Case Study

Edin Toa: Akan Baby-naming Ceremony

(From an interview with Akan priestess Yaa Nson Opare, conducted by Steven Zeitlin, New York City, 1992)

The religion of the Akan people from Ghana is one of several African religions practiced by a growing number of African Americans. The baby-naming ceremony is the first of many life-cycle rituals performed in the Akan religion throughout a person's life. This is how Yaa Nson Opare, an African-American Akan priestess, describes the ceremony:

The Akan do not name a child until a child's been alive for seven days. The feeling is that the baby night be a spirit who has come to look at the world and then go back. After a child is born, according to tradition, the mother and child are usually kept inside for at least seven days. There is no big hoopla or big excitement about this baby for seven days. In fact, if the child should pass away before the seventh day, there is no mourning for that child.

But, if the child lives for seven days, then it is felt that the child has come to stay and be a part of the community. At that time, you give the child a name. The child is also introduced to the community, because the child does not just belong to one person, the child is part of the community. The community is instructed that this is their child and that they must look out for, and help raise the child. At the same time, the child is told what is expected of him or her.

Traditionally, the child's name is given by one of the elders of the family. Here in America, we generally go to our shrine, where our gods reside, and we consult the priest for the name of the child. The first name is usually the day of the week on which the child was born. The second name is something specific, and personal about the child, such as something about the birthing experience, or an ancestor's name. The third name is the family's name. Sometimes there are more names, but there are at least these three. They bring the child before the crowd and put it on the ground. To begin the ceremony a libation is poured to offer drink to the gods and ancestors. The priest says a prayer asking blessings for all who are gathered, especially for the baby. The gods and ancestors are asked to protect and guide this child, to see that the child has the things that are needed for a good life and to help the child become a positive member of the community. The child, the mother, and the godparent(s) face the crowd. If it is a male child, the godfather performs the ceremony. if it is a female child, the godmother performs the ceremony.

Certain sacred beads are put on the child, and clay marks specific to this ceremony are put on the child and mother. The mother is dressed in white. The godparent lifts the child three times from the ground into the air to introduce the child to the ancestors and to the gods. If the child is, for example, a boy who was born on Sunday, the godparent says, "What is today? Today is Sunday, grandfather Sunday, grandmother Sunday. Today we show the child who sojourns with us to the morning star." So we show the child to the earth, to the ancestors, to the heavens, and to the community, and ask for blessings for the child.

We lay the child back down, and pour libations on the ground for the ancestors and the gods. Corn is the staple crop of the Akan people, and so we put some corn liquor into the child's mouth three times, and tell the child to taste the staple food of his or her ancestors, in other words, to become a part of the society.

Next, the child is told what is expected of him or her. Addressed by name, the child is told something like this: "I want you to always respect the gods and the ancestors. I want you to respect your grandfather, your grandmother, your father, your mother, all the elders of the society. I don't want you to lie. I don't want you to cheat. I want you to be a child who is going to help us in what we do, help make our nation great. I don't want you to be a drunk," and so on. This is what you tell the child. Then you sing some songs in praise of the child.

Then comes what is called collecting "petrol." The term comes from association with the English. It is said that just as a car needs petroleum to make it run, a child needs "petrol" to make it in life. So people should give the child something so that the child will have a good start in life. People bring the child gifts, especially money.

Then there is a big feast with singing and dancing. Every adult at the celebration drinks a little of the corn liquor to testify that the ceremony has been performed in the correct manner, and that everybody is sealed by the ceremony. You know that this is your child, and the child knows that it is part of the community and has responsibility to that community.

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