BOOK REVIEW; “EPHRAIM AMU- NATIONALIST, POET and THEOLOGIAN (1899-1995)”
By Philip T. Laryea; Regnum Africa 2012: ISBN 978 9988 1 2293 5.
Review by Nii B. Andrews, MD
During the last decade, residents of Accra and other urban areas have grown accustomed to loud and intrusive noise from charismatic churches (and others) in their neighborhoods. A prominent feature of these churches is the use of African drums, African songs and electrified western musical instruments associated with popular music.
The “liturgy” of these churches and music is often conveniently portrayed as being based on the African mode/style of worship and the iconic Ephraim Amu is often offered up as a progenitor and prime influence of this genre within Christianity.
But is this true? Is this accurate? What was Ephraim Amu’s stance with respect to the interface of African culture, Christianity and social change?
Rev. Dr. Philip Laryea, a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and a Senior Research Fellow at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute addresses these questions in his newly published exciting book, “Ephraim Amu- Nationalist, Poet and Theologian (1899-1995)”.
Rev. Dr. Laryea painstakingly documents the oral traditions about Amu- comprising the oral statements and the written texts of Amu himself- and these include beautifully and concisely written letters in Ghanaian languages. The scanned copies of the actual letters within the book evoke a sense of euphoria for what can ensue if a proper archive is maintained in the public arena as well as by private individuals.
With the wealth of material that he unearthed, Rev Dr. Laryea then subjected it to rigorous analysis and interpretation. This is where the book really excels and as a result, places itself firmly within the canon of required reading for any serious student of contemporary Ghana or patriot.
There is this famous story of how the foreign missionaries disbarred Amu from the Presbyterian Training College at Akropong for wearing ntama (cloth) in the pulpit; this book sets the record straight with respect to this “myth”.
Amu was disbarred by the African members of the Synod Committee- not the missionaries. It turns out that this misconception has been perpetuated by prejudice on the part of the Africans and buttressed by a misreading of an interview given by Amu to the Ghanaian scholar Victor Agawu. Indeed, the Scottish Mission staff at the college disagreed with the Synod Committee (with respect to his disbarment) because they felt Amu was doing something that was needed and he should be encouraged.
Is it therefore surprising that Rev. A.G. Fraser immediately offered Amu a position at Achimota after his disbarment?
In our epoch, does the position of the Synod Committee in the 1930’s resonate with the current attitude of the local church towards fraternal organizations, sexual orientation and cremation?
The more things change, the more they remain the same- there is nothing new here. But hope springs eternal as sixteen years after his disbarment, the local church came round to adopting Amu’s position.
The insightful analysis and exegesis of Amu’s songs, sermons based on scriptural passages and expositions of the traditional worldview enable us to appreciate Amu as a tour de force- a colossus, who was a Theologian and Master Poet, well steeped in the cadences and aesthetics of the traditional African style, aka Mpaninkasa; all twinglish and ganglish speakers should sit up, take notice and learn.
On the question of introducing African music, African dance and instruments into the church, Amu had a clear position which is worthwhile repeating in this azonto age with its attendant generic ear-splitting Youth Fellowship Band.
Throughout his entire life, Amu was strongly opposed to any form of dancing in church. He opined that ‘dance rhythm and actual dancing’ occasioned particularly by traditional music and drumming, excite the emotions and that ‘over emotionalism is not conducive to [a] deep sense of worship’.
He advocated that at the call to worship, the bommaa orchestra could ‘play a combination of rhythms which does not compel dancing’ and this could be ‘followed by the appellations of God played on the talking drums [atumpam]’.
The soft, mellow and solemn tone of the musical pipe, odurugya, he suggested could deepen our sense of worship when played out of sight.
Amu therefore drew clear limits on the extent to which traditional African music, dance and instruments could be used in church music for he was aware of the dangers and pitfalls inherent in this process of adaptation; here he was in complete alignment with the Synod Committee. The paradox with respect to current practice cannot pass unnoticed.
Those of us who have long given up on hearing anything analytical, educational and or uplifting from our fast growing list of social/political commentators; shrill/barking partisan spin doctors, serial callers and heavily compromised public servants can literally blissfully lose ourselves while reading Amu’s social commentary on education, culture, patriotism and the nationalist movement.
There are gems here- priceless ones.The Appendix is a treasure trove of historical material of exemplary quality- transcripts of interviews, scanned diary pages (written in Ewe with translations), drawings and photographs.
The main body of the book is comprised of chapters with a wealth of material that might help us in our current quagmire.
They include- Amu on Nation Building, Human Growth and Advancement; Amu on the Past, Education and the Dignity of Human Labor; God, Creation and Human participation in God’s Work; Theological Landmarks in the Life and Thought of Ephraim Amu and Patriotic Songs and Commentary on Social and Political events.
Perhaps, the recent AU celebrations would have benefited from adopting Amu’s “YAANOM ABIBIRIMMA” (A wake up call to Africa) as its anthem. This song was inspired by Amu’s Middle School headmaster at Peki Blengo, Christian B. Gati- a man who aroused an African consciousness in Amu……“Animguase! AnimguasemfataAbibirimma o”,(Mediocrity! Mediocrity does not befit the African) wrote Amu.
For Rev. Dr.Laryea, Amu’s judgment was spot on; the source of our growth and development is not the Imago Europa (the Image of Europe….or eh…China), rather it lies in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei in which Africans share. To be made in the image of Odomankama Oboadei (the creator God) means that Africans have creativity and MUST USE IT.
It is to give credence to Amu’s exhortation, that I unreservedly recommend this book.
Amu preceded John Mbiti in recognizing that there were truths in African religions that shed light on the great Christian truths. However, Amu had serious reservations about incorporating some traditional religious rites into church practice even when he knew the “truth” about them; he was sometimes painfully ambiguous…or, if you prefer, nuanced…or, deep.
Rev. Dr.Laryea in this well researched, written and produced book concludes that Amu was a pacesetter or pioneer in laying the foundations for an intellectual and practical discourse between the religious traditions of Africa and the Christian faith.
Amu’s forte was that he encompassed the above with a well-grounded nationalist fervency couched with poetic mastery.
Clearly then the noisy church goers (with their dancing, screaming and sometimes even barking ‘congregations’) in your neighborhood, the non-performing municipal and law enforcement authorities and the insomniacs are only continuing to contest the tradition as espoused by Ephraim Amu — Nationalist, Poet and Theologian.
Nii. B. ANDREWS, MD
Blebo We- Sakumo; June 2013.