Book Review: ‘From the Hut to Oxford’: The Autobiography of Archbishop Peter Kwasi Sarpong
In From the Hut to Oxford, Archbishop Emeritus, Peter Kwasi Sarpong, a highly accomplished Ghanaian theologian and social anthropologist, intelligibly and candidly presents an intriguing account of his own journey from his ‘father’s hut’ in a remote Asante forest, to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. The 26-chapter autobiography touches on six main aspects of the author’s life and experiences – his early years and life in the seminary; his academic journey; his religious life and experiences as a Catholic priest and bishop; his political experiences in post-independence Ghana; some aspects of the Ghanaian culture and tradition; and evidence of the needless clash between African religious beliefs and practices, and Christianity. The book also brilliantly highlights some important facets of the history of Asante and the formation of the Asante confederation, which ultimately became the Kingdom of Asante. It proficiently addresses the problem of the confusion between the concepts, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnocentricity’ or ‘ethnocentrism’, stressing that ethnic sentiments are acceptable whereas ‘ethnocentric sentiments are evil’. Archbishop Sarpong’s autobiography contains interesting and, at times, audacious correspondence with various heads of State and other important personalities.
The setting of the octogenarian author’s birth and early life is a dense forest in Offinso, Asante. His father, mother, paternal uncles and their wives, as well as his siblings and cousins lived, what he calls, ‘a delightfully communal life’ in this remote woodland. There was mutual care, love, and concern. Children helped their parents in their work, farming, hunting, fishing, and building, among others. As a little boy, he helped on the farm, weeding the forest, cutting the trees into pieces and burning them, planting, and harvesting. He could set all kinds of traps; and he insists that there was nothing more delightful than to check his traps in the morning and find an animal in one of them. The author recalls that in those days, if one was very hungry and he passed through somebody’s farm, one could help themselves to whatever food item they found – pineapple, orange, pawpaw, banana, yam, cassava, plantain, etc. All one needed to do was to inform the owner of the farm later on that they were famished and helped themselves to part of their (the owners) food to satisfy their immediate hunger. ‘As long as you took what was just enough for you, everything was alright.’ He refers to this period as an era where life was a matter of sharing and reciprocal support, and where folks were imbued with a strong sense of comradeship and morality. It was a world of ‘true happiness, of peace, of tranquillity, of love, of satisfaction’. His journey to the priesthood began with a-three-year pre-seminary training at what was called the Preparatory Seminary in Bechem. He then proceeded to St Theresa’s Minor Seminary, at Amisano near Cape Coast, where different formators influenced his life in different ways. His final seminary years were spent at St Peter’s Major Seminary, Pedu, where he studied Philosophy and Theology. Out of the 17 students who started minor seminary studies, only two, including the author, became priests.
In September 1961, less than two years after his ordination to the priesthood, the author went to Rome to study advanced Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (aka, Angelicum), where the language of instruction was primarily Latin. Incredibly, he managed to obtain a Licentiate and a Doctorate degree in Sacred Theology within two years. He became convinced that there was/is a striking similarity between Christianity and African traditional religions, and saw the need to study Social Anthropology to be equipped with the tools for the detailed analysis of his society that would enable him to link it to Christianity. This conviction led him to Oxford University where he studied and obtained a Master of Letters (M.Litt.) award in Social Anthropology in 1965. It was at Oxford that he had personal encounter with some of the world’s most accomplished anthropologists, including Professors Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes. His dissertation, ‘Girls Nobility Rites in Ashanti’, was published, unedited, by the Ghana Publishing Corporation in 1977. He has written hundreds of books, articles, and papers on, inter alia, Anthropology, Theology, African Culture, Ecumenism, and Governance.
In 1970, approximately five years after his return to Ghana from the UK and working tirelessly to promote the Church’s evangelising mission in his motherland and Africa, the author was ordained a bishop, an event that was attended by Prime Minister K A Busia. He maintains that his most memorable moment as a bishop has been the hosting of Saint Pope John Paul II in Kumasi in 1980. The book shows that the author has an unparalleled passion for, and has made immense contribution to, the promotion and enhancement of education, human health and wellbeing, culture, and inter-religion dialogue, among others. Apart from serving as a member of various councils, committees and commissions at the Vatican, he has held innumerable positions at the international, regional and national level, including serving as a member of the Council of State during former President Hilla Limann’s administration. Between 1966 and 1981, Ghana witnessed several coups, the first of which brought Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s government to an unceremonious end. During this period of political turmoil and socio-economic misery, Archbishop Sarpong offered vital advice to various Ghanaian military leaders, particularly Lt. Gen Acheampong and Flt. Lt. Rawlings, and courageously challenged them to promote justice and peace – an enterprise which sometimes brought him into grave personal danger. If his advice had been heeded, the tragedy that befell the country, perhaps, would not have occurred.
It is revealed that during Acheampong’s regime, a group of prominent patriots, led by Dr Ephraim Amu, who had lost hope in the lay politicians and believed that a clergyman could manage the affairs of the nation better, travelled from Accra to Kumasi to persuade Archbishop Sarpong to put himself forward as the leader of a political party, and to become the President of Ghana; a request he politely declined. Shortly after the 1979 coup, Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, in a radio broadcast, invited Archbishop Sarpong and two other personalities to Burma Camp. The reason for the invitation was to seek their advice as to what to do with the power that he had wrestled from Lt. Gen. Akuffo. Each offered his own piece of advice, and they left without getting any reaction from him about the advice they had given. Strangely, this same leader, Mr Rawlings, later made Archbishop Sarpong one of his worst enemies. He persistently harassed and lashed out at the Archbishop for no apparent reason, referring to him as ‘an evil man’ and threatening to deal with him, both in public and at private meetings.
The book lucidly brings to the fore some aspects of the needless clash between African religious beliefs and practices, and Christianity. It explains that Africans have always rightly believed in powers higher than them, and held a notion of duality in everything, including human beings – the visible and the invisible, the profane and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, and so on. One such fundamental belief among the Asante is that rivers have spirits, and the spirit of a river must always be respected and revered. Almost every Asante community thus has a sacred/sabbath day, homeda (a day of rest), during which folks are strictly prohibited from going to the farm or the riverside as a sign of respect for Asaase Yaa (the earth goddess) and the river deity. It is believed that disregarding this tradition could trigger the wrath of these spirits. As a Mass Server and a young boy aspiring to be a Catholic priest in the 1940s, the author used to accompany the missionaries when they went on pastoral visits in various villages, and served as an interpreter. In those days, there were no roads leading to many villages, and so the missionaries had to walk several miles from one village to another.
It was during one of such pastoral trips in 1947, that the missionaries unnecessarily disregarded a community’s age-old tradition of not crossing a local river on a Sunday, its homeda, and ridiculed its belief that all phenomena have two sides. Concerned about the catastrophic consequences that the ‘disrespectful’ European’s determination to cross the river on a Sunday might have on the community, one of the chiefs in the area approached the then 14-year-old boy, Sarpong, gave him an egg, and asked him to perform, what might be called, a pacification ritual with it in the river when crossing it. When they reached the river, the priest and two guests from Europe crossed to the other side. Sarpong, unaware that the priest was observing him, stepped in the river with the egg in his hand and addressed it exactly as instructed by the chief: ‘Nana River, as you know these Europeans are foolish. We know we cannot cross you on a Sunday but they would not agree if we told them not to. So, Nana, the chief has asked me to pacify you with this egg. Take it and do not be angry or punish us; we are dealing with fools’. The young boy incurred the wrath of the priest for agreeing to do, what he (the priest) called, ‘a foolish thing’, and for believing that the river understood what he did.
Clearly, this and other incidents, as Archbishop Sarpong has come to realize, ‘revealed a lamentable lack of appreciation of African life on the part of the early missionaries’. They failed to realize that to try to convert the African without taking into serious consideration the dualistic principle in his/her life ‘is to dehumanise and truncate him and eventually to deny his humanity’. He suggests that Christianity will be more meaningful to the African, and the evangelizing mission of the Church in Africa will be more fruitful if significant portion of the objects, symbols, imagery, signs, etc., which are largely remnants of other cultures, is replaced with those comprehensible to the African. His desire and zealous campaign for religious leaders to ‘Africanize’ the Christian worship in Africa, has earned him a global reputation as an inculturation enthusiast. However, many have misconstrued his support and crusade for inculturation as an unmistakable evidence that he is an adherent of fetishism.
Archbishop Sarpong is convinced that the Christian faith and the faith of the African traditionalist are very much the same except in some few areas. Both religions promote the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being (God) who created all things, who loves His people, who knows all things, and who wants humankind to be happy with Him at the end of their sojourn on earth. The notion of immortality or the indestructibility of the human person, the existence of good and bad spirits (i.e., angels and the devil), the privileged position of deceased individuals who led/lived good moral lives on earth (i.e., saints and ancestors), judgement (punishment and reward) after bodily death, as well as the promotion of virtues such as godliness, love, respect, hospitality, hard work, truth. etc., are all dominant features of both religions.
Though there is evidence of repetition and slight disorderliness (in terms of how some of the themes have been arranged), the book paints a vivid and fascinating picture of the socio-cultural, religious and political atmosphere of pre-independence and post-independence Ghana. It also throws light on the development of the Catholic Church and the ups and downs of the pastoral ministry in Ghana and Africa. The account of his birth and early years portrays an enviable life of companionship, sharing and reciprocal support among people in rural pre-independence Ghana. His narration of the encounters he had with both democratically elected and self-appointed (military) leaders of Ghana, how they behaved, and how they treated him and other well-meaning religious leaders, academics and experts, provides significant insights into Ghana’s turbulent post-independence history. Some of the events narrated also depict a chain of backstabbing, betrayal and unreasonable opposition from/by some laity and members of the clergy, including fellow bishops and nuncios. The book shows how when the author left his village to enter the wider world in Oxford, he took with him a firm belief in the values and significance of his own culture and tradition. This, eventually, motivated him to strive tirelessly to reconcile Christianity and the best parts of the Ghanaian tradition and culture when he became a Catholic Bishop.
From the Hut to Oxford is a must-read life story of an exceptional son of Ghana. Copies could be obtained from the Kumasi Catholic Bookshop, Roman Hill, Kumasi.
Peter Kwasi Sarpong, From the Hut to Oxford (Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2019). Pp. xxiv + 386. 100ghc or $20.00, hardback (ISBN: 978-9988-647-82-7).
Emmanuel Sarpong Owusu
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