Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Bernard "Ben" Akoli, from Ghana, serves aboard the Gerald R. Ford. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ryan Carter/Navy) NORFOLK, Va. — A life preserver with the message “Welcome Aboard” decorates the front door, a greeting befitting a Navy family. Inside, above the entrance, a framed sign reads: “Home is where your story begins.”
Bernard Akoli and his wife, Adwoa Essel-Akoli, had welcomed their newborn son six weeks earlier. On this rainy Saturday, they have invited guests into their home to watch their infant’s story begin in earnest, with a naming ceremony in the tradition of their native Ghana.
Akoli and his wife are Akan, a major ethnic group in Ghana. Traditionally, in Akan societies, a child is named on the eighth day after birth to ensure that he or she has "come to stay on earth," according to Kwasi Konadu, a history professor at City University of New York, who adds that the name of a person or entity "reflects its purpose in life."
He immigrated to America eight years ago through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a lottery which makes 50,000 visas available annually to individuals selected randomly from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Ben and Adwoa are U.S. citizens now.
He joined the Navy five years ago in Ohio and asked to be stationed in Virginia to be near family members in Richmond, a city he was told was beautiful and accommodating to immigrants. The couple also have a 3-year-old daughter, Ayla Angennte Akoli.
Following the birth of his son, Ben Akoli reached out to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about attending his son’s adinto, or naming ceremony, which he said would "highlight the cultural diversity of Richmond and Virginia," and, "make people understand, appreciate and tolerate people with different cultures and values."
On this Saturday, the gathering of about 60 people includes Akoli’s commanding officer Capt. Robert C. McCormack, an assortment of naval officers and his son’s godparents, Gabriel Anteh and Beverly Lambert-Amponin.
Chairs in the room are arranged in a square, with McCormack sitting to the right of elder Albert Wright, a retired vice chancellor and professor of civil engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, named after the first president and prime minister of Ghana, which gained its independence from Britain in 1957.
Off to the side, Ben and Adwoa sit in upholstered chairs in front of a curtain of white and gold crepe paper flowers, with five letters spelling out the baby’s first name. A white blanket swaddles the newborn cradled in his mother’s arms, his gray bow tie and white dinosaur-dotted shirt peeking from beneath.
During the ceremony, Wright speaks the Fante dialect of the Akan people. As an elder, he does not speak directly to the assembled and often speaks in proverbs. His words are interpreted and refined by linguist Josiah Bediako, Adwoa’s uncle, who jokingly describes himself as the emcee of the ceremony.
What ensues is a blend of Ghanaian, naval and Christian culture and traditions, interspersed with prayers and hymns […]