African Names of Jesus

He is the one
who cooks his food in huge palm-oil pots.
Thousands of people have eaten,
yet the remnants fill twelve baskets.
If we leave all this, and go wandering off—
if we leave his great gift, where else shall we go?
—Afua Kuma

Afua Kuma (1900-1987) was a well-known oral poet in Ghana who used her gift of language to praise the name of Jesus. Baptized into the Presbyterian Church with the name Christiana Gyan, she grew up under the teachings of Christianity, the daughter of Akan farmers. Later in life she joined a Pentecostal church, where she was encouraged to pray aloud during the services. In this setting, at the age of 70, she voiced her first spontaneous praise poem; the congregation was amazed and moved by the poetic skill and theological insightfulness coming from this elderly illiterate woman. For the next seventeen years of her life, Madam Kuma was called upon to recite her praise poetry in church and at prayer retreats and Easter rallies, leading her fellow Akan Christians in the worship of Jesus.

Twi oral literature scholar Akosua Anyidoho points out that Madam Kuma’s poetry bears many similarities in form and content to amoma, a genre of Akan praise poems recited to chiefs (75ff.). Traditionally, amoma performers are male court attendants who have been selected from specific lineages and trained in the art of fine language. Madam Kuma was one of the first women to compose in this genre, and not only do her poems break gender barriers, they also remove amoma from their court context and insert them into the realm of the church. Rather than praise earthly rulers, Madam Kuma’s poetry praises God in Christ, of whose court she is a member, and who alone deserves honor and glory. (According to her daughter Beatrice Fantoaa, Madam Kuma once refused the invitation of a chief who had invited her to perform his praises at the commissioning ceremony of a public building; she said she would not perform to honor a human being.) 

Recognizing the need to document her poetry for posterity, Peter Kwasi Ameyaw tape-recorded her recitations in the late 1970s. These recordings were then transcribed by Vincent Adjepong and Michael Owusu Nimako, and the transcript was translated into English by Father Jon Kirby and published in book form as Jesus of the Deep Forest: Prayers and Praises of Afua Kuma (Accra, Ghana: Asempa Publishers, 1981).

The collection opens like this:

We are going to praise the name of Jesus Christ.
We shall announce his many titles:
they are true and they suit him well,
so it is fitting that we do this.

Drawing on imagery from her local environment, Madam Kuma then goes on to list many, many epithets for Jesus, including:

  • “the Big Boat which cannot be sunk”
  • “the great Rock we hide behind”
  • “the great forest canopy that gives cool shade”
  • “the Big Tree which lifts its vines / to peep at the heavens”
  • “the magnificent Tree whose dripping leaves / encourage the luxuriant growth below”
  • “the untiring Porter” (“troubled hearts are your headload!”)
  • “Weaving-loom-Kofi” (“you give us our woven cloths”)
  • “the Elephant-Gun”
  • “the grinding stone / on which we sharpen our cutlasses”
  • “Lion of the grasslands”
  • “incomparable Diviner”; “the Seer among prophets / who always speaks the truth”; “wisest of soothsayers”
  • “Pool of great depth”
  • “String of good beads”
  • “the glistening Water-lily of the great swamps”
  • “Great Doctor”
  • “Chief of all chiefs”
  • “Farmer”
  • “a cutlass going before you”
  • “the great Grass Hut”
  • “the pestle” (“he beats down our hunger”)
  • “the best of yams”
  • “the Caterpillar who plough [sic] up the land”
  • “the fertile forest-land”; “the deep forest which gives us tasty foods”

These names are evidence of Madam Kuma’s creativity as a poet—she doesn’t rely on the names assigned to Jesus by the writers of Scripture or of Western hymns but rather expresses who Jesus is to her. He’s not the Rock we stand upon, for example, but the Rock we hide behind—as African hunters must so often do to protect themselves from the prey they stalk; this metaphor is akin to the biblical “Shield.” Madam Kuma’s Jesus is not the Bread of Life but “the best of yams,” a nutrient-dense African staple. He is the machete that clears our footpath, the bulldozer that makes smooth and level (and therefore plantable) the rocky areas of our lives. As canopy, he shades us; as hut, he shelters us; as beaded necklace, he adorns us with beauty and high value; as porter, he lightens our loads by taking them up and carrying them on his head. He is an endlessly deep pool from which we are invited to drink and refresh ourselves. And so on.

These are only a few of the compelling word pictures from Madam Kuma’s poetry.

Attention must now be turned to the title of this collection and its significance: “Jesus of the Deep Forest.” For the Akan people, the forest is a source of both sustenance and fear: it yields food, but it is also the abode of Sasabonsam, the head of the evil spirits, and the more diminutive mmoatia. The forest spirits can possess animals—one of the most fearsome being the elephant—to terrorize villagers, as well as directly attack hunters, who they feel are trespassing their territory.

Sasabonsam

Wooden Ashanti carving of Sasabonsam, from Ghana.

Madam Kuma speaks of Jesus as the Victor over such spirits. He has definitively defeated Sasabonsam (who in Akan Christian vocabulary has come to designate the devil) and all his minions:

Jesus blockades the road of death
with wisdom and power.
He, the sharpest of all great swords,
has made the forest safe for the hunters.
The mmoatia he has cut to pieces;
he has caught sasabonsam
and twisted off its head!

Not only does Jesus himself conquer evil, he also empowers his people to conquer it:

He is the Hunter gone to the deep forest.
Sasabonsam, the evil spirit,
has troubled hunters for many years.
They ran in fear,
leaving their guns behind.
Jesus has found these same guns,
and brought them to the hunters
to go and kill the elephant.
Truly, Jesus is a Man among men,
the most stalwart of men!
He stands firm as a rock.

Jesus thus brings confidence and hope where fear once reigned. “A Man among men” he is for sure—and a “Chief among chiefs.” Many titles traditionally attributed to chiefs Madam Kuma attributes to Jesus; in Jesus of the Deep Forest, these are left in their original Twi and set in boldface: Humble King, Hero Incomparable, Sword Carrier, Brave One, Awesome One, Stout-Hearted One, Chief of Defence, Arbitrator, Provider, Friend of All, and so on.

By integrating Jesus into the Akan worldview and extolling his various roles in daily Akan life, these verses have made Madam Kuma a major player in the development of a distinctively African Christology.

For more on Madam Afua Kuma, I recommend the following two texts:

Anyidoho, Akosua. “Techniques of Akan Praise Poetry in Christian Worship: Madam Afua Kuma,” in Multiculturalism and Hybridity in African Literatures, ed. Hal Wiley and Bernth Lindfors. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000. 71-86.

Middleton, Darren J. N. “Jesus of Nazareth in Ghana’s Deep Forest: The Africanization of Christianity in Madam Afua Kuma’s Poetry,” in Mother Tongue Theologies: Poets, Novelists, Non-Western Christianity, ed. Darren J. N. Middleton. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009. 61-76.

This entry was posted in Poetry, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to African Names of Jesus

  1. ctgidley says:

    So cool! Love hearing about the African side of God’s family. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Mary Reclaimed (for #GiveMeGrace) - Lisha Epperson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s