Among the Akan people in West Africa, there’s a story of a hunter. He had come from a long, storied lineage, and knew the rules of the land. He knew when he could hunt, when he could not, and where he could hunt, where he could not. But one day, for reasons unknown, he resolved to flout these traditional rules and pursue a kill on a day when humans were forbidden to enter the forest. As he tracked his prey deeper into the woods, he noticed that his sense of time and space began to warp. The forest, which had been so familiar to him, transformed into a labyrinth.
Disoriented and afraid, he tried to navigate his way out, but then the visions started. A bizarre monster drew him from tree to tree, only to vanish upon his approach. Confused and exhausted, the hunter fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke and made his way out of the forest and back to his village, he learned that he had been missing for days. Where had he been? What had he been doing? They asked. Even if he had answers, he could not offer them, as he had lost the ability to speak. Many believe that his life had only been spared as a warning, and the village understood what had happened. He had been a victim of the sasabonsam.
It is well known among the Akan, who live in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Togo that “You don’t go into the forest on Thursdays,” says Genevieve Nrenzah, a research fellow at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies. The Akan believe that the land itself is a supernatural, feminine spirit called Asasseyaa, a goddess of fertility and an apostle of truth. Thursday is considered a sacred day, one that all sentient beings and the land should observe by resting, which means no tilling the land or hunting in the forest.
This restriction reinforces a centuries-old obligation to preserve the land and allow it to renew itself, and the sasabonsam is its enforcer. “Hunters visit the forest to hunt animals, and farmers go to the forest to plant crops, but on Thursdays, they should leave the land to rest and replenish itself,” Nrenzah explains. “It’s the one day of the week that humans are not supposed to visit the forest or the bush. The deities and spirits need to be able to come out to visit the physical environment [alone].” The spiritual implications mirror the ecological ones. The Akan adhere to the Thursday restriction as a form of traditional environmental preservation, one that merges nature, the divine, and respect for one’s ancestors.