The Akan shrine near the White House
How some African-Americans in Washington DC look to Ghana for
spiritual enlightenment as well as contact with ?the ancestors and the
African gods of nature
Walk south-east from the White House and you will come across the shrine of the Abosom and Nananom Nsamanfo – a place of worship for African-Americans who identify themselves as descendants of Ghana’s Akan people.
In Washington’s Shipley Park shopping complex, only the monochrome paintings and inscriptions on its outside walls mark out the shrine from other nondescript buildings. My guide Kamau Makesi-Tehuti, a writer and Akan priest-in-training, leads me into the building.
“Millions of Akan were captured and brought as slaves to the Western hemisphere,” Kamau continues. “They waged a war against slave owners and secured freedom by listening to the guidance of the Nananom Nsamanfo, our honourable ancestors, and the Abosom, the gods and divine spirits of nature.”
Born Edward Marshall, Kamau adopted his African name – meaning “quiet warrior” – after he joined the group. Soft-spoken, intellectual and forceful about his beliefs, Kamau’s name suits him. “We encourage each other to show our beliefs externally through the clothes we wear, our demeanour and the name we answer to; all must reflect our Akan ancestry,” he says.
Singing the praises?
On the day of my visit it is Akwasiadae, a holy day celebrated every 40-42 days (but always a Sunday) to honour those Nananom Nsamanfo ancestors. Some 40 people are dancing and singing as we take our shoes off to enter the shrine.
All the praises for the patron deity Odumankom, Nana Asuo Gyebi and the Abosom, are sung in Ghana’s Twi language, although no one (myself included) seems to speak or understand it.
Kamau explains, “our ties with the motherland are very strong and several times a year our chief priestess travels to Ghana to spend time with the other Akan that we were forcibly separated from.”?
We are called to join the dance, women first, in a line swaying in rapid rhythm as a moving circle. The altar is set on the floor and its three platforms are covered by a white sheet. Many framed photographs of Nananom Nsamanfo adorn the tabernacle; some in faded black, more recent ones in full colour. Scattered around them are gifts and treats for the divine spirits – money, soft drinks, biscuits and sweets.
As I leave the shrine with drums fading in the background, I think about the churches that vied for the attentions of the new first family, Barack and Michelle Obama. Everyone had a view about where the Obamas should worship, especially Washington’s predominantly black churches. It occurs to me that after the Obamas’ visit to Ghana, this Akan shrine might also find a way, through the guidance of the Abosom, to suggest itself as a strong candidate.