Of Cycles, and What Happens When We Die

Owuo Atwedee, the Adrinka symbol known as “ladder of death”, representing man’s mortality

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere just marked the Vernal Equinox. This is the day the Sun crosses the equator and begins traveling towards the Southern part of the globe. Having spent the last six months in darkness (think shorter days, winter), the Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The keenly observant will notice more hours of sunlight, aka, longer days. 

As one part of the world embraced more light, another part begins to experience its absence. The Southern Hemisphere also just marked the beginning of Autumn, a period which is largely characterized by long nights and shorter days. 

In African traditional thought, it is believed that our lives, and indeed death, are continuous events not unlike the cycles we observe in nature such as the beginning of Spring and Autumn which both occur at the same time but mean and look different depending on which side of the equator one finds themselves. 

Death is perceived not as an ending, rather, as a continuation of a cycle that began before we materialized in this realm and will continue long after our souls have taken flight from it. The beliefs of the Akan, a group now predominantly in modern-day Ghana, put this in perspective. 

From Nyame We Came… 

According to the Akan, our lifeforce (soul) comes from the genitrix deity and creator of the universe, Nyame Amowia, whose physical manifestation is the moon. It is believed that a child is born after it receives the life force, known as Kra, given by the Sun deity, Nyankopon, who acts on behalf of Nyame Amowia. Sometimes a child might receive the Kra of an ancestor who failed in a previous life to be a good human. Nyankopon condemns such a person’s soul to perpetual reincarnation until a descendant reincarnated on earth attains good spiritual standing. It is only then that the soul can once again become one with Nyame’s eternal Kra (Meyerowitz, 1951).

The Kra is often mistaken with a closely related concept known as the Honhom which translates to “breath.” The Akan are known to say “ne honhom ko,” when a person passes away. This translates to, “his breath is gone.” Alternatively, they say “nekra afi ne ho,” translating to “his soul has withdrawn from his body” (Frimpong, 2011). 

…To Nyame We Shall Return

While the statements above are similar, Kra and Honhom are two distinguishable concepts. Honhom, breath, inadvertently symbolizes the presence of Kra in any living human being. Consequently, when a person dies (stops breathing), it is said that the Honhom leaves, and, logically, the Kra is also believed to have departed from the body (Danquah, 1952).

After death, it is said that the Honhom flies back, in the shape of a bird, to the mother and creator of the universe, Nyame. The soul, however, is left to labor up a steep hill until it reaches Nyankopon who will then judge and determine if the soul has to return (reincarnate) to earth, or if it can proceed to become one with the Nyame. 

The Dead are Never Dead

According to Okwu (1979), in African traditional thought, the physical plane of existence where humans inhabit and the spiritual plane are essentially two sides of the same coin. As such, life on earth can be explained as the side of the coin where the soul, “the seed of the creator” is seen to exist in a conscious, physical, and integrated union with the material body. Consequently, across various African belief systems, death is not regarded as the end of existence, rather as the ultimate rite of passage each human being has to go through (Okwu, 1979).

The belief in a spiritual plane of existence – unseen, untouched, and inaccessible to us humans – fuels ancestral veneration, or what many Western scholars have inaccurately referred to as “ancestral worship.” Okwu (1979) states: “the members of the supernatural world are regarded as an integral part of the material world. This implies that in important human social functions, such as marriages, birth and naming ceremonies, initiation, and healing, the opinions and/or approval of the members of the spirit plane are not merely invoked and observed; their participation and benediction are also requested.” (Okwu, 1979). 

John Mbiti, a foremost scholar of African religions, asserts that even the language used when talking about death and dying across various parts of the Continent often implies a sort of home-going for the departed. This is also indicated by various customs and rituals which can be observed during funerals. For example, various groups across the Continent are known for burying their dead with various paraphernalia and household items such as food, stools, tobacco, clothing, etc. These items are believed to be needed on the journey to the next world (Mbiti, 1970).

So What?

Across the Continent, many beliefs are cyclical rather than linear in nature. This means that many cultures hold the belief that life has no end; like the sun, our souls continue to move in a cyclical motion. We are a part of the divine before we are born and when our breath and soul leave our physical bodies, they continue to journey on a path that ultimately leads back to the creator. As Mbiti (1970) says: “death is death and the beginning of a permanent ontological departure of the individual from mankind to spirithood.”

Sources

Danquah, J. B. (1952). The Culture of Akan. Africa22(4), 360–366. 10.2307/1156919

Frimpong, A. D. (2011, December 1). Purity And Impurity: Menstruation And Its Impact On The Role Of Akan Women In The Church. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. https://research.vu.nl/en/publications/purity-and-impurity-menstruation-and-its-impact-on-the-role-of-ak

Mbiti, John. S. (1970). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.

Meyerowitz, E. L. R. (1951). Concepts of the Soul among the Akan of the Gold Coast. Africa21(1), 24–31. 10.2307/1156155

Okwu, A. S. O. (1979). Life, Death, Reincarnation, and Traditional Healing in Africa. Issue: A Journal of Opinion9(3), 19. 10.2307/1166258

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