‘Abisa’ And Prophecies In Ghana: A Brief Bio-Historical Background (Part I)
The recent uproar that followed the directive 'prophecies' of many of our 'Men of God' have compelled to me to share my knowledge about the history of the prophetic ministry in Ghanaian Christian, through biographical and historical sketch.
At about two years old, I suffered convulsion. In the mid 1980s, many of the residents in Maamobi, like elsewhere in Ghana, believed witches caused convulsion. For those of us in Maamobi, this mystical causality was so strong because there was a huge tree at Montreal Park (where the biggest modern mosque is now located) on which witches were believed to meet at the wee hours of the night hatch their evil plans. As children, we were cautioned many times not to go near the tree, but the tree was also right around where we used to play football. So, we did not heed the advice not to go near the tree. More so, it was around the same spot where ‘wele’ (known in Hausa as ‘ganda’) was produced. Thus, as children, we had two reasons for going near the tree: first to play football and second, to search for ‘wele’. There were, however, some occasions one could hear the cries of owls emanating from the tree at night. This sustained the belief that the tree was the habitat of witches.
Following this overwhelming belief in witchcraft, when I suffered convulsion, my parents and members of the community thought the witches on the park had struck. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, it was difficult to access healthcare in Maamobi, so most people – Muslims and Christians alike – went to Muslim spiritual leaders (mallams, a corruption of mualim – teacher) for treatment in the event of sickness, witchcraft attacks and jinn possession.
Consequently, when I suffered convulsion, my parents with the support of some members of my community rushed me to the house of the Mallam, who had developed expertise in curing convulsion. He made multiple incisions on all the joints of my body. Much as he tried to resuscitate me, I was simply not responding to treatment. My father decided to give up and started weeping. But my mother was simply telling the Mallam, 'Please keep cutting. Don't stop. Cut it deep. My son will live. Cut more.'
After many incisions and application of a mixture of black power, I startled to life and was forced to watch the then 'Black and White' television to be sure I was alive. When I showed signs of consciousness, my mother burst into excitement, and told my dad, "My brother (that was my father's nickname, which my mother also used), you see I told you. Have faith.' Later in life, I met a supposed prophet who provided ‘spiritual’ interpretations to the convulsion I suffered and the multiple incisions I had.
As a young child, I also had some respiratory challenges, and my mom, a Pentecostal, was deeply concerned about my health. I also loved football, and was growing to take up football as a profession. I combined respiratory challenges with footballing. I excelled in playing the game, and rose to occupy the position as the assistant captain of one of my community football teams (Young Starlets). But as my health continued to suffer, my mother decided to seek more help from everywhere, including visiting some of the leaders of spiritual churches. One of such spiritual leaders belonged to the Faith Tabernacle Church.
The respiratory challenge continued for a while, and for my own safety, I gave up football, and decided to take to academics. But an uncle who was concerned about my future prospects also influenced my resort to academics. Finally, my father's touted intelligence also inclined me to go the way of academics.
But throughout my teenage life, my mother never gave up on her quest to find me health succor. She, therefore, obliged to the suggestion of the leader of the Faith Tabernacle Church in our neighbourhood. The leader had convinced my mom that witches from my father's family were responsible for my respiratory challenges. And since my mom readily accepted it (considering the fact that my condition was becoming chronic and also the man made recourse to prophecy to legitimize his claim), she easily gave in to the proposed solution to the challenge.
I still have clear memories of how I was encircled in a blanket and allowed to inhale thick smoke from the burnt of some incense from India. Imagine someone struggling with respiratory challenge being forced to inhale thick smoke. In fact, I almost suffocated to death. But God intervened and I survived.
But as a young adult, I started reading about my health condition, and discovered a scientific and rational approach to dealing with my respiratory challenge. I applied the scientific knowledge I learned and graciously got better. But throughout my life, I have had many individuals prophesying about my life. Some predicted the university I would attend and the class I would get. Others predicted my future profession. There were those who even prophesied about the name I was to be given spiritually.
Well, some of the prophecies have come to pass; others are yet to be fulfilled. But, in the face of all these prophecies about my life, the question I have struggled with over the years is whether I believe in prophecies. Are prophecies always true? Must I believe in prophecies? How different is prophecy from classical fatalism? Did prophecy end with the coming of Jesus Christ, my saviour? Is prophecy needed after the canonisation of the Bible? How do we test the truth of a prophecy in the Church? What about directive prophecies like the ones we have about the death of some individuals? Are prophecies real? How can psychology and other disciplines help us to explain prophecies? Who qualifies to prophesy – all Christians or some? What is the role of prophecy in the flow of human history? How do I square prophecies and predestination, which is taught in the Bible?
By the time I went to the University of Cape for my undergraduate studies, I had recovered my Christian faith, which had slipped into hibernation for about three years. I had read more about John Calvin and his works, through the recommendations of Dr. Robert Morey (a rare Christian apologist, who became one of my mentors). I had also become confident about Christianity through the books of Rev. Dr. Rockeybell Adatura, a Ghanaian Christian apologist. Rev. Dr. John B. Ghartey, the current General Secretary of the Assemblies of God Church – Ghana, also prepared me for higher studies. He added me to a group of tertiary students who took part in Bible Quiz on Choice FM (now defunct). Interestingly, I participated ten times in the programme and won all. Consequently, I entered university with my mind clearly set on my Christian faith. I had also become very numbed about purported works of prophecies. Instead, I became deeply convinced about the sovereignty of God. Arthur W. Pink's book, 'The Sovereignty of God' consolidated my belief in God's absolute control over my life and the world in live in.
While I was at the university, there were instances my mom (through purported prophetic directions she had received) would call to say so and so would bring me food, but I should not eat it. At one instance, she informed me that someone would bring me a bottle of coca coke, which I was to collect but not to consume. Indeed, the following morning, someone brought me a bottle of coke. I collected it, but discarded it as my mom had instructed. In the midst of all this drama, there was a particular colleague of mine, who never liked me (for reasons I never uncovered). She hated me to the point that all our lecturers got to know about it. When I answered questions in class, she would chuckle. When she saw me coming from one direction, she would turn the opposite direction. But, all this while I had become very convinced that my life CANNOT be cut short through the activities of witches or any malevolent spirit. While I admitted the existence of malevolent spirits, I had/have become unabashedly convinced that it was/is impossible for anyone to tamper with my destiny.
Over the years, prophecies have become part of the religious menu of some Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches in Ghana. Incidentally, on the eve of 2019, I concluded my reading of Prof. Opoku Onyinah's book, 'Pentecostal Exorcism: Witchcraft and Demonology in Ghana.' The thesis of the book, which I subscribe to, is that abisa (the Akan concept of divination) was one of the reasons for the persistence of prophecy, belief in witchcraft and exorcism in the Church of Pentecost and other neo-Pentecostal churches in Ghana.
Following the surmise of Harvey Cox, Onyinah maintained that abisa - framed around prophetic ministry - is a restoration of primal spirituality in the Pentecostal movement. The reason for the continuity of abisa and prophecy is the human penchant to know what the future holds. As humans with the trademark of fallibility and lack of omniscience, it has been part of our desire to predict the future. Thus, in almost all cultures, people have attempted to preempt the future. This is to the extent that when God wanted to challenge that gods of the pagans recorded in the book of Isaiah, His litmus test was the ability to predict the future with precision.
Among the Akan, the group I am quite conversant with both as a student of African Studies and an Akan myself, the ability to predict and explain occurring event and envisage the future constitutes the centrality of the Akan religion. This is partly because, among the Akan, nothing happens by chance. Whatever happens in the material is just the playback of what happened in the spiritual world. The idea of mystical causality provides compelling reasons for the Akan to explore the 'whys' as opposed to the 'hows' of life. Hence, predicting the future helps the Akan to make sense of the world, which is suffused with spirits.
In the same way, the fact that the Akan religion has pantheon of deities enables the Akan to appeal to multiple deities to peep into the future. It also helps the Akan to understand the nagging question of God's goodness and the existential reality of evil. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has observed, for monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Judaism, the existence of evil poses a major challenge. It becomes difficult for Christians and Jews to reconcile the existence of evil and a good God. The basic question, which forms the fulcrum of theodicy, is: if God is good, why evil?
To use my family history to help us elucidate the importance of abisa and prophecy, let me use the history of my family. Ten years ago, I lost my father, Anthony Prempeh. He was only 65 years when he died. He did not fall sick. He just consciously fell and died at home. His death occurred in front of my twin sisters who were only ten years old. The older one saw my father dying, but she did not understand what was happening. But when later it was confirmed that my father had died (after he was rushed to the hospital - he died at home), my paternal aunt, whom some suspect to be a witch, said to me, 'Kofi, your father did not die for nothing. There is need for abisa.' I just did not believe what she said. I thought that as a Catholic, she would simply accept that God gives life and He also takes it. But, here, her background as an Akan supplanted her Catholic belief.
Even so, the reality of abisa dawned on me when my maternal aunt, aunt Odwira, died on the day my father's funeral was held (the very same day my father was buried). As custom demanded, aunty Odwira was part of my matriclan entourage that went round to thank persons who had donated to support my father's funeral. At about 3pm, she complained she was tired and wanted to go and take a nap. She left the funeral ground (which was less than ten minutes away from my matriclan's family house). As she was descending about four steps to enter the female quarters of the house, she slipped and became unconscious.
She was offered first aid and rushed to hospital. But she died on the way to hospital. My uncle and other matriclan members felt there was something fishy and mysterious about aunty Odwira's death. Their immediate reflex action was to go to Abura Dunkwa(?) for abisa. Following the abisa, they were told that aunty Odwira had died as a result of imprecation. I had difficulty understanding that but was careful not to voice and dissenting view. As a teaching assistant at the University of Cape Coast at the time, I knew that any voicing of disagreement over the abisa would stigmatise me as a badly influenced educated young man. I kept my cool.
But what explained the attempt to do abisa over the death of my relatives (father and aunt) was the centrality of the direct influence of the spirits in the activities of the mundane world. It was also based on Akan cosmogony, which saw the mundane and esoteric worlds as inextricably intertwined. For many Akan, the esoteric and the mundane worlds are in constant interaction. There is regular crisscrossing of spirits between the two worlds. It is this worldview that explains the desire on the part of the Akan to find answers to the why questions, as opposed to the how questions through abisa. So, doctors explained what killed my father (pneumonia) and my aunt, but that was not satisfactory to a people whose worldview is deeply seeped in religion.
The rise of prophecy, particularly among Akan 'Christian' leaders is simply a restoration of Akan primal spirituality - abisa. During the era of the European missionaries, attempts were made to suppress spiritual possession (largely in Akan indigenous religions) and abisa. In most cases, spirit possession and abisa were fused together. They also suppressed frenzied religious emotionalism. In sum, the missionaries dismissed the Akan spiritual world as illusive. In its place, they built schools and hospitals, in their attempt to provide the Akan with a rationalistic approach to seeking meaning in life and also answering life’s existential questions. Salems were created by the Basel missionaries in the nineteenth century to enforce the attempt to make the Akan Christian more attuned to the workings of a 'civilized' world.
It must be mentioned that the missionaries, particularly in the nineteenth century, were products of the enlightenment that encouraged rationalism as an important gauze to understanding the rhyme of life. George Williamson, who wrote a book on the relationship between Akan religion and Christianity, argued that the position of the missionaries in dismissing the Akan spiritual map was not in accordance with New Testament Christianity.
Plus or minus, the work of the missionaries in undermining the existential reality of the Akan spiritual world suffered a hiccup, following the emergence of African prophets. These prophets revived the African penchant for predicting the future. They included, William Wade Harris, a native of Liberia from the Grebo people, John Swatson, born at Benyin in Apollonia (Western Ghana), and Prophet Samson Oppong (from Dormaa Ahenkro). Thought these early prophets worked in the historic churches, they mustered in abisa, healing, and exorcism. But some of their disciples began the so-called Sunsum sore (Spiritual Churches) in Ghana. For example, Grace Tani and John Nackabah, whom Harris had baptised during his ministry in Ghana, founded the Twelve Apostolic Church of Ghana.
These prophets and spiritual churches revived prophetism and abisa, which were very central to Akan spirituality. In the Church of Pentecost (the church I belong to), Onyinah wrote that the visit of a team of three members of the Latter Rain Movement, led by Dr. Thomas Wyatt in the early part of 153, marked the beginning of prophetism in the church. Aside the Latter Rain Movement, other televangelists, including William Branham, Gordon Lindsay, T.L. Osborn and Oral Roberts also consolidated prophetism in the Church of Pentecost.
Following the stint the Church had with these televangelists, some individuals in the Church began their own prophetic ministries. These included John Mensah, Sister Amma Amankwaah, Maame Sophia Dede and Brother Gilbert Ablor. These individuals pursued prophetism and healing, anchored by abisa. They established prayer camps, where supposed witches were exorcised and the sick were healed. They also specialised in prophetic ministry. Over time, the modus operandi and some of the teachings of these 'prophets' conflicted with the scriptural teachings of the Church. But since the prayer camps had contributed to the numerical growth of the Church of Pentecost, their existence became a major puzzle. In the end, the church incorporated the camps into its mainstream structure for effective administration. Some of these 'prophets', like Paul Owusu Tabiri, who founded the Bethel Prayer International Ministry, left the church. Until very recently, under the chairmanship of Apostle Prof. Opoku Onyinah, the Church of Pentecost continued to struggle with directive prophecies, which was becoming the routinised means of appointing church officers.
The rise of the charismatic movement since the 1970s also contributed to the continuity of abisa - prophecy. The charismatic church in Ghana, largely influenced by Morris Cerullo and Benson Idahosa who visited Ghana in 1977 and 1978 respectively, had deep-seated influence on reviving prophetism in Ghanaian Christianity. Aside these two, American preachers, others including Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Reinhard Bonke and Benin Hinn, have helped in routinizing prophetism in the charismatic movement.
More recently, neo-charismatic groups have continued with the prophetic tradition in Ghanaian Christianity. We have had Owusu Bempah, Daniel Obinim, Bishop Bonegas, Prophet Nicholas Osei aka Kumchacha, Prophet Ebenezer Adarkwa Yiadom aka Opambour, Apostle Agya Dan, Apostle Francis Kwarteng, Apostle Kwasi Sarpong, Rev Isaac Osei Bonsu, Prophet Nigel Gaisie, Prophet Emmanuel Badu Kobi, and Rev Obofour all claiming to speak for God. Their prophecies have caused furor in Ghana. Many times, their prophecies have failed. In some cases, they claimed to have had their prophecies fulfilled when a celebrity or an important political figure died. For example, the death of Priscilla Opoku-Kwarteng, a Ghanaian dancehall/afrobeat artist, known by the stage name Ebony, gave many of these prophets the right to lay claim to the potency of their prophecies. When the former vice president, Paa Kwesi Bekoe Amissah-Arthur, died in June 2018, Rev. Owusu Bempah claimed to have had insight into his death, and was ready to disclose the spiritual cause of the death of the vice president.
In the midst of these prophecies, how should Christians respond? This will be addressed in the second section of this article.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications
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