https://doi.org/10.1558/pome.38077

Anthony Ephirim-Donkor, African Personality and Spirituality: The Role of Abosom and Human Essence (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2016), xii + 210 pp. $88.00 (hardcover), ebook ($83.50)

Anthony Ephirin-Donkor, the author of African Personality and Spirituality: The Role of Abosom and Human Essence, is an established scholar of religion and theology. He is also a Christian priest and the traditional ruler of Gomoa Mprumem in the Central Region of Ghana, where he is known as Nana Obrafo Owam X. African Personality and Spirituality, therefore, is very much an insider’s account—specifically, an insider’s account of Akan spirituality with an emphasis on Abosom, the “primeval Gods and Goddesses,” and how they relate to—and set up the cosmological conditions for—human beings (9). Ephirin-Donkor describes his personal connection with these Abosom early on, and the text is punctuated with several first-hand divinatory accounts, one of which is a bit unnerving (133–134). Along the way, he also makes some challenging—and occasionally harsh—observations about the tension in Africa between indigenous and foreign (i.e., Western or Arab) practices, arguing forcefully that the Akan—to say nothing of other African peoples—should not abandon the religious traditions that have sustained them for so long. (Ephirin-Donkor engages with Kemetic and Yoruba theology in the text, and his defense of indigenous practices is certainly not limited to Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where the Akan are located.)

African Personality and Spirituality has a short preface and five chapters, all of which revolve around the Abosom, of which “one must be scared” (42). The first chapter is titled “Akan Eschatology,” and in it Ephirin-Donkor introduces the reader to Akan spirituality with an emphasis on “their preoccupations with life’s end and expectations” (x). In this chapter, he describes—in remarkable detail—the corporeal world, the Wiadzie, and the Samanadzie, the “world for resurrected Nsamanfo (posthumous abstract personalities)” (186). He also describes Nana, “the most endearing and ultimate socio-political name, term, or title among the Akan,” and what it means to be addressed as such (6). (That he is a Nana himself makes this part of the chapter especially interesting. As the traditional ruler of Gomoa Mprumem in the Central Region of Ghana, Ephrin-Donkor is a Nana with any number of royal responsibilities.) A “crash course,” on Akan culture and spirituality, chapter one lays out most of the key terms—and there are many—to be examined in more detail in the subsequent chapters.

The second chapter is titled “The Nature of the Spirit,” and in it Ephirin-Donkor continues his analysis of Abosom by exploring the nature of Sunsum, “meaning a shadow, image, or double” (40). Appealing largely to cosmology, he describes the “four essences that make up the nature of the Abosom as a basis for human nature,” which are water, fire, air, and blood (x). This exploration sets up chapter three, titled “The Spirit Incarnate,” in which Ephirin-Donkor explains how the Abosom, who are spiritual entities, can become enfleshed in the world—in the Wiadzie—as “a species that the Akan [call] Onyimpa dasanyi (a living person)” (77). “[This] chapter,” he explains, “examines the capabilities of the Abosom, as to when the Abosom intrinsically take hold of material subjects conjugationally resulting in deposition of active essential attributes in living things which ultimately becomes the basis for ethical living” (77). Deities imprint a pattern into matter that existentially unfolds into a telos or purpose, linked to that person’s spiritual heritage. This is a complicated process, but Ephirin-Donkor does an excellent job breaking it down, even for the completely uninitiated. (Though familiar with Akan philosophy, broadly speaking, much of African Personality and Spirituality was new to me, and I was forced to revisit certain texts, mostly philosophical, including An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme by Kwame Gyekye, whom Ephirim-Donkor cites several times.)

In chapter four, titled “Manifestations of the Spirit,” Akan divination and “mediumistic experiences” are put front and center (x). Having established what the Abosom are, and how they relate to human beings, Ephirim-Donkor presents an account of Akan divination that is informed by years of first-hand experience. “Believed to influence the affairs of their posterity,” he writes, “divination is a mode of communication in which humans, the Akan, consult with diviners (Akomfo) as mediators in order to hear the voices of Abosom...for psychological assurances about their existential ordeals. These ordeals are economic, social, political, and, above all, regard health and well-being” (130). Ephirim-Donkor describes several examples of this indigenous practice; he also puts it in critical dialogue with Christian theology, where he finds some interesting common ground (122).

In chapter five, titled “The Ethical Pathway,” Ephirim-Donkor “examines the ethical and moral imperative of Obra bo (ethical existence and generativity) as a teleological quest [and as a] basis for spirituality (immortality)” (x). Hands down, this is the most practical chapter, and one of the most important concepts in it is Nkrabea, which he defines as a “unique occupational or career blueprint, including life’s ultimate end, to be achieved existentially beginning in adulthood” (186). According to Ephirim-Donkor, all human beings have an Nkrabea—a kind of divine expectation—but many will not understand it or will simply fail to attain it. Nevertheless, there is hope. “The inherently good thing about Nkrabea,” he writes, “is its universal message of salvation for adherents, because an individual may have many chances of starting over again and again until such time as one attains his or her existential career goals” (179).

Ephirim Donkor covers a lot of ground in African Personality and Spirituality, and its scope may intimidate some readers. Nevertheless, it is recommended—and not only for scholars of religion or theology. Africanists, for example, who are interested in the tension between indigenous and foreign practices in Africa will find much to ponder in the text, and philosophers with an interest in philosophical anthropology will find much to contemplate in Ephirim-Donkor’s complex description of the human being. For scholars in Pagan Studies, there is much of value in his examination of divination and how otherworldly powers such as primeval gods and goddesses can inhabit humans and give them purpose (Nkrabea); there is also a meaningful dialogue in the text between monotheism and indigenous traditions, generally speaking. Finally, it is worth pointing out that while African Personality and Spirituality may be an academic work, its author is an insider with a deep commitment to the dignity and legitimacy of African religious traditions. As such, it is not merely descriptive; it is also prescriptive.

Douglas Ficek

University of New Haven