The Akan are one of the best-known cultural groups in Africa. Currently 4 million strong, they are the largest cultural grouping of Ghana, representing approximately half of the country's population. The Akan Abusua (family), or clans, includes the Akuapem, Akyem (Abuakwa, Bosome, Kotoku), Asante, Brong-Ahafo, Fante, Kwahu, and Nzema. The Asante and Fante are the two largest of these subgroups. Although the political, social, religious, and customary practices of the Akan are similar, each clan shares a common cultural heritage and language, which, added to their historical tradition of group identity and political autonomy, contributed to the formation of individual nation-states during the precolonial period. This entry briefly describes their culture and then examines their ideas of spirituality in more detail.
Lingusitically, the collective term Akan refers to a group of languages belonging to the Kwa subfamily of the Niger-Kordofanian language family spoken in both Ghana (south of the Volta River) and Cote d'lvoire. What distinguishes one group from another are their linguistic variants (dialects) that include Akuapem, Asante, and Fante; the former two are referred to as Twi. Akan is the first language of approximately 44% of Ghana's population, with Asante Twi being the most widely spoken of the variants.
Making use of figurative speech, the Akan are probably best known for their proverbial wisdom. Proverbs are popular maxims used to express practical truths gained through experience and observation. They are expressed not only in words, but also through music, particularly traditional drumming, and dance, as well as through textile art, specifically adinkra and kente cloths. Proverbs constitute an important characteristic of the Akan language(s) and are used to imbue communication with life. Proverbs, metaphorical guides for righteous living, provide a better understanding of the Akan outlook on existence, both physical and spiritual. The following Akan proverbs are instructive in this regard:
- True power comes through cooperation and silence.
- Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.
- One falsehood spoils a thousand truths.
- The one who asks questions does not lose his way.
- No one points God out to a child.
- A family is like a forest. When you are outside it is dense; when you are inside you see that each tree has its place.
- The knot tied by a wise man cannot be undone by a fool.
- If you hold a snake by its head, its body will turn to rope.
- Even the teeth and tongue fight sometimes, although they live together.
- Death has no cure. Be a good person and remember that you will die someday.
- If someone takes care of you in childhood, take care of them during their old age.
- If you know how to advise, advise yourself.
What distinguishes the Akan from many of the other cultural groupings in Ghana is that they are a matrilineal people. Every Akan belongs to a clan or abusua (family) and is bound to that abusua by blood relation. They believe that, during intercourse, the sunsum (spirit) from the father mingles with the mogya (blood) of the mother, giving rise to conception. This joining of spiritual and physical components gives rise to the mother-child bond and lays the foundation for the matrilineal system of descent by the Akan. As the Akan proverb informs us, “A crab does not beget a bird.” Thus, a child born to a Kwahu mother and an Nzema father is a Kwahu.
Although Christianity and Islam attempted to colonize their spirituality, the Akan have not departed from their ancestral and spiritual culture, which defines them as Akan. Spirituality is the foundation on which Akan society and culture is built.
A cosmogony is an account of how the universe (cosmos) came into being. It differs from cosmology, or the structure of the universe, in that the latter aims at understanding the actual composition and governing “laws” of the universe as it now exists, whereas the former answers the question as to how it first came to be. Abrewa na ni mba, the Old Woman and Her Children, is the name of the Akan creation narrative.
The Akan believe that, in the beginning, Nyame (Creator) lived in the sky, which was actually very close to the Earth, where the old woman and her children lived. Each day when the old woman would pound her fufu, the pestle hit Nyame. Although Nyame continuously warned the woman to stop hitting him or else he would move far away into the sky, the woman continued to pound her fufu. So Nyame in fact moved far away into the sky where the people could no longer reach him.
The old woman, determined to find a way to reach Nyame and bring him back, instructed her children to pile all of the mortars they could find on top of one another until the tower of mortars reached where Nyame was. The children complied; however, they were one mortar short of reaching Nyame. Because they could not find anymore mortars, the old woman told them to take one out from the bottom and put it on the top. When her children did so, the tower of mortars fell to the ground, causing mass destruction and killing many people.
The story of Abrewa na ni mba not only portrays the Akan conception of the creation of the universe, but also teaches a moral and ethical lesson. At one time, Nyame lived close to people, and it was easy for them to reach Nyame with their concerns and requests. Bothered by the old woman's action, he asked her to obey his request to stop hitting him with her pestle; but because she ignored his request and subsequently disobeyed him, Nyame moved farther away from people. Stubborn, the old woman was determined to reach Nyame anyway, but her disobedience had already sealed humanity's fate, causing people more pain and distance from Nyame. The lesson is that people must obey the wishes of Nyame or suffer the same consequences of Abrewa na ni mba. The Akan identify a constellation called Abrewa na ni mba, which is composed of an arrangement of seven stars, each corresponding to the seven matrilineal divisions of the Akan people.
Cosmologically, the Akan universe is essentially spiritual. All things, animate and inanimate within the Universe, are endowed with varying degrees of sunsum. One of the most important aspects of Akan cosmology is the reverence of the Nsamanfo (ancestors). In addition to their belief in a Supreme Being (Nyame), Mother Earth (Asase Yaa), and a host of intermediaries/deities (abo-som), the Akan believe in the omnipresence of the Nsamanfo, made evident by daily acts such as the pouring of libation, throwing on the ground the first morsel of food, as well as periodic ancestral ceremonies (Adae).
Because the universe is endowed with sunsum, the Akan consult the Nsamanfo before making and acting on many daily decisions. For example, if a person wants to build a house, he or she cannot just go to the forest, cut down trees, and begin to build. The trees contain sunsum, and the person must first ask the Nsamanfo permission to cut down the trees.
Additionally, Akan culture is ancestral: They believe that, although the Nsamanfo no longer occupy physical space on earth, they maintain important roles in each person's life. Most important of their roles is that of direct messenger to Nyame, as opposed to the Abosom, who are messengers from Nyame. When Akan pour libation or chant prayers, they do not reach Nyame directly. Instead, they invoke the Nsamanfo to pass their messages along to Nyame because they are the spiritual representatives of living people and are in closer proximity to Nyame.
It is believed that the Nsamanfo are spiritual beings with the power to bring good fortune to the living, specifically members of their lineage or, if dissatisfied, to show their displeasure by causing ill fortune, sickness, and so on. They may manifest themselves in human form, in dreams, or through trance, and their spiritual presence may be invoked to assist the living. Prayers, offerings, and sacrifices are most often offered to them to seek their blessings and avoid any misfortune.
Conception of Man/Woman
The Akan believe that each individual consists of certain material and spiritual elements. The honam (body) and mogya (blood; connection to matrilineage) represent the material or physical components, whereas the kra (life force/soul), honhom (breath of Divine Life), and sunsum (spirit; connection to patrilineage) represent the spiritual or nonphysical components. Nyame (Creator) bestows these material and spiritual elements on us at conception and birth; however, when we “die,” the honam and mogya join Asase Yaa (Mother Earth), whereas the kra, honhom, and sunsum return to Nyame.
- Good health is contingent on balance and harmony between both the material and spiritual elements. If one is injured, the other is affected.
- When a person falls ill, Akan concern themselves not only with the physical manifestations of the illness, but the spiritual aspects as well.
According to the Akan, individuals are made up of kra (soul), honhom (breath of Divine Life), sunsum (spirit), and mogya (blood). The kra, the “life force” or the soul, emanates from Nyame. The kra is said to be the small bit of Nyame that lives in every person's honam. Given at birth, it is the spiritual component of our consciousness and influences all of our actions. On an individual basis, the sunsum is the basis of one's character and personality and originates from the father. It is a functionary of the kra in that when Nyame gives us our kra at birth, it is the sunsum that escorts the kra; and on physical death, when the kra returns to Nyame, it is again escorted by the sunsum. Therefore, the Kra and the Sunsum are purposeful counterparts of one another.
Libation: An Everyday Prayer
Given the Akan conceptualizations of Nyame, the Abosom, and the Nsamanfo, and the close relationship among them, libation functions as a specialized method of communication with Nyame through intermediaries. If the living want to send a message to Nyame, they do so through libation because Akan have the power and ability to reach the Nsamanfo directly; but if they wish to receive a message from Nyame, Akan consult a traditional priest (Okomfo) because priests have the power and ability to reach the Abosom, who carry messages from Nyame. The Okomfo then conducts rituals, one of which includes libation. Outside of rituals performed on behalf of others, libation is used by Akomfo (plural of Okomfo) to invoke the spirit of the Abosom that they follow.
Generally speaking, libation represents the means by which the Akan connect to the Nsamanfo. When they want to honor and pay respect to their ancestors, they do so through libation. When they want to ask for peace, blessings, and forgiveness or to give thanks to Nyame, they do so through the Nsamanfo, and they do so through libation. Libation, therefore, is an important thread in the Akan matrix of cultural values.
Libation does not involve reciting a memorized prayer. It relies on the art of improvisation inspired by the occasion. Although libation offers the performer a wide range of creativity, there is a general technique for the pouring of libation. To pour libation, one requires liquid in some form. Palm wine was traditionally used in the past. More currently, Schnapps, a brand of liquor, and water are used most often. Traditionally, two people are involved in the ceremony—the one who actually pours the libation and the one who assists. After the “officiator” taps the top of the bottle, the “assistant” opens it and pours the liquid into a container held by the “officiator.”
When performed by a male, the officiator lowers his cloth if he is wearing traditional attire, and if female, she removes her headgear as to be open to the reception of spirit. Shoes are also removed as a sign of respect to Nyame, the Abosom, and the Nsamanfo. The officiator then lifts his or her right hand and calls on the intended spirits in ritualized order. The reason for pouring libation is offered and specific prayers are then announced. After each step, a little drink is poured and the assistant, as well as the participants, respond to what the officiator conveys to the Nsamanfo by either saying “Hiao” (may it be so) or “Nsa” (drink). Overall, libation serves to foster the relationship between man/woman and the Nsamanfo and the unification between the world of the living and the world of the spirits.
- Mother Earth
- Buah, F. K. (1980). A History of Ghana: Revised and Updated. London: Macmillan Education, Ltd.
- Ephirim-Donkor, A. (1997). African Spirituality: On Becoming Ancestors. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
- Opoku, K. A. (1978). West African Traditional Religion. Accra, Ghana: FEP International Private Limited.
- Opokuwaa, N. A. K. (2005). The Quest for Spiritual Transformation: Introduction to Traditional Akan Religion, Rituals and Practices. New York: iUniverse.