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Onyame is not God

Updated: Feb 18, 2021


Akan ɔkɔmfoɔ standing beside Onyame Dua (Onyame's tree)


A few years ago, I first heard the idea that “Onyame is not God” from my Twi teacher at the time, Ọbádélé Kambon. I was reading a passage in Asante Twi and translating it as I went along. I arrived at a part that mentioned Onyame and translated it as God. My teacher shouted, No, Onyame is not God, and God is not Onyame!. From that moment on, I’ve been very particular about not translating Onyame as God.


Very often we, African people, find ourselves seeking to find a level of comparison to other cultures in an effort to, consciously or unconsciously, give validity to our own.


This is a mistake


Our cultures and traditions are systems that have purposefully been developed through many generations. They represent a specific epistemology and worldview formed out of our interaction with the environment around us. The names that we attribute to the Creator (Onyame, Olodumare, Chineke, etc) are a direct characterization of our diverse yet connected cosmologies.


Before we examine the Akan characterization of the creator, let’s examine God in western culture.


From an etymology point of view, the word God comes from the Old English god [1], which in turn is derived from the Proto-Germanic ǥuđán [2].


Culturally, God is defined by a number of assumptions:


  • God is a man. Women by and large occupy a lesser status in western cosmology.

  • God is sitting in heaven on a throne above us. There is a distinct separation between humans and God.

  • Church is the house of God. One needs to be at church to connect and interact with God.

An Asante ɔkɔmfoɔ carrying his particular bosom (deity) [4]



As we'll see shortly, amongst the Akan, like many other African cultures, the Creator:

  • Is neither man nor woman but a balance of the two

  • Exists all around us as well as within us

  • Has no single place of connection


For Akan culture in particular, the various bynames of Onyame help us to better understand the Akan worldview and how they see their relationship with the world around them.


Here are a few bynames of Onyame and their meanings [3]:


Onyame - The one who achieves completeness


Onyankopɔn - The supreme embodiment of the shining expanse of the sky; Solitary & alone in grandeur.


Ɔdomankoma - Eternally abundant, infinite, absolute, limitless


Otweaduampɔn - The mighty tree that we can lean on and not fall; The dependable one


Brɛ-akyi-hunu-adeɛ - The one who can see what is hidden behind someone’s back; All knowing - Omniscient


Bɔrebɔre - Creator, Inventor, Architect of all things


Otumfoɔ - The omnipotent one: The possessor of visionary insight


Totorubonsu - The progenitor and bringer of rain


Ɔbiannyɛ - Uncreated; without beginning


Tetekwaframua - Enduring forever (outside of time)


Ɛnyiasombea - One who does not have a single place of worship; Omnipresent


From these various names of Onyame, we can see the intricate and dynamic relationships and connections with the Creator and the universe that Akan people recognize and live by.


When we try to reduce or translate an African worldview/culture to that of a foreign one, we inevitably lose the core tenets of the culture but we also take on alien ideas and concepts that can only be detrimental to our reality. Our cultures and traditions do not need foreign interpretation and representation. They exist and will continue to exist on their own two feet.



"If the elders leave you a legacy of dignified language, you do not abandon it and speak childish language." ~ Akan Proverb



References:


[1] “Old English Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_English_language.

[2] “Proto-Germanic.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Feb. 2016, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Germanic.

[3] “State and Society in Pre-Colonial Asante.” State and Society in Pre-Colonial Asante, by T. C. McCaskie, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 104–104.

[4] “Ashanti Priest - Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher - Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/asset/ashanti-priest-carol-beckwith-angela-fisher/iQHgnaLjuhiBtQ.



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