Amokye is the name that the Akan people give to the guardian of the threshold of death. In fact, among the Asantes, it is believed that Amokye can be compassionate and kind or difficult and cruel. There is a story told of Kwasi Benefo in illustration of this point.
It is said that Kwasi Benefo journeyed to Asamando, the place the Asante refer to as the world of departed souls. Of course, this is a story that shows Amokye in her role as the guardian of the threshold of death because Kwasi is a hero of great compassion. Kwasi was a farmer and a cattle raiser. He had many cattle and farmed on good land, his fields bringing in rich harvests each year.
He did not have a wife, however, to give him children or to care for his house. He was saddened by this because he wanted to have a wife to mourn for him when the time came. So one day he went looking for a woman to marry and in a village he discovered a beautiful woman who pleased him a lot. They got married, and soon the woman took ill and died. Kwasi Benefo grieved greatly about this loss. He bought her an amoasie, a small piece of silk cotton cloth to cover her genitals, and beads to go around her waist. She was buried in the amoasie and beads. Yet Kwasi could not forget her, and he went around looking for her in his house, but obviously he did not find her. Soon he was so obsessed with looking for her that his mind was no longer with the real world; he was in the land of make-believe.
Finally, his family tried to intervene. His uncle and brothers spoke to him to bring him back to reality. They said to him, “Kwasi, put it from your mind. This is the way it is in the world. People live and they die. You must find yourself another wife.” Soon Kwasi seemed to gain comfort. He left his village and traveled to another village, where he found another young woman. He made arrangements for her to come home with him. She was content to live with him and he with her; she was a woman of good character and took charge of the household. She wanted to please Kwasi. He was happy and felt that life was worthwhile. Soon his wife was pregnant, and he was hopeful that she might give birth. She became ill after a while and grew very weak. Soon she was dead. This second wife was buried with the amoasie and beads as well. Nothing could console Kwasi Benefo.
The grieving Kwasi sat in his house for days and refused to come out. People said to him that others had died and that people die all the time. They told him that he had to get up and go about his work. His friends pleaded with him to come out and mingle with them. In time, the family of the dead woman heard about Kwasi's grief and believed that he was grieving much too long. They said, “Let us give him another wife.”
They invited him to their village and said to him, “Grieving is necessary but in time one must move on with life. We will find another daughter for you to marry.” They told him that what was past was past and that he would be happy with the new wife. They said to him, “Let the dead live with the dead but the living must be with the living.” Of course, Kwasi Benefo felt that his wife was not dead; although she had departed, she was a part of the ancestral world and called out to him from time to time. He wanted to know, “How can I take another wife and still hear the voice of the one who has died?” The family told him that in time this feeling would pass. Truly, when he returned to his village and started working his fields, the pain lessened. Then he went back to the village and married the daughter. She gave birth to a son who was celebrated throughout the land. He was happy. His life was good, and he shared his joy with his friends.
There was a day, however, while Kwasi Benefo was in his fields that some village women ran to him with news that a tree had fallen. They were in tears as they told him the news. “Who sheds tears over a fallen tree?” He knew that there had to be more to the story. They told him that something had been left unsaid. Then they told him. “Your wife was returning from the river where she had gone to get water. Then she sat beneath a tree to rest and a spirit of the woods weakened the roots and the tree fell on her.”
Kwasi ran as fast as he could to the village, where he found his wife on a mat without life. He cried out, threw himself on the ground, and lay there as if life had left him also. He could not understand anything. He heard, saw, and felt nothing. Some people came by and said Kwasi Benefo is dead. The spiritual men and women came and said, “No, he is not dead; he is lingering between life and death.” They performed all kinds of rituals over him—they gave him herbs and rubbed his body to find the life that was still present. They were successful. Kwasi Benefo stood up and helped to make arrangements for his wife. The next day, there was a wake for the wife, and he bought amoasie and beads and she was buried in these things.
Kwasi plunged into the deepest of despair. There must have been evil lurking somewhere to cause him so much pain. He knew that no woman would want to marry a man who was so unlucky with women. Who would entrust their daughter with him? Even his friends began to speak of him as a person who must not have good character. Soon he left his village, his farm, and his house. He took his son to his wife's home and left him there with her relatives.
Kwasi Benefo then went into the forest and walked for many days aimlessly. After a long while, he arrived at a distant village, but left immediately and went farther into the forest, feeling that he had to get farther away from the place of his sadness. Soon he stopped at a place in the forest that seemed far away from people. He decided to remain there. Of course, he had to build a house, and he completed a crude shack. When he became hungry, this once prosperous farmer gathered roots and herbs for food. He made traps to catch small game. Soon his clothes were tattered and turned to rags. He killed animals and used their skins for clothes. His life was wretched, and he almost forgot how prosperous he had been.
Now it came to pass that Kwasi Benefo left the forest and went to a village where he was unknown. He began to farm and soon married a fourth time. However, when the fourth wife took ill and died, his will was completely broken. He wanted to know, “How can I go on with life.” Once again he abandoned his farm, his cattle, and his house and journeyed back into his native village.
Many people came out to see him; they were surprised because they had thought he was dead. When his family and friends wanted to celebrate his return, he told them not to celebrate because he had only come back to die in his own village and be buried near the graves of the ancestors.
One night he could not sleep and thought that he should go to Asamando, the land of the dead, to see the four young women whom he had married. So he left his village and went to the forest place called Nsamando where the dead are buried. When he got there, he found no paths. There were no lights. All was nothing but darkness. He kept walking until he found a village with dim lights. The place was strange. There were no sounds, no voices, no birds, and no animals. He finally came to a river. When he tried to ford the river, he could not because the water was too high. He was sure that this was the end of his journey.
Just as he was about to give up for good, he felt a splash of water on his face and looked across the river. Sitting on the opposite bank of the river, he saw an old woman with a brass pan at her side. In the pan were beads and amoasies for women. Then it was clear to Kwasi Benefo: He knew that the old woman was none other than Amokye, the guardian who welcomed the souls of dead women to Asamando and received from each of them amoasie and beads. It was also clear that this was the reason women were dressed for burial as they were, so that they could use the amoasie and beads at the river crossing.
Old Amokye asked Kwasi Benefo, “Why are you here?” He answered, “I have come to see my wives. I cannot live any longer because every woman who stays in my house dies. I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot work, I cannot eat. I want nothing that the living world has for living people.” Amokye said to him, “You must be Kwasi Benefo. Yes, I have heard of you. I have heard of your troubles and your sadness. However, because you are not a soul, but a living person, you cannot cross over.” Kwasi said to Amokye, “Then I will stay here until I die and become a soul.”
At length Amokye had compassion on Kwasi Benefo and said to him, “Because of your tremendous pain, grief, and suffering, I will let you come across.” Amokye caused the river to run slowly. She caused it to become shallow. She told Kwasi, “Go that way. There you will find your wives. But they are like the air; you will not be able to see them, though they will know you have come. You will feel their presence and they will know that you are in their presence.”
- Scheub, H. (2000). A Dictionary of African Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Williams, J. (1936). Africa's God: Gold Coast and Its Hinterland. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College Press.