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"Matters Connected with Our Culture" The healer must first have a healer's nature.
— AYI KWEI ARMAH, The Healers Kofi Donko cheated a death that devoured five potential siblings, entering the corporal world as a child of Yaw Badu and Akosua Toa around 1913. As an infant he stood between spiritual and mundane worlds, nestled in the arms of his afflicted parents, while his natal town of Nkoransa and his mother's (and later his own adopted) town of Takyiman lay situated between two empires — one local, one foreign — under Asante hegemony and British colonial rule. In 1913 Richard C. Temple, president of the Anthropological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, made the case in his presidential address for "the administrative value of anthropology," a sort of applied anthropology training for colonial administrators and servicemen. The Royal Commission on University Education in London issued around the same time a report echoing Temple's view. Theirs was a message that insisted "An accurate acquaintance with the nature, habits, and customs of alien populations is necessary to all who have to live and work amongst them in any official capacity, whether administrators, executive officers, missionaries, or merchants." A former customs officer and assistant district commissioner in the northern Asante town of Ejura, the Scotsman Robert S. Rattray was brought into this world of applied (colonial) anthropology between stints of colonial service and studies at Oxford University, and he became head of the first "Anthropological Department" of Asante in 1921. Convinced by Temple's position and by his fluency in African languages (including Akan/Twi), Rattray started to pay more attention to culture while in the Asante region, beginning with his stay at Ejura, where down a dirt road to the west laid Takyiman and Nkoransa. As early as 1913 Rattray's anthropology fixed on "social and religious beliefs, rites, and customs," as evidenced by his "many years' residence in Ashanti" that culminated in Ashanti (published in 1923), but he saw the Takyiman region as a source of Asante "religion" and saw religion as inseparable from "almost any aspect of social life." It was in the Takyiman region where Rattray received the nickname Oboruni Okomfo, a "foreign/European okomfoo." Although the European okomfoo did not meet the soon-to-be-healer Kofi Donko, Rattray certainly encountered an Asubonten Kwabena (figure 1.1), the same spiritual force (obosom pl. abosom) Kofi Donko would inherit, on his way to the Tano River — the incubator for such river-bound spiritual forces.
Driven as he was by the idea of progress and his access to culture through language, Rattray warned indigenous peoples that his European culture, "ideas, arts, customs, dress, should not be embraced by them blindly," lest they "become pseudo-European, but [rather they should] ... aim at progress for their race based upon what is best in their own institutions, religion, their manners and customs." These best practices ultimately were to be grafted onto European (British) ones, enabling the Asante/African peoples "to take their place in the commonwealth of civilized nations ... who will become the greater force and power in the Empire because they have not bartered the wealth of their past." The fog of empire aside, Rattray in his time and as a serviceman in the empire was struck by something beyond his job description, in fact beyond the mandate of the Anthropological Department — the arena of belief, or what I call spiritual culture, and how it, like power, ran thoroughly through social and political life. Rattray's quest for belief through observation and for fluency in the Akan/Twi language echoed some of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Basel missionaries who followed his research, styling him "our reporter Mr. Rattray." But rather than evangelical aims, his objectives were less published results or their political uses and included a more respectful adventure to understand the Asante/Akan peoples beyond the cranial measurements and classificatory schemes in vogue in the early twentieth century. But as Rattray soon discovered, the locus of Asante belief, specifically a range of spiritual forces, was not in the Asante capital of Kumase. Instead "the great obosom (god) of all Ashanti" lay in the Takyiman region, that is, "the Tano river, from which are derived countless of 'his children' as lesser abosom, and ... is considered as the 'son of the Supreme God.'" This chapter is concerned with this world of spiritual forces, in their variety and interrelationships, and how these "religious conceptions of the Twi-speaking peoples" formed senses of the world that manifested in societies and their histories, fashioning the social world and work of healer Kofi Donko. The aim is to understand key ideas that saturated this social world in the context of when Kofi Donko entered his human community in the early twentieth century, leaving behind a spiritual one.
After visiting Nkoransa and Takyiman in 1921, Rattray compared his research against historic representations of "non-human spiritual powers" and concluded the Africans' "beliefs have for centuries been described as 'fetishism' or 'fetish worship,' but the[se] religious conceptions ... [had] been grievously misrepresented." For Rattray misrepresentation flowed from "semi-educated Africans" uninterested in their culture informing Europeans and other foreigners, problematic interpreters, and "inappropriate European words ... employed to describe objects and actions," which, adopted and adapted by Africans who learned European languages, "were used again by [Africans] when interpreting." Starting from this perspective, Rattray eliminated the use of interpreters through his own fluency and bypassed "educated Africans" through direct contact with elderly women and men. But for all his skill and embeddedness Rattray, despite his diagnosis, could not escape the trappings inherent in translating culture from one idiom to another. Although, for instance, he rejected the caricature "fetish" and "rigidly confined [it] to designate" charms and talismans — rather than what the Akan/Twi speaker "calls suman" — Rattray rendered as "god" the category of "non-human spirits" that these speakers called "abosom." Although called a European okomfoo, Rattray was not one of the Akan/Twi-speaking healers he engaged, and although his understanding of belief and indigenous language was far more advanced for his time and, when compared with that of previous interlopers, his knowledge could not stand in for experience, socialization within a healing family, and the abilities that made a Kofi Donko possible. Rattray's explication of the ideas and spiritual forces Kofi Donko would translate into social practice, which Rattray investigated during his visits to the Takyiman region, therefore function as both a source to be mined and a guide to the evidence that set out the ontological world of Kofi Donko.
The ontological world of Kofi Donko was coded in ideas and practices expressed in various ways. Perhaps the most evocative was ritual libation (mpaee), for in its "text" appear the names, praise names, and specific utilization of spiritual forces invoked. Libation, as prelude to an event, involved the ritual pouring of palm wine or a local or imported alcoholic drink on the ground, accompanied by invocative words within well-rehearsed structures that permit improvisation. Libation therefore symbolizes a connective tissue between material and immaterial worlds. In these instances and others the text of libations goes some way toward explaining those spiritual forces — of nature or ancestry — because their form adheres to standard categories of beings while nimbly accommodating different social circumstances. The iterations of these libation texts tell us something about their authors and, from a purely cultural perspective, offer an untapped source for the ideas of healers who understandably operated in some secrecy. Although we do not have textual evidence from Kofi Donko's earliest libations, we can surmise that his text, recorded later in life (and set off in the next section), resembled very much ones he heard in his healing family and around his trainers as a teenager, and those that Rattray and others recorded at the start of each festive, formal, or ritual occasion.
Whereas Rattray engaged his informants without an interpreter, all the researchers who interviewed Kofi Donko required one, filtering our impression of Kofi Donko's ideas and work in ways that might misrepresent. As tempting as it might be to dismiss such interviews, a closer look at these third-party sources almost certainly reflects the pitfalls of translating culture and the conceptual frames of both interpreter and interviewee. It is possible to determine the approximate meanings of Kofi Donko's ideas through such sources, but the prospect of making those ideas comprehensible lies precisely in the structural form of libations and suggests how they were made all the more salient in social and cultural life. Rattray's corpus of Akan/Twi libation texts collected in Takyiman and in Greater Asante should not surprise us, nor should their very close adherence to one such rare text articulated by Kofi Donko.
* * *
ONE SUNDAY IN April, around the time of the annual Apoo] festival in Takyiman, Kofi Donko received two visitors to his compound, presumably having made an appointment for a day when healing work was proscribed. The white graduate student from the United States and his Ghanaian interpreter brought with them an alcoholic drink that Kofi Donko used to pour libation. The libation formally introduced the foreign student to the cast of ancestors and spiritual forces with which the healer worked in collaboration and served to petition those forces to ensure the young researcher's safety and success. The interview was prefaced by a requisite opening libation, divided here into five sequential parts for closer analysis. On that Sunday Kofi Donko presented the student and his customary gift of alcoholic drink, offering these words:
Nana Saman Kwadwo, come and take drink.
Silverman is a whiteman. ...
Silverman is in search of past events and matters connected with our culture as well as matters about you, the [abosom].
Through that, he will obtain a high position so that in [the] future his descendants may narrate his deeds as I am talking to you now.
Here is his drink.
We pray for health and strength, long life and glory, long life and good luck.
Protect him against a bad companion, an evil spirit, a witch, a wizard, a vicious fetish priest/priestess, a tyrant and a wicked Muslim.
I pray you to guide and guard him so that while he is here he may be able to assist this state to have progress.
By invoking "Nana Saman Kwadwo," Kofi Donko suffused the occasion with an initial category of spiritual forces, namely ancestors, and specifically the spirit of his grandfather Kwadwo Owusu. A title for elders, officeholders, and ancestors, "Nana" signified the status of the departed being called "Saman." Saman is the linguistic root for the terms nsamanfoo (ancestors; sg. osaman) and their indeterminate abode, asamando, "which means," according to a group of early twentieth-century healers, "there is no more town. No town exists there anymore." But the term saman also alerts us to a cluster of ancestral spirits who each correspond to the ethical contents of their human lives and to the way they transitioned. Within four identifiable categories of ancestry, asamanpa are "good-natured" ancestors who experienced a natural death en route to asamandoo, asaman twen-twen linger near the earth as ineligible candidates for asamandoo because of their unethical existence, and the acutely negative asamanbone or otofo ("lingering spirit") experienced a violent death or improper burial and consequently they boldly and aggressively wander about. Death by suicide is viewed as culturally unacceptable and debars a deceased person from asamandoo; such spirits return to the human world as otofo sasa — individuals incarnate with a cruel or homicidal character, leading to the same end. The nananom nsamanfoo (sg. nana saman) are "evolved ancestors" in the sense they have achieved their life's mission (hyebea) and transitioned across waters or up a hill to asamandoo; thus they are the ones invoked through libation for the provision of blessings, children, prosperity, health, healing, and long life. If "ancestorhood" is an epochal stage in human development, then the nananom nsamanfoo embody the idea of becoming fully human in terms of life cycle — or at least a crucial node in that cycle.
That Nana Kwadwo was called upon as "Nana Saman" specifies two likely, yet closely related occurrences: he lived an ethical life, fulfilling his earthly mission according to standards set by his ancestors and human community, and therefore he found a place in asamando among the nananom nsamanfoo targeted for invocation. At an adae (ancestral) ceremony witnessed in 1922, Rattray recorded a libation initiated with the words "Me nananom nsamanfo, nne ye Awukuade," which he translated as "My spirit grandfathers [i.e., ancestors], to-day is the Wednesday Adae." For Bono societies, the Wednesday adae ceremony fell on monowukuo, a "new or fresh" Wednesday. Moreover, in the early twentieth century Basel missionaries, who studied and published literature in Akan/Twi while erecting mission schools across broad regions like Asante, recorded another libation, this time by okomfoo Kwame Dapa of Nsuta, who announced, "Today is Adae. ... spirits of the grandfathers, come and receive the palm wine and drink." A Basel missionary named Owusu asked several healers why they venerate the deceased. They responded: "The reason why we have to serve the deceased is the following: When the dead person was living, he was my father or she my mother, during his or her life I honored him or her very much and appreciated him or her. Now he or she has died and I have to present the same veneration to his or her spirt. If I have [palm] wine and food I have to also give some of it to him or her." Nana Kwadwo's invitation to "come and take drink" and the invocation of his spiritual presence served to bear witness to the meeting, introduce him to the "whiteman," and petition him and his kind to protect the student "against a bad companion, an evil spirit, a witch, a wizard, a vicious fetish priest/priestess, a tyrant and a wicked Muslim."
The plea for protection in exchange for "libations of palm wine and liquor," among other offerings, in part explains the enlarged net ancestry cast over family and community life. But the petition also adheres to an early twentieth-century observation made by foreign evangelists of the Basel mission (BM), or their local coverts and informants, at a time when BM mission schools were the predominant Christian institutions in the interior, doubling and in some cases tripling the numbers of Wesleyan, Roman Catholic, Bremen, and other mission schools. The Basel missionaries' remark, supposedly anchored in "the Asante point of view," reckoned, "The [local] person senses himself from the cradle to the grave under the influence of good and bad spirit powers whose hostile attitude he will try to mitigate through sacrificial offerings and prayers and whose protection and assistance he is seeking to win." Christian filtrations aside, the mitigation of unseen but experientially real forces, some of which were viewed with hostility, accord very much with the reasons for protection, made transparent by the (translated) keywords bad, evil, vicious, and wicked.
If the world of asamandoo was a solar system, then there existed a galaxy of spiritual forces. We will return later to some of these forces indicated by Kofi Donko — the "bad companion," "vicious fetish priest/priestess," and "tyrant and a wicked Muslim." For other, nonhuman forces, English language glosses such as "evil spirit" and "witch" or "wizard" shroud the deep resonance of these beings who pervade the forest environs, no less the healer's world. The first of such beings is the well-known mmoatia ("short creatures"), citizens of the tropical forest and occupants of the sacred odum tree (Chlorophora excelsa) that possess backward feet with the heels toward the front, a high-pitched voice, an appetite for bananas, a jovial attitude toward children, and, for the healer, an unrivaled knowledge of plant medicines. As medicinal procurers par excellence, the mmoatia have their own healers who communicate with them, but like any tool they can be an asset or troublesome, invoking passions of fear rather than facilitation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Our Own Way in This Part of the World"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix Introduction 1 1. Libation: Matters Connected with Our Culture 17 2. Homelands: In Search of Past Events 44 3. Tools of the Trade: I was a Blacksmith . . . Before I Became [a Healer] 73 4. Medicine, Marriage, and Politics: Assist this State to have Progress 107 5. Independences: Never Mingled Himself in Local Politics 137 6. Anthropologies of Medicine and Africa: When the Whiteman First Came 166 7. Uncertain Moments and Memory: Our Ancestral Spirits, Come and Have Drink 195 Epilogue 228 Notes 239 Bibliography 287 Notes 307
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“Kwasi Konadu grounds the transformations in West African societies in ways that allow Kofi Dᴐnkᴐ to serve as a counterpoint to mainstream representations that take the perspective of Christianized, modernizing individuals on the coast. Dᴐnkᴐ was an everyday person in some ways, and exceptional in others, making his life a productive window through which to understand culture, experience, and worldview. This is an innovative and outstanding book.”
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