannot say for sure that African traditional religion is evil. I cannot say for sure that it is good. I know that I have been preconditioned to consider it evil. I also know that I do not know. I would like to find out, but I’m scared of the whole affair. My fear is an irrational fear. It is a fear of the unknown. I wanted to confront that fear. Because every time I confront my fears, I grow. Plus I was curious.
So I went.

The meeting was held at the Accra Cultural centre. Fitting, right? The first thing I noticed was a calabash filled with water, with leaves floating atop. My friend dipped his forefinger into it and touched the middle of his forehead. I refrained from the act. The sound of my heartbeat was deafening. Gboom Gboom Gboom Gboom. Crap. What had I gotten myself into? But it was too late to turn back. I found a seat, and took in my environment. There was a fetish priestess sitting at the back. People sat in a circle, on plastic chairs. There were about 20 people. There was a table, behind which the two men steering the program sat. Spread on the table was a crumpled, dirty-looking Afrikania mission cloth. On top of the cloth sat a Gye Nyame symbol. Appropriate, right? There was also a “I love Ghana” cloth hanging from that same table. And there was a cow switch on the table. In the corner sat another calabash. Oh Greaat! I wondered if i’d pushed things a little too far this time.

It was a truly interactive event. Everyone there seemed to have a role, whether it was translating the message into Ga, Twi, or Ewe, drumming, clapping, or dancing. It was similar to a church service in some respects. For example there were readings from the same text which were then translated. The readings [possibly referring to the prayers used by the Afrikania Mission] were followed by drumming and dancing. But it was also different from regular church. Many of the people took of their shoes. And when they danced, it was not free-style like we do in a church...these dances were traditional Ghanaian dances. Like adowa and agbadza. At one point, we were all encouraged to dance, and I looked so odd...I thought i’d look silly pretending to dance adowa or agbadza so I stuck to my usual church dance. I made a mental note to learn a traditional Ghanaian dance. I’d never had use for it, but now I was found wanting.

Another thing that was different was the instruments. They were all traditional instruments. Drums, rattles, and the gong gong. Then there was the singing. All the songs were indigenous Ghanaian songs. Sometimes they sounded like ebibindwom...other times they sang what I’d consider secular songs like the the fante warrior song:

Oburumankoma ee!, Oburumankoma ee! Oburumankoma Odapagyan ee! Oburumankoma Odapagyan ee! Oson! Oson akyi nyi aboa.

The readings explained some of their faith.They did not believe in the trinity...God as father, son and holy spirit. But they believe in a supreme being who created the earth, and who is both male and female. They believe ancestors, and in calling to their spirits through libation. They see fetishes like the Akonedi and Tigari as a connection between humans and God. Spirits act like angels. They are good spirits, sent to help us by God. God uses them more than he uses us because humans are jealous, deceitful, and belligerent. To learn more about the beliefs, check out the Afrikania Mission website.

The Afrikania Mission was founded by Osɔfo Okɔmfo Damuah who came from Asankragua in the Western region, got a Phd from Howard University, was a catholic priest for many years, and later became an African traditional believer, hence his dual title of Osɔfo and Okɔmfo. He died in 1992. You can read more about him on Wikipedia.

I did not stay till the end of the program.I left after only about an hour to have a lunch of omo tuo made from ebibimo (brown rice) and groundnut soup from a nearby vegetarian restaurant, (Yes, there are vegetarian restaurants in Ghana) called Assase Pa. I also had bissap with ginger in it. And later that evening, I went to watch Ghana's Most Beautiful, a pageant that seeks to educate us on Ghanaian culture. So yesterday was an packed day. Much of it was fun. But questions I had from my religious meeting kept gnawing at me. And I couldn't sleep when I got home. I was spooked. I live alone, you see, and whenever the wind rattled my front gate , I wondered if the spirits were coming for me. Don't laugh:) I hid under the covers.

The experience has left me with many feelings. Many thoughts. Many questions.

For example, what exactly is it about African traditional religion that makes us steer clear of it? What scares us? How is it that I know more about Eastern religions than I know about Ghanaian traditional religion. Even from a purely academic standpoint, whatever happened to intellectual curiosity, to open-mindedness? How had I closed off myself completely from understanding such an important pillar of our tradition and culture? Am I ready to find out?

I told my boss about my experience, and I guess he got to the heart of the issue when he said. "You may not know what it is that scares you, but do you really want to find out?" In addition to that, I’d like to add, am I willing to deal with the consequences, if there are any?

Thoughts, questions, insights? If you're reading this, I'd like to ask you, what experience, if any, do you have with African religion. Should we be exploring these questions, critically examining who we are, or is this a no-go area, better left unexplored? Should I take the next step to visit a shrine? Would you? Why or why not?