Sympathy for the ‘Devil’

A New York Times article that's respectful and mostly accurate, including the use of terminology, when covering African Traditional Religion.

One of the images of Kwaku Bonsam used in The New York Times article.

This past Sunday’s New York Times features a delightful article (“A Visit From the Devil: Feared Traditional Priest From Ghana Spends a Year in the Bronx”) on Ghanaian priest Nana Kwaku Bonsam’s year-long residency in the Bronx. Reporter Jed Lipinki is fairly non-judgmental and respectful in his depiction of what is commonly called African Traditional Religion (ATR), mostly accurate in his use of terminology, and quite thorough in his coverage. In fact, Lipinksi’s fascinating piece could serve as a teaching tool, as it informs on a number of interrelated topics:

It challenges popular notions of ATR, portraying it as a legitimate, popular, and global religion. The article highlights Bonsam’s agenda to promote ATR as a“modern” faith and to challenge Christianity as an alien one. His use of social media — updating his Facebook status and offering consultations by Skype — defies prevailing assumptions of ATR as secretive, dark, and old-fashioned. From the terreiros of Salvador de Bahia to the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis, Africans (and non-Africans) are (re)embracing a globalized ATR and Bonsam is on the cutting edge of this trend.

It further confronts stereotypes by presenting Bonsam, a so-called “fetish priest,” in a mostly sympathetic light. Despite a few offensive observations (such as the two references to Bonsam’s “recently improved English”), the article mentions the priest’s charitable work (the tuition-free elementary school he runs in Ghana), his compassion (the nine children he has adopted), and his style (“a shiny black Dolce & Gabbana tracksuit”). Clearly, Bonsam is not your traditional traditional priest.

It highlights a fact that everyone in Ghana has long known: self-professed Christians are just as likely to practice ATR. One of my colleagues, a Ghanaian academic who specializes in ATR, often encounters Christian pastors, usually of the Pentecostal variety, patiently waiting for consultations after his meetings with traditional priests. Lipinski’s article furthermore reveals the similarities between ATR and Pentecostalism and competition between the two religions for business in Ghana. Bonsam is celebrated (and despised) for confronting this Christian hypocrisy.

It presents a colorful picture of Ghanaian Diasporic life, introducing readers to a variety of folks from the struggling older cabdrivers in the Bronx to the young ambitious musician in Sweden. The article follows Bonsam as he presents awards at the Miss Ghana USA Pageant and mentions his attendance at monthly meetings of the Asanteman Association of the USA. Lipinski thus offers a glimpse of the life of Ghanaian migrants who are re-creating home and re-connecting with it in myriad ways all of which Bonsam navigates and transforms.

“A Visit from the Devil” is sure to infuriate Christian Ghanaians who want to pray ATR away, but Lipinski’s article successfully presents the complexity of Ghanaian spirituality and identity, offering an engaging and instructive Africa read — an unusual surprise from the New York Times indeed.

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