Sunday, February 5, 2012

AWUNSEM : Word-Weaving – An almost-extinct profession from the old Ashanti Kingdom

I spent a wonderful weekend in Ghana recently. I met Selina Amanquanor., who captivated me. Rarely do I fall head over heels in love with anybody.. but this time, I was really star-struck..

No, I did not fall in love with the Amanquanor woman herself, but with her work. She practices a profession that I know from the first minute I heard that “Hey! This is what I should have been doing for a living!”

So what is Selina's profession? I actually had to ask around.. then finally decided to gather my courage to ask for an interview with the lady.

AWUNSEM. That is the Akan word for it. It translates into English as “Poetry”. But no, that is not what it means. Selina said there is no other language equivalent for this Akan expression. Here is the way she expressed the meaning of AWUNSEM:

Awunsem is like weaving a basket. It is the use of words to make a humanity basket. If there is Kofi and there is Kwame, you must bring Kofi and Kwame to a moral, psychological and social equity, equality and humanity with the use of words. You must give existence, sense, focus, meaning and direction to human life in a poetic, rhythmic and harmonious manner!

Wow.. what a profession!

Since I met Selina during the funeral services of a certain key figure in Ghana, I asked if this is done only during deaths. She said no. You have Awunsem at all human events – deaths, births, marriages, every and all kind of human events and gatherings.

So what exactly does an Awunsem do? Here is what I saw:

On Friday night, there was laying in state of the body of the deceased at her residence. The body lay till Saturday morning when it was lifted to the church and a Christian service was held. All through the Friday/Saturday night, the Awunsem wove words. Some times, she spoke to groups of people, at other times, she spoke to the children of the deceased individually. Early Saturday morning, she changed clothes and sat in a very strategic place – between the gate and the room where the body lay in state.

She wove words.

And weave words, she did! She spoke in about 3 Ghanaian languages, and in English. She reminded us of who the deceased was, what she had done in her life time.. her likes and dislikes, her vision and her accomplishments. While she spoke about the deceased, I felt she was talking to me. I felt thoroughly woven in, I felt part of it.

Then I relaxed.. the sadness of mourning gave way into a more relaxed thinking. Awunsem puts death into its right perspective. It is not a tragedy, we shall all die. Awunsem questions your being, your motives, your raison d'être, digs deep into your very being and unearths hidden and fearful thoughts. Awunsem helps you confront your fears, links you to the others, gives you comfort, levels you into the sea of humanity and raises you on the waves of global brotherhood (and sisterhood).

At a point, you feel one with others, you surf on the wave of words, on the sea of humanity, ready to brave the storms of life.

In church, Awunsem made her entrance in a traditional flute which she was blowing herself! She read out a dirge in Twi, the native Akan language. I did not understand all the words, because they were deeper than the everyday Twi which I know. It was rhythm, harmony and rhymes. She read with voice inflexions worthy of a grand master in the art and science of phonetics. She spoke about the deceased in terms that challenged the living.. that challenged the lives of the living.

While the daughter of the deceased read out a biography, Awunsem stood by, playing that wooden flute in subtle tunes.. It was captivating. It was... a rare moment, a breath-taking rare moment.

After the interment, Awunsem came back with the family to the residence and exhorted the guests one more time. She praised God in His numerous names: Odumankuman, Tweduampon, arousing His greatness, His supremacy, His omnipotence. She praised God for the gift of the life of the deceased, a life she reminded us was a gift to us. She spoke about her birth, character, children, grand children, defunct husband, her friends, her favorite things...

By the time the Sunday service rolled round, hearts and minds were ready to actually do a thanksgiving service. It was dancing, it was offering, it was gratitude to God for the life of the one who has passed on. It was a clean fresh sense of a mission for most of us. A mission to lead a better life, to focus on what matters, to be reverent to Odumankuman, and to be part of the solidarity of the human race.

Yes. That is what an Awunsem does. That is what I would love to do. The profession is rare and almost extinct. With our native African languages on the decline and individuals embracing the literary profession far and few between, how many Awunsems will we have in 20, 30, 50 years' time?

You may have read of Prempreh, Son of Ashanti, the Ashanti kingdom, or maybe recently, of Kwame Nkrumah.

Here is a photo of Selina … one of the very last in a dwindling line of Awunsems. The Word-Weaving experts.

An almost-extinct profession from the old Ashanti Kingdom

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