Christian Chiefs Break From Pagan Practice in Ghana

Naa Bɔhagu (left), the paramount chief and overlord of the traditional kingdom of Mamprugu in northern Ghana, sits outside his palace with the Taraana (assistant) at his side. This Taraana is the first Christian to hold that position. Photo by William Haun/IMB

The tension can be felt across the crowd of hundreds outside the palace in Nalerigu, Ghana. They wait in silent anticipation for the Taraana, one of the Mamprusi king’s seven elders, to come out of the hall to present the man the king has selected as chief.

When he emerges, the new chief’s supporters erupt into cheers and applause. The Taraana ceremoniously places a white smock on the chief followed by a bright red cap. Thus begins several days of celebration and ritual as the new chief is “enskinned.”

The Taraana — which translates literally to “peer” or “equal” — is in many senses the king’s right-hand man. However, over the next few days, this Taraana will not be involved in the ritual sacrifices to the ancestral spirits or in the formal Islamic prayers for the new chief. This Taraana is the first in the traditional kingdom of Mamprugu’s 700-year history to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Like many West African nations, even though a democratic government runs the nation, there are traditional, tribal chieftaincy structures that are still the authority at the local and, occasionally, even regional level. These local leadership positions are almost always intricately connected to African traditional religious belief systems.

In northern Ghana, chiefs sit on skins (hence the term enskinned instead of enthroned), and those skins are often taken from the animals that were sacrificed to ancestral spirits in a prayerful plea to win the chieftaincy contest. Once in power, a chief will wear amulets to empower his rule and protect him from his enemies. He will regularly employ soothsayers and make blood sacrifices to ancestral shrines for guidance.

So the question arises, can a Christian become a chief? Fifty years ago, this was unheard of in northern Ghana.

Salifu was the son of Naa Sheriga, king of Mamprugu in the 1950s, and was led to Christ by a missionary when he was in his youth. He began attending church, and his brothers complained to the king that he was lazy because he refused to go to farm on Sundays. The king berated him and told him to renounce his newfound faith, but he refused.

Yiddi tells a similar story of the persecution he faced after following Jesus in his youth in the 1960s. His father and brothers beat him for attending church. He finally fled his home, walking 35 miles on foot to a town where a Christian family took him in.

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Source: Baptist Press