The Prophets and influence of Religion: King Tackie Tawiah Memorial Lectures by Nii Armah Josiah-Aryeh

LECTURE V

THE PROPHETS, AND INFLUENCE OF RELIGION in EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES

This brief Lecture considers the influence of religion on Gá-Dangme society. As was shown in chapter Gá-Dangme society was originally a theocracy in which the fore-telling priests exercised enormous authority. Naturally, a number of prophets have in Gá-Dangme history come to be associated with important events; above all, considerable authority and sanctity came to be attached to the Word of the high priest or prophet. In this way, a number of distinguished prophets and high priests of forceful personality and high moral standing have acquired a special place in the social history of the Gá-Dangme. Boi Tono, Borketey Larweh, Lomoko, Ayitey Cobblah, Numo Ogbarmey, Numo Yaotey and Numo Tete form a unique line of prophets whose works and utterances may be said to constitute a veritable theology of Gá-Dangme religion.

Like their Old Testament counterparts, the Gá-Dangme prophets were concerned about the social and moral condition of their people; and sought to enforce a severe moral ethic as a way of ensuring religious purity based on the codes of Ayi Kushi. The slave trade, wars, famines and moral decay provided the background for the careers of the more remarkable priests. The human misery which attended the slave trade became a favourite theme for the religious hierarchy. Dealings at the local Salaga slave market (Akpee shika or “money galore”) so drew the ire of the of the predecessors of Numo Ayitey Cobblah that they took to regularly chastising the powerful slave merchants. Sakumo tsoshishi, Naiwe and Korlewe became places of refuge for freed slaves.[1] Once an escaped slave made his way to any of those sanctuaries he was considered to have completely regained his or her liberty and to have become a naturalised citizen.

Boi Tono had himself been concerned about the possible decadent effects of slavery on Gá-Dangme society; as a result, he increasingly admonished the political authorities to show more sympathy for the poor and the enslaved. On the whole Boi Tono successfully cautioned the Gá-Dangme against participation in the bloody wars through which slaves were procured. So highly was Boi Tono regarded that in 1734 the Dutch assumed that he was the king of Accra; indeed, the Amugiwe sub-house of the Gá ruling house is said to have been established by Boi Tono and his descendants.[2] He was said to have adverted by prayer a terrible famine that stalked the land shortly before his death, thus saving the Gá-Dangme from a scourge which had devastated the hinterland. Boi Tono also repeatedly appealed directly to individuals not to follow the iniquitous and murderous ways of foreign tribes, and to reject foreign gods. The reward for observing the commands of Ayi Kushi, he counselled, was prosperity for the individual and his descendants. Much of the exhortation of Boi Tono seemed to have been adumbrated by Borketey Larweh.

From the shrine of Gbobu-ku (Gbobu’s forest) in Nungua, Borketey Larweh had time and again demonstrated the high personal qualities and moral standards expected of the Gá-Dangme prophet. Said to be of part-Gá, part-Ningo origin, Borketey Larweh denounced the slave dealers and sought to create a society of austere religious followers devoted entirely to worship and abstinence. Gbobu-ko for some time became the leading religious shrine of the Gá-Dangme; from its luxuriant aklabatsa (surrounding forest) a new moral light shone across the Accra plains, emphasising the age-old moral values of the Gá-Dangme and establishing Nungua as a rival new religious centre. Such was the authority Borketey Larweh and his successors that to this day the priests of Gbobu-ko and the leading religious figures of Nungua are consulted before the appointment of a new Gá Manche and other leading personages of Accra.

However, the task using religious influence to further the political unity of the Gá-Dangme fell to Lomoko who rose admirably to the call of duty, and in King Tackie Kome I provided the Gá-Dangme with perhaps their finest king and military leader. Realising the dire need for a leader of stature and charisma to lead the Gá-Dangme in war, Lomoko summoned the various political and military chiefs to the shrine of the war deity at Sakumotsoshishi; and there, seeing that the various sides were deeply split, prayed and asked the Almighty to appoint a leader of his own choosing in the sight of all the people. As the people waited in awe a deep sound, as though of rushing waters, proceeded out of the temple and Tackie Kome I was announced as the leader who was to lead the Gá-Dangme into the Katamanso war. The nickname of Tackie Kome I is Abia or Abia-suma meaning “he who has been sent or annointed.” The choice of Tackie Kome therefore fully fits into the Gá-Dangme scheme as dzielor.

Numo Ogbarmey continued the priestly tradition of intervention in political affairs but also appeared to have realised the similarities between Gá religion and the teachings of Moses. Realising the weakening position of traditional religion in relation to Christianity, Numo Ogbarmey converted to Christianity and took the name of Paul Mensah.[3] According to descendants of the old wulomo he finally realised that there was no intrinsic difference between Gá-Dangme traditional religion and the religion of the Old Testament. It is claimed that it was Numo Ogbarmey who first drew the attention of the Gá-Dangme to parallels between their religion and Judaism; it is further claimed that he had attempted to reclaim the office of Sakumo Wulomo in order to ensure a full alignment of the two religions.[4]

In modern times the tendency to replicate notions of traditional charismatic worship with Christianity is best seen in the work of Gilbert Ablorh Lawson (Brother Lawson) whose Divine Word of God Church gained popularity across Accra and South-eastern Ghana. Combining healing, miracles with teachings that aroused self-belief in the congregation the Divine Word of God Church established branches in virtually every suburb of Accra and for a while competed effectively with the orthodox churches.

 

 

    [1]See e.g. Parker 1995, p. 38.

    [2]Id.

    [3]Ibid. p. 238.

    [4]Interview with Matilda Lawson, a daughter of Kailey Mensah who was a daughter of Numo Ogbarmey.

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