Abba Akaweh: An Orthodox Link to West Africa?

I read the lives of the saints from the Prologue of Orhid every morning. This is how I created a very long list of African holy men and women and created my book, Become All Flame: Lent with African Saints. A member of my parish gave me a copy of the Ethiopian Synaxarion. I find it less reader friendly than the Prologue. But, I make the Synaxarion a part of my morning rule, if for nothing else, but to find an African saint that was commemorated before the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451), the source of the split between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. My reading on February 5th revealed more than I expected.

A record of the Ethiopian Orthodox Saints

Abba Akaweh was monk before the time of the great Desert Fathers.* He was from the Fayyum region of Middle Egypt and is said to have been victorious in a fight against Satan. After this, he boldly declared his Christian faith to the pagan governor. Akaweh was handed over to be brutally tortured and beheaded. Both Eastern and Oriental Christians can honor him as he was martyred before the 451 schism. Finding the saint in the Synaxarion, I expected there was some connection to Ethiopia. There is an archaeological site in the Tigray Province called Addi Akaweh where inscribed ornaments and incense burners were found in an ancient church. In the Tigrina language, Akaweh means “country or village of rocks.”

As I tried to find the date of this martyr, I unintentionally looked up the surname. According to Forebears, the name Akaweh is found in Nigeria, but not very often (11 worldwide incidence). The same site has a variation of the name is much more common Akowe (9,630 worldwide incidence) also in Nigeria and Benin. Other variations of the name in sub-Saharan Africa include Akawe (1,893), Akawa (4,209), Akaye (2,129). Akuei is found over 10,000 times in South Sudan. But the other variations are mostly from the old Slave Coast area of West Africa (Ghana to Cameroon), Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, and Uganda.

Christianity in Ancient Africa

The only saint from the Fayyum region that has an icon written of him is Abba Isaac of Fayoum.** This fourth century disciple of Anthony the Great is depicted as a very dark-skinned man. Greeks and Romans controlled the government and wealth of all shores of the Mediterranean Sea at the time. However, the native Africans had not completely disappeared from the area. Much of the population of Egypt was made up of a mixture of brown complexioned people with bloodlines from Persia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Greece, Macedonia, and Italy as well as Nubia, Axum, Cush, and various Nilotic peoples. The narrative from some historians is that darker Africans of the period lived more in the countryside and were more common in the southern areas. The Islamic invasions further changed the complexion of North Africa with such Africans fleeing Arab slave raiders to sub-Saharan regions. Those of the Akaweh clan could have been among those who migrated south. Trans African trade from Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Nubian kingdoms to the west was not uncommon. It is also possible that some of the descendants wound up being enslaved by European traders and walk among us today.

I have no evidence that any form of either Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy survived the slave trade and was practiced by the enslaved people on plantations. I am submitting this only as a theory. But, it’s not that far fetched of an idea that there were sub-Saharan and West Africans who were exposed to Orthodox Christianity well before some Kenyan and Ugandan Anglican priest sought the Church in the 1930’s.*** At least, some of the ancient forerunners of such Africans and the diaspora had exposure to the faith and may have been believers. There are probably other names and surnames that fit this pattern that have yet to be discovered. This theory reinforces the point that ancient Christianity is a valid belief for Africans and African-Americans; that it is not simply a “white man’s religion.” Also, one never knows when they will meet a saint. Abba Akaweh could be the next person that you see.

*The Ethiopian Synaxarion, pg. 323. The Synaxarion does not give the year of a saint’s martyrdom

**“Wade in the River: The Story of the African Christian Faith,” pgs. 50-52

***“Wade in the River,” pgs. 179-189


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