July 28, 2014

The Path to Akan: An Interview with Barrington M. Salmon (Nana Yao Ansa Dankwaa)

Tell me about your religious history.
Mine has been an interesting journey. I was born and raised a Catholic, did all the stuff associated with that: church every Sunday, first communion, confession, confirmation etc, etc. I attended and graduated from Catholic elementary and primary schools in London and Kingston. I think the thing that first made me begin to question was what I experienced while at St. Francis de Sales Elementary School in North London.  My siblings and I were only a handful of blacks at the school and we got little to no protection from the nuns, priests and teachers at the school against the very blatant acts of racism we experienced there. We were called monkeys, gollywogs--people asked to see our tails and stuff like that.

Then, at St. Richard’s Primary in Kingston, the nuns, almost all who were light-skinned were so classist and immersed into colorism that they routinely granted all types of favors to the light-skinned children, but also to those who parents were wealthy and donated liberally to the church. While serving as an altar boy, I saw a lot of the rituals up close.

I think the last thing that shook my faith was going to church every Sunday at Our Lady of the Angels and seeing one woman in particular, who had like eight to 10 children, all stair step – a year or two apart –she was not wealthy. She had that many children, I thought, because the Church prohibited contraception. It just made no sense to me for anyone to have that many children and the church didn’t really extend its hand to help.

I also thought the church’s stand on sex, intimacy and marriage was quaint. So from the time I was 15 or so, I went on a journey, making stops at churches, synagogues, mosques, revival tents, converted halls, anywhere I could search for a connection: Seventh Day, Jehovah’s Witness, Methodist, Episcopal, Pocomania, Rastafari, and Mormons. I talked to everybody, all the time, in search of that je ne sais quoi.

I “gave” my life to Christ several times, including when the Billy Graham Crusade came to Jamaica. But that lasted a hot minute or only as long as a pretty woman walked by. And after brief moments of euphoria, I still felt a void that nothing filled. 

As a teenager, I rebelled against the idea of a white Jesus and a white God, and I resolved to find a spiritual path that embraced my Africanity and my humanity as a black man. I was drawn to Rastafari as a teenager, started loxing my hair, but my mother put a stop to that. But I have always carried Rasta tenets and beliefs while on this amazing spiritual path.

In 1996, my marriage was in trouble and a friend suggested that we go to a marriage counselor, who happened to be an Akan priest and Reiki master. My ex and I started counseling and at some point I was invited to attend an Akom, a worship service. I liked what I saw, began to feel very comfortable and never left.

In subsequent research, I discovered that my maternal grandmother was a Maroon who traced her ancestry to Ghana. So it was like my journey dovetailed culturally, genealogically and spiritually. 

I began as a general member, trained and served as an Okyeame, a linguist and interpreter for my spiritual godmother who was also a Queen Mother. At some point, during a reading, I was told that I needed to go into priest training. I resisted for several years because I had never thought of myself as possessing anything remotely priestly, but in conversations and readings, I learned of the many reasons people were drawn to the priesthood: to save their lives, heal, help their family, serve the community spiritually and so on.

What sparked your desire for change? 

My life was going along in what I called “splendid chaos.” It was unraveling personally and professionally. I enjoyed some aspects of my life, but sought to find spiritual peace. I was dissatisfied with a consumer- and celebrity-driven society. I have never bought into the materialism that is consuming this country and I always thought there should be more. I wanted more, wished to have a closer relationship with the Creator and I looked high and low, had conversations with friends and strangers, ministers and laypeople trying to understand more. The questions always lingered: Who am I? Why am I here? How can I make a difference? Luckily, the Creator guided my footsteps and led me in the right direction.

I was ordained into the priesthood in 2006 which actually marked the end of the beginning. I went on hiatus and on March 20, 2014, I traveled to Ghana to finish the second and most crucial part of my training. I had a teacher, plus my spiritual godparents, who have taught me, instructed and guided me. He was open, answered every question and showed me how to be the type of priest I’ve wanted to be. My teachers say that in order to lead you have to serve and I am ready to serve.

What is the name of your spiritual path? 

I am Akan. It is an ancient religion that predates Christianity by more than a thousand years or more, I'm told. It is practiced in Ghana, Benin, the Ivory Coast, Congo and other parts of Central and West Africa. We believe that there is one God and a multitude of Angels who are manifestations of the Creator. 

We believe that everyone who comes to earth makes a pact with the Creator (Nyame, Almighty God) to fulfill his/her spiritual destiny while we're here. It doesn't have to be as a priest, but we are called upon to help our families, improve the community, be of service to those around us, and make positive contributions to our growth and development spiritually, economically and in other ways.

We believe in God, acknowledge Jesus and other prophets and respect all spiritual paths. We don't proselytize or force anyone to convert because we feel that if a person is led to what we believe, God, the Angels and our Ancestors will show them the way. 

Our Ancestors are very important to us and we believe that they play an active role in our lives and in guiding us and helping us navigate this world. We honor and venerate them, but do not worship them. They are a part of our foundation and their sacrifices have helped us as we move forward. As ones who have been here, and lived their lives, they can help us avoid the pitfalls and problems they encountered. They are also the custodians of the culture and traditions and the keepers of order in our lives.

How does Akan differ from Christianity?

In Christianity, Jesus is the Son of God and the belief is that Christians can only go to Heaven through Jesus. There are varying views from others who share my beliefs, but I see Jesus as a prophet.

Christians believe in heaven and hell. We believe that honorable people who have contributed to the community and live good lives go to Heaven (Asamando). Catholics have saints which enslaved Africans correlated with their deities (angels). 

Christians believe in conversion. We do not.

Akan Priests are the vessels and instruments of the Spirit and we are trained to possess and hold the Spirit, use that power to heal, divine and help those in need. 

Akan is African-based, Christianity mostly Eurocentric.

How has your worldview changed?

I think I’m more optimistic, desirous of peace and amiable relations with friend and foe. I am fully aware that there is a Higher Power and that we are not in control the way we’d like to think. I continue to work to be honorable, decent, a good father, companion and friend. I’m looking forward to what life has in store for me going forward.

I am more convinced that religion and spirituality as practice is more of a detriment and divider than a unifier which makes me sad. But spirituality, in my mind, has the seeds for our renewal and resurrection as human beings.  

About Barrington M. Salmon.

Barrington M. Salmon (https://barringtonmsalmon.contently.com/) is a British-born Jamaican journalist who has been writing for more than 20 years. He recently completed a master’s degree in Creative Writing and New Media from Demontfort University. Barrington is a traditional African priest in the Akan Akom tradition and has lived, worked, and studied in Washington DC, United States; Miami and Tallahassee, FL; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Leicester, United Kingdom. 

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